ORIGIN OF CIVIL GOVERNMENT
(A Biblical Examination of Its Origin and Jurisdiction)
by Kerry Lee Morgan*
“Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.” Judges 2:18
“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” United States Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Scalia J., dissenting).
God’s Exclusive Jurisdiction To Judge Under the Law of Nature
Let us recap. Moses received the law about 2,513 years after creation and the Garden of Eden. God has established human beings, male and female, marriage and families and defined their purposes. He destroyed the world once, restated His purposes for marriage and family, and instituted languages and nations to incentivize families to achieve their purposes. Remember God did not spare the ancient world, “but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly.” 2 Peter 2:5. God established no civil government in any nation, except in Israel which was only established by the consent of that people for a purpose distinct from all the nations. The nation of Israel failed to obey the laws of God and has now fallen on hard times. We now come to the period of the judges in Israel which will last until the beginning of the rule of human kings in Israel starting about 2,900 years after creation.
Recall we have been reviewing the Scripture chronologically to understand what God has said about civil government including its authority and jurisdiction. We have seen that God established nations, not for their own purposes, but rather so the language divided Peoples of the earth may seek Him and perhaps find Him. He also established nations so they would expand out over the entire face of the earth as He originally mandated. The only human government in existence originated by God, if it could be called that, is through the family, with humans authorized to punish murderers by death since the time of Noah. In all other respects, this familial authority was extant from the beginning of time.
A new type of judge appears on the scene in Israel. They do not judge disputes in the conventional way of Moses. The period of these particular judges excluding Moses and Joshua lasted about 325 years. This period of judges in Israel occurred about 2,575 to 2,900 years into human history from creation.
Why Judges? Why Not A Successor To Joshua?
Why did God wait approximately 2,575 years into human history to appoint these special judges and then only in Israel? Why didn’t God just appoint a successor to Joshua in the way Joshua was a successor of sorts to Moses? Why not appoint a series of Administrators in the shadow of Moses and Joshua, rather than deal with judges?
The answer lies in examining the purpose of God in sending Moses and then Joshua. God sent Moses as a deliverer to deliver the people out of Egypt. Acts 7:35. He also sent Moses to teach the people the laws of God. Exodus 24:12. Later on when Moses was near death, God commissioned Joshua saying, “Be strong and courageous, for you will take the Israelites to the land I have promised them, and I will be with you.” Deuteronomy 31:23. God later said to Joshua, “This very day I will begin to honor you before all Israel so they will know that I am with you just as I was with Moses.” Joshua 3:7. Moses was to deliver Israel from Egypt and teach them God’s laws. Joshua was to take the nation into their land. Though the people did not immediately enter the land God promised, they eventually did near the end of Joshua’s life. In Joshua’s farewell address he warns the people to “put aside the foreign gods that are among you and submit to the Lord God of Israel.” The people pledge fidelity to this obligation. Joshua 24:23-28. After that the people went to their allotted portions of land. Judges 2:6-10.
We have every reason to believe they governed themselves as families and according to the clans and tribes in their allotted land based on the law that Moses had taught. Their system of judging that Moses established continued to operate, and the people by tribes continued the fight to take control of their land by war against occupying nations. Judges 1. Thus, the purposes of Moses and Joshua had been essentially fulfilled. There was no need to appoint a successor. Neither Moses nor Joshua were kings. They served their purpose and when that purpose was complete, there was no longer a need for another to arise in their particular place, nature or stead. The judges and kings that followed commanded armies and executed law but their purpose was not principally to introduce the law or settle the people by tribes in the land.
In a nutshell after the death of Joshua, Israel was then a nation without any human executive leadership except the priests. Each tribe had their own land. Each family governed their own households. A volitional judicial system and elders administered the laws of God in specific instances. A system of priests and sacrifices also continued. All of these were subject to a consensual covenant with God who gave laws to the people on how to live as a holy nation and kingdom of priests. No human supreme judges, human legislatures nor human kings played any part in this equation after the death of Joshua.
This was the high point of Israel’s national existence. They were a People, with their God, settled in their own land, according to family and tribe, with God as King, Lawgiver and Judge. They were governed by their families, subject to their fathers and mothers according to the pattern first given to Adam and then repeated to Noah. They were masters of their own land and labor according to their own choice and will, not that of a civil master. They had their own system of courts and priests, holy days, sacrifices and atonements.
Perhaps you think that this period simply marked the start of the nation and they would soon evolve into greater national existence under King David and then King Solomon? You may have an evolutionary view of developing nations and their civil governments as marching forward to perpetual greatness. With Israel, the days after Joshua were the high point of the nation’s existence. The coming of the judges as national deliverers from the bondage of other nations brought about by popular idolatry began the downward path of the nation. The demand for a king like all the other nations accelerated that downward national trajectory. The divided kingdom further accelerated its collapse till captivity and the loss of national independence inevitably followed.
Let us look more closely at the judges following soon after Joshua. The many judges of Israel sent by God were a response to the wayward nation, not a predetermined plan in the evolution of the nation. God established judges as a remedial measure; as an act of pity and grace, rather than as the next step of how a nation’s civil government should progress and develop. Judges were not an improvement to the nation. They were a response to national evildoing by the people themselves. God is using judges, not to aid the people in becoming holy, but rather to redeem them from their rejection of being holy.
How does a nation choose to reject holiness? They reject God and become idolaters. Can you think of any idolatry we love to practice today? The people voluntarily chose to reject God who required holiness. They desired to embrace idols and practice evil. Think about this for a moment. The two core purposes God proposed for the nation was to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. If the people say, “We don’t want to worship God anymore and thus don’t need the Levitical priests to intercede for us,” this is a declaration of treason. Don’t think of it as just another type of sin. “Oh, that’s idolatry, that’s a sin.” Yes it is a sin but in the existence and purpose of the nation idolatry is a revolutionary act. It is an effort to tear down the entire government God has established. In the American experience, it’s like tearing up the Declaration of Independence and the State and federal Constitutions and then adopting the laws of North Korea and pledging loyalty to its supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. You have to grasp the utter catastrophe idolatry is for the nation. If you hear a sermon about idolatry, remember it is not just a sin. It’s the sin of treason.
What does God do about this? Judges were not in the plan. They were not the next step of God’s plan. They were an act of mercy God established because God pitied His idolatrous people. If you stood up today and renounced your government, would it show mercy? But God is merciful where men and their justice departments are not.
God provided judges for about 350 years. The period of the Judges continued until Saul was made king, which ended the line of judges. Perhaps an examination of what the judges actually did and why they were abolished or superseded would help us to understand God’s mercy and patience. The Bible describes fifteen key judges during this time period. These judges were the supreme judges in the nation. They were also military commanders. They are Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah/Barak, Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson (perhaps the most famous), Eli and Samuel. All of these judges are found in the book of Judges except for Eli and Samuel, who are found in the book of first Samuel. Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel are also mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 as “Heroes of the Faith.” But from a governmental point of view, Israel did not need them if they only had stayed the course after Joshua.
Cyclical Evil, Cyclical Repentance, Cyclical War
Beginning with the first judge a pattern develops. Recall that the people had not yet fully taken possession of the land which God had promised them because of their habitual and cyclical disobedience. In addition, God was testing them to determine whether they would actually obey Him so he didn’t give them everything all at once. He made them fight for the Promised Land, partially as a test and partially for the purpose to teach them the consequence of their faithlessness in refusing to fully enter into the promised law under Moses. Recall also that the covenant was conditional “If– then” meaning that the people had to obey God in order to inherit the land fully and that God was not just going to give them the land if they disobeyed Him. Sorry, it does not work like that. It never has worked like that. We hope you don’t think God will bless you when you are disobedient.
The pattern goes like this. First, Israel does what is evil in the sight of God. Israel typically worships false gods including the gods of the nations in which they reside. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Asheroth. They also inter-married with those nations, contrary to God’s commands for Israel. Second, the people are then oppressed by foreign nations and kings because they are delivered by God into the hands of their enemies with the hope and expectation they will come to their senses and remember God, His covenant and laws. God is banking on them to remember Him in their misery. Third, the people of Israel eventually come to their senses as it dawns on them that they had a good thing under God and threw it away on false gods and defiled living. Fourth, in order to deliver the now repentant people from this foreign train of abuse, oppression and slavery, God raises up a deliverer and gives him the Holy Spirit to judge the people and to save them. Saving the people usually means war, but first it means national judgment upon the people. The judge actually judges the people for their wrongdoing, idolatry and treason. Fifth, the deliverer then goes to war and defeats Israel’s oppressors in war and the people turn back to God at least during the good times. The pattern then repeats itself with Israel doing what is evil in the sight of God. Repeat, repeat, repeat.
This is the pattern. It repeats itself over and over and over again. This is the pattern that repeats itself throughout the entire period of judges. This is the pattern that will repeat itself throughout the entire period of kings too. Don’t be too quick to judge the people for their cyclical disobedience and repentance. Is this not the way of each of our lives on an individual scale? Is this not the way of all nations in God’s eyes? Samuel says that “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.” Judges 2:18-20. More idolatry, more treason.
So for instance, looking at Israel’s first judge Othniel we see the following is recorded in Judges 3:7-11. “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim King of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim King of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died.”
Judges as Instruments of Grace, Not an Improved System of Government
And so it goes repeatedly for about 350 years. You would think that people would figure it out but they don’t. The reason God sent the people these particular national judges was not to rule them at all. It was not to hold court and decide this dispute or that case, as there were already judges for that purpose. It seems rather that God established these judges as a remedial measure out of pity and as an act of grace. They were national deliverers. They judged the nation en masse for their national sin of idolatry. Then they went to war to deliver the people. God is using them to free the people after a change of their collective hearts, to free them from their bondage originally brought about by their rejection of God and desire to embrace idols and evil.
What this means is that God’s use of these judges establishes no universal pattern regarding judging itself. Yet, if there is a universal rule that we can deduce here it is that God shows grace to those that turn from their evil ways. Don’t confuse the motive of your federal masters in Washington DC when they go to war, with what God does here. God is full of grace and pity. The wars of our modern American presidents are full hubris and the desire for worldwide domination. Don’t confuse or equate their demonic motives with God’s motives.
Recall the quotations stated at the beginning of this chapter. “Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.” Judges 2:18. Contrast this exercise of judicial power to restore family government and God as their King, with the Supreme Court’s use of its power to commandeer the power of government unto itself. “Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.” Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Scalia J., dissenting).
Here, God showed grace to His treasured possession by empowering specific judges as national delivers to deliver the people from oppressive foreign control and rule. Israel’s judges were not part of the “government” of Israel. This is not a situation where civil rulers passed a resolution and then dispatched deliverers to fight national wars. Nor were these wars of conquest, or to deter other nations from military greatness or stockpiling weapons.
Sorry, but there is no basis in the history or the purpose of these judges that justifies America’s modern wars or our policy of global nuclear extortion. These judges were just ordinary men and women who God raised up for a specific purpose. God was still the King and he appointed judges to bring the people back to Him. These judges did not supplant the standing judicial system already in place. These judges did not usurp God’s jurisdiction to punish idolatry or any other sin that God reserved to himself to judge. Nor did they alienate God’s prior command to Moses and his successors to “drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places.” Num. 33:52. These judges were God’s judgment on the people to restore them back to obedience to the law. Can the same be said of the Supreme Court with its judicial activism?
The period of judges was not an improvement in the art or evolution of governing the people. These judges were not the “next step” in the evolution of civil government. The national “governmental” structure of Israel present at the death of Joshua with God as the King, Lawgiver, and Supreme Judge was plenty sufficient, with no so-called “improvements” by adding either judges or later on with kings.
That structure showed the world that Israel was then a nation without a human civil government like other nations, each tribe in their own land, with each family governing their own households, a volitional judicial system and elders serving to administer the laws of God in specific instances, all subject to a consensual covenant with God who gave laws to the people on how to live as a holy nation and kingdom of priests in the land he gave them with his promise to physically live among them. From the days of Moses to Othniel the judge (2,513 to 2,575 years from creation) and thereafter to Samuel (about 2,900 years from creation) was a great time to be alive for those who love freedom. Every man returned to his tribe and family, and his inheritance. There was no king in Israel to interfere with them and everyone did what was right according to their own familial and individual judgment. Judges 21:24-25.