RTD 2: Mira Morgenstern on Michael Walzer’s “In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible”

Essays

[The the second of three posts this week on Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.] It is deeply satisfying to read a new book by Michael Walzer on the Hebrew bible. Certainly this is not Walzer’s first book on the Hebrew bible: Walzer’s earlier Exodus and Revolution already gives us a unique way to reimagine the revolutionary implications of the biblical text. With this new volume, Walzer’s writings on the bible continue to invigorate the way we can read this most ancient of texts. Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow sets a difficult task for itself. It reads the wide-ranging Hebrew bible to get a sense of how political institutions actually functioned in biblical times. This enterprise is more difficult than it sounds. Mining a work that consciously centers on historical and legalistic narrative for structural and procedural understandings about how political life actually works can be a counterintuitive project. It is a tribute to Walzer’s masterly sense of his craft and his nuanced readings of the biblical texts that he succeeds so well at his self-appointed task. Deliberately eschewing a philosophical or reductive (morally or otherwise) reading of the Hebrew bible, Walzer approaches these much-commented texts with another set of questions in mind: what role is left for politics in a world that, according to the bible at least, is governed by God?

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[The the second of three posts this week on Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.]

It is deeply satisfying to read a new book by Michael Walzer on the Hebrew bible.  Certainly this is not Walzer’s first book on the Hebrew bible:   Walzer’s earlier Exodus and Revolution already gives us a unique way to re-imagine the revolutionary implications of the biblical text.  With this new volume, Walzer’s writings on the bible continue to invigorate the way we can read this most ancient of texts.

Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow sets a difficult task for itself.  It reads the wide-ranging Hebrew bible to get a sense of how political institutions actually functioned in biblical times.  This enterprise is more difficult than it sounds.  Mining a work that consciously centers on historical and legalistic narrative for structural and procedural understandings about how political life actually works can be a counter-intuitive project.   It is a tribute to Walzer’s masterly sense of his craft and his nuanced readings of the biblical texts that he succeeds so well at his self-appointed task.

Deliberately eschewing a philosophical or reductive (morally or otherwise) reading of the Hebrew bible, Walzer approaches these much-commented texts with another set of questions in mind:  what role is left for politics in a world that, according to the bible at least, is governed by God?  The New Testament famously answers these questions by dividing the world into separate (albeit frustratingly interacting) spheres:  “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).  This insistence on separating the two areas allows for the claim of a well-organized life; at the very least, we may hope that readers of the text may avoid the experience of ambiguity.  Walzer is aware that this answer does not suffice for the authors of the Hebrew bible:  for them, the warp and woof of everyday life demands taking account of complicated inconveniences.

Given the primacy that Walzer places on the workings of political institutions within a textual culture that focuses on the individual apprehension of his/her own place within the moral and physical universe (Walzer highlights these as matters of ethics), it is understandable that Walzer is frustrated with the lack of attention paid to political process within narratives that themselves focus on political change and its accompanying tensions.  In Walzer’s terms there is no (or very little) evidence of political deliberation within the various texts of the Hebrew bible.  One might wonder why that is the case.  For Walzer, this absence marks a deficiency in the political quality/self-awareness of the Hebrew biblical text.  By the same token, this utilization and analysis of deliberation highlights the excellence of the ancient Greek writings on politics, which explore the human possibilities of politics.  For the ancient Greeks, this self-awareness in the process of defining political goals and procedures characterizes the most elevated manifestation of human existence.

This leads to one of the questions that seem to haunt Walzer’s book:  is Walzer searching the Hebrew bible for something that is not there?  Is that why the penultimate (and historically, most wide-ranging) chapter of the book, “Where Were the Elders,” ends with this question unanswered?  In that context, a book centered on the absence of what we have come to consider a  primary legitimating quality of political procedure itself raises questions about the aesthetic, if not the philosophical, clarity of the enterprise.

In fact, however, Walzer writes this book with the assumption that there is indeed something more there; that the Hebrew bible does have some sense of politics even if it is in God’s shadow.  Walzer’s evocative use of this particular biblical expression – well-known although perhaps not as well-understood  –  is worth some serious contemplation.  What does it mean to be in God’s shadow; or in anyone’s shadow, for that matter?  Conventional understanding of that phrase normally refers to a situation where the person or thing within the shadow is overwhelmed by the force of the shadow; itself fading into nothingness.  Of course, that image raises its own questions:  shadows are themselves ephemeral, with no restraining or restrictive power of their own.  Is there, then, an element of (conscious or not) abnegation[1] on the part of the person who remains in the shadow?  Does Walzer’s titular imagery imply that the Hebrew bible has little room for robust political action on the part of human beings who are caught in God’s shadow?  We will see that this question is itself interrogated throughout the Hebrew bible.

It is worth noting that the precise nature of these questions does not always figure clearly in Walzer’s discussion of political institutions in this book.  Still, these themes do (silently) continue to frame the kind of issues that this book broaches.  Elucidating some of these themes may help clarify Walzer’s enterprise of reading the Hebrew bible with a view towards understanding that work’s approach to political life.

 

In that context, one might regard Walzer’s enterprise as it is set forth in this book – does the Hebrew bible speak about politics in the same way that the ancient Greek political theorists did? –  as only  a partial expression of what is really at stake for Walzer in this discussion of politics. As we realize, a negative answer (“no”) to that question is not the same thing as arguing that the expression of politics in the Hebrew bible is, at best, only partial.  Certainly politics’ expression in the Hebrew bible is not in the same style as that valorized by the ancient Greeks in their political discourses, but it does not follow absolutely from that point that political deliberation is missing from the biblical text.  Also, it is important to take into account a (natural?) tendency on the part of a contemporary reader  to devalue the political content of a text that historically has not wielded the same amount of political influence as have the better-recognized ancient Greek political texts (although Walzer specifically excludes the “influence” question from his evaluation of the political quality of the Hebrew bible,[2] so that point should not be a major issue).

At the same time, it is important to note that the concept of “text” itself plays an important role in evaluating the Hebrew bible’s conception of its own politics; and that this sense of text differs significantly in the ancient Hebrew biblical and ancient Greek cultures respectively.  Unlike the place of the text in the ancient Greek political arena, the text in the ancient world of the Hebrew bible is not the province of elites alone.  In the Hebrew bible’s own recounting, its central text, the text of the Torah, including both legal and historical narratives that encompass depictions of  individual personalities as well as group expressions, forms the background against which individuals think, dream, argue, and act.  The Hebrew bible views the text as an active part of individual and national consciousness.  Discourse about this text varies historically from generation to generation, enabling politics to be reimagined and newly enacted in a perennial stream of change and transformation.

Living in the 21st century, we are devastatingly aware of how the biblical text has revolutionized the lives of people all over the world, whether through the liberation narrative in Exodus[i] ((this is Walzer’s own seminal contribution to the modern analysis of political theory in the biblical text),[3] or through the discussions about equality, holiness, and the institution of a monarchy, along with the biblical narratives describing how this form of leadership operated. And so the question naturally presents itself:  can we detach the narrative of the text from discourse about the text and the reimagination of its meaning?  How can we separate the dancer from the dance?[4]

Finally, speaking about politics in the Hebrew bible as enacted in “God’s shadow” and thus, as implicitly justifying political quietism, does not exhaust the additional possibilities of “God’s shadow” as the biblical text itself conceives those to be.  And here, the further complexities of Walzer’s carefully-chosen title are made manifest.  In the context of the biblical text, “God’s shadow” transcends the conventional image of the trapped follower.  As noted by some early-modern biblical commentators who link the closely-related words for shadow (Tzel) and God’s image (Tzelem),[5]  the targeted power implied by the creation of man in God’s image overlays the quiescent image of the “shadowed follower” by stipulating that human beings proactively follow God’s path (in the sense of “imitateo Dei”) by dynamically performing acts of developmental and moral creativity.

It is perhaps puzzling, in view of Walzer’s masterly choice of title, that the political implications of the human dual role, or doubled mission –  with the concomitant obligations of the nuanced comprehension and action demanded of human beings within the biblical context   – do not receive further exposure in this book.  In certain areas, Walzer’s wonderfully nuanced understanding of the complexity of texts seems inexplicably, at times, to flatten the biblical text as promoting mutually    exclusive dualities. For example, in speaking about politics in the Hebrew bible as reduced to following Divine instructions, Walzer omits consideration of those situations, described by the bible itself, in which Divine instruction is not clear, and in which (political) options range beyond the simplistically dualistic.

An obvious example of this type of circumstance occurs in the Book of Esther, when Mordecai attempts to persuade Esther, the (secret) Jewess married to King Ahaseuerus, to utilize her position at the royal court to plead for the lives of the other Jews in the Persian Empire, who themselves had been targeted by an ethnic-cleansing decree. promoted by the King’s Prime Minister, Haman.  Nobody in the text suggests checking with what God might want them to do; the decision of how and when to act is left up to human deliberations.[6]

A parallel instance occurs in Walzer’s analysis of war in the Hebrew bible.  Here, too, Walzer assumes that Divinely-approved battles are (largely, if not completely) styled as demands for total war, with the negative implications for the current reader that the idea of “ethnic cleansing” inevitably evokes in our newly-sensitized consciences.  In Walzer’s view, small, self-contained military campaigns of primarily political significance are largely ignored by the Hebrew biblical text and, Walzer argues, do not receive the Divine imprimatur nearly as easily.[7]  While this analysis makes for easy reading, this approach does not reflect the complications of the text of the Hebrew bible itself. With this heuristic device, Walzer reduces the range of military actions that fall under the category of the biblical “milhemet reshut,” or “voluntary battle” which include a variety of battles that a king may choose to fight, with or without explicit Divine sanction, that may or may not meet with either complete success or failure.[8]

Likewise, the military strategies employed by biblical protagonists throughout the biblical texts as they wage war, without either consulting God or incurring his wrath, are similarly ignored by casting the categorization of war-making in the Hebrew bible as “holy war or bust.”   One example, worth citing here (although not mentioned in the book) for its human-centered notion of (partial) war that does not incur Divine wrath, concerns Jonathan’s successful deployment of a novel military strategy when fighting an unequal battle against overwhelming Philistine forces.[9]  Even more interesting is the political context in which this military strategy is presented:  as it turns out, King Saul’s senseless rage at the successful military outcome achieved on that day by his son, Jonathan, who unwittingly contravened a vow that his father had enjoined upon the entire Israelite army, is presented as additional textual evidence of Saul’s lack of fitness for the position of monarch.  In this context, forgoing analysis of the Hebrew bible’s depiction of the political implications of warring strategies and of the political complexities of public relations on the battlefield represents a missed opportunity for a book that makes such magnificent strides in alerting us to the warp and woof of politics throughout the texts of the Hebrew bible.

Many other narratives, particularly in the “Historical” books of the Hebrew bible, abound with descriptions of  military and political strategies that are followed by leaders without recourse to Divine (totalizing or other) advice (the niceties of Gideon’s  military and political strategy, particularly  in the aftermath of the war against the Midianites is just one instance of this).[10]  Perhaps even more importantly, the central chapters of the biblical book of Judges highlight a series of wide-ranging deliberations on monarchy as a proposed form of government, as these are conducted in the aftermath of the Gideon episode, and in the Jotham narrative that follows.[11]

What Walzer is really asking with his questions about human politics in the shadow of the Divine is whether the Hebrew bible leaves room for a secular mindset within the religious sensibility.  In other words, can a robust politics coexist with a dynamic conception of the Divine?  Bemoaning the absence in the Hebrew bible of the central concerns of ancient Greek political theory is another way of asking the same question.  Despite Walzer’s stated lack of interest in biblical precedents for contemporary politics, this question still forms the heart of his complex inquiries.  Given the state of politics and the nature of political change in the world today, this is indeed a crucial issue.  Must religion destroy political freedom?  Does God stifle human enterprise?  (Full disclosure:  this essay was begun as the acknowledged winner of the Egyptian Presidential election, Mohammed Morsi [formerly] of the Muslim Brotherhood, reaffirmed his support for restricting officeholders of the Egyptian presidency to male Muslims, because “the head of state should promote the faith [Islam].”[12]

While current empirical evidence of the correlation between the evocation of the Divine and the achievement and implementation of political freedoms skews negatively, readers of this book may take comfort in the fact that the Hebrew bible implicitly demonstrates that this pessimistic result does not have to obtain.[13]  For the Hebrew bible, politics represents the arena for human choice, and it is for that reason that there is relatively little detail about its procedural and institutional formalities (notably excluding the passage limiting the power of the typical executive head of civilian government at the time, which was, following the nomenclature of the time, styled as a “king).”[14]  At the same time, affirming Walzer’s own imagery, it is possible to read the Hebrew bible as demonstrating that politics may begin within the space of God’s shadow, but its range extends as it challenges mankind to actualize God’s image in the world overall -–  which is to say, to fill the world with (Divine) lovingkindess.  In the end, one does not have to be completely satisfied with the procedural implications of this point to note with satisfaction the revolutionary implications of a text that continues to employ political discourse and thus to promote liberty for its readers and non-readers alike.

 



[1] The concept is taken from Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror:  An Essay on Abjection (1982  NY: Columbia U press; tr  Paris:  Éditions du Seuil, 1980)

[2] “I am not trying to find biblical . . . . precedents for my own politics”  (Preface,   In God’s Shadow, p. x)

[3] Exodus and Revolution  (NY:Basic 1986).

[4] A play on William Butler Yeats, “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” in Among School Children (1928), parg//canto VIII.

[5] Two major early-modern and modern commentators who emphasize the philological and philosophical connotations of the “shadow” of G0d, noting the close connection between the Hebrew word for shadow (Tzel) and the related word for Divine image (Tzelem) are Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508) and Meir Leibush Malbim (1809-1879).  Following their separate methodologies, each commentator notes that the targeted power implied by having been created in God’s image overlays the quiescent image of the “trapped follower” by demanding that human beings follow God’s path (in the sense of “imitation Dei”) in performing acts of developmental and moral creativity.

[6] To be sure, once could argue that the exact nature of these deliberations are withheld from the reader; we do not know exactly what Mordecai and Esther said to each other through what must have been a longer conversation than the several verses allotted to it in the biblical narrative.  Nevertheless, even in abbreviated form, this conversation between Mordecai and Esther is an example of political deliberation:  Esther makes specific mention of the procedures in place at the royal court for accessing the king.  Furthermore, it is well to remember that the involvement of the reader in teasing out the considerations that enter into these terse evocations of discourse increases the life of the text in the political lives of its readers (in this connection, cf. Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, Bloomington:  Indiana University Press1987; esp. pp. 166; 173-75;; 227-29; 267; 326).

[7] In God’s Shadow, p.  36.

[8] In this connection, cf. the commentary of Nachmanides (1195-1270) on Deuteronomy 11:24, analyzing some of the individually- initiated military conquests of King David (among the questions raised in this analysis is whether these conquests, initiated by David without explicit and timely Divine approbation, can consequently be considered as enjoying the traditional concept of holiness attributed to the ancient Land of Israel in biblical times).

[9] I Samuel 14:28-30; 38-45.

[10] Judges 7:19-25; 8:1-21. (Gideon had received assurances from God that he would be victorious, but no particular guidance on which strategy to use, either during or after the main battle).

[11] Judges 8:22-24; Judges 9.

[12]  “Named Egypt’s Winner, Islamist Makes History,”  The New York Times June 25, 2012; pp. A1; A6.

[13] Indeed, the very topic that Walzer adduces for the either/or quality of Hebrew biblical decision-making  –  the religiously-backed war of total annihilation vs. limited battles  –   itself omits an important third option, and, indeed, another method of war-categorization,  within the biblical canon:  the war that is waged following the leader’s sense of political  necessity.  Such wars may or may not receive Divine approbation, and the leaders may or may not choose to request such Divine advice.  In any case, those wars are not total wars (in fact, total wars form a relatively small percentage of wars fought in the Hebrew bible, and those wars demand Divine approbation before and during their execution).

[14] Deuteronomy, 17:14-20

 



 

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