From the Red Sea to the Jordan River: The Roots of Jesus’ Political Consciousness
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.”
If Jesus was a political revolutionary, what were the political issues and conditions of the world of his birth that he was responding to and that he sought so fervently to change? To fully appreciate the politics of Jesus we must begin with the most basic factor in his worldview and social identity: his Jewishness. We will briefly survey the major historical moments in the development of the religion of Jesus and note how the influence of each is reflected in his message and ministry. In other words, we must begin with an understanding of the legacy of the Judaism into which Jesus was born and its influence on his life and his every pronouncement.
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew. Not only was Jesus a Jew, but he was an observant Jew who never disavowed his Jewishness. We see this in his consistent observance of Jewish customs and holy days, in his frequent references to Moses, and in his acceptance of the Torah as holy writ. All of Jesus’ major teachings either were consistent with the tenets of traditional Judaism or were expansions or elaborations of it, as in Matthew 5:17-48, in which Jesus intensifies the moral ethics of Judaism with the refrain “you have heard it said . . . but I say . . .”*
However, the major implication of Jesus’ Jewishness for our understanding of the political setting of his life and ministry goes beyond the liturgical and doctrinal aspects of Judaism. Rather, it lies in one fact in particular: that the root event from which the foundational meaning of Judaism and the entire Judeo-Christian faith tradition flows is a political event–the liberation event that was the Exodus.
The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, which includes the stories of increasingly faithful individuals like Joseph, Abraham, and Lot. The next book, Exodus, recounts the struggle of the Hebrew people to escape from their painful bondage under Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler. With the Hebrews’ exit from Egypt, the emphasis of the Bible turns from individual deliverance to collective deliverance. It is in this sense that the Exodus event is a political event: it is about the collective deliverance of a subjugated class of people from political oppression and economic exploitation.
The political nature of the Exodus is epitomized in Exodus 3:7-8, which narrates God’s liberating response to the cries of the oppressed: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”
What we are told here is that it was not the Hebrews’ religious sensibilities, nor was it their worship pieties, that accounted for God’s intervention in their desperate predicament. Rather, according to God’s own testimony, it was their political plight. In fact, the book of Exodus tells us that when it came to worshiping God, the Hebrews were not particularly commendable. As a group, they seem not even to have been monotheistic; that is, they seem not to have fully accepted belief in one God alone. Apparently they were what we call henotheistic, which means that even if they did worship only one God, they still acknowledged the existence of other deities. This is reflected in the first commandment, in which the Hebrews are specifically commanded to worship no other gods, a commandment that would have been meaningless if they had already believed in the existence of only one God. Thus, the liberating action of God in the Exodus was not in response to the worship pieties of the Hebrews. It was to their political plight.
The term “Hebrews” itself confirms this, in that it is primarily a sociopolitical identity–specifically a class identity–rather than a religious identity. In the Hebrew language, the term ‘ibri, or “Hebrew,” means literally “he crossed over,” which reflects the Hebrews’ status as “outsiders” to Egyptian society. Moreover, the use of “Hebrew” as a term of social or class description seems to be related to the early Semitic term hapiru, which most scholars believe also connoted outsider class status in the ancient Near East. This sense of “outsider” is reflected by the Exodus narrative in its own presentation of the Hebrews as in every way outcasts and aliens to the social and political mainstream of Egypt. Indeed, the Book of Exodus graphically portrays the Hebrews as a despised and socially marginalized class. The ethic of compassion for the ger, or “alien stranger,” that permeates the Hebrew Bible from this point has much to do with the Hebrews’ treatment in Egypt.
Thus, in effect, the testimony of the Exodus is that the defining root event from which Israel sprang was God’s act of taking the side of the oppressed. In the final analysis, the seminal importance of the Exodus event is that in God’s response to the class oppression of the Hebrews, God firmly posited justice and liberation as the very foundation of biblical faith.
From the moment of the Hebrews’ final deliverance from the murderous grasp of Pharaoh, the Exodus liberation event loomed large in their collective consciousness. In fact, the people of Israel have recalled their oppression and their emancipation from it during the annual Passover seder, or feast, for some five thousand years with these words: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord our God brought us forth with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm.”
The Significance of the Exodus for the Ministry of Jesus
As the root event of Judaism, the Exodus liberation experience is also the root event of Jesus’ faith and his message. Jesus evokes the memory of the Exodus often in the Gospels by repeatedly invoking Moses’ name. And just as God declared the oppression of the Hebrews as the motive for divine intervention, Jesus cites the oppression of his people as the focus of his own intervention–his ministry–by choosing the liberation text of Isaiah 61:1-2 as his manifesto: “The Spirit of the Lord . . . has anointed me . . . to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). Mark’s account of Jesus’ liberation of a young man possessed by “an unclean spirit” named “Legion” even evokes the image of Pharaoh’s defeat at the Red Sea: “And the unclean spirits . . . numbering about two thousand . . . rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea” (Mark 5:13).
The Biblical Judges
As a class rather than a group sharing an ethnic or religious identity, the Hebrews consisted of a number of different tribes. The Song of Deborah in Judges 5:14-18 lists ten tribes. After their deliverance from Egypt they spent years wandering in the desert, during which time other tribes apparently united with them, eventually increasing their number to twelve.
When they finally settled in Canaan, for generations the painful memory of their experience under Egypt’s hereditary monarchy helped the Hebrews withstand the temptation to institute a monarchy among themselves. Though the prophet Samuel actually represents a later historical moment than that recounted in the Book of Judges, the fears behind the Hebrews’ rejection of a monarchy can be heard nonetheless in Samuel’s warning that a king would “take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers . . . And in that day you will cry out because of your king” (1 Samuel 8:14, 18).
Instead of instituting a monarchy, the tribes of the Hebrews developed an egalitarian form of governance by a confederacy, or governing council, made up of representatives of all their tribes and factions. The united tribes came to be called collectively “Israel.” Their confederate form of governance is seen at work in Joshua 24:1: “Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel” to jointly confer.
This era of egalitarian governance without the oversight of a king came to be known as the period of the “judges” (shophetim in Hebrew, i.e., “those who do justice,” from mishpat, “justice”), as leaders who fought to preserve the Israelites’ freedom were called. Their story is told in the appropriately named Book of Judges.
The Book of Judges consists of a series of popular tales that tell the story of the free tribes of Israel resisting foreign oppression. These accounts include the story of Othniel of the tribe of Caleb, who led a peasant militia that freed Israel from the oppression of the Canaanite king Cushan-rishathaim (Judges 3:7-11); of Ehud the Benjaminite, who successfully led a revolt against Eglon, king of Moab (Judges 3:15-30); and of the judge Deborah’s defeat of Sisera, general of the Canaanite king Jabin (Judges 4 and 5).
What all these judges had in common was their role of freedom fighter. They were individuals who rose to temporarily assume the political leadership of Israel when the freedom of the Hebrew people was threatened. The Book of Judges itself says as much: “Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them” (Judges 2:16).
As with the earlier Hebrews, the outstanding characteristic of the biblical judges was not religiosity. Rather, the main qualification for biblical judges was a willingness to fight for their people’s freedom. For instance, the Bible characterizes Samson, the best known of the judges, as driven more by his ultimately disastrous romance with Delilah than by religious concerns. Yet despite a life of dissipation, Samson maintains a place of honor in the biblical memory because his dying act was to strike a blow against the enemies of his fellow Hebrews.
In addition to the rise of individual freedom fighters as de facto generals in periods of military threat, there is another significant aspect of the period of the judges that influenced the development of the political and ethical structure of Israel: by selecting individuals as temporary leaders to rule only in times of crisis, Israel decisively rejected the idea of a king or even a centralized government. Instead, it chose to be a free and independent people with no ruling class to lord over it. In that time and place, the choice to bow to no king and to pay tribute only to God was truly revolutionary.
The Significance of the Judges for the Ministry of Jesus
The primary lesson of the biblical judges is that fighting for the liberation of those who are oppressed is as important a responsibility of our faith as developing sound personal piety. It appears that this principle has largely been forgotten in Christendom. Yet it is repeatedly echoed by Jesus in his insistence that in addition to striving to better know the will of God in their personal lives and conduct, his hearers should also do justice in the world. Jesus stressed this point in such sayings as “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice” (Matthew 5:6) and “Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s justice” (Matthew 6:33).
You’ll note that I have rendered the Greek word dikaiosune in these verses as “justice” rather than the usual “righteousness.” As students of biblical Greek know, the term can be translated either way. However, unlike “righteousness,” with its strictly one-dimensional personal moral implications, “justice” connotes more than individual piety. It also means holistic, collective–that is, social–righteousness. Because of Jesus’ holistic spirituality, his use of dikaiosune in these and many of the other sayings in which it is found should be understood as encompassing both of the term’s meanings, that is, personal righteousness and social justice.
Jesus’ embrace of the uncompromising egalitarianism of the biblical judges is reflected in his admonition to his disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you” (Matthew 20:25-26). It is also seen in his unwavering recognition of God alone as sovereign king. When offered “all the kingdoms of the world” by Satan, Jesus made clear his conviction that no kingship but God’s is legitimate by quoting the unequivocal declaration of God’s sovereignty in Deuteronomy 6:13: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,/’Worship the Lord your God,/and serve only him’ ” (Matthew 4:10).
The Judges and the Kingdom of God
The reason underlying the Hebrews’ remarkable decision to select judges from among themselves as occasional leaders, rather than have a king as most societies around them did, is precisely the legacy of liberative justice bequeathed to the Hebrews by the Exodus. This attitude of radical political equality–that is, the refusal to accept the domination of anyone except God–is exemplified by the refusal of the biblical judge Gideon of Manasseh to become the hereditary king of Israel: “Then the Israelites said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also . . .’ Gideon said to them, ‘I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you’ ” (Judges 8:22-23).
Gideon’s refusal reflects the pivotal Israelite notion of malkuth shamayim, that is, belief in “the sole sovereignty of God,” the recognition that God alone has the right to rule and dominate the life and affairs of Israel in particular, and the rest of the world by extension. This was a fundamental tenet of Judaism, based on no less than the first commandment to Moses at Sinai: “[Y]ou shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
Three streams of meaning can be discerned in the idea of malkuth shamayim:
1. God as king of the universe (Psalms 22; 29; 47; 93; 96-99; also Jeremiah 10:7, 10 ff.; Malachi 1:14)
2. God as the sole king of Israel (Numbers 23:21; Deuteronomy 33:5; Isaiah 41:21; Jeremiah 8:19)
3. God as king in the eschatological, that is, future sense (1 Samuel 8:19, 12:12)
Each strand of belief in the right of God alone to rule was significant and widely held. Observant Jews reaffirmed this belief every day, however they understood it, in their daily recitation of the prayer in Deuteronomy 6:4 known as the Shema (from shemayah, “hear”): “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is ahad” (i.e., singular, without peer).
Despite the various ways malkuth shamayim could be understood, its first stream of meaning–God as universal king–became the basis for all the resistance movements in Israel to come. The radicality of this notion lay in its rejection of all human domination. Its impeccable logic was that if God is the sole king of the universe, no other claim to kingship is legitimate. For common people to declare that they would bow before no earthly king was a dangerous and radical political statement in the ancient world, and they knew it.
The roots of this revolutionary belief run deep in the history of Israel. Time after time, belief in malkuth shamayim inspired and empowered Israel’s fighters for freedom. A particularly poignant example is found in a Jewish religious book of the first century b.c. called First Maccabees, which can be found in the Catholic Bible and the collection of ancient Jewish religious texts known as the Apocrypha.
First Maccabees recounts the history of the Israelites’ rebellion against their Greek occupiers that began about 167 b.c. The conflict was triggered by an edict that all Jews must recognize the Greek king Antiochus IV as Epiphanes (God manifest) and swear fealty to him and his own deity, Zeus. When Antiochus’ soldiers came to his village to enforce the order, an outraged peasant named Mattathias invoked the sole kingship of God: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, . . . abandoning the religion of their ancestors . . . [w]e will not obey the king’s words” (1 Maccabees 2:19, 22).
First Maccabees goes on to recount instance after instance of widespread and uncompromising resistance to Antiochus’ rule in the name of malkuth shamayim, the sole sovereignty of God. In a particularly moving account, it relates that one group of rebels, including women and children, chose to die in their wilderness camp rather than submit to Antiochus’ sovereignty. To his command they replied, “We will not come out, nor will we do what the king commands” (1 Maccabees 2:34).
The courageous obedience to malkuth shamayim of those who waged the Maccabean Revolt was deeply seared into the collective memory of the people of Israel. It is reaffirmed yearly by the festival of Hanukkah (rededication), which commemorates the Maccabees’ liberation of the Jerusalem Temple from the Greeks’ control and its reconsecration to the God of Israel.
Malkuth shamayim also fueled resistance movements in the decades before and after Jesus’ ministry. Judas the Galilean, who is mentioned in Acts 5:37, led an uprising in a.d. 6, of which the historian Flavius Josephus (c. a.d. 37-c. 100) remarked, “Judas the Galilean [and his followers] have a passion for liberty that is almost unquenchable, since they are convinced that God alone is their leader and master.”
In the fourth decade of the first century A.D., malkuth shamayim fueled the revolutionary fervor of the Sicarii (dagger men), whose leader was Judas’ son, Menahem. In the sixth decade it inspired the Zealots, Jewish nationalists who waged full-fledged warfare against Rome. In the Jewish War (a.d. 68-70) it fueled the fervor of such rebels as Saddok the Pharisee and another rebel named Eleazar ben Ari, who was the rebel leader at the besieged desert stronghold at Masada. Josephus relates that Eleazar ben Ari invoked malkuth shamayim when explaining to the men, women, and children holed up with him why they should prefer death to surrender: “A long time ago, brave comrades, we firmly resolved to be subject neither to the Romans nor to any other person, but only to God.”
Malkuth shamayim continued as a call to freedom at least as late as the early second century, most notably in the unsuccessful rebellion against Roman oppression in a.d. 132-135 that was led by the insurgent Bar Kochba. It is said that “malkuth shamayim!” was the actual cry of Bar Kochba and his fellow freedom fighters as they marched into battle.
Thus malkuth shamayim, the sole sovereignty of God, was both a religious principle and a political principle. It was religious in that it was a fundamental statement of the uncompromising monotheistic faith of Israel. It was political because it insisted upon complete freedom from every form of human domination.
The Significance of the Maccabean Rebellion for the Ministry of Jesus
The Gospels portray malkuth shamayim, rendered in its Greek forms basileia ton ouranon (“kingdom of heaven”) and basileia tou Theou (“kingdom of God”), as Jesus’ central proclamation. Although the translation of these terms from Greek to English seems to imply that God’s kingdom is a physical place, in actuality both terms have the same underlying meaning as their Hebrew counterpart: recognition of God alone as sovereign.
Nevertheless, at times Jesus does appear to nuance the kingdom of God as a spiritual or otherworldly reality. In fact, Jesus seems to conclusively deny any social or political meaning of the term when he says to Pontius Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). And the apostle Paul seems to confirm the kingdom of God as a future spiritual reality: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:50).
However, on closer examination of the John 18:36 passage it becomes clear that it is in no way a denial of a political dimension to the kingdom of God. Rather, it affirms it. John 18:36 is Jesus’ testimony that true sovereignty comes not from Caesar or any other worldly ruler or regime, but from God alone. And with regard to Paul’s claim about God’s kingdom, as we shall see in chapter 3, Paul’s mistaken expectation that the world would end in his lifetime renders his understanding of the kingdom of God very different from the understanding expressed by Jesus.
In fact, the vast majority of Jesus’ pronouncements in the Gospels characterize the kingdom of God as an entirely earthly reality. Jesus proclaims that God’s kingdom will transform economic arrangements, as in his statement of class reversal in Matthew 20, “the first will be last.” He makes the same point in the Lord’s Prayer when he links the kingdom of God with refusal to participate in the onerous debt system in Israel: “we also have forgiven [or “released”] our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, my translation).
In Matthew 11:12 Jesus laments the unrelenting opposition to the establishment of God’s kingdom: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence.” But it is in the Lord’s Prayer that we see that Jesus understood malkuth shamayim, the sole sovereignty or kingdom of God, in the same way that it was understood by freedom fighters throughout Israel’s history: as a call to replace earthly kingdoms, which are so inevitably colored by injustice, with God’s kingdom of unending freedom and justice: “Your kingdom come./Your will be done,/on earth as in heaven” (Matthew 6:10; also see Luke 11:2).
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Politics of Jesus by Obery Hendricks. Copyright © 2006 by Obery Hendricks, Jr.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.