Who Made You A Judge Over Israel?

For a period of some years, from my childhood until my father died, my father and I had a long argument about the nature and structure of authority.  My father was a firm believer in the legitimacy of top-down one-man authority, and I was just as firm in the need of bottom-up legitimacy, and in our discussion of the Bible we continually struggled to understand what was said in many Bible passages that dealt with authority.  That and other experiences has conditioned me to be very interested in whenever someone wanted to bolster claims of authority.  When someone wants to point out the legitimacy of certain authorities while seeking authority for oneself and also being a bit of a bully, I tend to find that more than a little bit off-putting.  One cannot avoid the problem when it comes to authority that to be a critic of authority is simultaneously a claim to authority and that seeking to bolster authority makes it easy for others to view such a defense as self-serving.  It is easy to suspect the motives of others and not be as aware of our own motives.  Be that as it may, when someone talks about authority it is just as important to see what is not said as what is said about it.

Of course, yesterday in church (as I write this), a deacon in our congregation whose correspondence to me I have dearly wanted to critique in blogs but have refrained from so far gave a sermon on Moses’ seat and the lack of legitimacy that the Pharisees had even as the Bible showed a different solution to the lack of legitimacy that the priests of Aaron had.  I have, of course, written about this subject at some length [1] and do not wish to repeat myself.  What I would like to do today is to talk about some of what was unsaid in the efforts of the speaker to equate the leadership of the Church of God with the biblical and historical legitimacy of Moses’ seat as it was viewed from the time of Exodus 19 through the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah to the Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time.  In discussing authority and its transfer from one institution to another after the disasters of war and various periods of disuse, there are bound to be things that have to be left out because of the shortage of time, and it is worthwhile to note what is missed when such matters are not discussed.

One of the most important aspects of the seat of Moses that the sermon did not address was the implications of it being a recognized authority for all of Second Temple Judaism.  Indeed, our own position in the contemporary age is like that of the Judges, a period of anarchy where no recognized authority unites all believers together whose decisions and judgments have universal legitimacy.  The legitimacy of church authorities is not always recognized (or appreciated) even within congregations and individual organizations, and is largely absent when one looks at the scattered and deeply divided body of believers that now exists across numerous fellowships and home churches.  This state of affairs must be lamented, but it must also be recognized.  At present there is no “seat of Moses” within the Church of God, much less wider Christendom, whose authority to make judgments is recognized and respected.  It is even unclear what, short of Jesus’ own reappearance, would provide a universally recognized authority even by those whose doctrinal beliefs are nearly identical and who share deep traditions but whose belief about authority is antithetical.

That problem aside, it was striking that the message did not discuss how it was that the seat of Moses worked in specific cases.  One of the most obvious examples during a time not unlike ours is the savvy way that Boaz was able to gain Ruth as a wife, as told in Ruth 4:1-12:  “Now Boaz went up to the gate and sat down there; and behold, the close relative of whom Boaz had spoken came by. So Boaz said, “Come aside, friend, sit down here.” So he came aside and sat down.  And he took ten men of the elders of the city, and said, “Sit down here.” So they sat down.  Then he said to the close relative, “Naomi, who has come back from the country of Moab, sold the piece of land which belonged to our brother Elimelech.  And I thought to inform you, saying, ‘Buy it back in the presence of the inhabitants and the elders of my people. If you will redeem it, redeem it; but if you will not redeem it, then tell me, that I may know; for there is no one but you to redeem it, and I am next after you.’ ”  And he said, “I will redeem it.  Then Boaz said, “On the day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you must also buy it from Ruth the Moabitess, the wife of the dead, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance.”  And the close relative said, “I cannot redeem it for myself, lest I ruin my own inheritance. You redeem my right of redemption for yourself, for I cannot redeem it.  Now this was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging, to confirm anything: one man took off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was a confirmation in Israel.  Therefore the close relative said to Boaz, “Buy it for yourself.” So he took off his sandal.  And Boaz said to the elders and all the people, “You are witnesses this day that I have bought all that was Elimelech’s, and all that was Chilion’s and Mahlon’s, from the hand of Naomi.  Moreover, Ruth the Moabitess, the widow of Mahlon, I have acquired as my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead through his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brethren and from [e]his position at the gate. You are witnesses this day.”  And all the people who were at the gate, and the elders, said, “We are witnesses. The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel; and may you prosper in Ephrathah and be famous in Bethlehem.  May your house be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah, because of the offspring which the Lord will give you from this young woman.””  It should be briefly noted here that the seat of Moses serves Boaz’s interests by providing legitimacy to a daring argument that links the property rights of redemption with the responsibilities of levirate marriage.  This sort of non-coercive and easygoing local authority is something that I could endorse, and not quite what the sermon speaker had in mind about wanting to defend and promote and be a part of.

At this point it would be worthwhile as an aside to point out that there are at least two ways in any kind of system of authority where one gains credit as an interpreter of God’s word.  Unsurprisingly, one is a top-down matter where people seek offices and ordination as a way of having authority over others to intervene coercively in their lives, which has always been sought by power-hungry individuals from time immemorial.  On the other hand, there has always been a bottom-up method of gaining legitimacy by which people proved themselves as being fair and just and knowledgeable individuals who gained respect among their fellows and provided welcome and wise counsel about how to understand and apply scripture.  And this reputation of being an able counselor provided them with a certain amount of authority among their fellows in such matters, not due to any sort of possession of a formal office (although this may follow the acquisition of such a reputation) but rather due to their recognized wisdom in action.  It is perhaps unsurprising that someone who is far more interested in top-down authority than the bottom-up efforts of increasing legitimacy would ignore this matter.

Finally, it was striking that the discussion of the seat of Moses and the legitimacy of the power exercised there with regards to judicial decisions missed the chance to point out how that authority should be exercised.  Matthew 23:1-12 clearly states how believers are to act when it comes to the search for office and the trappings of authority and is unsparing in its criticism of power-hungry and ambitious individuals:  “Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.  Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.  For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.  But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.  They love the best places at feasts, the best seats in the synagogues, greetings in the marketplaces, and to be called by men, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi.’  But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren.  Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.  And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ.  But he who is greatest among you shall be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Do we love to be called by titles?  Do we seek the best positions and authority over others?  Do we do our works because they must be done or because we wish to be seen and praised by others?  Do we lay heavy burdens on others or do we serve others by taking heavy burdens on ourselves?  Jesus Christ clearly points out that the authority among believers is to be used with graciousness and humility rather than heavy-handedness.  Does our example more closely follow Christ’s commands or the ambitious grasping and clawing of the Pharisees?

[1] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/23/against-the-usurpation-of-the-pharisees-part-one/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/27/against-the-usurpation-of-the-pharisees-part-two/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2017/12/28/against-the-usurpation-of-the-phariseees-part-three/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.blog/2018/11/24/on-the-legitimacy-of-the-oral-law/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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