“Do not trust in noblemen, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs; he returns to his earthly substance; on that day, his plans perish. Happy is the one whose help is the G-d of Jacob, whose hope is in HaShem his G-d, Who made heaven and earth, the sea and everything that is in them; Who guards truth forever.”[i] (Psalm 146:3-6)
With the 2024 USA presidential election on the horizon, different political candidates in the Republican Party are already vying for position, with a special focus on how they might win the evangelical vote and also gain favor with the leaders in Israel. However, instead of concentrating on significant economic or environmental policy issues, recent history suggests they will attempt to convince voters that they are a divinely “chosen” leader who operates at a higher level than the rest of humanity.
When it comes to the issue of leadership, our need for leaders that we can look up to makes us vulnerable to propaganda which exaggerates the ability of those leaders. In ancient cultures, rulers were deified, being viewed as sons of deities who had supernatural abilities.[ii] In the Middle Ages, the kings of Europe were appointed and ordained by the church, which sanctified their being chosen.[iii] However, after the 30 year war in Europe in the 1600s,[iv] people began to realize that leaders were fallible and that it was necessary to have a system of checks and balances to keep them accountable. Representative democracy developed in response to the abuses that occurred in the older leadership model in which leaders were supposedly divinely ordained.[v]
Unfortunately, over the last 50 years, democracies have been eroded by an approach to leadership that utilizes biblical sounding phrases such as “called by G-d”, “anointed of G-d”, and “end-time judge”, apparently with the intention of convincing potential followers that the candidate has been “chosen by G-d”. The use of these phrases creates a subliminal message that resonates in the minds of those who are familiar with them from a religious context.
Being “called by G-d” in the biblical sense involved an individual entrusted with a sacred task for which they would be held accountable. For example, Moses had an encounter with HaShem in which he was called to lead the Israelites out of slavery,[vi] so that they could become “a holy nation” and a “kingdom of priests”[vii] providing guidance and care for the rest of the world. While Moses was successful in bringing the Israelites out of slavery, he was also held accountable when he made a mistake. When Moses was told to bring forth water in the desert for the people by speaking to the rock, he became angry with the people and struck the rock with his staff. [viii] As a consequence, HaShem punished Moses by not allowing him to enter the Promised Land, and then Joshua replaced Moses as the leader of the Israelites.
In contemporary political contexts, the idea of being “called” has been used to justify the selection of a political leader, whose calling supposedly cannot be questioned, regardless of the extent to which that leader has an ethical standard informed by the Torah. For example, when George Bush, Jr. was running for the office of president of the USA, he touted his sense of “calling” to encourage evangelicals to vote for him.[ix] After gaining their support and winning the presidency, he used his position to start a war, not with those responsible for the attacks on 9/11, but with Iraq, whom he falsely accused of having weapons of mass destruction. Even after there was overwhelming evidence that the war he started with Iraq was unjustified and illegal, he did not admit it, and he was even reelected for a second term.
When a political candidate and his supporters declare that the candidate has been “called by G-d” to become the leader of a nation, they are attempting to override the democratic process in which the character, experience, and policies of a candidate are supposed to be carefully considered. If enough spiritual leaders promote the “called” candidate, then their followers become supporters of the political candidate by default. Once those followers accept the misleading idea that the candidate has been “called by G-d”, the democratic process is eroded and reasonable evaluation ceases.
A second biblical phrase that is being misused is the phrase “anointed of G-d”. The verb for anointing in Hebrew is mashakh, and it is the root word for the noun mashiakh, which means “anointed one”. This Hebrew noun is translated as Messiah in English, and it is translated as Christos in Greek (the language in which Christian Scripture was originally written). In the contemporary political context, the phrase “anointed of G-d” has been grotesquely misapplied, most recently by Donald Trump and his followers who have convinced evangelicals of Trump’s supposed divine appointment.[x] While Trump seems to lack an understanding of the commandments of the Torah, his followers brazenly declare their devotion to him as the anointed one. Furthermore, they do not hold him accountable for any of his numerous lies,[xi] nor do they question his spirituality regardless of his behavior.
Concerning the concept “anointed of G-d” as it occurs in the Tanakh, priests, prophets, and kings were anointed with oil when they began their leadership roles. In ancient Israelite culture, anointing was viewed as a symbol of G-d’s consecration of the person being selected for a leadership position. However, the act of anointing did not mean the leader could never make a mistake or that he would automatically do what was right in every situation. Anointing did not cancel free will. Anointed leaders in ancient Israel still had both the good and evil inclination to contend with, and they were held accountable for their mistakes. Priests were not allowed to conduct sacrifices whenever or however they wanted to.[xii] Prophets were not allowed to speak words in the name of HaShem that were not true.[xiii] Kings were not allowed to disobey a direct command by G-d and remain in power. Being anointed did not mean doing whatever they wanted and then claiming divine providence. Rather it meant a greater level of accountability. When they failed, they were either punished by G-d (as in the case of King David[xiv]) or removed from office (as in the case of King Saul[xv]).
When the label “anointed of G-d” is disconnected from facts, historical reality, and from the Scriptures which are used to justify the label, it becomes a twisted manipulative distortion of a sacred ancient Israelite concept. Moreover, the use of this label is being used by modern politicians to declare their autonomy from the regular standards of human behavior. Hence, the inappropriate use of the phrase “anointed of G-d” destroys the concept of accountability, which is vital to a functioning democracy.
A third phrase promoting the “chosen leader” view in the contemporary political context is perhaps the most dangerous, and that is the idea of an “end-time judge” who declares what is good and evil in the world, thereby identifying the “enemy” that must be destroyed at all costs, regardless of the collateral damage. It is not difficult to find numerous examples of politicians who utilized their status to declare what is evil in the world and then use that declaration to justify their actions. Some examples include: Reagan declaring USSR was the evil empire which led to massive expenditures on weapons;[xvi] Bush declaring there was an axis of evil which led to war with Iraq;[xvii] and Trump declaring that Democrats are evil[xviii] which led to conspiracy theories about a stolen election and a riot at the US capitol.
Where did the concept of the “end-time judge” come from? While the concept of a deified “end-time judge” coming from heaven is found in Christian Scripture (as is demonstrated below), does such a concept occur in the Tanakh? The origin of an “end-time judge” concept seems to be early apocalyptic literature which developed during times of persecution when devout people were seeking relief from severe oppression. Some passages in the prophetic books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, and Zechariah have apocalyptic elements, but the only book in the Tanakh that is classified as apocalyptic literature is the book of Daniel,[xix] which is located in the Ketuvim section of the Tanakh. Some biblical commentators believe Daniel chapter 7 contains an example of an “end-time judge” called the “son of man”, but a careful examination of the text leads to a much different conclusion, as can be seen in my analysis below.
According to the opening chapters of the book of Daniel, Daniel (living in exile in Babylon) was persecuted for his desire to keep the commandments of the Torah and his faith in HaShem. In the midst of severe oppression, Daniel began having dreams about future empires, including a powerful dream in Daniel chapter 7. The first image that Daniel saw in his dream is that of four terrific beasts which come up out of the sea, including a lion with eagle’s wings, a bear with ribs in its mouth, a leopard with four heads and wings, and a dreadful creature with iron teeth and ten horns. Then Daniel saw an image of HaShem sitting on a throne, before whom were multitudes and a court with books. After this image, we are told that the dominion of the beasts will be taken away. The last image in the dream is “one like a son of man” who: “came with the clouds of heaven; he reached the Ancient of Days and was brought near before Him [G-d]. And to him was given dominion, honor, and a kingdom. All the peoples, nations, and languages will serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And his kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.”[xx]
As can be seen, the images in his dream are powerful and unusual, but the interpretation of the beasts and the one like a son of man are not left open to interpretation. Rather, Daniel was given the true meaning of the images later in the same chapter:
“As for me, Daniel, my spirit was grieved within me, and the visions in my head alarmed me. I approached one of those who were standing by and began requesting of him the truth of all this. So he told me and made known to me the interpretation of these things: ‘These great beasts, which are four, are four kings who will arise from the earth. But the holy ones of the Highest One will receive the kingdom and take possession of the kingdom forever, forever, and ever.’[xxi]
As can be seen, the beasts are four kings (most likely corresponding to four empires that oppressed the Jewish people from the 7th through the 2nd centuries BCE, including Babylon, Media, Persia, and Greece).[xxii] Each one of these empires gained their position by force and violence. However, according to Daniel’s vision, the day would come when G-d would grant eternal authority to the “holy ones of the Highest One”, which is the interpretation for the image of the one like a son of man. The word for “holy” in this context is the Aramaic word qaddish, which is parallel to the Hebrew word qadosh. In the Torah, the Israelites were commanded to be holy as HaShem is holy, as highlighted in Leviticus 19 in which the Israelites were commanded to keep Shabbat, honor parents, care for the poor, and love their neighbor. The “holy ones of the Highest One” (“one like a son of man”) seek the betterment of others and ultimately they will be honored by HaShem. Those who are familiar with Jesus’ teachings will recognize the phrase “son of man”, because Jesus used that phrase to promote care and compassion amongst his disciples who were encouraged to be good citizens in the Kingdom of God.[xxiii]
While a deified “end-time judge” does not occur in the book of Daniel, later apocalyptic literature drastically revised aspects of Daniel’s dream. Apparently arising out of a sense of fear and oppression in which desperate people wanted G-d to directly intervene in human history by sending an “end-time judge”, the author of 1 Enoch (an apocryphal book that was not included in the Tanakh)[xxiv] drastically revised the concept of the “son of man” in Daniel 7, as can be seen below:
“And there was great joy amongst them, and they blessed and glorified and extolled because the name of that Son of Man had been revealed unto them. And he sat on the throne of his glory, and the sum of judgement was given unto the Son of Man, and he caused the sinners to pass away and be destroyed from off the face of the earth, and those who have led the world astray. With chains shall they be bound, and in their assemblage-place of destruction shall they be imprisoned, and all their works vanish from the face of the earth.”[xxv]
As can be seen from this text, a figure called “the son of man” sits on a throne in heaven, and he has the power to judge the world, causing sinners to be removed from the earth. The writer of this passage appears to give divine ordination to an “end-time judge” who will bring justice to the earth.
Similarly, during a time of severe persecution by Roman authorities in the late 1st century CE, a Christian writer called John utilized the “end-time judge” image when constructing a message about the supposed second coming of Jesus, as can be seen from the following passages from the book of Revelation (a disputed book in the Christian Scripture possibly written around 90 CE)[xxvi]:
“Behold, he [Jesus] is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, and whoever pierced him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over him.”[xxvii]
“And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and the one [Jesus] sitting upon it being called faithful and true, and in righteousness, he judges and wages war. His eyes are as a flame of fire, and on his head are many crowns, having a name being written which no one knows except himself. Having been clothed with a garment dipped in blood, and his name has been called the word of G-d. And the armies which are in heaven, having been clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it he may strike the nations, and he will govern them with a rod of iron; and he treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of G-d, the Almighty. ”[xxviii]
Those who are familiar with Jesus’ teachings “to turn the other cheek” and “to love one’s enemies”[xxix] when addressing violence and aggression will find the apocalyptic image given above to be very disturbing and completely contrary to Jesus’ pacifist views. The love and compassion present in the ethos of the historical Jesus is decidedly missing from this apocalyptic “end-time judge”. Instead of loving enemies, this figure wages war against them by means of violence and force.
The concept of a deified human who is an “end-time judge” is not found in the Tanakh.[xxx] Moreover, a divine/human figure is contrary to the teachings of the Torah and the foundational belief as cited in the Shema, that HaShem is One.[xxxi] HaShem is the only final judge of humanity,[xxxii] and the best we can do as humans is to encourage good behavior and correct evil behavior based on Torah-centered principles and a system of laws that are applicable to all of us.
In closing, there is a good reason why representative democracy developed as the preferred method for selecting and replacing political leaders. The exaggerated leader model has been around in various forms since the beginning of human civilization, and it has consistently failed in leading to positive results for the public good. So called “chosen” leaders make mistakes, because they are human. Furthermore, no matter how much they lie and deceive after making a serious mistake, sooner or later, consequences set in, and the people suffer to such an extent that they decide to remove the leader by voting (in a democracy) or by more drastic means (in an autocracy). In other instances, the leader’s chokehold cannot be removed in a timely fashion, and the suffering of the people intensifies until the whole nation falls into a state of chaos or is destroyed.
With the numerous challenges that humanity now faces (such as global climate change and the accompanying shortages of food and water), now is not the time to entrust our fate with a single individual who cannot be held accountable for his actions because he is a “chosen leader”. Instead, we need to elect humble, honest, stable, reasonable leaders who abide by the rule of law and who are wise enough to seek counsel from key experts in all fields that affect the human situation, relying heavily on a system of checks and balances that will prevent them from making horrific decisions leading to the demise of a nation.
[i] All English translations of passages from the Tanakh are my translations.
[ii] For example, Sumer, one of the earliest civilizations, was led by the hero Gilgamesh whose mother was supposedly the goddess Ninsun. Egypt was led by divine/human Pharaohs. Rome was founded by the brothers Romulus and Remus, who were raised by wolves and whose father was a deity.
[iii] “Traditions of theocratic kingship, which were based on Roman and Christian precedents, emerged in the early centuries of the period, leading kings to assume their status as God’s representatives on earth.” Monarchy – Premodern monarchies | Britannica
[iv] “The Thirty Years’ War was a 17th-century religious conflict fought primarily in central Europe. It remains one of the longest and most brutal wars in human history, with more than 8 million casualties resulting from military battles as well as from the famine and disease caused by the conflict. The war lasted from 1618 to 1648, starting as a battle among the Catholic and Protestant states that formed the Holy Roman Empire. However, as the Thirty Years’ War evolved, it became less about religion and more about which group would ultimately govern Europe.” Thirty Years’ War (history.com)
[v] “The great transition from authoritarian forms of constitution and government to democracy and constitutional government started in the Western world after 1750. It needed centuries for Europe to establish and enhance democratic structures and to remove authoritarian forms.” (PDF) Evolution of Democracy: Psychological Stages and Political Developments in World History (researchgate.net)
[vi] See Exodus 3:1ff.
[vii] See Exodus 19:6.
[viii] Numbers 20:8-12.
[ix] “The book [The Faith of George W. Bush] also shows that in the lead-up to announcing his candidacy for the presidency, Bush told a Texan evangelist that he had had a premonition of some form of national disaster happening. Bush said to James Robinson: ‘I feel like God wants me to run for President. I can’t explain it, but I sense my country is going to need me. Something is going to happen… I know it won’t be easy on me or my family, but God wants me to do it.’” Bush says God chose him to lead his nation | World news | The Guardian
[x] Surveys indicate “a healthy number of evangelicals believe Trump to be anointed by God”…. In their research, Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge (associate professors of political science at Denison University and Eastern Illinois University) “noticed a spate of pastors, pundits, and politicians exclaiming Trump to be God’s chosen one.… In their sample, about a third of white evangelicals agreed that Trump was ordained by God to win the 2016 election.” Half of evangelicals believe Trump is anointed by God – Big Think
[xi] During his presidency, some journalists contend Trump lied over 30,000 times. Trump’s false or misleading claims total 30,573 over 4 years – The Washington Post
[xii] According to Numbers 26:61, the sons of Aaron named Nadab and Abihu died “when they offered strange fire before HaShem.”
[xiii] According to Deuteronomy 18:20, the prophet who falsely speaks a word in the name of HaShem shall be put to death.
[xiv] 2 Samuel 11-12.
[xv] 1 Samuel 15:26.
[xvi] “Reagan declared that the Soviets ‘must be made to understand we will never compromise our principles and standards [nor] ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire. To do so would mean abandoning the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.’” Reagan refers to U.S.S.R. as “evil empire” again (history.com)
[xvii] “In delivering his State of the Union message on this day in 2002, President George W. Bush branded three countries — North Korea, Iran and Iraq — as rogue states that he said harbored, financed and aided terrorists….. [Bush said:] “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.” President Bush cites ‘axis of evil,’ Jan. 29, 2002 – POLITICO
[xviii] “This idea remains at the center of right-wing politics, of course. Trump’s appeal in 2016 was intertwined with the idea that the establishment — including both Republicans and Democrats — were failing the country. But he deployed the term “evil” primarily for groups like terrorists, the media and Democrats.” There’s actually only one conspiracy theory: Democrats are evil – The Washington Post
[xix] Scholars disagree about the date of the authorship of this book. Traditionally, Daniel was considered do be the author of his own book in the 6th century BCE. However, many contemporary scholars maintain the final version was written in the 2nd century BCE by an unknown author/editor, because it contains specific references to Greek oppression of the Jewish people in that time period.
[xx] Daniel 7:13-14.
[xxi] Daniel 7:15-18.
[xxii] Another major interpretation of the four kingdoms is that they are: Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
[xxiii] There is a significant debate about Jesus’ use of the phrase “son of man”. My research about Jesus’ use of this phrase is presented in my book The UnGospel: The Life and Teachings of the Historical Jesus.
[xxiv] Concerning the date of the composition of 1 Enoch: “I Enoch is a compilation of several separate works, most of which are apocalyptic. Its oldest portion is the “Apocalypse of Weeks,” written shortly before the Maccabean uprising of 167 BC against the Seleucids. Other sections, especially those dealing with astronomical and cosmological speculations, are difficult to date.” (First Book of Enoch | Summary, History, & Facts | Britannica )
[xxv] 1 Enoch 69:26-28. This translation is from: The Book of Enoch: Book of Noah–a Fragment: Chapter LXIX (sacred-texts.com).
[xxvi] There is evidence that early Christians had a mixed opinion when it came to the issue of including the book of Revelation in the Christian Scriptures. Historical evidence indicates that “the Revelation to John, Hebrews, and several of the Catholic Epistles (2 Peter, James, 1, 2, and 3 John, and Jude) took much longer to be accepted into the Canon than did the other books.” Canonization – History and Literature of the Bible (bibleatchurch.com)
[xxvii] Revelation 1:7. All English translations of the Greek text of the Christian Scriptures are my own translations.
[xxviii] Revelation 19:11-15.
[xxix] See the Gospel of Matthew 5:39 and 5:43-45.
[xxx] While Isaiah 11:1-10 is sometimes cited as supporting evidence for an “end-time judge”, this reference is referring to a human descendant of David who, based on being guided by the spirit of HaShem, will be able to make wise judgments. Human leaders who depend on the Torah and the guidance of HaShem are not deified humans but those who are humble enough to seek help in their decision making.
[xxxi] See Deuteronomy 6:4.
[xxxii] See Psalm 7:11; Psalm 50:6; Psalm 58:11; Psalm 75:7; Psalm 82:8; Ecclesiastes 3:17; and Isaiah 3:13.