Charisma in Ancient Israel PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
In the Song of Deborah (Judges 5), we notice that the word Israel occurs many times, but we may well wonder what it is referring to. For we have here a bunch of tribes, some of which obey Deborah's summons, showing up for the battle against the Canaanites, while others do not. Crucial, then, was Deborah's drawing power or "charisma." This provides a hint as to the way in which the Israelites knew God. They experienced Him in their day-to-day living through the charisma of their human leaders. They saw and heard only the human leader, but they experienced the charisma not as some personal property of the latter, the way we moderns do when we say that so-and-so has charisma and so-and-so does not. In the leader's charisma, rather, the Israelites experienced the working of God, who could give it or take it away. The human leader alone is not adequate: Moses stuttered, Deborah was from a sex which is kept subservient, Gideon was from the least respected clan, and so on. When suddenly this "inadequate" person rose up, filled with the magical power to mobilize the tribes, that power was experienced as God's presence in him or her.

The phenomenon of charisma is still with us. (Although the Greek word means "divine gift," we know that it can also be demonic.) But we moderns tend to "psychologize" charisma into a personal property, as we do with other phenomena that the ancients held, perhaps rightly, to be mysterious: for example, having an insight ("it dawned on me") or being "gifted" or even, as in Homer, falling asleep.

Biblical Israel saw charisma, then, as other ancient peoples did. On this basis alone we cannot comprehend what made this people distinctive. To do so we shall need to consider its semi-nomadic origins.