The Riddle of Romans 13

Nestor Ravilas

Romans 13 again comes to the fore as the national government is miserably fumbling and mishandling the management of the current pandemic. When democratic principles granted us the rights for free speech demonstrable in expressing our opinion publicly, Evangelical Christians immediately seize the public space to shelter and protect the government with the usual and irritating “be-subject-to-authorities” discourse of Romans 13. Proudly, they brandished that the Bible is higher than the Constitution. But, do they really know their Bible?

Did the Bible really say that the emperor, or the government for that matter, is beyond reproach? That we should refrain from criticizing the government, which amounts to challenging the authority of God in the same way?

This is a question that requires disciplines beyond the practice of exegesis. We have to invoke other sciences to see a much larger picture of the history of political and religious thoughts of Jewish people. A kind of practice that even the most illustrious practitioners of hermeneutics is uncomfortable with due probably to their obsession with the text. I have to stress, however, that sound exegesis is an indispensable foundation of good public theology, provided the exegetes are brave enough to escape their tiny cell and start building conceptual structures.

Going back to Romans 13, let me start by pointing out that what is immediately noticeable in that controversial passage is the structure of power. You have the sovereign god, and his human regent, the king. Or in the context of the Epistle to the Romans, the emperor. This actually is not a novel arrangement, this is as old as the beginning of early civilizations. The two-pronged power, or the partnership between a high god and his deputized king is traceable from the regions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan, among Greeks, and the Romans. To say it bluntly, every city has its own king, and every king has its patron god that sponsored the king’s reign.

A sovereign god, therefore, instituting and sponsoring a human kinship in Romans 13 is a common political theology of that era. The range of dominion might have expanded a little from kingdom to empire. Such development has been traced back by scholars during the reign of Neo-Assyrian Empire when their god, Marduk, was accelerated his domain from local to universal to obviously match the expansion itself of the Assyrian imperial power. It was in the same period that the campaign of Second Isaiah and Ezekiel to raise Yahweh in the same level has occurred to probably compete with Marduk. So when Paul speaks his political theology in Romans 13, he was referring no longer to a local warrior-god of Israel, but to the universal God Yahweh who sponsored and instituted all human powers including the Roman emperor. Putting it, therefore, in the language of archaic religion, Yahweh is the sovereign God, and under him are lesser gods, the human kings or rulers.

Although Paul obviously shared with this common concept of two-pronged power, he is particularly coming from a very distinct Israel version of this political arrangement. I am completely aware that it is bad to lump together all known civilizations within that area into one category since distinction always distinguishable among the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks and Romans. But I would not probably err egregiously if I isolate the political theology of Egypt as the model to represent them all since they have most likely overlapped in some degree, then compare afterwards Egypt with the reformed political theology of Israel.

Let me proceed then and focus with Egypt. Horus (or Re) is the patron god of Egypt, and all the pharaohs were his deputies or regent rulers. Same thing goes with Israel. Yahweh was the high god, and the monarch his regent as testified by various royal and coronation psalms. At first glance, they look completely the same, but they aren’t. Horus as god is the final judge of all Egyptians, he will judge the dead as to their final destiny. Although Horus was accorded with such high accolade, he was not on the other hand the maker of the laws where he based his judgement. The laws of Egypt were actually created by the pharaoh and his counsellors. There might be legal literature present in the land of Egypt, but this doesn’t mean that they are in effect and recognized as binding at all time. The current pharaoh is the law, what he says through the assistance of his counsellors are the one binding to his domain. Meaning, the pharaoh is sovereign, he is not accountable to anyone. He is the law!

Not in Israel however. There, it was a complete reversal. The king’s reign was indeed sponsored by Yahweh. But what made their practice diverged from their neighbours, not only from Egypt, is that the Israel kings did not create the law of the land. The law, or the Torah as we know it, was made by Yahweh and promulgated and implemented by Yahweh himself. This makes everyone therefore subject to the law, no one is exempted, even the monarch. So when it says that all power is instituted by God, it means that all forms of power are subject to the law of God. It was through this concept that we can fully grasp the reprimand suffered by the monarchy, like David himself, from the hand of God’s prophet like Nathan. It was never meant that the kingly power instituted or sponsored by God is insulated from rebuke, criticism, and correction. Rather, the power instituted by God, including the one in Romans 13, is conceived as “God’s servant for your own good” (Rom. 13:4). That is the two-pronged power tradition of Israel, Yahweh is the sovereign, and the king, the emperor, or the president for that matter is his servant/subject whose mandate is to obey and uphold God’s Law. The legitimacy, therefore, of that power derives from their submission and promotion of the law of Yahweh.

It is this arrangement that gives sense to the role of the prophets. For long we haven’t really gave justice to the role the prophets played in this religio-political dynamics. Since Yahweh is the true sovereign and the king’s role as Yahweh’s regent on earth is to administer the law, the question is what if the king reneged from this mandate and broke the law of God. Who will police him? Who will rebuke him of his infringement of the law of God? Who will confront him and hold him accountable? There the prophets come in! As you notice, the prophets drew their authority and legitimacy from the law, or should I rather say, the prophetic office itself was corollary to the bestowal of the law of Yahweh? Whenever they come forward to confront the monarch or the temple for that matter, it was for certain that a particular stipulation in the law was violated and the damage has not been expiated. So the prophets rise to the occasion when all the supposed designated institutions failed to address the abuse of power. And the same thing is expected to happen when the ruler-servant of Romans 13 failed to act in accordance to the law of God and deliver things “for your (people’s) good”.

Before I finally end this long monologue, let me give a little comment on the matter involving the temple since I mentioned it in the preceding paragraph. This actually is another long discussion, thus this abridged talk may cause more confusion than clarification. Let me, however, proceed just the same. In ancient Egypt, there is a divide between politics and religion. The mandate of the political sphere under the principle of ma’at is to establish justice and annihilate evil. The cult, on the other hand, was tasked to “give offerings and to please god”. The divide then between religion and politics was obvious, and at times disastrous. It means that justice is detach from the ritual of worshipping the gods, while, on the other end, cult rituals is not supposed to exercise in public space (aside from procession every annual festival).

Something radical happened in Israel religion, however. When the Israelites ascribed the laws to god, not only the monarch then was subjected to those laws, the temple in the same way, the religion of Israel, was put under it. So, the Israelites temple was not only tasked to present offerings and please Yahweh by their rituals and sacrifices. Rather, the temple was, in the same way, mandated to observe, promote and uphold the Torah, including the Decalogue. What happened in Israel is a revolutionary departure from their neighbouring cultures: JUSTICE and RIGHTEOUSNESS are both placed at the very center of Israel religion. That is the reason why the prophets pounded in the same way the gate of the temple. Because under the covenant with Yahweh, the temple was not only expected to do religious rituals and sacrifices, because under the covenant with Yahweh, religious activities are not the best way to demonstrate submission and faith to Yahweh; rather, first and foremost, the priests and all temple people were expected to respect, obey and uphold the Torah more than anything else.

Lastly, why the prophets did not just wait for kings, priests and evil people to just die and subject them afterwards to the divine judgment like in the case of Horus in Egypt judging the dead for eternal reward or punishment? That is another distinction of ancient Israel’s political theology with the Egyptians. To our surprise, ancient Israel had no idea of afterlife like the Egyptians had. For the Egyptians, the gods will judge, then punish or reward you in the afterlife. For the Israelites, there is no life after death, history rather will judge you right away here in this life. Thus, Yahweh will not wait for you to die first before settling a score with you. The prophet will intervene immediately, and judge you either you are evil or good, pleasing or disgusting, cursed or blessed, based on the law of God right then and there.

Sadly we don’t have prophets anymore, so distorted readings of Romans 13 prevail!

To this mystery why we don’t have prophets today, two explanatory theories are possible: 1) Christianity embraced the Egyptian notion of life after death, so judgment is postponed until one’s death, 2) the doctrine of Justification by Faith by the Protestant renders the Law dubious which inadvertently stripped off the prophets of base to stand on.

This one is quite long and tedious, I know. But believe me, this is just a tiny part of an immense and long re-evaluation and re-imagination of Judeo-Christian public theology. Questions may arise, therefore, as a result of this intentionally compressed version of the topic such as the dating of the giving of the Torah and its relation to wisdom tradition, the time of intensification of covenant theology, the accusation of regression of Israel kingship to a particular form of sacral monarchy attested among the ANE cultures, and many more related questions. A book will suffice to tackle all those things, in case someone out these is willing to sponsor the work.

For Charles I of England, who had proven in modern times that a sacred king can be killed!