How Empire Assimilated Your Tribal Story and how Jesus Redefines Empire

CRC Synod 2016

The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is the broadest assembly of their three. Delegates are gathered from around the US and Canada to discuss issues concerning the whole church. Three of the biggest discussions this year were on a report concerning the Native American experience in mission schools, the Belhar Confession and Same-sex marriage.

In our Sunday Sermons we have been going through the book of 1 Samuel. You might imagine that 1 Samuel wouldn’t be very connected to what we talk about at Synod, with Native Americans trying to figure out what has happened to them through the process of Western Colonialism, or the Belhar where Africans also tried to sort out what it meant for European colonials to take their country and set up rules about race which governed the country. I think all of these stories are deeply connected. Our text today is 1 Samuel 8 where Samuel and the elders of Israel try to figure out how they will be governed.

What is a Tribe? 

If you read Genesis 10 this “table of the nations” you get this picture of a world filled with tribes.

table of the nations genesis 10

When you imagine the earliest form of human society what do you think about? What is a tribe? It is usually an extended family group often led by a patriarch or a matriarch. Everyone involved is family by birth or marriage or some sort of bond like slavery. If you read about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob you see this type of existence. It can be large and formidable, like Abraham battling kings, or it can be small, like Jacob worrying about what the slaughter of Shechem will do to his political reputation and security in the region.

When we talk about “Israel” we talk about the “12 tribes” and we always talk about the “elders”. Who were these people? They were a large, extended family all knit together by kinship groups. In 1 Samuel 1 we hear about Elkanah as son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph and Ephraimite. This locates Elkanah for the readers according to the family.

Mark Charles, when he introduced himself according to your location in the four clans. His mother’s mother give him identity.

mark charles at synod

Life swirls around kinship, blood and family bonds. Language, custom, culture, all go through this. Let’s look at a little bit of 1 Samuel 8.

1 Samuel 8:1–5 (NET)

1 In his old age Samuel appointed his sons as judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second son was Abijah. They were judges in Beer Sheba. 3 But his sons did not follow his ways. Instead, they made money dishonestly, accepted bribes, and perverted justice. 4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and approached Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons don’t follow your ways. So now appoint over us a king to lead us, just like all the other nations have.”

Eli Revisited

Now you know if you’ve been following along in the story  that this is an echo of what happened with Eli and his sons who corrupted the tabernacle of God. You note who comes to Samuel but what they bring. They are proposing a technological upgrade in human society that is enabling the rivals around them to dominate them. Last week we saw how the Lord gave them victory and freedom from the Philistines, but the Elders know the story of the Judges and fully expect the cycle to repeat. They want the tech update.

Empire Explained

We don’t think about it because we are thoroughly used to living in empire. What is an empire?

An empire is a political order with two important characteristics. First, to qualify for that designation you have to rule over a significant number of distinct peoples, each possessing a different cultural identity and a separate territory. How many peoples exactly? Two or three is not sufficient. Twenty or thirty is plenty. The imperial threshold passes somewhere in between.

Second, empires are characterised by flexible borders and a potentially unlimited appetite. They can swallow and digest more and more nations and territories without altering their basic structure or identity. The British state of today has fairly clear borders that cannot be exceeded without altering the fundamental structure and identity of the state. A century ago almost any place on earth could have become part of the British Empire.

Cultural diversity and territorial flexibility give empires not only their unique character, but also their central role in history. It’s thanks to these two characteristics that empires have managed to unite diverse ethnic groups and ecological zones under a single political umbrella, thereby fusing together larger and larger segments of the human species and of planet Earth.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 2944-2952). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

How was it possible to squeeze such a human potpourri into the territory of a modest modern state? It was possible because in the past there were many more distinct peoples in the world, each of which had a smaller population and occupied less territory than today’s typical people. The land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, which today struggles to satisfy the ambitions of just two peoples, easily accommodated in biblical times dozens of nations, tribes, petty kingdoms and city states.

Empires were one of the main reasons for the drastic reduction in human diversity. The imperial steamroller gradually obliterated the unique characteristics of numerous peoples (such as the Numantians), forging out of them new and much larger groups.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 2962-2968). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

When we hear about this most people associate “evil” with “empire”. You can find this idea in Star Wars. Who is the empire? What is empire about?

We should be a bit humble about this because we should recognize that most of us simply assume living in empire. We imagine everyone should have the right to self-determination. But do we really believe that?

The truth is that empire has been the world’s most common form of political organisation for the last 2,500 years. Most humans during these two and a half millennia have lived in empires. Empire is also a very stable form of government. Most empires have found it alarmingly easy to put down rebellions. In general, they have been toppled only by external invasion or by a split within the ruling elite. Conversely, conquered peoples don’t have a very good record of freeing themselves from their imperial overlords. Most have remained subjugated for hundreds of years. Typically, they have been slowly digested by the conquering empire, until their distinct cultures fizzled out.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 2972-2979). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

If you understand this, you can understand the conquest of the Americas by the Europeans, the conquest of the population of South Africa by the Europeans, and pretty much all of human history. This is what people do, how they organize, and how we all live.

If you read the story of the Bible with this in mind you see right away how this makes sense of so much of it.

  • Joseph goes from being a potential tribal chieftain to a functionary in Empire Egypt.
  • The Exodus is a critique of empire. God takes on Empire Egypt and beats it. Israel reverts to tribalism.
  • Israel in Canaan is in tribal soup and not doing very well. The story of Israel as it deals with the Egyptians, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans from Genesis to Revelation is a story of God and Empire.

Samuel and Yhwh React to the Elder’s Request

1 Samuel 8:6–22 (NET)

6 But this request displeased Samuel, for they said, “Give us a king to lead us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. 8 Just as they have done from the day that I brought them up from Egypt until this very day, they have rejected me and have served other gods. This is what they are also doing to you. 9 So now do as they say. But seriously warn them and make them aware of the policies of the king who will rule over them.”

10 So Samuel spoke all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “Here are the policies of the king who will rule over you: He will conscript your sons and put them in his chariot forces and in his cavalry; they will run in front of his chariot. 12 He will appoint for himself leaders of thousands and leaders of fifties, as well as those who plow his ground, reap his harvest, and make his weapons of war and his chariot equipment. 13 He will take your daughters to be ointment makers, cooks, and bakers. 14 He will take your best fields and vineyards and give them to his own servants. 15 He will demand a tenth of your seed and of the produce of your vineyards and give it to his administrators and his servants. 16 He will take your male and female servants, as well as your best cattle and your donkeys, and assign them for his own use. 17 He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will be his servants. 18 In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord won’t answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to heed Samuel’s warning. Instead they said, “No! There will be a king over us! 20 We will be like all the other nations. Our king will judge us and lead us and fight our battles.” 21 So Samuel listened to everything the people said and then reported it to the Lord.22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Do as they say and install a king over them.” Then Samuel said to the men of Israel, “Each of you go back to his own city.”

So what’s going on here if we read this through the lens of empire?

It’s clear that this request is considered to be a rejection of Yhwh. Most sermon on this text tend towards the xenophobic. God wants us to be different. OK, but we should dig deeper into the difference.

Why does God interpret this request in this way? Why does God imagine himself as their king?

We look at this functionally and see that God as king has fought for them, told them where to camp, what to do (the law/covenant), who to fight, etc. Israel hasn’t been a particularly compliant vassal.

We should also note that unlike “elders” God, like a king is “other”. In a tribal system your leaders are your elders are your family. There might be rivalry for leadership of the tribe but it hopefully it won’t come to uncle killing father.

What God notes here, and what Samuel’s warning illustrates is that the King is other. Samuel’s litany of what the king will do, take from the people, use the people, advantage himself at the people’s expense is a warning. This is the way of empire. This is the way of the world. This is the way of Kings.

Along the way in the book of Samuel as things develop we’ll spend a lot more time looking at kingship, how it is, what it means, where it goes. These are some of the great themes of the Bible. The whole section of Old Testament prophesy deals with this. This is the part of the Bible most ignored but it wrestles with empire, religion, and faithfulness to God as losers to the empires of the world.

When we hear about Europeans conquering tribes in North America and we want to figure out what God thinks about it we should read the story of Israel. This is their story. This is our story. Most of our tribal histories have long been obliterated by empire. Most of us have literally zero tribal identity because we were either ripped from our tribes or our tribes we decimated and we were absorbed into imperial identities such as American.

Native Americans and Africans in Africa have the good fortune of actually having a recorded knowledge of this. For most of us this story is simply washed away by successive layers of empire.

Kingship Redeemed

A lot of the Old Testament will deal with what God’s sub-kings of Israel should have done, and mostly how they failed.

Ezekiel 34:1–16 (NET)

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should not shepherds feed the flock? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the choice animals, but you do not feed the sheep! 4 You have not strengthened the weak, healed the sick, bandaged the injured, brought back the strays, or sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled over them. 5 They were scattered because they had no shepherd, and they became food for every wild beast.6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over the entire face of the earth with no one looking or searching for them. 7 “ ‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 8 As surely as I live, declares the sovereign Lord, my sheep have become prey and have become food for all the wild beasts. There was no shepherd, and my shepherds did not search for my flock, but fed themselves and did not feed my sheep, 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 This is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand my sheep from their hand. I will no longer let them be shepherds; the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore. I will rescue my sheep from their mouth, so that they will no longer be food for them. 11 “ ‘For this is what the sovereign Lord says: Look, I myself will search for my sheep and seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will seek out my flock. I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a cloudy, dark day.13 I will bring them out from among the peoples and gather them from foreign countries; I will bring them to their own land. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams and all the inhabited places of the land. 14 In a good pasture I will feed them; the mountain heights of Israel will be their pasture. There they will lie down in a lush pasture, and they will feed on rich grass on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will feed my sheep and I myself will make them lie down, declares the sovereign Lord. 16 I will seek the lost and bring back the strays; I will bandage the injured and strengthen the sick, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them—with judgment!

Israel in Perpetual Bondage to Pagan Empire

Most of the story of the Bible revolves around this theme. Israel is supposed to be the light to the nations. In Israel’s tiny moment of realized Yahwist empire the nations gathered to the light of Solomon, but Solomon was corrupted by empire itself. Most of the rest of the story is of the Old Testament is Israel in the midst of empire. The conflict is most easily seen by many of us in the book of Daniel.

When we come to the Gospels in the New Testament what is in view is the shape of deliverance from empire. Many cheering Jesus have in their minds the rebellion of the Maccabees . Because most Christians don’t read the Apocrypha much of this is lost. A big struggle in the Gospel is really about what type of deliverer can save. The Maccabean revolt in many ways was corrupted like the Solomonic empire and simply set up the context in which Jesus preached.

What comes out of this, of course, is a new way to live in the midst of oppressive Greco/Roman empire. Paul will explore that as the church is planted and grows.

The Misery of being Pulp for the Blender of Empire

People commonly feel themselves separated from the Bible. It is a book about a long ago people in a very different place in the world. It is a very different place in the world filled with different places.

Just a few years ago I learned of my Jewish roots. I was able to trace them into the Netherlands into the 17th century but before that I don’t know where they were. Did my ancestors come to the Netherlands from Spain? Was the Alhambra Decree the Doctrine of Discovery for my peoples?  How can I even locate “my peoples” in the blender of imperial human history? My mother’s side are Frisians. Now I’m an American. So who am I?

And the blender of imperial history isn’t slowing down. The American empire is churning, redefining, legislating, commanding. The other hot topic at Synod was same sex marriage. Many Christians are trying to figure out what this will mean for them.

In the mean time empires do their thing. The warnings of Samuel are as fresh today as they were for the Israelite elders. We just noted the passing of Muhammad Ali who changed his name so as not to hold the name of a previous slave owner. When called up to fight in Vietnam he asked why should he fight for his slave owners. What did the people of Vietnam ever do for him?

Many who fight in America’s wars today were not born in this nation. They went to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and thereby gain their citizenship.

The killer who shot up the gay nightclub in Orlando called the Islamic State to pledge his allegiance even though he was born in Imperial America.

We are pulp for the blender of empire and identities, moralities, and values are all in play.

Deliverance: The Imperial Christ

It always struck me as strange in the story of 1 Samuel 8 that while Samuel and God are on the same page, knowing full well what kingship in Israel would bring, God says “go ahead.” Why? Why not just sack up and tell Israel “no”. God said “no” to Israel plenty sometimes with violent and bloody expression. God is not shy about laying down the law. Why does he seem to cave here?

While we sometimes see God straighten up and let us have it for our rebellion, more often he seems to give in to our requests, knowing full well that we need to learn the long, hard way. He replaces Adam and Eve’s fig leaves with animal skins. He promises not to drown the world with a flood again. He hangs in there with Abraham as Abraham again and again tries to give himself a son rather than trusting that God will provide. Here God says to go ahead and start the road of king and empire knowing full well that God himself will take even this move and work it into his redemption story.

In the Ezekiel passage we see Ezekiel reiterate the results of the request of the elders. They asked for the new technology and what did they do with it? In Daniel we hear about a coming empire that conquers and replaces the imperial beasts of the earth that devour the sheep, or the pulp in the blender.

When Jesus calls himself “the Son of Man” he is talking the code talk of Ezekiel and Daniel. Jesus’ followers are hoping for a dramatic show-down like the thunder beating the Philistine army, but there is a twist in the script that no one can imagine.

I shouldn’t say that. Jesus tells his disciples plainly that he will go to Jerusalem, be taken into the hands of the nations and killed. They’re against it, but can’t stop it.

Jesus becomes the king Yhwh always ways, but now in stark contrast to Empire. Jesus is defeated by empire Rome, with blood and spittle on his royal frame.

If you listened to what Jesus taught, taking the servant boy and telling his disciples the greatest among them would be the servant of all, it would be no surprise. We don’t listen. The elders of Israel didn’t listen. We don’t listen. So Jesus comes and does the work for us.

Many men died on Roman crosses. Many would-be rescuers of Israel tried to avoid the cross but died by the sword anyway. Only Jesus would walk out of the tomb thus validating everything he taught and did. He not only destroyed the power of Empire in that moment, but he de-fanged empire’s number one tool, death.


You and your family as far back as you can go have long been the pulp of the imperial blender. Most of you could not find your tribal identity if you went back a thousand years through DNA tracking. Your family stories have been so thoroughly washed of any tribal identity that all you now bear is perhaps a generation or two of family history as regards to new and old empires of the world. You may have been ripped from your tribe by slave traders, by having your ancestor sold to a slave trader in a tribal war. Your people may be been colonialized and obliterated by a newish empire like America, or your people may have been part of that balkanized tribal Europe that has for centuries simply had people after people moved, killed, assimilated, annihilated.

Jesus comes to be the victim of empire, to die with us and for us. He then invites us to do the same as he does. He promises we will reign with him if we will die with him and rise with him.

He also gives us a new identity, a new tribe, a new empire which stands opposite the king Samuel promised and the kings of the ruling order of the world.

Will you take his new identity? Will you live his new, cruciform way?




About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in CRC, On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to How Empire Assimilated Your Tribal Story and how Jesus Redefines Empire

  1. Pingback: The Mysterious Providence of God’s Election of a King who will Fail Dramatically |

  2. Pingback: Can you Judge Between the Living and the Dead? Will your vision of Universal Equal Humanity resolve the Competing Claims of Humanity’s Billions? |

  3. Pingback: Samuel Makes it Rain on Israel’s Party Pointing them to the place where the Lion will lay down with the Lamb |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s