Civil Disobedience in the Bible

The Bible has a number of models for nonviolent resistance.

Excerpted and reprinted with permission from "The Sword and the Plowshare as Tools of Tikkun Olam," published by The Shalom Center.

If we look back at the history of biblical Israel, there are two very important strands from which we need to learn and with which we need to wrestle. One is the strand of constant willingness to challenge and disobey arrogant power, whether it’s located in Pharaoh or in a Jewish king. The other is the strand of willingness to use violence–sometimes hyper-violence–to advance the Jewish vision of a decent society.

Let us first take up the strand of resistance to unaccountable power. The story of Shifrah and Puah–the midwives who refused to obey Pharaoh’s order to murder Hebrew boy babies–is perhaps the first tale of nonviolent civil disobedience in world literature.

The process of liberation in the Exodus itself is woven with violence in the form of disastrous ecological upheavals and ultimately the death of Egypt’s firstborn. But the imposition of these plagues is ascribed to God and thus placed one giant step away from Israelite behavior. Indeed, the Israelites are specifically forbidden to leave their homes on the night when the firstborn die. The most active deed of the Israelites themselves is described as a nonviolent one: visiting the Egyptian homes to demand reparations–gold and jewels that will repay them for many years of slavery.

The Hebrew Bible also describes nonviolent resistance to Babylonian and Persian power. For example, Jeremiah warns against using violence and military alliances to oppose the Babylonian conquest, and argues instead that God will protect the people if Judah acts in accord with the ethical demands of Torah–freeing slaves, letting the land rest.

Daniel and his friends are famously cast into the lions’ den for nonviolently refusing to obey the king’s command to worship foreign gods. And, although the Book of Esther ends in violence, Esther herself demonstrates nonviolent civil disobedience when, in fear and trembling, she approaches the Persian king without having been invited so that she can carry out her mission to save the Jewish people from a murderous tyrant.

Well, we might say, it is not surprising that Israelite culture would celebrate resistance to foreign potentates. What about Israel’s own kings?

Here too there are tales of nonviolent resistance. There is a powerful story of an Israelite king, Saul, who had to deal with an underground guerilla whom he thought of as a terrorist, named David. And David, with a very small band of underground guerillas, went off, hungry and desperate, and found food and protection at a sacred shrine, where they asked the priests to let them eat the show-bread, the lehem [ha]panim, the sacred bread placed before God, because they were desperately hungry. And the priests fed them from the sacred bread.

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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