Is there a political theory in the Hebrew Bible?

Phillip Sherman looks past Athens reading Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow.

In God's Shadow Cover
Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale University Press, 2012, 256 pp., $28.

What is the relationship between the God of Israel and the politics of ancient Israel?

One of the most prolific political philosophers of our time, Michael Walzer, is widely known for his work on just war theory, nationalism, and theories of justice. He has previously turned his attention to biblical literature in Exodus and Revolution (1984), a work which explores the political afterlife of the myth of the Exodus on later Western revolutionary politics.

Walzer sets for himself a different and a more daunting task in the present work. He is determined to read the Hebrew Bible as a political theorist, using the language and methodologies of his own discipline. He certainly recognizes that the Bible is a different beast than Leviathan. His preface, therefore, is marked by a host of qualifications. He dutifully genuflects to the guild of biblical scholarship (about which he demonstrates extensive knowledge) before stating bluntly that he will not concern himself with precisely the sorts of questions that have marked much of the discipline for the better part of the past century. He will not, for example, be overly concerned with questions of historicity. He claims, ‘I am interested only in what the biblical writers thought had happened and what they thought about what they thought had happened’ (p. x). Neither does he wish to advocate or apologize for the plurality of political visions contained in biblical literature. He is concerned solely with how biblical texts and their authors talk about and imagine the realm of politics: what makes a society good, where does decision-making rest, what constitutes membership, who or what is the ultimate sovereign?

His assertion, woven throughout the entirety of his work, is that ‘there is no political theory in the Bible. Political theory is a Greek invention’ (p. xii). Self-reflection on the nature of politics or even recognition of a distinctive realm of ‘politics’ (as opposed to ‘religion’) is missing from the biblical record, in his reading. ‘The biblical writers are engaged with politics, but they are in an important sense…not very interested in politics’ (p. xii). This is a bold statement and one that will certainly provoke a number of rejoinders.

The subsequent chapters focus on different aspects or social institutions of ancient Israelite communal life (e.g., kingship, prophecy, priesthood, etc.) and their implicit (rarely explicit) political content. It is not possible in a short review to do justice to all of the various issues Walzer raises. A brief review of his treatment of covenant, law, and kingship will provide a sense of how he handles the biblical material.

Walzer begins his analysis with a foundational question of political belonging: covenant. He highlights two competing notions of political relationship corresponding to two accounts of Israel’s origins, as one recent study suggests. A familial or kinship model is the basis for the Abrahamic covenant, while the Mosaic covenant at Sinai is predicated on the consent (at least in theory) of those who join together. Where the former covenant is unconditional, the latter is contingent upon the people upholding a set of stipulations.

Walzer suggests that this foundational dichotomy is never completely resolved within the biblical period. He finds it curious that the biblical authors present the entire nation accepting the covenant yet then fail to treat the people’s responsibility to one another to maintain the covenant’s stipulations. There are no citizens in the Bible, are there is very little attention as to how the people might act collectively to foster faithfulness and avoid violations of the covenant.

The Torah’s legal diversity is also of great interest to Walzer. How does the plurality of the three major legal codes relate to the unity of a single divine source? He claims that, contrary to other ancient Near Eastern peoples, the legal material is not mediated through a (divine) king, but is believed to derive directly from the deity. ‘Israel’s law is God’s alone; it has no other possessive modifier’ (p. 22). It is not understood as the law of a monarch or priest; in fact, both priest and king are in theory subject to the divine law.

This Law is set within and related explicitly to an historical narrative of the formation of a people. Walzer terms this a ‘radical embeddedness’ (p. 25) that isolates ‘Law’ at the origin of the people’s existence. Later legal activity took the form of interpretation and analysis of an already delivered corpus of law.

Many scholars would see this process beginning already within the biblical period itself, and Walzer would follow them in this regard. These activities are especially easy to trace in the interpretation and production of law. The justificatory clauses attached to many of the laws are significant for Walzer as they reflect an underlying theory of covenantal consent. Providing rationales for obeying a particular law demonstrates an implicit conviction that those bound by the law had a choice as to whether or not to submit to a particular collection of laws. Walzer maintains that while making and re-making laws must have been a political activity, ‘it was never understood or defended in political terms. Nor are the procedures specified by which individuals were admitted to the process’ (p. 32).

Kingship is certainly a central aspect of ancient Israel’s national experience. Any political theory present in the Hebrew Bible would need to express a notion of appropriate forms of leadership and how leadership is transferred from generation to generation, as well as expressing any possible limitations on those holding authority. Walzer foregrounds the contingent, human-authored character of monarchy as it is presented in texts like 1 Samuel 8. Desire for a king ‘like the nations’ is tantamount to rebellion against the divine king according to Samuel. While Walzer admits that a more widespread, ‘cosmological’ notion of kingship existed amongst Israel’s neighbors and even within Israel itself (e.g., Psalm 2 or 89), he asserts that the ‘divine kingship’ tradition present in other cultures never easily fits the Mosaic covenant founded on a notion of consent. It is a foreign importation. Kingship recapitulates the kinship model at the level of the dynastic family, not the nation. The rise of dynasty in ancient Israel and was ‘a political routinization of charismatic rule’ (p. 67). The highly restricted role of the king in Deuteronomy 17, where he is allowed none of the typical prerogatives of kings, is most likely a failed attempt at producing a constitutional text that would limit the power of the monarch. Kingship ultimately devolves into an ‘impractical, apolitical, messianic fantasy’ with the disappearance of the house of David in the post-exilic period (p. 71).

Walzer’s view of kingship and covenant is conservative. The notion of Israel’s monarchy being a late and essentially foreign successor to charismatic rule rests on the biblical periodization of Israel’s history, with an epoch of ‘the judges’ (what Max Weber identified with his ideal type of ‘charismatic authority’) directly preceding the establishment of ‘the monarchy’. Many scholars today regard kingship as an indigenous Israelite tradition. The covenant emerged as a response to imperial incursions, with the eventual demise and defeat of Israel’s states eliciting the Bible’s ambitious political-theological project.

Reading a familiar text from the perspective of another discipline is a valuable exercise. Walzer’s ability to do so with such competence is humbling for those who pursue interdisciplinary scholarship. He is certainly right to stress the plurality of political forms that can claim (and have claimed) biblical precedence. In fact, the history of Western political thought is replete with examples of those who claimed to have found – and attempted to impose – a divinely sanctioned politics. Perhaps it is the fact that Walzer is so well versed in the multitude of ways in which the Hebrew Bible has been appropriated for countless political programs – from monarchy to democracy – that leads him to what is a rather agnostic view of the presence of political theory in the Hebrew Bible.

Yet the claim that ‘there is no political theory in the Bible’ is ultimately untenable. From the perspective of classical Athens, Walzer determines what constitutes political theory and then decides that the authors of the Hebrew Bible do not show evidence of engaging in such matters in a self-reflective manner. In this way he prejudices his analysis. Of course if we define politics and political theory as a Greek invention, then we’ll have a hard time finding politics in the Hebrew Bible. The biblical texts do not do political theory in the discursive mode of The Republic or The Laws. But they are every bit as interested as Plato or Aristotle in describing conditions for a just society and the potential threats to its wellbeing. What seems to bother Walzer is the presence, indeed the intrusion, of what he terms an ‘omnipotent’ deity into the equation. The presence of (a) god severely restricts the social and cultural space in which a group can form a fully articulated political system. All contingent aspects of politics pale in comparison to the power and presence of God. Walzer is worth quoting at length on this point:

In a sense, every political regime was potentially in competition with the rule of God. 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. The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw…is there room for human politics (p. 202).

Comparison with the recent work of Yoram Hazony is instructive. Author of The Dawn: The Political Teachings of the Book of Esther, Hazony recently turned his attention to the Bible as a whole in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. This new volume demonstrates how the Hebrew Scriptures can be read as a work of philosophy. Hazony critiques the standard Western dichotomy of ‘reason’ and ‘revelation’ into separate – often antagonistic – categories and argues that the presence of god-language does not warrant the Hebrew Bible’s exclusion from the category of reason. Indeed, many unassailably ‘philosophical’ texts in the Greek tradition make consistent mention of deities, yet they are not classified as revelation by modern thinkers. Where Walzer sees the presence of god language as qualifying, in fact short-circuiting, any true discussion of political theory in the Hebrew Bible, Hazony argues that the particulars of Israel’s political history should not distract readers from the more universal and general claims.

The Primary History (Genesis-Kings) is no less concerned with fundamental questions of a political nature than the Greek tradition. There is, of course, a difference between Athens and Jerusalem here. While Plato and Aristotle articulate their political philosophy discursively, the authors of the Hebrew Bible utilize historiography to achieve the same. The biblical authors narrate their history as a people and, in the process, make a political argument for a certain type of political order.

For Walzer, the Hebrew Bible practices ‘comparative politics’ (p. 204) but does not have a political teaching. No single political view prevails. Conversely, a political teaching is very clearly present for Hazony. The diversity of views are utilized to create an ‘ideal’ balancing between the extremes of divine kingship and anarchy. The ‘limited national state, in which the king will be chosen from among the people and be one of them in spirit, is in fact the biblical ideal’ (Hazony, p. 160).

Does the Hebrew Bible possess a political theory or not? A larger question – one I am not ready to answer – must first be asked: Is political theory about ‘form’ or ‘content’? Is explicit self-reflection on the nature of a just society necessary for a work to be ‘political’?

Both Walzer and Hazony make a similar decision in their reading of the biblical texts that creates problems in attempting to answer these questions. Hazony is primarily concerned with the universal and general teachings of the texts; he is not hostile to the historical nature of critical biblical scholarship, but it is not his primary concern. In a similar fashion Walzer, despite his broad understanding of 20th century biblical scholarship, is not primarily interested in attending to the difficult historical questions related to the biblical texts. ‘I am interested in the history they told or retold, or perhaps, imagined’ (p. x). The principal goal of both scholars, in other words, is getting to the universal political teachings of these texts without being bound by a concern for their contingent and particular nature. Yet such concerns cannot be skirted so easily. To provide just one example, the very conception of God as omnipotent sovereign, which Walzer views as detrimental to the emergence of politics in ancient Israel, is itself an irreducibly historical process, as Mark Smith (among others) has demonstrated.

Thus the real shadow in this reading of the Bible’s politics is not the overwhelming presence of the Israelite god but the pretense of traditional Western political theory to be the normative standard.

This is the shadow that Walzer does not discern.