The writings of Plato or 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 or banned outright 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, I’ll call this great narrative, which makes up the first half of the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”), The History of Israel. The History is often read as though its concerns are 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 History can teach us. Indeed, the History 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 decline of the state.
Let’s 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 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 herdsman’s tent. The point of such a departure from civilization is apparently to free oneself from the rule of men, that one may properly turn one’s 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 that which the patriarchs obtained by escaping the bondage of the great empires and living in freedom in the wild highlands of Canaan.
But in the case of Israel in Egypt, we have an entire people enslaved. Pharaoh won’t 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, 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 Pharaoh’s men, and Pharaoh’s 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 anyone’s 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 life of a shepherd 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 God’s command to slaughter and eat a sheep—the chief Egyptian deity, Amon, was represented as a ram—smearing the blood on their doorposts. 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 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 doesn’t 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 turns.
The book of Judges describes the aftermath of the Israelite invasion of Canaan under Joshua. It presents us with is 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 to 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 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 Lot’s 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 capstone 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. And at 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. Saul’s 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 Gilead and put out the eyes of its inhabitants, Saul raises an army from all Israel to save them. 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 the fact 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 Saul’s recourse to threats of violence against the Israelites make him a king just like hated Pharoah? 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 the hope of a better kind of political state. Here’s 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 people’s 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. Nevertheless, the History does not accept the idea that the legitimacy of the king can derive from 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 God’s 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. God’s reluctance provides the theological underpinning for one of the most important aspects of the Hebrew Bible’s political philosophy, the conditional 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.
The History thus presents the state as subject to a system of dual legitimacy, 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 own 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 an important statement of what is required in the Mosaic “Law of the King” in Deuteronomy, which permits the establishment of a king in Israel (“one from among your brothers”), but also imposes the following constraints on his rule:
[The king] shall not multiply horses to himself. . . . Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his thoughts not be turned away. Neither shall he greatly multiply to himself silver and gold. . . . He shall write for himself a copy of this teaching [tora]. . . and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life, that . . . his thoughts not be lifted above his brothers.
When you think about it, you see that the three proscriptions in this passage are really one: The warning against accumulating horses is aimed against maintaining large standing armies of the kind needed for waging constant warfare; the warning against multiple wives at precluding too great an interest in foreign alliances (for which the accumulation of high-born foreign wives was an important instrument); and the warning against the hoarding of gold at a regime of heavy taxation, impressments, and conquest. The Law of the King thus proposes a limited state: One headed by a king whose life is not consumed in the unending quest for ever greater power but is instead subject to a law that is higher than his own whims, and whose purpose is the wellbeing of the nation. In the same way, the narrative also insists that the state be limited territorially, with the books of Moses and Joshua both including clear boundaries for the land and warning against encroachment on the lands of neighboring peoples.
The Israelite kingdom is apparently the first state to have been limited in its might by decree of its own God. And the requirement that the king “write himself a copy of this teaching” that he must keep before him always should be seen (as later generations did see it) as the basis for the tradition of constitutional government.
A limited state, then, involves restraining the appetites of the rulers for territories and instruments of war, for wives and for wealth. Achieving such restraint, however, is never easy, and the narrative emphasizes that this is a problem that haunts all political leadership. For example, Gideon, war hero and judge over Israel, nobly refuses his followers’ demand that he become king over them. But he nevertheless exhibits a pronounced taste for acquiring quantities of gold and wives—precisely what the Law of the King proscribes—as do many of his successors.
When the Israelite kingdom is established, perhaps only Saul, the first king, hews close to the Law of the King. David is a greater general and better loved by the people, but he is also remarkable for his lack of restraint with respect to women. We learn the names of no fewer than eight of David’s wives, and there are evidently more, as well as many concubines. He even burdens the kingdom with the killing of Batsheva’s husband so he can have her. And while God loves David for his ability to repent with a whole heart, his deeds nevertheless wreak destruction on his kingdom. The knowledge that David takes whatever woman he wants infects his sons, with bloodshed and treason following. And David’s commitments to his various wives and children leave the succession a shambles. None of this, we are given to understand, could have happened had David had the self-possession to love and remain loyal to one woman.
In Solomon’s day, the Israelite state reaches the apex of what man can achieve on this earth. Israel has won its wars and now has peace on all sides. It has power and wealth, is honored among the nations, and has reached its prescribed borders. Its ruler is wise, and he brings justice to the state. Its ruler is pious, and builds a great Temple to God. Science and art flourish, and the people are happy. Nevertheless, the seeds of the kingdom’s destruction are sown through its incontinence. The state grows painfully distant from all three aspects of the Law of the King. We are told that all of Solomon’s cups and vessels were made of gold, with nothing made of silver, “for that was considered as nothing in the days of Solomon.” He puts 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen in his cities. And he “loved many foreign women . . . . He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines, and his wives turned his thoughts away.”
The narrative is not only concerned with idolatry. The foreign wives turn his thoughts to foreign gods, but it is the surfeit of gold that permits him to engage in excesses he might otherwise not have committed, buildings temples to Kemosh, Molech, and other gods in Jerusalem.
The Law of the King does not aim only to keep the king’s thoughts turned towards God. It also seeks to keep the king loyal to his people and sympathetic to them—in the words of the text in Deuteronomy, “that his thoughts not be lifted above his brothers.” And we are certainly meant to wonder: What can a king who will not drink from a silver vessel because it is too lowly know of the sufferings of his people? And how great was Solomon’s concern for the burdens imposed on his people when he built himself a palace larger than the Temple he had built for God? Moreover, the account of the forced labor Solomon imposed on Israel cannot but remind us of the forced labor Pharaoh imposed on the Israelites in Egypt. What are sometime read as expressions of Israelite chauvinism in the accounts of Solomon’s greatness are in fact a searching critique of a state that has lost sight of the Mosaic teaching endorsing a limited regime.
When Solomon dies, the people’s sense that the thoughts of the king are no longer with them brings about the downfall of the kingdom. Upon acceding to the throne, Solomon’s son Rehavam finds himself confronted by a popular leader from the northern tribes, who reminds the new king that his wives and chariots and vessels of gold are paid for by impressment and taxation. If the tax burden is reduced, he proposes, then the northern tribes will serve the new king willingly. But the king responds in arrogance: “My father did burden you with a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.” To this, the people respond by saying, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse. To your tents, Israel. Now tend to your own house, David.”
The northern tribes rise against Rehavam, killing the king’s minister who has come to collect their taxes, and tearing the northern part of the kingdom away from Judah. The united kingdom of the Israelite tribes has reached its end.
Solomon hoarded wives, gold, and chariots and taxed and enslaved his people to pay for these things. The wives and gold brought about the establishment of idolatry in the land. The taxation and servitude brought resentment and rebellion. And the arrogance of a ruler whose “thoughts were lifted above his brothers” brought precipitous decline to a kingdom that only a few years earlier had been the envy of all mankind.
The biblical History of Israel presents the political order as oscillating between the imperial state, as represented by Egypt of the Pharaohs; and anarchy, as represented by Israel in the period of the judges. The first road leads to bondage; the second to dissolution and civil war. Neither, the narrative seeks to impress upon us, can serve as the basis for the freedom of a people.
The History wrestles with the question of whether there is a third option, which can secure a life of freedom for Israel, and for other nations as well. It teaches that there is such an option: A state that is not unlimited in principle, like the states of “all the nations” in the ancient Near East, but that seeks “the good and the right” by means of a system of dual legitimacy and a constitutional regime of restraint. This state must have rulers who understand that virtue emerges from limitation of the state’s borders, the size of its armies, its investment in foreign alliances, and its income. Only within these constraints will both the people and their king find a space in which the love of justice and of God that characterized the shepherds who were their forefathers can be rebuilt.
No commitment to the miraculous character of the biblical text is required to follow the argument of the History of Israel on these subjects or to learn from it. It was evidently written to appeal to man’s reason. Indeed, with its systematic argument and effect on subsequent political thought, the History is clearly an early masterpiece in the history of political philosophy. It should be possible to overcome the old prejudices that stigmatize Scripture as revelation and thus unreasonable, and to read the biblical texts as works of reason—opening the door to a book that, in a sense, we never really knew existed.
Does the political thought of Hebrew Scripture have anything to teach us today? So much of the Bible’s political teaching has by now been absorbed into our own—the right of resistance and revolution, for example; or the concept of a limited government—that one is tempted to forget how radical these ideas originally were.
The theory of dual legitimacy, however, is one aspect of biblical political thought that is less familiar, and that could bear further scrutiny and discussion. At a certain level, we all know that the consent of the governed, crucial thought it is, cannot stand as the sole basis for the legitimacy of the state. It was not so long ago, after all, that Weimar Germany consented to the rule of Adolph Hitler in national elections. The “Enabling Act” that gave Hitler dictatorial powers was also passed by the elected German legislature by a large majority. If consent alone is held to be sufficient as a basis for political rule, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Hitler’s dictatorship had a popular mandate and that its subsequent actions were legitimated by this mandate.
The Allied war crimes court that tried the Nazi leadership after the war was sharply aware of this problem. The tribunal could not bring these men to justice on the basis of German law, for they had been empowered to commit their monstrous crimes by the elected government of Germany and laws it had framed. Nor was there any real evidence that the German people had somehow withdrawn their consent, thus delegitimizing the German government on Lockean grounds. In the end, the tribunal had to judge Nazi leaders on the basis of such considerations as “rules … recognized by all civilized nations,” “the general principles of justice,” and “the elementary dictates of humanity.” Indeed, it was on the basis of such considerations that the leaders of the German state were in the end convicted and put to death.
The judges were right to do as they did. But it’s hard to see how their decisions can be justified on the basis of modern social-contract theories such as those of Hobbes or Locke. For such a justification, one must have recourse to something like the Bible’s system of dual legitimacy, in which the consent of the German people needed to be ratified with reference to an independent standard of right. Little has changed to make the biblical critique of a state based solely on the will of the people less compelling. We could do worse than to introduce it into the study of political theory again today.