The fight between Israel and Hamas as a fight between democracy and autocracy, and it all traces back to the historic family feud among the children of Abraham. Thomas Paine offers useful insights.
An excerpt from my book, MAKING GLOBAL SENSE: Grounded hope for democracy and the earth inspired by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Thomas Paine in Common Sense blamed “the pride of kings” for “throwing mankind [sic] into confusion.” He cited Scriptures as proof. “The quiet and rural lives of the first patriarchs hath a happy something in them, which vanishes away when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.”
Wait, hold on there! Jewish royalty? What’s all this then?
Known for opposing organized religion, Paine was writing, please note, to persuade his audience of 18th century American Christians to changing their thinking after generations of European faith in monarchy. So, to make his point about democracy being better than despotism, he retold the Bible story of the ancient Israelite nation.
After escaping slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew tribes conquered the Promised Land. They established assemblies and judges ruled by the Law of Moses. They later gave up their basic republic to became a kingdom, which divided, and then was conquered. Choosing a monarchy over democracy caused their fall, said Paine, citing it as proof that God dislikes government by kings.
Same as ancient Jews discarded a republic for a king, we risk doing so again in our modern republics, at least in mine. Understanding that ancient choice may help us make better choices now, especially given the risk of wider war in the Middle East, especially given Christian expectations of Armageddon.
As a frame for Paine’s views, I will summarize here what scriptures and academics say happened before and immediately after the ancient Israelites chose a king from the line of Abraham.
From history and myth, we may gain useful insights for our world today and tomorrow.
About 2000 BCE or 4,000 years ago, a Chaldean nomad, Abram from Ur (Iraq), freed his Bronze Age mind from polytheism — seeing distinct gods in all things, a rock god, a tree god, a pond god, a wind god. He saw one God in all. Monotheism was a radical revelation.
Like his ancestor Noah, Abram could hear God, who promised his seed would rule the lands from the Euphrates to the Nile rivers (Genesis 15:18), the “Fertile Crescent.” Renamed Abraham, he settled in Hebron (southern Israel). To satisfy his vision of empire, his loving but barren wife and half-sister, Sarah, gave unto him her slave, Hagar, who bore Ishmael as Abraham’s sole heir. Sarah raised the boy as her own.
Ten years after, post-menopausal Sarah conceived and bore Isaac. Such a miracle! Another decade later, Sarah ordered Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, so Isaac alone would be heir to all the land promised by God. Abraham agreed only after God promised his firstborn would sire a nation, too (Genesis 21:8–21). Did El Shaddai promise the same land to both sons? Has Western civilization been at war ever since in a family feud over which half-brother inherits papa’s estate?
Ishmael’s daughter, Mahalath, married Isaac’s first son, Esau, mending the rift. But younger brother Jacob (coaxed by mother Sarah) tricked Esau into selling his firstborn birthright to the land promised by God. Ishmael’s heirs felt twice cheated out of Abraham’s legacy.
Jacob later wrestled with an angel, and he’s renamed as “Israel.” The 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons, Joseph, was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. Joseph rose to power. His clan left Canaan to join him on the Nile. The brothers multiplied into 12 tribes. Joseph died. Slavery ensued. And God spoke to Moses. Go tell Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Moses finally led perhaps 600,000 Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.
The liberated Israelite tribes had no clue how to handle freedom. At Mount Sinai, they formed a Covenant with God, a sacred social contract. They chose to faithfully obey the Ten Commandments and Law of Moses (Leviticus) in trade for the empire God promised to Abraham.
The Republic and The Kingdom
After two generations or 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, say scriptures, the Israelites invaded Canaan, displacing the Ishmaelites, Philistines and others. Securing conquest by 1200 BCE, the tribes elected sanhedrin assemblies and judges to apply Mosaic laws. The ancient Jewish people created the world’s very first republic.
Israelites were the only people in the region ruled by laws, not a king. Insecure tribal elders asked Gideon and his sons to be kings (Judges 8:22). Gideon rebuked them, for God alone rules Israel through the Law.
Around 1050 BCE, Philistines from the southern coast captured the Ark of the Covenant. Israel’s elders went to the judge and prophet Samuel and begged for a king. Echoing Gideon, Samuel said the Law rules. But God told Samuel to find a king to govern Israel, “for they have rejected me from being king over them.” (1 Samuel 8:7)
So, Samuel staged a rigged lottery. The lot fell to tall and handsome Saul. King Saul’s dark moods and darker deeds caused the prophet to anoint a replacement — David. The shepherd boy who’d slain Goliath is now a young man, a psalm singer who soothes the king.
David won the throne in a civil war. Descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, King David’s anointed bloodline became revered as holy. David sired King Solomon, who built a great mystical temple around the reclaimed ark, forever setting a seal upon the arcane.
Solomon died in 931 BCE. His sons’ turf war for throne inheritance divided the kingdom into Israel in the north (ten tribes) and Judah in the south (two tribes). Each nation had its own generational kings.
Exile and Salvation
Sargon of Assyria (Syria) invaded Israel in 722 BCE and exiled its tribes north, where they were “lost.” Genocide? Assimilation? Assyria was conquered in 609 BCE by Nebuchadnezzar. His Babylonian-Chaldean empire (ran from the Euphrates to the Nile, Abraham’s promised land) occupied Judah in 604 BCE. To stop constant revolts, the empire destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE and exiled the Judeans to Babylon (Iraq).
In Babylon, the Jews absorbed Zoroastrian prophesies of a savior descended from Zoroaster (Zarathustra) who defeats evil in a cosmic final battle. This faith got conflated with faith in the Abrahamic bloodline. The Zoroastrian-based messianic beliefs adopted in Babylon are as alien to natural Judaism as having a king.
Persia (Iran) conquered Babylon (Iraq) in 539 BCE. Cyrus the Great let about 40,000 Jews return to Philistia (Palestine) after 70 years of exile. Jews rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem. Palestinians were displaced.
Across the Mediterranean, in 509 BCE, Rome established a republic. (Julius Caesar would make it a dictatorship.) In 508, Athens instituted an aristocratic democracy, opening their Golden Age. Two centuries later, Aristotle’s student, Alexander the Great, in 333 BCE defeated Persian Darius III. The Greeks and their surrogates occupied Palestine.
Alexander died in 323 BCE. Hellenic Syrians took over the region and tried forcing Jews to worship Greek gods. The Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE, aided by Rome, restored an independent Judean kingdom, but not the old republic. In the resanctified Temple, meager lamp oil for the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) lasted eight days. Such a miracle!
By 63 BCE, Judea was a subject province of Rome. The Babylonian-influenced books (like Ezekiel, Second Isaiah, Daniel) moved Jews to pray for a warrior king messiah from the line of David.
Jesus had Davidian lineage from Mary and Joseph, says Matthew and Luke, but few Jews accepted as their messiah this peaceful cousin of fiery John the Baptist, who voiced his doubts (Matthew 11:3, Luke 7:19). John was beheaded at the behest of Herod’s dancing step-daughter, Salomé, who hated the prophet for publicly scolding her mother, the queen.
God’s Judgment against Kings
Rome ended unruly Judean nationalism in 70 CE (Common Era, or A.D.) by destroying the rebuilt Second Temple. Isaac’s heirs dispersed. Ishmael’s heirs reclaimed the Promised Land, which they felt was always theirs. Worship of Jesus took root in Asia Minor and spread into Europe. Constantine in 311 made suppressed Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire, displacing Mithraism and paganism.
Christianity later battled with Islam, founded in the 7th century by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, said to be descended from Ishmael. When The Prophet died in 632. Islam spit over how to fill his vacant throne. Persian Shiites wanted hereditary succession. Arabic Sunnis wanted an election. They launched uncivil war over male rule that continues to this day, shaping events in the Middle East and the world.
When the Moslem Ottoman empire fell in World War I, the British ruled Palestine by mandate. After the Holocaust, facilitated by the United Nations, Israel was reborn in 1948 as a social democracy — ending the Diaspora. The UN also partitioned a state for Palestinians, who rejected it, denying Israel’s right to exist again. Too many wars later, despite peace activists on all sides, the old family feud persists.
Summing up all this his-story, the desire for alpha male rule inspired Abraham to sire sons and nations, led Israelites to give up a republic for a king, led them to split into rival kingdoms, led to Israel being lost, led to the Judeans’ Babylonian exile and Jews seeking a messiah, led to Christians exalting Jesus, led to Muslims fighting Christians and Jews and each other. I observe that all three Abrahamic faiths venerate alpha males, as do most (but not all) cultural origin stories on the planet.
Paine wrote, “The will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings…. ’Tis a form of government which the word of God bears testimony against, and blood will attend it.”
Paine argued that “Jewish royalty” failed and perished (or plotzed) because God’s way is democracy, not monarchy. Therefore, we ignore God’s natural law by tolerating kings in any guise.
In the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, I mark the distinct difference between the people and their governments. Hamas is a dictatorship ruling the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israel is a democracy (autocratic under Netanyahu) ruling fractious “siblings” from the three Abrahamic faiths. Let us end the family feud.