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In the Whirlwind

In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

Robert A. Burt
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 400
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  • Book Info
    In the Whirlwind
    Book Description:

    In this bold exploration of the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Burt shows that God’s authority is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government. He paints a surprising picture of the ambivalent, mutually dependent relationship between God and his peoples.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06487-4
    Subjects: Philosophy, Religion, Political Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xviii)
  4. CHAPTER ONE In the Beginning
    (pp. 1-19)

    No authority, whether divine or secular, deserves automatic obedience. All authority must justify itself by some extrinsic standard of justice or righteousness. This is the core claim of modern, secular Western political theory. This theory defines itself as fundamentally different from the demand for unquestioning obedience to God’s authority that is supposedly embedded in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles.¹ According to this account, the biblical God deserves obedience simply because he is God, not because he is righteous or just as judged by some external standard.

    I believe that this conventional view is based on a misreading of the biblical...

  5. CHAPTER TWO The Appearance of Authority
    (pp. 20-37)

    The first strategy that God devised to restore the harmony that he had initially enjoyed with humanity was to issue a specific command that would bring about this result—a command that Adam should not eat from “the tree of knowledge [of] good and evil.” So far as humanity was concerned, all the universe was “very good” when God created us, male and female, in his image. But though we were the beneficiaries of this condition, we were not conscious of its goodness as such. We had no basis for comparison with anything else. God’s goal in the second creation...

  6. CHAPTER THREE God Gives, God Takes Away
    (pp. 38-59)

    Whatever its effect might have been, God did not conceive his first avowed command as a temptation toward disobedience. But his unhappy experience with Adam and Eve led him to devise increasingly elaborate tests of humanity’s inclination to give him unquestioning obedience. As he learned through these tests that his direct commands were regularly disregarded and that threats of negative punishments were insufficient to overcome humanity’s unruly impulses, God increasingly added promises of positive benefits as incentives toward obedience. In offering these promises, God appeared to go beyond attempting to impose limits on human conduct; he now seemed willing to...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR God’s Promises: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
    (pp. 60-92)

    After the Flood and his outburst at the presumptuousness of the builders in Babel, God appeared to take a different path for constructing a relationship with humanity. As he had initially attempted with Adam, Abel, and Noah, God decided to choose another favorite in the apparent hope that this would lead to a happier conclusion. This time, however, God did not limit his offer to a single human being; he chose instead human beings whom he promised to make the progenitors of a people, a “great nation,” and he also promised to favor their descendants more than other peoples on...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Loving Power: Moses
    (pp. 93-115)

    Just before God returned to the children of Israel in Egypt after his four-hundred-year absence, an ark reappeared. Pharaoh had vowed to destroy the Hebrew people by killing all their newborn males, but one mother put her baby in a “wicker ark” and launched him into the Nile River—an intimate reenactment of Noah’s perilous water voyage with the few surviving members of all humanity.¹ Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the tiny ark and bestowed an Egyptian name on its occupant—“Moses,” which meant in the Egyptian language “one who is born.”² The Egyptian princess raised him as her adopted son and...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Love Offered, Love Commanded: Moses and the Children of Israel
    (pp. 116-140)

    The intimacy between God and Moses, as the Bible portrays it, is not simply a domestic love affair between two individuals. It is an aspirational model for God’s relationship with the entire people of Israel—an aspiration sought not only by the populace alone but also by God himself.

    To modern eyes, this may seem improbable, even bizarre—or terrifying and dangerous. How can one speak of an intimate relationship in which the participants number in the millions, except through a fascist fantasy of the masses’ surrendering themselves to the will of one supreme leader? The fascist fantasy can indeed...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Grief and Grievance: Moses and Job
    (pp. 141-176)

    Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books of Moses collectively known as the Torah, ends unhappily. Its account of Moses’s death is suffused with grief. From the top of Mount Nebo, God “let [Moses] see” the entire panorama of the land that the children of Israel were about to enter. God said to him, “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘To your seed I will give it.’ I have let you see with your own eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” The narrator continued, “And Moses, the Lord’s servant,...

  11. CHAPTER EIGHT As We Forgive Those
    (pp. 177-198)

    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 each other, and most clearly sets out the difficulties faced by each in any efforts to restore their broken relationship. The format of the book of Job also differs from that of the 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 to both the...

  12. CHAPTER NINE A Renewed Testament: Mark, Matthew, and Luke
    (pp. 199-230)

    The conventional claim is that the Hebrew Bible foretells the events narrated in the Christian Bible. But there is a deeper continuity between the two Bibles. The recurrent problem of mutual mistrust and abandonment in the relationship between God and humanity is addressed in a new way in the Christian Bible; nonetheless, the same problem ultimately reappears.

    In the Hebrew Bible, the cause of the rift between God and humanity is persistently diagnosed as humanity’s failure to obey God’s commandments. If only humanity would obey, the breach would be healed and God would resume his protective custody: so this refrain...

  13. CHAPTER TEN The Same Old Testament: Paul and Jesus
    (pp. 231-249)

    All the authors of the canonical texts in the Christian Bible struggle with the question whether human beings can actually achieve a restoration of the original harmony with God in the first Genesis creation. Some even suggest that Jesus himself was troubled by doubts on this score. But Paul and John grapple with these questions in ways that are radically distinct from their treatment in Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

    After Jesus, Paul is the most consequential figure in the development of Christianity. Without Paul, Christianity might have survived, if at all, as a variant sect within Judaism; with Paul’s passionate...

  14. CHAPTER ELEVEN Eliminating Doubts and Doubters: John
    (pp. 250-273)

    The Hebrew Bible contains many puzzling omissions and apparent contradictions. But the text is nonetheless organized on the premise that, taken together, its narratives have an underlying coherent unity. The format of the text essentially makes this claim, especially for the first five books, the Torah, reputedly written by one author, Moses. The format of the Christian Bible conveys the opposite implication. The central subject of all the Christian texts is Jesus Christ; on its face, this seems to imply that there is only one Christ, and whatever puzzles might appear in the various descriptions of him must be harmonized...

  15. CHAPTER TWELVE The Insoluble Problem of Politics
    (pp. 274-301)

    According to secular theory, the central problem framing all political relationships is the scarcity of resources. All politics, therefore, is about the allocation of scarce resources. Some theorists focus their attention on identifying the substantive principles that should govern such allocations—who gets how much of what (not only material but spiritual resources such as honor, deference, love). Others are more directly engaged in specifying the social processes that might yield the most appropriate allocations. Whatever the mix of substantive and procedural concerns in their various theories, all political thinkers in the Western tradition—from Plato to the modern era—...

  16. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue
    (pp. 302-324)

    We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” So Justice Robert Jackson observed about the United States Supreme Court.¹ Jackson presumably meant to contrast divine and secular authority. In the course of this book, we have encountered many instances in which the biblical text portrays God as neither infallible nor final, except for his possession of overwhelming destructive power. It may be that God’s authority and the U.S. Supreme Court’s authority have more in common than the conventional accounts admit. Jackson’s witticism points to one overarching similarity. Both God and the...

  17. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Reconciling with Injustice
    (pp. 325-348)

    The jurisprudential issue that we explored in the preceding chapter can be understood as the problem of delayed justice. In each of the cases—Brown I and II, the Nixon Tapes Case, and Roe v. Wade—the Supreme Court proclaimed a plausible principle of justice and relied on a plausible claim that it alone was authorized to interpret the demands of justice. I maintained, however, that the Court’s claim for exclusive interpretive authority is unjustified because the very norm of justice invoked by the Court can come into living reality only if it emerges from a shared interpretative process in...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 351-372)
  19. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 373-374)
  20. Index
    (pp. 375-382)