From the moment I heard of Michael Walzer's latest work I was itching to read it. The combination of Biblical literature, politics and Walzer's depth of experience were enough for me to order an early copy. Walzer begins his review of politics in the Hebrew scripture with the obligatory mention of his approach to Biblical interpretation. According to Walzer and his sources (many from the Jewish tradition) the Bible's historical accounts and detailed religious codes are not always what they seem. In addition, the author is skeptical of any political lessons to be reaped from the Bible, especially in light of a divine, interfering "ultimate ruler".
Walzer is writing in an age where religion is being re-introduced to the fields of politics and international relations. Authors such as Jonathan Fox and Shmuel Sandler are pushing for religion's front-line recognition. Douglas Johnston's strategy of interfaith dialogue is influencing foreign affairs. Esteemed editors, Raymond Cohen and Raymond Westbrook use the Biblical era to study the theoretical branches of international relations.
Admittedly, Walzer mentions that his topic is influenced by, but notably veers away from other Biblical political studies like that of Aaron Wildavsky. The increased hype around finding political solidarity in religious engagement, keeping in mind the Biblical approaches in recent and distant works, demand that any reader of "In God's Shadow" not be confused or distraught by Walzer's very critical, at times revisionist, approach.
The main question addressed in Walzer's study is not 'how' we learn from the examples of Biblical politics but in truth are there 'any' intended political endorsements to be noted at all? Certainly one could study regime change (as Wildavsky did under Moses' political leadership) or the foreign relations described in the reign of Israelite kings. As Walzer argues, the Bible meets each instance of political meddling with condemnation.
At this juncture Walzer appears to criticize the way in which the Bible stifles its political take-aways. Walzer regards the prophets, first active in the kings' courts and with later transition to public preaching, as passive critics of political pragmatism. The prophets were the enemies of human wisdom. Their only advice was to do nothing in the face of domestic and especially external threats. Indeed, Walzer defends the pragmatic politics of alliance and asserts that the kings fulfilled their duty if even in disobedience to God's commandments. Is this intended to be the role of kings (the purpose of political leaders) to be the only acceptable source of religious disobedience for the sake of national interest?
Walzer continues to investigate the Biblical stance on political entities through a somewhat linear account from the covenant in Moses' time, to the conquest of Canaan, to the reign of the kings, through exile and various forms of Messianism. It is a lot of material to cover and Walzer does so very neatly. He doesn't allow his sources to control the flow of his own ideas and theories but instead gives his thoughts clarity and intrigue, if still controversy.
Apparently no political study of the Bible would be complete without a look at the Bible's support or lack-thereof for democracy. When many Biblical scholars cite the activity of the Israelite elders as proof of a constitutional, if not democratic process, Walzer looks at the elders and exclaims, "where were they"? Walzer explains that God's sovereignty, the leadership of the priests and the proclamations of the prophets all support the idea that the Bible was not intended to allow any political party, not even the elders, a descriptive role in Israel's social organization.
If anything, what the Bible does support in way of politics is social justice, a community covenant for social welfare. Even the "passive" prophets supported this ideal. Israel lived under a sovereign God but with human freedom, "lay participation". Walzer called it "religious democracy", "formless democracy" or perhaps an "almost-democracy".
Ironically, Walzer shows favor towards the political success of Solomon and the kings of Israel, exercising political alliances in favor of national interest and protection. He does this even while he holds the Bible's message to be apolitical or even counter-political. Where many scholars use the Bible to support the necessity of less-than-perfect politics, Walzer first declares there is no Biblical support for political human wisdom and then allies himself with the practice he just argued was condemned.
Walzer writes in a very tangible manner and raises many items of discussion, especially in light of the many scholars debating religion's influence; its history, its polarization its potential wisdom and its conflict. But I couldn't help but feel that Walzer sees the Hebrew scriptures as a political, and in some ways, historical dead-end.