In the closing chapter of his fascinating new book, In God’s Shadow, Walzer suggests that the biblical kingdom was an “almost-democracy”, and gives three reasons.
1. Covenant: The covenant is voluntarily entered into by “everyone”. “Poor people, women, and even strangers, are at least ceremonially included.” and, “The people speak with one voice, very much as they do in later ‘general will’ theories of democracy.”
2. Law: The kings had no role in “either making or interpreting the law”. And the law applied to and was “accepted by everyone”.
3. Prophecy: The prophets spoke to everyone and denounced even kings. And the prophets came from all classes.
Walzer, of course, is speaking of the kingdoms described in the Bible, not the actual ancient kingdoms of Israel and Judah. His goal here is to tease out the principles of political theory from the text of the Bible. Not from the epigraphical, written and archaeological evidence.
It is a sophisticated book that discusses the shifting political arrangements described in the various books of the Bible as they have come down to us, from Moses, to the priestly rule of the period just before the Hasmoneans.
But here’s the thing: the three aspects of Biblical polity that Walzer describes as demonstrating the ideas that people of every rank are part of a nation, that all stand as equals before the law, and that none oar so high as to be exempt form criticism, nor too lowly to have a right to criticize are very like Benedict Anderson’s “deep, horizontal comradeship” and would be better described as nationhood than as “almost-democracy”.
Alan Mittleman’s review:
Walzer: “Daniel J. Elazar constructs full-scale biblical political doctrine on the basis of the covenantal model, but it is very much a construction, not a finding. The covenant is there, in the texts; the doctrine, it seems to me, isn’t.” Like Elazar, Walzer sees covenant as nation-founding. Israel as a “genealogical collective” already exists, but it takes on a heightened form of belonging through covenant. The mix of “kinship and covenant, descent and consent, are simultaneously at work.” But what the consenting people, now rising to the level of nationhood, agree to is obedience to a sacred, divinely given law, which, far from enabling them to have a political life, nips it in the bud. The law (or, more accurately, laws; Walzer has a chapter on the discrepant law codes of the Bible) places Israel’s action into a register where politics is scanted and legal reasoning rules. The leitmotif of Walzer’s book is that politics, understood as a wholly immanent, practical, quintessentially human activity, cannot flourish “in God’s shadow.” Thus, where Elazar reads biblical texts as evidences of a kind of politics in a religious world, Walzer reads them as evidence of religious considerations constraining or aborting politics.
For Walzer, the Bible is “the record of a nation whose God did not leave much room for independent decision making.” Thus, “the political activity of ordinary people is not a biblical subject; nor is there any explicit recognition of political space, an agora or forum, where people congregate to argue about and decide on the policies of the community.”
There are several ways to parse this debate. One could say that Walzer is the more austere reader; that Elazar, as an engaged intellectual in the Israeli context, was searching for a usable past and was willing to press the texts into service. There is some truth in that. Elazar wanted to see Zionism and the restoration of statehood not as an absolute break with diasporic political quiescence but as spectacular successes within an ongoing political tradition, rooted in the Bible. Elazar was so focused on an argument for the continuity of a political tradition, the vast disruptions of history notwithstanding, that he needed to see the Bible as its first stage. Walzer, by contrast, takes the Bible fully on its own terms, alert to its contexts and voices. He is not concerned with the Bible’s effects on subsequent Jewish or Western tradition, at least in this book. His is a highly disciplined stance and, I say this as a disciple and friend of the late Dan Elazar, a compelling one. I think that, as a project of textual interpretation, Walzer makes the better case.
“Another way to see what is at stake here is to consider the two authors’ discrepant understandings of politics. For Walzer, politics is human, all too human. For Elazar, politics can indeed flourish in God’s shadow. For Walzer, “The people consent, but they do not rule. Only when God is conceived to withdraw, to stand at some distance from the world of nations, to give up his political interventions, is there room for human politics.” Politics needs a God-free space in which to flourish. For Elazar, God enables human beings, through granting them liberty, to work out their own destinies under His law. As a political philosopher of a conservative bent, Elazar was suspicious of a purely modern version of liberty; he inclined toward the positive liberty of the covenant, rather than the negative liberty of the social contract. What is ultimately at stake here—the comparative sagacity of biblical interpretation aside—is the status of secularism vis-à-vis the possibility of a good politics. Elazar eschewed a purely secular politics; Walzer seems to endorse it.”