A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome

    From the death of Joshua to the time of Samuel, the nation of Israel existed as a republic. Although the government was rudimentary, lacking certain characteristics that we have come to associate with a republic, the essentials were in place. As in all true republics, authority resided in the law, not in men, and those who administered the law were public servants, not overlords.

    One difference between the Hebrew republic and the republics that we are familiar with lies in the fact that it was not democratic. It had no elections, no legislature, no chief executive, and no standing army. Rather than being elected, the judges were accepted by the people on the basis of their reputation.

    In accordance with the plan adopted by Moses, judicial authority was divided (Exodus 18:19-26). On the local level, each village had elders that were known and respected by the community. Those elders would judge smaller matters while more difficult cases were taken to those whose reputation extended beyond the local community (Ruth 4:2, 1 Samuel 8:4). Therefore, while there were many judges, we are only given the names of those who were known nationwide.


    Our knowledge of everyday affairs during that period of Israel's history is limited. While the Bible gives us a brief overview of political and military events, it would be a mistake to assume that life in ancient Israel consisted only of one bad experience after another. Not only were there many years of peace and freedom, but during a period that (when the life of Eli is included) lasted only about four hundred and fifty years, there were over three hundred years of peace and freedom. During those years of peace, life went on much as it is described in the Book of Ruth. [Judges 3:11, 30&31, Judges 5:31, Judges 10:2-3, Judges 12:7-14, Judges 15:20 and 16:31, Acts 13:20]

    To be certain, there were times when neighboring countries extended their domain into Israel, and times when the people were oppressed. However, those periods rarely lasted more than a few years, and may not have included the entire country. Moreover, while the last five chapters of the Book of Judges give us a rather dismal picture of things, they do not give the whole picture. In fact, basing our view of everyday life on those chapters alone would be like basing a view of life in America solely on the stories of Jesse James, John Dillinger, and cult leader Joseph Smith. If we want to know what everyday life was like during that period, we need to look at the Book of Ruth.

    In the book of Ruth we see a vibrant agrarian society – one that allowed the poor and widows to glean the fields, thus providing for them in a way that did not lend itself to fraud and abuse. Moreover, it was a free society. The cultural regulations that Moses gave were so well integrated into it that they were no more burdensome to the people than our cultural rules are to us. Rules such as wash before eating, wash the dishes after dinner, bathe regularly, and do not eat the flesh of dogs, cats, and rats. [Ruth 2:2, Ruth 3:9-12, Ruth 4:6-8]


    Instead of attempting to make a rule for every conceivable situation, the Ten commandments provided a summary of the legal code, that everyone could learn. The Law then provided the Judges with a number of precedents that guided them in applying those Commandments to every situation (Exodus 21:1to23:9). By following those precedents, judgements were more uniform, and harebrained interpretations of the Law were kept to a minimum.

    Since God had given the nation a fixed body of law, there was no need for a legislature. The people learned the Law as children, and it did not change. For that reason, it was far less burdensome than the volumes of ever changing regulations that we have to deal with today.


    For defense, the Hebrew Republic relied on a citizen militia, rather than a professional army. While that militia was not as well organized as the Swiss militia, with God's help it rallied time after time to drive out invaders. At such times, God provided able men to lead the militia, and the Judges assumed some executive power, in that regard, when it was called for. Thus, the common defense was provided for, in a way that did not expose the nation to the danger of a military takeover.


    The end of the Hebrew Republic did not come at the hand of its enemies, but at the hand of citizens who thought that big government held the solution to their problems. What they failed to see, was that those problems were not caused by the system of government, but by a moral decline accompanied by lax law enforcement. In short the Republic was destroyed because the people became tolerant of evil. The unwillingness to confront, condemn, and punish lawbreakers that we see on the part of Eli, seems to have been widespread. Many crimes went unpunished, and corrupt judges let the guilty off the hook while subverting justice. As a result, the people ceased to take the Law seriously, and began to do whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 17:6 and 21:25, 1 Samuel 2:22-25, Ecclesiastes 8:11]

    Moreover, what happened in Israel is happening in America. Because the Bible is belittled and immorality goes unpunished, there is little fear of God. Homosexuals not only show no remorse, but openly flaunt their lifestyle. And those in government not only approve such wickedness, but also allow babies to be butchered in the name of choice (Judges 19).

[NOTE: As judges both Eli and Samuel had a responsibility to see that their sons were punished when they did wrong (1 Samuel 2:12-22 and 8:1-5). Yet, just like so many in authority today, in the name of tolerance they did nothing. And, in the case of Eli, that tolerance brought God's wrath down upon his head (1 Samuel 3:11-14).]


    The Hebrew Republic does not deserve the scorn heaped upon it by those who favor centralization. Centralization only amplified the corruption that was already present, while facilitating an even greater abuse of power. What Israel needed was good law enforcement, and a way to hold those in power accountable for their crimes. Without that, a more authoritarian system only lends itself to greater abuse.

    Like many today, those in Israel assumed that a ruler with more Godlike authority would be more Godlike, and would end corruption. Nevertheless, God's warning of the ways in which a king would abuse power, tells us that God does not approve of the abuse of power (1 Samuel 8:10-19). And the fact that the only government ever designed by God for His people was a republic tells us that our God is a God of freedom.