It occurs to me in these days of independence referenda and questions over the future shape and nature of the United Kingdom that we might possibly learn a few things from the example of Biblical Israel. Be aware that I’m not necessarily talking about the modern State of Israel; the two obviously overlap, but there are inevitable differences of structure between a modern nation-state and a Bronze Age/Iron Age tribal kingdom, to say the least.
The ancient Israel of the Bible was a collection of twelve individual tribes that made up a single nation. Initially ruled by Divinely-appointed military-political-spiritual leaders that we have traditionally referred to as “judges”, power was later centralised and formalised into a unitary kingdom, first under Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, and then under David of the tribe of Judah.
This kingdom later divided into a northern kingdom containing ten tribes, known as Israel, or poetically as Ephraim after its most powerful tribe, and a southern kingdom that was centred on and named after the tribe of Judah. But I particularly want to focus on that earlier single kingdom.
It seems to me that there are some fairly obvious parallels. Any ancient Israelite had both a tribal identity and a national identity as an Israelite, and these, at least at the height of the single kingdom, were not in conflict with one another. And that was in an Iron Age context where tribalism was the rule, and if you weren’t one of us you were one of them: an outsider and foreigner. You might ally with them briefly against a larger and more powerful enemy, but they were still foreigners and rivals.
A lot of modern politics seems to inherit this tribal mindset. Our tribes may be a bit larger or more esoteric than those of the Iron Age – nation-states or political parties rather than actual tribes – but a lot of the mentality is the same. It makes a frightening amount of sense of current American politics to view the Republican and Democratic Parties as two rival tribes vying for power, and UK politics is often similar. People sometimes inherit their political allegiances from those of their family or neighbours, and we can identify whole families that all tend to vote the same way.
Alongside our political tribes, we have regional ones, and in the UK, the overlay of the old class tribalism as well. America has its Northern and Southern identities – witness the fact that in certain parts of Virginia, “Yankee” is never said without an expletive in front – and inter-state rivalries like that between Texas and California. Britain has the same sort of thing, not only between its constituent countries, with #ngland seemingly isolated on one side and the Scots, Welsh and Irish on the other, but regionally on down the chain: North and South in England, Lancashire still fighting the Wars of the Roses with Yorkshire, Manchester being the chief rival of Liverpool, Cavaliers and Roundheads, the new immigrants against the old (and if you go back far enough, the English and even the Celtic nations came to the British Isles from elsewhere), and among the various dates of immigrants, Pakistanis and Indians and Jamaicans and Polish and all the rest.
Now, tribalism is not something that’s inherently bad. Common identities are part of who we are as human beings; we are designed and intended to live together in communities, and part of what holds a community together is a sense of that shared identity. In the Bible, God put His people together not solely as individuals in one nation, but in tribes, in clans, in families. Evidently, He’s prepared not only to use it when there’s no other alternative, but even to purposefully use it for His glory.
Reading the book of Judges as a unit gives the distinct impression that the tribes didn’t always get on completely swimmingly. The whole mess with the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 12(?) is the worst example, but you get glimpses throughout. Each tribe more or less does its own thing; in the time of Deborah it’s the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun that do the fighting; the prophetic victory song of Deborah and Barak seems to unveil a certain degree of intertribal rivalry, with the Naphtalites more or less saying “we did it all. Why did none of you other tribes help?”.
And when David becomes king, he does so in stages: first he’s crowned king of his own tribe of Judah, and only later, after more fighting against the other tribes still loyal to the house of Saul, does he become king of all Israel.
After this, their common national identity as Israelites seems to be in the ascendent, and you hear much less about the tribes doing their own thing and fighting one another.
This ancient example seems to say it’s possible to overcome these tribal rivalries. If even a people famous for disputing with one another like the Jewish nation (some of my Jewish friends characterise their people as “two Jews, three opinions”) can manage it, then surely prideful English and fierce Scots can do the same.
In ancient Israel, each tribe had their own identity and blessings that went with it, a character jointly wrought through the meaning of their ancestor’s name (even today, in most of the world names are far more immediately meaningful and significant than the abstruse handles we use in the English-speaking world), the blessings of Jacob and the blessings of Moses.
It might be fun to look at each of these. Tribal identities in turn, but for now, I will just point out that some of these identities seem far more different from one another than our modern ones of Scots and Welsh and Irish and English. So even though the name “United Kingdom seems like a bad joke sometimes, perhaps it’s in the nature of a prophetic name: a God-given identity that we may only see glimpses and shadows of in the here and now, but which paints our true identity in the brush-strokes of Divine purpose.
Some, evidently, are going to view the United Kingdom as a creation of men’s ambition and temporal political accident. It’s not going to be easy to reconcile those viewpoints, yet the alternative is worse – the multigenerational running sore of a Disunited Kingdom held together by political Sellotape and inertia, enough people wanting to preserve a semblance of union to force the whole thing to lurch on, but enough people wanting out to stop it being anything like a success.
That’s not going to be cured by any eventual full independence for Scotland and the rest, either; it just inverts the problem. What do you, as an independent Scotland, do about all of the people who honestly don’t want to be a part of your glorious new nation, because it comes only as a result of the death of the old nation they loved?
Like the adoption of the national identity of the Kingdom of Israel did not eclipse the tribal identities as Reuben and Gad and Simeon and Issachar and the rest, Scotland has never ceased to be Scottish merely because it’s a part of a larger United Kingdom.
As I write this, I’m realising that the same logic holds true of Britain as a whole in the European Union, and I may perhaps have to modify my personal opposition to that would-be nation. At least, the opposition to what I see as “my” country being swallowed by a transnational entity ought to give me some understanding of the pro-independence Scots.
In my mind, there’s a difference between the European Union’s apparent desire to do away with national identities and the desire of the United Kingdom to join without destroying, but it’s well within the bounds of probability that about 45% of the Scots don’t see it that way. After all, we English have always been the dominant partner, and we have our own shameful legacy of attempts to destroy the Scottishness of Scotland and the Welshness of Wales and the Irishness of Ireland.
If we as a United Kingdom are going to reconcile and move forward, we English might have to own our sin as a nation. But equally, our Celtic partners may have to grant that time may change a nation, and that there may even be a way for God to change the contrary and arrogant English.
The book of Revelation paints a picture of heaven in which people from “every tribe and nation and people and language” are gathered together before God to praise Him with one voice.
I’ve had Americans tell me that this means that all of our human tribalisms will melt away and we will no longer be Scots and English and Americans and Russians and Chinese, but all citizens of Heaven.
If you’ll forgive me, this is a very American view of the matter, and not one I’m comfortable with. I don’t want to no longer be an Englishman. And it appears to me that the Bible isn’t saying that. Why call them tribes and nations and peoples and languages plural if they are all one and the same?
I don’t cease to be an Englishman when I follow Jesus; the two are separate identities but don’t necessarily oppose one another. What I see the Bible saying is that all of our tribalistic hatreds and rivalries will melt away. I would continue to be English, and gloriously so, and Alex Salmond would continue to be Scottish, and gloriously so, and there will be no more strife between those identities or domination of the one by the other. Unity without loss of identity. This is what I see in the Biblical description of heaven, not some strange melting-away of earthly identity but an earthly identity transmuted and hallowed by being caught up in a higher heavenly one.
Similarly, but on a far more mundane and temporal level, perhaps the UK can truly attempt to be like this. One national identity as Brits, and four national identities as Welsh and Scots and Irish and English, both informing and helping to create one another. It’s a big dream. But we have to attempt it. It just might be our national calling as the United Kingdom.