Today I want to tell you a story. It’s from the Bible, but for all of you who are not religious, hang in there for a minute, because it gets better as we go along.
It’s a story of ancient Israel. The Israelites, as some of you may recall from Sabbath or Sunday School days, were once slaves in Egypt. But Moses set them free, took them through the desert, died on the trail, then Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho,” and they settled in the Promise land. Well, it’s more complicated than that, but enough for the start of this story.
The interesting thing is that in the beginning, the Israelites established something roughly resembling a democracy. Not like our US democracy (with restrictive voter ID laws, long lines, and limited voting options in poor neighborhoods), but they did have national leaders who were semi-sort-of elected by the will of the people (plus the okay from God). They were called “judges” But they did more than judge, they were also military leaders. When a crisis arose, the “elders” (described by God as the “the people’s representatives”) would look around for the biggest, strongest, smartest, cleverest person in the tribe and nominate him as the “Judge” who would get them out of their mess. And when the crisis was over, the Judge resigned. Who would've thought that three thousand years ago the Israelites were practicing term limits?
There are just three instances in the Hebrew Scriptures of the sons of Judges wanting to inherit their father’s power and take over, and in all three the people voted them down. There is even at least one instance—maybe more—when they elected a woman, a feat our own advanced and wise nation has not yet accomplished.
It was unique, it was wonderful, and it could have been an example to the world. And then it ended.
Around 1190, b.c.e., towards the end of the Bronze age, a group of mysterious invaders, known in the earliest writings only as “the Sea People,” landed on the southern coast of Palestine (think “Gaza Strip” today). No one knows for sure where they came from. Probably the islands of the Aegean Sea, but also why they arrived is disputed. One theory is that after they lost a war with Egypt, Egypt sent them there as mercenaries to terrorize the people of Israel to weaken them, so that they would collapse and be easier to take over. But no one knows. They had strange customs, a strange religion, a strange language, and they attacked in strange ways. For example, in addition to standard hand-to-hand battles, they would make small scale suicide terrorist attacks in villages that horrified the inhabitants. A lone killer would sneak into a market with swords hidden in his tunic and pull them out in the crowd and slash away at everybody within range, usually killing dozens. They were, of course, eventually mobbed and killed themselves, but not until they had taken many lives and shattered the sense of security in the community.
No one knows for sure, but it's likely that this ongoing, unsettling fear grew and grew to a boiling point and finally exploded. Following a number of these attacks, a number of people began to demand that they get rid of this semi-democratic system and bring in a new-style despotic, authoritarian ruler who could command and lead and make them all feel safe again.
A group of the Elders held a meeting with Samuel, the last of the Judges, and told him he had to go. They told him that the word on the street was that the time of this nice, charismatically elected “Judge” thing had passed and they wanted a flat out, straight up, dictator-style King. They were scared and this experiment in democracy was not working, so they wanted someone who could come in, take control, and tell them what to do. “Give us a king to govern us,” they said, “Like the other nations.”
Samuel was insulted, so he talked to God about it and God said for him to not take it personally. “They've been trash talking me this way ever since I hauled their derrières out of Egypt,” he said, “running after every little god that blows their skirt up, and ignoring any good thing I've ever done for them.” (BTW, that’s a fairly accurate translation.) So he told Samuel to “go back and tell that bunch all the things that could happen to them if they give up their freedoms for a bully.” Samuel did just that and the list he gave them is long. There were nine items on it, but basically he said that giving up your democracy because you’ve got the creeps, may make you feel safe now, but in the end you'll also lose all your freedoms. Your young men will be taken to war, taxes will go up to pay for it, and your aid from the crown will go down. Your women will be conscripted to work for the King, and you'll all be impoverished because the economy will crash taking all of you down (he didn't actually say that last one, but I think he meant it but forgot).
As it turned out, the Israelite representatives were pretty unmoved. They rejected the list and essentially said that in a choice between security or freedom, they'd choose security. “We are determined to have a king over us,” they said. We want someone who will “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” So, Samuel bit his “I-told-you-so” tongue and said yes. And they looked around and chose Saul to be their first king.
The story doesn't end there. They did choose Saul, but he was a sad and incompetent leader, clearly bi-polar and given to wildly manic behavior and days of deep depression. They lost thousands of people in incompetently led wars, and in the end, after being wounded in battle, he committed suicide. David, who followed him, was a true warrior king who finally defeated their enemies. But he also pushed the war into a number of surrounding countries, which made Israel into an empire, but also greatly stretching its resources, requiring a vast army to control the new lands and big tax hikes to pay for it. After him, Solomon took over through a fierce and ruthless battle and became the brutal authoritarian king that Samuel had foretold. In spite of his gentle reputation for “wisdom,” Solomon actually enslaved thirty-thousand of his own people (partly for his massive building programs), fought more pointless wars, and lived a life of breathtaking opulence with multiple homes, multiple wives, and multiple affairs, while meanwhile 99% of his people lived in poverty and squalor. He pitted one tribe and ethnic group against another, making them blame each other for their misery, and widened the ethnic hatred and income divide.
When he finally passed, the simmering discontent boiled over into a complete civil war, and the country broke in half, the north becoming Israel and the south, Judah. Soon after, Israel was destroyed and its people dispersed in a war with Assyria, followed by Judah being destroyed and its people taken captive by Babylonia. Judah eventually was allowed to return, but neither country after that ever returned to the promise and potential of those early pre-king years.
In my retelling of their story, I’ve compressed a few things to make the narrative smoother, but it’s basically accurate. This is what happened. Is there a moral to it? Perhaps. Perhaps it is simply that decisions made out of fear are often very bad decisions. Perhaps it is that sometimes authoritarianism can come to a country from an invading military power, and sometimes it can come from normal legal processes. Who’s to say?
A little later on in time there was a prophet named Jesus who was trying to roll out a counter message. Of the 127 directives attributed to him (yes, someone counted every one) and that have been gathered up in the Gospels, the largest number was not about love (“Love God,” “Love your neighbor” etc.) but about not being afraid (“Fear not,” “Have courage,” etc.). When the Israelites were experiencing an ongoing, grinding, fear of the oppressive rule of the Romans, he was telling his followers things like, “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.” And, when the average Israelite was taking their anxieties out on a hated, despised, nearby ethnic group called the Samaritans--a people who looked foreign and believed differently from them--Jesus was including that group in his travels, his conversations, and his parables. In more modern language, he seemed to be saying, lean more into the spiritual trust of the universe that made you, than into the distrust that divides you.
Whether one is a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian, or none of the above, that seems like good advice today.