God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible

By Sacks, Jonathan | Foreign Affairs, November/December 2012 | Go to article overview

God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible


Sacks, Jonathan, Foreign Affairs


God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. by MICHAEL WALZER. Yale University Press, 2012, 256 pp. $28.00.

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). …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.