In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible
by Michael Walzer
Yale, 256 pages, $28
In the Bible, argues Michael Walzer, God casts a shadow over human politics, making it hard to see that human beings are at work. The Pentateuch’s different law codes, for example, bear silent witness to shifting political configurations among men even though they claim to come from God alone. The Bible, Walzer says, is “the record of a nation whose God did not leave much room for independent decision-making.” Only when God is put in the shadows can human beings engage in politics as they ought to.
Walzer’s newest contribution on religion and community, a topic that has occupied him since the 1960s, In God’s Shadow focuses on the Bible’s “antipolitics.” Though the community of Israel has everything necessary for political life—rulers and ruled and above all the Law—Israel’s life centers on the Shekhinah, God’s presence in the Temple, instead of the agora, where human beings transact commerce and debate politics. The Bible cannot give a clear witness to political dispute or argument.
“There is a strong antipolitical tendency in the biblical texts,” he argues, “which follows from the idea that God is a ‘man of war’ (Exodus 15:3) and a supreme king—so what is there for human beings to do?” The term “antipolitics,” however, implies that the biblical writers were setting themselves against a secular, human politics that had not yet arisen. Since the Bible contains God’s judgments rather than a record of political disputes, it becomes “antipolitical” in spite of having apparently political themes.
Walzer, a coeditor of Dissent and professor emeritus of the Institute for Advanced Study, reads the Bible, as he says, in the manner that he reads John Locke, the Federalist Papers, and other political documents: as the treatment of great political themes by human writers whose contexts are largely known and whose agendas are apparent.
Yet since the Bible does not present a set of political arguments in the way that Locke and Hamilton do, it makes political dispute appear to be of questionable importance. Only in the rule and succession of the Israelite kings does the Bible get close to acknowledging “an autonomous political realm” or “space of secular time.”
Walzer treats the three codes of Exodus 20–23, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy as three political maneuvers whose human basis has been obscured through invocations of God. It is out of either “piety or presumption” that Israel’s intellectual class “assigned their arguments to God.”
If it’s piety, then perhaps we should look at the law codes as expressions of God’s revelation to Israel and not blame their authors, as Walzer does, for failing to publish their reasoning in the manner of the Federalist Papers. In a society based on revelation, secular political reason was not there to be invoked.
Israel was far from the only regime claiming a basis in divine law. Is it fair to call the Bible “antipolitical” when secular politics had not yet come on the scene? Likewise, must the biblical authors be faulted for reasoning out of public view, coming to conclusions without presenting their arguments?
Walzer believes the biblical authors succumb to a sort of false consciousness. God isn’t responsible for the particular precepts of the Law, but since he’s the standard to which everyone refers, he preempts the normal course of political dispute by making men dependent on himself.
In claiming to bear witness on God’s behalf, the prophets prevented ordinary political dispute. Once God has spoken, causa finita est. When Solomon marries Gentile wives and allows them to keep their religious rites, the prophets object. In doing so, Walzer says, they obstruct a “sensible” political decision in the name of revelation.
From Walzer’s point of view, this critique makes sense. Surely human beings will make better decisions when they can speak freely about the res publica without an invocation of God stopping the argument. Surely it is better for a king to be able to secure his nation’s relation to other nations through intermarriage than refuse out of some idea of religious uniformity.
It is true that the covenants with God made by Abraham and at Sinai—what Walzer calls the Israelites’ “founding myth”—lack the deliberation that we would associate with ordinary political treaty making. The salient feature of the Mosaic Law is rather its insistence on the people’s obedience and faithfulness. By implication, then, there is a lack of any further political activity or even an arena for political dispute and decision.
But more attention to the background of these covenants would make the Bible’s “antipolitics” understandable. If man had really been created by God, and if God had really shown his special concern for the descendants of Noah and Abraham, the Bible’s “antipolitical” character would make sense. According to the biblical account, there is no preexisting political life against which the sacred writers could array an “antipolitics.”
To return to the example of Solomon’s wives, Solomon’s policy of allowing foreign customs is “sensible” if peace and political compromise are more important than religious purity. From the standpoint of political argument, the prophets do, as Walzer suggests, exhibit “a kind of public speech that militated against deliberation.” But they might just as well have had good political reasons for doing so. What if you live among men who will listen only to God?
The sapiential books of the Old Testament show a greater concern for political things than the prophets do, since they were written for those involved in ruling. But wisdom’s politics is too conventional for Walzer precisely because it was aimed at courtesans. Proverbs, for example, advises against associating with those “given to change”—political revolutionaries and those similar to them. Because of its conventionalism, the sapiential literature “never expresses any strong political purposiveness” or “the special kind of courage that politics (sometimes) requires.”
The messianic literature is even more dissatisfying: The prophetic visions generate only “quietude, resignation, and passivity.” Messianism empties men of their capacity for politics.
Yet messianic expectation is dangerous only if the human problems are susceptible to political resolution. A people exiled from its homeland and seeing little human possibility for restoration might find messianism a reasonable political option. And even reasonableness doesn’t seem to be the criterion for religious hope, itself a political stance. Paul, for example, asserted that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”
Walzer’s critique of biblical “antipolitics” assumes either that politics can solve human problems or that it’s the only way available to us. But politics has yet to deliver the human race from the problems that caused some in Israel to turn to the hope of a messiah: Wickedness, oppression, poverty, and violence do not always respond easily in proportion to our application of political pressure.
For a religiously constituted community, the most important thing is responding to the perception of God’s call with faithfulness, eagerness, and patience. Rather than calling the Bible antipolitical or labeling politics antibiblical, we should give proper weight to the claims of each, without assuming that they cancel each other out. Sometimes political dispute gives way to prophetic witness, and sometimes prophetic witness yields to the political process. Even political causes trade in the language of conversion.
Throughout his book, Walzer offers vignettes from the Bible, analyzed beautifully and described with political language: the machinations of the writers of Deuteronomy, the ordinary political actions of the kings, and the prudential advice offered by the prophets and the sapiential writers. His readings are sensitive, marked by attention to small disparities and changes of tone.
Yet in reducing his evidence to something he calls “antipolitics,” he guides the reader toward assuming that the Bible lacks something we have: a political process to solve human ills. The Hebrew Bible is too subtle for the makings of a political program. The Bible may not set a stage for party politics, but it offers examples of heroism and mildness, introspection and anger, intrigue and simplicity, doubt and faith.
If modern politics has really made the Bible’s antipolitics obsolete, we would not need it for guidance. Yet even while asserting that the Bible is antipolitical, Michael Walzer shows us many ways in which it can be a guide to the political things. The Bible does not outline a political program, but it does show a range of workable and effective human responses, many of them needed in politics, to problems that have not disappeared. Those who read it with the openness of believers, even without their faith, see knowledge of God not as shadow but as light.
Gladden J. Pappin is a postdoctoral fellow in the Program on Constitutional Government at Harvard University.