Authority and Separation of Powers in Israel

Authority and Separation of Powers in God's Israel

The Book of Numbers

Numbers, numbers, numbers. This is one of those sections of the Bible most of us skim over if we bother to read it at all. Apart from a few historians, who really cares how many fighting men were in the tribes of Gad and Simeon? Who cares about the names of the census takers?

Well, I admit that it all seems a little obscure, but, as I’ve said before, every detail included in the Torah was included for some enduring reason. There is peshat in every word of the Torah, remez in every passage, drash and sod in every name and number. (See here for an explanation of the four levels of Jewish exegesis.) As pointless as it might seem to the casual reader, there is meaning in the Bible’s long lists of names and numbers.

Here is a bit of drash from B’midbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)…

The Authority to Count

The right to count, number, and name a thing is derived from authority. You do not have authority over your neighbor’s possessions, therefore you do not have the right to see his bank statement, name him or his children, or inventory his collection of rare coins. The exact measure of his strength, his family, and his wealth are none of your business. However, God owns everything, and everything is God’s to count.

In Numbers chapter one, God ordered Moses and Aaron to count the fighting men of twelve of the tribes of Israel. However, they weren’t to do it on their own. God chose one man from each of those tribes to count along side them. They were not allowed to initiate their own count, but could only do so at the command of God. Remember what trouble David got the nation into centuries later when he took a census of Israel’s fighting men. The implication is that the army did not belong to any human leaders. It military might of Israel is God’s alone and any human command is only delegated by him.

The tribe of Levi was not counted by the tribal leaders, but by Moses alone, who was God’s personal representative. Earlier, God had required the firstborn males of the nation to be dedicated to him. Rather than form another pseudo-tribe out of those men, he allowed them to remain in their tribes and took the entire tribe of Levi for himself as a substitute. They were separated out for service to God, and so could not count as an asset of the nation. This is why the twelve tribal leaders could take no part in counting them.

The Structure of Government

Those twelve men were not elected by the people, appointed by Moses, nor approved by any human agency. God chose them for their character and informed the nation of their identity, no paperwork required. Echoing Paul’s criteria for church leaders, they were already leaders among their people, whether by reputation, age, or some other currency. Together with Moses and Aaron, they formed a counsel of tribal chiefs of fourteen men.

Eventually, the government of Israel would be divided into three defacto branches, much as that of the United States. The three branches were the tribal chiefs headed by both Moses and Aaron as mentioned above, the executive-judiciary embodied by the sanhedrin and the system of judges headed and appointed by Moses, and the Levitical priesthood headed by Aaron.

Moses served as president and commander-in-chief, with a great deal of discretionary power. After Moses’ death, Joshua, as senior member of the senate, took his place as the executive. That role came to be known as the Judge of Israel and was never hereditary. Its holder was chosen from among the tribal chiefs until the accession of King Saul.

Notice that not one of the high officials of Israel was elected. The judges, priests, and kings were all appointed. The local judges and officials were to be selected by the people, but God didn’t specify a method of selection. Overall, God does not appear to be a great proponent of pure democracy, despite the preaching of our modern day republocrats.

The Limits of Our Delegated Authority

Israel’s rulers were not democratically elected, but neither were they autocrats. They were not allowed to count the nation or even the army without God’s blessing. They could not change borders, confiscate property without cause, or unseat one another. The nation belonged to God and limited authority was only delegated by him for periods of time.

When we count our income, we count God’s income. When we name our children, we name his children. He has made us to be stewards. Like Moses who was denied entry to the Promised Land, David who brought a plague on the people, and the Israelites who were cut off from the land, we will be held accountable for our treatment of his people and assets. God will evaluate our every act and how we used his resources in his name.

The State vs. The Family

Karl Marx knew that the family must be destroyed before the state can finally reign supreme.
Karl Marx knew that the family must be destroyed before the state can finally reign supreme.

Numbers 1:2

…by the house of their fathers… God’s people are organized by families headed by patriarchs, and when left to their own devices, families in agrarian societies will almost always organize themselves into patriarchal clans with or without ever having heard of the God of Abraham. The modern secular state is incompatible with God’s intended form of civil government. Lawrence Stone wrote,

The modern state is a natural enemy to the values of kinship, especially among the upper classes, for kinship is a direct threat to the state’s own claim to prior loyalty. Kinship leads to aristocratic faction and rebellion, such as the War of the Roses or the Fronde, to the independence of entrenched local potentates using kin loyalties to create powerful local connections, and to making the working of the jury system of justice impossible by the subordination of objective judgment to ties of blood. In the sixteenth century, the State in England increasingly assumed monopoly powers of justice and punishment, military protection, welfare, and the regulation of property. This takeover was accompanied by a massive propaganda campaign for loyalty, inculcating the view that the first duty of every citizen is obedience to the sovereign, that man’s highest obligation is to his country, involving the subordination of all other considerations and loyalties, even life itself.1

I don’t believe Stone is necessarily correct concerning the jury system, but his observations on the need of the god-state to subvert kinship ties for its own security is not. The Assyrian emperors understood this principle thousands of years ago and regularly deported and scrambled entire nations in order to uproot them from their ancestral homes and break the alliances of blood. The same phenomenon was observed in the relocation programs of the Soviets in the twentieth century and of the Americans in the nineteenth.

On the other hand, God’s intended system of government employs a balance between family and national allegiances. For example, God allows only one religion, one priesthood, and one Temple for the entire nation, but military and political structures are based on clans. Tying such things as military commands to patriarchal clans tends to discourage the military adventurism of conquest and world policing and the centralization of power into the hands of a small political elite, while a central religion with pilgrimages to the capital city helps to maintain the sense of kinship between potentially widely scattered clans.

1 Lawrence Stone. “The Rise of the Nuclear Family in Early Modern England: The Patriarchal Stage”, The Family in History, Ed. Charles E. Rosenberg. Philadelphia: 1975. 24

Resolving Conflicts in the Family and Nation

Moses teaching the people of Israel.

In his comments on Matot this week at Aish, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlighted the conflict between Moses and the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to settle on the east side of the Jordan instead of on the west with the other tribes. Although the narrative in Numbers 32 is probably very condensed from the actual events, Rabbi Sacks points out how the story illustrates good conflict resolution strategy:

The negotiation between Moses and the two tribes in our parsha follows closely the principles arrived at by the Harvard Negotiation Project, set out by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their classic text, Getting to Yes.(2) Essentially they came to the conclusion that a successful negotiation must involve four processes:

  1. Separate the people from the problem. There are all sorts of personal tensions in any negotiation. It is essential that these be cleared away first so that the problem can be addressed objectively.
  2. Focus on interests, not positions….By focusing not on positions but on interests, the question becomes, “Is there a way of achieving what each of us wants?”
  3. Invent options for mutual gain….the two sides usually have different objectives, neither of which excludes the other.
  4. Insist on objective criteria. Make sure that both sides agree in advance to the use of objective, impartial criteria to judge whether what has been agreed has been achieved….

Moses does all four. First he separates the people from the problem by making it clear to the Reubenites and Gadites that the issue has nothing to do with who they are, and everything to do with the Israelites’ experience in the past… The problem is not about this tribe or that but about the nation as a whole.

Second, he focused on interests not positions. The two tribes had an interest in the fate of the nation as a whole. If they put their personal interests first, God would become angry and the entire people would be punished, the Reubenites and Gadites among them….

Third, the Reubenites and Gadites then invented an option for mutual gain. If you allow us to make temporary provisions for our cattle and children, they said, we will not only fight in the army. We will be its advance guard. We will benefit, knowing that our request has been granted. The nation will benefit by our willingness to take on the most demanding military task.

Fourth, there was an agreement on objective criteria. The Reubenites and Gadites would not return to the east bank of the Jordan until all the other tribes were safely settled in their territories. And so it happened, as narrated in the book of Joshua…

The history of Israel (and every other people, really) demonstrates that a nation is an extended family with a common history, language, religion, & culture. The makeup of a family, like that of a nation, can change over time, but the family only remains so long as those things which define it as a family remain. Without the cement of common ideals and a common mission, you can’t have a family.

Like a national leader, a father must spend a great deal of time and energy resolving conflicts in the family. If he is to be successful, he must decide what really matters and what doesn’t. Since each family is different, with its own quirks and challenges, I can’t tell you exactly how you should govern your family or what specific things you should prioritize. However, I can speak to some things that are common among all families.

A father must keep his family’s first principles in mind, those things which define them as a family: blood, faith, mission, etc.

Everyone in the family must be related by blood or covenant. If anyone is free to walk away when things aren’t going the way he prefers, then he can’t be considered real family.

Everyone in a family should subscribe to the same religion. There can be differences of opinion, of course, even of expression, but the basic tenets of faith must be essentially the same among all individuals, or the family will experience serious trouble in time.

Everyone in a family should be working toward a common goal. Remember that Jesus said “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” It’s true of churches, commercial enterprises, nations, and families. Each person must have their own personal missions and aspirations, but they cannot be at odds with each other. If a father’s mission is to teach responsible life skills to inner city children, his wife’s mission cannot be to keep those same people dependent on government handouts in order to use them as political pawns. Or, rather, those cannot be their missions if they desire to remain a family.

Conflicts in themselves are not bad. Like all of life’s challenges, they are the exercises we need to develop relational and spiritual strength. So long as each member of the family is willing to place the needs of the family above their own needs, almost any conflict can be worked out to a favorable resolution.

Conflict is part of God’s plan. Resolving conflicts in the family is an essential element of familial–and therefore national–maturity and cohesiveness.

Fathers, remember your family’s first principles. Remember your covenants. Remember your mission. Remember God.