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Government in Biblical Israel

August 11, 2016 | By: Daniel Elazar

The politics of ancient Israel were theocratic, federal, and republican, Daniel J. Elazar argues in this 1973 Tradition article. Deriving his understanding of the political teaching of the Hebrew Bible by analyzing the its account of Israelite history and the judgment it casts upon alternative political institutions, Elazar takes the reader through the four constitutional periods and the Israelite transition from a family of tribes to a nation. Political power was increasingly limited by a constitution, based on the consent of the governed, and not an end in itself but rather in service of the divine.

Elazar’s analysis opens up the foundations of not only Jewish political thought, but of Western thought as well.

Republicanism is the third great political principle of Biblical Israel. Understood in its broadest sense, republicanism reflects the view that the political order is a public thing . . . that is to say, not the private preserve of any single man or ruling elite but the property of all of those within the scope of its jurisdiction and that power is so organized so as to reflect this fact. Republican government involves a limitation on the powers of those given authority and some provision for the representation of public concerns as a matter of right in the formulation and execution of public policy. All these conditions prevailed in Biblical Israel except during periods when individual monarchs essentially usurped powers and were considered to be usurpers by the Biblical account. . . .

The Biblical ideal commonwealth, reflected in the idealization of the realities of political life in ancient Israel, became a major force in the political thought of the Western world, shaping the ideals and animating the visions of most western thrusts toward republicanism. Echoes and expansion of that vision permeated Western political thought after the rise of Christianity, just as they continued to permeate Jewish political thought after the Bible itself was canonized and the Biblical period came to its conclusion.

Read the whole essay in Tradition.

More about: Jewish Political Thought  • Theology