Israel and the Domination System

As Genesis gives way to Exodus, we find ourselves surrounded by the descendants of Abraham. But here, the scene has undergone a drastic change: no longer are the Hebrews enjoying fruition in Egypt, but instead, they have become enslaved by the Egyptians and are in dire need of deliverance. The story that ensues over the course of the rest of the Old Testament is one of God-given freedom and human-chosen bondage, as well as a God-established covenant and constant human violation of that covenant, all of which we will discuss in the pages ahead.

From a Domination System to Freedom

Walter Wink is famous for his domination system theology, which he defines as “a social system characterized by hierarchical power relations, economic inequality, oppressive politics, patriarchy, ranking, aristocracy, taxation, standing armies, and war.”1 Different characteristics of this cycle appear all throughout Genesis, wrapping up with the domination system found in Joseph’s reign over Egypt, where he managed to take all of the famine-stricken Egyptians’ money, livestock, and land before turning them into servants (Gen. 47:13-26), despite having previously been an oppressed servant himself. Rabbi Shai Held discusses the various scholarly opinions on if Jospeh’s actions were wise or repugnant and settles on a balanced approach, recognizing that while Joseph does save lives, “he exacts too high a price from them … With those decisions, he plays with fire, and that fire will eventually wound his own family in unspeakable ways.”2

These “unspeakable ways” find their full fruition in Exodus once the prominence of Joseph is forgotten by a new Pharaoh (Ex. 1:8), who then perpetuates the domination system full force against the Hebrews via “a system of raw and ruthless exploitation, always pressing cheap labor for more production.”3 In time, Yahweh created a means of “socio-economic-political”4 salvation for the Hebrews through a baby boy floating down the Egyptian waters in a tēbāh (the Hebrew word for ark, likening this boy to Noah).5 That boy would grow into Moses, a leader who would free Israel from the domination system of the Egyptians as he declared Yahweh’s judgment against their king and their gods (Ex. 12:12), for “the ten plagues affects some aspect of the Egyptians’ false religious system.”6

Yahweh and Israel’s Suzerain and Vassal Treaty

Once freed from the domination system, Israel was brought into a new kind of system based on Yahweh’s khesed, a Hebrew word that we have trouble translating into English. In attempts to capture its full meaning, Bible translations have opted for compound words like lovingkindness or phrases like steadfast love. Tim Mackie describes it as “the kind of love that someone demonstrates when they’re keeping a promise and when a desire to be loyal to their promise motivates them to go above and beyond and be super generous.”7

God describes himself as khesed while making a covenant with Israel. This particular covenant fits the context of a suzerain and vassal treaty, a popular kind of agreement within the ancient world in which, “A greater king (called the suzerain) would make a treaty with a lesser king (called the vassal).”8 According to Sandra Richter, such a treaty had a preamble, a historical prologue, stipulations, deposition and provision for periodic reading of the treaty before the people, and a list of witnesses9 which may have included the gods of Yahweh’s divine council.10

While we can clearly see khesed in the God of the cosmos uniting himself with an oppressed nation, Yahweh does not enter the relationship only to bless them. As John Walton points out, Yahweh planned to use “Israel as a means to establish his reputation. If blessing the Israelites will enhance Yahweh’s reputation, Yahweh will do that; if destroying them will enhance his reputation, he will do that instead.”11 What happens is all dependent on their obedience or disobedience to the suzerain-vassal treaty. When they are obedient to their covenant, not only will they image what Yahweh looks like12 to all the nations, but they will become a kingdom of priests13 that “mediate blessing to the world by proclaiming the story of God’s redemptive acts.”14

Perpetuating the Domination System

Israel was originally “conceived as a type of pluralism under divine guidance and not a monarchy,”15 but after facing the continual suffering that came with their failure to uphold their side of the covenant, they eventually desired a human king like all the other nations of the world, thinking that this might change their situation. The prophet Samuel warned them that a king would bring about the same kind of oppression that they experienced in Egypt, but Israel went through with it anyways (1 Sam. 8:10-18). And with that decision, the domination system wove its way throughout the rest of the Old Testament.

Peak prosperity in Israel was found under King Solomon. While this is traditionally celebrated by Bible readers, scholars have begun to reframe Solomon’s actions in the light of the wider biblical narrative. J. Daniel Hays suggests that we miss this framing because we don’t catch onto the subtle sarcasm and irony that Solomon’s biographer employs in his writing.16 But if we pay close attention to the text and the bigger picture, we can see that, as Walter Brueggemann points out, “In Solomon, there is (a) a fresh enthrallment with Egypt and (b) a passion for graded holiness.”17

It is for reasons like this that God himself employs the prophets,18 whose job is to “nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”19 These characters are often found with messages of social justice on their lips as they constantly push kings and their kingdoms to recognize how they are oppressing the poor among them. Unfortunately, these messages are often ignored by their hearers. 

The majority of the kings in the Bible were a disaster. Under King Manasseh’s reign, Israel did “more evil than the nations whom the Lord had destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Chron 33:9), ensuring that Israel would have to face the weight of their sin as Yahweh turned them over to exile. At that point, the “prophets present a consistent picture of God who reluctantly divorces Israel because she consistently breaks her marriage vows.”20 But even then, Yahweh did not give up on his bride completely, for he declared that he would return for the remnant of Israel with a new covenant in which he would put his law within his people and write it on their hearts (Jer. 31:33).


There is no human this side of the resurrection that is unfamiliar with the domination system. We have all experienced its effects in some way, be it to our benefit, our despair, or both. The Bible has much more to say on this topic than this short paper can handle, but we have painted its story here in broad strokes. As sin continues to live inside of us, it will often make its way out of us in forms of domination. But as we hold fast to a God full of khesed, we will shape our image in a different, prophetic way that disrupts the status quo.


1 Walter Wink, When the Powers Fall: Reconciliation in the Healing of Nations, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), Kindle Locations 77-78.

2 Shai Held, Saving and Enslaving: The Complexity of Joseph (Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas).

3 Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, updated edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 7-8, Kindle Edition. 

4 Terence E Fretheim, Salvation in the Bible vs. Salvation in the Church (Word & World 3.4, 1993), 366.

5 Douglas K. Stuart, “Exodus 2:3” in The New American Commentary: Exodus, Vol. 2 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), Logos Bible Software.

6 Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic), 134, Kindle Edition.

7 Tim Mackie, Jon Collins, and Carissa Quinn. “The Loyal Love of God,” produced by Dan Gummel, The Bible Project, November 2, 2020, podcast, 12:00.

8 Carmen Joy Imes, Bearing God’s Name: Why Sinai Still Matters (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 61.

9 Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 84.

10 Michael S. Heiser, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible, 1st ed. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2015), 168, Logos Bible Software.

11 John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, The Lost World of the Torah: Law as Covenant and Wisdom in Ancient Context (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 52, Logos Bible Software.

12 Heiser, The Unseen Realm, 42.

13 For more thoughts on this topic, see my blog post.

14 Richard J. Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2014), 70, Kindle Edition.

15 Dewi Hughes, Power and Poverty: Divine and Human Rule in a World of Need (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),51.

16 J. Daniel Hays, Has the Narrator Come to Praise Solomon or to Bury Him? Narrative Subtlety in 1 Kings 1-11 (JSOT 28.2: 2003), 149-174.

17 Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, 46.

18 Hughes, Power and Poverty, 52

19 Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition(Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 3, Kindle Edition.

20 David Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), Kindle Locations 395-396.

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