[The the first of three posts this week on Michael Walzer’s In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible.]
Michael Walzer occupies a distinctive place in political interpretation. He is a distinguished political scientist who continues to have a significant investment in the Hebrew Bible. His writing thus permits a convergence of the agility of his Jewish perspective on the Bible and his engagement with contemporary questions of power. He has authored an important book on the Exodus narrative and the continuing influence of that narrative upon revolutionary thought and action. His paper, “The Prophets as Social Critics,” moreover, recognized the prophets of ancient Israel as serious social critics and analysts who exposited Israel’s “core values” of justice and righteousness and who were alert to oppressions that impeded social solidarity.
In the present book Walzer provides an overview of the political landscape of the Hebrew Bible, in turn reflecting on the old legal codes, and the role of kings and their counterpoint of prophecy. The latter part of his book reflects on the pluralism of emerging Judaism as concerns the role of priests, sages (the intellectuals), and elders, plus the articulation of messianism. The title of his book In God’s Shadow, however, indicates that his book is not simply a reflection on the human management of power, but on the interface, tension, or contraction (depending on one’s view) between human agency in politics and the rule of God. While he keeps that question alive throughout the book, he ends with the judgment that political claims for God lack any kind of substantive realism that could make a difference in the actual practice of political power. Thus at the end of the day, one may hear an irenic echo of Stalin’s question about how many divisions the Pope (or beyond the Pope, God) has. And if no divisions, then no pertinence!
Early in the book Walzer offers a distinction that is sure to be durable and helpful. As interpreters have long done, Walzer ponders the relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. But his take on that relationship is quite fresh. He judges that the Abrahamic covenant is familial and based on kinship, so that one is born into the political/religious community. By contrast the covenant at Sinai is one of “adherence.” One can “join up” and so pledge participation in the expectations of the community by choice. He observes that as the tradition developed, the “birth model” comes to feed into “nativism and exclusion” with particular reference to the “holy seed” of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra 9:2; Nehemiah 9:2; Esther 6:13), and comes to fruition in “the priestly covenant with Aaron” and the “royal covenant with David.” By contrast one can see the decision for and struggle with “membership” at Sinai, as for example in the negotiations in Joshua 24. Walzer’s analysis fits nicely with the more common scholarly judgment that the Abrahamic covenant is “unconditional” and the Sinai covenant is “conditional,” turning on the decisive “if” of Exodus 19:5. Given Walzer’s analysis, one can see why the familial is unconditional, because one does not choose one’s birth. Walzer judges that the covenant at Sinai was “the most important of Israel’s covenants” that depended on “consent, not blood.”
But Walzer’s real concern is how to parse the “omnipotent God” in the midst of power politics. That is the central preoccupation of the book in which he concludes that the political must and was kept away from God-claims. I submit that Walzer operates with a modernist compartmentalization of “politics” and “religion” and lacks (or neglects) the particularity of the God of the Bible who does not fit with the abstract claims for religion with which he operates. He observes without knowing how to interpret, that,
The God of the Bible is omnipotent; yet, at the same time, is angry and frustrated (96).
I submit that Walzer’s knowing perception about political power works much better than his assumptions about this theological tradition and the God of the narrative. Lacking agility about the way in which the agency of God works in the imagination of ancient Israel, he cannot very well engage the claims of the text. And no doubt, the beginning of the problem is his easy assumption of divine “omnipotence.”
As a result when Walzer comes to the prophets he cannot follow the logic of the rhetoric. Thus he partitions the prophets off from politics:
Politics lies just beyond the prophecy, but the biblical prophets, judging from their texts, did not go there (88).
He imagines that prophetic counsel is to “do nothing” and suggests that the prophets urge that a domestic policy of justice will lead to an international outcome of security. He judges, moreover, that in modern version such a connection of domestic and international policy is driven not only by leftist ideology but also by prudence and calculation” (108). He writes as though the prophets themselves were incapable of or unwilling to engage in prudence or calculation. His characterization of the prophets assures that his interpretation will be something of a misrepresentation.
On two counts I wonder, First to say that the prophets “did not go there” (into politics) is not unlike imagining that Jeremiah Wright specializes in religion and “does not go” into politics. But then, Jeremiah did not get put into a cistern for his religious imagination, but because he was the point person for a dangerous political opinion. And second, what Walzer dismisses about the interface of domestic and international policy has not yet been tried. It is hard to factor out how such a posture could be less of a failure than our current failures in what passes for “political realism.”
This book is filled with rich and suggestive insight. I have the impression, however, that Walzer is “modern” in his categories and so cannot take in the imaginative alternative that is at the center of the text. He acknowledges that Norman Gottwald insists that the prophets do not mean to “fold hands and wait.” But Walzer judges that Gottwald does not see what the text in fact says.
Walzer’s deep commitment is to the categories of Max Weber whom he cites often. While he cites Gottwald, he has little awareness of the alternative reading of Gottwald that is informed by a Marxian hermeneutic. Perhaps this is an important recognition that everything turns on one’s hermeneutical commitments. I submit that Walzer is better than his hermeneutical assumptions that preclude his engagement of the text on its own terms. There is much to unpack from Walzer’s deep learning. More nonetheless remains to be said concerning the “Shadow” that it not so easily explained away from power politics as given in these texts.