Lies of Leadership 2: OT LOL
The Old Testament (save Leviticus) reads like a great made-for-TV movie; warring nations, tales of intrigue, heavenly messengers and fire that rains from the sky. Who could resist finding the gravest of leadership lessons there? The regal and military tales make it easy to find a kind of perspective on Godly leadership and leaders not unlike the way people draw analogies about leadership from sports. But this is where we must part ways with church leadership rhetoric and consider how much the discussion is just a mirror of the things we already believe. Is leadership even explicitly addressed in the Old Testament, let alone as a primary concern? Sure, scripture may talk about the blessedness of a just king, but this is a far cry from making position and influence a normative goal. What Proverbs sees as a way to endorse justice, we see as a statement of how necessary kings are. And as I mentioned earlier, you define leadership will in large part determine what you find.
In the Old Testament, leadership is largely a function of role, and that role is patriarchy. If patriarchy is undermined, is leadership, too? When we look at the Old Testament leaders, we’re not looking at uniquely divine roles. We’re looking at roles imported from the basic ancient culture of the Levant. There's nothing unique or different about having a king, even a good one. What is primarily different about Israel's kings is God's relationship to them.
To its credit, scripture doesn’t sugar coat much so it’s hard to find any paragon of leadership. We try examining Moses, Joshua, David and Nehemiah (with option for Ruth) but scripture's focus is never on our modern science of leadership. Most people are uncomfortable with a divinely anointed ruler, especially if they don't get to choose them. Leaders who hear God tell them to commit genocide and regicide have fallen somewhat out of favor.
Because the power and patriarchy seem so antique to our modern sensibilities we focus on individuals' leadership qualities as if leadership were an objective, absolute thing inherent to the story. We abstract virtues and characteristics from the stories, and claim them as “biblical” because we can see them in the Old Testament, which makes for a pretty shallow, individualistic interpretation of leadership in the texts. Without fail, we pick the kernel of leadership truth out of the husk, and don’t consider the failings of the biblical leaders as an interrelated part of who they are.
As the primary evidence for this, I submit that we overlook a central feature of the Old Testament, the crisis in Israel’s kingship. As the clearest and most convenient model of leadership, it goes largely ignored that God describes the desire for a king as rejecting Him in 1 Sam.8. That impulse is further identified as a desire to be like the rest of the nations, to have the same worldly power. That’s strong stuff.
If the earlier judges in Israel were figures raised up by God, and ad hoc leadership, then the king represents a technology of leadership, of government that God claims is idolatrous. And as good as kings are, they still can’t hold the kingdom together.
Later through Jeremiah and Ezekiel we see God spurn the “shepherds” for their preying upon people, and in the prophets we see a kind of divine madness that defies our notions of leadership. Why lay down on your side for a year or dig out of your house if it doesn’t matter? Why marry an adulterer who can’t repent? Why tell deaf people to listen? The testimony of the prophets is just weird. They offend our leadership sensibilities because they are at times harsh and above all, ineffective. We like that they speak strongly to kings and look bravely defiant, but no one repents. Kings don’t listen. Judah is destroyed. There are no metrics to describe the leadership of the prophets, only God’s testimony to their faithfulness.
Mind you, none of this is a small tucked away feature. It is central narrative that anticipates Christ in salvation history. Perhaps it is an indictment of the evangelical hermeneutic that easily atomizes scripture and misses the big picture. Whatever the reason, leadership misses the point. In the end, it is a modern fascination that we read back into the text, a treasure hunt in a looking glass. The Old Testament does not witness to the primacy or importance of leadership in following God with faith. I hope I don't come off as a burgeoning militia member here. I'm not trying to argue organization or governance, but I do hope one day that there are as many books about generosity, justice and forgiveness as there are about, “The Next Generation of Leader” on pastor’s bookshelves.