Saturday, December 31, 2011

Walls Not Horses: Wise National Defense

In Deuteronomy 17:14-17, Moses indicates that Israel would eventually grow up to the point when they would have a king. This progress in the life of the nation would indicate a maturity beyond their priestly childhood into a kingly adolescence. The king would rule not only by use of the law of Moses but also by application of that law with wisdom, a knowledge of good and evil. In Deuteronomy 17, Moses outlines three commands specifically for the coming king in his rule over the nation: don’t multiply 1) horses, 2) wives or, 3) gold (16-17).

I recognize that the nation of Israel had a very specific and special role in the world at that particular point of history, which placed particular and peculiar requirements on them in fulfilling that role. I also recognize that the requirements upon that nation are not necessarily paradigmatic of civil rule for all time. Nonetheless, those requirements can be instructive to civil rulers today who desire to emulate biblical wisdom in their policies.

Israel got her king a generation too early due to her impatience to acquire and exercise a knowledge of good and evil before God’s time. Saul, though initially righteous, turned out to be a disaster. Yet, with the coming of David, in God’s providence, Israel was ready for a king. With the coming of David, Israel’s borders became established and secure. Her internal enemies were suppressed. Worship was set up in Jerusalem. And the nation became unanimously unified around that worship and the ruler God had placed there.

A few observations can be made about Israel at this point of her history, which are relevant to the point I want to make here. First, Israel’s primary threats came internally. As we see repeatedly throughout her history, her primary danger came from corrupt worship. It was when wicked kings worshiped other gods or worshiped the true God in the wrong way that God’s people became vulnerable.

Second, it was only when Israel had weakened herself through corruption of temple worship that she became vulnerable to outside attack. The fact that they would be attacked by the Assyrians would, presumably, remain. But as long as Israel was faithful to her highest King on His throne in Jerusalem, she would be impervious to attacks from the outside. Of course, God did appoint means of realizing that protection, as we shall see.

Third, Israel was not given the responsibility of conquering the lands outside her own borders. Her role in the world was primarily that of being a priestly, mediating boundary between God in his sanctuary and the world outside. She was to mediate God’s love to the world, primarily by guarding God’s sanctuary from uncleanness and death as well as to guard the nations from God’s consuming presence. Thus, Israel’s role was not one of extending her cleansed land beyond her appointed borders.

With these observations in mind, then, let’s return to the first of the three prohibitions that Yahweh placed on the kings of Israel, found in Deuteronomy 17. (Unpacking the other two is for a different time.) Why does God forbid the king to multiply horses? This question is best answered by examining the function that a horse has in Scripture.

The overwhelming association of the horse is with warfare. Though many passages show this association, Job 39:19-25 is the most complete. A horse was ideal for battle because of its strength (21), its boldness (22), its speed (23), and its fury (24). Adding a chariot to a horse made an army exceedingly formidable (Ex. 14-15; Deut. 20:1; Joshua 11:4-6). Horses, thus, are associated with aggressive, offensive warfare. As property of the king, the horse represented a king’s power to crush his enemies.

Israel’s subsequent history shows that many kings were unfaithful by amassing for themselves horses, beginning with Solomon (2 Chron. 9:25). Foreign invaders had horses (1 Kg. 20:1; 2 Chron. 12:2-3). Part of Josiah’s reforms included getting rid of horses and chariots (2 Kg. 23:11).

On the basis of this association, I suggest that God’s prohibition of multiplying horses largely was a prohibition of offensive, aggressive warfare in the time of the kings. Because at that time, in God’s plan, Israel’s borders were established, they no longer needed that type of warfare. They could be a secure nation and defend herself from outside invaders by other means.

So if Israel could not defend herself by aggressive means, how were they supposed to defend themselves? I suggest that she should have found her defense by means of cities that were fortified by walls (e.g. Num. 32:16-17). These protective fortifications were usually accompanied by a watchtower for warning of approaching enemies (2 Kg. 18:8; 2 Chron. 14:7).

In addition to restoring proper worship, faithful kings built up these defensive walls and towers: Solomon (1 Kg. 9:15; 2 Chron. 8:5); Rehoboam, eventually (2 Chron. 11:1-12, a very instructive passage); Asa (2 Chron. 14:6); Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 17:2, 19; 19:5); and Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:9). Nehemiah’s greatest priority for the protection of the city of Jerusalem after the exile was rebuilding her walls and gates (ch. 3, 6).

When Israel was an established nation, her defense was two-fold. First, by remaining faithful to Yahweh through proper worship, God would be her refuge (Ps. 61:3; 144:2). And, second, God would use fortified cities with strong and tall walls, towers, and gates to keep her safe.

The contrast is clear: not horses; rather, walls. Preemptive aggression does not bring security. Indeed, a king who maintains an army of horses and chariots (1 Sam. 8:11) is one who treats his people like his servants (17). Walls must be maintained, but they do no rely as much on the strength and wealth of the central administration in Jerusalem.

Of course, making a too strong analogy with our modern situation is improper, yet I think the principles should also speak strongly. An established nation doesn’t find its security by means of preemptive aggression. Indeed, those means result in oppression and slavery of the purportedly secure people. Rather, a nation finds true security by strengthening its walls of defense, that is, by focusing on its internal affairs.

Inflation and Government Deception

A few weeks ago, I had a brief phone conversation with my dad about the official inflation numbers given to us by the government. The interchange prompted me to do a little more research into the issue. While certainly these are fragmentary results, I cannot say I am very surprised by them. I had previously heard (but hadn't studied) that the CPI excludes some very significant factors and, thus, is artificially low. In doing some more reading on the issue, I came up with the following findings (in no particular order):

1. Inflation is most commonly understood as an "inflation" (increase) of prices. Alternatively, however, "inflation" may and probably should describe an inflation in the money supply. In this scenario, the increase in price is the result of the increase in the amount of money in circulation.

Consider an example. Take a commodity like gold that tends to be fairly immune to fluctuations due to fads (at least for the long term). When the price of gold increases, there are two possible explanations: there is either less gold available or more dollars available. Actually, both are true when spoken of comparatively. An increase in the gold price reflects both an decrease in the amount of gold in relation to the number of dollars as well as an increase in the number of dollars in relation to the amount of gold. Prices are bound to increase as long as more and more dollars become available.

2. The official government figures of inflation rely on the CPI. Yet the very government that calculates that official number has huge incentives to keep this number as low as possible, like how much they have to increase pensions or social security. Thus, they massage, manipulate, and maneuver to force that number as low as possible. See:

3. The government achieves these official, massaged numbers by removing "biases." That is, they exclude items like food and gasoline from the CPI. I don't know about you, but I personally spend money on food and gasoline. I, as a "consumer," have actually noticed a drastic increase in the amount of money I spend and have to budget for gasoline and food. It was but a few years ago when we were belly-aching over price going over $2.00 per gallon! I now pine for those days! See:

Food prices are similar. See this cute article:

4. During the years of the Clinton presidency, the CPI was significantly altered by three primary means: substitution, weighting, hedonics. These sinister manipulations are detailed in this extremely helpful presentation. (This is by far the most helpful link yet.)

5. For a more accurate and honest use of data, one must not trust the government. Rather we must believe hard-working, private citizens. The best and most detailed accounting of the data is found here:

6. According to these more honest calculations, there is an approximately 8% difference between the government's numbers about inflation and reality.

7. As implied by #2 above, the ones most adversely impacted by the government's dishonesty are those on fixed income.

8. Austrian economists who deplore increases in the money supply (ethically) and warn against run-away inflation are frequently scorned for contradicting "reality." If inflation is so bad, why don't we see it? Well, the answer is that the government is hiding it from us.

So much more could be said, but that's a start.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter Leithart

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter LeithartDostoevsky's Vision for Russian and the World

Without a coherent framework, a reader of several of Dostoevsky’s works is easily confused. Dostoevsky’s deepest passions appear different, even contradictory in various of his works. Some are more explicitly “Christian” or “Orthodox” than others. Some present general grievances about the condition of Russian peasants. Others portray a very specific solution for bringing out their freedom. Some characterizations are little more than a Slavophilic portrait of an oppressed populace. Others are highly developed Christ-figures. Although Dostoevsky was a literary genius from the publication of his first work, his thought progressed throughout his life. Thus, being able to connect Dostoevsky’s works to specific events in his life and in Russian history aids his readers in understanding what he is all about.

In addition to being somewhat of a moving target, Dostoevsky’s most developed thought was complex, and some of its subtle nuances or even broad features are easily missed by even the most astute reader. Dostoevsky experienced many life-changing events. He was prone to various obsessions and besetting sins. Biographies that attempt to detail his many experiences, shifts in thought, and the resulting phases in his writing tend to become long, cumbersome and, frankly, boring. The average reader who appreciates his literary prowess and whose heart resonates with many of his particular passions is, thus, left with few places to turn for an accurate yet stimulating, complete yet concise, well-written biographical framework. Peter Leithart’s brief narrative biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky fulfills these needs.

Leithart frames this brief biography as a fictionalized conversation that an elderly Dostoevsky has with his literary acquaintance, Apollon Maikov. The conversation is a one-sided dialogue in which Dostoevsky reminisces about his life. As such, Leithart puts into Dostoevsky’s mouth Dostoevsky’s own interpretation of his life and works at a time that he is in the full maturity of his thought. Leithart weaves together one by one the most significant events, philosophies, and people that formed the man who created The Brothers Karamazov, the highest pinnacle of his thought and the apex of his literary ability. During the course of the conversation, Leithart flashes back to detail the specifics of these formative influences. The reader sits and listens at Dostoevsky’s own fireside, shivers with him in his Siberian prison, weeps with him over the bodies of his dead children, trembles with him as he throws the dice, and agonizes with him over the deplorable condition of the hearts of his fellow Russians.

The end result of Leithart’s work is a very readable, accessible, and enjoyable portrait of a highly complex and awe-inspiring literary giant. Little additional work is required of a reader of Dostoevsky to place one of his writings into a specific phase of his life. And for the reader who wants to dig deeper, copious endnotes provide a way. Like all biographies, this historical “fiction” subjectively interprets Dostoevsky’s ideas, plants verbose ideas in his mind, and places a vernacular on his lips that may be somewhat foreign to him. Yet, Leithart was overwhelmingly successful in his project of introducing Dostoevsky to the reading public and elucidating the writings of a foreign author who to many appears highly intimidating. The final chapter is Leithart at his best as he portrays Dostoevsky as “The Prophet” giving a speech about his literary hero Alexander Pushkin in which he articulates his vision for Russia and for the world. Few readers will close this book unmoved.