Jewish Journal

Biblical politics

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jul. 19, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Michael Walzer frankly announces at the outset of “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible” (Yale University Press: $28.00) that he is approaching the Scriptures not as a biblical scholar but as a political thinker.  “The Bible is, above all, a religious book,” he argues, “but it is also a political book.”

Walzer is a distinguished social scientist and a public intellectual of long standing. Tellingly, he has served as co-editor of Dissent magazine for three decades. He concedes, for example, that he is capable of reading the biblical account of the Tower of Babel as an anti-imperialist argument or as a defense of cultural pluralism.”  But he declines to do so: “[T]hat is the stuff of sermons.” And he concedes that there is no single authoritative reading of the Bible, not even his own: “[R]eligious believers, as well as skeptics and unbelievers, will disagree about the meaning of the biblical text and the political views of its writers.”

Since Walzer holds himself to a laudable standard of clarity and even transparency, he readily admits that he has “only a schoolboy’s knowledge of biblical Hebrew” and relies mostly (but not exclusively) on the King James Version “simply because of its beautiful English.”  He tells what he thinks rather than what he knows, because much about the Bible cannot be known with certainty, even by biblical scholars.  “Reading the Bible is a complex and speculative business,” he observes, “but it isn’t a business for which we need an invitation; we are all readers if we want to be.”

Not surprisingly, Walzer is attuned to the tensions and contradictions in the biblical text. He points out, for example, that God offers two covenants, one based on membership in a “kinship group” whose bloodlines can be traced back to Abraham and one based on willing adherence to divine law. “[H]ence it isn’t entirely implausible to say that there is no chosen people, only people who choose.” And he argues that the moral burden of the covenant has been “radically democratized,” precisely because “the avoidance of wickedness isn’t an obligation of leaders alone but of the whole nation.”

He also discerns the diversity of both belief and practice in ancient Israel that is buried just beneath the surface of the biblical text — “the textual residue of oral advocacy,” as he puts it.  God may be the law-giver at Sinai, but even the Bible concedes that God later falls silent, and so the task is taken over by “Israel’s secret legislators,” as Walzer puts it.  Since they rarely agree with each other, the old biblical laws are “pluralized” rather than revised or replaced. “The result of their choice was a written law,” explains Walzer, “that made possible those strange open-ended legal conversations that constitute the oral law of later Judaism.”

Perhaps the most provocative feature of the Bible is the prophet, a truth-teller who is willing to stand up to even the most powerful of kings, just as Nathan confronts David with his moral failings, although not always with impunity.  Monarchy, according to Walzer, “arises in Israel as an entirely practical response to the dangers of theocratic (charismatic) rule.”  If the king represents “the full and often contradictory set of human interests,” however, it is the prophet who speaks only of right and wrong. “Prophecy is at war with personal wrongdoing, later on with social wrongdoing,” he points out. “But the prophet is also at war with politics itself.”

Walzer, however, insists on pointing out the dark side of prophecy.  One complaint that the prophets make against kings is that they are insufficiently zealous and ruthless, which is the sin that caused Saul to forfeit the favor of God.  “Here were kings who pursued sensibly secular policies, fighting limited wars and signing treaties of peace,” observes Walzer, “when they should have consecrated their enemies to God and slaughtered them all.” Eventually, the prophets seem to realize that Israel’s days of conquest and slaughter are over: “We find in their writings the first hints of an alternative conception: that Israel is a victim nation, always at the wrong end of someone else’s agency.”

By the book of Esther, which Walzer singles out for its “radical newness,” God is wholly replaced by human agency.  “God is never mentioned in the story,” he points out, “nor does he come to the people’s aid.” Significantly, Esther and Mordecai succeed in saving the Jews of Persia from destruction only by ingratiating themselves with the king — “We may think of them as the first court Jews (though Joseph is a distant model)” — and they serve as important exemplars of a certain coping strategy that served the Jewish people well until the Shoah.

Indeed, Walzer explores how the politics of the Bible took on grave new meanings in the 20th century.  Historian Simon Dubnow, for example, argued that exile was not only the fate, but also the strength of the Jewish people: “State, territory, army, the external attributes of national power, are for you superfluous luxury.”  But the Yiddish writer I. L. Peretz saw the same biblical story through the eyes of a Zionist pioneer: “When [he] called Mordechai an informer and a pimp,” explains Walzer, “he was hoping for a state that would make court Jews like him, like Esther too, unnecessary.”

“In God’s Shadow” always returns to the moral polarities that suffuse the Bible. “A God engaged in history is a dangerous God, for it is always possible to read his intentions and try to help him out, usually by killing his enemies,” Walzer points out. At the same time, however, the obligations imposed on the readers of the Bible can be profoundly exalting: “If anything in biblical politics is fundamental, it is this retail program, the social ethic of a covenantal community: do justice, protect the weak, feed the poor, free the (Israelite) salve, love the (resident) stranger.”

Countless authors possess the chutzpah that is necessary to come up with a fresh reading of the Bible, but very few succeed.  “In God’s Shadow,” however, is a rich and rare example of how new, provocative and illuminating meanings can be teased out of the ancient text.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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