The Old Testament and the Presidents

CNN.com in a news release asked the following question: “Obama picks Bible for inauguration, but what verse?” The following are a few excerpts from the news release. I have added the items in italics in order to emphasize the Presidents and their choices of verses from the Old Testament.

(CNN) — While President-elect Barack Obama will certainly be making history when he takes the oath of office on January 20, he’ll also be repeating it — by placing his hand on the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used during the inauguration of 1861.

The Constitution does not require presidents to be sworn in on a Bible, though almost every chief executive since George Washington has chosen to do so. Presidents have differed greatly, however, on the question of which passage the Bible should be opened to during the swearing-in ceremony.

It brings up the question of what — if any — biblical passage Obama will emphasize.

2 Chronicles 7:14

According to Gleaves Whitney, a presidential historian at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University, II Chronicles 7:14 was used for three swearing-in ceremonies: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Bill Clinton

If Obama wants to stress that theme again on January 20, he may prefer to follow Bill Clinton’s lead from the 1997 inaugural and open the Bible to Isaiah 58:12: “Thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations, and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach.”

Richard Nixon

Shortly after winning the White House on a similar pledge to end another divisive conflict — this one in Vietnam — Richard Nixon took the oath with a family Bible opened to Isaiah 2:4: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Woodrow Wilson

With the polls showing an overwhelming majority of Americans convinced the country is on the wrong track, Obama might hint at a back-to-basics message by doing what Woodrow Wilson did in 1913. During his first inaugural, Wilson opened the Bible to Psalm 119, which concludes “I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek thy servant; for I do not forget thy commandments.”

George Washington

Almost 220 years ago, in 1789, Washington opened the King James version of a Masonic Bible to Genesis 49:13 — “Zebulun shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and he shall be for a haven of ships; and his border shall be unto Zidon.”

Barack Obama

Barack Obama has not yet taken the oath of office, so, we still do not know what verse from the Bible he will choose, nor do we know whether he will select a passage from the Old Testament or the New Testament.

I have some suggestions for the President-Elect. First, I would suggest that he selects a passage from the Old Testament. The reason for this suggestion is that since he is trying to bring together the diverse constituency that put him in office, by selecting a passage from the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, he can please both Christians and Jews at the same time.

Second, if he chooses a passage from the Old Testament, I suggest that he does not select 1 Samuel 8:11-17. In this passage Samuel describes the kind of President (king) the people would have, since they had rejected God and selected a man to rule over them. Samuel said:

“This is the way the kind of king [President] you’re talking about operates. He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves” (1 Samuel 8:11-17).

This kind of President [king] is more like a Banana Republic dictator, but that was the kind of ruler the people wanted. And sure enough, later on the people repented because now they had the kind of king they wanted. The people said to Samuel: “Intercede for your servants with the LORD your God that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins the wickedness of asking for a king” (1 Samuel 12:19). I guess all the taxes the king imposed on them became a burden heavier than the people could carry. Indeed, it was heavy taxation that caused the kingdom to divide. When King-Elect Rehoboam came to his inauguration, the people said to him: “Your father made life hard for us—worked our fingers to the bone. Give us a break; lighten up on us and we’ll willingly serve you” (1 King 12:4).

I would suggest that Barack Obama places his hand on Psalm 72, a psalm that talks about a ruler who would rule with justice and equity for all. Here are some of the words of Psalm 72, words that I dedicate to Obama:

Give the gift of wise rule to the king, O God,
the gift of just rule to the crown prince.
May he judge your people rightly,
be honorable to your meek and lowly.
Let the mountains give exuberant witness;
shape the hills with the contours of right living.
Let him stand up for the poor,
help the children of the needy,
come down hard on the cruel tyrants.
Let righteousness burst into blossom
and peace abound until the moon fades to nothing.
Let him rescue the poor at the first sign of need,
the destitute who have run out of luck.
Let him open a place in his heart for the down-and-out,
Let him restore the wretched of the earth.
Let him free the needy from tyranny and torture—
when they bleed, he bleeds;
when they die, he dies.
And let him live! Oh, let him live!
May the people offer prayers unceasing for him,
Let them pray for him from morning to night.

If Obama becomes the kind of ruler the psalmist was praying for, he will become one of the greatest Presidents of the United States. Obama is coming to the Presidency with the prayers and well-wishes of the American people. What kind of king, what kind of President Obama will be is up to him.

Let us hope and pray that at the end of his term, either four or eight years from now, he can depart the White House and say the same words Samuel said at the end of his leadership as a judge in Israel:

“I am old and gray. I’ve led you faithfully from my youth until this very day. Look at me! Do you have any complaints to bring before God and his anointed? Have I ever stolen so much as an ox or a donkey? Have I ever taken advantage of you or exploited you? Have I ever taken a bribe or played fast and loose with the law? Bring your complaint and I’ll make it right” (1 Samuel 12:2-3).

Best wishes to the President-Elect.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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3 Responses to The Old Testament and the Presidents

  1. steph says:

    >It would be far more encouraging to see an American President make an honest declaration from his own heart rather than read from any religious text. You seem concerned for the Jews – what about Muslims?

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  2. >Steph,Our Western society was built on the Judeo-Christian traditions and so was our country. Our nation welcomes people of all faiths and they can worship as they choose.Every American President has taken the oath of office on the Bible and so will President-Elect Obama. As a Professor of Old Testament, I was just offering a suggestion on what text to use.Claude Mariottini

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  3. steph says:

    >I knew you were going to say something like that. That’s the point. America, like us, is not a Christian country. It is a country of immigrants. It is multi cultural. It you’re going to appease the Jews you should appease other traditions too. Why favour Jews just because it’s the grandfather of Christianity. Oh that’s right – Israel. If he’s a Christian, and he’s living in his faith like everyone else, then he should read from the NT if he must read from any religious text at all. The government here is secular. Swearing in is a process including all cultures but there is no religious aspect of the inauguration of a new PM. America is on its own.

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