I’ve recently finished reading the great political theorist Michael Walzer’s book In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible. Walzer’s thesis is that the Biblical writers were “not very interested in politics” in contrast to the ancient Greeks. In fact, “there is a strong anti-political tendency in the biblical texts.” There is no suggestion that the good life involves politics and no claim political participation is a good. The Biblical writers believed strongly in law and created and sustained one of the most complex and subtle legal cultures in history. But kings and leaders were rarely political legislators. Instead, God was the legislator and anonymous rabbis issued various, competing interpretations and extensions of that law. Law was interpreted and extended by men, but it was not their creation.
Walzer has convinced me that the ancient Israelites were radical anti-statists, but in a very different sense than many libertarians. The ancient Israelites did not support the abolition of the nation-state (though many did believe that a move to the monarchy was a rejection of God; see 1 Samuel 8). Instead, they were radical anti-statists because they didn’t care about politics.* Libertarians are anti-statists in virtue of our politics, whereas the Israelites were anti-statists because they didn’t have a politics at all. For them, there were things far more important than getting rid of the state or even limiting it.
In this post, I shall argue that the ancient Israelites pose a challenge for libertarians. It is this: if you hate politics so much, why do you like talking and arguing about it? If you really want the state to go away, why do you tie your ups and downs, your joys and sorrows, to what it does? The ancient Israelites, on Walzer’s view, teach us that the best way to beat the state may be to learn to ignore it.
Now many libertarians have argued in favor of our right to ignore the state (Herbie Spencer!). In that sense, ancient Israelite anti-statism is not completely alien to modern libertarianism. But it still challenges us not merely to oppose the state philosophically but to live in a way that gives the state little heed or concern. We can be ruled by the state in two ways: not merely by obeying its laws, but letting its doings consume us. The ancient Israelites challenge us to focus on other matters (in particular, on our relationship with God).
Let me review the book a bit to show the sense in which the Israelites were anti-statists and then I’ll return to this point. I think you’ll find Walzer’s arguments of great interest.
I. The Nature of Israelite Law
Again, as I said, the Israelites were (supposedly) given their law by God. Their kings were not legislators. In fact, in a certain sense they had no legislators. They merely had judge-made law based on extending and applying divine law. Walzer:
Here is what gives Israel’s legal culture its distinctive—and, I might add, its enduring—character. It seems that from fairly early on, a significant number of people, virtually the whole of the nation’s intelligentsia, such as it was, were engaged in arguing about the law (32).
Libertarians have a similar view. They want a legal culture without a political culture.
Another important affinity with contemporary libertarians: they saw no need to eliminate all inconsistencies or imposed a single interpretation of the law on all. Instead, they chose to live “with multiplicity and inconsistency. The result of their choice was a written law that made possible those strange open-ended legal conversations that constitute the oral law of later Judaism.” (33) This is akin to the radical libertarian openness to overlapping jurisdictions and legal traditions.
II. Israelite Theories of Monarchy
The Israelites were never supposed to have a human king. Moses was not a king (contrary to Hobbes’s claim), as he mostly communicated God’s decrees to the people. And when Israel reached the Promised Land, God was King. In Judges,
Political rule is radically decentralized and intermittent even in its local manifestations. God is the only center. When there were no kings in Israel, God was king (53).
Israelite culture is also unique in the ancient world because they have a discussion as to whether to have a king at all! Of course, many nations have debated what form of government to have, but they have seldom debated whether to have a human government in the first place!
And what’s more, given that the Israelites lived in God’s shadow (as Walzer puts it), their king cannot be the sort of absolute kings found in neighboring nations. Walzer: “The fact that the people imagine a king being made at their instance means that he can’t be a king like the kings of all the other nations.” (54)
Especially fascinating is that, almost alone in the ancient world, the Israelite kingship had a complete “absence of cosmological significance. The king is a human artifact, made by the people for their own purposes: that’s why awe and reverence are absent from First Samuel.”
What was God’s rule like prior to the kings? Walzer:
In practice, God’s rule made for decentralized government; according to the kings and their scribes, it made for anarchy: ‘every man did that which was right in his own eyes.’ … it was no doubt intended as an indictment. And yet the picture presented in the book of Judges is not, until the end at least, wholly unattractive.
And this from an egalitarian liberal (of sorts)! But according to Walzer, the initial hostility to monarchy is hard to miss in the Biblical text: “the transition from judges to kings is remembered as a rejection of God.” (60)
Now, Walzer admits that some parts of the Old Testament illustrate a theory of absolute monarchy (such as Psalm 89). Walzer speculates that Solomon’s court intellectuals were responsible. But his other points still stand.
III. Quietistic Foreign Policy
One of the most important features of the “prophet” model of moral and religious reform (where a prophet corrects the behavior of the Israelite leadership, priestly, kingly or both, or the people as a whole) is that many of the prophets appear to be dangerously pacifistic when it comes to foreign policy. Walzer:
Do nothing: this is the prophetic idea of a religiously sanctioned foreign policy, and it constitutes the prophetic challenge to Israel and Judah (100).
Here’s Isaiah: “In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15). Isaiah is here recommending a radical withdrawal from politics because God will take the lead. Isaiah again “For through the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be beaten down.” (30:31). God will fight for you. Walzer puts prophetic foreign policy this way:
This is the prophetic message with regard to the world of nations: the only good foreign policy is a good domestic policy. Act justly at home, and your home will be secure (107).
Sound familiar, libertarians? Of course, the massive difference is that most libertarians are secular. But modern libertarians and ancient Israelites agree that in many cases not fighting is the best defense.
IV. Israelite Debate on the Importance of Sovereignty
In part due to the experience of the exile, Walzer argues that the Israelites were constantly faced with the question of whether to be political or not. In the exile, the Israelites had to spontaneously adapt to powerlessness. And they were pretty successful relatively speaking. But that powerlessness poses what Walzer calls the central question of Jewish political thought:
Just how important is sovereignty, independence, and authoritative direction? How important is it to have, like other nations, kings of one’s own, who appoint judges and fight wars? (124)
The Israelites did not attach great value to politics as a way of life, unlike the Greeks. Instead, the prophets teach “that God along will bring deliverance, God alone is the norm for biblical messianism.” (176) The point is that whether politics matters is a serious concern, one today raised by libertarians alone.
V. Israelite Contractualism – Divine and Voluntary
Another element of Israelite apolitical culture is its understanding of the covenant between God and the people of Israel, which has three features relating to covenant, law and prophecy.
(a) God’s covenant requires everyone’s adherence. However, individuals are not bound by God’s will alone, but only through their own agreement.
(b) God’s law, in principle delivered to everyone and accepted by everyone, seems in fact to have been both widely known and remarkably open to interpretation and revision. … But the kings of Israel and Judah were not involved either in making or interpreting the law. They were subject to it, just as, in principle, every Israelite and every ‘stranger in the gates’ was subject.
(c) The prophets, who were, along with priests, judges, scribes, and elders, the interpreters of divine law, spoke in public places to ordinary men and women, who listened to and presumably understood what they were saying (partial Walzer quote, partial paraphrase).
So, while sometimes the Israelite covenant is described in terms of circumcision, at other times it is explicitly based on agreement. The Israelites presumably had the authority to say no. Some probably did so. God dealt with them in some other, unknown, and probably not uniform manner. Whatever the case, God’s will does not by definition bind each person by creating obligations in them to do more than what the much more pared-down moral law requires.
Second, the law is available to everyone and is subject to polycentric interpretations. No one insists on offering the sole interpretation. Instead, nearly everything is open to dispute. Israel in a certain sense had no Supreme Court. And again, the kings of Israel and Judah were again not legislators nor were they above the law. Their power was restricted.
Finally, the legal and moral reformers, the prophets, did not speak only to kings but to everyone. They were prepared to demand that anyone, royal or peasant, repent.
The Israelite political community was based on voluntary agreement, the uniform application of law to all persons, and lacked a single legislative authority or final legal interpretation. Quite extraordinary.
VI. The Political Indifference of Israelite Religion
As Walzer says, “the biblical writers never attach great value to politics as a way of life.” And it is interesting to speculate on why. Here’s what Walzer thinks:
The reason for this largely missing politics probably lies in the religious culture itself, in the powerful idea of divine sovereignty. In a sense, every political regime was potentially in competition with the rule of God. There can’t be fully sovereign states, or a worked-out theory of popular (or any other) sovereignty, so long as God is an active sovereign. The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw, to stand at some distance from the world of nations, to give up his political interventions, is there room for human politics (202).
When you put God in the center of your life, there is no room for the state. For the Israelites, as opposed to many other cultures, true religious devotion crowds out political devotion. The state is a creature of God and man for quite limited purposes. And the point is always to follow God’s law and to let God lead. Only when God withdraws is modern politics, and its intense statism, possible.
Walzer insists then that “the Bible has no political teaching” in the sense that it has religious and moral teachings. In politics, “there is only a negative teaching; the one proposition that most of the writers would probably endorse is that the relation of rulers and ruled matters little compared to the relation of God and Israel.” (204)
For the Israelites, then, no regime “is presumptively best.” As a result, Israelite religion “can be pressed into the service of many different regimes” but that is only because at its core, Israelite religion is politically indifferent.
Walzer remarks that “The central concerns of political philosophy as the Greeks understood it—ruling and being ruled, the best regime, the meaning of citizenship, the deliberative process, civic virtue, political obligation—were never central in Israelite thought.” Even libertarian political philosophers can forget that it is possible to dramatically deemphasize the importance of such questions.
VII. The Moral Philosophy of the Biblical Writers
Now, just because you don’t have a politics doesn’t mean you don’t have a morality. Israel has a consistent moral teaching, Walzer thinks, and it is this: “We are responsible for our fellows—all of us for all of us: this is the social ethic of the biblical writers.” (210)
Walzer isn’t just imputing his social democratic emphasis on the downtrodden into the text. When it comes to moral teachings, outside of obeying God, helping the weak and not oppressing them is perhaps the most emphasized moral requirement. But notice: political life is not the primary way or even a reliable way in which care is achieved. God commands the Israelites to help wanderers, to care for the widow and the orphan, to leave part of their fields untilled so that the unemployed can work to eat, and so on. But little in Israelite society suggests a welfare state.
VIII. The Israelite Challenge to Libertarians
The modern day libertarian and the ancient Israelite could not be more different. But we are both hostile to the idea of placing political activity at the heart of the good life, in sharp contrast to many on the contemporary left. The libertarian (qua libertarian) would replace political obsession with nothing (anything?), while the ancient Israelites would replace it with personal righteousness, social care and absolute, total devotion to a just and loving God. But the negative point is the same.
The ancient Israelites remind libertarians that the state can dominate us in two ways: it can become our God or our Devil. We are in the state’s power both when we see it as the source of all good and when we see it as the source of all evil.
To fight the state, I think, we must transcend our obsession with the state. We must fill our lives with non-political loves, joys, projects and excellences. When the state is wicked, we must pay it little heed. Yes, we must do justice. Yes, we must seek limited government, if not the abolition of the state. But our lives must be a witness to freedom: we must live if the state were nothing, or at best, an annoyance.
* Perhaps the term should be a-statist, but that locution is unacceptable.