Politics in the Hebrew Bible

Should the church be involved in politics?  A recent survey found that most Americans believe that churches should not be involved in politics.

I agree with this assessment. The role of the church is not to be involved in political issues; its mission is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and bring the message of the gospel to make an impact in the lives of individuals.

This then, brings us to another question?  Should Christians be involved in politics? As believers in Jesus Christ, as American citizens, and as voters, Christians cannot avoid but be involved in politics.

Our country is not a Christian nation, even though the majority of Americans are Christians. America is a pluralistic nation, a nation where its citizens espouse different religious views. Some Americans do not have any religious affiliation and do not believe that religious people should be involved in politics.

What is happening in America today is that non-religious people are demanding that this nation should avoid any display of religious faith in government, even when, notwithstanding the open denial of many people, this nation was founded by people who were religious and believed that religion should have an important place in American society.

This brings me to politics in the Bible. Sam Fleischacker, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago has written an excellent review of Michael Walzer’s book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Yale University Press, 2012). The review was published in Notre Dame Philosophical Review. I have not read the book yet, but Fleischacker’s review was so interesting that I am planning to buy the book and read it, even though I have no free time these days to read books not related to my sabbatical.

Below are two excerpts from Fleischacker’s review of Walzer’s book.

Walzer manages to puncture some favorite myths championed by other contemporary scholars, who want either to claim the Hebrew Bible as a source for their own ideals or use it as a whipping boy for what they dislike about Western culture. Examples of the former include the idea that ancient Israel had a formal constitution (dismissed on 52-3), that the prophets were proto-pacifists (see 104), and that the “elders” constitute a democratic element in ancient Israelite governance (192-3). An example of the latter is the idea that the Hebrew Bible, because of its monotheism, is uniquely intolerant and militant, and invented the notion of holy war. Walzer dismisses this claim by citing an ancient Moabite inscription describing a holy war of exactly the sort mandated in Deuteronomy (35); one might add that most ancient polytheistic nations fought aggressive wars, invoked the blessing of their deities on their wars, and treated those they conquered in bloody and oppressive ways.

. . . . .

Walzer finds one theme running through all the materials he considers: a thoroughly apolitical, even anti-political worldview. The one thing shared by priests, prophets, wisdom writers and practically every other contributor to the Hebrew Bible, according to Walzer, is an indifference to politics, even an opposition to it. The Deuteronomist sees kings as having no positive role other than leading the Israelites into battle (56-8); the prophets are “at war with politics” (67) and “never call upon ordinary Israelites to act politically” (82); the authors of the wisdom literature are concerned with everyday life rather than politics (167); and no biblical writer takes an interest in public deliberation (73) or attaches “value to politics as a way of life” (125). “Politics,” writes Walzer, “secular, everyday politics, the management of our common affairs, is not recognized by the biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.” (186)

One interesting aspect of Fleischacker’s review is his view of the Bible and ancient Israel. Fleischacker wrote: “ Taken alone, the Hebrew Bible is the product of a fairly unimportant ancient people, who ruled a small strip of land and did not distinguish themselves in city-building or technology, mathematics or medicine, art or philosophy.”

It is interesting to me that such a “fairly unimportant ancient people” wrote such an influential book, a book that has touched the lives of people for more than two thousand years. The reason is, as Fleischacker acknowledges, that the Bible became the foundation book of two major religions, Judaism and Christianity, and the followers of these two religions have made the kind of contribution to society that has changed and influenced life in the West and around the world.

Many people do not like to read book reviews, but Fleischacker’s review deserves to be read. One may not agree with some of Fleischacker’s conclusions, and even without reading the book, there is much to learn in his review about the prophets’ view of politics and the role of law in Israelite society.

You can read the book review by visiting the Notre Dame Philosophical Review.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Hebrew Bible, Prophets and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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