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Leadership: Secular Gift Transformed by Revelation by Carroll Stuhlmueller from 'Women Priests'

Leadership: Secular Gift Transformed by Revelation

by Carroll Stuhlmueller

from Women Priests , Arlene Swidler & Leonard Swidler (eds.), Paulist Press 1977, pp. 307-309.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

(Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has been a Visiting Professor at L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and was at the time professor of Old Testament at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He has published extensively and is on the editorial board of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly and The Bible Today.)

In Chapter Six the Declaration states: “Thus one must note the extent to which the Church is a society different from other societies, original in her nature and in her structure” (italics added). The crucial italicized words are difficult to exegete. Does the document mean to say that there are degrees or limitations to “the extent” of originality in Church structure? Or does it emphasize the farthest extent, beyond all other human institutions, reached by the Church in the originality of her nature and structure? The latter explanation is favored by the larger context of the Declaration and so our difficulties are magnified.

In the Bible the structures of religious leadership did not originate through direct revelation from God. They were not newly created ex nihilo. All major styles of governing Israel in the Old Testament or of ruling the Church in the New Testament pre-existed Israel or the Church. Here we concentrate upon the Old Testament.

Biblical religion did not originate from scratch with an absolutely new creation of Abraham or Moses in a garden of paradise and with a charter of life entirely distinct in language and culture. Rather, in calling Abraham or Moses, David or Ezra, God found these religious leaders within their moment of history and therefore within their culture and total environment. Revelation did not so much consist in new external ways of forming marriage, neighborhood, employment, political order, liturgical style and relaxation, as it centered in a strong, continuing awareness of God as personal Savior (Ex 3). Through this perception of God, embodied in the divine name Yahweh (“He who is always there” as “merciful Savior”), Moses founded a new synthesis or Torah of laws, customs, traditions and folklore from the repertoire of the ancient Near East. In this covenant between Yahweh and his chosen people, institutional forms were purified and strengthened, yet they remained basically the same as with Israel’s neighbors.

In fact, the general culture or structural life-style of the chosen people was identical with their Gentile neighbors. All spoke the same language, sang the same songs, dressed, worked and recreated in the same way, shared the same basic institutional or tribal values. There was the same emphasis upon community over individual, upon the present moment over the past or future, upon the intuitive element over the rational or speculative, upon family or tribal traditions over doctrinal or philosophical synthesis. Note that we are dealing here with emphases, not with contradictory opposites in describing the culture of Israel and the ancient Near East. Among the most important elements of culture are the system of government and the styles of leadership.

As to leadership in the Old Testament, Moses achieved a blend of such pre-existing forms as: a) “heads of families,” evident in the patriarchal sagas of Genesis and brought by Abraham from his Mesopotamian origins; b) “elders,” received from the Midianite background of his wife and father-inlaw (Ex 18:13), and cultic priesthood, shared with all peoples. The offices of judge and king which became prominent in the post-Mosaic period after the conquest can be documented outside of Israel long before their appearance in biblical tradition (Am 2:3; I Sam 8:5). Prophecy according to the “charismatic” model of Samuel, Elijah and Elisha, or according to the “classical” model of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and the others with books to their name, parallels extra-biblical prophecy in Canaan and Mari. We note that the prophet Balaam from Pethor in Aram prominently appears in the Bible long before any biblical prophets.

The origin and evolution of priesthood is closer to our purpose. The secular tribe of Levi, once discredited because of violent injustice (Gen 34:25; 49:5-7), was granted religious privileges because of their loyalty to Moses— again in a form of violence—and because of their blood relationship with him (Ex 2:1; 32:25-29; Deut 33:8-11). The total reversal of Levi’s fate from a curse in Gen 49:5-7 to a blessing in Deut 33:8-11 is not due to a special revelation but to an historical act of political importance. Members of tribes other than Levi, especially the royalty, could also function as priests (Judg. 17:5; 2 Sam 8:18; Ps 110:4). According to Israel’s tribal system non-Levites like Samuel of the tribe of Ephraim (I Sam 1:1) were granted a place in the genealogy of Levi (I Chron 6:18), and even Canaanites could be absorbed within Levi and act as priests (I Sam 7:1; 2 Sam 6:11). These decisions resulted basically from political and religious needs and were not immediately dictated by God.

The history of Levi took a new turn when David conquered Jerusalem and established a double high priesthood, the levite Abiathar with ancestry back to Eli at Shiloh and eventually to the age of Moses (I Sam 22:9-10; 23:ó, 2 Sam 8:17), and Zadok, very probably a pagan Jebusite priest at Jerusalem who converted to Yahweh after David’s capture of the city. The rise to exclusive power by the family of Zadok is due to such influential political figures as David, Solomon and Ezekiel (2 Sam 8:17; I Kgs 2:26-27, 35; Ez 44:10-31). The controversy between the original levites, who dated back to Abiathar, Eli and eventually to Moses, and the new Levites (now spelled with a capital “L”) who began with Zadok, even divides the inspired Scriptures between two traditions, Deut 18:6-8 in favor of the former, Ez 40:46; 43:19; 44:10-31 in favor of the latter.

In origin and development, then, the Old Testament priesthood had its history not only within the politics of Israel but also within the political repercussions of the international scene. Its forms were not directly revealed by God to Moses or David but were derived from the culture of the time and were influenced continually by the secular history of Israel. Moses naturally chose as priests those tribesmen who rallied around him. As a master stroke of political compromise David names two high priests and also two general -in-chiefs. During the Babylonian exile representatives of the northern traditions of the former kingdom of Israel united around Second Isaiah and the law code of Deuteronomy, while representatives of the southern tradition of Jerusalem locked arms with Ezekiel who re-codified the Zadokite or Priestly Document. In origin and history the forms of Old Testament priesthood were not immediately due to divine revelation

Israel, on the other hand, did not slavishly copy her forms of religious leadership from the Gentiles, nor did she allow her traditions to drift according to political currents and economic needs. She may have accepted from others the major lines of her political and religious institutions, but she began at once to purify them and so to elevate the liturgy and piety of the people and the life-style of the priests. This purifying force came immediately from God, especially in the sense of a personal, merciful and providential deity to whom Israel gave the sacred name of Yahweh. This intuition of God was furthered particularly by the classical prophets. In this faith-appreciation of God Israel was “original” and unique; here was the source of the transforming power within all of her civil and religious institutions.

In the Old Testament then the community of Israel was not “original in her nature and in her structure,” but her institutions, taken over from non lsraelite neighbors, became uniquely different in their ability to reflect and sustain God’s personal redemptive presence among his people.

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