ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
“Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Exodus 18:15-16.
“This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.” Acts 7:35-36.
“At the same time the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government, upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased, to be their own rulers, having, to that extent, practically resigned their government, into the hands of that eminent tribunal.” Pres. Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861.
Pharaohs: The Good, Bad and Ugly
Let us fast-forward from Abraham to the time of Moses. Moses will receive the law about 2,513 Anno Mundi, or years since creation. Recall that Abraham had many sons. Each son of Abraham in their generations became nations. They also were geographically defined in specific parcels of land. But Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob and Jacob’s twelve sons named in Genesis, are significant in terms of our search for how God thinks about civil government. Jacob’s sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulun, Joseph, and Benjamin. If you know anything about the Bible and the history of these twelve men whose families grew into the twelve tribes of Israel, you’ll know that they relocated to Egypt and initially lived under very favorable conditions. You will also know that at a certain point in time a new pharaoh of Egypt came to power and reduced the free people of Israel to servitude and hard labor. We now come to the point in our chronology where we must ask a few more questions related to civil government and kings.
First, who was pharaoh and did he rule by a grant of authority from God? Did he force Israel into hard labor because pharaoh was “God’s servant” just doing God’s will? Was pharaoh God’s minister to do good, as enslavement was beneficial to the Egyptians? We are first introduced to pharaohs back in Genesis 12:15 and sketched something of that pharaoh’s character. Recall that pharaoh saw Abram’s wife Sarai and took Abram’s wife into his household. There is no description here that pharaoh was placed on his throne by God. The Bible simply states pharaoh was supreme over other pharaohs and this is how the Egyptians ran their country. We noted that approximately 2,075 to 2,275 years into human history from Creation, our brief introduction to pharaohs and kings was marked by murder, use of force, defilement of marriage, deportation, enslavement, theft of property and war.
Abraham also told Abimelech, King of Gerar that Sarah was his sister because he feared his own death and that king took her into the king’s household. God declared he would kill Abimelech and his family and household if he did not return her. This defiling violence seemed widely practiced. Genesis 20.
Are subsequent pharaoh’s or kings any different? The next major pharaoh we encounter elevates one of Jacob’s sons Joseph, from slavery to second in command of all of Egypt. Genesis 41:41. Slavery seems an ever preset feature of Egyptian society and government. God never gave Adam or Noah the right to enslave anyone. Kings just did what seemed expedient. Nor does this pharaoh respect the command of God to Adam, and then to Noah and all men and women thereafter to spread out over the earth and subdue it, to work the soil and raise a family for their own purpose. He forced Hebrews to work the soil and improve the land of Egyptians. He relieved Egyptians of the commands of God to take care of their own families.
Nor does pharaoh’s conduct establish a basis for “Biblical taxation.” The story of Joseph’s rise to power and his subsequent control of the Egyptian government is a favorite for those who see within it some universal principle of taxation and government’s right to confiscate the increase of a person’s property. Genesis 47:24-26. They claim that since Joseph was appointed by pharaoh, and Joseph made a law that government take one fifth of the harvest every year, this somehow establishes a worldwide universal precedent reflecting the legitimate authority of civil governments everywhere to follow. The argument is that because Joseph did it, it must have been consistent with God’s will and then established a rule for nations today.
Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. The scripture is clear that pharaoh appointed Joseph, not God. It is also clear that while God used the event to save Israel from famine, this in no way set a precedent for governmental ownership of all land, or confiscation of one fifth of the fruit of the land or labor. It sets no rule for any nation that its government shall receive, or that by God’s will we must pay Caesar, twenty percent of our increase, income or property, no more, no less. Again, we see the Bible describing what is happening, rather than establishing as a rule of general applicability either pharaoh’s or Joseph’s organized theft and enslavement.
It should also be noted that while God gave Joseph the true interpretations of pharaoh’s dreams, nothing in those dreams or God-inspired interpretations also included the solution Joseph suggested. That solution of organization confiscation of private property was completely suggested by Joseph, not God. That solution was contrary to God’s prior command that families should work their land and enjoy its produce to sustain them.
Finally, we get to the particular pharaoh whom Moses met. The new things we see regarding this pharaoh is that God hardened his heart (Exodus 7:3), he increase the severity of slavery (Exodus 1:11-14), he tried to kill Moses (Exodus 2:15), and he ordered the nationwide murder of Hebrew males after birth by “casting into the Nile.” Exodus 1:22. Moses’ mother eventually obeyed only the letter of this lawless decree, by placing Moses as a baby in the Nile, albeit in a basket. Exodus 2:3.
Hebrew midwives and parents were not obligated by God to obey pharaoh’s tyrannical decree or submit to his rule as a matter of divine obligation. Many did not. This refusal was not an act of defying God’s will, but an act of obeying the will of God. It is God’s will that we assist others to bear children, rather than assist others in killing children, born or unborn. Is this the conviction of midwives today? Regretfully, infertility is no longer considered a curse, children are the curse. Good thing Moses’ mother did not seek or receive the help of Planned Parenthood on the one hand, or wait for the law to be changed on the other.
Moses: Not A Supreme Judge by God’s Design
How far into human history are we from creation? Moses was born in Egypt about 2,300 years from creation. Moses was eighty years old when he spoke to pharaoh and Israel left Egypt. Perhaps now it is time to make Moses king? Perhaps he should be made supreme judge? Let’s see what God did. God said to Moses: “Come, I will send you to pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” Exodus 3:10. That is principally what Moses was first asked to do and Moses did that.
Later on we see that Moses also sat as a judge of the people. He was not however, a supreme judge. He was a circuit court judge and perhaps an intermediate appellate judge. The people stood around Moses from morning till evening waiting for their case to be called. Exodus 18:13-6. Some things about the judicial system never seem to change. But Moses was not the final or supreme judge of Israel. No, as we will see God never relinquished that authority and position. God was the supreme judge, the Supreme Court.
There is a deeper lesson to be learned in this arrangement. Moses did not claim his judicial opinions were supreme. He did not even claim that his opinions were binding or enforceable by his own will or orders. He did not say that his opinions were equal to or superior to the law of God.
Is this example of Moses’ approach and humility to the act of judging cases and controversies a rule or guide for judges to follow today? Is it a “best practice?” Or is it outdated or simply not applicable? It is certainly different, indeed contrary to the modern American approach to judging and the doctrine of judicial supremacy. In a nutshell, judicial supremacy is the view that federal courts and the United States Supreme Court in particular, are “supreme” over the other two branches of government. We are told they are supreme over the Constitution too. A federal judge’s opinion is regarded as the Constitution’s exclusive meaning. That opinion is the law of the land without regard to what the other branches of government have to say. The doctrine maintains that the opinions of the Supreme Court Justices are the law of the land.
A high watermark of this approach was announced in Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958). This famous case dealt with a plan of gradual desegregation of the races in the public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas. In its opinion, the court remarked that Article VI of the Constitution makes the Constitution the “supreme Law of the Land.” So far, so good. In 1803, Chief Justice Marshall, speaking for a unanimous Court, calling the Constitution “the fundamental and paramount law of the nation,” declared in Marbury v. Madison, 1 Cranch 137 (1803) that “It is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” This is the legitimate power of judicial review found in Article III, Section 2. From this legitimate recognition of the power of judicial review, the Cooper v. Aaron Court took a demagogic step further.
The Court first deceitfully expanded its own opinion in Marbury asserting that Marbury actually “declared the basic principle that the federal judiciary is supreme in the exposition of the law of the Constitution.” 358 U.S. at 18 (emphasis added). Recall that Chief Justice Marshall said the judiciary has a duty to say what the law is. He said nothing, however, about the Court’s opinions as “supreme.” Cooper added the “supreme” element.
The Constitution, however, grants no “supreme” expository power to the Court. Read Articles III and VI and you will not find it. What will be found in Article VI is the truth that the Constitution, laws and treaties “shall be the supreme law of the land.” Nothing is said about Supreme Court opinions being supreme law, let alone being law at all. Nothing, not one iota. The Constitution extends no power to the Court to claim that even its legitimate constitutionally based opinions, are the sole and exclusive meaning of the Constitution itself.
The prophet Jeremiah described this deceit. He saw it at work in his own day. God told him to write about this way: “An appalling and horrible thing has happened in the land: the prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests rule at their direction; my people love to have it so, but what will you do when the end comes?” Jeremiah 5:30-32.
Moses: A Judge Under Law
Is that what Moses did? Did he rule at his discretion? Did he act like our Supreme Court today? No he did not. Sorry to disappoint you. Divorced from its mythical characterization as the cornerstone of our Constitutional democracy, judicial supremacy as currently practiced is simply a declaration by the Supreme Court that they have an extra-constitutional right to rule at their discretion. This appalling and horrible thing is not new. But it is still appalling and horrible even today. Nor is their appalling handwork limited to Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S.644 (2015). We should not look here to validate the true nature of judicial power, but rather to witness the claim that the laws of God laid down from the beginning of time regarding human life and marriage are subject to fake judicial revision.
We should rather look to a different text. Moses said that “the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.” Notice that Moses did not claim that God made him a judge. What is happening here is that the people asked Moses to judge their disputes. Moses didn’t say all cases must come to him. He did not assert any authority to resolve any dispute. Nor did he declare he had the power to enforce any judgment he rendered. He decided the dispute and made the law known to the people. Moses knew how to write a good judicial opinion applying the law to the facts. He knew the “statutes of God and his laws” and judged by them.
When hard cases came along, they were referred to others. God, however, demanded Moses ensure compliance with the decisions of these judges. He said to Moses: “Be careful to do everything they [other judges in hard cases] instruct you to do. Act according to whatever they teach you and the decisions they give you. Do not turn aside from what they tell you, to the right or to the left.” Deuteronomy 17: 8-13. Moses describes judging where the people come to him and he makes known the law of God. He decides the case.
Moses had no monopoly on judging. Moses doesn’t say, “I am the only one that can judge.” Later on after listening to his father-in-law, Moses establishes a judicial system calling for one judge for every ten persons. Moses established a system of appellate courts. But even here, there is no Scripture to support the argument that these courts were either exclusive or compulsory. People came to these courts voluntarily to resolve civil disputes.
Remember Moses was first rejected by the Israelites saying, “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” God rather sent him as a ruler and redeemer by the hand of an angel who appeared to him in the bush. Acts 7:35-36. Judging was part of that task and assignment but it was not based on force or violence employed by Moses to enforce his own judgments. In the next few chapters we will see that Moses was also made a ruler. But what does that mean? A king? A pharaoh? A god?
Looking Ahead Beyond the First 2,400 Years of History
We are between 2,400 and 2,500 years into human history. We have seen examples of kings and pharaohs, rulers and judges. We have seen no evidence, however, that God established any of these civil rulers or empowered them to rule over others, or placed in their hand any right to enforce their will or decisions upon anyone. Enforcement of the decisions of other judge’s orders fell to Moses as an executive function to follow the decisions and law of God carefully. Moses was appointed as a ruler and redeemer for Israel for their emancipation, and to judge and to enforce the decisions of other judges. God has certainly not declared that judges, however, enjoy any power to make law or ever judge with deceit in their mouth. “The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good.” Psalm 36:3. The best that can be deduced here is that their authority is to declare what law then in existence applies to the facts before them.
The absence of a mighty civil government or supreme lawmaking court existing by the command or will of Almighty God at this time in history must seem preposterous and unbelievable to the average person today. How could 2,500 years of human history pass without at least God establishing a civil government, king or judge to enforce His law, put people to death, or at least jail or fine them? Could we at least expect a zoning administrator, truant officer or dog catcher? Our search must just seem wrongheaded, especially to those who have never been asked to even contemplate the matters heretofore discussed. The only authority structures God actually established are marriage and family. These institutions are far more important to God in terms of social stability, labor and education than any civil government, program or school. A yellow highlighter moment?
Although kings and pharaohs used their power to enforce their own laws or used law lawlessly, punishing those who they deemed guilty, invading other nations and killing whosoever got in the way, these and other deeds cannot be equated with God’s authorization, will or blessing. Perhaps the texts we have examined do not fit your theology? If you try to nuance them with arguments about “God’s permissive will” or that “God let this happen” so your view of God’s Sovereignty or predestination etc., can preempt the actual text, you are doing a disservice to the Word of God, and to your mind’s God-given curiosity.
We are not saying that history thus far was a lovefest, free from wrongdoing. Quite the contrary. We have every reason to believe that the post-flood world was much like the pre-flood world as it was inhabited by the same race the human race. How could it be otherwise? Yet, we likewise have every reason to believe that God’s response to evildoing in the pre-flood world did not change in the post-flood world either in terms of the importance of the family or its authority. Why was Moses not a king or supreme judge, but rather a ruler and redeemer? It was by God’s design so the people themselves may be free to follow God, rather than be bound to serve yet another king or pharaoh–titles and kingdoms established by human beings, not God.