Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
by Joshua A. Berman
Oxford University Press, 264 pages, $39.95

In every nation but one of the ancient Near East, the king made the law. In Israel alone, kings were not supposed to promulgate law but to obey a law given by someone else. It was the prophet’s task”not always an easy one”to make sure they did. In Created Equal , Joshua Berman, a lecturer at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, uses this notable feature of Israelite political life to argue that the Bible is remarkably egalitarian and that Israel, unlike its neighbors, was notably suspicious of hierarchical regimes that located political power in the hands of a few elites.

In fact, the Pentateuch accords a considerable amount of power to the priestly families”and thus to refer to the priestly code (of Exodus 25 through Numbers 10) as “egalitarian” through and through would be a big mistake. Apart from this exaggeration, however, Berman makes a number of splendid observations and his book is well worth reading. Consider the fact that the office of the king took some time to establish itself in ancient Israel. In Judges, the people of Israel had wanted to crown Gideon as king. He refused in a striking way. “I will not rule over you,” he declared, “and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.”

The claim here seems to be that appointing him king would be an affront to God. According to Deuteronomy (17:14-17), God eventually acceded to the Israelites’ desire, but only on his own terms. A native-born individual alone could take the throne, his powers to tax would be low, he would not be allowed to establish diplomatic ties with other countries through intermarriage, and he would be required to study the laws of his office under the supervision of the Levitical priests. The office was so curtailed in power that no other monarch in the ancient Near East would have allowed it. The king was to serve the people, not the reverse.

Berman claims that the dynamics of Israel’s covenant theology instantiated this situation. Israel’s unique brand of monotheism was grounded in the suzerainty treaties of the ancient Near East. The treaties we possess from the Hittites (an ancient Indo-European people who once inhabited what is now the modern state of Turkey) established the way these suzerains interacted with the city-states under their control. They frequently began with a short historical introduction in which the king would document the kind deeds he had done for the vassal so as to engender a sense of gratitude. Next he would document the covenant’s stipulations, including the obligation to love him, meaning that the vassal be a faithful and loyal friend and subject. Finally a set of blessings and curses would be included: blessings on the vassal should he maintain the covenant and curses should he not.

The parallels to the Bible are obvious. The covenant at Sinai also begins with a brief historical introduction (“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt”) whose explicit purpose is to document God’s gracious intentions toward Israel and to engender Israel’s desire to be a faithful servant who would love her lord above all other competitors. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy have long lists of blessings and curses that will attend compliance and noncompliance with the terms of the covenant.

What is striking is the way the covenant with Israel democratizes the people. Although the Hittite king covenanted with individual kings, God makes his covenant with each and every Israelite. This fact is made most explicit in Deuteronomy, which requires every man and woman to participate in the regular renewals of the covenant. To this day Judaism remains a religion of the individual household wherein responsibility to the covenant is not the responsibility of a small priestly elite but the obligation of the ­individual.

One other monumental piece of legislation demonstrates the egalitarian nature of Israelite law. According to Joshua, each tribe is allotted its share of the Promised Land by lot. Land is not understood as real estate but as a divine patrimony that cannot be bought and sold according to the rules of the market. In Leviticus we learn that, even when Israelites had to sell their land, the sale could not be permanent. God informed Moses: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine ; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.”

All the seller can do is sell the rights to the produce grown on the land. Even this sale is not permanent. The next of kin are commanded to step forward and repurchase (“redeem”) the land so that it can remain within the larger family. And should they fail to do so, every forty-nine years, at the jubilee, all sales of land are voided and the original owners return to their former holdings.

One problem with interpreting this kind of legislation is knowing whether the laws were really observed. Most scholars believe that the jubilee legislation was utopian and probably not followed to the letter. But even if that is the case, we can see that the basic principle of the law was known. In the famous story of Naboth’s vineyard, the Israelite farmer Naboth is approached by King Ahab, who wants to purchase it as a “vegetable garden” for his own use. Naboth answers: “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

What was merely an agricultural commodity to the king (“vegetable garden”) was a divine gift to this pious Israelite citizen (“my ancestral inheritance”). Ahab punishes Naboth for his piety, and the prophet Elijah must step forward to adjudicate the case. The result is the overthrow of the royal family: Divine law in service of the common man trumps royal ­prerogative.

Taking Berman seriously about the egalitarian structure of Israelite religion allows us to account for the survival of biblical faith in the Diaspora, when the Jews had no political offices at their disposal. Yet a weakness of Berman’s book is its overly simplistic account of what that egalitarian community looked like. Kings were still kings, and, even if the origins of the office were suspect, the promise that God eventually made to David and his successors was not. Priests are still priests, and a fuller account of Israel’s political thought would have to take into account that important institution.

Moreover, his frequent assertion that the Protestant Reformation was all about elevating the conscience of the individual is certainly wrong. For Luther, for instance, the error of the Anabaptists was a capital offense: Those seeking a second baptism were to be put to death by drowning. But this small error should not detract from a book that reminds us of an underappreciated element of our common biblical heritage.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.