In March, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sparked further debate by suggesting Trump may be a modern-day Esther, raised up by God to save the Jewish people from Iran. Identifying a biblical type elevates Trump from the mundane to the sacred, imbuing the president with a transcendent, divinely ordained mission of biblical proportions.
Not to be outdone, some of Trump’s biblically literate critics have drawn analogies between the president and Scripture’s villains. For instance, in a 2016 editorial in the Hill, Christian writer Rebecca Cusey likened Trump not to Esther but to Haman — the evil, conniving antagonist in the book of Esther who plotted to massacre the Jews.
So, is Trump Haman or Esther? Or is he a Cyrus, David or Caesar? Our answer: None of the above. We should resist the temptation to link the president — or any politician — with biblical types.
To avoid the weaponizing of Scripture and the sacralizing of politics, we urge our fellow Christians to refrain from using biblical typologies in political life.
That’s not to say we’re against typological thinking altogether. The New Testament is full of typology. Early followers of Christ saw him as the fulfillment of people, events, symbols and institutions in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus was the second Adam, the greater Moses, the better Promised Land, the perfect sacrifice and the true temple. These typologies linked past with present, stitching together the two testaments.
Nor are we against comparisons with biblical types in moral and spiritual formation. After all, Christians strive to cultivate, for instance, “the patience of Job” and “the wisdom of Solomon” and chiefly “the love of Christ.” Emulating the character of commendable biblical characters is part and parcel of Christian piety.
The problem with biblical typologies comes when we try to link them to the political leaders and causes of our day. Whereas New Testament typologies pointed to spiritual claims about Christ and his church and carried for Christians the authority of divine inspiration, typologies of the Trump-as-Esther sort serve partisan agendas and rely on subjective interpretation. As the historian John Coffey argues in his book “Exodus and Liberation,” “The problem was that political typology was inherently debatable.”
It was also deadly. In the 17th century, Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, railed against fellow Christians who used typology to justify killing, coercion and exile for matters of belief.
Williams emphasized the essential political discontinuity between biblical Israel and the post-biblical period. Williams rejected the Puritan idea that the American colonies were a New Israel and decried the dispossession of the American Indians.
For Williams, biblical kings such as David and Solomon prefigured Christ, not any other future leader. And all the miraculous wars and deliverances in Israel’s history prefigured the spiritual battles of Christ’s church, not the political and military battles of modern states. As Williams put it, “what Country now is Israel’s Parallel and Antitype, but that holy mysticall Nation the Church of God.”
If we search Scripture for parallels to contemporary politics we encounter an inescapable practical problem: As a massive, varied book compiled over centuries, the Bible contains a vast array of possible biblical types that one can cherry-pick to legitimate just about any political leader or partisan agenda.
The biblical data available for political typologizing is simply too plentiful — and too malleable and too potent — to be used responsibly in contemporary politics. Consider how easy it is to find a plausible biblical type for any modern politician. The biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah had more than 40 monarchs. There were good kings, bad kings, good-and-bad kings, good kings who suffered and bad kings who prospered.
Beyond the Israelite kings, the number of biblical types multiplies when Israel’s many enemies are considered: Amalekites, Babylonians, Canaanites, Edomites, Moabites, Philistines and Romans, to name a few. Each group had political and religious leaders who can be, and have been, used by Christians to justify a mind-boggling diversity of often contradictory political agendas.
Pharaoh is a recurring favorite biblical villain. Understandably, he has a particular resonance for the oppressed. The Bible consistently challenges the oppressor, and so it’s entirely fitting that the oppressed have for centuries invoked biblical motifs and metaphors to fight injustice.
But the use of pharaoh, like other biblical characters, is often hazardous. The narrative is easily turned on the one making the comparison. “Pharaoh” fought on many sides during the British Civil Wars. Revolutionary Americans saw him in several places: Parliament, George III, slaveholders. The links between the exodus and abolition were frequently made throughout the American Civil War, but some typed Abraham Lincoln as a pharaoh because of what they viewed as his imperious policies.
In March, former British foreign minister Boris Johnson invoked the central characters in the Exodus in an appeal for Brexit. In a piece for The Daily Telegraph, he wrote, “It is time for the PM to channel the spirit of Moses in Exodus, and say to Pharaoh in Brussels — LET MY PEOPLE GO.”
Johnson’s rhetoric placed Britain in the grand biblical narrative of liberation, implicitly elevating Brexit to a supernatural mission beyond reproach.
But anyone with a basic level of biblical literacy can play this game. Cheeky critics quickly pointed out that liberation from this European “Pharaoh” might entail decades of isolation in the wilderness until the United Kingdom’s leaders have died off.
When we weaponize biblical types and stone our enemies with them, our opponents can simply pick them up and throw them back at us.
The commonness of the political invocation of Pharaoh and other biblical types is basically the Judeo-Christian equivalent of Godwin’s Law. In 1990 — well over a decade before the rise of social media — the prominent American lawyer, Mike Godwin, observed that, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”
In our highly religionized politics there seems to be a corollary law at work: The longer biblically literate people engage in arguments about politics, the probability of a typological use of the Bible approaches 1. Whether comparisons involve negative biblical types such as Pharaoh and Haman or positive types such as Esther or Moses, they short-circuit discussion by sacralizing or demonizing political actors and agendas.
Godwin has said his “law” was an attempt to encourage “folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.” Historian Gavriel Rosenfeld echoed this point in a 2018 article for the Atlantic, cautioning that commentators who might want to make an analogy to Hitler “should proceed with a little more humility, a little more circumspection, and, perhaps, a little more creativity.”
Rosenfeld’s point also offers good advice for those inclined to defend or malign a politician with reference to a biblical type. There’s no way to eliminate biblical references from our political discourse, nor would it be desirable to do so. The Bible offers centuries of reflection and wisdom on human affairs. But our ability to conclusively identify a contemporary political leader, movement or event with a particular type in the Bible is severely limited and inherently hazardous.
Typological thinking often goes horribly wrong, sometimes excusing terrible injustice and frequently backfiring. Instead, we should cultivate the humility, circumspection and creativity to discuss politicians as real, complicated people, not singular types.
Looking ahead to the 2020 election, the choice will not be between Pharaoh or Moses, Haman or Esther, and Caesar or Christ. There will be no candidates of biblical proportions.
Judd Birdsall is the managing director and Matthew Rowley is a research associate with the Cambridge Institute on Religion & International Studies at Clare College, Cambridge.