In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

by Robert A. Burt


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674065666
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 04/25/2012
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.82(w) x 8.28(h) x 1.23(d)

About the Author

Robert A. Burt was Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law at Yale Law School.

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.

What People are Saying About This

Jack Miles

The plot of the Hebrew Bible is a grail in the vault of a mountain fastness, and it may be that no assault will ever quite take it, if it is even there to be taken, but what a siege Robert Burt has mounted! The closest of readings, the subtlest and most seductive of midrashic inferences, the severest of ethical verdicts, all with the precision of a first-rate legal mind and the wrestling effrontery of Job.
Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography

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.
Suzanne Last Stone, Cardozo School of Law

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