In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible [NOOK Book]

Overview

In this eagerly awaited book, political theorist Michael Walzer reports his findings after decades of thinking about the politics of the Hebrew Bible. Attentive to nuance while engagingly straightforward, Walzer examines the laws, the histories, the prophecies, and the wisdom of the ancient biblical writers and discusses their views on such central political questions as justice, hierarchy, war, the authority of kings and priests, and the experience of exile.

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In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible

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Overview

In this eagerly awaited book, political theorist Michael Walzer reports his findings after decades of thinking about the politics of the Hebrew Bible. Attentive to nuance while engagingly straightforward, Walzer examines the laws, the histories, the prophecies, and the wisdom of the ancient biblical writers and discusses their views on such central political questions as justice, hierarchy, war, the authority of kings and priests, and the experience of exile.

Because there are many biblical writers with differing views, pluralism is a central feature of biblical politics. Yet pluralism, Walzer observes, is never explicitly defended in the Bible; indeed, it couldn’t be defended since God’s word had to be as singular as God himself. Yet different political regimes are described in the biblical texts, and there are conflicting political arguments—and also a recurrent anti-political argument: if you have faith in God, you have no need for strong institutions, prudent leaders, or reformist policies. At the same time, however, in the books of law and prophecy, the people of Israel are called upon to overcome oppression and “let justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.&#8221

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The Hebrew Bible, a multifaceted, nuanced, and often confusing document, ostensibly relays the unitary and definitive word of God, while compiling the contributions of dozens of authors with strikingly different viewpoints. Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars), a prominent social scientist who notably has little background in biblical languages or archeology, sets out to determine the political theory embedded in the text, “reading the Bible in much the same way as read John Locke, or The Federalist Papers, or Rousseau, or Hegel.” His slim volume posits many compelling theories and raises interesting questions, but is forever circling back on itself as its source text offers contradictory evidence. From the nature of political authority—the Israelites petitioned the prophet Samuel to establish a kingship for them so they would be like the other nations, an act of volition which, Walzer points out, makes them very different from the other nations—to the establishment of a common national identity or just-war theory, he mines the scriptures for their insight on subjects that continue to vex world leaders today. If there is a common thread, it is perhaps that great power inevitably “tempts kings and emperors to put themselves in God’s place,” while blinding them to the fact that, often, “human beings are better off not doing what God does.” (June)
Jerusalem Post

"In God's Shadow is elegant and erudite. Anyone interested in assessing the ideas about politics, government and law in the Bible should read it."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Jerusalem Post

— Glenn C. Altschuler

Booklist Online

“Those interested in politics, those interested in religion, and those interested in both will be challenged by this fascinating study.”—Booklist Online

The Jewish Journal

In God’s Shadow “is a rich and rare example of how new, provocative and illuminating meanings can be teased out of the ancient text.”– Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal

— Jonathan Kirsch

Jewish Review of Books

“Walzer has written a lucid, probing, and broad-minded study that will enrich each reader's understanding of the great architectonic text of Western civilization. We are in his debt.”—Eric Nelson, Jewish Review of Books

— Eric Nelson

Gary Anderson
"Walzer brings a fresh voice to the most studied text of the Western tradition.  I found myself marking up passage after passage as I followed his learned observations about the political implications of the Bible...I constantly found myself reaching new levels of insight as a result of his erudite points of provocation. This book is highly recommended for all those who take the legacy of the Bible seriously."—Gary Anderson, Hesburgh Professor of Catholic Theology, University of Notre Dame, author of Sin: A History
Nancy Rosenblum

"Was there room in the Biblical kingdom of an omnipotent God for a political constitution or political responsibility? Walzer’s guide through the text of the Hebrew Bible is magnificent: a many-layered, elegant, sympathetic but unapologetic examination of covenants, legal codes, kingship, prophecy, exile, holy war, and social justice ‘in God’s shadow’. It is nothing less than an account of how the Israelites came to define themselves as Jews."—Nancy Rosenblum, Department of Government, Harvard University, and author of On the Side of the Angels: An Appreciation of Parties and Partisanship
Moshe Halbertal

"In this remarkable, wise and elegant book, Michael Walzer, one of the greatest political theorists of our time, examines brilliantly the diverse dimensions of Biblical politics, its institutions and struggles. It raises as well the ultimate question of the possibility to carve a human political realm in the Shadow of God. Scholars and students of the Bible will learn a great deal from the fresh an original reading of biblical traditions, and it will inspire anyone who is interested in the relationship between politics and religion."—Moshe Halbertal, author of On Sacrifice
Israel Knohl

"This book deals with the breadth of foundational themes of the Hebrew Bible. Michael Walzer provides a vibrant perspective, and innovative and refreshing reading of the ancient book of books."—Israel Knohl, author of The Sanctuary of Silence
Avishai Margalit

"Walzer is a great portraitist of biblical political ideas such as power, authority, hierarchy and war—warts and all. His depiction is beautifully conceived and beautifully written. It is a very good book on The Good Book." —Avishai Margalit, George F. Kennan Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Professor Emeritus in Philosophy, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Charles Taylor

"In the story of how the modern West evolved beyond sacral kingship, there is a Greco-Roman strand and a Hebrew strand.

Walzer offers a penetrating account of the Hebrew strand in its many ramifications, with all the insight and sense of nuance that distinguish him as a political theorist."—Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age and Dilemmas and Connections

Jerusalem Post - Glenn C. Altschuler

"In God's Shadow is elegant and erudite. Anyone interested in assessing the ideas about politics, government and law in the Bible should read it."—Glenn C. Altschuler, Jerusalem Post
The Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch

In God’s Shadow “is a rich and rare example of how new, provocative and illuminating meanings can be teased out of the ancient text.”– Jonathan Kirsch, The Jewish Journal
Jewish Review of Books - Eric Nelson

“Walzer has written a lucid, probing, and broad-minded study that will enrich each reader's understanding of the great architectonic text of Western civilization. We are in his debt.”—Eric Nelson, Jewish Review of Books
Library Journal
In ancient Israelite politics, "power and piety are permanently united," writes political theorist Walzer (social science, Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton; On Toleration). While this may not be news to many—the Bible is a religious document, not a political one—as far as the biblical writers were concerned, no king, prophet, or priest could of his own accord shape the destiny of Israel; destiny resided with God alone. Thus, the biblical writers' negative assessment of human endeavors effectively neutralizes all political influence. Says Walzer, "[T]he relation of rulers and ruled matters little compared to the relation of God and Israel." This political indifference results in a compassionate social ethic that informs a complex moral life made up of individual as well as communal relationships. And, concludes Walzer, this social ethic can and should be understood as the Bible's overriding political stance, which concerns itself primarily with overcoming oppression and injustice through any and all political platforms. VERDICT This is a challenging and thought-provoking work; recommended for advanced religious historians and political theorists who have some familiarity with the Bible.—Sandra Collins, Byzantine Catholic Seminary Lib., Pittsburgh
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300182514
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/29/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,167,303
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Michael Walzer is professor (emeritus) of social science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ. He is the author of twenty-seven books and more than three hundred articles on political theory and moral philosophy, and he has served as coeditor of the journal Dissent for some fifty years. He lives in Princeton.

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Read an Excerpt

In God's Shadow

Politics in the Hebrew Bible
By MICHAEL WALZER

Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2012 Michael Walzer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18251-4


Chapter One

The Covenants

Israel was founded twice, once as a family, a kin group, once as a nation, a political and religious community—and both times the founding instrument was a covenant. The first covenant was with Abraham (it is twice described, in Genesis 15 and 17), and it involves a promise and a prophecy about his "seed." Abraham will be "a father of many nations" (17:5), but of one nation in particular, his direct descendants, who will one day inherit the land of Canaan. This is a covenant of the flesh, as everlasting as the succession of generations, and it is sealed by circumcision. The covenant, or at least the seal of the covenant, is extended to strangers but only to strangers— slaves or servants—who live within the household of Abraham and his heirs: "he that is born in the house or bought with money" (17:12). Essentially, God's promise is familial, a birthright passed from one generation to the next.

The second covenant is with the people of Israel at Sinai—not, it should be stressed, with Moses and his descendants. Moses serves as an intermediary. He runs up and down the mountain, carrying messages, but so far as the covenant is concerned, he is merely one of the people. He shares with the others in the general promise; nothing is said of his "seed"—and, later on, we hear virtually nothing of his offspring. The covenant at Sinai is a covenant of the law, and it is passed on with words, not knives. "And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children" (Deuteronomy 6:6–7). Later on, the prophets accuse their fellow Israelites of having "uncircumcised hearts," which means that they have been faithless to the (second) covenant; they have not lived in accordance with the law. This covenant is not marked in their flesh; it is as uncertain in its effects as words are, even words diligently taught.

Although the Deuteronomists write that God's words are to be taught "unto thy children," the words can be taught to anyone. God himself speaks not only to the descendants of Abraham but also to the "mixed multitude" that came out of Egypt with them (Exodus 12:38), and when the covenant is reaffirmed in Deuteronomy 29, the strangers in the camp, as well as the men, women, and children of Israel, join in the affirmation. The household is still the primary unit of this covenantal community, and the strangers in Deuteronomy are "hewers of wood and drawers of water," analogous to Abraham's servants, though far more numerous and with households of their own. Now the covenant brings together a large number of families, of known and unknown lineage.

Many centuries later, the rabbis blamed the "mixed multitude" for all of Israel's rebellions against God and Moses in the wilderness years— the ten "murmurings." The accusation suggests a strong commitment to the kinship model: the seed of Abraham could not have sinned so badly and so frequently. By contrast, the biblical writers blame the Israelites themselves for the murmurings; the only exception is Numbers 11:4: "The riff-raff [asafsoof] in their midst felt a gluttonous craving"(NJPS). Rashi tells us that "this is the mixed multitude that had gathered themselves unto them when they left Egypt," and the King James translation of Numbers 11:4 follows him ("And the mixt multitude that was among them fell a lusting"). In any case, the group is never mentioned again. The writers seem to assume that the mixed multitude was absorbed, though whether into the nation or the family, by covenant or by intermarriage, is unclear.

These two covenants reflect the biblical understanding of what is, after all, a common feature of political and religious communities: people can be born into them, as most of their members have been, but people can also come in, join up, through some process of adherence (naturalization or conversion). There is a permanent, built-in tension between the birth model and the adherence model. The first favors a politics of nativism and exclusion (as in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), the second a politics of openness and welcome, proselytism and expansion (and even forced conversion, as in Hasmonean times, though adherence is supposed to be voluntary). Intermarriage tests the relative strength of the two covenants. Abraham, nearing death, makes his eldest and presumably most trustworthy servant swear "that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell: But thou shalt go unto my country and to my kindred"(Genesis 24:3–4). Nehemiah exacts a similar promise from fifth-century Judeans: "that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons" (10:30). By contrast, the book of Ruth (which may have been written in opposition to the policies of Ezra and Nehemiah and which certainly reflects a different sensibility) tells a story not only of intermarriage but also of voluntary adherence: "thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God"(1:16). Ruth might have added, thy law my law, for her life as an Israelite woman was largely determined by the marriage laws.

In principle, the covenant of law is open to anyone prepared to accept its burdens; hence it isn't entirely implausible to say that there is no chosen people, only people who choose. But it would be wrong to claim that the second covenant supersedes the first. Throughout biblical history, the doctrine of adherence is shadowed, and sometimes overshadowed, by the doctrine of kinship, the law by the flesh, choice by chosenness. The ever-renewed hope that God will not abandon a people whose members regularly violate his law rests on the kinship and chosenness model. In the long debate over proselytism, which seems to begin during the Babylonian exile and which continued for many centuries, the advocates of adherence won out in the end, though the victory was something less than decisive: a deep suspicion of converts survived among the members of the covenantal community. Israel's elites prided themselves on their genealogy (until the rabbis, who divided on this issue). The priestly covenant with Aaron and the royal covenant with David are both modeled on God's promise to Abraham: they are covenants of flesh, seed, and generational succession.

The polemical thrust of the book of Ruth is manifest when its heroine, born a Moabite woman, is given a proud place in the lineage of King David. The Deuteronomists, by contrast, stress the necessary kinship of kings: "One from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not thy brother" (17:15). This verse has been compared to the American constitutional rule that presidents must be born, not naturalized, citizens—evidence that the tension of the two covenants is secular as well as religious, modern as well as ancient. I am not sure, however, that the Deuteronomists would have accepted the son, or even the great-grandson, of a "naturalized" Moabite as a legitimate king of Israel. As for priests, their legitimacy depended, according to Leviticus, on direct descent from Aaron. Those who could not prove their descent were disqualified—as in the case of some exiles returning from Babylonia in 538 BCE: "These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood" (Ezra 2:62).

The covenant at Sinai, following upon the liberation from Egyptian bondage, was the most important of Israel's covenants, and the biblical writers seem to have had no doubt that it depended on consent, not blood. The laws were binding only because they had been accepted by the people. Rabbinic writers are especially clear on this point, even suggesting in a famous midrash (commentary) that God had offered his covenant to other nations—there is no suggestion of this in the biblical text—who had refused it. Another midrash describes Moses standing before the people, book in hand: "Moses read aloud to the people all of the Torah [the Pentateuch], that they might know exactly what they were taking upon themselves." The crucial conditions of what is today called consent theory are here recognized. Before consent is effective, there must be full knowledge and the possibility of refusal.

But is it really possible to say no to an omnipotent God? A more skeptical and ironic rabbinic story suggests the difficulty. Now God is said to have lifted up the mountain, held it over the heads of the assembled Israelites, and told them: "If you accept the Torah, it is well; otherwise you will find your grave under this mountain." One of the rabbis, a good consent theorist, says of the telling of this story that it is "a great protest against the Torah." Indeed, it makes the Torah into nonbinding law, grounded on force alone, not on commitment. The book of Exodus has nothing to say about these theoretical issues. But it does insist upon the consent of the people and so provides a platform, as it were, for later speculation.

The story is told twice, suggesting that different traditions have been stitched together, but the crucial words appear in each telling: on this question of popular consent, the traditions do not differ. In Exodus 19, Moses delivers a very brief divine message, and then "all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do." In Exodus 24, after a long recital of covenantal obligations, the response is repeated: "All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient." The agreement is wholesale; all the people accept all the laws. There is no record of any debate among the Israelites: this is not a negotiated covenant. I will suggest in the next chapter that the substance of the laws must have been debated, if not on the spot, then over the years, for we have three different legal codes, all said to have been revealed by God at Sinai. They seem in fact to represent successive or competing understandings of what God meant to reveal or of what his revelation could have meant. We have to imagine priests, prophets, and scribes arguing among themselves; otherwise, since God does not change his mind or his laws, the written record makes no sense. And the editors who compiled the last version of the written record must somehow have recognized and accepted this legal pluralism (the term is anachronistic; I will qualify it later).

The founding myth, though it insists upon consent, has no room for argument. The covenantal partners are not equals. Making an agreement with God is nothing like striking a bargain. What is it like? A number of scholars have argued for the close resemblance of the Sinai covenant to ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties between kings and their vassals. The resemblances are indeed so close as to make it fairly certain that the biblical writers knew and used the treaty model. God was Israel's king; Israel was God's vassal or servant nation. And the motives that made for covenantal agreement were perhaps similar to the motives that led to the acceptance of secular suzerainty: some combination of gratitude, prudence, and necessity. But there are also important differences between treaties and covenants; the model was not only used but transformed.

Treaties are international in scope, imposed by more powerful rulers upon less powerful rulers, stipulating only the foreign policy obligations of the two—sometimes only the obligations of the one, the less powerful ruler, who promises never to seek another suzerain. Israel makes a similar promise—namely, to worship no other gods. But its covenant is essentially domestic in character: the people commit themselves to live in a certain way. There is, as I have already said, no special agreement with the leader of the people; nor is the agreement limited to what leaders do. Its stipulations, greatly detailed, reach to the daily life of each individual. In a sense, as one of the rabbinic commentators argues, there isn't a single covenant but 600,000 between God and the Israelites at Sinai. Each act of consent is also an act of adherence, an agreement to be part of the covenantal community. And that is why the biblical covenant, modeled on the ancient treaty, serves in turn as a model for the modern (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century) social contract.

The emphasis on individual adherence implies another motive for the covenant, one that plays no part in suzerainty treaties—that is, belief in this God and admiration for his laws. In Deuteronomy, which can be read as one long covenant document, Moses urges admiration as well as gratitude upon the people:

For this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people ... And what nation is there ... that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? (4:6, 8)

The law describes the best way to live, not merely because it is commanded by a divine and omnipotent king but because it is recognizable to human beings—to all human beings, not only to those who have had the historical experience of the Israelites—as a wise and righteous law. The recognition of righteousness is not a product of the law, the text seems to say, but something prior to it, a matter of intuition or common knowledge. There are many hard questions here, in which the biblical writers, even the Deuteronomists, can't be said to take an interest. In any case, they clearly believe that the people have a reason to accept the law—it is a good law, and therefore they ought to accept it. But they are obligated by its provisions only if they do.

One of these provisions, as we have seen, requires members of the covenantal community to teach the law to their children. Are the children obligated to follow the teaching—or is their consent also necessary before the obligation takes hold? With this question, the biblical writers were clearly engaged, though it is difficult to tease out of their texts any coherent doctrinal response. The tension of kinship and consent is much in evidence here. In Deuteronomy's historical prologue, Moses tells the people that "the Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb [Sinai]. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day" (5:2–3).

This statement is not historically accurate. The adults who stood at Sinai were all of them dead (except for Joshua and Caleb) by the time of Moses' oration; the people addressed here were children at Sinai or were not yet born. The first-person-plural pronoun is, so to speak, a genealogical collective. It designates the heirs of the generation that stood at Sinai. The benefits of liberation have been passed on, but have the obligations of the covenant also been passed on? The answer to this question is unclear. In one sense, no, for the whole purpose of Moses' oration is to persuade the people "alive this day" to covenant again, to reaffirm Israel's commitment, and it appears that the affirmation is, in principle, as free this second time as it was the first time. "I have set before you," says Moses, "life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life" (Deuteronomy 30:19).

In another sense, however, the choice does seem to have consequences that reach beyond the actual men and women who make it. And here, too, the text is explicit:

Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; But with him that standeth here ... this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day. (29:14–15)

The author of this passage is not arguing that everyone in the world is caught up in the covenant. Only Israelites who are "not here"—which is to say, the future generations of Israel—are treated as if they are here at the covenanting. For them, it would seem, the covenant and all its obligations are indeed inherited; the genealogical collective, the plural "you" or "us" who stood at Sinai, reappears in each generation and determines the necessary response whenever the ancient agreement is renewed.

But if the covenant is inherited, why is it necessary for Israel to covenant again and again? Some scholars claim to have found traces in the text of an annual ceremony in which the covenant is not so much renewed as the original covenanting is reenacted in a ritual that assumes the underlying continuity of the legal and moral bond whose history it calls to mind and reinstates in popular consciousness. But the actual occasions of re-covenanting don't appear to be ceremonial; at least they are not merely ceremonial. Much more is at stake than getting the ritual right. In Joshua 24, at the putative end of the conquest of Canaan, as the tribes are about to disperse, the renewal of the covenant has an obvious political purpose. And Joshua, who demands renewal, seems to anticipate opposition:

And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the [river], or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. (24:15)

(Continues...)



Excerpted from In God's Shadow by MICHAEL WALZER Copyright © 2012 by Michael Walzer. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Contents

Preface....................ix
Acknowledgments....................xix
1. The Covenants....................1
2. The Legal Codes....................16
3. Conquest and Holy War....................34
4. The Rule of Kings....................50
5. Prophets and Their Audience....................72
6. Prophecy and International Politics....................89
7. Exile....................109
8. The Priestly Kingdom....................126
9. The Politics of Wisdom....................144
10. Messianism....................169
11. Where Were the Elders?....................185
12. Politics in the Shadow....................199
Notes....................213
Index....................227
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