Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Bible and Human Authority, Part 1: Old Testament

I'd like to look a little further into this idea, so common among Christians, that "someone has to be in charge" in every area of life. Sometimes they speak in terms of "spheres of authority," saying that God has established different spheres, or realms, in which different authority structures hold sway, including the church, the family and society. But always there's this idea that hierarchical systems of authority extend top-down from God into each aspect of life, and that to operate without one or more of these authority systems is to invite chaos. It is even said that there is hierarchy in the Trinity: that because God the Son submitted to God the Father on earth, the Son functions in an eternal relationship of submission to the Father, even though they are equals. The idea of hierarchy in the Trinity is set forth as a justification for hierarchy in marriage, because if the Son's submission to the Father does not diminish the Son in terms of equality, the subordination of a wife to her husband would not diminish the wife's equality either.

It cannot be denied that human societies need some form of law, to protect people from being harmed by one another, among other things-- and that laws need someone with the power to enforce them, or they are useless. But is this idea that "someone has to be in charge," that there is a chain of command in every area of human life, actually taught in the Bible?

First of all, let’s define our terms. What is “authority”? How is the concept of authority treated in the Bible? Here is a definition from an online dictionary:

“The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.”

For purposes of this study, I'd like to draw a distinction between "authority," or the power or right to command, and "leadership," which is the actual act of leading or commanding, or the state of being the one leading or commanding.

The first mention of authority or rule in the Bible is found in Genesis 1:26-28. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth. . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them. . . “[H]ave dominion over . . . every living thing that moveth on the earth.”

Notice first of all that the word “man” here includes “male and female.” The meaning is “human beings,” not “male humans.” Notice also that there is no hint here of an authority relationship between the male and the female; both are to have authority over the creatures, but nothing is said about either being in authority over the other. Neither is there any indication of an authority structure within the ranks of other creatures. God does not say, “the animals that are bigger shall rule over the smaller animals, all the way down to the insects,” or anything like that (this may seem like an unimportant point, but I'll get into why it’s important later in this series). In fact, other than the humans ruling together over the animals, there are no earthly authority structures in view in the first chapter of Genesis.

When do we see the first mention of humans ruling over one another? In Genesis 3:16, right after the Fall of Adam and Eve. God tells Eve then that the man will begin to rule over her, as part of the consequences of the wrong that has come into the world. Note that this was not part of God's divine plan from the beginning; nor does God tell the man to rule the woman. God simply informs the woman that this is going to happen, as part of the consequences of the Fall.

Some Christians teach that because Eve was not yet created when God gave the command not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, that Adam had to convey God’s words to Eve, and that automatically put him in charge of her and made him an intermediary between her and God. But those are assumptions that are read into the text. The Bible never actually says anything like that. Instead, it says that God made Eve out of Adam’s own flesh, so that there was no way he could say, “this is a different/lesser sort of being than I am.” It says Eve was his “face-to-face strong aid,” which is a literal translation of “help meet for him” (Gen 2:20).* The Bible is actually silent on whether God spoke directly to Eve about the forbidden tree (though it does show Him speaking directly to both man and woman in Genesis 1:27), or whether Adam told Eve about the tree. It does not tell us one way or the other. Eve knows about the tree in Gen. 3:2, but how she came to know is simply not told. It’s important, if we make assumptions about what a biblical text is telling us, that we know the difference between what we are assuming, and what the text actually does or doesn’t say.

What else does the Old Testament say about human authority structures? The next few chapters of Genesis after the Fall of humanity say nothing whatsoever about anyone being a ruler or leader over anyone else, by God’s plan or otherwise. Babel is set out as a story of human organization and structure, but no specific leaders are mentioned, and God deliberately scatters the people there. Abraham, of course, becomes a tribal leader with servants under his authority, but God seems curiously uninterested in that aspect of the matter, being more concerned with the covenant under which Isaac will be born.

God is shown as choosing individuals to further His purpose of preparing a people through which to bring the Messiah; but an interesting dynamic runs though this entire process: God almost always chooses a younger son over the older ones. Primogeniture, the idea that the oldest son is to rule, was a basic assumption of Ancient Near East societies, but God turns primogeniture on its head over and over again. He chooses Jacob over Esau, Joseph over 10 older brothers, David the youngest of eight, and so on.

We do see a couple of systems of governmental hierarchy set up in Genesis 41 and Exodus 18. In Genesis 41:31-35, Joseph suggests that the Pharoah set up an agent, with officers under him, to gather surplus food in preparation for a coming famine. In Exodus 18:13-27, after Moses had led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the people began coming to him to judge disputes between them. Moses was getting worn out, being the sole judge, so his father-in-law Jethro advised him to set up rulers over groups of 10, 50, 100 and 1000, to judge disputes between the people. In both these cases, there is no mention of God having directly instructed the setting up of these hierarchies. It is Joseph who requests the system of officers in Genesis 41:33. In Exodus 18:23 Jethro advises Moses to be sure God agrees, but the idea is shown to be Jethro’s.

In fact, God appears to make no direct law establishing any hierarchical authority structure in the Old Testament except for the priest/Levite orders, in which neither priests nor Levites are given any governmental authority. They are to run the tabernacle/temple and administer the sacrifices and holidays, and that is all. It would have been so easy to make the priestly class into the ruling class—but the Law simply does not go there.

Israel’s actual governmental systems reveal other interesting dynamics. First, although Deuteronomy 17:14 anticipates that Israel will decide to set a king over itself, God does not seem to actually desire them to do so. God does not give them a king, but rather raises up judges (often from the most unlikely sources!) until the people of Israel actually voice a desire for a king. And in 1 Samuel 8:7 God says that in desiring a king, Israel is actually rejecting God as their ruler. God tells Samuel to tell the people that the king will use his power to oppress them— and though the people say they want a king anyway, it seems to be a concession on God’s part to give them what they want. God also limits the power of the king by making him subject to the law and forbidding him priestly powers. 1 Samuel 13:10-14.

There is a consistent theme in the Old Testament of the sovereignty of God over human authority. Daniel 4:32 says, “The Most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whosoever he will.” However, the context here is God restraining a king’s self-glorification. God is depicted in many texts as having power over what authorities exist and who gets to be in authority. But often—and certainly here in Daniel 4 as in 1 Samuel 13— God seems more interested in restraining human authority than He is in creating it.

In fact, God's plan seems to be more about raising up individual leaders than setting up structures of authority (please keep in mind the definitions set forth earlier). The leaders God does raise up act in accordance with God’s authority, rather than being given some inherent right or power of their own to command— with the exception of the kings, which God apparently would rather not have given Israel at all.

It is interesting, if the Bible teaches that God is so concerned with making sure there are authority structures in every area of life— if having someone “in charge” in every sphere of human relations is such a vital part of His divine plan— that God in the Old Testament seems so reluctant to establish authority structures in Israel, so careful to limit the ones He does establish, and so ready to overturn human assumptions about who should be in authority.

I will look into how the concept of authority is treated in the New Testament, as well as how Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God differs from natural, earthly human societies in the area of authority, in Part 2.


*I have written elsewhere a piece called "The Bible and the Nature of Woman." More information about "help meet" and my views regarding other aspects of woman's relationship to man can be found there.


Anonymous said...

Good job, KR. I believe recognizing spheres of influence that God has particularly given us for action or for authoritative prayers can be quite helpful, but I agree that we've misread a lot of hierarchy into God's leadership ideals. It will be interesting to see where you go. Deb

Phyllis N. said...

Great article! I linked to this from a comment thread elsewhere. It's time to stop the spiritual caste system. Your thoughts help.

I also attended the U of O (one of my undergraduate colleges), and I live in Eugene. Nice to see a "local" on here. LOVE the picture atop, too. We have the most beautiful coastline!

I have recently written on the danger sides of the patriarchy/complementarianism movement. Women need to be warned and to beware.
Here's my site:

Phyllis N.

Kristen said...

Phyllis, thanks, and thanks for the link! I like your blog! Please feel free to go on and read Parts 2 and 3 of this series, in order to get the whole picture. Clicking on "Newer Post" at the bottom, or on the titles on the right-hand side, will take you there.

Unknown said...

It's amazing how many people still lack understanding, nothing mentally has changed since the Old testament? My blog=