The cultural atmosphere in our Western World today is one based on “rights” and “laws.” It is written into the fabric of Western Society that all people have equal rights, such as the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The fact that each American citizen has rights “guaranteed” by laws is such a fundamental part of our lives that it is difficult to imagine life without them.
However, it is a serious mistake to interpret the Bible in terms of our own culture. In the ancient world people were not thought of as being equal, with each having rights. Certain rights were granted to certain segments of society, yes, but even those were regularly ignored. A Roman slave owner, for example, would have thought it absurd that his slave had the “right” to life or happiness.
That people were not thought of as having “rights” is clear from both the ancient writings and the biblical text. Herod the Great killed the children in Bethlehem because he suspected a rival would arise from that town. John the Baptist was imprisoned because he confronted Herod Antipas about marrying his brother’s wife, and then was executed simply to please Herodias, who did not like him. Paul, though a Roman citizen, was kept in jail in Caesarea for almost two full years because the ruler, Felix, was hoping for a bribe (Acts 24:26).
In fact, the process to gain rights has been slow and hard fought. In 1215 A.D. (almost 1,000 years after the New Testament era) the barons of England forced King John to sign the Magna Charta, a “bill of rights,” if you will. Article 39 stated that rulers could not imprison and punish people without a lawful trial. King John was basically forced to sign it, but immediately sent it on to the Pope, who declared it null and void, and for extra measure, excommunicated the barons.
To us today, the “right” to a trial and to not be tortured just because some ruler does not like us seems fundamental indeed, but not so to the King of England and the Pope in 1215. If ancient societies did not function like ours, on laws and rights, what was their “cultural atmosphere,” and how did they function?
Ancient biblical societies functioned on a patron-client basis. As such, there was great inequality between the “Haves” and the “Have-nots.” The inequality existed in substance (possessions) and power and influence. As a result, the client needed the resources that the patron could offer. The patron needed (or found useful) the loyalty and honor that the client could give him.