That the balance of the Hebrew Government was so well fixed, as no one part had power by overbearing the rest to overturn it; that in particular the Constitution had taken effectual care, it could not be in the power of the Levites.
The states of the Hebrew government as we have already seen, were very wisely constituted for the liberty of the people, for the wisdom of counsel and advice, and for a due execution of what should be resolved and undertaken for the protection and security, the peace and prosperity of the nation. The next part of political wisdom and prudence will appear by a proper care, to prevent any such great alterations in the several parts of the government, as might threaten the Constitution with danger.
Here was a country of great advantage for defense by its natural situation, large enough to maintain a numerous and well disciplined militia, in sufficient plenty and ease; animated with the experience of God’s powerful protection in the days of their fathers, and encouraged to hope the same protection of the one true God, to continue them in the possession of his own grant, as a nation chosen to put a stop to the growing evils of idolatry. A people who had a fair property to defend and reason to desire the preservation of a government under which they enjoyed so much happiness.
But as ambitious and restless spirits are the growth of all ages and all places, every constitution, however wisely formed, must be in some danger from men who are seeking their own private advantage often in the confusion, often in the ruin of the laws and liberties of their country.
It is not to be wondered at, that in fact the Hebrew government should be subject to some alterations and corruptions of its Constitution as every government in the world is, and must be, so long as the administration of all governments must be in the hands of men, liable to corruption. The Hebrew history shows in fact several alterations, as in the occasional judges after Joshua, the change of judges into kings, at the election Saul, and form of government introduced among the Jews after the captivity, which soon grew into that state which Mr. Harrington (Com. Israel, c. v.) well calls the cabbalistical commonwealth, in which form the chief authority resided in the Talmudical Sanhedrim and great synagogue; but neither the nature not the reasons of these alterations are within my enquiry, which is only to explain and vindicate the wisdom of the original Constitution by Moses.
I would only make one remark, that all these alterations, great as they were, were nothing near so great as the most celebrated governments of Greece and Rome underwent in a much less space of time. One hundred years of the Roman history, though of a people so renowned for wisdom, so warm for liberty, so jealous of everything that seemed to threaten it, will yet show greater alterations in their government, more fatal to the peace and liberties of that nation, than the whole fifteen hundred years of the Hebrew history can.
Though the best provisions of political wisdom cannot prevent all alterations, it however shows the great wisdom of a constitution, where the provisions made to prevent them are best fitted to obtain so desirable an end. As this may justly recommend the wisdom of the Hebrew Constitution, so it should silence with shame the unfair and unrighteous reflections some have cast upon it, “as if founded on ambitious designs, and calculated to draw all the wealth and power of the Hebrew nation into the hands of the priest.” When, on the contrary, the Constitution has taken the wisest care that it should not be in the power of any one part of the nation, least of all in the power of the priests, either to invade the property or oppress the liberties of any part of the nation.
There are two principal methods of preventing the evils of ambition, either to take away the usual occasions of ambitious views and designs, or to make the execution of them difficult and impracticable. The Hebrew Constitution has made both these provisions in a manner equal, I think I may boldly say, to any known constitution of government in the world.
The very foundation of the Hebrew Constitution, was an equal division of the land, the continuance of which was secured by a fundamental law, which made that division perceptual, as no estate could be alienated or pass from one tribe or family to another. The laws had further provided, that no interest could be made of money, so that had a man never so much money he could make no profit of it, either by purchase or interest. All places of power, whether in their courts of justice, or commands in their armies, were not places of profit too, at least of so very small profit as to be worth next to nothing at all. And these very places were moreover, if of any eminency, so fixed to heads of families and princes of tribes, that all ambition of canvassing for them must be very much prevented, by striking in great measure at the very root of such ambitions in taking away the common and usual occasions of them. For the Constitution had made the places in that government rather places of burthen than of profit, and had left very few, if any competitors, for most of the principal of them. What room was there for restless and ambitious spirits, to form parties or factions, or to attempt to mislead a tribe or the nation into false measures for their own private advantage, when there was so little power, so little profit to be got, and so few were allowed to be competitors, that it could hardly be worth any man’s while to give himself any trouble, or to run any hazard in attempting it. So wise provision was made for the peace of cities, tribes and the whole nation, as there was no encouragement for any ambitious design that might disturb it.
It is observable, this provision is most particular and effectual to prevent any designs of ambition or covetousness in the priests. For the constitution had expressly made a perpetual mortmain, so that they could not have any increase of property in land, by any title whatsoever, either of gift or purchase, and any occasional gifts of money must be very small in a country where there was so little and it could be no increase of yearly revenue, as it could not be laid out to any interest. And as to places of any considerable power, they were excluded from them by the constitution. They could neither be heads of the families nor princes of the tribes in which they lived, for these offices were in the families of the tribes themselves, exclusive of all families or persons of other tribes; nor were they to be employed in military commands, but appointed for the service of the tabernacle. There was then no room for the Levites and priests in any places of the Hebrew government, except in their courts of justice. Their leisure and knowledge in the laws made it proper there should be some priests or Levites to assist in them; but these offices were attended with so little profit, if with any at all, they were attended with so little power and authority, and shared among so many besides the Levities, that most certainly these could draw very little of the power or riches of the nation into their hands. According to the foregoing account the Levities were not sole judges in any court of justice. They were a small number among many others, they were a very small part, if any, of the congregations or popular assemblies, whether of the cities, of the tribes, or of all Israel. They made a very small part of the senates, whether provincial or national; and therefore could have very little encouragement to canvass by party or faction, what was so little worth when they had obtained it.
As to the particular interests of the priest and Levities as a tribe, they must direct them not only to avoid all ambitions themselves, which might disturb the peace of the Hebrew nation, or of any of the particular tribes, but to take all care as far as they could to prevent all such ambitions in others, because they must suffer by every disturbance. They could have no hope of gain from any, and when every disturbance was like to diminish the tithe, either in the natural produce or regular payment; this must diminish the proper revenue of the Levities, lessen their fund, and so their yearly dividend. What encouragement then could a priest have to disturb the peace of his country, when he could have no prospect of gain, and had a sure prospect of loss; when their estates and the provision for their whole livelihood were of such nature, that they could not be bettered, but were sure to be made worse by every disturbance of the state?
I shall add one general remark further, on the near equality of the whole Hebrew nation, in estate. As the constitution put a bar to great riches, and made such provision for the natural conveniences of life, that very few could be in great want or poverty. This served to diminish greatly the temptations of luxury, pride, and envy, nor were there any so necessities as to seek relief for their private wants and misery, in the public confusion and disorders of their country. How much do these provisions of the Hebrew government, to prevent the occasions of faction, excel all the constitution of the famed Spartan lawgiver for the same purpose, so much celebrated by the admired Grecian authors? Nor would these constitutions have missed their praise, if they had been published by a Lycurgus, a Solon, or a Numa; or indeed by anybody but Moses.
The wisdom of this Constitution went still further, to make all ambitious and factious attempts so very difficult, so unlikely to succeed, as to be next to impracticable: A great discouragement to the making any such attempts. The particular powers of each part of this government, were so balanced by the powers of other parts, that without the concurrence of all it was hardly practicable for any one part to draw to themselves any share of property, wealth, or power from the other parts; and it was as hard and impracticable to obtain their concurrence, to the ruin of their own property and liberty. Let any man but just consider the plan of this government in general, and let him say in what way it was practicable for any person, tribe, court or magistrate, to invade the property of his country-men or liberties of his country. The tribes were independent of each other, so that the ambition of any man in any tribe could only affect the peace of his own tribe; and there were the powers of the provincial congregation, senate and prince of the tribe, to prevent even any such attempt as that. Yet if that would not do, and if a man might be supposed to have gained over to his interests the people, elders and prince of his tribe, or at least a sufficient party among them to consent to their own undoing, there still remained the other tribes, all independent governments as well as his own tribe, and none of them like to make a surrender tamely of their sovereignty and independency to any one tribe. There were still the national congregation, the national senate, the judge, and the oracle; all which must be imposed upon, or forced to a compliance, or the whole force of the nation would soon put an end to a provincial rebellion.
But indeed what man could be so sanguine as to think it practicable to make such a party in his own tribe, as to be dangerous to the liberties even of that particular tribe. Bribery and corruption could have very little influence where all were in near equal circumstances, where none by consequence were able to bribe any considerable number, and where all had a property near as good as any other person of their family or tribe.
But suppose, if you please, this ambitious man one of chiefest power and command in the tribe, let him be head of a chief family or prince of his tribe, what could any head of a family do without the concurrence of the other heads of families and the prince of his tribe, whose power and authority his ambition must be supposed to be drawing out of their hands into his own? Suppose him prince of the tribe, and so of greatest power and authority, if he should attempt to carry that power and authority beyond the laws of the Constitution, he must invade the powers and authority of the heads of families and inferior commanders, without whose consent it was not practicable to do anything. And is it conceivable, that these heads of families would not be attentive to their own rights, and be alarmed as soon as ever they perceived a design upon them? The princes of the tribes, though generals of the militia and presidents of the council of war within their own province, yet did not appoint any of the officers under them. The heads of families commanded their families, as the princes did the tribes, and were always able by virtue of their own commands in the army of the tribe, to prevent the execution of any designs against their own rights. Moreover, in any such case they might expect to be supported by the united force of the whole nation; for nothing can be more improbable than to imagine that the other tribes, the national senate, or the judge, should all give in to the private ambition of any one single man to invade the liberties of one of the tribes of Israel, and thereby withdraw it from the union of the whole nation from the obedience due to the states-general of the United Tribes, and encourage like dangerous attempts against the liberties of every other of the tribes in its turn.
What appears thus impracticable in any one of the tribes severally, will appear yet more impracticable if attempted by any magistrates of the union. An attempt by the congregation of all Israel seems hardly within the question. None can well suppose an whole nation in a plot, to give away their own wealth, liberty and power into other men’s hands, be they who they will, priests or lay-men. The national senate consisted of all the nobles of Israel, princes of tribes, and heads of families, as well as the seventy elders chosen for their understanding in the laws and their wisdom for counsel. Now it is inconceivable how this court, call it Sanhedrim, Senate, Privy Council, or what you will, should practice anything against the property, liberties or wealth of the nation, when everything of moment resolved in it but be proposed to the Congregation of Israel for its consent, and must be afterwards put into execution, if force was necessary, by the arms of the said Congregation, as the only army of Israel; who, though indeed as an army, they were to be commanded by their heads of families and princes of tribes, yet they were in no servile dependence upon them. They did not hold their lands of them as vassals, or even as tenants. They were all of them freeholders, and held of Jehovah, or immediately of the crown. They owed the heads of their families and princes of their tribes no other services, but military obedience, and that only in such things, and as far as the Constitution directed. Hence it appears to have been in the power of the Congregation, as one of the states of the Hebrew parliament, and as the only army of the Hebrew nation, to prevent the Senate from carrying any point in the national council or states-general of the United Tribes; because it must have their consent, and to prevent any resolution from being carried into execution, that might have been fraudulently obtained, in prejudice to the property or liberties of the people, because it must be executed by their force.
If you suppose any such attempt to be made by the judge, whose power and authority were very considerable, he being commander in chief of the hosts of Israel, and whose hands the executive powers of government were principally lodged. Yet there was so great care taken to prevent any danger from his power to the liberties of the nation, that you may perceive it was not in his power to hurt them for he was not entrusted with an arbitrary power. He was strictly to follow the directions of the law, for which end he was to act according to the advice of the National Council or Senate; and in matters of greater importance, he was to have the consent of the Congregation, and approbation of the oracle. Nor could the judge execute anything at any time, but by an army; of which both soldiers and officers were members of the national Congregation or national Senate. An army sure, very unlikely and improper to be employed in invading or trampling on the liberties of the Senate or people of Israel.
Perhaps some will yet pretend danger from the high-priest, as he was appointed to consult the oracle; but what has been observed concerning the oracle, and the manner in which it was consulted by the high-priest, shows, I think most evidently, that the high-priest could no ways endanger the liberties of the nation, or draw the wealth of it to the priesthood, by any possible use to be made of the oracle. For the high-priest was only to ask counsel of the oracle, when he was so directed. The oracle itself gave no answer, but to a question agreed upon before, and put into the hands of the high-priest to ask. The high-priest could form no question himself, or ask any question of his own; nor could he impose an answer on those who consulted the oracle by him. Yet if you will suppose after all, the high-priest might on some occasions have managed things so dexterously, as to have published an oracle in favor of the priesthood, of their power and wealth; of which there is not so much as a pretence of one single instance in the whole Hebrew history, what would the priest have gained by it? This would have been beginning at the wrong end, it would be like declaring the royal assent to an act that had passed neither of the houses; and must, like the laws of the Hebrew Constitution, be proposed to the Senate and Congregation for their consent. So that such constitutions, if possible to be founded on the pretended authority of an oracle, must be received and executed by this general consent of the whole nation.
But of all these imaginary or forged fears, none are more ridiculously absurd than the pannick from the attempts of the Levites. That they should be in a plot against the liberties of their country, and be able to draw all the power and wealth of the whole nation into their own hands.
What the Constitution appointed for the Levities was the tithe, which, all things considered, and their own share of land which they gave to the public deducted, was very moderate. A fundamental law of the Constitution made the Levities incapable of any accession of revenue, as all estates in land were unalienable and all interest on money forbid by law. So that it was not possible for them to attempt anything, but either by the repeal of a law declared in the Constitution unalterable or by force of arms, both of them most chimerical and impracticable projects.
The Levites had so little share in the states, whether provincial or national, that if a power of repealing and making new laws had been vested in those assemblies, the Levites could have had neither numbers nor authority to carry any law in their own favor against the interests of the rest of the nation.
If they are considered in the particular tribes to which they belong, for they are reckoned to belong to that tribe where the city of their habitation was; so you have mention of a young man out of Bethlem-Judah, of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, Judges 17:7. Thus considered, you will see they are so very small a number, in comparison of the other inhabitants of the tribe, that they could not hope to carry any question against them, in any assembly, especially considering further, that the principal power and authority of every tribe must be in other hands. The Levites could never be princes of tribes or heads of families; nor is it certain, that the Levites had any share in the provincial senates or councils of the tribes at all. It is likely they were confined to the magistracies of their own cities, and of their own families, who inhabited them. As they were free from military services, they seem in like manner free from summons by the superior officers, and so from attendance on the princes of the tribes in their provincial assemblies, except some few of them should assist in their courts on account of their better understanding in the laws; but these, as some have observed with good reason, seem rather to be placed in the offices of scribes, secretaries, or recorders, than of aldermen or senators. The same may be observed as to their session, vote and authority in the national councils, or states-general of the United Tribes.
But whatever power the Levites had, whatever their authority was, suppose it more or less, it could not reach to the alteration of the Consititution in their favor any manner of way; for it was not in the power of any provincial assembly, not in the power of a national assembly, if the Levites could be supposed, to govern them all absolutely, either to repeal any law in being that was a bar to their ambition, as the universal mortmain or the prohibition of interest, or to procure any new law to be enacted in their favor, that might make way for any attempts against the liberties of their country.
If you can suppose the Levites making any such attempts by mutiny and force, you may perceive all such attempts manifestly impracticable. The Levites were a few persons in the midst of a great number of Israelites. They were themselves without arms, never trained to discipline, not having one person of military skill to lead them, but surrounded by persons in numbers, above ten to one armed and instructed in military discipline, fully officered, and ready at a day’s warning to suppress any mutiny or rebellious insurrection.
So that to suppose it was in the power of the Levites to disturb the peace, or endanger the liberties of their country, or to draw the power and wealth of the nation into their own hands, especially that it was artfully, that is, knavishly designed by the Constitution it should be so, is a groundless imagination and so incredible a fiction, that whoever can hope to impose it on the world must first have a most contemptible opinion of it, for ignorance and stupidity.
In fact, there does not appear any one instance in the whole Hebrew history for so many hundred years of any such design in the Levities, or of the success of the priests in any one such project. There were considerable alterations in the Hebrew government, for want of keeping strictly to the original Constitution. As the Hebrews chose no judge to succeed Joshua, or elders in the room of the elders of his council, the natural consequence was a sort of anarchy, or occasional judges, with authority only in some of the tribes. This made the people desire a king, to restore in some measure the national union, and to unite the national force. This kingdom was in a few years divided into two, by which the original Constitution was so altered, and the national force so weakened, that both became more exposed to the invasions of their powerful neighbors the kings of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, and suffered much from them, as was naturally to be expected from their divisions and animosities; but where is it to be found that the priest or Levites were the authors of any of these alterations? Where does it appear the priests or Levites got any advantages by any of these alterations? Where are the new constitutions to be found in favor of the priests and Levites, whereby they had any accession either of power or wealth; or, where is the appearance of it in any one instance of the Hebrew history? It was not the artifice of the priests and Samuel, it was the importunity of the people that said, Make us a king to judge us like all the nations; for the thing displeased Samuel, (I Samuel 8: 5,6), or he did not approve of such an alteration of the original constitution. In the government of Saul, the first king, the power and influence of the Levites was so low that they could not prevent a massacre, and putting all the inhabitants of the city of Nob to the sword; nor were they in condition to resent, or revenge it, I Samuel 22:18,19. There was no commotion, not the least national disturbance upon it, and Abiathar was fain to fly to David for safety; who, himself was in the greatest danger, hiding himself sometimes in one wilderness, sometimes in another, and had only about six hundred men with him; nor does it appear there was any Constitution made on David’s accession, to the particular advantage of the priests.
The revolution under Jeroboam was so far from being of any advantage to the priests and Levites, that it was a fatal blow to their legal rights and interests. They lost above three quarters of their revenue, besides the office and dignity of priests, in the cities of Israel. Sure the priests were very unskillful and unlucky politicians, to make way by Jeroboam’s revolution for the calves of Dan and Bethel, (1 Kings 12:31) for priests of the lowest of the people, who were not of the sons of Levi, to deprive them of so large a part of their substance; consequences easy to be foreseen in such an alteration of the government, and which if the priests and Levites had common sense, they must have used all their interest to prevent, instead of having any hand in the contrivance or execution of it.
So contrary to all reason, so contrary to all historical truth of facts, is it to suppose, that the Hebrew Constitution was contrived partially to favor the particular interest of the Levites, or to draw the power or wealth of the Hebrew nation into their hands.