Learning from history
Ben Franklin's reminder
Abraham:  Father of the Covenant
Moses:  The Hebrew liberator and law-giver
The judges
The Davidic kingdom


The Framers of the American Constitution

When the Fathers of the American Constitution gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1789 to come up with a more effective form of government than the old Confederation they had been working under during and since the War of Independence (1775-1783), they of course had some ideas of their own (which they argued about) as to what this new government should look like.  After all, the colonies had been pretty much self-ruling from their founding in the early 1600s, a century and half earlier.  But in trying to provide for a stronger union of these thirteen newly independent states1 they were entering onto new political territory.

They did have some idea of what they wanted ... because they were educated men.  And back then ‘educated’ meant that they had a very strong background in history.  In short, they had historical models to work from ... good and bad.  Three of these models were quite well known to them: Ancient Israel, ancient Athens, and ancient Rome.  In fact, the label they finally put on their new government was drawn directly from their knowledge of ancient Rome ... when it was once itself a ‘republic’ (from the Latin, res publica or ‘thing of the people’).

The also knew ... from history ... the problems as well as the possibilities that accompany any form of government they might choose.  The Roman Republic, for instance, failed after several centuries of excellent service to the Romans ... when the military and their generals (‘imperators’ or emperors) took over the running of Rome – thus turning Rome into an empire instead of a republic.  

Thus when the work of the constitutional convention was over and the participants finally opened up to the public (their sessions had been held in secret to avoid unwanted special interest pressuring from outside) and Ben Franklin was asked what kind of a government they had delivered them, his answer was: “A republic ... if you can keep it.”  Again, from their knowledge of political and cultural history they knew very well the good – and the bad – involved in governing:  how government can succeed ... and how it can fail.

It is too bad that Americans generally have lost that sense of history, believing that we have escaped from the perils of the past into a progressive culture than needs not be bothered by how things worked out for people in the past.  We believe ourselves to be instinctively too enlightened, too progressive to be liable to commit any of the errors of the past.  

This, of course, is highly indicative that we are living in the fourth generation, immersed so deeply in the pleasantness of palace life that we are certain that nothing outside our well-padded existence can touch us.  All we have to do is follow our instincts ... which presumably offers a much more sophisticated path to happiness ... than to be dragged down by the warnings of history.  

Unfortunately, history repeats itself ... again, and again, and again.

And so, like our wise constitutional Fathers, we need to take a closer look at the historical record ... to inform our ‘science’ or knowledge of society.  Like an experiment in a laboratory, looking at repeated events is a better way of arriving at the truth than coming up with dreamy ideas conceived in the comfort of our academic or bureaucratic offices.  Beautiful utopian dreams that come to us as we couch ourselves in comfort do not substitute well for knowledge gained by looking at the actual record of the human experiment in governance.

Ancient Israel - A social model
Undoubtedly the historical model the Fathers were most knowledgeable about was ancient Israel.  The Christian Bible that they were very familiar with was mostly a narrative about the ups and downs of the ancient Israelites ... how they fared and explicitly why they fared the way they did.  They knew intimately about Israel – good and bad – not just from their own regular reading of the Bible but also from the pulpits of their churches from which Israel was cited as both an encouragement ... and as a warning if people tried to go against the social laws of God.  And these early Americans – especially the Puritans – or at least their offspring among the Founding Fathers – were very much into the laws of God ... not just in the social sciences (thanks in part to Israel).  They were also the leading experimenters in the fields of math, physics and chemistry.2

Anyway, ancient Israel was well understood in America to be a ‘light to the nations,’ revealing to all the peoples, all the nations, how God’s social laws work ... since social experiments, unlike physics experiments, cannot be conducted in a laboratory.  Due to the complexity of the laws of society, God simply demonstrated through the ‘Israelite experiment’ the laws of society as he made them.  He even made them explicit through words given directly to Israel by way of the prophets.  He intended for all this to be studied ... and learned from.  And indeed that was a set of lessons that the Founding Fathers would have known in great detail.
So we will start our narrative with Israel.  The Israelite narrative is very complete in its explanation of what works and what does not work with respect to society and its governance.  Indeed, we will see in this very first social model how much of the Israelite experience is repeated in the narrative of the other societies we are presenting.  This is then how history becomes so very instructive in the true ‘science of society.’

The covenant with God

There is a central theme that runs through the entire narrative of the people of Israel ... right on into Christianity: that the God of Heaven actually covenants (contracts, pledges) with the Man of the earth, God offering counsel, protection and provision to Man ... as long as Man puts aside his own instincts to play god himself and instead submits his personal will to God – the only God.  

In this the covenanted Israelites (or more particularly, the Jews) served God as a guide to others, pointing the Godly way of life to other peoples, other nations ... through their own God-awarded success in life.  Giving such testimony as the light to the ‘Gentiles’ (the other nations of the world), the entire nation of Israel was to serve humankind prophetically.  That was Israel’s great commission ... the one that Jesus would then pass on to his own disciples, the Christians: honor and serve God in all of your ways, that through you the world may also come to know of God and his ways.

1Actually Rhode Island did not participate in the conference drafting up the new constitution.

2No ... Christianity and ‘science’ are not enemies!  It is just that Christians oppose very much the idea that the laws of science just ‘happened’ into existence and had nothing to do with a Creator or God who willed these into existence.  Christian scientists believe that every discovery made in the field of science simply proclaims all the more the marvelous glories of a very complex God.


This covenant was well understood by the Founding Fathers.  This is why the wise Ben Franklin had cause during the debates over the new constitution to get up to speak. Discussions were heated and not going well ... only around and around.  Even some of the New York delegation had headed home in disgust.  The work that the Founding Fathers had been appointed to undertake was breaking down.  So Franklin spoke up (recorded in the notes taken by James Madison):

The small progress we have made after 4 or five weeks close attendance & continual reasonings with each other, our different sentiments on almost every question, several of the last producing as many noes and ays, is methinks a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding.  

We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, some we have been running about in search of it.  We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution now no longer exist.  And we have viewed Modern States all around Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?

In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.  All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor. To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth - that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?

We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.

According to Madison, the delegates sat speechless after Franklin sat down.  This was not the kind of input that they would have expected of the famous man of common sense.  But apparently the speech had some kind of impact, for that marked the point at which the discussions finally began to move forward, rather than around and around.


The Israelite narrative begins way back in history.  No one is exactly sure of the time but a fair guess is anywhere from 1900 BC to 1500 BC.  Abraham was a nomadic Hebrew tribal elder or chief who moved his family and herds around the Middle East ... migrating from the lower reaches of the Tigris-Euphrates River (in modern-day Iraq) upriver along probably the Euphrates River and arriving at Syria.  Here he had a call from God to take his people further south along the highlands ... into the ‘Promised Land’ (modern Palestine).  Here four generations of Hebrew fathers and sons – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (also named ‘Israel’) and Joseph – took their people from a God-respecting simplicity to a more complex set of circumstances that brought them in unexpected glory into Egypt ... but over the next several centuries deeper into servitude to Egyptian kings or pharaohs.


Centuries later there arose among the Hebrews a God-gifted child, Moses, raised in Pharaoh’s court ... but who in his youth came to see himself, being a Hebrew amongst Egyptians, as one destined to liberate his people from Egyptian slavery.  But his plans failed and he had to escape to the remoteness of the Sinai Desert ... where he spent the next ‘forty’ years (in Hebrew meaning ‘a very long time’) finding employment with his father-in-law as a lowly shepherd.  But in his old age he was visited by the God Yahweh (the great ‘I Am’), who commanded the reluctant Moses to return to Egypt to meet the Pharaoh directly to challenge him to let God’s people go.  After a number encounters with Pharaoh and his advisors – and many miracles of Yahweh – Moses was able to lead the Hebrews out of captivity ... and to freedom – at least as far as the wilderness of the Sinai.  Here he received from the hand of the Lord God Yahweh the Law that God expected his Hebrew people (Israel) to live by:  the famous Ten Commandments (and the many sub-commands that developed in supplement to the big Ten).


Moses died before he could enter the Promised Land of Abraham ... and Joshua was appointed to take them in.  The Hebrews formed into twelve tribes, each named after one of the ten sons of Jacob (Israel) or two sons of Jacob’s son Joseph.  Thus all twelve tribes were descendants or ‘sons’ of Israel (Jacob) ... who together constituted ‘Israel.’  

But Israel was really just a tribal coalition ... the tribes coming together (when not fighting with each other) only when threatened by some outside tribal group, the Amorites, Jebusites, Hittites, Philistines, etc.  When so threatened, God would anoint a particular individual to serve as something of a prophet-leader or ‘judge,’ empowered to lead or strategize a response (thus ‘judge’) for Israel ... as God specifically instructed the judge.

Success would bring the Israelites back into perfect thanksgiving – and submission – to God, Israel now ‘walking in Godly counsel’ ... but only for a generation or two.  A generation that did not know God personally – as their forebears had – would begin to ‘walk in its own counsel’ ... and right back into trouble, usually in the form of domination by one or another of Israel’s enemy neighbors.  

Eventually things would get so bad that – like Franklin’s counsel – they would remember the wisdom of their ancestors, give up their willful ways, and call out to God for help.  Respecting the covenant, then (and only then) when the Israelites showed a willingness to place themselves again in God’s hands (sometimes termed ‘fearing’ God), God would again anoint another judge who would – with God – deliver Israel from bondage.  

On and on this cycle went, even for a number of centuries.  The pattern seemed hardly ever to change ... such was the nature of the Israelites.3

3And apparently nothing has changed within all of humankind since then.  The greatly God-fearing generation of World-War Two American veterans (or ‘Vets’) was followed by the Boomer generation, which is now determined to prove not only that it does not need God ... but that it wants the very idea of God removed from the public conscience of America ... because it ‘violates the Constitution.’ ...  Just exactly whose Constitution are they describing?  Certainly not Ben Franklin’s.


A man after God's own heart

Sometime around 1000 BC the Israelites got the brilliant idea of following the political example of the surrounding empires ... rather than exemplifying how greatness could be achieved simply by living in submission to God.  They demanded of the prophet Samuel that he should anoint them a king, a ruler like the one who presided over the Gentile nations.  

Samuel warned them of the political dangers of becoming ‘like the nations’ ... that kings, permanently positioned and thus powerful in their own right, would eventually bring the people into servitude, constantly adding to their own royal power by taking away the people’s power.

But the people seemed to be willing to squander their freedom secured through the covenant with God ... in order to achieve what they believed would be better security under powerful human authority.  It would not take long before Samuel’s wisdom would prove itself ... and the people’s folly likewise prove itself.

The handsome, charismatic Saul was thus chosen to be their king.  But he ran into trouble taking God’s prophetic powers (not awarded him by God) into his own hands.  He died a miserable death ... and was replaced by the younger David, ‘a man after God’s own heart’ (for whom Saul long had harbored deep hatred because of David’s popularity). 

David and Bathsheba

Things went well for David ... until he slipped into the egotism of kingship – or just lost his sense of moral urgency – and took Bathsheba, another man’s wife, for sex ... bringing on David the withdrawal of God’s personal support.4
  One son, Amnon, raped David’s daughter Tamar soon after David’s sexual misadventure and another son, Absalom, later not only led a bloody rebellion against his father but performed sex publicly with ten of David’s concubines … the consequences of David’s own moral-spiritual failure. 


Solomon, another son of David and Bathsheba (the first died at birth – also a part of the tragic consequences) took the throne upon David’s death ... and used his own personal wisdom to build the Davidic inheritance into a spectacular royal domain, even empire.  He built a magnificent temple to God ... along with temples to the gods of his many wives as well.  Davidic simplicity was replaced by imperial grandeur ... which we discover in what are attributed as the musings of Solomon (Ecclesiastes or Koheleth, part of the ‘wisdom literature’ of the Bible) that in the end none of this truly satisfied the deeper, existential hunger of the king.  Grand material success did not substitute well for the kind of spiritual success that David, at one point in his life, experienced and exemplified.

Division and decline

After Solomon, Israel slipped into a deep wantonness that not only divided the kingdom into two hostile kingdoms, Israel (the North) and Judah (the South) but pushed the wealthier Northern Kingdom of Israel even further away from God ... and eventually into political disaster when God refused to come to Israel’s aid when it got itself into major diplomatic hot water thinking itself so wise in its own counsel.  The prophets warned Israel constantly of the dangerous road it was going down ... until a foolish political alliance with Egypt (rather than with God) drew the wrath of the powerful and cruel Assyrian Empire ... and all of Israel was marched off to captivity ... and oblivion (722 BC).  Israel was never heard of again ... except in modern times ... although the modern Israel is made up of descendants of Judah rather than Israel.

4Muslims, however claim that this story of David and Bathsheba is told falsely.  David was one of the true prophets and thus characterized by the principle of ismah (infallibility).  He could not have done this.  Thus Jews and Christians who tell the story as they do are guilty of qazf (falsely accusing a person of adultery) and defaming a prophet, two huge crimes in the eyes of Islam.


At this point (about 600 AD) all that was left of old Israel was the Southern Kingdom of Judah.  The Israelites were now in fact simply the ‘Jews’ (the people of Judah).  This poorer, more humble Jewish people tended to stay closer to God ... though hardly perfectly.  But they too got caught up in the politics of the bigger players ... now the rising Babylonians.5  Their political mistakes caused the Jewish royal court, high priests and upper classes to be taken into captivity, first in 597 BC ... then a second group when they failed in a second anti-Babylonian revolt in Jerusalem in 587.

But the Babylonians allowed these elite captive to stay together in Babylon as a group ... enabling them to maintain their identity as Jews, even in an alien setting.  Others fled to Egypt, including the prophet, Jeremiah.

The experience completely revised the very character of this people.  In exile they had no temple to offer sacrifices to their God Yahweh (Solomon’s magnificent temple in their capital Jerusalem in fact had been torn down in 586 BC) ... thus the temple priests were basically unemployed.  

The development of Rabbinic literature ... or the ‘Torah’

Consequently, they had to reinvent themselves as a distinct people ... and the very way they went about the business of affirming their old covenant with God.  It was at this point they understood the value of their national narrative – the Mishnah – and began collecting and assembling elements of it into a collection of writings:  the early foundations of the Torah or written Word.  They were becoming (as the Muslims would later call it) a ‘People of the Book.’  This would be their new identifier as a people.  And it would bring forward into prominence a new class of highly respected teachers of the Torah, the rabbis.  And it would be the path by which they would make their approach to God.

Thus as long as they had their sacred literature to focus on – and the rabbis to teach it – their identity as Jews would survive even exile ... even a scattering to different parts of the world.  
They also understood their mission on a larger scale than simply surviving under God’s protection in the Promised Land (which of course still had its appeal).  They now understood God in a larger way as well.  He was not just the God of their Jewish nation, he was the God of all.  In God’s failure to protect his people against the Babylonians and their god Marduk, the Jewish God Yahweh had not demonstrated weakness or only secondary power ... but the Jewish loss to the Babylonians was God’s way of disciplining his wanton people ... and bringing them back into submission to his will.  The Jewish God was at this point understood to be the only God – not just the Israelite or Jewish God – the God of all the people, even the Babylonians.

The quasi-return to Jerusalem

Then the Persians overran the Babylonians ... and allowed the captive nations, including the Jews, to return to their homeland – if they chose to return.  In fact only a small group of Jews found their way back to their Jewish homeland.  Most remained in the city of Babylon ... which grew immensely as the center of rabbinic study and Jewish scholarship... over the many centuries to come.

A Jewish state was rebuilt in the area of old Israel – which survived quietly ... until it was overrun by the Greeks and Macedonians under Alexander the Great (332 BC).  At this point Jewish culture in the Judaic homeland found itself in a deep struggle with Greek culture ... not terribly successful however in maintaining its older Jewish character.  Then several centuries later the Romans replaced the Greeks as the largest Jewish threat ... though the assimilation of Greek culture by the Jews was so strong that Roman or Latin culture was unable to displace the Greek inheritance (the entire Christian New Testament, for instance, was written in Greek, not Hebrew or Latin).

There would be Jewish revolts against the Roman intruders into the Promised Land ... none of them ever successful.  But this only confirmed (until 1948) that the Jewish nation was not defined by any particular homeland or piece of territory ... but instead by a faith that reached across the nations, allowing Jews to live in and among non-Jewish cultures, without being absorbed or profoundly assimilated into the hosting cultures.  Thus the Jewish nation lived on ... but not quite like any other nation – which tended to define itself by the territory it occupied.

5They were actually ‘neo-Babylonians,’ for they had no connection with the Babylonian Empire built up by the great Hammurabi about twelve-hundred years earlier (other than both having the city of Babylon serve as their capital-cities).

Miles H. Hodges - 2018