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  Book Title:   The Ways of a King: Legal and Political Ideas in the Bible  
Author:  Geoffrey P. Miller
Published:  2011
Price:  $142.50 (Hardcover)
Pages:  296
Reviewer:  Paul R. Abramson
Affiliation:   Michigan State University
This book review appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of The Independent Review

The Bible has implications beyond its theological and moral principles. Joining a burgeoning recent literature, Geoffrey P. Miller, the Stuyvesant Comfort Professor of Law at the New York University Law School, turns to analyzing its underlying legal and political ideas.

Miller’s analysis of the Hebrew Bible has two basic theses. His first thesis is “both simple and far-reaching: the great history of Israel presented in the books of Genesis through Second Kings contains a systematic, comprehensive, and remarkably astute analysis of political obligation and governmental design—in short, a political philosophy that may have been written earlier than the works of Plato and Aristotle” (p. 7). “The Bible,” he argues, “not the Greeks, may be the West’s oldest political philosophy” (p. 11).

His second thesis is that after reviewing alternative forms of government— utopia in paradise before the Fall, patriarchal clans, nomadism, nationhood, covenants between God and Noah, Abraham, and Moses, sovereignty under Joshua, and a covenant with Joshua—the children of Israel moved to military rule under the judges. Under the judges, a confederacy was established. But under Samuel, the last judge, the elders demanded a king. “‘Look, you yourself have grown old and your sons have not gone in your ways. So now, set us a king to rule us, like all the nations’” (1 Samuel 8:5) (for translations from Genesis through 2 Kings, I use Robert Alter’s The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary [New York: Norton, 2004] and Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets: Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings: A Translation with Commentary [New York: Norton, 2013]). Miller maintains that of all the forms of government discussed in the first eleven books of the Hebrew Bible, monarchy is viewed as the most favorable.

Despite Miller’s erudition, I disagree with his theses. There are many political messages in the Hebrew Bible, but not a sustained political theory. It is filled with too many unrelated incidents to sustain a political theory. Genesis is mainly the story of a dysfunctional family, filled with unrelated stories and some genealogies that sometimes lead nowhere (such as the lineage of Cain). Exodus sheds light on revolutionary theory, as Michael Walzer shows in Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1984). But most readers will focus on the story of the liberation from Egypt, and the Decalogue does not advance political principles, although it states that “[y]ou shall not bear false witness against your fellow man” (Exodus 20:16). Leviticus focuses on rules for priests and sets forth a holiness code. Numbers relates several politically relevant stories, especially the rebellion of the people who accepted the “ill report” of the scouts (13:32).

Deuteronomy is the first book of the Hebrew Bible that approaches developing a political philosophy. According to many scholars, this book is the beginning of the Deuteronomistic history, which continues through the end of 2 Kings. Daniel Elazar’s Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel: Foundations of Jewish Expressions, volume 1 of The Covenant Tradition in Politics ([New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1995], 210), claims that chapters 27 through 31 move Israel from a covenant to a constitution.

Deuteronomy also establishes new regulations for rules regulating future Israelite kings. The Israelites must have no foreign kings, and their kings must not have many horses or many wives (17:15–17). The king shall write out his own copy of the book of the laws to keep with the Levitical priests (17:18) and “fear the LORD his God” (17:19) and keep his statutes.

Joshua is known mainly for the miraculous conquest of Jericho, whose walls fell after priests blew their rams’ horns. It is best known for the greatest miracle of the Hebrew Bible, when Joshua defeated the Amorites at Gibeon. Joshua asked God to stop the sun and the moon, and God complied (10:13–14).

Elazar considers Joshua to be a political classic, arguing that its goal was not to provide a chronology of the Israelite conquests, but to spell out the rules by which Israel could have a federal covenant. (See his volume The Book of Joshua as a Political Classic [Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 1989]). He focuses on chapters 22 through 24 in Joshua. Elazar was an expert on federalism, but a key component of a federal system is having boundaries between the central government and subsidiary units. In reality, these boundaries are always changing, but there must be a statement of what these boundaries are supposed to be. I cannot find any clear statement of such boundaries in Joshua.

Judges has a simple, depressing political message. As Alter points out, the book demonstrates that “survival through violence, without a coherent and stable political framework, cannot be sustained and runs the danger of turning into sheer destruction” (Ancient Israel, 108). By moving from Judges directly to 1 Samuel, the Hebrew Bible sets the stage for monarchy. Judges reports the absence of a king four times (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; and 21:25), and the last verse reads, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Every man did what was right in his own eyes.” But critiquing anarchy does not rise to the level of political theory.

The books of Samuel, which report the lives of Samuel, Saul, and David, finally introduce monarchy. Samuel provides the most developed discussion of political theory in the Hebrew Bible, and Miller quotes Samuel’s warnings against monarchy in full (p. 228). When the elders want Samuel to appoint a king (1 Samuel 8:4), God tells Samuel to accede to their demands, but to warn them of the consequences. Samuel’s warning provides one of the strongest critiques of monarchy in Western political thought (1 Samuel 8:11–19).

God’s first choice as king, Saul, performs disastrously, and his disobedience to God’s orders by failing to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15)leads God to reject him. As Saul is about to face the Philistines, he resorts to necromancy and is defeated and falls on his own sword at the battle of Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:4). Saul is evaluated harshly in 1 Chronicles (10:13–14).

David is the most politically interesting monarch in the Bible. Starting with his rebellion against Saul, beginning in 1 Samuel 22, until his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), David shows his astuteness both as a rebel and as a monarch. Even during Absalom’s rebellion, he shows his adroitness by using a spy to undermine Absalom’s best adviser’s counsel. Despite David’s brilliance as a political leader, the books of Samuel do not present a political theory.

Nor do the books of Kings. Solomon is discussed for the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings, but his love for foreign princesses leads to idolatry. Kings basically presents chronologies. But Kings is much more than a chronology because it evaluates the monarchs of Judah and Israel according to Deuteronomistic standards. Of the nineteen kings to rule the northern kingdom of Israel between 931 B.C. and its end in 722 B.C., seventeen are evaluated in Kings. After the division of the United Kingdom until its end in 587 B.C., all nineteen of the kings of Judah are evaluated. But these evaluations are not political and are not based on political theory. Rather, they are based on theological considerations.

Both the conquest of Israel by the Assyrians and the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians can be explained politically, but 2 Kings 17:7–13 maintains that the fall of Israel resulted from its moral transgressions, especially widespread idolatry and that the fall of Judah resulted because Zedekiah, its last king, “did what was evil in the eyes of the LORD . . . For because of the LORD’s wrath, it was against Jerusalem and against Judah” (2 Kings 24:19–20).

In short, however much one can learn about politics from the Hebrew Bible, it seems a bit of a stretch to argue that it presents a cohesive and comprehensive political theory.

Miller’s second thesis is that monarchy provides the best form of government, at least among the alternatives available. In fairness to Miller, he presents and discusses the biblical texts that critique monarchy (pp. 239–48), but he does not clearly differentiate between the experience of monarchy in Israel and Judah after the division of the kingdom around 931 B.C. But this differentiation is possible because Kings evaluates seventeen of the nineteen kings of Israel and all nineteen of the kings of Judah from the division of the kingdom to its end.

As we saw, Chronicles condemns Saul. David, however, is constantly praised as Israel’s greatest king. Despite committing adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for the death of her husband (2 Samuel 11), he is praised throughout Kings because he “had done what was right in the eyes of the LORD,” although 1 Kings 15:5 adds, “except for [in] the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” Despite Solomon’s magnificent reign, his construction of the Temple, and his wisdom, he loved many foreign women (1 Kings 11:3–4), and they “ledhis heart astray.” God warns him that his kingdom will be divided after his death (1 Kings 12–13).

Israel, the northern kingdom, is stronger than Judah, but it is far less stable. There were nineteen kings in a mere 207 years, so that the average reign was only eleven years. Moreover, no king established a dynasty. The first king, Jeroboam, wanted to end Jerusalem’s dominance as a center of worship, so he set up two golden calves—one in Bethel, the other in Dan. The overall assessment of his reign is, “And the LORD will strike Israel as a reed sways in the water, and He will uproot Israel from the good land that He gave to their fathers, and will scatter them beyond the River in as much as they have made their sacred poles that vex the LORD. And He shall give Israel up because of the offenses of Jeroboam that he committed and that he led Israel to commit” (1 Kings 14:15–16). The only king to receive a positive evaluation is Jehu because he “destroyed Baal from Israel” (2 Kings 10:28). “But Jehu did not watch out to go by the teachings of the LORD God of Israel with all his heart. He did not swerve from the offenses of Jeroboam, who had led Israel to offend” (2 Kings 10:31).

With the exception of the usurper Queen Athalia, all of the monarchs of Judah are descendants of David. Miller’s claim that monarchy can provide political stability is supported by the continuity of the Davidic dynasty. The divided monarchy lasted between 931 and 587 B.C., 344 years. During that period, it had twenty monarchs (including the usurper Queen Athalia), so each reign lasted an average of seventeen years. David’s reign is estimated to have begun in 1000 B.C. Including his reign as well as Solomon’s extends the dynasty to 413 years, and the average reign is nearly nineteen years.

Even though Judah was smaller than Israel, it had a divinely established monarchy, which gave the monarch greater legitimacy. This may also have helped to reduce conflicts when kings died. Having Jerusalem as its capital was another advantage. It occupied high ground and was relatively easy to fortify. Yet even during the divided monarchy it was either captured or forced to pay tribute to King Shishak of Egypt and was conquered by King Jehoash of Israel before being destroyed by the Babylonians.

Moral assessments on the kings of Judah are passed in 1 Kings and 2 Kings. Two kings of Judah are highly praised, Hezekiah and Josiah. Josiah’s case supports Miller’s thesis mainly because he renews the covenant: “And the king stood on a platform and sealed a covenant before the LORD to walk after the LORD and to keep His commands and His precepts and His statutes with a whole heart and with all of their being, to fulfill the words of the covenant written in this book” (2 Kings 23:3).

But most of the kings of Judah, although not as evil as the kings of Israel, do not take a harsh position against idolatry, for “the high places were not removed” (see, for example, 1 Kings 22:44).

Monarchy is a failure in Israel. After the division of the kingdom, only two of Judah’s kings are great leaders, and only one restores the covenant, although Hezekiah is reported to have restored the covenant in 2 Chronicles 15:12.

Miller makes an interesting case, but I am not persuaded.


Buy The Ways of a King: Legal and Political Ideas in the Bible at Amazon.com for $142.50 (Hardcover)




Volume 19 Number 1
Summer 2014

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