America’s Christian fundamentalists are fond of making the claim that democracy is right out of the Bible -from the Old Testament to be precise. This is in keeping with their claim that America is founded on biblical principles. “President” Solomon”? ”President” David? No…not so much.
You won’t find democracy in the Old Testament. That was not the form of government the biblical states of Israel and Judah took. You will find theocracy. You will find kings. You will find a people who see their God as their king, ruling through his priestly (and exceedingly corrupt) agents here on earth. The Founding Fathers, with the more recent (and equally corrupt) example of the Papacy and the Church of England before them, wanted none of this.
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own” (Letter to o Horatio G Spafford, March 17, 1814)
“The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” (Letter to Jeremiah Moor, 1800)
James Madison, “Father of the Constitution”:
“Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.” (Letter to William Bradford, Jr., January 1774)
Look for a moment at a couple of biblical principles that are enunciated still by fundamentalist Republicans:
1 Peter 2:13: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”
Romans 13:1: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”
You want examples? God sent us George W. Bush? God sent the people of Alaska Sarah Palin? If you’re against them you’re against God? That’s the message we’ve been hearing since 2001. If you’re against Bush, they said, you are against America and (since God chose America as his vehicle) you’re against God. Divine Right of Kings? Remember, it was Palin who told us God would choose our president in ’08.
Where does that leave democracy?
Where it leaves us, in point of fact, is in ancient Israel. Where there was no democracy. Where freedom of religion is a bittersweet memory.
Here is a fact these Christofascists do not want, but one their own narrative proves: The true origins of democracy are pagan. It is not monotheism, not Judaism, not Christianity that gave birth to democracy and democratic ideals. It is polytheism, that form of religion so disdained by many Christians even to this day.
It is not a welcome fact, but fact it is.
In 1993 we celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of democracy, dating back to the reforms in Athens of Cleisthenes in 508/7 B.C.E. But as Yves Schemeil writes,
“Although what was explicitly borrowed from antiquity by modern political thinkers looks Athenian, there was democracy before the polis. Egyptian and Mesopotamian politics relied on public debate and detailed voting procedures; countless assemblies convened at the thresholds of public buildings or city gates; disputed trials were submitted to superior courts; countervailing powers reminded leaders that justice was their responsibility. This was not full democracy, but the Greek version was not perfect either.”[i]
As these Near Eastern examples are pre-historical rather than historical – which was a time of autocracy – the memory of democracy rests upon Greek shoulders. The actual word is, unsurprisingly then, from the Greek: δημοκρατία – (dēmokratía) “rule of the people” -from δῆμος (dêmos) “people” and κράτος (Kratos) “power”.
The pagan Romans had some elements of democracy in their system of government too, and a popular assembly. A senate ruled the state; specific office holders were elected to their positions for a set term of office. The Roman people disdained the very idea of kingship and “theocracy” was a thing which never occurred to them.
Freedom and equality have been the hallmarks of democracy since polytheistic times. In a Greek democracy, not every person in the city was equal before the law, but every citizen was. If there was some gap between theory and fact, well, as Schemeil says, “the Greek version was not perfect.” But unlike a biblical theocracy or kingship, even powerful men, leaders of the government of a city state, were subject to the law, were subject to punishment under the law.
You will also find a form of democracy enshrined in Germanic polytheism in the general assembly of all free members of the tribe, as Tacitus recounts – a sort of “grass roots” or perhaps “forest” democracy. [ii]For the Norse, this was called the “thing” (þing) or general assembly, and for the Anglo-Saxons a “folkmoot” (meeting of the people). These assemblies were tribal and regional. People selected judges, they selected leaders, and they could depose kings. As the by-no-means friendly witness Adam of Bremen described the pagan Swedish system in the 11th century,
“Their royal family is of an old dynasty, but the kings are dependent on the will of the people (the þing). What has been decided by the people is more important than the will of the king unless the king’s opinion seems to be the most reasonable one, whereupon they usually obey. During peacetime, they feel to be the king’s equals but during wars they obey him blindly or whoever among them that he considers to be the most skillful.”
There was no popular assembly in ancient Israel to depose unwanted kings or priests. As Schemeil observes, “In the biblical world…many salient issues are solved by a few ‘experts’ whose proceedings are concealed to the public.”[iii]
By the time Jesus of Nazareth was said to have been born in the first century C.E., the priests were seen as oppressors of the people. The people themselves had no power and could only endure. In 2 Kings 23:1-3 it is King Josiah who gathered all the elders of Israel and Judah to him and “made” a covenant “before YHWH.” It was not the assembly; there was no vote.
And remember what happened then: the “miraculous” finding of Deuteronomy and the lost law of Moses, followed by the monotheistic revolution in which the Yahwists annihilated the popular polytheistic religion of the people in a genocide as thorough as that which swept Germany in the ninth century C.E.
Archaeologists Finkelstein and Silberman believe that “in retrospect, the biblical description of the religious reform of Josiah in 2 Kings 23 is not a simple record of events. It is a carefully crafted narrative that contains allusions to all the great personalities and events of Israel’s history.”[iv]
It was, in other words, a grim foreshadowing of the fate awaiting the United States today, the erasure from history of our history of freedom, liberty, tolerance and diversity and the institutionalization of a new false history more amenable to the diktat of repressive religious dogma.
Had Alexis de Tocqueville lived in ancient times the title of his book would have been “Democracy in Greece” or maybe “Democracy in Germania” but not “Democracy in Israel.”
It was not to Israel or the ancient Jews that Thomas Jefferson looked for examples of liberty, but to the Anglo-Saxons, writing that students of Anglo-Saxon “will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.” In 1776, he proposed for the great seal of the United States Hengist and Horsa (both pagans, by the way), “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”[v]
Democracy, at its earliest roots, is like monotheism, older than the Bible. Outside of the concept of true/false in religion, the Bible is not the origin of anything. The Jews did not even invent monotheism. That was the Pharaoh Akhenaten in polytheistic Egypt (14th century B.C.E.). Moses may even have been an Egyptian himself.[vi]
Even YHWH is the Canaanite creator God El in disguise. Frank M. Cross puts forward the idea that YHWH was originally an epithet of El and in time became the principle cult name of El. and that YHWH split off from El “ultimately ousting El from his place in the divine council, and condemning the ancient powers to death (Ps 82).”[vii]
And El’s wife, then YHWH’s wife by default – since he “inherited” everything else including El’s appearance as a sage old man – Asherah, was erased from popular memory in an orgy of violence by King Josiah’s monotheistic Israel.[viii]
And even then, polytheism was widespread in ancient Israel and Judah, and it clearly predated Jewish monotheism. Archaeology proves it; the Bible does not deny it.[ix] Any democratic antecedents in ancient Israel were, as they were elsewhere in the Near East, in pre-historical, polytheistic Israel.
Schemeil’s conclusion is as follows:
Democracy has a price: one should never hope to get rid of the dark side of politics. Better to use the power of Seth (desert storms and sterile wild asses) to complement the virtue of Osiris (god of harvests, commanding the flood) and the vision of Horus (the sun which makes plants grow), the falcon gliding above the fields, insensitive to earthy evil and social strife). Cooking a tasty social recipe out of bitter political components might be what democracy is about, according to our ancestors who contributed to its invention in the Middle East five thousand years ago.[x]
In a very polytheistic world that had as yet never heard of the idea of one god, or of a Bible.
[i] Yves Schemeil, “Democracy before Democracy?” International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique Vol. 21, No. 2 (Apr., 2000), pp. 99-120. For democracy in ancient Mesopotamia see also Thorkild Jacobsen, “Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1943), pp. 159-172 .
[ii] Cornelius Tacitus, Agricola and Germania (Penguin Classics, 2010). Kindle Version.
[iv] Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts (The Free Press, 2001), 279
[v] As reported by John Adams in a letter to his wife, 14 August 1776. Stanley R. Hauer, “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language, PMLA Vol. 98, No. 5 (Oct., 1983), pp. 879-898.
[vi] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (London and Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 12. “There may be excellent evidence (and I think, indeed, there is…) that Moses, if there ever existed a historical figure of that name, was indeed an Egyptian.”
[vii] Frank M. Cross, “Yahweh and the God of the Patriarchs,” HTR 55 (1962), 256-257. See also idem, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard Univeristy Press, 1973) in which Cross demonstrates the similarities between Canaanite religion and that of the Israelites.
[viii] William G. Dever, Did God Have a Wife? (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005). And as Dever points out, “El remained one of the two names of the Israelite national god in many of the early biblical texts, associated particularly with ‘the god of the fathers.'” (see Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2001), 113-114).
[ix] See Susan Niditch, Ancient Israelite Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Also Dever (