Scholars have long recognized that the Bible supplied what Mark Noll has called the “common coinage of the realm” in early America. Eran Shalev of Haifa University thinks that historians have not gone far enough. They have failed to grasp just how, and how deeply, the Bible formed the American imagination. Shalev argues in American Zion that early America was not simply a biblical republic. It was, quite self-consciously, a Hebrew republic.
American history was seen as a repetition of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Oppressed by a series of cruel English Pharaohs, the people of God crossed the waters to discover a land flowing with milk and honey. (That the land was populated by “Canaanites” who might need to be exterminated was a tragic implication of the story.)
During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship.
The habit of looking to Moses for models of constitutional order didn’t end with New England Puritans like John Cotton, but persisted well into the nineteenth century. For most, the parallels were structural. America, like Mosaic Israel, was a government of settled laws, not arbitrary men. As Israel was a federation of semi-independent units, so were the “United Tribes of America.” An economy that rested on the sturdy backs of Jeffersonian yeomen synced with the Hebraic system of land tenure. Others found more precise similarities. Jacob had twelve sons, but Joseph’s inheritance was divided among his sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. It couldn’t be accidental that America, like Israel, had thirteen tribes.
One of the fascinating sections of Shalev’s book is his exhumation of “pseudo-biblical” histories, a genre invented in Britain but easily transposed to the colonies. “Chapter 37th,” a history of the Revolution published in 1782, began with the sonorous, “And it came to pass in the reign of George the king, who ruled over Albion, and whose empire extended to the uttermost parts of the earth.” In Richard Snowden’s The American Revolution; Written in the Style of Ancient History, Congress became the “great Sanhedrin,” Lord North’s counsel was similar to that of Ahitophel, and the British descended on America “like the locusts of Egypt” devouring “every goodly thing.” These writers wanted “to make the Bible relevant to America,” Shalev says, but also to “biblicize America.” When Shalev places the Book of Mormon in this tradition, it comes off looking as American as Poor Richard’s Almanac.
By the 1820s and 1830s, a shift was underway, not away from the Bible but within the Christian canon. Jesus and the New Testament worked their way into the minds of new Israelites. When Washington died, only 7 percent of the texts used in eulogies came from the New Testament; when Lincoln was assassinated, that number was 24 percent. Still a Hebrew republic, America was becoming Jesus-centered.
The shift to the New Testament was partly due to the fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Debates about slavery are complexly implicated in the process. Abolitionists liked to cite Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (“proclaim liberty to captives”), and Southerners defended slavery from the Old Testament. But Theodore Weld’s The Bible Against Slavery showed that ancient Israelites knew nothing of chattel slavery, and pro-slavery writers pointed out that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. African-American hymns and writings turned the old Puritan narrative upside down. America had become Egypt, white rulers Pharaohs, slaves the oppressed Israelites who would be liberated by bloody plagues sent from heaven.
I heard of E. C. Wines’s Commentaries on the Laws of the Ancient Hebrews (1855) long ago from R. J. Rushdoony, a great connoisseur of forgotten books. It has been in print for years, and portions are available online. Pseudo-biblical history is hard to find, but Peter Marshall and David Manuel have collaborated on a providential history of early America. The Hebraic tradition is alive and well, now standard fare for Christian homeschoolers.
In the light of Shalev’s history, it’s ironic that those most attuned to the Hebraic sources of the American system are often considered a threat to that system. A Puritan might put it this way: Israel suffers in exile, with Mordecais now treated as Hamans.