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Biblical Studies

Bereshith: A Political Commentary


Daniel J. Elazar

Why Another Commentary?

It is a commonplace to say that every generation must write its own commentaries on the Bible reflecting its own understanding of the Book of Books. At the same time, the writing of a Biblical commentary remains an act of daring or, to borrow a Greek term, even hubris. Nevertheless, as a political scientist and student of the Bible, it seems to me that there has been a missing element in Biblical commentary to date and that is an emphasis on the explicitly political dimension of Scripture.

This is not to say that traditional commentators do not concern themselves with political events. Quite to the contrary, traditional commentary is interlaced with political ideas but, since the focus of traditional commentary was and is in other directions, with two outstanding exceptions, the late medieval Sephardic commentator Don Isaac Abarbanel and the nineteenth century Ashkenazic commentator Meir Leibush Malbim, they are presented in an almost offhand manner to the reader. Among the traditional commentators, only Abarbanel and Malbim make the political a focal element.

By the same token, many philosophers and scholars within Western civilization have drawn upon the Bible as a political resource. Indeed, it is one of the greatest political resources of all time, especially in the perennial struggle for what we today refer to as liberty and democracy. In the 16th and 17th centuries in particular, some of their works almost took the form of textual commentaries in the sense that they built their arguments for republicanism upon Biblical proof texts. Nevertheless, no one of them tried to develop a comprehensive political commentary following chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse. Hence I have taken the liberty to try to do just that in the following pages.

I have begun with the foundation books of two of the three divisions of the Hebrew Scriptures, the books of Bereshith (Genesis) and Joshua. Each is truly a foundation describing foundings, beginning at the beginning as it were -- Bereshith at the very beginning and Joshua at the beginning of a new stage in the history of Israel. God willing, I will extend my commentary to other books of the Bible in turn.

The possibility of writing a political commentary on the Bible always existed, but has been given added momentum, greater potential depth, and greater urgency by the restoration of the Jewish state in our time. The reestablishment of the State of Israel has not only brought the Jewish people fully back into the political arena as an initiator of action as well as a respondent to the actions of others, it has also brought us face to face with the Jews' strengths and weaknesses in the political arena, giving us new insights and understanding into the very complex Biblical descriptions of the political behavior of Jews and others.

At the same time, this political commentary is not merely or even particularly a commentary on Jewish political behavior. Rather it is designed to show how the Bible offers a sound and sober political teaching for all humans, one that brings us to focus on the ultimate end of God and man to pursue justice without forgetting the often harsh realities of power. The Bible, indeed, is not only the first comprehensive political book, but the first to show us the two faces of politics, one pointing toward power and the other toward justice, how they relate to each other, and how both must be taken into account in the pursuit of the messianic vision of a repaired world.

The Bible as Political Commentary

The Bible is an eminently political book, in the classical sense. By virtue of its unique concern for the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, it could not help but be concerned with the immediate development of the holy commonwealth that was to lead to the establishment of that ultimate kingdom. Consequently, a great part of the Bible -- particularly parts of the Torah proper, the bulk of the so-called "historical" books, and sections of the latter Prophets -- is given over to discussion of political matters, with special reference to the structure and purposes of Adat Bnei Yisrael -- the Congregation (Assembly) of Israelites, the formal name of the Jewish people as a body politic.

The discussion of politics in the Bible revolves primarily around questions of political relationships. it is (in the terminology of the Greeks) concerned with the problem of the best constitution for the establishment of a proper relationship between God and man, particularly Israel, and the best regime for the maintenance of that relationship in the Land of Israel. It deals with these problems not only in depth but with careful attention to proper and explicit terminology. This exceptional care in terminology provides important internal evidence to the effect that the political discussion was a conscious one. And, indeed, it was a discussion, with different points of view presented, albeit within the context of a common political tradition.

Unfortunately, the passage of time and the progressive decline of Jewish concern with political matters after their abortive revolts against Rome in the first centuries of the common era led to the loss of this political perspective as an aid to the Biblical text among most of its interpreters, with certain important exceptions. At the time of the Protestant Reformation and in the early generations of the modern age -- in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- the Protestant founders of modern republican government, approaching the Biblical text with fresh eyes and definite political concern, rediscovered its political implications and made use of its great political insights in the development of their own constitutions and regimes. However, the secularization of politics that followed them, and the isolation of "theology" that accompanied this rising secularism, once again relegated the Bible to the religionists and led to its neglect as a work concerned with the political order of this world, except in the most messianic sense.

The Political Purpose of the Bible

The purpose of the Bible is to teach humans the right way to live in this world. Thus its teaching focuses on living in a polity, a commonwealth designed to enable fallible humans to achieve the right way. It does so on two levels: (1) it provides a basis for the achievement of a messianic age, and (2) it discusses the more practical problems of living in society until then.

With regard to the former, the Bible makes it clear that the messianic age will be achieved only with God's intervention which, in turn, will come only when humans have done their full share to bring it about. On one hand, this has led many people to read the Bible's teachings on matters of political import as applying only in the messianic age, focusing on the biblical descriptions of messianic politics which sound better than the often harsh Biblical descriptions of political realities because the former are abstracted from realities of the world as we know it. Moreover, people know in their hearts that they are not really responsible for achieving those messianic goals. hence people often disregard these teachings which refer to the second level for which we are held responsible. It hardly need be said that the Bible discusses a whole range of subjects on that second level, from the ritual laws of sacrifice to the method of providing for the poor. Some of its most important discussions center around matters political.

We have already noted that politics has two faces, combining as it does the organization of power ("who gets what, when, and how") and the pursuit of justice (who should get what, when and how in the good commonwealth). "Good" politics always rests on dealing properly with both elements in the combination. The Bible recognizes the interlinking of both aspects of politics and addresses itself to both. Every comprehensive society is, in fact, a polity, that is to say, it is organized politically simply by virtue of its being an organized society. That is because human relationships inevitably involve power which must be allocated effectively and authoritatively. Politics involves the authoritative or just allocation or distribution of power. The Bible recognizes this fact in the very first chapter of Genesis where authority over day and night is assigned to the Sun and the Moon respectively while dominion over living things is assigned to man. Subsequently, the covenants between God and Noah, Abraham, and the Israelites at Sinai form the basis for the distribution of power between God and human communities. By the Bible's own terms, any teaching about the good life must include teachings about the good commonwealth.

The Bible utilizes historical data to present its thesis and to demonstrate its validity, but it uses those data only insofar as they are useful to its purpose. Thus, it does not attempt to present a complete historical record of any period and says so quite openly by referring those who might be interested in the full historical record to other works which existed at the time which were devoted to history per se. It simply selects those incidents in the historical record which are of particular use in the development of its central idea and relates those incidents honestly and accurately as it were, but clearly from a particular point of view. Thus, the historical aspects of the Bible relate to the expression of the central idea of prophetic Judaism over time and space (i.e., in history). The historical materials are mainly illustrative in character. If one wished to "translate" the Biblical approach into something roughly akin to modern academic terminology, one might call it "moral science" since it represents an effort to develop fundamental moral principles from historical examples which, while specific in and of themselves, have an applicability in other places and other times.

An understanding of this characteristic of the Bible eliminates many difficulties. For one, it transforms the historiographic problem of apparent discrepancies, repetitions, and chronological gaps. Since the Bible attempts to be no more than roughly chronological in its sequences, it is not serious to the Biblical authors if incidents are slightly out of chronological order. Since the Bible attempts to use cases to teach, it is not serious to the compiler if the same case is repeated in a slightly different version provided that each version teaches something special. Indeed, what one must look for, when one finds the same case repeated, is not the fact of the repetition per se but whether there was not some larger reason for the repetition in light of the Bible's purposes.

Prismatic Thinking

To say that the Bible is the first comprehensive political book is not to suggest that the Bible is only concerned with politics. This is not the effort on the part of someone to foist on Scripture his own view of the world. The Bible is best understood as a prismatic book, that is to say, one reflective of a well-nigh infinite variety of perspectives, reflecting off the same core of truth which is simultaneously solid and shifting. One of those prisms is the political. Indeed, the Bible gives the world prismatic, as distinct from systematic, forms of thought. In contrast, classical philosophy is systematic in character, primarily deductive in structure, beginning with great principles and moving in linear fashion to identify and illucidate subsidiary and subordinate ones.

Prismatic thought is, perforce, multidimensional at all times. It has the distinct advantage of reflecting the complexity of reality. In physics, for example, it is prismatic thinking to understand light as composed of both waves and particles simultaneously. The apparent repetition of events in the Bible, whatever the history of the original sources, is another reflection of prismatic thinking, each account offering us a different perspective on the same incident and hence a different lesson to be learned from it.

Given the extraordinary complexity of human reality, there is much to be said for this approach. The world, indeed, is far more prismatic than systematic. While this should not prevent us from seeking systematic understanding of the world, such understanding can only be achieved when we begin with its prismatic character.

The political tradition which flows from all this is based upon Biblical teaching, torah in Hebrew, which is Divine teaching. With regard to the political order, Biblical teaching emphasizes covenants, federal relationships, the frontier experience, the importance of foundings, the special character of new societies, the necessity for and problematics of civilization, the generational ordering of time, the continuous relationship of space and time, the varieties of geographic expression of human settlement, the division of humankind into nations and peoples, the necessity for and problematics of political organization of all societies and communities, constitutionalism and its republican and democratic dimensions, the importance of "way" or what moderns call "culture," and the binding ways of tradition. A close reading of the Biblical text reveals all of these as recurrent themes.

Serious students of political thought must inevitably become aware of the Bible in shaping the political ideas of the Western world, particularly up until the first generations of the modern epoch. Every great political philosopher from Philo to the 18th century felt it necessary to come to grips with Biblical ideas and to utilize case studies from Scripture. At the same time it is both easier and harder to pass over the political meaning of the Biblical texts than it is a piece of classical philosophy. A Biblical text is not likely to proclaim itself as being political. The Biblical system is one of theme and language and sound expressed through a series of stories which embody important cases and issues, bound together by common value concepts. It can be discovered only by identifying and following the threads which run through its many parts. In other words it is a system best penetrated by what in Hebrew is termed midrash, the induction of meaning from textual and other sources, rather than by syllogism. The midrashic method, with its emphasis on the explication and harmonization of text, by its very nature makes it harder for the student untrained in the method to uncover that teaching, but by the same token requires him to delve deeper and make a greater effort to order his thoughts. It also offers the student greater opportunities for flashes of insight which restrain the impulse to rush to erect comprehensive schemes which may be intellectually compelling but are far from reality.

In that sense this commentary barely scratches the surface of what can possibly be delved out of the Biblical text. It is designed rather to be an opening, a first step toward plumbing those depths for their political teaching.

Appreciation of Biblical prismatics as contrasted with systematic philosophy is, in the last analysis, also a matter of aesthetics. It is no surprise that the Greeks, for whom aesthetics were all and symmetry the heart of aesthetic beauty, created the aesthetics of systematic inquiry (although only after laying the foundation through the Platonic Dialogues, which, while more systematic in structure than the Bible, embody a similar method, that is to say, they demand that the reader enter into the text in order to understand the argument and the principles derived therefrom). Thus one must be prepared to recognize the different aesthetic beauty of the biblical system in order to enter into it. Biblical aesthetics is much related to process; to the necessity to read and probe, to be touched by the elegant and moving language the Bible uses to deal with prosaic matters, and the sudden insights that come with those efforts.

Well into modern times, our forefathers were able to do so because religious belief led them to a need to appreciate God's word. Most moderns are no longer able to rely on religious belief as the basis for aesthetic appreciation of the Bible. In fact, matters are often reversed. Discovery of the aesthetics of biblical thought may (indeed should) lead to an appreciation of the divinity behind it rather than vice-versa.

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