Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Level Praying Field

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Level Praying Field

Article excerpt

A Level Praying Field Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought by Joshua A. Berman Oxford University Press, 264 pages, $39.95

Reviewed by Gary A. Anderson

IN EVERY NATION BUT ONE of the ancient Near East the king made the law. In Israel alone, kings were not supposed to promulgate law but to obey a law given by someone else. It was the prophet's task- not always an easy one- to make sure they did. In Created Equal, Joshua Berman, a lecturer at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Bar-Han University, uses this notable feature of Israelite political life to argue that the Bible is remarkably egalitarian and that Israel, unlike its neighbors, was notably suspicious of hierarchical regimes that located political power in the hands of a few elites.

In fact the Pentateuch accords a considerable amount of power to the priesdy families- and thus to refer to the priesdy code (of Exodus 25 through Numbers 10) as "egalitarian" through and through would be a big mistake. Apart from this exaggeration, however, Berman makes a number of splendid observations and his book is well worth reading. Consider the fact that the office of the king took some time to establish itself in ancient Israel. In Judges, the people of Israel had wanted to crown Gideon as king. He refused in a striking way. "I will not rule over you," he declared, "and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."

The claim here seems to be that appointing him king would be an affront to God. According to Deuteronomy (17:14-17), God eventually acceded to the Israelites' desire, but only on his own terms. A native-born individual alone could take the throne, his powers to tax would be low, he would not be allowed to establish diplomatic ties with other countries through intermarriage, and he would be required to study the laws of his office under the supervision of the Levitical priests. The office was so curtailed in power that no other monarch in the ancient Near East would have allowed it. The king was to serve the people, not the reverse.

Berman claims that the dynamics of Israel's covenant theology instantiated this situation. Israel's unique brand of monotheism was grounded in the suzerainty treaties of the ancient Near East. The treaties we possess from the Hittites (an ancient Indo-European people who once inhabited what is now the modern state of Turkey) established the way these suzerains interacted with the city-states under dieir control. They frequendy began with a short historical introduction in which the king would document the kind deeds he had done for the vassal so as to engender a sense of gratitude. Next he would document the covenant's stipulations, including the obligation to love him, meaning that the vassal be a faithful and loyal friend and subject. Finally a set of blessings and curses would be included: blessings on the vassal should he maintain the covenant and curses should he not.

The parallels to the Bible are obvious. The covenant at Sinai also begins with a brief historical introduction ("I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt") whose explicit purpose is to document God's gracious intentions toward Israel and to engender Israel's desire to be a faithful servant who would love her lord above all other competitors. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have long lists of blessings and curses that will attend compliance and noncompliance with the terms of the covenant.

What is striking is the way the covenant with Israel democratizes the people. …

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