Sunday, December 04, 2011

"consumer Christianity" and warnings against a consumer king in Deut 17

I confess I have become skeptical about leaders talking to followers about "consumer Christianity".  It can seem as though the only variations of consumer Christianity are the kind that followers have, in the opinion of leaders.  Either a person is a "consumer" and doesn't give or the person has a consumer mentality that, paradoxically, is motivated by a desire to feel good or "not feel guilty". 

Is that really all there is to "consumer Christianity"?  What about using church funds to buy things that, strictly speaking, you don't need?  If you don't practice hospitality on a consistent basis but get entertainment gear couldn't that be consumeristic?  Couldn't it be consumeristic even if you DO practice a great deal of hospitality?  How do we know that "engaging culture" isn't essentially a form of sanctified or baptised consumerism?  Of course I'm not saying you shouldn't do it or just declaring it to be immoral.  If you help people in need, and reconcile broken relationships, and reach out to those who may be in isolation then as far as I'm concerned if you happen to have some cool entertainment gear that doesn't mean you're automatically some evil "consumer".

Is there a comparable warning to leaders not to have a consumeristic approach to the people they have charge of?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact.  I've even got verses.  There's this chapter in Deuteronomy, you probably know the one, that says the king should not amass too many wives, or amass too much gold, or amass too many horses.  Now the wives bit speaks for itself.  The thing about amassing too much gold "should" speak for itself but you know something?  The Torah doesn't define what "too much" is!  What if the leader defines "too much" as being at a much higher threshhold than the ruled?  Who is being addressed on this subject about the king not being one to amass too much gold?  Oh, yeah, that's right, the people. 

By way of digression, the priests don't even get an inheritance.  They live off of the provisions from the tithe.  Heh, now if someone wanted to be "biblical" then the priests would not be allowed to own property and would live off of the funding of the people.  Of course these days Protestants prefer not to talk about priests and in certain circles the preferred term for a pastor is not necessarily "priest" but "king" so it may be useful to simply grant how clouded terminology gets.  The priests, in any case, don't have an inheritance in the land and are supported by the people.

Which gets back to the king, now that I've taken that detour.  The king is not to amass too many horses.  What does that really mean?  Does it mean the king shouldn't have too many cars?  Maybe, but that's not particularly likely or plausible.  A better explanation stems from not going to Egypt for horses.  The idea is that Israel should not go back to Egypt in the sense of connecting itself to the slavery that entailed.  It also includes avoiding making a military alliance with them.  "Horses" can be taken as a shorthand not merely for "cars" or horses as signs of royal prestige but as a shorthand for military power. 

For those who don't have much interest in military history here is the part where I mention that there's an important distinction between a professional standing army and a civilian regional militia.  As Israeli military historians occasionally refer to biblical texts, the professional standing calvary and infantry wouldn't be the same as the regional militias.  When Deuteronomy warns against a king having "too many horses" this is less likely to refer to the ancient near-eastern equivalent of an Escalade with gold rims as it is to an M1A2. The king should not have an imperial guard that is too big or a professional standing military that is too powerful. 

The king is supposed to be literate, and literate enough to make his own copy of the "book of the law" to study.  He's to follow the statutes and by doing them prevent his heart from being lifted up above his brothers. An Israelite king is to be brought in from within Israel's ranks, not imported from some other land.  Israel was not to hire out for kings due to rumors of kingly gifts.  They were to go with the king God chose for them. Now I'd love to digress into God choosing Saul as the first king and what that may mean but I'm trying to save time and space here. The king is not to have his heart lifted up above those who serves.  Yes, I put it that way for all kinds of reasons.  The disposition of the king should not be to amass many wives as proof of virility, much gold, and that horses thing means he should not reserve for himself too much military power.   So when you read "horses" in Deuteronomy 17 keep in mind that a flatly literal reading of "horses" in warnings about what a king shouldn't do is quite possibly missing what the real warning is about. 

And, yes, of course, there's the part where Christians look at Deuteronomy 17 and talk about how Jesus is the real king that is pointed to.  Sure, sure, but let's not forget the more mundane referent here, to the actual king that Israel would one day want to appoint.  Notice that the role of the king, if you pay attention to Deuteronomy 16-18 is actually not that involved in a lot of the "rule".  The tribal chieftains and judges, in Deut 16, where do those come from?  Appointed from among the people.  What about the priests?  Levitical priesthood already accounted for.  And the king?  What's he do?  Well, we're told a few general things about what he's NOT supposed to do, and that looks curiously like a warning that the king is the one who should not have a consumeristic mentality toward his people.  The point of studying the book of the law is so that he would learn to fear the Lord and not have his heart lifted up above his brothers.  Who was in a position to stop the king from amassing too many wives, too much gold, and too many horses (for war)? 

Now if a pastor is supposed to have "kingly gifts" what do we make of the stern prohibitions against that "king" having "too many wives"?  What do we make of the "too much gold?  What constitutes "too much gold" if Benny Hinn has what he has? And how many even bother to think through what a warning against "too many horses" as a shorthand for millitary power would be?  I'll throw out a suggestion--in Israelite military organization the professional army wasn't supposed to be more powerful than the regional militias so that if at any point one of those kings was a tyrannical punk the people could depose him.  If you don't know for sure if kings were deposed in the OT I refer you to Joash and you can do some personalized study on that topic.   I don't see how anyone could credibly make a defense that pastors are "kings" in even a Deuteronomy 17 sense but if I assume for the sake of a very stupid argument that they somehow are then the textual evidence at hand says that the people, not the royal family or cabinet, get to decide how much money and power and women is too much.  Notice, too, that the kings with those kingly gifts are not self-nominated. :)

Now if we run with the assumption that Deuteronomy 17 does refer to Jesus in the end by way of typology, then His studying the book of the law so as not to have his heart lifted up above His brothers and sisters becomes food for thought.  You can mull that over if you want but I'll just end with that thought for the time being.

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