We recently looked at what the book of Genesis tells us about the nature of man and government. We ended that discussion with Abraham and his family relying on God’s judgment and justice.
However, Egypt looms large in the last chapters of Genesis as both savior and potential tyrant.
Israel Under the Authority of Egypt
Joseph’s wisdom and character combined with unlimited power (Gen 41:40) save Egypt’s people but also enslave them as un-landed tenants (Gen 47:21-25). While Joseph is seen as thoroughly virtuous and trustworthy, a man “in whom is the Spirit of God,” one who was incomparable in discernment and wisdom (Gen 41:38-39), a character formed in the crucible of sufferings in the sovereign plan of God, he is nevertheless the one who made slaves of an entire people.
It is a small step from this development to the oppression of Exodus 1 and the “cry” of Israel to God for deliverance. Pharaoh’s tyrannical and god-like claims to ownership over the people of Israel, their children, their labor, their livestock, to the exclusion of all other claims, even their worship, leads to an ever-widening “judgment” on Pharaoh and his gods. This is exactly as God had promised to Abraham, saying, “But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” (Gen 15:14)
There is even a hint that the providence that brought Joseph to power and issued in Pharaoh’s unparalleled suzerainty led to this very judgmental confrontation with Pharaoh (Ex 9:15-17). Judgment again prevails.
Israel Under the Authority of Judges
Israel’s redemption and freedom prepare them for service to God, as Moses repeatedly tells Pharaoh (Ex 4:23; 7:16; 8:1), and thus for his exclusive reign over them, as is celebrated in the hymn of Moses at the sea (Ex 15:13-18).
Their freedom is not absolute and autonomous, for they have been “redeemed” that they might be God’s “slaves,” his “possession,” his “kingdom” as “priests” (Ex 19:4-6), as God reveals through Moses at Horeb. Thus, their mission in earthly terms is to exemplify for the nations how a people ruled by God should live.
Though this arrangement is clearly theocratic, it is eventually to be mediated by “wise,” “discerning,” truth-loving, bribe-hating, God-fearing and even Spirit-filled men. This is the governance anticipated in advance of the occupation of Canaan. The unit of Torah which integrates the institutions of Israel’s national life—political and religious, with the religious divided between priest and prophet and the political involving judges and priests (Deut 17:8-13)—allows for the possibility of a king who “the Lord your God chooses” (Deut 17:15).
The requirement that the future king be a student of Torah (Deut 17:18-20) sets the spiritual parameters. Thus, contrary to standard practice in the Ancient Near East (ANE), the king of Israel, should one be needed, is subject to brotherhood, Torah, and God—making him more a shepherd than a monarch.
Israel Seeks the Authority of a King
The king-less governance prevails until the time of Samuel, the beginning of the period of the prophets, when the people rebel against God’s kingship and demand a human king. However, the proper relationship of priesthood and judge appears not to have been established until Eli united the offices and Samuel succeeded him (1 Sam 4:18). Moreover, these “judges” are said to be “raised up” (Jdg 2:16) by God. He was “with them,” but it was God who “saved” them (Jdg 2:18). He also made it clear that these judges were “commanded” (or “appointed”) by him (2 Sam 7:11).
Even when the Davidic kingship was ratified by the promise of God, the system of local judges carried out the rule of God. The institution of Israel’s king is where I will turn next.
Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from the IFWE research paper, God and Government: A Biblical Perspective (The Bible and Limited Government) by Dr. Tom Pratt. Read the full paper here.