Israel as divine exemplar: Harrington’s Oceana (1656)

Gai Ferdon, March 2006

Early modern scholars tend to celebrate the political and constitutional contributions of Britain’s seventeenth century by highlighting the use of classical and Renaissance texts. Nevertheless, this type of literature is not the only political influence upon early modern minds. Another pervasive legacy, often overlooked and marginalized, is represented by the Scriptures and Protestant political theology.

Britain’s distinct contribution to biblical political writing resulted from her Civil War, Puritan Revolution, and Interregnum periods (1640–60). These events not only divided the population between Parliamentary and Royalist sympathies but Parliament’s eventual victory and its swift execution of Charles I produced a power vacuum and the immediate need to replace the ancient Constitution of Monarchy, Commons and Lords. When the Parliamentary victors engaged the issue of constitutional settlement, their deliberations often turned on the enduring political relevance of the Scriptures, and especially the Old Testament. The lifting of censorship motivated various sects to publish political platforms advocating new constitutional models, and the widened political dialogue played-out in contentious political pamphleteering between Protestants. Many ministers and civil servants were unappreciative of the public’s input into the settlement crises, and the pursuit of an enduring constitutional form prompted contradictory hermeneutical approaches and radical political readings of the Scriptures.

Methods of political scriptural readings ranged from literal approaches to less constrained allegorical and typological ones. Some readings resorted exclusively to select passages, genres, and even Testaments. Anglican Royalists and Presbyterians tended to read the Old Testament polity of Israel’s monarchy as normative for England, drawing specific parallels between Jewish and English Kings. Independents and Separatists, on the other hand, focused predominantly upon the New Testament and the gospel dispensation, arguing for a new republican commonwealth of Christian liberty in the place of Mosaic civil law, a separation between the civil and ecclesiastical spheres, and a democratic approach to ecclesiastical and political leadership. Other republican thinkers, such as James Harrington in his The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), produced constitutional models which incorporated various dimensions of the Jewish polity in regards to its broad political outlines.

Harrington’s Political use of Scripture

Harrington (1611–1677, pictured left c.1635) is somewhat unique even among his republican colleagues because he approached the Hebrew Commonwealth as a paradigm, or divine exemplar, to find inspiration for a constitutional settlement. In this regard, he read Israel’s pre-monarchial polity as a divine deposit of governing political assumptions which reflected God’s will as universal governor who revealed laws and ethical requirements to men made in his image. God governed Israel in a manner which reflected His preferred governance of all human beings, saints and sinners alike. Harrington was not attempting to replicate Israel’s polity, or even assert that God was transforming England into his chosen people in Israel’s stead. Rather, he attempted to extract universal constitutional principles and objectives from that first divinely instituted commonwealth.

Harrington’s interest in the dynamics of Israel’s polity is evidenced by his self-confessed study of the leading rabbinic sources and Hebrew scholars of his day. Vast segments of some of his other major treatises, like Prerogative of Popular Government (1658) and The Art of Lawgiving (1659), are exclusively devoted to explicating the Hebrew Commonwealth against his Royalist opponents and show his exegetical skill in handling biblical languages and historical contexts. This sort of in-depth, intricate study of Israel’s Commonwealth testifies that Harrington’s engagement with the Scriptures was not merely a propaganda prop to buttress his political agenda.

Oceana represents a fictionalized commonwealth published in early November, 1656 after the sitting of the second Protectorate Parliament, and was intended to be received with all seriousness, especially by Oliver Cromwell, to whom it was dedicated. Harrington’s model, Oceana, is rendered with elaborate imagery, is fascinatingly complex, continues to capture the attention of early modern historians, and is not easily distilled down to its philosophic essentials. But at the hazard of over-generalizing Harrington’s main arguments, his unique solution to England’s settlement crises rested first in recognizing her steady transition to a more popular balance in land ownership, which would result in a republican or popular form of government. But to secure both popular land ownership and popular government, a fixed law governing land acquisition needed to be secured. This principle of the ‘popular balance of dominion’, as Harrington termed it, was modelled by Israel’s divinely ordained agrarian land laws.

Popular Land Ownership

Harrington explains in Oceana, that any empire, whether governed as a monarchy, aristocracy, or through popular government, must establish agrarian laws to fix the balance of land ownership to sustain its own existence. Monarchies survive by securing the balance of land ownership with the king, and likewise, aristocracies by anchoring land ownership with the ruling minority. But a popular government, such as a republic, or commonwealth, is firmly established with popular ownership of land. Political dominion follows land ownership, and regardless of the type of government, the primary power of agrarian laws rests in their ability to stabilize governments and therefore affect their longevity. Harrington identified England’s land dominion as progressing to popular ownership given the dissolution of the monarchy and House of Lords.

Harrington claimed that popular land ownership was ‘first introduced by God himself , who divided the land of Canaan unto his people by lots’, and was ‘of such virtue that, wherever it hath held, that government hath not altered, except by consent; as in that unparalleled example of the people of Israel, when being in liberty they would needs choose a king’ (Oceana, 164). A popular land distribution secured by agrarian laws prevents the dominion from being under the authority of ‘few or aristocracy’ and maintains ‘equality in the root’, or a popular government (Oceana, 180, 231). Harrington believed that popular land ownership was God-inspired, as evidenced in his administration of it for Israel.

Harrington read the circumstances surrounding God’s command to divide the land of Canaan according to the families of the twelve tribes as scriptural proof that political dominion should be built upon popular property ownership. The Canaan divisions were determined by lots cast among the twelve tribes depending on the number of families in each (Numbers 26:53–56 and 33:54; see Oceana, 174–175; Art, 631–632). Further proof that God desired popular government for Israel is found in his institution of the jubilee land law, which fixed the lands allotted to families such that they ‘were immovably entailed upon the proprietors and their heirs forever’. Should circumstances require the transfer of land through sale or otherwise, coupled with few exceptional cases of inheritance concerns, the jubilee law required that land be returned to the original proprietor after fifty years (Art, 634).

Harrington’s Critics

Some of Harrington’s strongest arguments favouring the political relevance of the Hebrew Commonwealth are found in polemical debates with leading Royalists bent on asserting the superiority of a monarchy over a commonwealth. The issue of the popular land ownership as a fundamental component of Israel’s constitution produced heated exchanges.

One prominent Royalist was Matthew Wren, son of the Bishop of Ely, who engaged Harrington with his Considerations (1657) and Monarchy Asserted (1659). Upon examining Harrington’s political use of ‘the Republique of Israel’, Wren sought to establish ‘how far we are now bound to work after that Original’, and criticized Harrington for advancing it ‘with more authority than belongs to a bare Example’ and for reproaching ‘the Christian World’ for its ‘negligence…for not transcribing from it’. Harrington’s practice of crafting ‘laws and modelling a Commonwealth to tread in the steps of Moses’, was valid, unless Israel’s peculiar institutions had been ‘terminated with the Revelation of the Gospel, or…altered by some general or special constitutions of Christ’. That said, Wren remained unconvinced ‘of any prerogative of Authority belonging to the Israelitish more then any other Republique: For a Law can only oblige onely those to whom it is given, which were the children of Israel only’. According to Wren, it was not ‘enough to look at the Dignity of the Legislator’, when ‘considering of Laws and frames of Government’ as due ‘regard must be had also to circumstances of times, places, and persons’. (Considerations, 36–37; 39–40). Wren took Harrington to task on the political nature of Israel’s agrarian laws, asserting that the Scriptures failed to reveal that it was ‘fundamental to the government’ (Considerations, 77–78).

Harrington’s Defence

Harrington countered by contending that the Scriptures prove Israel’s agrarian law was not only political, but constitutionally foundational. He supported his argument with reference to three methods of political dominion found in Scripture.

As already noted, Harrington’s principal biblical proof of a popular land ownership performing the political function of securing a popular government is when ‘God, by the ballot of Israel…divided the land’ of Canaan by lot and thus, he argues, ‘intended popular government’.

The second represents the alteration of the popular balance in favour of the nobility, effected when Israel requested a king, in 1 Samuel 8:14. God commanded Samuel to demonstrate to Israel ‘the manner of the king,’ who ‘will take your fields and your vineyards, and your olive-yards, even the best of them, and give unto his servants’. He will also ‘take the tenth of your feed, and of your vineyards, and of your sheep’, and Israel’s ‘daughters shall come to be his cooks and confectioners, and your sons to run before his chariot’. Harrington claims that ‘from the balance to the superstructures, a more perfect description of a monarchy’ cannot be found.

His third example is derived from Joseph’s role as Egypt’s administrator who was authorized by Pharaoh to resolve the famine crisis (Genesis 47:19–20). The people approached Joseph saying ‘Buy us and our land for bread, and we and our land will be servants unto Pharaoh’. Joseph’s subsequent purchase transformed the balance to that ‘of a sole landlord or absolute prince, with the miserable and yet necessary consequence of an enslaved people’ (Prerogative, 462–463).

Given these three scriptural instances, Harrington unequivocally claims that the commonwealth of Oceana is right to find an agrarian law exemplar in the commonwealth of Israel (Prerogative, 463).

The Jubilee

The jubilee land law, ‘the most approved way’ of permanently fixing the popular balance of dominion, also functioned for Harrington as a political paradigm or exemplar. With England’s transition to more popular land ownership following the destruction of the ancient Constitution, and in order to prevent Cromwell from acquiring monarchial powers, she now required a law in the manner of a jubilee land law to secure it, and thereby establish and settle popular government, or a commonwealth. It was the effectiveness of the agrarian laws in preserving popular government, already divinely sanctioned, which Harrington extracted from Israel in his attempt to fix the balance in Oceana, i.e. in England.

Harrington was hardly adopting any sort of levelling agenda or programme, and explained to Wren that the property currently in possession should not be ‘stirred, but all entirely left as it was found’. Therefore, Oceana’s balance will not be initiated like Israel’s, which was ‘introduced at the institution’, ‘by God, or Moses’. Harrington reiterates that as property in Oceana ‘is taken as it is found, and not stirred an hair’, its division is not an exact pattern of God’s promise to braham, which was ‘made’, while Oceana’s is ‘found made’.

The detailed land allotments of Canaan for Israel were, then, a unique act of divine institution which Harrington did not intend for England to duplicate. Rather, he uses it as a paradigm, or divine model. The Law was to operate as a political mechanism, pattern, or divine prototype, by which to establish popular government. ‘And whereas the jubilee was a law instituted for the preservation of the popular balance from alteration, so is the agrarian in Oceana’ (Prerogative, 463). The land divisions of Israel and in the commonwealth proposed for England differ, but the agrarian laws in each are of like effect, namely the preservation of the balance of land and therefore popular government (Art, 665).


Harrington employed the Hebrew Commonwealth quite extensively when developing the constitution of Oceana. Oceana was written out of Israel paradigmatically, meaning that Harrington extended her authority over his model as a divine republican exemplar . In this regard, Oceana paralleled Israel in other constitutional principles, but the popular nature of her government and her agrarian laws are emphasized here to illustrate his political reading of the Bible.

Since the divine division of land allocations were held largely with the people of Israel and not the leadership, and subsequently secured by the jubilee, Harrington concluded that God initially ordained a popular government in Israel – one that remained fixed until the establishment of monarchy. Scripture confirms that agrarian laws perform political functions, and Harrington onsidered the example of God’s division of Canaan to secure a popular balance, and therefore popular government, as superior to either monarchy or aristocracy.

Following her PhD (which included study of James Harrington) Gai is currently working on a report for us on biblical constitutional principles.



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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2006

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