With its commandments and parables, its kings and its prophets, the Hebrew Bible has served as a reference point for Western politics for centuries. Almost every kind of political movement, it seems, has drawn its own message from the text. For the contemporary left, it inspires calls for social justice and the redistribution of wealth. The right, meanwhile, uses it to preach adherence to traditional social values and family structures. But what does the Hebrew Bible actually have to say about politics? Is there a consistent set of political principles to be found in it? In God’s Shadow, a recent book by the philosopher Michael Walzer, attempts to tackle these questions. As Walzer observes, there’s a good reason why so many opposing movements claim the Hebrew Bible as their own: the book’s stories, messages, and political arrangements are simply too diverse to fit under any unified theory of government. In fact, they give credence to many.
AN ALMOST DEMOCRACY
Walzer is one of the great thinkers of our time, a scholar who rescued political philosophy from a period of arid linguistic abstraction and gave it back its thick texture, historical specificity, and intellectual drama. Over a long and distinguished career, he has proved immune to the siren song of reductive theory, the search for what the British philosopher John Stuart Mill called “one very simple principle” to solve complex problems. His main argument, developed in the books Spheres of Justice and Thick and Thin, has been that universal principles, whether in politics or ethics, have limited traction. The essence of political theory lies in the details, and the details are always local: set in a particular time, place, and culture. He insists, however, that this is not an argument for relativism. Every actual social order can
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