Political Readings In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

The first examples to be considered here are what can be called political theological uses of the Old Testament; and they are an interesting anticipation of the liberation theologies of the twentieth century. They did not begin with the Enlightenment; indeed, we find Josephus in the first century CE using the Old Testament to make political points. These political readings show, however, what uses could be made of the Old Testament under the Enlightenment (Rogerson 1992b). Holland was a part of Europe where free expression of thought emerged very early, and in 1617 Petrus Cunaeus (15861638), a professor of law, published a book entitled De republica Hebraeorum (Cunaeus 1653). This is a reading of the history and sociology of the Old Testament whose purpose is to commend the equality of humankind and to condemn the acquisition and accumulation of power, whether this is done by kings, land-owners or clergy. Cunaeus' ideal is the Jubilee law described in Leviticus 25, which prescribes that all debts must be cancelled, all slaves must be freed and all land must revert to the original owners every fifty years. This ideal, that 'the wealth of some might not tend to the oppression of the rest' (ibid.: 14), was constantly ignored or frustrated in Israel, according to Cunaeus, by bad kings such as Jeroboam, who led the revolt of the northern tribes after the death of Solomon (931 BCE), and by the Levites, who seized power after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon (539 BCE). The Old Testament is seen to contain a series of object lessons pertinent to the ordering of society in Cunaeus' day and situation, exemplifying the principle that 'by concord a small Estate is raised, and the greatest is by discord overthrown' (ibid.: preface).

In Moses Lowman's Dissertation on the Civil Government of the Hebrews (Lowman 1745) we have the same agenda applied to the political situation of eighteenth-century England, where the Stuart rebellion against the Protestant revolution of 1688 saw the forces of Prince Charles Edward reach as far south as Derby in 1745. Lowman (1680-1752) argues that, in ancient Israel, the authority of the king rested upon the consent of the people. When Saul condemned his son Jonathan to death for violating an oath that Saul and the people had taken in Jonathan's absence (1 Sam. 14:24), it was the people, according to Lowman, who determined that Jonathan should live (cf. 1 Sam. 14:45), exercising their rights as an assembly that had powers that could overrule the king. Thus, kings have no absolute power over their subjects.

Given that England's Protestant succession had been secured by a revolution and was threatened by a counter-revolution, it is noteworthy that Lowman discussed incidents in the Old Testament that involved rebellions against kings. Treason, according to Lowman, was rebellion against the God of Israel and the wish to substitute other gods. Any king who sought to do this could legitimately be deposed; and thus it was right for prophets to have foretold the downfall of the houses of Jeroboam, Baasha and Omri, and to have anointed Jehu to overthrow the son of Ahab. Lowman drew an explicit analogy between this prophetically inspired rebellion, and the incidents that had resulted in the deposition of the Roman Catholic James II in 1688.

Protestantism and Catholicism were, for the dissenting clergyman Lowman, analogous to the true worship of the God of Israel and idolatry respectively.

The political—theological use of the Old Testament by Cunaeus and Lowman was possible precisely because of the Old Testament's content. Unlike the New Testament, the Old Testament is the history of a nation, its laws and its political fortunes. In this, and in other matters, it had much to offer that was absent from the New Testament.

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