Magazine article Foreign Affairs

God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible

Magazine article Foreign Affairs

God's Politics: The Lessons of the Hebrew Bible

Article excerpt

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.


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). …

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