One of the great tipping points in the history of ancient Israel was its choice to become a formal nation among nations (a monarchy among monarchies). Israel’s process toward national self-determination, to what today we call statehood, began with the establishing of organized settlements throughout the land of Canaan. The process culminated a few centuries later when Israel the people became Israel the state – that is, they became like the nations around them – a monarchy state – and Saul was made its first king (1 Samuel 8–10).
This historical tipping point affected the entire society, including, and perhaps especially, its domestic and international political life. Books have been written about this. But here I just want to consider an often overlooked fact. On becoming a formal nation, and to be accepted as such by the regional powers, it was necessary for Israel to make the kind of governmental changes whereby it could formally participate in the international system of the old-world Middle East. The newly established monarchy therefore had to enter into that international monarchial system, that is, into the established way that international politics and foreign policy was being conducted – think of how a new state today joins the United Nations.
By becoming a state (I’m using that term in a general political sense), old-world Israel had turned a political corner, one that demanded significant changes to its existing political structure. The new state established the governmental apparatus and bureaucracy necessary to gain an international footing and acceptance like the other nations.
This meant, for instance, enthroning a king, picking a cabinet, establishing a capital, and drafting and institutionalizing new domestic laws, such as for raising an army and the taxes to fund both it and the new and growing government bureaucracy. As William McKane put it: “Israel became a state with a new political structure which demanded the creation of a cadre of royal officials through whom the king governed this people” (Prophets and Wise Men, 42.) But it also entailed political changes whereby the new state could enter formal relations with the other regional powers, such as Egypt.
What needs to be recognized and acknowledged is that Israel the state could not create a foreign policy structure that was, so to speak, completely foreign to the existing international paradigm. Now that existing regional paradigm, of course, was not perfect, and the nations in it were often adversarial due, in no small part, to their conflicting religious-political ideologies.
But that international system was also hugely informed, as we noted in previous posts, by the wisdom tradition and the royal court officials who (prior to becoming government officials) were educated in that tradition’s peaceable way of reasoning. In other words, once Israel rounded the corner, it would be formally participating in an international system that had been in play in the region long before “Israel the state” entered it. We should therefore not be surprised to see many governmental similarities between Israel the state and the other regional powers.
Think of the founding of the United States. Although the nation was not established after the order of a European monarchy, but as a republic, it nevertheless had to function within the existing international systems of its period. To put it crudely, the United States could not say, We’re not going to play the game because we’re a republic and not a monarchy. The United States, then, beginning with its first president, George Washington, engaged in diplomatic missions, negotiations, treaty agreements, and so forth. These took place across the Atlantic in European and north African nations and in islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii, with a view toward engaging with China.
So too with ancient Israel. There is a pretty solid consensus among scholars, for instance, that during the long reigns of Israel’s second and third kings (David and Solomon), “Israel was in the Egyptian … sphere of influence,” and that in the close relations between Solomon and Egypt, “we ought to seek there for the models of Solomon’s bureaucracy” (Ibid., 23.) Citing the period during Solomon’s commercial enterprises with Hiram, king of Tyre, and Solomon’s alliance with Egypt through marriage, McKane concludes that “the Israelite state was modeled on the great states of the ancient Near East and so acquired a structure similar to that of Egypt.” It was a “political structure” in which there was associated with the king “a class of royal officials who had to do with the army, finance, foreign embassies and administration. Such officials were a ‘people of the king’ and had a common interest with him in maintaining the regime and suppressing popular resistance and discontent” (Ibid, 43).
The wisdom tradition played a vitally huge role in all of this, especially internationally. We have already considered the significant point that the wisdom tradition was cross-cultural and transnational in the old-world Middle East. Further, it was taken for granted in the corridors of power throughout the region that royal officials, especially those working internationally, would have been educated in their countries’ wisdom traditions. This seems to have been such an accepted part of international political life that it was unquestioned. It was a given. I want to call attention to two upsides to this.
(1) A ruler such as a Babylonian or a Persian king could feel comfortable and confident to include religious outliers, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, in his government, even as an official at the highest levels. This was an accepted norm in the international system of the region.
(2) A believer in Yahweh, such as a Daniel or an Ezra, could serve in a “pagan” government with a clear conscience.
Neither of these facts may seem a big deal in the context of today’s western nations, in which people of different faiths may serve in their nation’s government. But it is not a universal international norm today. In many Middle East governments, for instance, such as Iran or Saudi Arabia, Jews and Christians need not apply.
In the next post I want us to consider this international norm in the life of Joseph, an Israelite who served as a high-level diplomatic official for many years in Pharaoh’s Egypt.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Images by Great Beyond and UN Info Centres, respectively (permissions via Creative Commons)