In recent years, scholars of political theory have rediscovered the Hebrew Bible. Intellectual historians have looked to uncover the influence that biblical ideas have had on the development of Western civilization, and theologians and philosophers have started to reanalyze the biblical text itself to distill its social and political wisdom.
One of the best of these recent efforts is Yoram Hazony’s 2006 article from Hebraic Political Studies, “Does the Bible Have a Political Teaching?” In it, Hazony argues that the biblical narrative from Genesis through Kings advances the idea of a limited state as the ideal political form. The limited state emerges as the biblical alternative to empire, represented by Egypt, and to anarchy, represented by the lawless tribes during the period of the Judges.
The Bible understands the political order as oscillating between the imperial state, as represented by Egypt of the Pharaohs; and anarchy, as represented by Israel in the period of the judges. The first road leads to bondage; the second to dissolution and civil war. Neither alternative, then, can serve as the basis for the freedom of a people. The question with which the biblical narrative wrestles is whether there is a third option, which can secure a life of freedom for Israel in the face of these two mortal threats.
In the political theory advanced by the Hebrew Bible, there is such an alternative. If one wishes for political betterment, there is no choice but to establish a state. Yet this state cannot be unlimited in principle, like the states of “all the nations” in the ancient Near East. Rather, it must be a state that will steer a course between the two extremes, seeking “the good and the right.” For this, one must have rulers who understand that virtue emerges from limitation of the state: from the limitation of the borders of the state; from the limitation of the size of the armed forces and of what one is willing to do in the name of foreign alliances; from the limitation of the income of the state; and from the limitation of the degree to which the king sees himself as being raised above his own people. It is within the framework of these constraints that both the people and their king are to find the love of justice and of God that characterized the herdsmen who were their forefathers.
More about: • Jewish Political Thought
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