In ancient Greece, tyranny was considered an essential social service. The natural world was an unpredictable place, a reality that made citizens unreliable. A tyrant used force of will to ensure that the ambitions of the state were achieved. The method of enforcement was often violence. Advisers were respected according to their success to channeling royal aggression for beneficial ends.
Tyranny in early cultures was universal. Aggression, by its nature, is volatile, so the character of the ruler dominated the public welfare. It is in through Moses that we see God’s response to this difficulty.
In brief, Moses was adopted into the Egyptian royal family. A prince’s license to aggression is turned against a servant of the state, forcing Moses into exile. Through this experience, happily, Moses is conditioned to lead his people into nationhood. Returning to Egypt, Moses unleashes plagues. When Pharoah ignores the suffering of his people, finally death is visited upon the royal household, and the Israelites are liberated.
But was that just to become another tyranny? What kind of leader would Moses be? He is tried and found wanting.
As with the rest of the Prophets, however, the framing of Moses’ experience demonstrates God’s redemptive genius.
Moses is led to a mountain and given inscribed commandments, the first being “Thou shalt not kill.” At the mountain’s foot, while Moses is away the Israelites create an idol, the Golden Calf. Returning, Moses loses control, destroying the tablets and having 3000 of his countrymen killed.
Tyranny, pure and simple.
But the tablets. What to do about the broken tablets?
Moses returns to the mountain and is confronted. “Really, Moses? You know, if these people aren’t good enough for you, I can get you others.” Shamed, Moses commits to bear responsibility for their transgressions. God continues “Ok. Here are new tablets and a chisel. Carve them yourself.”
Number 1: THOU SHALT NOT KILL
Inevitably and inescapably read as a personal admonition.
Forty years later, Moses rests on the far side of the Canaan river, watching his people enter the Promised Land, renouncing – under the flimsiest justification – any claim to authority over the gift gained through his devotion to God and his people.
So how can it be that any nation claiming provenance under God could elevate as a right the unregulated use of violence?