God’s Politics

The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible

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 be scrutinized and judged. But for the criticism to have force, it should emanate from within the society it criticizes. Moral argument may not always begin at home, but home is where it usually belongs.

Throughout his intellectual career, Walzer has also been fascinated by the role of religion in political thought, specifically how the Hebrew Bible has influenced political movements. So it is with great anticipation that his followers will turn to In God’s Shadow, and they will not be disappointed. Although brief, it covers the whole arena of politics in the Bible. Walzer addresses the covenant between God and the Israelites and its renewals, the legal codes, and the biblical ethics of war. He examines the complex story of the monarchy in biblical Israel and the political outlooks of the prophets, priests, and “intellectuals” -- Walzer’s term for the authors of what is referred to as wisdom literature, which includes the virtue-oriented books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. He illustrates how the exile of the Jews from their homeland revolutionized the structures and sensibilities of what was ceasing to be the political nation of Israel and becoming the religious community of Judaism. 

Walzer documents the sheer diversity -- he calls it “pluralism” -- of the Hebrew Bible’s approach to politics, in two different senses. First, the text contains a multiplicity of voices, each with its own tonality, concerns, and characteristic way of seeing the world. The priests focused mostly on holiness, the prophets on justice and compassion, and the royal courtiers on practical wisdom. The canonization of the Hebrew Bible preserved intact these distinctive perspectives and personalities.

Second, and no less significant, Walzer records a series of unresolved tensions about almost all the ideas and institutions that appear in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. So, for instance, there are two covenants, that of Abraham and that of Moses, one emphasizing the bonds of kinship, the other, the voluntary acceptance of obligations (“descent” versus “consent,” as Walzer neatly puts it). There are three legal codes, one in Exodus, another in Leviticus, a third in Deuteronomy. The Hebrew Bible also puts forward two radically incompatible accounts of the role of monarchy. One view, focused especially on King David, sees it as a divinely ordained covenant, whereas the other view, found in the book of Samuel, regards it as a rejection of God’s rule. Then, there are two perspectives on the priesthood: a hierarchical one that sees the priests as an elite and a more universal aspiration that speaks of Israel as “a kingdom of priests” in which all the people are summoned to holiness. 

Reading Walzer’s account, one is reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s remark that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”; by Walzer’s lights, this adage applies to holy books as well. More precisely, In God’s Shadow suggests that the Hebrew Bible is deliberately structured not as a consistent system of thought but as a field of tensions.

In highlighting all these incongruities, Walzer contends that although the Hebrew Bible is full of political incident, it contains no political theory, no account of an ideal regime (such as one finds in Greek philosophy), no appreciation of politics as a way of life, and no belief that any political leader could, on his own, shape the destiny of his people. The Bible has religious and moral teachings but not political ones. 

The prophets had a domestic but not a foreign policy -- passionately concerned with justice at home, they believed that the fate of the nation was in the hands of God. The entire prophetic message insofar as wars and alliances were concerned could be summed up in two words: Do nothing. As Moses tells the Israelites at the Red Sea, in Exodus 14, “The Lord shall fight for you, and ye shall hold your peace.” The prophet Jeremiah evinces a similar view when he advises the Israelites to accept the Babylonian conquest. Nothing the Jews could do would alter the fact that they were about to be punished by defeat. God was moving the pieces on the chessboard of history, and belief in their own power would lead the Judeans to disaster. In the biblical world, so long and deep is the shadow God casts over the affairs of humankind that there is little space left for politics as normally conceived.

That said, Walzer concludes by suggesting that in three ways the political system of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible represents an “almost-democracy.” First, the covenant between God and mankind involved everyone, including “socially subordinate and politically powerless groups.” Second, the king had no legislative power. It was God, not a human ruler, who made the laws, and even kings were subject to them. Politics was only a matter of interpreting the laws, and the task of interpretation was widely diffused throughout society. Third, the Israelites enjoyed a degree of freedom of dissent, evidenced by the prophets who spoke in a popular manner in the public domain (Walzer calls them “the first social critics in the recorded history of the West”). In the biblical world, prophecy was born simultaneously with monarchy; the critique of power appears at the same time as power itself.

So it was an “almost-democracy” -- but not democracy or any other form of politics, either. “There can’t be fully sovereign states, or a worked-out theory of popular (or any other) sovereignty, so long as God is an active sovereign,” writes Walzer. “The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw, to stand at some distance from the world of nations, to give up his political interventions, is there room for human politics.”

SOFT POWER

Walzer is undeniably right that in one sense, God’s omnipotence in the biblical world precludes ordinary human politics. His argument bears structural similarities to those of the Jewish philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz on ethics and the Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi on history. Leibowitz argued that the Hebrew Bible contains no ethics, since ethics yields propositions such as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” whereas the Bible yields sentences such as “Love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord.” To act morally is to make choices -- that is, to act autonomously -- and since the Bible contains only divine commands, it precludes moral behavior. Likewise, Yerushalmi argued that although the Bible seems to contain a great deal of history, its stories must be read as memory, since history involves the kind of detachment that cannot exist in a sacred text. And so it makes sense that biblical Hebrew contains no abstract terms for politics, ethics, or history, despite the Bible’s seeming interest in all three.

Yet even so, the Hebrew Bible has had an enormous influence on modern political thought, as Walzer himself has chronicled. His first significant work, The Revolution of the Saints, focused on the Bible-based radicalism of the Calvinists and the Puritans, and his Exodus and Revolution chronicled the role that the Exodus story has played in the history of liberation movements. Even the radical Thomas Paine invoked the Hebrew Bible in his 1776 tract, Common Sense. Meanwhile, leading politicians and think tanks continue to be interested in what the Hebrew Bible has to say. All of this suggests that despite the Hebrew Bible’s inadequacy in addressing worldly political questions of sovereignty and authority, it is still seen by many as a useful guide to modern politics. 

One reason for this is that the Hebrew Bible has a lot to say about the limits of power. Politics in the narrow sense is concerned with the use, abuse, and justi-fication of power by governments. The Hebrew Bible, in several of its many voices, puts forward a sustained critique of power when used by humans against one another, individually or collectively. Cain kills. Pharaoh enslaves. Even King David abuses his power, sending the husband of his mistress to die in battle. When a prophet uses power to prove his point, as when Elijah orders the death of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel after demonstrating God’s potency, the text implicitly criticizes him. God shows Elijah that he is not to be found in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire but in a “still small voice.” In this sense, Nietzsche was correct to identify the Hebrew Bible, and Judaism more generally, as the prime enemy of the will to power.

Not only does the Hebrew Bible criticize power, but it also looks down on power’s natural home, the city. The first founder of a city, Cain, is also the first murderer. Particularly in the book of Genesis, cities are portrayed as places of hubris, as in Babel; of hostility to strangers, as in Sodom; and of sexual excess, as in the Egyptian city where Joseph was held captive. The Bible prefers the simple relationships of families and communities to the indulgences of city life, where money talks and power rules.

Moreover, the Hebrew Bible invokes the sovereignty of God not to justify human power- -- through the divine right of kings, for example -- but to criticize it, diminish it, and, in a sense, secularize it. The biblical writers were relatively indifferent to political structures, believing that the collective acceptance of the covenant by the Jews committed them to self-government in accordance with God’s law. Many of the biblical writers were suspicious of centralized power. Some were hostile to hierarchy. They recorded the moral failures of their greatest kings. And they were the first to acknowledge that Israel was a small country surrounded by empires with superior militaries. (As a fighting force, the Israelites were no more distinguished than the Moabites, the Amorites, the Edomites, or many other minor nations of which little trace remains.) Given the political situation of Jeremiah’s time, his plea for the Jews to do nothing to fight the Babylonian conquest reads less like an otherworldly reliance on divine intervention than a politically pragmatic stance. When a small country faces a large and powerful empire, accommodation may be its most sensible option.

SOCIAL STUDIES

The Hebrew Bible is not only a critique of power but also a treatise on where politics belongs in the scheme of human undertakings. It recognizes that there is life -- not just private but shared life -- outside politics. From quite early on in their history, the Israelites seem to have sensed that they had encountered certain truths that would one day resonate far beyond their borders, and those truths, if not political, were not narrowly spiritual either. They concerned welfare, employer-employee relationships, debt and debt relief, environmental matters, and so on. They concerned society rather than the state. 

As I once suggested in The Politics of Hope, what makes the Hebrew Bible unique in the history of political thought is its dual account of the founding of the Israelite nation. The first narrative, illustrating the birth of Israel as a “holy nation,” comes in Exodus 19–20, when the Israelites accept the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai. The second, the birth of Israel as a worldly kingdom, appears in the first book of Samuel with the anointing of Saul as king. The former was a covenant that created a society; the latter was a social contract that created a state. This duality meant that the Jews were able to survive as a society even without formal political institutions. Because the laws preceded the kingdom, they remained in force even when the Jews lost their land and became an exiled people. 

The Israelites of the Hebrew Bible never quite figured out how best to arrange human political affairs. Many of them believed they needed no other sovereign than God, but they also knew that without a worldly ruler, anarchy would reign. And so the Hebrew Bible is not the best text on government and the relationship between power and the will of the people. That subject was the province of Athens, not Jerusalem. But given that Jewish society has persisted and thrived for millennia, the text remains compelling on a number of questions: How do civilizations survive? How do they retain the moral energies that first brought them to greatness? How do they protect themselves against the otherwise universal rule that principalities and powers must decline and fall?

For those who care about the future of the West, the Hebrew Bible still has much to say, if not about political structures then about civil society and nonpolitical virtues. That much, as Walzer notes, God leaves to us: “The world is God’s stage. . . . But domestic society belongs, for a time at least, to humankind.” And for the task of building a just and successful society, the Hebrew Bible will continue to be an essential guide.