America the Biblical

(First published in Jewish Ideas Daily, Jan 17, 2012 )

The Greeks did not invent equality. Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, and the gang famously believed that the rich are different from you and me—not merely because they are shaped by their privileges but because they are actually, literally made of superior stuff. The Greeks believed that the gods formed the rich from finer clay, with gold mixed in for the aristocrats, silver for the commercial class, and cheap iron and brass for the rest of us lowly plebeians. Almost invariably, great men were born to aristocratic parents, as Plato and Aristotle were. Inexplicably, plebian parents occasionally produced a superior man like Socrates; but this was rare.

Much of the world, then and since, has agreed with the Greeks. But as Joshua Berman points out in his important book, Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought, the Jews thought differently. The Bible often echoes Mesopotamian myths: Sargon of Akkad, after all, was another baby placed by his mother in a rush basket that was waterproofed with pitch and set afloat on the river. But Berman, one of a number of scholars currently working to understand the Bible’s political and social ideas, shows us that a yawning chasm separates these ideas from those of the rest of the ancient Near East.

Berman illustrates this difference by recounting the great Mesopotamian creation epic of Atrahasis. It tells us that in the beginning, the world was inhabited only by gods. There were aristocratic gods called Annunaki and a lower class of gods, the Igigi. The aristocratic Annunaki, born to rule, owned and ran the world. The non-aristocratic Igigi did all the work, digging irrigation ditches, farming, cooking, and sweeping up after the aristocrats. It sounds familiar.

Then the Igigi revolted, besieging the home of the aristocratic god Enlil and demanding less work for more pay. The gods averted crisis as only gods can: One unlucky god was sacrificed and his flesh mixed with clay to create human beings—somebody else to do the menial labor needed to support the gods’ lifestyle. The new humans, like the gods, were divided by birth into classes: underlings, aristocrats, and temple priests. In Mesopotamian cosmology, the world depended on offerings of wheat and gold that were made to the gods by priests and kings. Naturally, it was necessary and right that the priests and kings who performed these essential rituals should own the land, exact heavy taxes, and array themselves in gold and fine linen while commoners sweated in the fields, the purpose for which they were created.

The Bible tells a very different story. Here, too, humans are created out of clay; but the cosmology is radically different. In the Bible, ordinary men and women are not created to labor for the benefit of others. From every fruit-bearing tree and seed-bearing herb, God provides food to all of his children, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and giving them dominion over the earth. God gives possession of the world directly to people in general; not to a king, aristocracy, or temple.

Berman does not argue that every biblical law was carried out as written. Rather, he shows that parts of the Bible, particularly Deuteronomy, represent a statement of the way society should be structured. Others have called it an ancient constitution. And the political, social, and economic program represented by Deuteronomy contrasts sharply with that of the ancient Near Eastern empires.

In Egypt and Mesopotamia, the land belonged to the gods, though it was the temples and the king that collected the rent. But biblical Israel was a nation of small-hold farmers who held their leases directly from God. Israelite priests received, and depended on, offerings and tithes from the people; but a 10-percent tithe was a shockingly low tax rate by ancient Near Eastern standards, and a good portion of the tithed produce went not to a king or temple but to the poor.

A man who fell on hard times might sell his land, or himself and his family, into debt-slavery; but every fifty years, in the jubilee year, debt-slaves went free and lands reverted to the families that originally owned them. These were powerful mechanisms for ensuring that property—and, thus, the resources necessary to enable people to be members of a political community—were broadly distributed. Whether or not the mechanisms actually operated as written, the biblical text itself became a powerful force.

What is interesting about these laws is that they carefully describe a social and economic system calculated to produce a broad middle class, which is, as it happens, the only type of system in which it is plausible to claim that all men are created equal. Neither the ancient nor the medieval world paid much attention to these biblical ideas—that all members of a nation should be treated as equals before the law and that society should be organized so as to prevent the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few. Louis XVI had no more use for such an idea than Joseph Stalin or the Han Emperor. Certainly neither Bashir Assad nor Kim Jong-un has the least use for it today.

In contrast, the men and women who founded the American colonies and the American republic were profoundly affected by notions of human equality that are essentially biblical in origin.

This distinguished lineage of ours poses a temptation to indulge in excessive self-congratulation. But before we succumb, we should remember the protests of this summer and fall in the United States and Israel. They remind us that both societies have serious work to do in building the egalitarian ideas of our Constitution, drawn from the Bible, into our economic and political reality.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian. She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.