The stories from the Bible so often come to us as isolated examples of pious or ethical behavior, that it’s frankly a relief to read Yoram Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Hazony reads these stories intertextually across the books in order to argue for a number of provocative conclusions from the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s a great read, but I want to press his argument on two points.
One of the fundamental themes Hazony identifies is how the “shepherd” stands in tension with the “farmer” and, consequently, with the city. Hazony recognizes that the latter part of the tension—the equivalence of farmer and city—is a puzzle to moderns that stands in need of initial explanation. While moderns tend to think of the farmer as a rural person, agriculture in the ancient was identified with the political power of the city. The state develops as roving bandits learn they can expropriate more wealth by protecting farmers from other bandits, and then expropriating the surplus.
Hazony develops this theme biblically by starting with the struggle between Cain and Abel. The farmer, Cain, murders the shepherd, Abel. Exiled from the ground, Cain subsequently founds the first city.
I first encountered this thesis in Jacque Ellul’s 1970 book, The Meaning of the City. While Hazony develops the biblical evidence for this claim in far greater detail than Ellul, I still don’t buy it as a fundamental organizing theme in the Old Testament. Hazony argues that the story of Cain and Abel “emphasizes that the idea of making a sacrifice to God is Cain’s. It is Cain who inclines to piety, and thinks to take some of his meager supply of good, which he has scraped from the soil, and sacrifice it to God in gratitude.”
Beyond that, for Hazony, “Cain has piously accepted the curse on the soil, and God’s having sent Adam to work the soil, as unchallengeable. His response is to submit, as his father did before him.” In contrast,
Cain takes the curse on the soil as a fact, but not as one that possesses any intrinsic merit, so that it should command his allegiance. . . . His response is the opposite of submission: He resists with ingenuity and daring, risking the anger of man and God to secure improvement for himself and for his children. Cain represents the life of the shepherd, which is a life of dissent and initiative, whose aim is to find the good life for man, which is presumed to be God’s true will.
I do not quibble with Hazony’s argument that the stories of the early chapters of Genesis provide the architecture for the rest of the Scriptures. Indeed, it could be that every important theme throughout the Scriptures is found in seed form in the first three chapters of Genesis. But while architectonic, I don’t believe that the early chapters set the foundation that Hazony (and Ellul) derive from them.
To be sure, the ground is cursed in Genesis, yet all cattle and beasts are cursed as well. The shepherd is not necessarily any less a slave to those cursed beasts than the farmer is a slave to the cursed ground. (I certainly don’t know any shepherds who would admit to being less of a slave to the animal than the farmer is to the ground.)
Perhaps more importantly, however, is the question of who learned what from the events of the fall. It is far from clear in the passage that Cain piously accepts the curse as unchallengeable. After all, implicit in God making “garments of skin” for Adam and Eve before their exile from Eden is that an animal was killed and skinned for their covering. On this reading it is Abel who piously accepts the curse, and understood the need for a blood remedy from the fall.
Cain, then, is the brother of “dissent and initiative.” He minimizes the separation that sin created by seeking to draw near to God with an offering of vegetation only rather than with a sanguine offering. This is true innovation.
I don’t know if Hazony would reject this understanding because it necessarily draws on the theological or divine content of the Scriptures. Despite Hazony’s focus on “philosophy” rather than “theology,” part of what I take from Hazony’s discussion of Israel’s history is that it pleases God to have his people wrestle with him, as Jacob did. This stands in contrast to a false sort of piety that considers wrestling with God as inherently impious. Indeed, one need look no further than the Psalms to understand that God invites his people to wrestle with him. I sometimes need to dare myself to pray to God as the psalmist does. Yet I take the examples as normative, and Hazony’s book encourages this.
But Hazony wants to focus on “philosophy” rather than on spiritual lessons from the Scriptures. If embraced, I take his project to seek to create the equivalent of what in the American context I would call the Jeffersonian yeoman. Proud, self-sustaining, fierce, and independent. In so doing, Hazony perhaps provides a new entry into an older, and largely forgotten, tradition of agrarian conservatism.
Today conservatives celebrate the market and entrepreneurs. Yet the market assumes and creates all sorts of dependencies. The worker and the entrepreneur mutually depend on each other. The market sits at the center of their lives. They are not truly free in the full Jeffersonian sense, which is more than bare political freedom. For the yeoman farmer, the market sits on the tertiary of life; it’s something that one goes to on Saturday, or Tuesday, in order to sell a few surplus products, and to buy a few things that one doesn’t produce at home. The yeoman is largely free from dependence on others.
The Jeffersonians would certainly embrace the ultimate political lesson that Hazony derives from the “philosophy” of the Scriptures, that it teaches the need for a limited state—one that avoids anarchy on the one hand and imperial overreach on the other. I loved the way that Hazony argues through and with the Bible. I am uncertain, however, that the lessons of Israel from Genesis through Kings are quite as compatible with the philosophy of The Federalist as I take Hazony to suggest.
James R. Rogers is department head and associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University. He leads the “New Man” prison ministry at the Hamilton Unit in Bryan, Texas, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Texas District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
Yoram Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture