Civil Disobedience in the Bible

The Bible has a number of models for nonviolent resistance.

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When Saul heard about this, he said (more or less), "Anybody who harbors a terrorist is a terrorist!" (Do you hear an echo?) and so King Saul ordered his own bodyguards to kill the priests of Nov. But the bodyguards refused.

His own bodyguards, yet they refused to murder these priests. An act of nonviolent civil disobedience against an Israelite king, not an Egyptian Pharaoh.

The tales of the prophets are filled with moments of nonviolent resistance to illegitimate uses of power by Israelite kings. Jeremiah, for example, used "Yippy" acts of street theater to protest. He wore a yoke as he walked in public, to embody the yoke of God that the King had shrugged off and the yoke of Babylonian captivity that the King was bringing on the people.

The Torah also bears descriptions of how it would look to have power made accountable to the public and to the guardians of Torah. A passage in Deuteronomy describes a constitutional monarch who must write, day by day, those passages of Torah that restrict his own power. He must not multiply horses--the cavalry, tanks, and Apache helicopters of that day. He must not pile up money for his treasury. He must not send the people back into Mitzrayim, which didn't mean sending them back to geographical Egypt, but meant sending them back to slavery. And he had to read the Torah, in public.

Imagine Richard Nixon reading the Bill of Rights on national television and having to listen to direct responses.

That's one strand of ancient Torah. More familiar to us is the other strand, the one that, in its vision of creating a decent society in a little sliver of land on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, over and over again counsels violence, even genocide. The sense that creating a decent society could only be done by military means is a very strong strand of Torah.

Even within this approach, however, the biblical model of Jewish life preserved some limits on war. Even in wartime, the Israelite army was forbidden to cut down fruit trees, unless they were actually being used as bulwarks in defending against a siege. And the Torah provided for individual exemptions from the army for young people in the earliest journey of making a family, building a house, creating a vineyard, feeling fear of death in battle, or fearing to become a killer.

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Rabbi Arthur O. Waskow

Rabbi Arthur Ocean Waskow directs the Shalom Center and is the author of numerous books, including Godwrestling, Godwrestling--Round 2, Seasons of Our Joy, The Bush is Burning, and These Holy Sparks.