The Jerusalem Post
The Hebrew Bible and the American Revolution
Thomas Paine, pamphleteer supreme, printed his greatest work “Common Sense,” in January 1776. The American Revolution was in its birth and Paine meant to inspire the colonials not to waver but to fight for independence from King George III. As a political pamphlet it is curious that Paine turned to the Hebrew Bible to bolster his argument. But then again, the soldiers who fought the war knew the Christian scriptures well, believed the British monarch to be the Antichrist, and would be swayed by an example of opposing monarchy from what they considered the Old Testament.
The prime example of opposition to monarchy is presented by Paine from I Samuel 8. The ancient Israelites protest Samuel’s leadership as a prophet and demand, “Appoint a king for us, to govern us like all other nations.” Their request was justified; they had enemies to fight and fortified cities to build. But Samuel did not see it this way. The Israelites were rejecting God’s rule as king.
Samuel confronts God with this rejection of theocracy. As the Bible relates, God begrudgingly gives into the demand of the people. But He tells Samuel to warn the Israelites of the oppression and enslavement of the people under a human king. The prophet tells his people, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you. He will take your sons and appoint them as charioteers and horsemen, they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and equipment for the 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 .... The day will come when you cry out because of the king you yourselves have chosen; and the
Lord will not answer you on that day.”
Although monarchy eventually became the template for redemption, Thomas Paine focused on the suffering of the people under a king. He writes, “The hankering which the Jews had for idolatrous customs of the heathens is sometimes exceedingly unaccountable.” Paine further condemned the ancient Israelites, writing, “These portions of scripture are direct and positive. They admit of no equivocal construction. That the almighty hath entered his protest against monarchical government is true, or the scripture is false.” Then Paine overstates the case to protest British kingship: “Monarchy is ranked in scripture as one of the sins of the Jews for which a curse in reserve is denounced against them.”
ALTHOUGH PAINE disdained the Bible – calling the Old Testament “a history of wickedness” in his Age of Reason (1794, 1795) – he realized that most colonists would respect an argument against monarchy that emerged from the scriptures. Looking back almost 250 years, we ignore the reality of a revolt influenced by clergy and by the Christian Scriptures. The Hebrew Bible – with Moses as a warrior – was the perfect portrayal of a prophet liberating his people from an oppressive king. It would inspire colonists who were unsure to go to war but would listen to their religious leaders. Whether monarchy was the epitome of evil seemed clear to Paine. Yet, in the end, God sanctified monarchy and established it as the form of leadership that will eventually lead to messianic redemption.
Paine was not the only patriot to cite the Hebrew Bible to inspire the colonials. Pastors and ministers often based their sermons on events in what the Christians called the Old Testament. Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, was meek and a man of peace. Except for the Book of Revelation – it portrays Jesus as the warrior against Satan – the clergymen relied often on the Hebrew Bible to inspire their flock. The Hebrew Bible recounts much war and bravery, so it served as a perfect model for inspiration in the revolt against the British Empire. The Revolutionary War was a political struggle but also a struggle between good and evil. In his enlightening Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution (2017), historian James P. Byrd writes, “Scripture was everywhere in Revolutionary America. As historian Gordon S. Wood aptly summarized, “It was the clergy who made the Revolution meaningful for most common people.” The American Revolution was a religious revolution.
While pastors and ministers relied on the Gospels and the letters of Paul, they frequently relied on the Hebrew Bible for inspiration. One example is the episode of Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. Another is from the Book of Judges: Deborah’s defeat of the Canaanites with the help of Yael, the Kenite, in the execution of Sisera. The clergy cited the division of David’s kingdom when the northern tribes rebelled. Also, there is David’s thanksgiving for national salvation in the Psalms (124). The congregants knew the Christian scriptures well and these sermons motivated them to fight.
Of course, the founders of America identified closely with the ancient Israelites and considered America a new promised land. The escape from religious persecution in Europe was seen as a modern-day Exodus. But it should never be forgotten that 1776 was not only the fight for political independence but a fight to face oppressive evil and defeat it. Although Christians read the Hebrew Bible differently than Jews – as a harbinger of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah – the Jewish scriptures would influence a generation of Christian warriors in a fight for freedom.