At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europeans became increasingly interested in Moses as a political leader. This interest in Moses begins in earnest with Machiavelli, though it’s easy to see Machiavelli’s interest stemming from disputes over papal authority in the fifteenth century. And it continues through a wide array of political and literary writers, a number of whom (Hobbes, Spinoza, and Milton) helped fashion our current understanding of the liberal state. Up through the Middle Ages, writers in the Christian canon of political thought tended to prefer Solomon the philosopher king who inherited his kingdom from his father. But in early modern Europe, Moses replaced Solomon as the key point of reference from scripture for people who wanted to think about political authority and the rule of law.
One reason for this interest in Moses has to do with the sense of justice and equity that people saw in Mosaic law. Moses established a legal system that seemed more inclusive, that distributed participation in government across the tribes of Israel, and generally seemed fairer to the poor and disadvantaged members of society. Even intellectuals who were not particularly philo-Semitic, like Luther, thought Mosaic law offered a good alternative to contemporary legal systems. From this perspective, early modern interest in Moses is part of the political Hebraism that scholars like Michael Walzer and Eric Nelson have so brilliantly explored. Moses attracted the interest of a broad range of early modern writers because he constituted a just system of government.
There is a second reason that Moses became increasingly significant, which is a bit more complicated. The writers who had the most interesting things to say about Moses (from Machiavelli and the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe to Hobbes, Harrington, Milton, and Spinoza) were deeply anti-clerical and generally suspicious of the ability of religion to capture and hold sway over imagination. These writers are often understood to be endorsing early versions of secular modernity, but it seemed to me that they were also quite attentive to the problem of political theology. For these writers, Moses served as a kind of flashpoint figure that allowed them to call out authoritarian rule for abusing religion while simultaneously underscoring the importance of religious imagination for any understanding of political community. This is a difficult balancing act, made all the more difficult if we interpret these writers too strongly through the lens of secularization or the lens of religious belief.
Let me give an example to help explain what I mean. In the opening pages of the Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza asks how citizens can fight for their own enslavement as if it were liberation. The reason, he argues, is the instrumentalization of religion by the despotic state. From Alexander the Great to Augustus Caesar and beyond, tyrants use religion to further their own political agendas. It would be easy to see Moses as Exhibit A of that phenomenon. Moses was a political leader who turned a loose assemblage of tribes into a state. If he liberated the enslaved children of Israel into citizenship, he also claimed divine authority, sometimes in incredibly violent ways — for example in Exodus 32, when Moses ordered the slaughter of the Israelites who were worshipping the golden calf. But in Spinoza’s analysis, the example of Moses demonstrates just how tightly religious imagination is bound to justice and, therefore, how important it is to use that insight in the service of the secular state. Secular politics is bound to scriptural narratives and interpretive traditions for better and for worse: for worse because scripture is often used to sanction authoritarian rule; and for better because it becomes a privileged site to contest authoritarian rule in the name of a “true religion” that has more democratic ends.
So often in early modern literary studies, political theology has been associated with theories of divine kingship, but the Mosaic constitution leads to a different set of concerns. Because Hebrew scripture is so aware of its own status as written text, and because many sixteenth and seventeenth-century readers took Moses to be the author of the first five books of the Bible, the story of Moses gave early modern readers the tools to explore political theology in distinctly literary terms that highlighted rhetoric, representation, figurative language, and imagination. For political thinkers and literary writers alike, it was this literary dimension of the Mosaic constitution that turned political theology into a source of political invention. Taking Mosaic narrative as a case study for anatomizing the persuasive force of religious belief, early modern writers strengthened the bond between religion and the state at the very moment that they recognized religion to be an imaginative fiction and a textual construction. This paradox is, I argue, one of the distinguishing features of political theology in early modern Europe. It is what made political theology constitutive rather than simply retrograde, as political and literary writers attempted to understand and shape communal bonds through the reinvention and elaboration of fictions and religious imagination.
Graham Hammill is professor of English at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. He is the author of Sexuality and Form (2000) and The Mosaic Constitution (2012). He is also co-editor of Political Theology and Early Modernity (forthcoming 2012).