Moses and the 10 Commandments

Theocracy: God, Power, and Authority

This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Anathema secular society, the term theocracy—meaning, “rule by God”—was coined circa 100 CE by Roman historian Flavius Josephus to defend Jewish governance from its Roman detractors. He extolled the virtues of Moses as lawgiver and grounded the superiority of theocratic law in the idea that religion makes it widely accessible and inscribes it in practice. Yet, God cannot rule directly, so what, exactly, does theocracy entail? Is theocracy, despite its persistence on the world stage, outmoded by modernity and destined for the dustbin of history? Or, are religion and politics never entirely separable? What can a study of theocracy teach us about the connection, perhaps indissoluble, between religious thinking and “secularized” ideas of power, legitimacy, right, and sovereignty?

In this course, we will plumb the complicated dynamics of theocracy by exploring the Mosaic constitution as elaborated in the Bible itself. Taking our cue from Josephus, we will look at texts that tell us about the lawgiver and the laws. Who, we’ll ask, governs? We will look at the king’s relationship to God and explore the dynamic power relationships between priests and political leaders. Where does the law come from? We will look at the role of priests and judges in interpreting and applying the law, as well as the political, religious, and economic implications when laws are couched in religious terms. We will see that law is not static and look at strategies that were used to overcome anxiety about what really comes from God. How is power negotiated and exercised? We will consider whether theocracy is necessarily repressive, how those on the margins or outside a religion’s universal claims are understood, and the role of rhetoric and interpretation in jockeying for power. Finally, our foray into the ancient world—a world before Enlightenment ideals, before “church” was imagined to be separate from “state”—will show us that, although political theory has changed, we still confront many of the same tensions and dynamics that marked Biblical theocracy. As we consider these questions and more, we will look to thinkers such as Baruch Spinoza, Niccolo Macchiavelli, Seyla Benhabib, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Bethany Moreton, and Talal Asad to pose incisive questions and suggest provocative framings that will help us engage deeply in the complexities of politics and religion.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
September 14 — October 05, 2021
4 weeks


Registration Open

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