How democratic were the children of Israel?

Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks reviews leading American thinker Michael Walzer's book on politics in the Bible


By Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, November 15, 2012
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In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Michael Walzer, Yale University Press, £20

Leader of the free world: US President Barack Obama thanks supporters after his election victory (photo: AP)

Leader of the free world: US President Barack Obama thanks supporters after his election victory (photo: AP)

Michael Walzer is one of the world’s leading political philosophers. What has consistently given his work special interest for Jewish readers is the way he often uses biblical and rabbinic sources to illustrate and even formulate his arguments.

In Exodus and Revolution he showed how the story of Moses and the Israelites was often a key text in revolutionary politics, from the Puritans onward. In Interpretation and Social Criticism he had fascinating things to say about the role of prophets in society. More recently he was an editor of the impressive two-volume anthology, The Jewish Political Tradition. Now, with In God’s Shadow, he turns his attention to politics in the Hebrew Bible. Given the man and the subject, it could not be other than an important and thought-provoking work and Walzer does not disappoint.

The book, though short, covers the entire ground. There are chapters on the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, the legislative contents of the Torah and biblical attitudes to war. There are studies of the role of the king, the prophet, the priest and the wisdom literature (written, says Walzer, by the Bible’s “intellectuals”). There is an intriguing chapter on “the elders,” a shadowy group often referred to across the centuries but hard to identify and locate. And there is chapter on messianism and the historical conditions in which it arose.

This is a scholarly, secular work. Readers should not expect a religious message. That is something Walzer explicitly disavows. He is writing not as a theologian, an apologist or a historian, nor does he attempt to say what insights the Hebrew Bible might have for the politics of today. He is simply reading the book as a political philosopher, telling us what he finds from that perspective.

What is most interesting is what he does not find. The Hebrew Bible, he argues, is full of political detail. But it contains no political philosophy. It is not seriously interested in the subject. Politics is the attempt on the part of humans to govern themselves. So philosophers have asked from time to time what forms of government are best, how power should be used, what constitutes authority and so on.

But the Hebrew Bible is precisely not about an attempt on the part of humans to govern themselves. It is the story of a people who saw themselves under the sovereignty of God. Nor was this the God of Aristotle, a prime mover who sets the universe in motion and then leaves humans to get on with their affairs. It is the God of Israel who shapes the fate of nations and legislates for His people, leaving them only to interpret His word. Within such a vision there is little room for politics in the conventional sense.

Instead, says Walzer, there is ethics. The message of the prophets is: do God’s will, obey His laws and trust in His protection. The prophets, as he puts it, had a domestic but not a foreign policy. Justice at home will lead to success on the battlefield. All other devices and desires will fail. In short, there is little room for human politics in the shadow of God.

That said, Walzer argues that the Hebrew Bible establishes an “almost democracy”. It creates, under the sovereignty of God, a (relatively) egalitarian order in three ways. First, all Israel were parties to the covenant. They were responsible for one another’s welfare and for the state and fate of the nation. Second, though Israel in the biblical era was often a monarchy, the king had no legislative power. God made the laws, even kings were subject to them, and their interpretation was not the province of one particular class or caste. Third, prophets were free, indeed divinely mandated, to criticise corruption in high places.

Freedom was at the heart of the system, not in the modern sense of choosing your own version of the good life (that, for the Bible, is a form of chaos: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”) but rather in the sense of creating a just and compassionate society based on human dignity and social solidarity, within which we can each choose the good.

The “almost democracy” of the Hebrew Bible is less about structures of government than about culture and “habits of the heart,” the laws, practices and institutions capable of sustaining the virtues necessary for individual responsibility and a sense of the common good. It is as if in their different ways prophets, priests and sages were saying: there is a limit to how much can be changed in the human condition by power alone. Don’t expect political structures to deliver freedom. That needs a long apprenticeship in liberty.
There is more to society than politics, and more to freedom than power. Those are the great biblical truths, refracted through the Tanach’s many perspectives, given new life by Walzer’s rich and suggestive study.

Last updated: 4:27pm, November 15 2012