Americans on the political right and left have had concerns about our presidents and their monarchical tendencies. Yet there was a time when monarchies were considered legitimate, even divinely ordained. It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that leading European political thinkers began to question the rationale for monarchies. How did this questioning come about?
It’s often thought that our republican form of government was a consequence of the Enlightenment-era separation of politics and theology. This idea banishes theological discourse from the public square. But as Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony and Harvard professor Eric Nelson each have shown, the real story may be quite different. Hazony explains that “the modern age was born out of an intellectual matrix that was steeped in Hebraic texts.” Nelson, in The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, discusses how political theorists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, influenced by “rabbinic Biblical exegesis,” began “to claim that monarchy per se is an illicit constitutional form and that all legitimate constitutions are republican.”
Until the discovery of rabbinic exegesis, the consensus among Christian exegetes had been that ancient Israel had not erred in having kings. Rather, Israel had erred either in selecting tyrannical kings or in asking for a change in government, which was considered a sin of rebellion against God’s established order. Everything changed upon the discovery of rabbinic sources, made possible by a renaissance of Hebrew scholarship throughout Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation.
Rabbinic exegesis shed new light on important questions of Old Testament interpretation. In Deuteronomy, when Moses says that the Israelites “shall have a king,” is Moses simply describing what he thinks the Israelites will eventually do? Or is he using the imperative mood, instructing the Israelites to have a king? If he is instructing them to have a king, then why, in 1 Samuel, did God apparently become angry when responding to Samuel about the people’s request for a king?
The ancient rabbis had struggled with these passages. In the Talmud, the voluminous compilation of Jewish law and tradition, Rabbi Yehudah argues in favor of kings, maintaining that Moses was using the imperative. Rabbi Nehorai dissents, arguing that Moses did not command the Jews to appoint a king. Rather, as evidenced in 1 Samuel, God simply allowed them to emulate their neighbors. Rabbi Eliezer, in discussing 1 Samuel, stipulates that it was acceptable for the elders to call for a king to establish law and order, but not for the mob of people to do so to emulate the surrounding nations, who were idolatrous.
Christian exegetes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as Sebastian Münster and Claude de Saumaise, seized on this Talmudic discussion in debating the question of monarchy. They and others took the view that monarchy was acceptable, provided it was done the right way. Other enlightenment thinkers, citing Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah, reached a similar conclusion. Maimonides had endorsed the idea that Moses was using the imperative. The problem, Maimonides claimed, was not the sort of king the Israelites had asked for, but rather the manner in which they had asked for one—because “they desired a King by unfaithful complaints and seditious murmurings.”
For the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, the problem was with the timing. Grotius claimed that “at another time [the Jews] could have erected a king for themselves without sin.” They were not wrong to ask for a king, but they were wrong to ask for one “during that time in which they had an interregnum established by God.”
Still another rabbinic discussion—in Midrash Rabbah - Devarim—took an entirely different view of Biblical monarchy, with even greater import. It viewed monarchy itself as a sin, tantamount to idolatry. For example, the rabbis read Psalm 146:3 as an explicit command against monarchy:
The Holy One, blessed is He, thus said: “[My children] know that a creature of flesh and blood is nothing, and yet they forsake My honor and say, ‘Appoint for us a king!’—But why do you request a king? I swear by your lives that your end is to suffer what is destined to overtake you under the reigns of kings.”
Citing Midrash Rabbah - Devarim, John Milton argued against monarchy and for republican government. Milton insisted that “God did not order the Israelites to ask for a king … but ‘God was angry not only because they wanted a king in imitation of the gentiles … but clearly because they desired a king at all.’”
Milton’s views resonated with many of his contemporaries, including the English politician Algernon Sidney. For Sidney, monarchy “was purely the people’s creature, the production of their own fancy, conceived in wickedness, and brought forth in iniquity, an idol set up by themselves to their own destruction, in imitation of their accursed neighbours.”
In 1776, during the momentous debates leading up to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Paine published the pamphlet Common Sense. Influenced by Milton, Paine argued against monarchy and for republican government. Referring to 1 Samuel, Paine wrote, “These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the Almighty has here entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.”
This history tells a story very different from the conventional Enlightenment account. The political institutions of America and throughout the West today reflect at least in part the Christian Hebraists’ careful study of the Bible and related texts and commentaries. Our republican form of government was not conceived in strict separation from religious discourse, but rather as part of an extensive deliberation concerning what godly politics requires of us.
Curt Biren is an investment advisor in Los Angeles, CA.