Biblical Rights 2

At the point of Abraham (Hebrew society evolving relatively late within ancient civilizations of the Middle East), their society is patriarchal rule of a nomadic, herding, and (likely) caravan trading tribe. Most interrelations and many material property-rights have already been culturally worked out and long established as customary norms. They may not have been expressed in terms of rights, but they were early applications of rights being presupposed, with or without any systematic rationale.

For the Old Testament, pre-Christian, biblical comments on rights, again, we have 34 verses dealing with rights. Of 34 verses, these 10 have to do with the cultural right of primogeniture:

Ge 25:31 Jacob/Esau

Ge 25:32 Jacob/Esau

Ge 25:33 Jacob/Esau

Ge 25:34 Jacob/Esau

Ge 27:36 Jacob/Esau

Dt 21:16 * 3 / Rights of firstborn

Dt 21:17 / Right of firstborn

1Ch 5:1 (Later reference to Ruben, son of Israel losing birthright)

1Ch 5:1 * 7 / Historical note about Ruben (Israel’s bio-first born) losing firstborn rights

1Ch 5:2 * 8 / Continuing story above about Ruben / sons of Joseph & firstborn rights.

9 of those 10 verses have to do with only a two people in the bible, who, one way or another messed up and lost their culturally presumed rights of primogeniture. This issue is not a large feature on the landscape of American rights thinking. It still counts for more in other cultures around the world, but not so much in the U.S.A.

The next largest group of verses is a group of 7, all having to do with making sure to respect people’s rights, pointing out that God notices when we don’t respect the oppressed, and so forth.

Job 36:6 * 9 / God gives (sees to / delivers on) the rights of the oppressed

Pr 31:5 * 10 / Charge not to deprive oppressed of their rights

Pr 31:8 * 11 / Charge to speak up for rights of destitute

Pr 31:9 * 12 / Charge to speak up, judge fairly, defend rights of poor and needy

Ecc 5:8 * 13 / Don’t be surprised at rights denied to poor and oppressed in corrupt situations

Isa 10:2 * 14 / Condemns withholding rights and justice from poor and oppressed

La 3:35 * 15 / The Lord sees it if people denied justice and rights

These 2 groups, 1 group of 10 verses and 1 of 7 verses, make up half the 34-verse total from the Old Testament Hebrew tradition. But they, and the remaining 17 verses do illustrate clearly enough that rights thinking, or at least rights presumption was clearly enough established in ancient Hebrew culture and society.

Out from the remaining 17 verses, there are 3 others I want to hone in on in particular, because they are so salient to the topic at hand, or one key aspect of it, politicizing and enforcing rights.

1Sa 8:9 * 4 / Warning King will claim rights over the people

1Sa 8:11 * 5 / Repeat warning rights of king over the people

1Sa 10:25 * / Noting Samuel explained rights of king – but no note of what they were

First, I will consider these 3 verses by presenting the story-line in which they appear and offering a brief analysis. Then I will provide a little background to that story-line, and that background will serve us in later posts. The verses appear in 1 Samuel, the 8th chapter, and here are the first 2 of the 3 in narrow context:

1 Samuel 8:4-22 NIV

[4] So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. [5] They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” [6] But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. [7] And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. [8] As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. [9] Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” [10] Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. [11] He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. [12] Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. [13] He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. [14] He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. [15] He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. [16] Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. [17] He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. [18] When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” [19] But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. [20] Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” [21] When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. [22] The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”

1 Samuel 8:4-22 NIV,

The 2 verses in question here are verses 9 and 11, where it is mentioned that the king will claim certain rights. Note that it does not say God is assigning the king all these rights, ending in the right to enslave the people themselves (verse 17), but this just says these are the rights that the king will claim. Note that the king will claim the rights to an awful lot of “taking,” with those takings listed in verses 11-17. This is not exactly a God ordained sales-pitch for a king and rights of taking. At least I sure wouldn’t take it that way. This is a dire warning that “You’re making a huge mistake here.” And in verse 7 we see that the mistake stems from the rejection of God as the king of the Hebrews.

Now here is a very brief background summary leading up to this story in the bible.

So, in the overall narrative of Hebrew history as reflected in the Old Testament, a group of people known as the Hebrews had descended down from the line of a man named Abraham. As fate would have it, that rather nomadic group of herders and traders ended up enslaved by the Egyptians. After about 400 years of enslavement, a guy by the name of Moses led them out of Egyptian slavery and out into the world to become their own nation. Now of course, in the bible, God is shown as the really active agent in most of this. In other words, it’s more depicted as “God working through Moses,” rather than “just Moses” doing so much of this. Nevertheless, Moses is depicted as a man, all man, and only man, not half god or descended from the gods. Part of leading the Hebrews out from slavery and into nationhood included staking out claims to territory, but it also involved setting up a form of government, a way to arrange the ordering of this new society, which he did. The government he set up for them was quite a contrast from the typical form of government in those parts of the world at that time. Most nations, and more likely, city-states had Kings of one sort or another. Many of those kings claimed outright divinity or at the least divine lineage as their rationale for being the Rulers over the ruled.

But the Hebrews under Moses’ (or God’s) direction, were about to do things very differently. The story of how Moses initially organized things can be found in the old testament book of Exodus, Chapter 18, verse 14 and following through to the end of the book.

Across time, this ordering of society included Priests, who served in the tabernacle or temple, and they administered the most explicitly religious aspects of communal activity. In addition to them, at various points were combinations of elders and judges for the less explicitly religious, and more civic, mundane aspects of running society (though as a theocracy of sorts, religious value or values permeated it all.)

This may just be me, and not anything I can substantiate easily here, but my sense is that the “National Order” established by Moses seems more like a civic tribal alliance, with mainly a core theology and religious structure between them. In a way similar to the United States being held together with a Constitution, the tribes were held together with a core a religious law and institution, the Tabernacle/Temple.  If I’m right about this, then it was quite a bit different from the centralized, unified nations around them, where everything religious and civic were all bound up together under one “Divine King,” or religious/civil authority, with the king ordering ALL aspects of society.

The Mosaic Hebrew set up strikes me as kind of a “Constitutional Monarchy” of sorts, with God as King, and the (God granted) law of Moses as the constitution for ordering the society. And society was collection of tribes in religious and civil alliance. Admittedly, maybe that’s a stretch, but this is the somewhat vague, general sense I come away with. Or for the civic aspects of it, maybe it was more like the law of Moses being the common treaty that cemented a tribal alliance. The tribes were all parties to that agreed common-law (Constitution), and its King (God).

By time of the story of 1 Samuel Chapter 8, many generations and much history has passed since the time of Moses and his giving of the law. The people of Israel had tired of the civic portion of the organizational setup established by Moses, or by God through Moses. And they demanded to be organized and run more like the nations around them, they wanted a King. It should be noted that, despite the coming change to a kingship for governance, the priests would remain in charge of administering the temple and the most explicitly religious aspects of the community, interpreting the God given law, and so forth. But for the civil aspects of society, the less explicitly religious aspects, here in First Samuel 8, a major socio-cultural transition is in the offing. They are about to throw off the order Moses had established for his (or God’s) purpose of doing things decidedly different from the surrounding nations. In a sense, they’re about to revert BACK TO the kind of organizational structure they had been under, way back when they were enslaved in Egypt. This time they will end up enslaved to their own king rather than someone else’s, but I’m not sure that difference matters very much under a scenario of slavery.

But some key things I want us to note here. First, the text doesn’t relate that God is actually assigning all these rights to the king, only that they are the rights the king will claim. If the people wanted a king like the nations surrounding them, this is the way kings operated in that part of the world at that time. They exercised similar rights over the people they ruled. In other words, God is saying, “So you want a king like the people around you have? Let me tell you how that will work out for you: the same way it works out for them. And here are your fine print details for that arrangement: (1 Samuel, 8;11-17).”

The second thing I want us to notice here for future re-visit is all the “rights to taking” that are being presented; not as God’s idea, but as what the king will claim the rights to do. That series of taking listed from verses 11-17 is pretty oppressive.

But oppressive in comparison to what? The integrated system of theocracy established by Moses is the system they are setting aside in favor of something along the lines of early separation of church and state. It should be noted that within that system delivered by Moses, there were many, many commands to make sacrifices to contribute to the running of society through the temple coffers. While we may scoff at all that “sacrifice,” it’s easy to miss a fairly unique aspect to the system. So far as I can tell, at least biblically, there was no authorized taking within the system of Moses. In other words, no official taxation or coercive confiscation of people, property, or wealth. The people were commanded and reminded and re-reminded to sacrifice, but if they failed to do so, there were no officials charged with coming to “collect your sacrifice.” Now, the coercion may have been something on the order of being socially ostracized for failure to sacrifice. And a person with no real community is a person in trouble. So that may have been sufficient. But I don’t even see practice of ostracizing instructed in the Old Testament.

Now, of course not ALL aspects of Hebrew culture are recorded in the bible. I’m sure there are many aspects of ancient Hebrew society about which the bible leaves us clueless. However, if the bible accurately reflects the law that Moses gave (including the 10 Commandments), then that law did not authorize any official “taking” of anything from anyone. It did not authorize anyone in society to be a “taker,” officially or not. That’s the system the people in 1 Samuel 8 are trading in for the kingship with all its claims of rights to taking. That’s one substantial contrast.

There was a third verse in 1 Samuel that dealt with rights, and for full disclosure, I’ll show it now: 1 Samuel 10:25 NIV

[25] Samuel explained to the people the rights and duties of kingship. He wrote them down on a scroll and deposited it before the Lord. Then Samuel dismissed the people to go to their own homes.

1 Samuel 10:25 NIV,

So, we do come as close as a prophet of God stipulating rights of a king. But whatever those rights and duties were has not made the cut to be passed down through the biblical texts. I think it is pretty clear from the context we do have that the whole notion of human kingship was not God’s idea, at least not for a people in particular relationship with Him. That was not a situation he was advocating for, but one He was tolerating. It might be considered then, that that situation, once allowed or tolerated did come with “God granted rights for the King,” or “Divine Rights of Royalty,” but at least in this context I think that can equally be considered to be a stretch of the reasoning for what’s going on here in the bigger context. It’s almost like God is saying, “If you want to do it some way other than my way, then you work it out.” Not, “You want a king with a bunch of rights so I’ll give him the rights.”

This post is already longer than I want these posts to be, but this seems the necessary place to interject one other biblical comment about the sanctioning of official taking within the ancient Hebrew system.

This is another story from the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel. The story runs from chapter 2 verse 12, through chapter 4, verse 18. (1 Samuel 2:12-4:18)

So, here in this story we have a leading priest, Eli. Eli has gotten old, and has delegated some of the operations of the Temple to a couple of his sons. The two sons are both generally rotten, corrupt guys. The elders of the people come to Eli and complain about the corruption, the skimming of sacrifices and other malfeasant behaviors. For whatever set of reasons, Eli, who evidently had the authority to rein them in, failed to do so. So, the people are upset, and God is annoyed, to put it mildly.

One set of corrupt incidents called out specifically in the story as being a grievous sin on the parts of the bad boys was this, in 1 Samuel 2:16-17, we read: (16) “If the person said to him, “Let the fat be burned first, and then take whatever you want,” the servant would answer, “No, hand it over now; if you don’t, I’ll take it by force.” (17) This sin of the young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they were treating the Lord’s offering with contempt.”

Maybe, me being who I am, maybe I’m being hyper-sensitive to pick up on this topic of taking by force. On the other hand, the writer does go on to call it out as being very great sin. So maybe I’m not being so hyper-sensitive about it after all.

Later in that same book (discussed above), God is shown relenting to let the people run the civic aspects of society on that force driven principle, when they demand a King and He tells them what they’ll get in exchange, but he grants it. Not His idea, but he puts up with it.

But when it came to the administration of His Temple, He cut no slack.

Further on into this story, down in 1 Samuel 2:34, God breaks news of some more hard consequences to Eli: “And what happens to your two sons, Hophni and Phinias, will be a sign to you – they will both die on the same day.” And by 1 Samuel 4;10-11, both the bad boys have been slain in battle, during the process of losing Israel’s Ark of the Covenant to the enemy. When Eli hears the news, he falls off his chair, breaks his neck, and he dies.

God’s just not a big a fan of taking by force within a community of His, especially if it’s done in His name – almost has to be one key takeaway from this.

Next I want to consider the biblical take on the responsibility for rights.

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