American Revolution Debate: Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression and Divided Kingdom
During the American Revolution, many patriot American colonists defended their cause for liberty with Bible-based arguments. Some of their arguments related to their identification with and learning from the ancient Israelites in the Bible. In one such argument, they looked to Israel’s resistance to oppressive rulers and its division as a kingdom as found in 1 Kings 11-12 and 2 Chronicles 13. In these verses, Israel is divided into two kingdoms, north and south, between two rulers, Jeroboam and Rehoboam respectively, as a result of tyranny and oppression. Colonists drew from this aspect of Israel’s history to support and justify independence from Britain.
In 1 Kings 12, King Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam, became king of Israel. But Rehoboam refused to listen to the people, rejected the elders’ counsel, and imposed oppressive policies and harsh taxes on the nation. As a result, the ten northern tribes of Israel revolted and named Jeroboam as their new king. Rehoboam’s southern kingdom remained with the two tribes of Judah. Thus, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. 1 Kings 11:30-37 recounts that the prophet Ahijah had prophesied that Jeroboam would be the king of the north because Rehoboam’s father, Solomon, and the kingdom of Judah forsook God and violated God’s laws, not walking in God’s ways “to do what is right.” Yet God would continue to let Rehoboam rule Judah.
Later, as told in 2 Chronicles 13, Jeroboam went to war against the succeeding king of Judah, Abijah, in an attempt to conquer the southern kingdom. King Abijah, though, warned Jeroboam that an attack on Judah would not succeed because it was against God’s will. 2 Chronicles 13:12-18 shows Abijah’s warning to Jeroboam and the outcome: …
“God Himself is with us as our head. His priests have sounding trumpets to sound the alarm against you. Oh children of Israel, do not fight against the Lord God of your fathers, for you shall not succeed!” … Thus the people of Israel were subdued at that time, and the people of Judah prevailed because they relied on the Lord God of their fathers.
Though Jeroboam’s northern army was larger than Judah’s, it was unsuccessful and took many losses due to God’s protection of Judah.
Interestingly, some important political writings of the Reformation era in Europe cited Israel’s revolt and division as support for the idea of resistance to tyranny. Such writings, including John Ponet’s 1556 Short Treatise on Political Power and Samuel Rutherford’s 1644 Lex Rex (The Law and the King), held that Israel’s divided kingdom was an example of when rulers are justly punished by God for their tyranny and oppression. Ponet writes, “Rehoboam, because he would reign as a tyrant and not be subject to law or counsel, had ten tribes of his kingdom taken away from him and given to Jeroboam.” Rutherford likewise observed that Rehoboam lost ten tribes “due to oppression.” They argued that God’s punishment showed that He opposed tyranny and oppression for His people. Such writings influenced European and American thinkers like British philosopher John Locke who, with his 1689 Second Treatise of Civil Government, in turn, impacted American political thought and the American Founders.
American colonists in the 1700s similarly drew from this biblical conflict in ancient Israel to support and defend their revolutionary war. In fact, colonists found support, justification, and courage for their revolution in both sides of Israel’s conflict and division.
Firstly, colonists identified with the revolt of the northern tribes against Rehoboam and his oppressive policies. Many colonists saw the British government as a similarly oppressive force of harsh policies and taxes from which the American colonies had a just right to separate. In a 1775 sermon on 2 Chronicles 13:12, Rev. William Emerson, for example, preached on Israel’s divided kingdom and America’s similar right of rebellion. He discussed the right of Americans, like the Israelites, to revolt against oppressive laws. “Through his oppressive policies and disregard for the people,” affirms Harry Stout in his The New England Soul, “Rehoboam illustrated the evils of tyranny and the right of the northern tribes to revolt.”
Secondly, colonists also identified with the smaller but undefeated Judah which survived attack from the northern kingdom due to God’s will and protection. Colonists believed that, with God’s help and protection, the smaller American colonies would similarly survive attack from the larger, stronger British army. Emerson recounted Jeroboam’s defeat against Judah and applied that biblical event to the conflict between the American colonies and Britain. He exhorted colonists that God would defend America against all odds because it was God’s will that America should be free. He and others called for trust in God for victory against Britain. “By engaging in an unsuccessful war with Judah (unsuccessful because he made war over the prohibitions of God’s prophets),” affirms Stout, “Jeroboam illustrated how a king with superior armies could not defeat his countrymen to the south because God would not allow it.”
As early Americans prepared for and fought in the revolutionary war, they looked to the Bible and ancient Israel’s history for guidance and support for their cause of liberty. The biblical precedent of ancient Israel’s revolt and division helped early Americans support and justify their resistance to what they viewed as Britain’s tyranny and oppression and their quest for a new, independent nation. It also helped the fledgling colonies prepare for and enter a daunting war against one of the world’s strongest powers, giving them courage to fight against all odds, because they believed that God was with them and desired their freedom.
Contributed by AHEF and Angela E. Kamrath.
Kamrath, Angela E. The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. Second Edition. Houston, TX: American Heritage Education Foundation, 2014, 2015.
Stout, Harry S. The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986.
1. The Principle of Popular Sovereignty
2. The Pilgrims Identified with the Israelites
3. The Pilgrims’ Mayflower Compact was a Covenant
4. The Puritans Identified with the Israelites and Practiced Covenants
5. The Puritans Elected Representatives to Govern in their American Colonies
6. Why the Puritans Favored Limited Government
7. Thomas Hooker as the “father of American Democracy”
8. Why Thomas Hooker Favored Democracy over Aristocracy
9. Great Awakening Effects: Unity, Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution
10. The American Revolution: An Introduction
11. The Bible was the Most Cited Source of the American Founding Era
12. The American Revolution was sometimes called the “Presbyterian Rebellion”
13. American Revolution Debate: Submission to Authority
14. American Revolution Debate: God Desires Freedom, Not Slavery, for His People
15. How the American Revolution shed light on the Moral Problem of Slavery
16. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense: God’s Opposition to Absolute Rule
17. American Revolution Debate: The American Quest for a New, Bible-Inspired Republic
18. American Revolution Debate: The Principle of Civil Covenants
19. American Revolution Debate: Obedience to God Over Man
20. American Revolution Debate: Ancient Israel’s Resistance to Oppression & Divided Kingdom
21. American Revolution Debate: The Lawfulness of Defensive War
22. Freedom: The Most Important Characteristic of America
Poster: Declaration of Independence
Activity: The Miracle of America High School Teacher Course Guide, Unit 6, Part 2, Activity 3: Bible-Based Justification for Revolution, p. 219, 359. MS-HS.
Bible-Based Justification for Revolution
Purpose/Objective: Students examine the Bible-based arguments made by Patriot Americans in support of revolution against Britain. Students learn about the influence of the Bible during the Founding era.
1) Chapter 6 of Miracle of America reference/text. Students read sections 6.1 to 6.12.
2) Essay/Handout: Principles of the American Revolution by Angela E. Kamrath found in the “Supporting Resources” of the Miracle of America HS Teacher Course Guide, pp. 354-356, or in the “Miracle of America Snapshots” handout under member resources at americanheritage.org.
3) Related blogs/videos (see above).
Patriot Revolutionary Chart:
In your own words, explain/describe the following biblical principles or arguments used by many patriot Americans to justify/support the American Revolution. Students may include the sources/thinkers who promoted each argument. Provide relevant scripture verse(s) for each argument. See the “Bible-Based Justification for Revolution” Patriot Chart in the “Supporting Resources” section of the course guide, p. 359.
To download this whole unit, sign up as an AHEF member (no cost) to access the “resources” page on americanheritage.org. To order the printed binder format of the course guide with all the units, go to the AHEF bookstore.
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