Hierarchy: Judges vs. Kings

I have been looking a bit at the Old Testament pondering this whole hierarchy issue. Specifically I have been examining the book of Judges and 1 Samuel. As a kid, Judges was one of my favorite books of the Bible. I appreciated its ironic sense of humor and surprising depictions of Israel's heroes. I always loved the way God used the least likely people to deliver Israel from destruction. I always liked the Old Testament as a child because of the narrative nature of much of it, but as I have matured, I have tended to stick more to the New Testament. I find now that when I revisit the Old Testament, I am often frustrated by the depiction of God as a tyrant who demands that heathen nations be annihilated and that those who disobey him be punished. I just have a difficult time reconciling this image of God with the image of God Jesus illustrated in the New Testament. Given the importance peace has played in my spiritual journey, it is especially hard for me to read about the constant holy wars fought between Israel and its neighboring kingdoms.

But that is somewhat besides the point. The point is that I read through Judges and the beginning of 1 Samuel because I was interested in what they had to say about hierarchy. I just happened to be distracted throughout by the graphic violence in Judges. From my limited understanding of Hebrew society during this period, it seems to me that the twelve tribes formed a loose confederation of mostly tribal societies. The Israelites seemed to have a great deal of autonomy during the period of the judges. They would go about their business until they started to do bad things and were consequently conquered by a rival nation until God called a judge to deliver them from bondage. The judge would lead Israel until his or her death, and then the cycle would begin again. This kept going until eventually Israel demanded that their final judge Samuel appoint a king to rule over them instead like the neighboring nations.

There are some fascinating aspects to the ruling system in Judges. Israel is basically a theocracy but not ruled by a priestly class. Rather they seem to be mostly self-ruled except in emergency situations when a judge takes over. These judges are not elected nor appointed. They have no training or qualifications. None of them are priests or Levites. They come from various places and backgrounds. If there is a common factor, it seems to be that they are all surprising people for God to use. Gideon is overly cautious. Samson is overly proud and stupid. Deborah is overly female in a patriarchal culture. Yet God chooses them to lead.

The Hebrews seem determined to establish a monarchy for one clearly stated reason - they want to be like the nations around them, which never turns out well for Israel. I suspect on some level they imagine a king will bring them greater political stability, unity, military glory, and wealth. However, the Bible makes it clear in two places that this is not God's first choice. The people in Judges attempt to make a monarchy out of Gideon's line, but he refuses. Later they demand a king from Samuel, and Samuel reluctantly agrees only after God tells him to. However, what God says when he conceded to the Israelites demands is particularly telling. He says that in establishing a monarchy, they have rejected him. This makes sense because the judges were chosen by God and more or less seemed to follow his commands directly. Now the Israelites would prefer a human king rather than being essentially ruled by God. Samuel warns the Israelites that they will regret this decision, but he goes along with their demands and anoints Saul who turns out to be a pretty terrible king in the end.

I find some parallels between this political situation and our current religious institutions. Basically it seems to me that we like the Israelites are afraid of the uncertainty of following God directly. We would like a more stable situation, one that gives us a sense of security. We want a hierarchy because it makes things easy for us to understand. Rather than following God's often strange requests, we would like to just set up an institution and system or rules. There is a certain logic here that is seductive. We also want to set up these hierarchies because that's what everyone else does. Everything in our culture is run by some sort of hierarchy. As a teacher, I answer to a department head and various deans who in turn answer to our division head who then answers to the headmaster who must answer to the board of directors. Every institution has a hierarchy, so it seems natural that the church would be no different. We imitate what we know and are comfortable with, but that doesn't mean our hierarchies are divinely instituted. Yet there are many who would claim so.

I wonder what it would look like if we allowed the church to work in a way that is similar to Judges. What if we let God call people to fill particular positions rather than depending on trained leaders to do all the work? What if we let pastors pastor rather than expecting them (or allowing them) to rule? I imagine on one hand we would have a total mess on our hands, but I think it would be a beautiful mess, the kind of mess where people meet God directly rather than following orders or programs or human leaders. On the other hand, these hierarchies are a mess in themselves. They divide us into denominations, sects, and factions. It is absurd the number of denominations we have. Even more absurd is the number of sub-denominations and the number of churches of the same denomination who cannot work together for some small reason. Then within the churches there are factions constantly arguing and fighting. This is often a result of hierarchy, a leader saying something another disagrees with or offending a follower in some way. Without hierarchy, we might still have a mess, but I would rather have a mess where God calls the shots than an institution ruled by bylaws and committees.

  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • RSS


Post a Comment