Biblical Surveillance

Practices of monitoring in the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Bible have formed the foundations of Western conceptions of surveillance, security, and privacy. Although contemporary surveillance theorists may allude to instances of biblical surveillance, the concentrated study of this in a sociological context is an emerging phenomenon, often associated with the desire for a more robust ethical engagement with considerations of monitoring. This entry looks at the various forms of surveillance documented in biblical texts, with the most common form being spying. Types of monitoring, including self-examination and confession, are also discussed.

Dates vary for the historical accounts of surveillance cited in the biblical canon, with practices ranging across extensive temporalities and geographies, documented by a multiplicity of authors. These can be further subdivided into human and divine forms of surveillance. While this can be a helpful organizing tool, it should be noted that the boundaries between these two modes of monitoring are not singular but plural and the borders between the two are not fixed but porous. For example, various human figures and institutions often invoke divine surveillance as a method of control and power for their own ends, rather than to further a biblical understanding of surveillance.

Monitoring is not confined to external, surreptitious observation, however. Followers of God in both the Old and the New Testaments are commanded to take part in forms of self-examination, with frequent exhortations to “watch over” themselves or to “watch out” for dangers and temptations from both within and without. When a believer does stray from the path, he or she is encouraged to confess the sin first to God and then to others (James 5), so that a form of loving community watchfulness might follow and restoration be made. Some religious denominations urge a more formalized ritual of confession. Such situations highlight the complexities of surveillance in this context, as a dual purpose of care and control of the individual and the group, made vulnerable in the act of confession, can be identified. While the motivation behind confession may be to form a transparent, honest community, it is open to misuse of power.

The self-surveillance brought about by confession recalls the Panopticon structure, designed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in which prisoners govern their behavior after internalizing the invisible gaze of the inspector, who is positioned in the center of the structure. A number of parallels have been drawn between this gaze and the “eye of God,” as one that destabilizes the “see/being seen dyad.” In this view of divine surveillance, God is a distant being whose eyes “run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (Zechariah and 2 Chronicles), seeking only to judge and control humans. An imbalance of power is negatively framed in favor of the watcher, God, who not only sees but also knows His creatures, to seek out their sins. The modernist project, which produced Bentham’s Panopticon, sought to emulate this controlling impulse by offering a secular gaze in the place of God’s vision.

Recent scholarship has sought to destabilize this entrenched Enlightenment paradigm of divine surveillance by drawing attention to the believer’s desire for God’s regard in his or her life (see, e.g., Job and Psalms), in a relationship of mutual love and trust. For theorists David Lyon and Eric Stoddart, this leads to a new interpretive framework for surveillance studies that focuses on an ethics of care. That is, contemporary monitoring practices should be critically engaged from a hermeneutics not only of control but also of concern for the other. Within this model, the place of vision in surveillance is subtly undermined and reinterpreted. The work of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is also noted by scholars as providing an alternative model of divine surveillance by drawing on his concept of the face-to-face encounter in our relationships with God and one another. The significance of embodiment, both in our everyday lives and in the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus, cannot be overlooked in this emerging understanding of biblical surveillance.

Lorna Muir

See also Morality ; Panopticon, The ; Religion ; Social Justice ; Spies ; Surveillance, Theories of

Further Readings

The English Standard Version Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments. London, England: Collins, 2002.

Hand, Seán, ed. The Levinas Reader. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1989.

Jay, Martin. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Lyon, David. “Surveillance and the Eye of God.” Studies in Christian Ethics, v.27/1 (2014). doi:10.1177/0953946813509334

Norris, Clive and Gary Armstrong. “Introduction: Power and Vision.” In Clive Norris, et al. (eds.), Surveillance, Closed Circuit Television and Social Control. Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 1998.

Schmidt-Burkhardt, Astrit. “The All-Seer: God’s Eye as Proto-Surveillance.” In Thomas Y. Levin, et al. (eds.), CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance >From Bentham to Big Brother. Karlsruhe, Germany: ZKM Centre for Art and Media, 2002.

Stoddart, Eric. Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society. Farnham, England: Ashgate, 2011.