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The Jewish Social Contract: An Essay in Political Theology

By David Novak | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
The Law of the State

Political Subordination

In chapter 1, we saw how the Jews had to subordinate themselves to their non-Jewish rulers during the Babylonian exile, and that this political arrangement is termed a “covenant” (berit).1 There is an agreement here, some degree of mutuality between the parties to the covenant, yet there is still no equality between the government and the governed; this will have to wait for the emergence of a social contract. Despite this lack of equality, though, this relationship between the Jews and the king of Babylon is also quite different from what obtains in a relationship of domination between master and slave. Thus, in the master-slave relationship in Egypt, at the very beginning of the corporate life of the Jewish people, there was no covenant between Pharaoh and the Israelites. Pharaoh’s enslavement of them is morally unjustified—they were not captives taken in war, but only an imagined “fifth column” due to Pharaoh’s political paranoia (Exodus 1:10). Nevertheless, Pharaoh was not guilty of any breach of covenant since one cannot breach what never had existed. The very presence of this clan in Egypt to begin with was but an act of largesse on Pharaoh’s part due to his respect and affection for Joseph, whom he had made his prime minister, and due to his impression that Joseph’s brothers could be useful servants of the state (Genesis 47:6).2 And the Israelites themselves saw no covenantal permanence in their now being in Egypt. In their words: “We have only come tosojourn [la-gur] in the land because [ki] there is no pasture for the flocks that belong to your servants” (47:4).3

1 See 59 above.

2 Why Joseph’s legacy was not sufficient to save his clan from being enslaved is discussed on B. Eruvin 53a. One view is that “a new king arose over Egypt” (Exod. 1:8) literally means a new pharaoh who did not believe himself bound by his predecessor’s commitment to Joseph and his clan. The other view is that this was the same pharaoh who “made new decrees,” i.e., broke his personal commitment to Joseph and his clan. But regardless of which pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, the commitment, whether past or present, was noncovenantal. As such, no unconditional agreement could be cited when petitioning Pharaoh for the Israelites’ freedom (see Exod. 2:23–25).

3 A number of rabbinic sources emphasize that the Israelites did not go to Egypt to “permanently settle” (le-histaqe‘a) there, but only to stay there as transients until the famine that caused them to leave their land ended. See, e.g., Midrash ha-Gadol: Beresheet on Gen.

-91-

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