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In God's Shadow

In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    In God's Shadow
    Book Description:

    In this eagerly awaited book, political theorist Michael Walzer reports his findings after decades of reading and thinking about the politics of the Hebrew Bible. Attentive to nuance while engagingly straightforward, Walzer examines the commentary of the ancient biblical writers and discusses the implications for such urgent modern topics as the nature of political society, hierarchy and justice, the use of political power, the justification for and rules of warfare, and the responsibilities of clerical figures, monarchs, and their subjects.

    Because there are many biblical writers, and because they represent different political views, pluralism is a central feature of biblical politics, Walzer observes. Yet pluralism is never explicitly defended in the Bible-indeed it couldn't be defended since God's word is one. There is, however, an anti-political teaching which recurs in biblical texts: if you have faith in God, you have no need for particular political institutions or prudent political leaders or deliberative assemblies or loyal citizens. And, Walzer finds a strong moral teaching common to the Bible's authors. He identifies God's decree for ethics and investigates its implications for just policymaking in our own times.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18251-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xxiv)
  5. ONE The Covenants
    (pp. 1-15)

    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...

  6. TWO The Legal Codes
    (pp. 16-33)

    The Bible contains many laws, but also and more importantly it contains legal codes: three different ones. The many laws are easy to understand, and it is equally easy to understand the popular wish that the yoke of the covenant be less onerous. An old folktale claims that on the day after the Sinai revelation, the Israelites rose early and marched at double speed away from the mountain so they wouldn’t be given any more laws.¹ A quick getaway did them no good. Historically, the laws kept piling up—not, however in the form of explicit additions and revisions to...

  7. THREE Conquest and Holy War
    (pp. 34-49)

    For the modern reader, the conquest of Canaan, with all its attendant slaughter, is the most problematic moment in the history of ancient Israel. There is no reason to think that it was similarly problematic for the biblical writers, none of whom undertook to construct an argument on behalf of the seven Canaanite nations comparable to Abraham’s argument on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah (two Canaanite cities). Both the priestly authors of Leviticus and the Deuteronomists are careful to give God moral reasons for his commandment to drive out or exterminate the seven nations—“Not for thy righteousness or for...

  8. FOUR The Rule of Kings
    (pp. 50-71)

    The biblical account of the history of Israel is marked by two radical disjunctions. It begins as family history, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, their wives and concubines, their sons and daughters. Familial conflict is its first theme: Abraham’s break with his father, Sarah’s quarrel with Hagar, the struggle of Jacob and Esau, the rivalry and then the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, and much else that might be counted as domestic politics. What is at issue is birthright and inheritance, divine and patriarchal favor, the local and immediate forms of power. Then, as a result of Egyptian oppression,...

  9. FIVE Prophets and Their Audience
    (pp. 72-88)

    The prophets are most commonly read as moral teachers, and read that way, their books (or selected parts) are the biblical texts most accessible to contemporary men and women. For us, the prophets are poets of social justice, utopian visionaries. I don’t mean to dispute that reading here, only to complicate it. For prophecy had a political (or antipolitical) role in ancient Israel, and the importance of the prophets has as much to do with the way they played their part as with the lines delivered, however wonderful the lines. I want to consider what the biblical writers tell us...

  10. SIX Prophecy and International Politics
    (pp. 89-108)

    Prophecy in Israel emerges with kingship, but it reaches its full development only with empire. The greatest prophets were, as Weber writes, “world political demagogues and publicists,” which is to say that they were continually engaged by imperial politics and warfare.¹ So were their fellow Israelites, and not only or most importantly because ordinary men and women still remembered David’s empire. In the tenth century BCE, a unified Israel had been the strongest power between Mesopotamia and the Nile—so, at least, the biblical historians tell us. Since that time, the two Israelite kingdoms and their neighbors had fought and...

  11. SEVEN Exile
    (pp. 109-125)

    I am not going to tell sad stories about the fall of the house of David and the years of exile in Babylonia, but I want to begin my account of exilic politics by recognizing the extent of the disaster that struck the people of the southern kingdom in 587. It was the fulfillment of the curses of Deuteronomy—and also of God’s promise that what had happened to the Canaanites would happen to the Israelites, too, if they committed similar “abominations.” In fact, however, the fate of the two nations was not the same. If we accept the version...

  12. EIGHT The Priestly Kingdom
    (pp. 126-143)

    Among the many and varied promises that God makes to Israel, one of the earliest (in the biblical account as we have it) is the promise of Exodus 19:6: “And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exactly what a “kingdom of priests” is, isn’t entirely clear, but the words have often been given a radical meaning. God promises a social transformation and a novel politics: a kingdom without kings, a universal priesthood. Israel as it was in Exodus 19 had neither kings nor priests, but it was only three months out of Egypt,...

  13. NINE The Politics of Wisdom
    (pp. 144-168)

    Folk wisdom is of indeterminate age, as old, presumably, as the folk; it reflects the common sense of everyday life. But school wisdom, literary wisdom, the collection, refinement, and ideological reconstruction of what the folk produce, comes at a specific point in cultural history. School wisdom develops along with political institutions whose participants require schooling. The earliest forms have the appearance of directly transmitted knowledge: an official writing for his son or, as in Proverbs 31, a queen mother for a young king. It seems likely, though, that mediating figures, teachers, sages, “wise men,” were present almost from the beginning....

  14. TEN Messianism
    (pp. 169-184)

    I want to define messianism in the broadest possible way, to include any doctrine of a future redemption, whether or not the agent of redemption is an individual messiah. Only one qualification is necessary: messianic futures are radically discontinuous with the present. Messianism isn’t developed through a projection of current trends, even if the trends are “progressive” in character; nor is it a matter of modest improvement in current conditions, even if the conditions are awful. The local and temporary deliverances described in the book of Judges are not messianic. The deliverers themselves may be proto-messiahs, early examples of a...

  15. ELEVEN Where Were the Elders?
    (pp. 185-198)

    How authority was actually exercised in ancient Israel, how politics worked or how it was imagined to work at the local as well as the national level—figuring these things out from the biblical texts isn’t easy. Who did what to whom? The prophets provide a rhetorically powerful answer—and I am sure a true answer—to this classic political question: powerful men grind the faces of the poor. But that is what (some) powerful men always do. We want to know more: Who were the powerful men? How was their power understood by the biblical writers? How was power...

  16. TWELVE Politics in the Shadow
    (pp. 199-212)

    The religion of ancient Israel, as it is reflected in the biblical texts, anticipates certain features of democratic culture (the term is obviously anachronistic): equality and lay participation figure importantly in its doctrine and perhaps also in its practice. The democracy, such as it was, was a democracy under God, and God, as the Israelites conceived him, did not have the character, the style, or the demeanor of a democratic leader. Omnipotence was, after unity, his most important attribute. In the Bible, God is repeatedly described with the metaphors of monarchy; he is a king who will reign forever. But...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 213-226)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 227-232)