Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Democracy and the Bible

I have heard some very religious people say that American democracy was based upon the Bible in general and the Ten Commandments in particular. I do no doubt their sincerity, but I do think that they are mistaken. I simply do not see any connection between the legacy of Moses and our democracy.

Democracy was unknown in the biblical world. It appeared first in Greece. Rome had a democratic institution, the Senate. But in Greece and Rome, only a small minority, free males, could vote. Most of the people were slaves. But when Greece and Rome conquered other peoples, they ruled autocratically. By the time the armies of Greece and Rome occupied the Jewish lands, democracy was dead or dying at home.

But we should not give up too easily. Let us look for signs of democracy in the Old and New Testaments. There are scattered clues.

If any institution of the Israelites can serve as a prototype of democracy, it is council of elders. The council met from time to time in order to make decisions and to guide the community. But the Bible does not explain how these councils operated. How many elders were there? How were they chosen? Were decisions made by consensus? Or did they rely on a strong leader to make decisions? To whom were they accountable? There are no explicit answers to these questions. But there hints scattered through the scriptures.

In the New Testament there are many verses refer to a council of elders. Matthew 26:59 says, "Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death." These councils were small cliques that operated in secret. They were neither representative nor accountable to the people. And since these councils plotted against Jesus, the fathers of our democracy would not have considered them as models to emulate.

The Old Testament gives a different perspective to these councils. Many times the elders met with the assembly (or congregation). (The assembly consisted of all adult male Israelites.) They met to debate important issues and to make decisions affecting the entire community.

Where does the idea of such a council come from? In Exodus 3:16-17, God instructs Moses, "Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them ... I will bring you ... unto a land flowing with milk and honey." Here God is portrayed as having respect for the elders. That respect will soon change. This is the first mention of a council of elders as having influence over the community. If Moses can convince the elders, the community will follow.

In order to understand Israelite institutions, it is worth looking at the traditional Canaanite culture. The culture and religion of the Israelites derived from the very ancient pagan culture of the northern Levant. The religion of the Israelites was derived from the worship of the supreme god El. The city of Ugarit in present-day Syria was a major cult center of El, his consort Asherah, and his seventy sons. Among these other gods were Baal and Dagon. These other gods and goddesses were demonized in the Old Testament.

The exploits of El and his family were described in tablets written in a language that was very close to ancient Hebrew. In Hebrew the word Elohim, which is the plural form of El, refers to the one god of the Israelites. In addition, the name El is incorporated in many personal names and in the epithets El Elyon and El Shaddai. The priests and prophets of ancient Judah transformed this pagan religion into a monotheistic faith. But this striking change did not affect many of the customs and traditions of the people. There were numerous similarities between the Canaanite and Israelite cultures.

The tablets of Ugarit portray El as a remote high god. That is, El did not participate in the day-to-day affairs of the other gods. He allows Baal to become the king of the gods. Occasionally, a dispute breaks out that Baal cannot resolve. Then the parties appeal to El for a decision. Now El is portrayed as presiding over a council of gods. The parties debate the issue and eventually El makes a decision.

Because of the close connections between the Ugaritic and Israelite cultures, it seems likely that Ugaritic council of gods became the model for their and the Israelite councils of elders. In this model, decisions are normally made at the family, clan, or tribal level, as appropriate. Decisions would be made be the senior elder at these levels. A few issues were so important that they had to be made at a national level. Then a delegation of elders from each tribe would gather to discuss and debate the issue. The senior elder would make the final decision.

The Egyptian authorities probably found it convenient to work through the council of elders. When the Egyptians wanted to start a building project, for example, they could inform the council that they needed a certain number of workers. Then the council would be held responsible for recruiting the required number of workers.

A council may work well or may work badly. When a decision making process is dominated be a strong personality, the results may be poor. In World War II, both Hitler and Stalin imposed their wills upon their subordinates. Neither listened to their generals. Both suffered defeats that could have been avoided had they been more flexible and open in their decision making. More recently, the failures in Vietnam and Iraq occurred because presidents ignored the advice of subordinates with expertise in these areas.

On the other hand, a deliberative body generally makes better decisions if there is a free and open debate about the issues. In a democratic organization, everyone has the right to speak. But the majority has the right to prevail.

One peril with democratic assemblies is that debate can degenerate into name calling and character assassination. All to often what passes for political debate in the United States consists of smear campaigns and deceptive attack ads. This does not bode well for the survival of democracy in America.

Where the councils of the Israelites fits in this spectrum between the scylla of suppressed debate and the charybdis of anarchy? That is dificult to say. But the Torah gives portrays the Israelites as being very open. They were accustomed to vociferous and strident debate. We see this in the criticisms levelled at Moses:

And they said unto Moses, Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to carry us forth out of Egypt? [Exodus 14:11]

And the people spake against God, and against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loatheth this light bread. [Numbers 21:5]

Now Korah, the son of Izhar, the son of Kohath, the son of Levi, and Dathan and Abiram, the sons of Eliab, and On, the son of Peleth, sons of Reuben, took men. And they rose up before Moses, with certain of the children of Israel, two hundred and fifty princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown. And they gathered themselves together against Moses and against Aaron, and said unto them, Ye take too much upon you, seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them: wherefore then lift ye up yourselves above the congregation of the LORD? [Numbers 16:1-3]

The last quote comes from the story known as the 'rebellion of Korah'. Here Korah along with 250 elders are arguing against the radical religious change that Moses was making. Previously, the elders were the priests of their families. They performed sacrifices and burned incense in their homes. Now Moses made Aaron the high priest of the Israelites, eclipsing this tradition of family priests. Naturally, many of the elders resented this diminution of their status.

A subtext of this dispute was over the idea of holiness. Korah and his associates had an egalitarian view of holiness, " ... all the congregation are holy, every one of them, ..." Moses had the opposite view. The Levites, the tribe of Moses, was more holy than all the other tribes. And most holy of all were Moses and Aaron. The less holy, the Levites, were given the 'honor' of carrying the tabernacle and the sacred objects. This so-called honor was in reality a heavy burden. Part of the burden consisted of two hundred talents of gold, silver, and copper -- seven and a half tons. Add to that three hundred square yards of fabric for the courtyard, plus wooden frames, plus the tabernacle, and the other sacred` objects. The total may have amounted to ten or twelve tons of material.

The people of the Exodus had to carry all of their possessions. But a man who is carrying a silver base weighing seventy five pounds cannot carry his own possessions. That burden falls on members of his family who have their own burdens to carry. But the worst thing was that the sacred objects had to be carefully wrapped. Otherwise the Levites who were carrying these objects actually saw them, they would be put to death. Some honor! Not even the Levites were trusted.

Korah and his supporters were intent on arguing their case with Moses. How did Moses react? Did he try to negotiate with Korah? Did Moses attempt to persuade Korah to change his mind? Did Moses accept a democratic resolution to this dispute? No! Moses enticed Korah and his followers to come to the tabernacle where they were killed. Over a two day period somne fifteen thousand people were murdered.

Here Moses displays his great character flaw -- the inability to deal with criticism. To Moses, dissent is blasphemy. Here Moses loses what remains of the confidence of the people. Never again do the people trust his leadership and follow him willingly. In Egypt Moses promised the people that they would go to a land of milk and honey. But in the end, Moses condemns the adults to die in the wilderness.

The essay began with a question. Was the Bible a basis for American democracy? My answer is absolutely not! Moses ruled like a king or dictator -- like a pharaoh. He destroyed the only institution in Israelite culture that could be called democratic. Had the ancient Israelites a democratic government, Moses and Aaron would have been impeached.

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