Hebrew Political Thought. Like most Oriental peoples, the Jews held a theocratic conception of the state, believing that political authority was divine in origin and sanction; but they early reached the conception of a single deity, worshiped in common by all their tribes.
Their god, Jehovah, was not associated with a particular place; on the contrary, he became the god of the Hebrew people, guiding and protecting them wherever they went, even during political captivity. Hence, although the Jews were not able to form a sovereign State, they had a stronger feeling of national unity and of national destiny than other Oriental peoples.
They considered the state as divinely established, and all law as derived from the will of Jehovah. This law was absolute and permanent, binding upon rulers and subjects alike, and could not be made or changed by man. Nevertheless, the Hebrews added to the usual Oriental belief in theocratic authority the idea of popular consent. The people voluntarily and formally accepted the rule of Jehovah. They entered into a covenant of obedience in return for divine favor. When they disobeyed the law, they were guilty not only of disregarding the will of God but also of breaking their solemn agreement.
The Hebrews also believed that. Jehovah might be consulted on important questions, and that He would give response through his chosen agents. Thus prophets and judges, whose words were believed to voice the will of God, appeared from time to time. These leaders did not gain their position by heredity, nor did they form a separate class. They arose to power through natural ability and force of character, and their duties were moral, not political.
In spite of the theocratic basis of the Hebrew state, it was not governed by its priests, most of the kings and of the judges coming from outside that group. But the influence of the priest, though indirect, was powerful, even after the establishment of the monarchy.
When the Hebrew tribes, forced into union and compelled to adopt a more centralized government because of common danger from the Philistines, appealed to God for a king, He granted the request, according to priestly interpretation, reluctantly. The first king, Saul, was chosen by God through Samuel as a priestly intermediary, and when Saul proved unfit it was Samuel as priest who deposed him and chose his successor.
The democratic element in Hebrew political thought was shown not only in the idea of a voluntary covenant with God but also in the influence of public opinion upon the kingship. The Hebrews did not hesitate to criticize their rulers. David was reproved by the prophet Nathan and Ahab by Elijah.
The prophets openly voiced and stimulated popular discontent with royal misconduct and misrule. The people resented Solomon’s imperial designs and strict government, with its taxes, military service, and forced labor; and after his death, the northern tribes refused to accept his son and chose another king.
There was a distinct socialistic element in the teachings of the prophets. Theirs was the first passionate plea for the poor, the wretched, and the heavy-burdened, and the first definite statement of the brotherhood of man.
The people also played a considerable part in reducing the law to a definite code. The law at first was conceived to be the direct will of Jehovah, manifested through his priests in deciding disputes brought before them. These decisions, or torahs, naturally created precedents upon which general rules could be based. Secular courts were established later by Moses to try ordinary cases in which well-established rules could be applied, and new or difficult questions only were referred to the priests.
However, the need for an authoritative code was increasingly felt, partly to secure uniformity in the decisions of the local judges, partly to restore principles which the people were in danger of disregarding. Accordingly, the Book of the Covenant, consisting of a collection of decisions, was drawn up in the eighth century B.c. This put into definite term established rules and contained no new principles, but in the second half of the seventh century B.c. the Deuteronomy Code was promulgated. This was a privately prepared code and included such early laws as its authors considered worth perpetuating.
It aimed to recall the people to the customs of their fathers and to offset the degrading influence of Assyria. It contained such extensive changes from existing law that years of priestly exhortation were needed to prepare the way for its acceptance. It was adopted in a formal mass meeting, in which king and people solemnly agreed to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book.
In the fifth century B.c., the codification was practically completed by the adoption by the people in a great assembly of the Priestly Law, brought to Jerusalem from Babylon by Ezra the scribe.
Later Hebrew thought was characterized by an intolerant, rigid ritualism and by a war ethics that deepened inter tribal hatreds and intensified the barbarities of war. As modified later by Hellenism and by Christianity, many of its principles spread to Europe and have come down to the modern world.