Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The State and Foreign Policy

"The governors are to settle disputes
by negotiation,
 if possible, and by
 if necessary and justifiable. ... 
In foreign policy, the role of 

government in ancient Israel was
was not to make the world, or
even the
 Middle East, safe for
theocracy. The nation was simply
 occupy the land that God had
given them."
by John W. Robbins

Any adequate discussion of the foreign policy of ancient Israel must deal with several subjects: treaties, alliances, diplomacy, colonialism, espionage, and war. I shall discuss each of these briefly.

Treaties. In Exodus 23:20-33 there is an explicit command to Israel not to make treaties with the nations of Canaan: “You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods” (verse 32). God intended to destroy those nations, and he did not want Israel fraternizing with them. The command does not imply that all treaties are wrong, only that it was wrong for Israel to make treaties with the nations God was about to destroy. It was a command intended only for ancient Israel.
When treaties are made, however, they are to be kept, even if one is tricked into making the agreement. A treaty negotiated by Joshua with the Gibeonites resulted from his failure to follow God’s instruction (“The men of Israel...did not ask counsel of the Lord,” Joshua 9:14), and Joshua was deceived by the clever Gibeonites. Nevertheless, because the Israelites had sworn an oath, they were bound to keep it:
But the children of Israel did not attack them [the Gibeonites] because the rulers of the congregation had sworn to them by the Lord God of Israel. And all the congregation murmured against the rulers. Then all the rulers said to all the congregation, “We have sworn to them by the Lord God of Israel; now therefore we may not touch them” [Joshua 9:18-19].
Alliances. God’s command to ancient Israel not to make treaties with its neighbors does, however, raise the question of the legitimacy of making treaties and forming alliances. On alliances the Bible seems to speak quite clearly:
Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many, and in horsemen because they are very strong, but who do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord.... Now the Egyptians are men, and not God; and their horses are flesh and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out his hand, both he who helps will fall, and he who is helped will fall down; they all will perish together [Isaiah 31:1, 3].
This seems to be a general condemnation of alliances and of trust in armies and weapons. The Bible disapproves of political and military alliances because they are acts of faith in weapons and soldiers, and not in God; and it discourages treaties because they are serious agreements that must be performed.

Diplomacy. The limitation on government-to-government contact in the Bible is so restrictive that embassies and permanent diplomatic missions were not authorized for the Hebrew republic. Rather, when the necessity arose, an emissary was dispatched for the specific purpose of carrying a message or discussing a problem. For example, after the Israelites had escaped from Egypt, Moses sent out emissaries to the King of Edom asking permission to pass through Edom: “Please let us pass through your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, nor will we drink water from wells; we will go along the king’s highway; we will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory” (Numbers 20:17). The King of Edom refused Moses’ request, and “Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory; so Israel turned away from him” (verse 21).

There are two things that ought to be noticed about this account: the use of emissaries for specific and unavoidable negotiations, and the refusal of Moses as the leader of God’s chosen people to cross the border of Edom without the Edomites’ permission.

Even when ancient Israel was a monarchy, it seems that it had no ambassadors or embassies abroad: “Now Hiram King of Tyre sent his servants to Solomon, because he heard that they had anointed him king in place of his father, for Hiram had always loved David. Then Solomon sent word to Hiram” (1 Kings 5: 1-2). Even between friends, Hiram and David, there apparently were no permanent ambassadors. King Hiram had helped David build his house, but he sent messengers to Solomon. There were no permanent ambassadors even under the monarchy.

No provision was made for resident ambassadors and embassies in the model government, the Hebrew republic; and even the monarchy, apparently, did not enlarge its meddling in foreign affairs to the point of sending and receiving permanent representatives.

Espionage. A related foreign policy question is the matter of spies, for perhaps the predominant function of embassies today (and perhaps whenever they have been used) is espionage. Ancient Israel used spies, but only during war and for short periods of time. Just as there was no standing army, so there were no standing armies of spies and diplomats. God commanded Moses to “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan,” one from each tribe (Numbers 13:2). Ten of the spies were worthless; two were useful. I suspect the same ratio has always held. Moses also sent spies to Jazer (Numbers 21:32), a Canaanite city. Joshua sent two spies to Jericho (Joshua 2:1).

Some of this spying was commanded by God, and perhaps all of it was, but we are not told that all of it was done at God’s express command. But spying was used exclusively during wartime. Spying on other nations was not a normal, peacetime practice of either the Hebrew republic or the monarchy. It seems clear that spying on one’s neighboring governments during peacetime, even more than maintaining embassies that harbor spies, is a form of prohibited foreign intervention. It can hardly be argued that God’s command to Moses justifies the regular use of spies, for the command was very specific: Spy out the land of Canaan. Espionage, except during wartime, is not a proper function of government.

Colonialism. In the nineteenth century the phrase “white man’s burden” was used to justify the colonial policies of the European nations. Because of his superior culture, intelligence, race, and learning, so the argument went, the white man has the burden of ruling the lesser breeds. Ancient Israel, by contrast, had no burden to rule over the benighted nations of the world. God’s foreign policy, even when he was establishing a political state in the Middle East, was very limited in scope.

This was as it had to be: A government of limited domestic powers must also be a government of limited international powers. The proper concerns of foreign policy cannot exceed the proper concerns of government in general: the safety and freedom of the territory and people within its borders. Israel, though it was the only nation specially chosen by God, had no authority to liberate Egypt from the Pharaohs. If ancient Israel did not have such authority, even though it had specific commands from God and occupied a unique place in human history, far less does any modern nation have such authority.

War. God commanded the ancient Israelites at different times both to refrain from war as well as to attack certain nations. In Deuteronomy2:5 God says, “Do not meddle with them [the children of Esau who lived in Seir], for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as one footstep.... You shall buy food from them with money, that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink.... Do not harass Moab, nor contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land” (verses 5, 6, 9). Continuing commercial relations are not forbidden, but continuing military and political relations are. Borders were instituted for the purpose of separating rulers, not peoples, from each other.

From all these considerations it is clear that the people, not the governors, play the major role in foreign relations. The governors are to settle disputes by negotiation, if possible, and by war if necessary and justifiable. Free trade and travel between nations is the rule. The absence of both resident ambassadors and spies is the norm.

In foreign policy, the role of government in ancient Israel was not to make the world, or even the Middle East, safe for theocracy. The nation was simply to occupy the land that God had given them. Had God not commanded them to do so, in specific detail, they would have had no authority to act even as they did.

The Trinity Review, July, August 2010
Copyright © 1998-2011 The Trinity Foundation
Posted by permission from The Trinity Foundation
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