Politics and Anti-Politics
IN GOD'S SHADOW: POLITICS IN THE HEBREW BIBLE
by Michael Walzer
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $28
The Hebrew Bible is at once the most and the least familiar of books. We live in a world of its making, saturated by its language, concepts, and imagery. But precisely for this reason we find it remarkably difficult to read the biblical text with detachment.
Ever since the Enlightenment, the Bible has either been vindicated as the source of all virtue or anathematized as the sum of all fears. For Voltaire, it was the unedifying history of "the forgotten chiefs of an unhappy, barbarous land," a depressing Bronze Age pageant of cruelty and unreason. Edward Gibbon agreed, explaining in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the biblical worldview embodied a bigoted rejection of "the cheerful devotion of the pagans" and the "universal toleration" made possible by good, old-fashioned polytheism. The Bible, in this view, is where it all started to go wrong.
For John Locke, in contrast, the Hebrew Bible provided nothing less than the indispensable foundation of Enlightened morality—it taught the revolutionary lesson that all human beings are "the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another's pleasure." If you like this sort of thing, you will conclude, with Locke, that the Bible is where it all started to go right. If, like Nietzsche, you regard Locke's claim as the degraded expression of a "slave morality" foisted upon mankind by "the Jews, that priestly people, which in the last resort was able to gain satisfaction from its enemies and conquerors only through a radical revaluation of their values, that is, through an act of the most deliberate revenge"—well, then not so much.
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