All Commentary
Sunday, May 1, 1955

The Revolution At Ramah

This is the only recorded revolution
for more government instead of less

The israelites had come on evil times. The Philistines not only had licked them roundly but had also made off with the sacred ark of the covenant. Among the tribesmen everything was at sixes and sevens. The camaraderie of wilderness days was giving way to social disintegration, now that they had settled down to village life in the hills around the Promised Land, in sight of the walled cities of the Amorites and within easy reach of the coastal towns inhabited by the Baal-worshippers. There was strife within the community, and it was along the bitter lines of class distinction. The master-and-slave relationship had sprung up out of nowhere; the commonality of clan-interest was somehow being dissolved by social stratification. The consequent demoralization made the erstwhile conquering herdsmen easy picking for the Philistines.

There was only one explanation for this reversal of form. They had perverted Mishpat. During their nomadic days this common-sense code of justice, this clan-ethic, had served them well. It gave them strength and prosperity. But new institutions had sprung up since they had become tillers of the soil, and these institutions not only violated their traditional code but were of the essence of Baalism, which Yahweh detested.

Yahweh had done well by the tribe of Joseph. He had led them safely out of the land of the Pharaohs, had favored them in the long years of battle with believers in strange gods, and had finally brought them to the outposts of the best piece of real estate then known. They prospered because they practiced Mishpat, the rules and rituals of social behavior, as prescribed ,by Yahweh. Deviation from this ethos was bound to bring his wrath upon them, and that meant hard times.

Mishpat was born of trial and error, bred by experience. It was the reduction to formulae of adjustments which had proved beneficial to the individual tribesmen and had prospered the tribe as a whole. It took care of everything. There were conventions covering conjugal matters, and there were dietary safeguards of health; to prevent destructive feuds, principles of equity were worked out; slavery, as between themselves, would vitiate tribal strength and therefore was taboo; since they believed that access to land was the necessary condition of their lives, the soil was declared to be the common heritage, never to be commercialized. Though every man was enjoined to do that which was right in his own eyes, right was qualified by Mishpat, the rule of justice; and social pressure was enough to keep him in line. When a difference of interpretation occurred, the matter was referred to elders; and these Judges, because of their integrity and wisdom, spoke for and with the authority of Yahweh. They served without salary; their decisions carried weight.

The Israelites did nicely with this system when they were on the move. But now, at the time of Samuel, the last of the Judges, their economy had changed and the system went sour.

Things were going from bad to worse. Once a people leave the road of righteousness there is no telling where they will land. Even the judge system had broken down under the impact of the new economy; the anointed of Yahweh got to taking bribes. The story in the First Book of Samuel, chapter 8, tells how the old man had appointed a couple of his sons to help him out; he seems to have been in great demand among the clans, doing duty as a circuit judge. But these sons did not follow in his ways, for they “turned aside after lucre and perverted judgment.” So the elders of Israel called upon Samuel at Ramah and lodged a protest.

It would be interesting to know something about the background of this protest committee; on the basis of the reform they suggested one is disinclined to rate them highly, and it could be suspected that they were of the newly arisen aristocracy with an axe of their own to grind. They advocated a political order which was foreign to Israelite thought and in direct imitation of Baalism. “Make us a king,” they said, “to judge us like all nations.” That is to say, instead of demanding social justice, as represented by Mishpat, they asked for a deliverer, a man of power, a policeman with a wand. That was Baalism at its worst.

Samuel was opposed to the proposed constitutional reform; he knew that it was unsound in principle and therefore Israel would not prosper by it. He took the matter under consideration, meaning that he consulted Yahweh. He got an earful.

The fact is, said Yahweh, that these scalawags are not against you or the judge system. They are indeed plotting against me, the god who brought them safely out of Egypt. I have had trouble enough holding them in line; they have been flirting with other gods all along. And now they want a king. Well, let them have one and be done with it. But you might, as a parting shot, tell them what’s in store for them. Not that it will do the least good, but get it off your chest anyway.

So Samuel said to the elders: This king you are asking for will have to have an army; and it will not be an army of volunteers, as in the old days, but he will conscript your sons. He will also set up a nobility over you, “captains over hundreds and captains over thousands,” and this nobility will be loyal to their sovereign; for their interests will be tied up with his. Your daughters will be required to serve in the houses of the mighty. Your lands, the best of them, will be taken from you and vested in the nobility. Many of your goodliest young men, your maidservants and your manservants will become slaves. What’s more, you can depend on your king to lay a load of taxes on you; yes, even a tenth part of your produce will go to keep up his establishment. When all this comes about and you realize the mistake you made in abandoning Mishpat, don’t think that you can turn to Yahweh for relief; for he has washed his hands of you. He told me so.

“Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, nay; but we will have a king over us; that we may be like the other nations; and that our king may judge us, and fight our battles.”

Samuel again reported the decision of the elders, and Yahweh threw up his hands. Thus came Saul and the Jewish State. And it is on record that from the time the Israelites substituted a king for Mishpat they were always in a peck of trouble.

In one respect this meeting held at Ramah was most unusual. It is the only revolutionary conclave on record at which the decision was made to abandon a regime of social power in favor of a regime of political power. Most revolutions have been instigated by resentment at the concentration of power and with the hope that the incumbent authority could be replaced by some restricted governing machinery. The ideal revolution is one that places government subservient under the popular will, making it a social instrument rather than a self-sufficient leader. But at Ramah we have a reversal of the formula; a people who had long enjoyed government by public opinion, circumscribed by custom and tradition, decided to try out the Fighter principle. The trouble with that principle is that once it is put into practice it hardens into an immovable obstacle to freedom, and dislodgment of it becomes most difficult. That is what Samuel, who was something of a political scientist, meant when he said that the Jews could not expect Yahweh to lead them back to Mishpat, once they had abandoned it.

There is a close similarity between the revolution at Ramah and the drive of many Americans to institute a strong central government in place of the one envisioned by the Founding Fathers, a government of strictly delimited powers. These socialists—which is their proper name, whatever else they choose to call themselves—are likewise hellbent on giving up liberty and placing themselves under a kingship of some kind. If they succeed, will not the fate of ancient Israel befall America? Has any people who have sought surcease from the responsibilities of life in mortal authority and leadership come to a good end? []

Frank Chodorov is editor of The Freeman.

An Axiom of Government

The greater the number of laws or judicial decisions, the smaller the number of rights. The Ten Commandments and the Twelve Tables were known and understandable to everyone, but who could comprehend the enormous complications of modern legislation? Under such circumstances the requirement that every man know the laws is sheer mockery. The citizen of a civilized country, if he is without a legal adviser, is in increasing measure just as helpless as an African illiterate without a scribe; and in New York, the center of world economy, the businessman, once representative of freedom, cannot take a step except under mentorship of a legal specialist. In Russia there is no way of fathoming the meaning of justice. The demand for concise and clear legislation understandable to the people—a demand once expressed in such sharp opposition to the introduction of Roman law—is now manifested only in isolated instances; for example, in several results of plebiscites in Switzerland. Everywhere the Chinese puzzle of legalistics has practically wiped out the possibility of asserting one’s rights—which is the strongest expression of individual freedom.

Felix Somary in “Democracy at Bay.”
New York: A. A. Knopf, 1952

  • Frank Chodorov was an advocate of the free market, individualism, and peace. He began as a supporter of Henry George and edited the Georgist paper the Freeman before founding his own journal, which became the influential Human Events. He later founded another version of the Freeman for the Foundation for Economic Education and lectured at the Freedom School in Colorado.