(February 27, 2019 / JNS) Israel is currently preoccupied with its election campaign and America with its newly divided government, leaving both countries little attention to spare for issues beyond day-to-day politics. But moments of change are excellent times to pause and consider the fundamentals of the Western political tradition. And as a recent contribution to the growing scholarly genre of political Hebraism reminds us, one of those fundamentals is the surprisingly large role the Hebrew Bible has played in Western political thought.
In John Locke’s Political Philosophy and the Hebrew Bible, Yechiel Leiter (full disclosure: a friend and neighbor) convincingly argues that the Bible heavily influenced Locke’s thought. Since Locke’s work, especially his Second Treatise on Government, is widely considered to have significantly influenced America’s founding fathers, this is further evidence that when people talk about America’s “Judeo-Christian” roots, the “Judeo” half is no mere courtesy. Judaism in fact contributed significantly to America’s political traditions.
Nevertheless, this raises an obvious question. Locke and his fellow 17th-century political Hebraists (including John Selden, Hugo Grotius and Thomas Hobbes) were Christians, not Jews. So why, in developing their political thought, did they rely far more on the Hebrew Bible than the Christian New Testament?
In Locke’s First Treatise on Government, for instance, he “quotes the Hebrew Bible more than 80 times,” yet there’s a “near total absence of quotes from the New Testament,” Leiter writes. And even in the Second Treatise, which has fewer biblical quotes, “nothing is quoted with any comparable frequency as the Hebrew Bible.”
Nor are these biblical references mere padding, Leiter argues. Locke uses them to develop several key concepts.
For instance, Locke posits a “natural law” superior to any human law—one man can grasp through ordinary reason—and argues that men are entitled to overthrow governments that violate this natural law. The Second Treatise illustrates this concept with the Cain and Abel story, in which Cain, having just murdered his brother, complains to God that “everyone that findeth me, shall slay me.” Yet God only explicitly prohibits murder five chapters later. This, Locke explains, is how natural law works: No explicit prohibition was needed because Cain’s own reason sufficed to understand that murder is unacceptable.
Locke uses this same story in developing his doctrine of individual executive power, which holds that in the absence of a legitimate governing authority, anyone has the right to punish crimes like murder (“everyone that findeth me, shall slay me”). By extension, people are entitled to punish tyrannical governments (which are inherently illegitimate) by toppling them.
Indeed, as Leiter notes, Locke’s belief in the legitimacy of rebelling against tyrants is a recurrent theme in the Hebrew Bible, yet contrasts markedly with the New Testament’s doctrine of obedience to authority. The latter is epitomized by Paul’s dictum, “The powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God” (Romans 13:1-2).
Leiter argues that Locke’s view of human equality similarly derives not from the New Testament—where equality, to quote the Book of Galatians, stems from being “One in Jesus Christ,” seemingly excluding anyone who doesn’t accept Christianity—but from the creation story in Genesis, where all people are created by “one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker,” in Locke’s words.
The Jephthah story bolsters Locke’s argument that unless God directly appoints a leader, this power devolves to the people: Jephthah, unlike most biblical judges, was appointed by the people rather than God. The transfer of kingship from Saul to David, rather than to Saul’s son Jonathan, is cited as evidence that a ruler’s son has no inherent right to succeed him.
Locke uses Jephthah again to claim that it’s legitimate to appeal to higher authority against an unjust government; Jephthah’s “appeal to heaven: before going to war to evict a foreign occupier thus serves him as a precedent for the English Revolution. And so forth.
So why does Locke rely so heavily on the Hebrew Bible rather than the Christian one? Leiter shows that Locke himself answered this question in an earlier work, Two Tracts on Government. The New Testament, Locke wrote, “is for the most part silent as to governmental and civil power,” since Jesus “seems to refuse deliberately to involve himself in civil affairs” and left “the civil government of the commonwealth … unchanged.”
The Hebrew Bible, in contrast, is anything but silent regarding “governmental and civil power.” A significant portion of the Pentateuch consists of laws that are supposed to govern the soon-to-be-established Jewish commonwealth. And a significant portion of the subsequent books describes how Jewish self-government played out in practice.
These biblical stories explore various types of government, from anarchy through limited monarchy to tyranny, and show the pitfalls or benefits of each. Nor are they simplistic morality tales; they show politics in all its complexity. One of the Bible’s greatest moral and political leaders, the prophet Samuel, sees his model of leadership rejected towards the end of his life, when the people demand a king. One of its wickedest kings—Ahab, who famously had a subject murdered in order to steal his vineyard—presides over a flourishing, prosperous kingdom. King Solomon’s dominion reaches unparalleled heights of both hard and soft power, but collapses into civil war under his son. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Thus for anyone interested in how politics works, the Hebrew Bible is a treasure trove. Nor is belief in God necessary to derive insights from it, just as faith isn’t necessary to derive insights from Locke or Shakespeare. As with any great work of literature or philosophy—and the Bible, quite aside from its religious significance, is both—all that’s needed is close and careful reading of the text.
Leiter’s book thus reinforces what should already have been obvious: The Bible is too important to the Western political tradition to be as widely ignored by serious students of politics, as it currently is in both America and Israel. The West’s greatest political philosophers believed that the Hebrew Bible had something worthwhile to say about politics. Both countries’ dysfunctional political systems might benefit from following those philosophers’ lead.
Evelyn Gordon is a journalist and commentator living in Israel.