Revelations : Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelationby: Elaine Pagels
IT IS ALMOST AXIOMATIC in modern culture that the Bible can serve political ends. Fundamentalists see it as the warrant for anti-abortion and anti-gay policies, among other things. Some secularists also invoke it: political Zionists like Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, grounded the new State of Israel in a secular reading of the Bible, and the American civil rights movement, at least in the rhetoric of Martin Luther King Jr., kept it at the center of its appeals. Other secularists, appalled by what they see as the equivalent of superstition masquerading as reason, nonetheless cannot deny the power the book carries in political discourse.
This tradition of mining the Bible for political lessons goes back at least to the 17th century when philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) grounded their theories, at least in part, on critical readings of the Bible. Spinoza, for example, held that the Jews were preeminently a political people and that the Bible’s only worth was as a political document. Once the Jews lost their state, Spinoza suggested, the Bible ceased to have any immediate political relevance. In Hobbes’s political philosophy, the sovereign becomes the hermeneut-in-chief, since only the sovereign can determine what in the Bible is true.
What kind of politics does the Bible teach? The answer, says Michael Walzer in his elegant little book, In God’s Shadow, is: “not very much.” Walzer, a distinguished political theorist, has been exploring biblical and postbiblical Jewish sources for some decades. His book, Exodus and Revolution, was justly hailed as a study both of how the Bible’s exodus tradition has resonated in Western culture and of what it meant in its original setting. He has also been the lead editor of a terrific, multivolume collection of Jewish sources on politics, The Jewish Political Tradition. His latest book is the capstone of these explorations, but its counterintuitive argument may surprise many readers. Against Spinoza, but with no less of a secular orientation, Walzer holds that the Hebrew Bible speaks from a moral or religious point of view, but not from the standpoint of politics. In stark contrast to the central role of politics in Greek philosophy, God as the author of Israel’s history leaves very little room for independent political decisions.
This argument is grounded in certain assumptions about what constitutes politics. Walzer assumes that politics are waged in the realm of the secular. In what is a modern move, he argues that politics ought to involve the mobilization of people to defend their interests or reform society. No such movements can be found in the Bible, nor do any biblical actors try to agitate for them. To be sure, the Israelite kings represent human interests and may therefore be said to defend secular politics against divine law (in fact, Walzer strikingly claims that this Machiavellian principle was first stated in the Bible!), but the Bible is not written from the kings’ point of view, and the so-called Deuteronomic histories (the books of Samuel and Kings) criticize the kings only for religious or moral failings, not for political actions. While much of this seems convincing, it appears to me that at times Walzer allows the Greek definition of politics to dominate perhaps too greatly what politics meant in the very different culture of ancient Israel. So, for example, one would not ex...read more