The Last of Deuteronomy
Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. Deuteronomy 17:20
As I have said many times, I believe in the goodness of government. I mean that in both senses: I believe both that government is a good thing, and that government should be good.
The Bible does not necessarily endorse any particular form of government, although it is pretty obvious that the default style of government is a monarchy. Even Israelite tribal entities have a king-like structure. The chieftain is ordinarily the eldest son of the eldest son, and he represents the rest of the tribe in its interests in the larger nation.
Every nation-tribe the Israelites encounter has a king. There are also priests, prophets, generals, and other officials encountered along the narrative, but the natural assumption is that government is led by a king.
As Judaism developed, the sovereignty of a king was so well entrenched that even God became known as the king. In fact, to make the point of God’s ultimate supremacy, the semi-official title became “the king of kings of kings.” Jews who welcome in shabbat with a traditional hymn will recognize this description, chanted with reverence and affection.
Nowhere are we instructed to have a king. In fact, the Israelites are cautioned against it, but God knows the people will want to be like all the other nations and demand a king of their own. So, with an almost audible sigh that we can still hear every time we read about it, rules are regulations are set up for this eventual king. Yes, he gets to be in charge, but he is restrained from using the office as an opportunity to enrich himself beyond the needs of the office. He may not establish a harem. He may not collect a personal stable. He may not start expeditionary wars. And he is required to write a copy of the Torah for himself and to keep it handy at all times, to remind himself that he is not above its instruction.
So, it may not be that the Bible considers the only real government it knows such a good thing, but it does require that government to be good.
The king is authorized by being anointed, that is, having consecrating oil poured on his head by a priest. And once so anointed, his authority becomes hereditary…sort of. If he is a good king who finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, as the saying goes, then he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.
The king was not elected. Democracy as a form of government was unheard of in the time of Moses. Even to speak of the democratization of authority is anachronistic. People may have acclaimed a king, but they never voted for one, never mind with secret ballots or competitive campaigns. Each year at what today we call Rosh HaShanah the king’s reign aged. When the king died, abdicated, or was deposed, someone else took his place. A good king – or at least a powerful one – was succeeded by one of his sons.
Kingship, like everything else, was attributed to God’s will back then. Performing God’s will made a king good, an opportunity open to every human being. But if a king was good, then his constituency benefited. And if he wasn’t, then the people prayed for God to turn him out. Or they killed him and installed another.
I’m no anarchist and I’m no libertarian. The people I know in government are overwhelmingly good people – even the ones with whom I disagree. Some of them are notably not, but there is a less draconian remedy should someone somehow ascend to the head of modern government who is not worthy of the post. During their term, they answer to the government itself. And as their term ends, they are subject to being deposed by the will of the people. Government is a good thing.
It’s a great solution that wasn’t thought of when kings were kings. You won’t find democracy in the Bible, let alone the details of representative government. For someone who might describe themself as a “Biblical government originalist,” all sorts of conditions are unmet and, frankly, never formally amended. Just sayin’.
Nonetheless, this mostly faithful Jew believes in the goodness of government.