In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

Overview

God deserves obedience simply because he’s God—or does he? Inspired by a passion for biblical as well as constitutional scholarship, in this bold exploration Yale Law Professor Robert A. Burt conceptualizes the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God’s authority as expressed in these accounts is not a given. It is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government.

In recounting the rich narratives of key ...

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In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

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Overview

God deserves obedience simply because he’s God—or does he? Inspired by a passion for biblical as well as constitutional scholarship, in this bold exploration Yale Law Professor Robert A. Burt conceptualizes the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God’s authority as expressed in these accounts is not a given. It is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government.

In recounting the rich narratives of key biblical figures—from Adam and Eve to Noah, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Job, and Jesus—In the Whirlwind paints a surprising picture of the ambivalent, mutually dependent relationship between God and his peoples. Taking the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a unified whole, Burt traces God’s relationship with humanity as it evolves from complete harmony at the outset to continual struggle. In almost every case, God insists on unconditional obedience, while humanity withholds submission and holds God accountable for his promises.

Contemporary political theory aims for perfect justice. The Bible, Burt shows, does not make this assumption. Justice in the biblical account is an imperfect process grounded in human—and divine—limitation. Burt suggests that we consider the lessons of this tension as we try to negotiate the power struggles within secular governments, and also the conflicts roiling our public and private lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Catholic Herald

Many of Burt's arguments are enlightening and theologically sophisticated...Burt uses the Bible as a prism through which to reassess the modern obsession with analyzing and defining legitimate political power...Burt's book is full of thought-provoking ideas and it goes to show that law professors can sometimes turn out to be accomplished and challenging biblical interpreters.
— Jonathan Wright

Jack Miles
Burt's study of the interaction of divinity and humanity in establishing authority, divine and human alike, in the Bible is a closer literary reading of the entire Bible than most on offer from either divinity schools or literature departments. Yet his interest as a professor of law in contrasting the reciprocal establishment of mutually heteronomous authority in the Bible with the unilateral establishment of autonomous authority in modern political theory gives his work the forward thrust of a courtroom argument. The book of Job, in which the protagonist calls God's authority into explicit question, and then God, from the whirlwind, calls the protagonist's standing into question, becomes here the fulcrum of a study that brilliantly establishes this problematic as common to the Old and the New Testaments alike.
Suzanne Last Stone
In this intriguing and moving book, Robert Burt reads the Bible as a tragic vision of the gap between perfect justice and what humans actually can achieve. Burt movingly unpacks the Biblical stories to argue that they show God and human beings constantly attempting to find their way to love and trust, through constant disappointments.
Catholic Herald - Jonathan Wright
Many of Burt's arguments are enlightening and theologically sophisticated...Burt uses the Bible as a prism through which to reassess the modern obsession with analyzing and defining legitimate political power...Burt's book is full of thought-provoking ideas and it goes to show that law professors can sometimes turn out to be accomplished and challenging biblical interpreters.
Choice - A. J. Waskey
Burt's discussions provide many useful and challenging insights. He demonstrates the difficulty inherent in the relationship of authority between rulers and ruled, whether human or divine.
Library Journal
Burt (law, Yale Univ.) examines the relationship between God and human beings, first in the Hebrew and then in the Christian Bible. The final 75 pages of his text discuss the political relevance of the transformation of God and, to a lesser extent, human beings, as they struggle in relationship to one another, holding one another accountable for justice and for keeping commitments. Burt's interpretations of biblical narratives are sometimes unconventional, reflecting his own struggles with God as well as his close reading of biblical texts and the works of "bible as literature" scholars and other writers struggling with issues of justice and God. Although Burt treats Genesis as if its textual order were straightforwardly sequential as opposed to a combination of several different narrative traditions, he nevertheless provides much interpretation that repays careful attention. The parallels he draws between biblical struggles and contemporary political issues show how ancient texts can be both foundational and consistently relevant in contemporary society. VERDICT A work highly recommended not only for Bible students and political scientists but also for general readers who welcome new approaches to both sacred texts and contemporary political concerns and discourse.—Carolyn M. Craft, emerita, Longwood Univ., Farmville, VA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065666
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/25/2012
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,460,764
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert A. Burt is Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law at Yale Law School.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter Eight: As We Forgive Those


The Book of Job expresses the most visible challenge by a human being to the legitimacy of God’s authority in the Hebrew Bible, most openly addresses the inconsistency of the demands that God and humanity make toward one another, and most clearly sets out the difficulties faced by each in any efforts they might want to make in order to restore their broken relationship. The presentational format of the Book of Job also differs from the entire rest of the Hebrew Bible. Unlike any other Book of the Bible, Job is written in the form of a dialogue; and this format in itself speaks both to the techniques and obstacles envisioned in the Bible toward accomplishing restoration of relationships.

In the traditional canon of Western political theory, the work that most closely approximates the Bible’s mode is Plato’s Dialogues, where Socrates repeatedly seeks to engage interlocutors in moral discourse, is frequently challenged and sometimes powerfully so, and continuously presents himself as “knowing nothing” but nonetheless implicitly holding forth as if he knows everything—and throughout, the author of the Dialogues, Plato himself, maintains an apparent posture of neutral reportage, taking no clear side in the debates for or against his former teacher. Socrates is present in all of the Dialogues and this fact alone might seem to provide some precedence to his expressed views; in an even more insistent sense, God has an exalted status in the Biblical text and when he speaks his words appear to carry special, even overwhelming, weight. But the Book of Job implicitly calls God’s special precedence into question, just as Plato’s studious neutrality in the Dialogues raises questions about Socrates’ preferred status.

The confounding quality of the dialogues in the Book of Job are underscored by several elements in them. At crucial moments in the exchanges between God and Job in particular, it is literally impossible to know what Job is saying. This impossibility is not an issue restricted to those of us who are unable to read Job in the original language of its composition. Translating Job does indeed present special problems because the Book was written in an Aramaic vernacular and there are more words that are unique to this Book than in any other Book of the Bible. But the problem of comprehension is more profound than this; unintelligibility is virtually coded into the Book.

There are two moments in Job when this unintelligibility is particularly vivid, so much so that it is most plausibly understood as an authorial choice rather than mishap. The most important moment—already discussed in the preceding chapter—is in Job’s final speech to God, at the end of God’s tirade from the Whirlwind. This incomprehensibility is mirrored in a crucial aspect of the very beginning of the Book.

In the Prologue, Job, Satan, and Job’s wife all spoke of “cursing” God; Job feared that his children had cursed God in their hearts, Satan predicted that Job would curse God to his face, and Job’s wife urged him to curse God and die. In all of these instances, the Hebrew word used was b’ruch—a word which ordinarily translates as “bless.” This is a strange reversal of terms—to write “bless” when the context clearly means to convey “curse” (for how, after all, would it have been sinful, as Job feared, if his sons had said a b’rucha, a blessing, for God?). This strange reversal has a conventional explanation in Biblical commentary: for the author(s) of the Book of Job to have written the words “curse God,” and for the countless generations of scribes to copy those words would have been intolerable acts of impiety. And so the written words are “bless God,” though the obvious meaning is its opposite.

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