Where are the prophets?

This sermon was written (by hand!) and delivered on June 12th 1987, following the General Election of the previous day. 28 years ago, I was in my second year as a rabbinic student...

AMERSHAM (now South Bucks Jewish Community) 12/6/87

Public opinion is a strange and unpredictable phenomenon. It is difficult to say what it is that makes individuals or groups decide that they want a particular form of government or to be ruled over in such and such a way. Perhaps they look around enviously at what other people or other groups have and decide that they might also be able to benefit from a similar type of rule, though it is hard to see, in some cases, what they perceive those benefits to be. Of course the institution of a form of government which offers the possibility of an increase in individual wealth or the achievement of national greatness does appear quite attractive and it is possible that the public may decide that this is of more importance to them than adherence to a moral code whose benefits are less perceptible, less tangible. It is at this point that the people look at those around them who have achieved this wealth, this position of national and international prominence, and decide to abandon the moral tradition which is their inheritance and attempt to acquire these more material measures of greatness.

It was a situation such as this which the prophet Samuel faced when confronted by the public opinion of the Children of Israel as they looked around them at the other Canaanite nations with their kings and their worldly goods. The elders of Israel told Samuel that the people wanted to benefit from this type of rule which, as far as Samuel was concerned, was in direct opposition to the moral code of the Torah, the law of the Lord, the one true King. Samuel knew what the consequences of appointing a King would be:

‘This will be the practice of the King who will rule over you. He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. He will appoint them as chiefs of thousands and of fifties, or they will have to plough his fields, reap his harvests and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks and bakers. He will seize your choice fields, vineyards and olive groves and give them to his courtiers. He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men and your donkeys and put them to work for him. He will take a tenth part of your flocks and you shall become his slaves.’ (I Samuel 8:4-17)

So Samuel warned the people of the consequences of this new form of government which would bring an aggressive defence policy with a massive programme of armament, enormous restrictions on personal freedom and sweeping increases in taxation. ‘The day will come,’ he warned, ‘when you cry out because of the King you have chosen for yourselves’ (I Sam 4:18) But the warning was in vain. The people had seen the wealth and the power which they stood to gain and they continued to press for the election of a King who would bring riches to them and prestige to their nation. Samuel’s final appeal that the Lord, who was the source of their moral code, who had chosen them to do his will in the world, would abandon them also fell on deaf ears and the die was cast. The Children of Israel had elected for themselves a new form of government.

At first, this new type of rule looked set to unify the nation, the 12 tribes of Israel, into a coherent national unit. After the replacement of King Saul with the popular charismatic figure of David, the material successes of this new rule were abundantly clear. There was great military expansion, constant warfare on the ever growing borders of the new kingdom and the people really felt themselves to be part of a great nation. The economy flourished as well, as trading with neighbouring lands increased thanks to the wealth captured from vanquished armies and cities. The Children of Israel had never had it so good and the warnings of Samuel, long since dead, appeared groundless and of no relevance to the prospering nation. Congratulating themselves on their achievement thus far, the Children of Israel buried King David and looked forward to a third term of monarchic rule under Solomon.

But there were problems looming. David had established his capital in the prosperous and fertile lands of Judah in the south of the country and Solomon sought to consolidate the successes of his predecessor’s term of office by building the Temple in Jerusalem. He also began an extensive programme of mining for copper in Ezion Geber. Both these projects required an enormous amount of manpower and groups of people from the northern tribes were forced into helping with these prestigious projects. In order to finance the work, harsh taxes were imposed – again, on the poorer tribes of the north. In the south, meanwhile, a new class of merchants and royal officials were able to enjoy the wealth created in this new society and the divisions between the rich and poor grew starker. The United Kingdom became less and less stable and less and less united as the new middle classes, the yuppies of the rich south, grew richer on the backs of the underprivileged northern masses.

There were voices of complaint of course, as the disciples of the prophet Samuel, referred to in history books as members of the prophetic party, spoke out against the injustices and inequalities in society. Although time has robbed us of any written records of their words, it seems safe to assume that the words of Amos and Isaiah, who lived in a later period, were based on the observations of their prophetic predecessors. In the northern towns and perhaps even on the streets of Jerusalem itself, these might have been the sort of proclamations being made:

‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good

Devote yourselves to justice.

Help those who have been wronged.

Uphold the rights of the orphan

Defend the cause of the widow.’   (Isaiah 1:17)

 

‘Woe to those who add house to house

And join field to field

Till there is room for none but you

To dwell in the land…

Surely great houses shall lie forlorn

Spacious and splendid ones without occupants.’ (Isaiah 5:8,9)

 

‘Hear this and warn the House of Jacob

                            - says my Lord, the God of hosts –

That when I punish Israel for its transgressions

I will wreak judgment on the altars of Bethel…

I will wreck the winter palace

Together with the summer palace

The ivory palaces shall be demolished

And the great houses destroyed.’ (Amos 3:13-15)

These prophetic figures, chastising the evil they saw around them, were not accorded the respect which we now bestow on them; they were regarded as slightly eccentric and rather dangerous – and were the ‘loony left’ in the eyes of the ruling classes. They cried out in vain as Samuel had done – the people to whom they were appealing to too occupied with the acquisition of wealth to pay them any attention, and the poor, on whose behalf they spoke, too powerless to alter the situation.

Following the death of King Solomon, the division between north and south had become so vast that the great United Kingdom, less than 100 years old, split – finally and irrevocably. Tired of being taxed, oppressed and exploited by the wealthy southern middle classes, the 10 northern tribes formed their own political unit. For the north there followed decades of upheaval, culminating eventually in the destruction of the northern kingdom by the Assyrians. The wealthy southern state of Judah survived and prospered for the most part until it met the same fate at the hands of the Babylonians 100 or so years later.

The prophet Samuel had not gone so far as to prophesy the destruction of the Children of Israel as a result of their popular decision to be ruled by a monarch he had simply warned of the dangers inherent in placing trust in an earthly power whose appeal was geared to personal gain and national prestige rather than to moral duty and religious observance. Yet within less than 50 years of his death, the burdens of taxation, the loss of personal freedom and the military adventuring of which he had warned were a part of everyday life for the majority of the populace who had rejected his warnings. The greedy ambition of those in the wealthy south at the expense of the poorer north meant that a division in the United Kingdom was inevitable. But perhaps the most far reaching effect of the Children of Israel’s decision to appoint a monarch in place of God, to put issues of personal greed before those of human need, was the state of moral bankruptcy in which they were left. According to the later prophets, it was this absence of morality and social responsibility which led to the destruction of their land, their institutions and their way of life. Some may see this application of the principle of cause and effect as being an exaggeration: that the collapse of Israel and Judah was due to the forces of history, not to a simple equation which says that self-interest leads to self-destruction. I sincerely hope that this was and is the case…

 

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