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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2014
Number 80
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Author’s Reflections on Politics in the Bible

By Matthew B. Schwartz and Kalman J. Kaplan. Lanham MD: Jason Aronson, 2013

Politics in the Hebrew Bible: God, Man, and Government

Much interest nowadays is aroused by the squabbles and gridlock that dominate Washington D.C. As I write these words, the U.S. government has been partly closed down for well more than a week. Politics is, of course, an ancient sport, and my co-author Kal Kaplan and I came to wonder how the ancients, especially Biblical Israel and Classical Greece, saw politics and government and what we might learn from them. This book offers the results of our inquiries. In it, we treat both the Bible and the Greek classics as offering of their abundant but very different sorts of knowledge and experience to an open minded reader.

The problems facing humanity seem to change little from one era to another. The Bible presents stories and laws to teach and command people toward good and useful behavior. We deal with 42 Biblical texts. The story of King Ahaz of Judah makes tangible the uselessness of appeasement. Gedaliah exemplifies the danger of overtrust. Joseph puts into effect a brilliant economic reform as minister in pharaonic Egypt. Jethro advises Moses on how to establish a wise and efficient judiciary. The dangers stirred by rabble rousers like Sheba ben Bichri and demagogues like Korach must be met. Jeremiah’s account of the fall of the Kingdom of Judah is viewed in the light of historians’ analyses of the fall of the Roman Empire. The strange law of sota offers a sort of divine protection to the family. The story of King Uzziah deals with the suitable distance between priest and king, or in modern terms church and state.

The differences between Biblical and Hellenic approaches to government are notable. The Bible’s monarchy was, at its best, a constitutional one in the sense of being Torah-centric. Biblical stories offer instances of kings who tried to live in accordance with Biblical ideals and of others who did not.

The Hebrew Bible is not a theoretical or philosophical work, and it operates largely in terms of history, psychology, faith and law. It has great respect for the human being as created in the divine image and as the ultimate purpose of creation, seeing both individuality and structure as necessary and supporting each other. In contrast, Aristotle’s brilliant Politics is philosophical and theoretical, discussing different systems of government — democracy, tyranny, oligarchy and the like, and basically disregarding individuals. Plato’s Republic presents a totalitarian utopia, which allows little freedom or respect to its citizens. The government is the only structure; nuclear families will have no place.

In Genesis, the world was created by God in six days in a mode both orderly and harmonious. Hesiod, however, saw the world as beginning in Chaos, and in a sense the Greeks never got beyond that. Throughout their history, they could never unite and instead fought each other constantly, culminating in the disastrous Peloponnesian War and not ceasing their mutual destruction until, in their ensuing weakness, they were conquered by Philip of Macedon. The brilliant democracy of Athens in the Golden Age of Pericles declined precipitously after his death, when its leadership fell to unscrupulous demagogues like Alcibiades.

The Bible saw a pattern in world history. History began with divine creation and will proceed, albeit with bumps and starts, toward a messianic era. For the Bible, there is an ultimate purpose to human endeavor, and there are hope and faith. For King David, defeat and disappointment and even sin roused the need not to self-destruct but to come closer to God. For Hellenic thinkers, fate and capricious deities continued the Chaos in which the world began. For a Greek hero, defeat could easily lead to self-destructive behaviors and, all too often, to suicide.

What does the Bible view as the most important qualities of a great leader? A sense of his nation’s role in the divine plan for history, strength, courage, wisdom, perception, and genuine devotion to his people and to God. But also humility combined with true dignity, two traits sorely lacking in an era of provocative blogs and talk shows and TV ads.

Kingship is natural to the Hebrew Bible. Deuteronomy presents the legal and moral guidelines for selecting a king and for his behavior as ruler. The prophet Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king, at God’s command. Medieval rabbinic writers were unanimous in support of the idea of kingship, except Don Yitzhak Abravanel, who preferred democracy, based on his study of both Torah and world history. His personal experience with kings had been discouraging as he had served loyally and brilliantly under kings of Portugal and later King Ferdinand of Spain, and both cruelly betrayed him.

Perhaps the wisdom and experience of the ancients can help bring some renewal to modern government.


Kalman Kaplan, co-author, is a highly-experienced psychologist and scholar currently affiliated with University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. Matthew Schwartz, teaches ancient history and literature at Wayne State University, and has “enjoyed contributing to Menorah Review for over 20 years.”

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Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

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