Art of politics, power dates back to the Books of Samuel

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November is a special month in the United States. At the beginning of the month, elections often dominate the news and at the end of the month, we focus on perhaps our most celebrated holiday, Thanksgiving.

In a way, these two civil acts are strangely linked. Elections represent the idea that a nation has a choice of leadership. Thanksgiving represents the nation’s gratitude for stable and representative government. From this perspective, November is a month dominated by politics and the realization that political systems can symbolize the best and the worst in all of us.

Politics is part of the human condition. In a sense, politics, whether good or bad, is one of the conditions of being human. Politics exist in all societies. In any society, there are those who govern and those who are governed.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Hebrew Scripture spends a great deal of time understanding and discussing the art of politics. Perhaps this entry into the world of politics is nowhere better detailed than in the great Hebrew classics Sifre Shmuel Alef uVet, known in English translation as the Books of Samuel I and II. These two biblical works may well be the greatest political science books ever written. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that these books provide us with the essence of political science and historical analysis. Samuel I and II teach us how to obtain power; they explain the role of leadership and the hidden plots that the average citizen doesn’t see, and that the media might not report. These two biblical books allow us to understand the desire for power that hides “behind the throw”.

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Just as the Art of War by the great Chinese military philosopher Sun Tzu (written around the 5th or 4th century BCE) is both a work of military science and philosophy, the Books of Samuel (Israel, written in the 4th century before our era) ) are not simple political books but books that teach the art and philosophy of politics. Some historians have speculated that they could have been used to train Israel’s future kings and its political elite.

Samuel I and II are also literary masterpieces. To read these books in the original Hebrew is to connect with some of the greatest opera magna (magnum opus) not only in Hebrew literature but also in world literature. These brilliantly written books teach power dynamics.

They are more than just a story of Israel’s political elite in the days of the Judges, but also universal in their understanding of power. Although we cannot call them political science textbooks, these books teach us to differentiate between authoritarian, administrative and influential power. They also remind us that educated people are often the easiest to fool.

The Books of Samuel present their lessons in the form of stories. Just like in a Greek tragedy, the Books of Samuel introduce us to great leaders, who at first seem to have it all, only to be undone by a fatal flaw. It is in these books that we realize that no leader or political party lasts forever; this power is transient and has its own ebbs and flows.

It is in the first book of Samuel that we read about the first king of Israel, King Saul. In the pages of the First Samuel, we learn that the diffuse tribal power system of ancient Israel was unworkable. After Joshua’s death, Israel had a system of government in which each tribe was led by a shofet (judge). The term shofet refers to a political and/or military leader and reminds us of the beginning of the pre-constitutional period of American history.

During the years of the Articles of Confederation, as in ancient Israel, each American state had a right of veto, and each state could decide whether or not it wanted to participate in national defense. It was not until 1788 with the ratification of the constitution that the United States transformed from a league of independent states into a single entity. This was also the case with ancient Israel. Joshua left no successor and after his death each tribe could decide whether they wanted to pay taxes to a central government or send men to a national army in time of war. The system did not work.

Finally, by the time of the prophet Samuel, the people had had enough and were crying out for a central figure, a king. Samuel nodded reluctantly. He set up a kingship system, however, which would differ from other Middle Eastern kings. Samuel established a government where the king was not a god, but rather God would be the king, and the king of Israel was to be no more than the servant of God and the people.

In this new form of government, no man was to be above the law and even the greatest of Israel’s kings, David, like any other man, was a mere human who would stand in judgment before God.

The Books of Samuel also represent the struggle between central and local authority. Samuel feared strong central governments. He understood that a government that has the power to tax and recruit an army ends up finding ways to deprive the population of their freedoms. From Samuel’s perspective, unless carefully controlled, taxation was the first step on the road to slavery.

In First Samuel (8:10-17), we read Samuel’s famous admonition to the nation: “It will be the practice of the king who will reign over you. He will take (enlist) your sons and use them for him in his chariots, in his cavalry and some will run before his chariots… and your best fields and your vineyards and your olive trees he will number and give them to his servants… Your flocks he will pay the tithe, and you will become his slaves. Samuel’s warning represents a universal dilemma: without central power, no nation can defend itself against its enemies, but with too much central power, the citizen cannot defend themselves against the abuses of power by a government and its bureaucracy.

Tragically, Samuel never accepted the man he chose to be king, Saul. Upon Saul’s accession to the throne, Samuel worked to undermine Saul’s legitimacy. We are left to ponder the question: Do politicians sometimes care more about defeating their opposition than helping their nation?

The Books of Samuel help us face the reality of politics and remind us that the world of politics is often a world of betrayal and crude power seeking. They also symbolize that a free people must listen carefully to what their leaders say while always maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism about their words.

These Bible books teach us universal lessons that are valid no matter where or when we live. The Books of Samuel also remind us during the month of Thanksgiving to be grateful to live in a country where citizens can freely express their thoughts and question their leaders.

Peter Tarlow is a police chaplain for the College Station Police Department and Rabbi Emeritus of the Texas A&M Hillel Foundation. Tarlow is a member of the Texas A&M Faculty of Humanities in Medicine and director of the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations.

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