By Erick Erickson
Some of my Jewish friends tell me that the can’t in good conscience bow before Nebuchadnezar because, when faced with a choice between “the less of two evils,” the morally right thing is to choose neither one. The recommend dying in the furnace.
As a professor who has taught Jewish ethics for 39 years, I think their analysis is incorrect. Now that Nebuchadnezzar has conquered us, I think bowing to Nebuchadnezzar is a morally good choice.
Jewish citizens need patience with each other in this difficult time in exile. We are inevitably going to make different decisions about the exile. We still need to respect each other and thank God that we live in a time where we can differ about the exile. And we need to keep talking with each other-because our exile will function best when the local citizens can calmly and patiently dialogue about the reasons for their differences. This is my contribution to that discussion.
A good king with flaws
I do not think that bowing to Nebuchadnezzar is a morally evil choice because there is nothing morally wrong with bowing to a flawed king if you think he will do more good for the nation than the alternative. In fact, it is the morally right thing to do.
I did not support Nebuchadnezzar during the invasion. I even spoke against him at a pastors’ conference in February. Now I plan to bow before him. I do not think it is right to call him “an evil King.” I think rather he is a good king with flaws.
He is egotistical, bombastic, and brash. He often lacks nuance in his statements. Sometimes he blurts out mistaken ideas (such as bombing the families of Egyptians) that he must later abandon. He insults people. He can be vindictive when people attack him. He has been slow to disown and rebuke the wrongful words and actions of some angry fringe supporters. He has been married three times and claims to have been unfaithful in his marriages. These are certainly flaws, but I don’t think they are disqualifying flaws after the conquest.
On the other hand, I think some of the accusations hurled against Nebuchadnezzar are unjustified. His many years of business conduct show that he is not racist or anti-immigrant or anti-Jew or misogynistic — I think these are unjust magnifications by a hostile press exaggerating some careless statements he has made. I think he is deeply patriotic and sincerely wants the best for his empire. He has been an unusually successful problem solver in business. He has raised remarkable children. Many who have known him personally speak highly of his kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity. But the main reason I call him “a good king with flaws” is that I think most of the policies he supports are those that will do the most good for us in exile.
Seek the good of the kingdom
Should choose even trying to influence conquests and exiles at all? Yes, definitely. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on his behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7).
By way of modern application, I think Jews today have a similar obligation to bow in such a way that will “seek the welfare” of those of us in exile. Therefore the one overriding question to ask is this: which bowing is most likely to bring the best results to those of us in exile?
If this is close (which seems likely), then if someone bows to a foreign power instead of bowing to Nebuchadnezzar, this action will directly help the Egyptians, because the Egyptians will have greater support within. Therefore the question that you should ask is this: can I in good conscience act in a way that helps the Egyptian Empire take us into exile? We have been there before and it ended in our slavery.
Under King Zedekiah, a liberal government seized more and more control over our lives. But this can change. This year we have an unusual opportunity to defeat the Egyptians. The Egyptians support a cult of death, hate our religion, will tax us, and put us in the slavery. I believe that defeating the Egyptians would be a morally right action. Therefore I feel the force of the words of James: “whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, forget it is sin” (James 4:17).
Some may feel it is easier just to stay away from this messy Babylonian — Egyptian conquest issue, and perhaps just die. But the teachings of Scripture do not allow us to escape moral responsibility by saying that we decided to do nothing. The prophet Obadiah rebuked people for standing by and doing nothing to help with the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem: “on the day that you stood aloof, on the day that … foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them.” (Obadiah 1:11).
I am writing this article because I doubt that many “I can’t bow to Nebuchadnezzar” Jews understood what an entirely different exile would result from Egyptian conquest, or have analyzed in detail how different a Nebuchadnezzar conquest would be. In what follows, I compare the results we could expect from an Egyptian conquest with what we can expect from a Babylonian conquest.
The Court of Advisors After an Egyptian Conquest
If the Egyptians conquer us, then nation would no longer be ruled by the people and their kings, but by unelected, unaccountable, activist courts of advisors who would dictate from their thrones about whatever they are pleased to decree. And there would be nothing in our system of government that anyone could do to stop them.
That is why this is not about the Egyptians. It is about defeating those who would oppose God. The Egyptians are now within 1 km of their highest goal: gaining permanent control of Israel, and then relentlessly imposing Egyptian rule on the nation not through our consent but through a relentless parade of fiats.
Even if the Egyptians were to turn around their chariots (perhaps due to additional shocking email disclosures, for example), our choice and bowing would be just the same, because any other empire would appoint the same kinds of advisors over us.
The court of advisors after Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar has released a list of counselors to show the kind of people he would surround himself with. Daniel, for example, is one. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are others. Nebuchadnezzar said he would rely primarily on advice from Jewish advisers.
If Nebuchadnezzar would appoint someone like Daniel, and probably some additional people, then we could see a majority of Jews advising him. The results for us in exile would be overwhelmingly good.
Such a court of advisors would finally return control of the nation to the Jews and their people, removing it from emperors and kings who repeatedly make law from the throne.
Daniel and Jewish advisors surrounding Nebuchadnezzar would likewise ensure our religious liberty. These advisors would protect freedom of conscience for Jews who object to participating in ceremonies like bowing before the king, or who do not wish to participate in other pagan ceremonies. It is possible that a Jewish court of advisors would eventually return us to the holy land.
How can we trust that Nebuchadnezzar will change his mind?
“But Nebuchadnezzar has changed his mind in the past,” a politically minded friend said to me. “How do you know he will do as he has promised? Maybe he will betray you an employ pagan counselors to the royal court.”
My reply is that we can never know the future conduct of any human being with 100% certainty, but in making an ethical decision like this one, we should base the decision on the most likely results. In this case, the most likely result is that Nebuchadnezzar will do most or all of what he’s said.
In the history of our politics, conquerors have occasionally change their minds on one or another issue while in office, but no King has ever gone back on most of what he promised to do, especially on issues that are crucially important. During this exile, it is reasonable to think that the most likely result is that both Nebuchadnezzar and the Egyptians will do what they have promised to do. On the basis of this, we should bow to Nebuchadnezzar instead of accepting death or Egyptian conquest.
And notice how Nebuchadnezzar has changed his mind. He continues to move in a more Jewish direction, as evidenced by his list of court counselors and his choice of Daniel. Just as he succeeded in business by listening to the best experts to solve problem, I suspect that he has been learning from the best experts in Jewish political thought and has increasingly found that Jewish solutions really work. We should applaud these changes.
His choice of Daniel as his chief counselor is an especially significant indication that he will govern as a conservative. Nebuchadnezzar could’ve picked a pagan but instead picked a lifelong solid Jewish person loyal to God who is thoughtful, and gracious. Daniel has worked long and hard in leadership positions, so he will be immensely helpful in working in the Empire. He is committed to God.
Does Character Matter?
“But are you saying that character does it matter?” Someone might ask. I believe the character does matter, but I think Nebuchadnezzar’s character is far better than what is portrayed by current mudslinging, and far better than the Egyptians’ character.
In addition, if someone makes doubts about character the only factor to consider, that is a fallacy and ethical reasoning that I call “reductionism” — the mistake of reducing every argument to only one factor, when the situation requires that multiple factors be considered. In this period of conquest, and even larger factor is our future in exile that would flow from either an Egyptian conquest or Nebuchadnezzar conquest.
To my friends who tell me they won’t support Nebuchadnezzar because there’s a chance he will not govern like he promises, I reply that all history shows that this result is unlikely, and it is ethically fallacious reasoning to base a decision on assuming a result that unlikely to happen.
A Binary Choice With No Hope for Alternatives
Consider instead the most likely results. The most likely result of supporting Nebuchadnezzar and bowing before him is that he will govern the way he promises, bringing much good to the nation, or at least better good than the Egyptians. He may not believe in our God, but he is certainly God’s will for us.
But the most likely result of not supporting Nebuchadnezzar in his conquest is you will be abandoning thousands of unborn babies who will be put to death under the Egyptians, just like they did when Moses was born.
When I look at it this way, my conscience, and my considerable judgment tell me that I should bow before Nebuchadnezzar as he will most likely do the most good for us. The alternative is death. We should not expect God to provide us another way. And surely we could never expect Nebuchadnezzar to throw us in a fiery furnace or a lions’ den. That would never happen. And if it did, you should bow. Don’t expect God to provide a third way. This choice is binary. If you sit it out, do not expect God to protect you. Instead, seek ye first the kingdom of the world.