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Economic and Social History Blog

16. A republican manifesto (3-4-2020)

A republican manifesto (3-4-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Yesterday we saw that the bible contains an interesting story about bottom-up state formation, where the elders of the 12 tribes of Israel demand a king in order to be more effective in the battle against the Philistines. The short story is that they get such a king – anointed by the ‘judge’ Samuel – and that this institutional innovation – the voluntary imposition of hierarchy – is highly successful.

What makes this story  even more interesting is that Samuel initially opposes the institution of kingship, and eloquently explains why:

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

This is a fascinating ‘prophesy’ of the consequences of introducing this form of political hierarchy. I have my doubt about the ‘perfumers’ that are mentioned – perhaps this is slang for something more serious. But that is not the point I would like to make. This speech of Samuel is probably one of the first statements of the ‘republican’ ideal. Samuel predicted that on all dimensions of broad wellbeing, the move towards kingship would have a dramatic, negative impact. However, we do not know if this was a true statement by Samuel (assuming for the moment that he was an actual historical figure and a ‘judge’  at about 1000 BC ). These books of the bible were probably written down as part of the until then oral tradition of the people of Israel after they were enslaved and deported to Babylonia at about 580 BC. As slaves in Mesopotamia they had plenty to complain about, and these statements by Samuel can perhaps also be read as comments on the situation they were in at the time. Whichever is true – or perhaps both are true, the oral tradition of Samuel’s warning against the consequences of kingship obviously fitted the situation of the exile perfectly – it shows that the writer(s) of the bible as a kind of proto-social-scientists developed insights into the causes of political and economic inequality. It is a nice example of the anti-authoritarian undercurrent present in (part of) the bible.

I also wanted to write about the issue whether we can use such a story, taken from the bible, in our writing of ‘big history’, but this blog is (again) becoming too big, so I will perhaps discuss this in another contribution.

Continue reading: Parking tickets in New York and the moral consequences of capitalism (4-2-2020)