GOVERNMENT 23 – Nations versus Empires

God commanding to multiply and fill the earth                                 Genesis 1:28
  • growth & geographical spread will automatically bring diversification: the creation of families, kindreds, tribes, people, the development of differences and cultures.
  • All this is wanted, good and forseen.
  • God never in his original creation gives a command for humans to rule humans, only for humans to rule over creation.
God re-commanding to multiply and fill the earth                           Genesis 9:1
  • After God’s re-start with Noah & his family the same generous command is given again with the same goal.
God establishing and celebrating nations                                         Genesis 10
  • This table of the family of Noah growing, becoming kindreds, tribes and nations is a celebration that what God has commanded is indeed happening.
  • Growth, multiplication, differentiation and spreading is all seen positively.

Gen 10:5       These are the descendants of Japheth in their lands (H776 erets), with their own language (H3956 lashon), by their families (H4940 mishpachah), in their nations (H1471 goy).

Gen 10:20     Theses are the descendants of Ham in their lands (H776 erets), with their own language (H3956 lashon), by their families (H4940 mishpachah), in their nations (H1471 goy).

Gen 10:31     These are the decendants of Shem, by their families (H4940 mishpachah), their languages (H3956 lashon), their lands (H776 erets) and their nations (H1471 goy).

Ge 10:32     These are the families of Noah’s sons, according to their genealogies, in their nations (H1471 goy), and from these the nations (H1471 goy) spread aborad on the earth (H776 erets) after the flood.

Land               H776    ‘erets’     2505x       firmness, land, field, ground, country, world

Language      H3956  ‘lashon’  116x         tongue (lit & fig), speech, language, babbler 

Family            H4940 ‘mishpachah’    303x        family, circle of relatives, a group, class, species, kindred, tribe

Nation            H1471   ‘goy’       559x         nation, massing, people, troop, Gentile

People            H5971   ‘am’        1868        people, unit, tribe, troops, flock, men, nation

  • Maybe this could be called a definition of what a nation is: a group of people identifying with each other, with a common culture on a piece of land.
God prevents a centralized empire                                                      Genesis 11
  • In clear contrast to chapter 10 (God celebrating the development of nations) comes chapter 11:
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2 And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there…4 …“Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” … 7 Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
  • Humans here are going conciously and specifically against God’s command to spread out and fill the earth.
  • They attempt a centralized empire, built around human pride and probably exerting control over others.
  • God very specically reaches down to prevent this by confusing language.
  • Is this where language starts or where language becomes mutually unintelligble?
  • Language and language differentiation in itself would have been part of the spreading out scenario anyway and in this sense is not evil (also mentioned prior to Babel).
  • But here is becomes an issue of non-intelligability, a break-down of communication.
  • A centralized empire is not God’s will, multiple nations are.
Abraham is promised a great nation                                                   Genesis 12:2-3

“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

  • In the general development of nations God now specifically and intentionally creates a new nation by setting apart Abraham.
  • God doesn’t promise, desire nor establishe empires but rather nations.
  • The purpose of God’s established nation is not ‘selfish nationalism’, elevating itself over all other nations, but rather the blessing of other nations.
Comfort of becoming a great nation                                                   Genesis 21:13,18
“Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”
  • A comfort & promise to Hagar and Ishmael: Ishmael, too, will become a great nation.
Jacob is promised to become a multitude of nations                      Genesis 35:11-12

“And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. 12The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.”

  • The command to humankind in general is repeated to Jacob. The promise of becoming a nation to Abraham is repeated.
  • But more suprisingly: the promise is for Israel to become a ‘company of nations’!
  • What does this mean? That God originally wanted Israel’s tribes to turn into nation that are connected by a common faith, a common spiritual center (tabernacle) in a freewill association but not a central government?
  • If this promise was to Abraham, this would be less surprising: from Abraham come the the Midianites (through Keturah), the Arab people (through Ishmael), , the Edomites (through Esau), the Amalekites (through Esau) and if Lot is included then also the Moabites & Ammonites. But the promise is to Jacob!
God knows the history of all nations                                                   Exodus 9:24

“There was hail and fire flashing continually in the midst of the hail, very heavy hail, such as had never been in all the land of Egypt since the day it became a nation.”

  • We don’t know, not even the Egyptians know te day that Egypt became a nation, but God does!
God holding all nations accountable, also Israel                              Leviticus 18:24-31

“Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. … 26 But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations … 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you.”

  • The land will not tolerate great abominations and continual injustice to be done by the people inhabiting it > people will be ‘vomited out’, a metaphor for attacked, killed off, driven off, exiled.
God commanding respect for nations (borders & identities)         Deuteronomy 2
  • Though certain nations will be destroyed by Israel, because of their measure of sin being full (Gen 15:16, Deu 9:4), there is not a general permission to Israel to destroy any nation that falls into their pathway, or any nation whose land they may desire.
  • There is a definite and limited list of whose land they will get (Deu 7:1).
  • God specifically prohibits the conquest of Edom (Deu 2:4-6), Moab (Deu 2:9) and Ammon (Deu 2:19).
  • God specifically commands that Israel ask for permission to cross their land, paying for food and water they might use. When these nations refuse right of passage, this their sovereignty is supported by God: He commands Israel, having been denied right of passage, must respect their borders and simply walk around them.
God giving land and right to exist to nations                                      Deuteronomy 2:9-23
Arnow2:9God has given it to Moab(Lot)
Seirnow2:12,22God has given it to Edom(Esau)
 formerly2:12Horim, dispossessed and destroyed 
Ammannow2:19God has given it to Ammon(Lot)
 formerly2:20Rephaim destroyed, dispossessed 
Gazanow2:23Caphtorim (from Crete, later Philistia)(Ham)
 formerly2:23Avvim, destroyed 
  • First one is tempted to think that God is favoring Abraham’s family over other nations, but the last example dismantles that: the Caphtorim are a people descended from Ham, and God does the same for them.
God relocates people                                                                             Amos 9:7

“Are you not like the Cushites to me, O people of Israel?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?

  • God here taunts an overly self-assured Israel that what he as done for them, he also did for other peoples, one being the Caphtorim / Philistines (see above Deu 2:23) and another being the Syrians / Arameans
  • As Israel was, we are not aware of any of this!
The government God instructs                                                             Deutero 19:9-14

“At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself …12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’

  • When God established government his way, it is an elective, representative government with local accountability to the people it serves. Consensus of the people governed is required.
  • It’s main job is to ensure just judgment and lawfulness, not control of its peaceful citizens. For details on this see “GOV 01 – Appointing Leaders”
Israel demands a monarchy                                                                  1 Samuel 8
  • Eventually Israel demands a king, that is: it demands a monarchy over the republican system it has. Israel so abolishes its right to elect the leader (son of the king will govern), the king will be less and less representative (emergence of a ruling class) and reputation & wisdom will no longer determine the choice of the next leader.
  • With modelling itself on the surrounding nations, Israel also becomes an aggressor in times of strength, and a pawn in times of weakness.
  • Even David personal godliness cannot long keep up the standard, already him, much more his son Solomon and definitely his grand-son Rehoboam are unaccountable kings, see “GOV 06 – Monarchy in Israel’s history”
No taxation without representation                                                    1 Kings 12:4-16

“Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” …13 And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the counsel that the old men had given him, 14he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” 15 So the king did not listen to the people … 16 And when all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, O Israel! Look now to your own house, David.”

  • When Solomon dies, the heavy (and unjustly distributed!) tax burden of extravagant court & building programs has brought Israel to the edge.
  • When the heavily taxed 10 Northern tribes request a relief, Rehoboam is unwilling to serve the people, rather he lords it over them. They refuse his leadership and break away. This division of Israel into two nations is never again reversed.
  • No taxation without representation. Leadership must serve the people they govern and be accountable to them. The empire style unaccountable and domineering king is not supported by God. God would rather have his nation fall apart!
Warning about smart alliances with empires rather than trusting God                Isaiah 30:1-3

“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; 2who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt! 3Therefore shall the protection of Pharaoh turn to your shame, and the shelter in the shadow of Egypt to your humiliation.

  • Over and again Israel is trying to make smart alliances with surrounding peoples and empires to ensure their safety or advantage, instead of looking to God. Time and again is backfires.
  • Example: Hezekiah’s alliance with Babylon. God’s reaction (Isaiah 39:5-6): “Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord.
Great empires in the Bible
  • The great empires in the Bible are Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome.
  • Though there are better moments (Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon treating Jeremiah well in Jer 40:2-5, repenting of his pride Dan 4:34-37, Darius of Medo-Persia trying to be fair Dan 6:14), Pilate trying to release Jesus) the overall picture of empires in the Bible are clearly negative:
  • The favored picture or metaphor used for empires is that of a fear-inspiring, ferocious, merciless, domineering beasts (Dan 7-8). This is carried over into the apocalyptic writing of Revelation.
  • Empires are pictured as power-hungry, blood-lusting, unaccountable and persecuting entities. God says about Assyria “For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?” (Nah 3:19). Rome is depicted as a proud, self-assured whore, drunk with the blood of the martyrs (Rev 17:1-6).
  • Domination of one nation over other nation always seems to open up the oppressed nations to great suffering and the oppressor to the inescapable temptation of ‘too much power’ with all its corrupting mechanisms, eventually destroying itself. Empires do not last.
Empires are not of God, nations are                                                    Deuteronomy 32:8

“When the Most High gave to the nations (H1471 goy) their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples (H5971 am) according to the number of the sons of God.”

  • God giving nations their right to exist, their inheritance, their land, their borders
  • God creating & maintaining nations.
  • Practically speaking nations are often born or boundaries are often set in bloody wars. And even though that is true, like in a bloody birth even of an illegitimate child, the child’s life itself is given by God and sacred.
  • This Scripture must have been in Paul’s mind when he preached in Athens:
God creates and maintains nations, sets boundaries                       Acts 17:26-27

“And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.

  • God desiring & establishing nations, giving them their times & seasons, their borders & inheritance, their rights & responsibilities.
  • Nationhood is meant to lead us to seek God (on how to run them, maintain them, how to make them work, what God’s specific calling is, how they can bless others)
Reformation in Europe re-discovers the concept of nationhood
  • Christianity grew up in a Roman Empire dominated world. Later when the emperor Constantin himself became a believer, Christianity became the state-religion of the empire, but no clear Biblical thinking was around as to the concept of local nations, a people with a common identity and a piece of land governing themselves.
  • With the Catholic church becoming the one to ‘inherit’ the Roman empire when it crumbled, had long a empire-theology, not a nation theology. Example: Charlemagne.
  • Only with the reformation in the 16th century, the Biblial concept of nations over against great empires became studied and focused on again. Europe’s bigger empire fell apart, new and strengthening self-governed nations started appearing.
  • Theology was formulated. A healthy ‘love and service for one’s country’ was kindled.
  • The Catholic South of Europe retained empire theology.
  • When England became reformed not by process but by a decision of the king, the current Catholic empire theology was ‘baptized’ and became Anglican, supporting an English expansion into a world empire.
  • The ‘no taxation without representation’ principle lead the American colonies to fall away from the British empire and seek independence.
  • During Worldwar II Britain begged the US to enter war on their side, but the US did not do so until they had an agreement from England (the Transatlantic Charter) that Britain would give choice of sovereignty to the conquered nation in their empire (creation of the Common wealth) and that rather there would be a UN.
  • After Worldwar II through French and Italian influence the blame for the World wars was put down to be due to ‘German nationalism’ and the way was paved for the concept of the European Union. The concept of nationhood was exported to India, to Africa and the Middle East, though the underlying values
  • So though Christianity had a continual tension between Empire theology and Nation theology, it still produced strong, viable, self-governed nations.
  • Islam’s history is very different. When Mohammad died in 632 AD, he keft behind a centrally organized construct. The ideal became a caliphate ruled by a caliph (meaning ‘successor’, ‘deputy’), which is thought of as the successor to Muhammad.
  • From 632AD till 1924 AD, the islamic regions were ruled by caliphs in one way or another, the last strong dynasty being the Ottoman Empire.
  • Islam does not really have a nation-theology, but rather the ideal is a great, all-encompassing empire ruled by a devout, godly and powerful caliph.
  • June 2014 the militant group IS declared the establishment of a caliphate and proclaimed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a caliph. This was rejected by the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims, but it illustrates the hope for a true caliphate.