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60The Miracle of Estherhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/03/the-miracle-of-esther
Tue, 01 Mar 2016 00:00:00 -0500Esther is a book of the Bible that does not refer to God explicitly even once. On the surface, it is a story about political intrigue, sex, and violence. Yet the rabbis of the Talmud lavish praise on this work, asserting that there are two portions of Scripture that would never cease to be relevant to mankind: the books of Moses and the Book of Esther. And while they taught that the other parts of the Bible could bring an understanding of piety, wisdom, consolation, and greatness, it was only the Book of Esther that they thought offered the key to the miraculous.
The Biblical Case for Limited Governmenthttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/10/the-biblical-case-for-limited-government
Mon, 01 Oct 2012 00:00:00 -0400 The writings of Plato and Aristotle are often described as works of reason, as opposed to the Bible, which is said to be revelation”a text that bypasses our natural faculties to give us knowledge directly from God through a series of miracles. This assumption about the revealed character of the biblical texts, and the stigma of unreason that comes along with it, is probably the greatest factor affecting attitudes toward the Bible in modern discourse.
In public schools, for example, the Scriptures are neglected because they are seen as works of revelation, not reason. In universities, professors of philosophy, political theory, and intellectual history consistently pass over the ideas of Scripture as a subject worth researching and teaching to their students, since they see their work as the study of reason, not revelation. Yet the central literary structure of the Hebrew Bible”the great historical narrative extending from the creation of the world in Genesis to the destruction of the kingdom of Judah at the close of the Book of Kings”can be read not only as a work of reason but as a masterpiece in the history of political philosophy.
For ease of reference, Ill call this great narrative, which makes up the first half of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament),
The History of Israel
is often read as though its concerns were principally particularistic and contingent in character”seeking to advance the view, for example, that the Israelite kingdom fell because the Jews abrogated the terms of the covenant with the God of Israel.
This reading is reasonable as far as it goes, but it also misses much that the
can teach us. Indeed, the
grapples with many questions of a general nature, questions that are usually considered to be central to political philosophy”among them the relationship of the individual to the state, the virtues and dangers of anarchy, the reasons for the establishment of government, the dangers of government, the best form of political order, the responsibilities of rulers, and the causes of the states decline.
Lets consider some of these questions as they are treated in the biblical text. As has been said many times, Hebrew Scripture is fundamentally suspicious of the state. The tower of Babylon is a symbol of the unspeakable violence and glory-mongering that largely characterize biblical kings”of whom the Canaanite king Adonibezek is typical, with his boasting that seventy kings, having had their thumbs and their big toes cut off, gathered food at my table.
It is in opposition to this ugly picture of kingly power that the biblical narrative introduces us to the Hebrews. God takes Abraham out of the great metropolitan centers of Mesopotamia and Egypt and leads him into a veritable wilderness, Canaan, where he lives out his life in a herdsmans tent. The point of such a departure from civilization is apparently to free oneself from the rule of men, that one may properly turn ones heart to God. There is, in other words, a palpably anarchic tendency at work here”one that portrays the best life (if by no means an ideal one) as what the patriarchs obtained by escaping the bondage of the great empires and by living in freedom in the wild highlands of Canaan.
But in the case of Israel in Egypt, we have an entire people enslaved. Pharaoh wont let them walk away as Abraham walked out of Haran. And here, too, the biblical answer is breathtakingly bold: It proposes resistance and revolution. Indeed, the book of Exodus, which tells the story of the departure of the Israelites from Egypt, opens with no fewer than three consecutive scenes of resistance against the Egyptian state.
In the first scene, Pharaoh instructs the Hebrew midwives to murder all the male children born to the slaves, but the midwives refuse. In the second, a Hebrew woman hides her infant son from Pharaohs men, and Pharaohs own daughter conspires with her to save the boy, again in direct contravention of the order of the king. In the third, this child of disobedience, Moses, is introduced to us as a grown man. Here is what we are told about him: Moses went out to his brothers and saw their suffering; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, one of his brothers. He looked this way and that, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.
In this scene, as in the others, there is no pretense of anyones being under some kind of obligation to obey Pharaoh, his law, or the agents of his state. On the contrary, women and men violate the law of the state simply because they think it is the right thing to do. And the Bible evidently considers it the right thing to do as well, for as a direct result, the Hebrews are given Moses, the man who will deliver them out of Egypt. Not until Moses has slain an Egyptian, fled from Egypt, and taken up the shepherds life that was the life of his fathers does the God of Israel reveal himself to him. And the story of the exodus does not reach its climax until each Hebrew family has obeyed Gods command to slaughter and eat a sheep”the chief Egyptian deity, Amun, was represented as a ram”and smear the blood on their doorpost. An act of public disobedience is, as it were, the minimum price one had to pay to be delivered from the house of bondage and to freedom in the promised land.
It is to a condition of anarchic liberty that the Israelites hope to return in Canaan. This is a hope famously expressed by Gideon after the people press him to be their king: And Gideon said to them, I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. God will rule over you. Similar sentiments are given powerful expression by Samuel, the greatest of the judges of Israel, who repeatedly inveighs against the establishment of a permanent state.
But as much as the narrative evinces sympathy for the dream of an anarchic political order, its verdict is not for anarchy. It is for a state. And the reason is simple: Anarchy just doesnt work out as one might have hoped. Indeed, the Book of Judges is one long indictment of anarchy, making it the pivot on which the political teaching of the
History of Israel
The Book of Judges describes the aftermath of the Israelite invasion of Canaan under Joshua. It presents us with a series of stories arranged so as to depict the progressive disintegration of everything that the Israelite invasion of the land was supposed to attain, as each generation became more corrupt than their fathers. Already in the early going, Deborah the prophetess sings of four tribes that refuse her summons to go to war against the Canaanite king Yavin. Thereafter, each judge has less influence over Israel than his predecessor, while the judges themselves massacre fellow Israelites, erect idols, give their hearts to prostitutes, and even, in one case, engage in child sacrifice.
In the last story in Judges, a Levite stops for the night with his concubine in the Benjaminite town of Giva and is brought home by an old man who begs him not to spend the night in the street. The men of the city, worthless men, surround the house and demand that the old man bring out the man that came into your house, that we may know him.
To save himself, the Levite decides to throw his concubine out to the mob, and they have their way with her the night through until she dies”touching off a war of the other Israelite tribes against Benjamin in which nearly every man, woman, and child in Benjamin is massacred. After that, Israel destroys a settlement that had not participated in the war and then sanctions the abduction and forced marriage of the young women of Yavesh Gilad to the surviving Benjaminites, raising severe questions as to whether the other Israelite tribes are really morally better than the Benjaminites they had warred against.
This horrific story of the Concubine in Giva, with which the Book of Judges closes, is patterned closely upon the scene from Genesis in which the Sodomites besiege Lots house”the very scene in which God concludes that Sodom is so wicked that it must be erased from the face of the earth. And coming as the end of the slide into barbarism described in the rest of Judges, the story is meant to teach a very particular lesson: Twice the narrative emphasizes that all this has come to pass because there was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
Thus while the biblical narrative presents enslavement to the Egyptian state as having been an evil of unfathomable proportions, its judgment is no less harsh concerning an anarchy in which every man did that which was right in his own eyes. Without a state to maintain order, we are to understand, nothing stands in the way of a descent into ever-greater depravity, until finally the people find themselves reenacting the corruptions of Sodom, whose perversity was so great that it was purged from the face of the earth.
The only alternative to anarchy is the establishment of a standing political and military power that will be strong enough to maintain order internally and protect the people from the predations of foreigners”that is, the establishment of a political state or kingdom. Near the beginning of the Book of Samuel, the Israelites turn to Samuel, the judge in their day, and demand a king”that is, a permanent and united sovereignty that will defend the people in war and judge them in peace. Samuel is aghast, but God tells him, Listen to the voice of the people in everything that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but me whom they have rejected from being king over them.
Significantly, the man chosen to be the first king of Israel is Saul of Giva, a youth from the very town in which the infamous atrocity occurred. Sauls election is a symbol of the new era of brotherhood and national integrity that the kingdom was to bring about. And indeed, the narrative portrays the election of the Israelite king as repairing the chaos and civil strife that had characterized the life of the tribes in Judges. When the Ammonites threaten to enslave Yavesh Gilad and put out the eyes of its inhabitants, Saul raises an army from all Israel to save the town. He takes a pair of oxen, cuts them into pieces, and sends them throughout the land by the hands of messengers, saying, Whoever does not come forth after Saul and Samuel, so shall be done to his oxen. And the fear of the Lord, we are told, fell on the people, who then went out as one man to defeat their enemies.
Thus Saul wins a great victory. But there can be no mistaking that the unity of the tribes is achieved”as was never the case in the time of the judges”through the imposition of a regime of fear of retribution. Have we not now come full circle? Does not Sauls recourse to threats of violence against the Israelites make him a king just like hated Pharaoh? Was not the Israelite state an imperial state in embryo?
The danger that the Israelite kingdom will become an imperial state like all others is palpable in the books of Samuel and Kings. But the biblical narrative offers a theoretical way out and a hope of a better kind of political state. Heres how this works.
While the scene in Samuel in which the Israelite state is established is apparently one of the sources of the early modern conception of the state as having been founded on the basis of a social contract designed to end the terror of a preceding, anarchical state of nature, there is a crucial difference between the theory of the state advanced in Hebrew Scripture and that which is familiar to us from modern political thought. In Hobbes and Locke, the social contract that brings the state into being is concluded only among the individuals who make up the state. There is no party to the agreement other than the people themselves. But the contract that establishes the state in the Hebrew Bible is different: It comes into being as the result of an agreement between the people, on the one side, and God on the other.
How does the introduction of God into the contract that establishes the state affect the theory of the state? The biblical narrative strongly endorses the idea that the peoples desire to be protected from civil disturbances and foreign encroachment must take precedence over other weighty concerns. In fact, in portraying God as telling Samuel to listen to the voice of the people in everything that they say to you, the Hebrew Bible can be seen as going further in the direction of endorsing democratic principles than any of the classical texts of Greek philosophy. Thus in an important sense, the Bible offers support for the views of Hobbes and Locke.
does not accept the idea that the legitimacy of the king can derive from the consent of the people alone. From the story of the golden calf to the annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin, the narrative has depicted the people as being capable of consenting to great evil. Something further is required, and this is Gods will as an independent standard of what is right. God agrees to the establishment of a permanent state, so that while the desires of the people are taken to be the most pressing consideration in determining the political arrangements under which they will live, these are also depicted as having to be ratified by an independent determination that they have not overstepped the bounds of what Samuel calls the way that is good and right.
Moreover, God is a reluctant party to the agreement. Gods reluctance provides the theological underpinning for one of the most important aspects of the Hebrew Bibles political philosophy: the
nature of the contract that brings the state into being. Rulers must remember that if they go too far in the pursuit of evil, God can and will withdraw his agreement to the legitimacy of the state and so to their rule.
thus presents the state as subject to a system of
, which responds both to the desires of the people and to a standard of right that is ultimately independent of those desires. This system provides the basis for the institution of the prophet in the Israelite constitution. While the people and their representatives demand that the king defend their interests, the prophet presses the king toward the good and the right”and, in the extreme case, informs the king that his evildoing has brought God to withdraw his consent from the monarchy.
What is the content of this independent standard of right? We find in Deuteronomy an important statement of what is required in the Mosaic law of the king, which permits the establishment of a king in Israel (one from among your brothers) but also imposes the following constraints on his rule: