According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Book Review: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Parts 1-3


RTD: Walter Brueggemann on Michael Walzer’s “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”

by Walter Brueggemann
March 25, 2013
The the first of three posts this week on Michael Walzer's In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.

Post 1 of 3

Michael Walzer occupies a distinctive place in political interpretation. He is a distinguished political scientist who continues to have a significant investment in the Hebrew Bible. His writing thus permits a convergence of the agility of his Jewish perspective on the Bible and his engagement with contemporary questions of power. He has authored an important book on the Exodus narrative and the continuing influence of that narrative upon revolutionary thought and action. His paper, “The Prophets as Social Critics,” moreover, recognized the prophets of ancient Israel as serious social critics and analysts who exposited Israel’s “core values” of justice and righteousness and who were alert to oppressions that impeded social solidarity.
In the present book Walzer provides an overview of the political landscape of the Hebrew Bible, in turn reflecting on the old legal codes, and the role of kings and their counterpoint of prophecy. The latter part of his book reflects on the pluralism of emerging Judaism as concerns the role of priests, sages (the intellectuals), and elders, plus the articulation of messianism. The title of his book In God’s Shadow, however, indicates that his book is not simply a reflection on the human management of power, but on the interface, tension, or contraction (depending on one’s view) between human agency in politics and the rule of God. While he keeps that question alive throughout the book, he ends with the judgment that political claims for God lack any kind of substantive realism that could make a difference in the actual practice of political power. Thus at the end of the day, one may hear an irenic echo of Stalin’s question about how many divisions the Pope (or beyond the Pope, God) has. And if no divisions, then no pertinence!
Early in the book Walzer offers a distinction that is sure to be durable and helpful. As interpreters have long done, Walzer ponders the relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. But his take on that relationship is quite fresh. He judges that the Abrahamic covenant is familial and based on kinship, so that one is born into the political/religious community. By contrast the covenant at Sinai is one of “adherence.” One can “join up” and so pledge participation in the expectations of the community by choice. He observes that as the tradition developed, the “birth model” comes to feed into “nativism and exclusion” with particular reference to the “holy seed” of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9:2; Nehemiah 9:2; Esther 6:13), and comes to fruition in “the priestly covenant with Aaron” and the “royal covenant with David.”
By contrast one can see the decision for - and struggle with - “membership” at Sinai, as for example in the negotiations in Joshua 24. Walzer’s analysis fits nicely with the more common scholarly judgment that the Abrahamic covenant is “unconditional” and the Sinai covenant is “conditional,” turning on the decisive “if” of Exodus 19:5. Given Walzer’s analysis, one can see why the familial is unconditional, because one does not choose one’s birth. Walzer judges that the covenant at Sinai was “the most important of Israel’s covenants” that depended on “consent, not blood.”
But Walzer’s real concern is how to parse the “omnipotent God” in the midst of power politics. That is the central preoccupation of the book in which he concludes that the political must - and was - kept away from God-claims. I submit that Walzer operates with a modernist compartmentalization of “politics” and “religion” and lacks (or neglects) the particularity of the God of the Bible who does not fit with the abstract claims for religion with which he operates. He observes without knowing how to interpret, that,
The God of the Bible is omnipotent; yet, at the same time, is angry and frustrated (96). 
I submit that Walzer’s knowing perception about political power works much better than his assumptions about this theological tradition and the God of the narrative. Lacking agility about the way in which the agency of God works in the imagination of ancient Israel, he cannot very well engage the claims of the text. And no doubt, the beginning of the problem is his easy assumption of divine “omnipotence.”
As a result when Walzer comes to the prophets he cannot follow the logic of the rhetoric. Thus he partitions the prophets off from politics:
Politics lies just beyond the prophecy, but the biblical prophets, judging from their texts, did not go there (88).
He imagines that prophetic counsel is to “do nothing” and suggests that the prophets urge that a domestic policy of justice will lead to an international outcome of security. He judges, moreover, that in modern version such a connection of domestic and international policy is driven not only by leftist ideology but also by prudence and calculation” (108). He writes as though the prophets themselves were incapable of - or unwilling to engage in - prudence or calculation. His characterization of the prophets assures that his interpretation will be something of a misrepresentation.
On two counts I wonder, First to say that the prophets “did not go there” (into politics) is not unlike imagining that Jeremiah Wright specializes in religion and “does not go” into politics. But then, Jeremiah did not get put into a cistern for his religious imagination, but because he was the point person for a dangerous political opinion. And second, what Walzer dismisses about the interface of domestic and international policy has not yet been tried. It is hard to factor out how such a posture could be less of a failure than our current failures in what passes for “political realism.”
This book is filled with rich and suggestive insight. I have the impression, however, that Walzer is “modern” in his categories and so cannot take in the imaginative alternative that is at the center of the text. He acknowledges that Norman Gottwald insists that the prophets do not mean to “fold hands and wait.” But Walzer judges that Gottwald does not see what the text in fact says.
Walzer’s deep commitment is to the categories of Max Weber whom he cites often. While he cites Gottwald, he has little awareness of the alternative reading of Gottwald that is informed by a Marxian hermeneutic. Perhaps this is an important recognition that everything turns on one’s hermeneutical commitments. I submit that Walzer is better than his hermeneutical assumptions that preclude his engagement of the text on its own terms. There is much to unpack from Walzer’s deep learning. More nonetheless remains to be said concerning the “Shadow” that it not so easily explained away from power politics as given in these texts.
RTD 2: Mira Morgenstern on Michael Walzer’s “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”
by Guest Post
March 27, 2013
The the second of three posts this week on Michael Walzer's In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.
Post 2 of 3

It is deeply satisfying to read a new book by Michael Walzer on the Hebrew bible. Certainly this is not Walzer’s first book on the Hebrew bible: Walzer’s earlier Exodus and Revolution already gives us a unique way to re-imagine the revolutionary implications of the biblical text. With this new volume, Walzer’s writings on the bible continue to invigorate the way we can read this most ancient of texts.
Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow sets a difficult task for itself. It reads the wide-ranging Hebrew bible to get a sense of how political institutions actually functioned in biblical times. This enterprise is more difficult than it sounds. Mining a work that consciously centers on historical and legalistic narrative for structural and procedural understandings about how political life actually works can be a counter-intuitive project. It is a tribute to Walzer’s masterly sense of his craft and his nuanced readings of the biblical texts that he succeeds so well at his self-appointed task.
Deliberately eschewing a philosophical or reductive (morally or otherwise) reading of the Hebrew bible, Walzer approaches these much-commented texts with another set of questions in mind: what role is left for politics in a world that, according to the bible at least, is governed by God? The New Testament famously answers these questions by dividing the world into separate (albeit frustratingly interacting) spheres: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). This insistence on separating the two areas allows for the claim of a well-organized life; at the very least, we may hope that readers of the text may avoid the experience of ambiguity. Walzer is aware that this answer does not suffice for the authors of the Hebrew bible: for them, the warp and woof of everyday life demands taking account of complicated inconveniences.
Given the primacy that Walzer places on the workings of political institutions within a textual culture that focuses on the individual apprehension of his/her own place within the moral and physical universe (Walzer highlights these as matters of ethics), it is understandable that Walzer is frustrated with the lack of attention paid to political process within narratives that themselves focus on political change and its accompanying tensions. In Walzer’s terms there is no (or very little) evidence of political deliberation within the various texts of the Hebrew bible. One might wonder why that is the case. For Walzer, this absence marks a deficiency in the political quality/self-awareness of the Hebrew biblical text. By the same token, this utilization and analysis of deliberation highlights the excellence of the ancient Greek writings on politics, which explore the human possibilities of politics. For the ancient Greeks, this self-awareness in the process of defining political goals and procedures characterizes the most elevated manifestation of human existence.
This leads to one of the questions that seem to haunt Walzer’s book: is Walzer searching the Hebrew bible for something that is not there? Is that why the penultimate (and historically, most wide-ranging) chapter of the book, “Where Were the Elders,” ends with this question unanswered? In that context, a book centered on the absence of what we have come to consider a primary legitimating quality of political procedure itself raises questions about the aesthetic, if not the philosophical, clarity of the enterprise.
In fact, however, Walzer writes this book with the assumption that there is indeed something more there; that the Hebrew bible does have some sense of politics even if it is in God’s shadow. Walzer’s evocative use of this particular biblical expression – well-known although perhaps not as well-understood – is worth some serious contemplation. What does it mean to be in God’s shadow; or in anyone’s shadow, for that matter? Conventional understanding of that phrase normally refers to a situation where the person or thing within the shadow is overwhelmed by the force of the shadow; itself fading into nothingness. Of course, that image raises its own questions: shadows are themselves ephemeral, with no restraining or restrictive power of their own. Is there, then, an element of (conscious or not) abnegation[1] on the part of the person who remains in the shadow? Does Walzer’s titular imagery imply that the Hebrew bible has little room for robust political action on the part of human beings who are caught in God’s shadow? We will see that this question is itself interrogated throughout the Hebrew bible.
It is worth noting that the precise nature of these questions does not always figure clearly in Walzer’s discussion of political institutions in this book. Still, these themes do (silently) continue to frame the kind of issues that this book broaches. Elucidating some of these themes may help clarify Walzer’s enterprise of reading the Hebrew bible with a view towards understanding that work’s approach to political life.
In that context, one might regard Walzer’s enterprise as it is set forth in this book – does the Hebrew bible speak about politics in the same way that the ancient Greek political theorists did? – as only a partial expression of what is really at stake for Walzer in this discussion of politics. As we realize, a negative answer (“no”) to that question is not the same thing as arguing that the expression of politics in the Hebrew bible is, at best, only partial. Certainly politics’ expression in the Hebrew bible is not in the same style as that valorized by the ancient Greeks in their political discourses, but it does not follow absolutely from that point that political deliberation is missing from the biblical text. Also, it is important to take into account a (natural?) tendency on the part of a contemporary reader to devalue the political content of a text that historically has not wielded the same amount of political influence as have the better-recognized ancient Greek political texts (although Walzer specifically excludes the “influence” question from his evaluation of the political quality of the Hebrew bible,[2] so that point should not be a major issue).
At the same time, it is important to note that the concept of “text” itself plays an important role in evaluating the Hebrew bible’s conception of its own politics; and that this sense of text differs significantly in the ancient Hebrew biblical and ancient Greek cultures respectively. Unlike the place of the text in the ancient Greek political arena, the text in the ancient world of the Hebrew bible is not the province of elites alone. In the Hebrew bible’s own recounting, its central text, the text of the Torah, including both legal and historical narratives that encompass depictions of individual personalities as well as group expressions, forms the background against which individuals think, dream, argue, and act. The Hebrew bible views the text as an active part of individual and national consciousness. Discourse about this text varies historically from generation to generation, enabling politics to be reimagined and newly enacted in a perennial stream of change and transformation.
Living in the 21st century, we are devastatingly aware of how the biblical text has revolutionized the lives of people all over the world, whether through the liberation narrative in Exodus[i] ((this is Walzer’s own seminal contribution to the modern analysis of political theory in the biblical text),[3] or through the discussions about equality, holiness, and the institution of a monarchy, along with the biblical narratives describing how this form of leadership operated. And so the question naturally presents itself: can we detach the narrative of the text from discourse about the text and the reimagination of its meaning? How can we separate the dancer from the dance?[4]
Finally, speaking about politics in the Hebrew bible as enacted in “God’s shadow” and thus, as implicitly justifying political quietism, does not exhaust the additional possibilities of “God’s shadow” as the biblical text itself conceives those to be. And here, the further complexities of Walzer’s carefully-chosen title are made manifest. In the context of the biblical text, “God’s shadow” transcends the conventional image of the trapped follower. As noted by some early-modern biblical commentators who link the closely-related words for shadow (Tzel) and God’s image (Tzelem),[5] the targeted power implied by the creation of man in God’s image overlays the quiescent image of the “shadowed follower” by stipulating that human beings proactively follow God’s path (in the sense of “imitateo Dei”) by dynamically performing acts of developmental and moral creativity.
It is perhaps puzzling, in view of Walzer’s masterly choice of title, that the political implications of the human dual role, or doubled mission – with the concomitant obligations of the nuanced comprehension and action demanded of human beings within the biblical context – do not receive further exposure in this book. In certain areas, Walzer’s wonderfully nuanced understanding of the complexity of texts seems inexplicably, at times, to flatten the biblical text as promoting mutually exclusive dualities. For example, in speaking about politics in the Hebrew bible as reduced to following Divine instructions, Walzer omits consideration of those situations, described by the bible itself, in which Divine instruction is not clear, and in which (political) options range beyond the simplistically dualistic.
An obvious example of this type of circumstance occurs in the Book of Esther, when Mordecai attempts to persuade Esther, the (secret) Jewess married to King Ahaseuerus, to utilize her position at the royal court to plead for the lives of the other Jews in the Persian Empire, who themselves had been targeted by an ethnic-cleansing decree. promoted by the King’s Prime Minister, Haman. Nobody in the text suggests checking with what God might want them to do; the decision of how and when to act is left up to human deliberations.[6]
A parallel instance occurs in Walzer’s analysis of war in the Hebrew bible. Here, too, Walzer assumes that Divinely-approved battles are (largely, if not completely) styled as demands for total war, with the negative implications for the current reader that the idea of “ethnic cleansing” inevitably evokes in our newly-sensitized consciences. In Walzer’s view, small, self-contained military campaigns of primarily political significance are largely ignored by the Hebrew biblical text and, Walzer argues, do not receive the Divine imprimatur nearly as easily.[7] While this analysis makes for easy reading, this approach does not reflect the complications of the text of the Hebrew bible itself. With this heuristic device, Walzer reduces the range of military actions that fall under the category of the biblical “milhemet reshut,” or “voluntary battle” which include a variety of battles that a king may choose to fight, with or without explicit Divine sanction, that may or may not meet with either complete success or failure.[8]
Likewise, the military strategies employed by biblical protagonists throughout the biblical texts as they wage war, without either consulting God or incurring his wrath, are similarly ignored by casting the categorization of war-making in the Hebrew bible as “holy war or bust.” One example, worth citing here (although not mentioned in the book) for its human-centered notion of (partial) war that does not incur Divine wrath, concerns Jonathan’s successful deployment of a novel military strategy when fighting an unequal battle against overwhelming Philistine forces.[9] Even more interesting is the political context in which this military strategy is presented: as it turns out, King Saul’s senseless rage at the successful military outcome achieved on that day by his son, Jonathan, who unwittingly contravened a vow that his father had enjoined upon the entire Israelite army, is presented as additional textual evidence of Saul’s lack of fitness for the position of monarch. In this context, forgoing analysis of the Hebrew bible’s depiction of the political implications of warring strategies and of the political complexities of public relations on the battlefield represents a missed opportunity for a book that makes such magnificent strides in alerting us to the warp and woof of politics throughout the texts of the Hebrew bible.
Many other narratives, particularly in the “Historical” books of the Hebrew bible, abound with descriptions of military and political strategies that are followed by leaders without recourse to Divine (totalizing or other) advice (the niceties of Gideon’s military and political strategy, particularly in the aftermath of the war against the Midianites is just one instance of this).[10] Perhaps even more importantly, the central chapters of the biblical book of Judges highlight a series of wide-ranging deliberations on monarchy as a proposed form of government, as these are conducted in the aftermath of the Gideon episode, and in the Jotham narrative that follows.[11]
What Walzer is really asking with his questions about human politics in the shadow of the Divine is whether the Hebrew bible leaves room for a secular mindset within the religious sensibility. In other words, can a robust politics coexist with a dynamic conception of the Divine? Bemoaning the absence in the Hebrew bible of the central concerns of ancient Greek political theory is another way of asking the same question. Despite Walzer’s stated lack of interest in biblical precedents for contemporary politics, this question still forms the heart of his complex inquiries. Given the state of politics and the nature of political change in the world today, this is indeed a crucial issue. Must religion destroy political freedom? Does God stifle human enterprise? (Full disclosure: this essay was begun as the acknowledged winner of the Egyptian Presidential election, Mohammed Morsi [formerly] of the Muslim Brotherhood, reaffirmed his support for restricting officeholders of the Egyptian presidency to male Muslims, because “the head of state should promote the faith [Islam].”[12]
While current empirical evidence of the correlation between the evocation of the Divine and the achievement and implementation of political freedoms skews negatively, readers of this book may take comfort in the fact that the Hebrew bible implicitly demonstrates that this pessimistic result does not have to obtain.[13] For the Hebrew bible, politics represents the arena for human choice, and it is for that reason that there is relatively little detail about its procedural and institutional formalities (notably excluding the passage limiting the power of the typical executive head of civilian government at the time, which was, following the nomenclature of the time, styled as a “king).”[14] At the same time, affirming Walzer’s own imagery, it is possible to read the Hebrew bible as demonstrating that politics may begin within the space of God’s shadow, but its range extends as it challenges mankind to actualize God’s image in the world overall -– which is to say, to fill the world with (Divine) lovingkindess. In the end, one does not have to be completely satisfied with the procedural implications of this point to note with satisfaction the revolutionary implications of a text that continues to employ political discourse and thus to promote liberty for its readers and non-readers alike. 


[1] The concept is taken from Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982 NY: Columbia U press; tr Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1980)
[2] “I am not trying to find biblical . . . . precedents for my own politics” (Preface, In God’s Shadow, p. x)
[3] Exodus and Revolution (NY:Basic 1986).
[4] A play on William Butler Yeats, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” in Among School Children (1928), parg//canto VIII.

[5] Two major early-modern and modern commentators who emphasize the philological and philosophical connotations of the “shadow” of G0d, noting the close connection between the Hebrew word for shadow (Tzel) and the related word for Divine image (Tzelem) are Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) and Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879). Following their separate methodologies, each commentator notes that the targeted power implied by having been created in God’s image overlays the quiescent image of the “trapped follower” by demanding that human beings follow God’s path (in the sense of “imitation Dei”) in performing acts of developmental and moral creativity.
[6] To be sure, once could argue that the exact nature of these deliberations are withheld from the reader; we do not know exactly what Mordecai and Esther said to each other through what must have been a longer conversation than the several verses allotted to it in the biblical narrative. Nevertheless, even in abbreviated form, this conversation between Mordecai and Esther is an example of political deliberation: Esther makes specific mention of the procedures in place at the royal court for accessing the king. Furthermore, it is well to remember that the involvement of the reader in teasing out the considerations that enter into these terse evocations of discourse increases the life of the text in the political lives of its readers (in this connection, cf. Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Bloomington: Indiana University Press1987; esp. pp. 166; 173-75;; 227-29; 267; 326).
[7] In God’s Shadow, p. 36.
[8] In this connection, cf. the commentary of Nachmanides (1195-1270) on Deuteronomy 11:24, analyzing some of the individually- initiated military conquests of King David (among the questions raised in this analysis is whether these conquests, initiated by David without explicit and timely Divine approbation, can consequently be considered as enjoying the traditional concept of holiness attributed to the ancient Land of Israel in biblical times).
[9] I Samuel 14:28-30; 38-45.
[10] Judges 7:19-25; 8:1-21. (Gideon had received assurances from God that he would be victorious, but no particular guidance on which strategy to use, either during or after the main battle).
[11] Judges 8:22-24; Judges 9.
[12] “Named Egypt’s Winner, Islamist Makes History,” The New York Times June 25, 2012; pp. A1; A6.
[13] Indeed, the very topic that Walzer adduces for the either/or quality of Hebrew biblical decision-making – the religiously-backed war of total annihilation vs. limited battles – itself omits an important third option, and, indeed, another method of war-categorization, within the biblical canon: the war that is waged following the leader’s sense of political necessity. Such wars may or may not receive Divine approbation, and the leaders may or may not choose to request such Divine advice. In any case, those wars are not total wars (in fact, total wars form a relatively small percentage of wars fought in the Hebrew bible, and those wars demand Divine approbation before and during their execution).
[14] Deuteronomy, 17:14-20

RTD 3: Michael Walzer Responds to Bruggemann and Morgenstern

by Guest Post
March 29, 2013
The the second of three posts this week on Michael Walzer's In God's Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.
Post 3 of 3

It was never my intention to try to figure out “how political institutions actually functioned in biblical times”—as Mira Morgenstern suggests I was trying to do. That is work for the historian, not the political theorist. I was trying to figure out what the different biblical writers thought about politics, which certainly includes what they thought about the functioning of political institutions. And my conclusion was that most of them didn’t think much about that subject. It isn’t right to say that I was “frustrated” by this discovery or that I saw the relative absence of engagement with political issues as a “deficiency” or that I “bemoan” that absence. I am critical, along with Avishai Margalit and Moshe Halbertal, of the way the prophets write about international politics; I celebrate the way they write about domestic society—their invention of social criticism. But mostly I just want to get at the views of these writers; I’ve even tried to be generous in my interpretations of those views, as in the chapter on the priests and on priestcraft.
I actually believe that it is a good thing for people like me, who are obsessed with politics, to study the works of writers who had other obsessions. Having other obsessions doesn’t mean that there is no engagement with politics. For example, as Morgenstern says, the histories are full of wars that aren’t holy wars commanded by God; the prophets disapproved of some of them for that very reason. But there is no discourse on war, no sustained interest in when they are fought or how they are fought—or with who makes the decision to fight them. One of Morgenstern’s strategies in addressing these questions is to look ahead to the rabbinic commentators on biblical texts—as when she invokes the idea of a milhemet reshut (an optional war), which is a rabbinic, not a biblical idea. The biblical writers did not produce categories of that sort.
Nor do I think that it is right to say that the book of Judges contains “a series of wide-ranging deliberations on monarchy.” There is Gideon’s refusal of the crown on his own and on his son’s behalf, but there is no response to his refusal, nothing that could be called a deliberation about whose rule is just or right. We can speculate about what the writers of the various stories in the book had in mind, and about what the editors of the book had in mind, but they certainly don’t tell us what they had in mind. “Deliberation” implies argument, discussion, the consideration of options, the weighing of goods and bads, and there is nothing like that in Judges. One can indeed construct a discussion of that sort out of the stories, but that would be a modern construction. The hard question is: Why is there no ancient construction?
Human choice certainly figures in the text—beginning with Eve’s choice in the Garden—and Morgenstern describes important political choices, like Saul’s and Esther’s. And I agree with her on the contemporary importance of the question: Does religion destroy political freedom, the possibility of collective choice? One could answer that question in very different ways, with supporting biblical citations. But I don’t think that the biblical writers ever actually address the question.
Walter Brueggemann suggests that I “lack agility about the way in which the agency of God works in the imagination of ancient Israel.” He may well be right; I have always thought of myself as theologically tone-deaf. But I don’t intend an “irenic echo” of Stalin’s question about the Pope’s divisions. I do recognize the central role of God in the biblical writings. He is the lawgiver, the covenant partner (that word isn’t quite right, but it will do for now), the voice that “calls” the prophets and mandates their call to all the other Israelites to act justly in the world. He is also “ish milhamah,” man of war, Lord of Hosts, in whose name the prophets criticize not only the military but also the diplomatic efforts of Israel’s kings. I take that message—stand still, be quiet, have faith—to be anti-political, a denial of the value of human foresight and sagacity. I am more sympathetic to the popular Protestant response to that position (from World War One): “Praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.” But I can’t find anything like that attitude in the biblical texts.
Were the prophets capable of “prudence and calculation”? The answer must be yes, sometimes. Given the power of their poetry, the skillfulness of their rhetoric, they must have thought long and hard about the effect they wanted to have on their audience—when to talk softly, when harshly, when sweetly. But I can’t find evidence of explicitly political calculations. They demanded that every Israelite act justly in his or her place. But how that justice might be enforced, what kind of institutions it requires, how those institutions might be established, who is responsible for establishing them, what ought to be done right now—these just aren’t questions that engaged their attention. Are they peculiarly modern questions? I don’t think so. To assume that they can have only secular answers—that might be a modern position. But that isn’t my position in the book. Instead, I am trying to understand why religious Israelites were not engaged by them. Certainly, there was a practical engagement with these kinds of questions by the kings and their advisors. But this was a practice strangely devoid of doctrine.
Alternatively, there are many doctrines—two covenants, three law codes, many prophetic voices, wise men of different sorts, and competing groups of priestly writers. Yes, all that, and one could say that pluralism itself is a political statement. But how the plural parts stand vis-à-vis one another, how coherent policies are produced from their cacophony, and who participates in the production—again, these are not biblical questions. Why not? That is one of the questions, perhaps the central one, that motivates my book.


1 comment:

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