Popular Sovereignty and the Bible, Part 1

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Tuesday, November 7, 2017 0 comments

by Bill Fortenberry

Modern accounts of the philosophical underpinnings of the American Revolution often attribute the concept of popular sovereignty to men such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau with Locke being the one most often praised as the source of the American ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. To make this attribution, however, modern scholarship has had to ignore, or perhaps forget, the previously held view that the notion of popular sovereignty can be traced to the government of ancient Israel as recorded in the pages of the Bible.

To develop a proper understanding of the theory of popular sovereignty advocated in the Bible, it is necessary to begin with the initial formation of the nation of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. The first account of this formation begins in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Exodus. It is in this chapter that we find God telling the Israelites:

“‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:4-6).

This passage is the preamble to what is known as the Mosaic Covenant. The full covenant is recorded in Exodus chapters 19-24, and it contains the famous Ten Commandments as well as several other foundational laws of the nation of Israel. These five chapters of the book of Exodus can be viewed as being equivalent in nature to the Constitution of America. They form the foundation upon which all the other laws of the nation were established.

The concept of popular sovereignty is present throughout the entirety of the Mosaic Covenant, and it is obvious even in the preamble itself. God did not simply tell the Israelites that they would be a holy nation unto Him. Instead, He presented them with an “if … then” proposition and left it up to the people themselves to decide whether or not to become the kind of nation that He wanted them to be. The response of the people to this proposition is found in verse 8 where we read that they gave unanimous consent to do everything that the Lord commanded them to do. From this, it is plainly obvious that government of the nation of Israel was established on the concept of popular sovereignty. The people were granted the sovereignty to either accept or reject God’s offer, and they willingly chose to accept it.

But the preamble is not the only recognition of popular sovereignty to be found in this covenant. When the covenant is examined in its entirety, it becomes evident that it is in the form of a suzerainty treaty. This has often been recognized by biblical scholars, and the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia records that, “Form-critical and other studies have shown the striking parallels in structure between second-millennium-B.C. suzerainty treaties and the records of the covenant in Exodus and Deuteronomy.”

Suzerainty treaties were common in the region of Palestine during the time of the exodus, and they consisted of agreements between a greater king and a lesser king in which the lesser king would agree to serve the greater in all areas expressly stated in the treaty. This means that the Mosaic Covenant is a recognizable treaty of submission between two sovereigns. The identity of the greater sovereign in this treaty is immediately recognized as God, and the lesser sovereign can only be the audience of the people who “responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do’” (Exodus 24:3).

This kind of treaty relationship was recognized by philosophers like Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel to be one in which “the inferior Power remains a Sovereign State” and in which “the weaker Power may exercise the rights of sovereignty so long as by so doing no detriment is caused to the interests or influence of the Suzeraine Power.” Grotius, for example, described a suzerainty treaty when he spoke of a league between sovereigns “where by the express Articles of the League some lasting Preference is given from one to the other; that is, where one is obliged to maintain the Dominion and Honour of another.” He explained that people bound by this type of treaty are still free and then concluded that, “If then a Nation bound by such a Covenant, remains yet free, and not subjected to the Power of another, it follows, that it yet retains its Sovereignty.”

Thus, the fact that the Mosaic Covenant is in the form of a suzerainty treaty establishes two facts about the popular sovereignty of the Israelites. First, this form of treaty was a recognition by God of the sovereignty of the people at the time that the covenant was offered. Second, this treaty between a sovereign people and the sovereign Lord did not remove sovereignty from either. By accepting the terms of this treaty, the people of Israel agreed to submit to the terms of the covenant while still retaining their own sovereignty.

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