In God’s Shadow:
Politics in the Hebrew Bible
By Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 256 pages
The philosopher Michael Walzer has written a new book that aims ‘‘to examine the ideas about politics [and] the understandings of government and law that are expressed in the Hebrew Bible.’’ It turns out that there aren’t all that many, because the Bible is largely concerned with the story of divine intercession in the lives of men that traduces human action. Politics is “largely missing” from the Bible, and the cause “lies in the religious culture itself, in the powerful idea of divine sovereignty,” Walzer writes. “In a sense, every political regime was potentially in competition with the rule of God.’’
Walzer makes this point in the introduction and then proceeds to hammer it home through a series of thematic chapters exploring the various political dynamics of ancient Israel: the covenants, the legal codes, the conquest of the land of Israel under the Judges, the ancient Israelite monarchy, the prophets, and the biblical exile following the destruction of the first Temple.
True to its modest overture, the book thus proceeds with little in the way of actual argumentation. In God’s Shadow reads like a thematic compendium of Bible verses and attendant meditations, interspersed with inconsistent pickings from post-biblical rabbinic writings and from scholarship on the ancient world.
Walzer cautiously notes that the religion of ancient Israel anticipates certain features of democratic culture, for although God is clothed in royal garb, ‘‘all Israelites are equally His subjects.’’ This democratic dimension of Israelite religion has three aspects. It is covenantal, as all Israelites are bound by the covenant. It is legal, as the law was delivered to and received by everyone. And it is prophetic, as the prophets, along with the judges, scribes, and other leaders, spoke directly to the people, who understood what they were saying. He writes that ‘‘only the priesthood, restricted in its membership and authoritarian in its practices, stands outside and against Israel’s almost democracy,’’ soon adding that the biblical monarchy, too, is ‘‘the very opposite of a democratic regime.’’
Walzer’s assertions, however, qualified as they are, rely on the paucity of information about the other political dynamics in Israel, as he would admit. In particular, the ‘‘elders,’’ whom he treats in a previous chapter, are a perennial presence in the Bible (they are mentioned 140-odd times), and yet we know next to nothing about them. Without an understanding of the role played by the elders, which was presumably integral, it is nigh impossible to assess the nature of the Israelite polity.
Since it is difficult to see this paucity as anything but deliberate, Walzer justifiably concludes:
The Bible has no political teaching, not, at least, in the sense in which it can be said to have religious and moral teachings….The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.
So what are we to take from the Bible when it comes to politics? Walzer says the Bible is ‘‘an explicit history of political change—from judges to kings to priests—even as it explicitly repudiates the idea of change in religion and morality.’’ This repudiation is perhaps more troubling to Walzer, the longtime co-editor of the socialist magazine Dissent, than it might be to others. The Bible does not propose an ‘‘ideal regime’’ because it does not find one: The rule of Moses has ups and downs; the era of the Judges sees successes and failures; and the monarchies are a mixed bag. There can be no ideal regime when regimes are the provinces of men.
Although Walzer acknowledges that Israelite religion is ‘‘politically indifferent,’’ he argues that this indifference ‘‘does not extend to the content of the decisions that were made.” God, he says, “did not decree a politics, but he did decree an ethics.’’ So what constitutes this ‘‘moral conduct”? Here Walzer has his only epiphany: What the Bible brought to humanity was a morality based in “the collective character of its commitment.”
He elaborates: “The covenant, if it is serious, ought to give rise to obligations shared by all Israelites and to a pervasive fellow feeling.” Yes, but without question the Bible confers responsibilities on Israelites to each other. But that responsibility is not “collective,” certainly not in the contemporary understanding of the term. It is communitarian, based as it is on tribal and kinship connections and their connection in turn to the land of Israel. And it is, first and foremost, a community bound by its obligation to God. The people cannot be considered apart from the land: The land was provided to them by God, and it is His actions that are paramount.
Hence it is odd that Walzer writes very little about God, a biblical character of great significance. Instead, Walzer chooses to focus entirely on the people of Israel. The Bible, though, is first and last the story of the relationship between Israel and God. By ignoring Him in a discussion of Israelite politics, Walzer consequently misses the point: ‘‘Israelite religion,” he writes, “like every other religion, can be pressed into the service of many different regimes.’’
Perhaps so, but the Bible’s political teaching is not nearly so banal. Rather, the Bible exhorts the elevation of religion—man in the service of God—above politics. Walzer is right to claim that the Bible is unlike Greek philosophy because it is not concerned with the pursuit of the good. Rather, it is concerned with the pursuit of the holy. If the relationship between Israel and God is reduced to a mere “shadow,” as Walzer would have it, then any political teaching the Bible may have to offer is correspondingly diminished. Walzer may be right to observe that in the Bible, “every political regime was potentially in competition with the rule of God,’’ but he might have added that according to the Bible there is no competition—the regimes are worthy only to the degree that they are in concert with God’s rule.
Jonathan Neumann was a Tikvah Fellow at Commentary.