Twelve Tribes under God. (Religion & Philosophy)

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

Twelve Tribes under God. (Religion & Philosophy)


"The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom" by Fania Oz-Salzberger, in Azure (Summer 2002), 22A Hatzfira St, Jerusalem, Israel.

Ask a political theorist to name the historical foundations of Western liberalism, and the reply will be predictable: the polis of Athens, the Roman Republic, the Magna Carta, etc. Few are likely to mention the Torah--the first five books of the Hebrew Bible--or the Talmud. Yet during the birth of liberalism in 17th-century Europe, intellectuals of all kinds found political inspiration in the Old Testament, and many used the Bible in surprisingly inventive and critical ways.

Oz-Salzberger, a historian at the University of Haifa in Israel, argues that many influential "Hebraist" thinkers of this crucial period recognized the Old Testament as a political document--in essence, as the Israelites' constitution. The English jurist John Selden, for example, argued that national sovereignty was derived from biblical concepts of fixed borders and the division of peoples. Selden helped destroy the last remnants of feudalism and pave the way for nation-states: "Total borders made total sovereignty, and fostered the modern system of international relations." Petrus Cunacus, another prominent Hebraist, found in the Bible "what Aristotle, Cicero, and the Stoics all lacked: a clear notion of social responsibility and communal justice." The godfather of liberalism himself, John Locke, was a noted Old Testament scholar who based his Two Treatises of Government in part on an interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Locke's famous commitment to the "pursuit of life, liberty, and property," Oz-Salzber ger asserts, was grounded in a theory of responsibility and charity drawn from the Bible. …

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