Kings, Subjects, and the Divine: Politics in the Hebrew Bible

There’s been an efflorescence recently of scholarship on “political Hebraism,” an evocative heading that can be understood in one of two ways. In historical terms, scholars seek to disclose the ways that readings of the Hebrew Bible and related texts informed the theory and practice of politics during a given period. In substantive terms, scholars seek to disclose distinctive insights about politics in the Hebrew texts and traditions themselves. The latter approach—which has generally been the road less traveled—is the one undertaken by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes in The Beginning of Politics: Power in the Biblical Book of Samuel.

The authors—Halbertal is the Gruss Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, and Holmes is the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at the same institution—postulate that new conditions arose during the period chronicled in the Book of Samuel, allowing for the “emergence of genuine political thought” (uniquely so, they seem to suggest, for the ancient Near East).[1] These conditions can be described as a particular kind of monarchy: one that is neither the “Kingship of God” (to use Martin Buber’s felicitous phrase) under which the Israelites had lived under up to that point,[2] nor the rule of kings claiming divine ancestry who prevailed elsewhere in the region.

Rather, the monarchy established by the prophet Samuel was fitted for distinctly human sovereigns. This in turn provided the space for philosophical (as opposed to theological) reflection on political phenomena on their own terms. The Beginning of Politics represents an attempt to unpack the lessons to be gleaned from this development. The authors proceed by way of exegesis of the Book of Samuel (really, Samuel and the early chapters of Kings that conclude the narrative of David’s life and reign), in a generally, though not exclusively, chronological fashion.

Interpretive Traditions

Engaging with the Hebrew Bible in this manner is no easy business, of course, and the authors evince a solid understanding of the interpretive traditions, as well as the pitfalls involved in interpreting the Bible at all. A word on the traditions is probably in order. Few texts have undergone as much scrutiny and over so many years as the Hebrew Bible. The oldest existing tradition, the rabbinic one, is principally concerned with elucidating the basis for a living Jewish way of life from a text whose ultimate source is G-d himself.

The major historical alternative is the school of source criticism, pioneered by 19th century German scholars. This approach attempts to disclose the underlying source texts used by the authors and redactors to produce what we know as the complete Hebrew Bible. This methodology is less concerned with understanding the text qua text than with treating it as a historical artifact, with many ambiguities and enigmas attributed to the hodgepodge of earlier sources that comprise it.

A third approach—whose outstanding living practitioner is Robert Alter—treats the Hebrew Bible as a unified literary creation, thus restoring an appreciation for its formal elegance and substantive wisdom, without limiting it to an internal community of believers. This third approach is the one notionally adopted by Halbertal and Holmes. In practice, however, their method works out as a hybrid of literary interpretation and social science analysis, with the former proving generally more successful.

Among its strengths, this book demonstrates (beyond doubt, in this reviewer’s opinion) the mastery shown by the author or compiler of Samuel. The subtlety and complexity of the narrative comes through: how the witch of Endor proves unexpectedly sympathetic to Saul’s plight; how the widening circle of Saul’s paranoia exposes the character of each individual it draws in; how the full dimensions of David’s crime against Uriah are revealed over time.

The authors become vaguer, however, in delivering their general conclusions. It would appear that, for them, the Book of Samuel is really telling two different stories. One is an ur-sociological narrative in which a formerly pastoral, Near-Eastern people transitions to a sedentary, urbanized society, allowing for novel methods of coercion and exploitation by a newly created hereditary monarchy. The other is a series of moral parables about the corruption of power. In both cases, there is some conceptual slippage between what the authors claim to discover and what they may in fact be introducing.

What Is the Essence of Politics?

In the case of the sociological analysis, the text is mined for insights into the problems of legitimacy, the coercive and extractive powers of states, the limits and perils of centralizing sovereign authority, and so on. Yet while the authors purport to derive a distinctive political understanding from Samuel, their practice is to introduce exogenous political concepts largely drawn from contemporary social science and then link these to illustrative passages from the Bible. They use modern—and arguably anachronistic—terms throughout.

The same goes for the moral lessons uncovered by Halbertal and Holmes, which are that power corrupts, that kings may turn tyrannical in their attempts to retain authority, that power politics entails deceit, that the full effects of violence are impossible to control. Such lessons are difficult to argue against, but they are hardly unique to the narrative of Samuel (or, for that matter, to the text of the Bible). Again, we do not so much discover new things concerning political life as find especially powerful and subtle demonstrations of what we know.

More importantly, are we to take these to be lessons about the practice of politics or about the dangers of politics? That is to say, The Beginning of Wisdom suggests throughout that the Book of Samuel carries implicit warnings about the dangers attendant upon political life. But are these dangers recurring features of politics, and thus potentially avoidable, or are they its essence? One could of course argue that the narrative’s unnamed author is simply appropriately savvy about how politics really works. But the vision that emerges seems closer to, for example, Augustine’s: Politics is an arena for gangsters.[3]

Can we in fact characterize the events chronicled in Samuel as political? In one sense, yes, insofar as they touch upon conventionally political themes, such as dynastic struggles for power, civil conflict, foreign and military relations with the other peoples of the Levant, and so on. But in another sense, it is striking how little we see of the practice of politics, such as deliberations about the good of the kingdom or conflicts of interest that fall short of violence. The personal scheming that we witness instead resembles more than anything else the complex and murderous plotting that goes on in imperial households (seen, for example, in Herodotus).[4]

Here then is the larger problem: I believe that Halbertal and Holmes have identified something genuinely distinctive about the protagonists of the Book of Samuel, as set against the larger narrative of the Hebrew Bible. It is true in other words that Saul, David, et al. are neither divine nor do they derive their authority from G-d in the manner of Moses and the judges. In a relative sense, then, they appear as more conventional political figures. Yet in the absence of a fuller account of the Biblical treatment of politics, the authors tend to assume rather than demonstrate that the text of Samuel carves out as much space as they claim for thoughtful reflection on the problems of political life.

Aristotle (whom the authors do not mention) famously described humans as political animals, which is to say that we are best defined by those unique faculties that fit us for engagement in the life of the polis. And this is to say more broadly that these faculties are sufficient for ascertaining and striving toward the proper ends of human life. But Jerusalem was not a polis, and the Hebrew Bible nowhere indicates that we might live worthy lives in the absence of the revealed will of G-d.

The Authority of Kings

By the same token, we are not treated in Samuel to scenes of rational deliberation by the engaged members of a political community. Instead we get either unquestioned assertions of kingly authority, or scheming and subterfuge with the goal of maintaining a personal hold on monarchic power. But the former is not self-evidently a political relationship, and the latter is hardly endorsed in the Biblical text.

The political theorist Michael Walzer concluded his magisterial survey of politics in the Hebrew Bible with the admission that the Bible may simply be hostile to politics in its own right.[5] This view may be overly restrictive, but there is significant question-begging in The Beginning of Politics concerning the existence of a genuinely Biblical space for the political. In light of the deeply strange and tragic trajectory of the Book of Samuel, the reader (this reader, at any rate) might be forgiven for wondering if Walzer’s judgment isn’t the truer one.

[1] The authors do not mention Ancient Greece, but their argument at times seems to parallel certain scholarly treatments of the Greek invention or discovery of politics.

[2] Martin Buber, Kingship of God (Prometheus Books, 2012).

[3] It might also be noted that the remarkably gloomy era featured in Samuel is generally portrayed as the high point of the Israelite monarchy.

[4] The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler, translated by Andrea L. Parvis (Random House, Anchor Books Edition, 2007), IX.108-113. The prevalence of such scheming may partly be due to Israel’s status during this period as a monarchy—the regime that itself reduces a political society into a kind of vast household ruled over by a super-patriarch.

[5] Michael Walzer, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible (Yale University Press, 2012).