Created Equal | Reflections & Notes

Joshua A. Berman. Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought. Oxford, 2008. (249 pages)


ln academic circles it is a value to be very cautious and careful regarding modern ethical sensibilities overlaid to ancient texts and attitudes. It would not be uncommon for a scholar to say that supposing the Bible to have “egalitarian” leanings would be at best anachronistic. While the principle may be true in some areas of study, specifically when it comes to material differences of time, space, and culture,–and here I refer to “technologies” such as language and political systems–regarding an “ethical anthropology,” I have come to reject this divide and would now assert that it is fully appropriate to use the word “egalitarian” to describe the moral push of the biblical text.

Created Equal is one of the most compelling studies I have read in a long time that directly connects our modern values with the ancient texts’ advancement of a new conception of human order. Berman has provided for us a careful and meticulous analysis of power, authority, hierarchy, economics, land, titles, and narrative to show, quite compellingly, that the Pentateuch’s vision is ultimately egalitarian. As such, studies like these have propelled me to persist in the study and promulgation of the understanding of these texts as they are not just sacred writings for the pious. They are essential and foundational principles that undergird and support modern (and western) ideas and ideals. As summarized in the closing paragraph,

If there was one truth the ancients held to be self-evident it was that all men were not created equal. If we maintain today that, in fact, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, then it is because we have inherited as part of our cultural heritage notions of equality that were deeply entrenched in the ancient passages of the Pentateuch. (175)

I commend this book to you as the beginning of a journey of revisiting the Bible, a sacred artifact that brilliantly advanced our culture, a shift of which some are benefactors today, and others still so desperately need.



The Talmud (b. Pesaḥim 54a) says that there were two things God withheld and did not create during the six days of Creation: fire and the mule. … at the conclusion of the Sabbath of Creation, human creativity itself was brought into the world, and Adam became empowered as a partner in the act of creation, bringing into the world that which God had not created in the previous six days. (vii)


This book proposes to read the Bible in a novel way–as a document of political and social theory. (3)

I wish to go back to the beginning and to seek out political teachings in the Bible in the context of its own world–the social and political world of the ancient Near East. (3)

What is past is prologue. – Shakespeare

This book traces the varied way a wide body of biblical texts, primarily in the Pentateuch, sought to appropriate existing concepts, laws, and institutions that were de rigueur within the social and political landscape of the ancient Near East in an effort to articulate the fundamentals of a new and more egalitarian order. The new order articulated in these texts stands in contrast to a primary socioeconomic structure prevalent at many junctures throughout the history of the ancient Near East: the divide between the dominant tribute-imposing class and the dominated tribute-bearing class. For my purposes, a class is a group that forms around the extraction, production, transformation, distribution exchange, and consumption of economic surplus. These two groups, the exploiters and the exploited, are opposite sides of the same coin. … What all of these have in common is that they all participated in the extraction of produce, or surplus, from the dominated tribute-bearing class: agrarian and pastoral producers, slaves, unskilled workers, all who do not draw surplus from other workers but whose station in the culture dictates taht their own surplus is to be taken by members of the elite class and its subsections. Their production was drawn as surplus in the form of taxation, slave labor, rent, or debt service. (4)

In the books of the Pentateuch we find a blueprint for a social and religious order that is more egalitarian in nature, eschewing the social stratification dividing the dominant tribute-imposing class and the dominated tribute-bearing class. To sharpen the claim, a definition of terms is in order. By social stratification I mean the permanent and institutionalized power given to particular classes to control the economic, military, and political resources of society. I take an egalitarian society to be one in which the hierarchy of permanent and institutionalized stratification is dissipated. (5)

From the hour of their birth some are marked out for subjection, others for rule. – Aristotle

It was assumed that some would be rich and that many, many more would be poor. Not simply because that’s the way things were but because that was the way things were actually supposed to be. To be sure, Plato and Aristotle called for justice; lower classes should not be wantonly persecuted. But in the Greek context, justice required, as Aristotle opined, that equals be treated as equals and unequals as unequals. [Aristotle, Politics 3:9] (6)

…as in Greece, nowhere in the ancient Near East is there articulated the ideal of a society without class divisions founded on the control of economic, military, and political power. (6)

To be sure, the Pentateuch manifestly speaks of multiple classes of individuals within the Israelite polity, an order that may not be termed egalitarian in the full sense of the world. The Pentateuch speaks of those with entitlements and privileges, such as the king, priests, and Levites. But the control of economic and political resources enjoyed by these groups is greatly attenuated in contrast to the surrounding cultures of the ancient Near East. …the Pentateuch articulates a new social, political, and religious order, the first to (6) be founded on egalitarian ideals and the notion of a society whose core is a single, uniformly empowered, homogeneous class. (7)

By biblical religion I mean the vision–idealized, at times–of the concepts and institutional blueprint for Israelite society that one may derive from a reading of the texts. (7)

I take it as axiomatic that when we divorce parts from their wider whole, when w examine words, phrases, and rhetorical tools without reference to the larger meaning of the work, we are doomed to read the biblical text out of its communicative context. (8)

Social and political hierarchy in the ancient Near East received metaphysical legitimation, as the heavenly order was construed as paralleling the terrestrial one. …the whole of Israel–not its king, not his retinue, not the priests–bears the status of a subordinate king entered into treaty with a sovereign king, God. (9)

I conclude that the kernel of a theory of checks and balances that one may adduce from a reading of Deuteronomy is suggestive of formulations we do not encounter again until the writings of the American founding fathers. (10)

In the capitalist world that we inhabit, social relations become embedded in the economic system. Yet in premodern societies, including the ancient Near East, the dynamic was reversed: The economic order was merely (10) a function of the social order in which it was contained. … What emerges is the western tradition’s first prescription for an economic order that seeks to minimize extreme advantage and the distinctions of class based on wealth. (11)

The printing press ushered in enormous change precisely in cultures that were open to the empowerment of the individual, now engendered by the spread of literacy. The adoption of the technology of the alphabetic script and its use in creating texts in ancient Israel was a result of a dynamic relationship between technology on the one hand and a distinct theological and social mind frame on the other that is unafraid of educating the masses. In Mesopotamia and Egypt, by contrast, texts were produced, read, memorized, and transmitted by a scribal elite and were composed in scripts that were inherently difficult to master–hieroglyphics and cuneiform. Literacy in ancient Israel was probably always the purview of professional scribes. But passages in Deuteronomy, Exodus, and the prophetic writings of the eighth and seventh centuries suggest that such texts should be produced for the masses, read to them, remembered by them, and transmitted by them. The new, popular role for texts as vehicles for the communication of ideas whereby a fully literate minority facilitates the production of texts for popular consumption is associated with the use of an alphabetic script to produce these texts. The role of the printing press in the flourishing of sixteenth-century western Europe sheds light on the way the Bible sought to optimize the new technology of the alphabetic script in the southern Levant in an unprecedented way: by utilizing the communicative power of the alphabetic text and its potential for wide circulation. Whereas in Mesopotamia and in Egypt writing was turned inward as a guarded source of power, in Israel it was turned outward and reflected the (11) Bible’s egalitarian impulse. (12)

The novel emerged as a vehicle for the development of new literary techniques that both reflected and in turn further spurred these humanist impulses. (12)

The classification systems of the modern academic library will list “kingship,” “land redemption,” and “literacy” as distinct topics. Yet social and political phenomena have never been lived and experienced in isolation from one another, and within the biblical text these topics emerge as they were naturally experienced, hence naturally construed and envisioned–as parts of an integrated whole. The wholeness of human experience mandates a book that seeks the interrelationship of these phenomena. (14)

1. Egalitarian Theology: The Commoner’s Upgrade from King’s Servant to Servant King

The attempt to treat things social and political as distinct from things religious is a thoroughly modern notion. It derives from the fact that the development of political thought in early modern Europe was largely a conscious effort to leave behind the theologically laden political systems, dominated by the medieval Church, of the period following the general disintegration engendered by the barbarian invasions. (15)

To understand social and political thought in the ancient Near East, including Israel, we must bear in mind that within the lands of Europe and the Near East from antiquity until the Renaissance, social and political orders were constructed and construed as serving some higher cosmic order and not merely the protection of individuals. (16)

…ancient cultures went a quantum step further in the way they harnessed earthly rule to metaphysical meaning: the political institutions in the earthly realm, they maintained, were merely an analogue to a parallel institution in the heavenly realm. The institutional order “down below” manifested the divine order of the cosmos “up above” in the relationship of microcosm to macrocosm, within what Paul Ricoeur termed “the logic of correspondences.” [Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, p.54] (17)

Hierarchy and the Logic of Correspondences:
The Cases of Mesopotamia and of Ugarit

cf. Sargon, the king of Akkad ~2300 B.C.E.; Hammurabi, ~1800 B.C.E.

…in Mesopotamian religion of the third millennium onward, the rejection of monotheism as we conceive of it today was based in their conception not solely of nature but also of the polity, according to the logic of correspondences. (19)

There is no inkling in Genesis 1 that either man or the created world around him was created in order to provide for God in any way; rather, the world is created for man to have dominion of it, as expressed in Psalm 8:5-6… (22)

To summarize, the picture that emerges of the common man in Mesopotamian thought is an undignified one indeed. Created in order to serve and support the gods, man suffers various afflictions at their hands, is decimated by the flood, and all for the sole reason that his presence disturbs their sleep. (23)

The flood was indeed a punishment for the iniquities of man. But it was a punishment for the iniquities of a single generation. The metaphysical standing of man in future generations will remain unchanged: man, created in the image of God, has been created in order to have dominion of the earth. Far from seeking to limit the reproduction of man, God seeks to promote it. (24)

…in Ugarit, personal names abound that bear the form bn/bt (son/daughter of) + proper name. Often, this is the only identifier of an individual, which suggests that membership in a household was the key element of identification within Ugaritic society. (25)

cf. the Epic of King Keret; the Epic of Aqhat

Broadly speaking, the Ugaritic pantheon exhibited a four-level structure. The highest ranking god, El, is depicted as an aging patriarch, and his divine wife, the goddess Athirat (also known as Asherah, especially in Hebrew), was conceived as the rbt, the lady, or matriarch, of the divine household. Together they represented the authoritative deities. As the king patriarch, El presided over the whole pantheon and, indeed, over humanity. The second level of the pantheon, the active deities, included the divine royal children, the seventy sons of Athirat. As in the earthly realm, these sons inhabited their own respective houses, and they (25) are often depicted in conflict with one another. The third level of the pantheon, of which we know relatively little, seems to have consisted of godly “craftsmen” who served the deities of the upper two realms. The fourth and lowest level of the pantheon consisted of “the divine workers (or servitors),” the ‘ins ‘ilm, or “men of the gods.” This group included maidservants, messengers, and gatekeepers, who paralleled the servants of the earthly king in his palace. (26)

An Alternative Model: King as Demigod in Egypt

The king in ancient Egypt was considered to be both the living son and the immediate divine reincarnation of his predecessor. (26)

A vast state apparatus developed around the figure of the king in Egypt, who had ultimate authority over every aspect of life. (26)

Within the Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, and Egyptian conceptions I have discussed so far, it is not the common man who is the central focus of the gods (26) but the king. In Mesopotamia, portents of evil, for example an eclipse or an earthquake, mandated human action to placate the gods, but the action mandated was solely that of the king. (27)

In these cultures, persons who made up the dominated tribute-bearing class were thought of as servants, at the lowest rung of the metaphysical hierarchy. The gods were interested in humans to the extent that a baron or feudal lord would have interest in ensuring the well-being of the minions running his estate and supplying its needs. … From an existential perspective, it is a decidedly diminished and undignified role. The key player in each of these cosmic narratives was the king, and to a lesser degree the varying hierarchies that surround him. (27)

The Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Davidic Dynasty

cf. Psalm 2

The phrase “You are my son” is a legal term found in the Code of Hammurabi, implying adoption. “I have fathered you this day” perhaps implies the adoption of the king by God at the king’s coronation. The king is not the “visible image of a god,” as in Egypt. Nor does his rule mimetically resemble that of the king of kings in the “logic of correspondences” to nearly the same extent as in Ugarit and Mesopotamia. (27)

[via: Torah teaches humans as in the image, and the king as a filial installment? Scion? Inheritor?]

While biblical passages such as Isaiah 6 envision God as a king on a throne, which implicitly strengthens the institution of kingship, by and large, the logic of correspondences between the earthly and heavenly polities that appears to have been so prevalent in Mesopotamia is absent in biblical thought. (28)

As elsewhere in the ancient Near East, the social order within the Pentateuch is etiologically rooted in the sanction of cosmic narrative. Yet the Pentateuch, eschewing the logic of correspondences, seeks to ground an egalitarian order within a completely new set of metaphysical coordinates. It does so by adapting a concept from the political lexicon of the ancient Near East for theological purposes: the concept of covenant. (28)

The Suzerainty Treaty as a Metaphor for the Relationship between God and Israel

…I shall refer to “the suzerain” simply as “the sovereign” and to the vassal as “the subordinate.” (29)

Yet we possess actual treaty texts in signifiant number from only two eras: the Hittite kingdom of Anatolia during the Late Bronze Age (roughly the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.E.) and the Neo-Assyrian empire of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. (29)

While some scholars propose a more elaborate scheme of parallels, I shall focus here on five: (1) the historical prologue; (2) the stipulations enjoined on the subordinate; (3) the deposit of the treaty within the Temple; (4) the calling of witnesses to the treaty; and (5) the issuance of blessings for adherence to the treaty and of curses on its breach. (31)

Historical Prologue

This section, often very long, is designed to show the basis on which the subordinate king has submitted to the subjugation of the sovereign. …a consensual arrangement. These treaties fall into two broad categories. In one, the subordinate king is installed by the suzerain as the ruler of territories that have already come into his domain, and the treaty outlines the terms of the subordinate’s rule in deference to the Hittite king. In the second, which may be termed self-subjugation treaties, autonomous rulers approach the Hittite king and request his patronage or deliverance in exchange for their fealty as subordinates. A single underlying principle determines the argument of these historical prologues: moral and legal obligation on the part of the subordinate in return for the favor bestowed on him by the sovereign. (31)

Apparently the Hittite kings of the fifteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C.E. felt that their claims to suzerainty could be deemed legitimate only if power was exercised on a moral or legal basis. Put differently, the moral and legal obligation of fealty on the subordinate’s part was the basis on which a sovereign could lay claim to suzerainty, and only when the subordinate had submitted to the terms of the treaty of his own volition. … Their use of history as a source to chronicle the beneficence of the sovereign as a basis for gratitude and loyalty on the part of the subordinate is nearly unique to this corpora of ancient Near Eastern treaty texts. (32)

Stipulations Enjoined on the Subordinate

The opening stipulation of the Decalogue, “You shall have no other gods beside Me,” is readily understood by a contemporary reader from an epistemological perspective: the Lord God who took the Children of Israel out of Egypt is the only true god, and hence the need to underscore the falsehood of placing stock in any other god. Yet the command takes on a different light when seen in the context of ancient Near Eastern treaty formulations. God is the (33) sovereign, Israel the subordinate. To revere another god is to violate a relationship; it is to express implicit ingratitude in light of the favor and grace bestowed on Israel the subordinate by God the sovereign, as laid down in the “historical prologue” of the Decalogue, indeed, as laid out int he entire narrative of the book of Exodus to that point. For the subordinate king to establish treaties or other ties with another power would be tantamount to treason. (34)

To love, in the political terms of the ancient Near East, is to demonstrate loyalty.The converse is seen as well: ancient Near Eastern treaties speak of breach of covenant as an act of hate. (34)

Entering into covenant renders Israel a subordinate. But Israel is promised favored status among God’s subordinates, when faithful to the terms of the subordination treaty. (35)

Deposit of the Treaty in the Temple

…to demonstrate and affirm that the local deity of the subordinate is interested in the fulfillment of its terms. It also sends an implicit message to the inhabitants of the subordinate state that the treaty is now to occupy a central place within their value system. (36)

Witnesses to the Treaty

Blessings and Curses

First of all,…the notion of a “historical prologue” that precedes the actual covenant itself suggests that the relationship between God and man in the Bible is founded on gratitude and moral obligation for the salvation that He granted, and not merely as a function of His power over man. By invoking the language of “love,” “hate,” and “jealousy,” these passages educate toward seeing God not just as a power but as a personality. (38)

But perhaps the greatest implication of casting the covenant between God and Israel in terms of the Late Bronze Age suzerainty treaty is the relative pedestal on which it places the human agent here, Israel. (39)

…inscriptions from Mari and the Amarna archives reveal that honor is a commodity bestowed in both directions between sovereign and subordinate in political treaty making. (39)

I would claim,…that the Bible sought (39) complimentary paradigms through which to articulate the human-divine encounter in a radically new way. It sought out the metaphor of Late Bronze Age treaty making, for in it honor was a commodity reciprocally bestowed between sovereign and subordinate. The implications are that within the biblical notion of covenant, God honors man even as man honors God. (40)

Who Is the “Subordinate King” of the Covenant?

…the Sinai narratives resemble the form of the Late Bronze Age Hittite suzerainty treaty made with a subordinate king and not a subordinate people. (40)

Who plays the role of the subordinate king? … The covenant is never cast as a treaty between God and Moses. Rather, the implication of these passages is that God is forming this treaty, or covenant, with the people. It may be that in doing so, the Bible is conceptualizing a treaty between a sovereign (God) and a foreign people (Israel) and omitting the position of the subordinate king from the metaphor. (41)

Thus we may posit that to some degree, the subordinate king with whom God forms a political treaty is, in fact, the common man of Israel; that every man in Israel is to view himself as having the status of a king conferred on him–a subordinate king who serves under the protection of, and in gratitude to, a divine sovereign. (41)

Israel as the Spouse of God

As Yohanan Muffs has put it, the new idea in the Bible is not the idea of a single God–a notion that apparently had existed in Egypt in the fourteenth century B.C.E.–but the idea of God as a personality who seeks a relationship of mutuality with human agents. (46)

…common people in all the other ancient Near East cultures engaged in a personal, or “family,” religion: a rich web of symbols, beliefs, and practices through which devotion was expressed to local patron and ancestral gods. Yet religion of a national scale was one from which the common man was generally excluded. Religious laws for the masses are sparse within Hittite legal codes, and are entirely absent from Mesopotamian ones. The common man in these cultures had only a small role to play in the public worship of the deity, which was relegated entirely to the king and the priests. By contrast, God’s interest in each and every member of the Israelite polity is expressed in the Sinai narrative of Exodus 19, which refers to the Israelites as a “kingdom of priests” (Exod 19:6). The entire polity is called on to behave in priest-like fashion, and indeed, we find in the Bible parallels between laws that are specifically enjoined on the priestly class and analogous laws for the common man of Israel. Priestly proscriptions against cutting the hair at the corners of the head (Lev 21:4-5) as signs of mourning are matched with similar injunctions for the common Israelite as well (Lev 19:27-28). The laws of holiness enjoined on each member of Israel concerning the consumption of meat (Exod 22:30; Deut 14:21) are similar to those elsewhere especially prescribed for the priests (Lev 22:8; Ezek 44:31). In Egypt, circumcision was a distinctive and obligatory mark of priesthood. For the “kingdom of priests,” the obligation throughout Israel is universal. (46)

[via: That which was designated “priestly” is now considered “common to man.”]

Whose Interests Are Served by Covenant?

If much of biblical writing reveals an ambivalent attitude toward the notion of monarchy, I would suggest it is not because of a fear of the Almighty being marginalized. Rather, these texts reflect a fear that a strong monarchy (48) would result in the marginalizing of the common man. By articulating the metaphysical paradigms of the God-human encounter in terms of a suzerainty treaty or marriage, the biblical texts portray a relationship in which honor can be reciprocally bestowed between God and Israel; indeed, between God and the common man of Israel. Only through the sublimation of the metaphysical standing of the monarchy in Israel could the biblical texts, particularly the Pentateuch, achieve a reformulation of social and political thought along egalitarian lines–a reformulation whereby the common man was transformed from a mere servant of kings into one who stands in honor before the Almighty as nothing less than a servant king. (49)

| Thus, the theology of covenant in the Pentateuch sets the stage, metaphysically speaking, for Israel to conceive of itself as a society devoid of the inherent and cosmically legitimated hierarchy found elsewhere. (49)

2. Egalitarian Politics: Constitution, Class, and the Book of Deuteronomy

In this study, I suggest a contrasting approach: that one may read the entirety of Deuteronomy as a statement of the Book’s constitutional principles. (52)

Deuteronomy’s Dual Political Agenda: A Theoretical Framework

Nowhere else do we find legal curbs on the size of the military, the treasury, and the harem. …what Levinson has shown us is that it is insufficient to read what Deuteronomy says about kingship; you have to read the whole book and read between the lines for what it doesn’t say about kingship in order to understand the full impact of the statement. (53)

Collective power strategies divest a single ruler of the control of power. … Whereas the monopoly of power in a tyranny engenders a degree of cohesion within the polity through the use of force and the attendant fear it produces, the decentralization of power in a collective system necessitates the creation of new concepts and institutions to provide the basis for cohesion. (54)

The Greek polis was universally grounded in a law-based system of mixed government. But what made the system cohesive was the notion of citizenry: the strong sense of fraternity, order, and responsibility shared by members of a common polity and their sense of striving for virtue, variously defined.

Of all fellowships, none is more serious and none more dear than that of each of us with the republic. Parents are dear, and children, relatives and acquaintances are dear, but our country has on its own embraced all the affections of all of us. – Cicero

In summation, then, the first trend I will be identifying in my assessment of Deuteronomy’s politics is more than just the attenuation of kingship. Rather, this will be identified as part of a broader agenda of the establishment of a collective power strategy and a rejection of the classic exclusionary power strategy exhibited elsewhere in the ancient Near East. (55)

| But the political blueprint of Deuteronomy reveals a second, less noted, thrust: a rejection of tribal patriarchy as a primary structure of governance. … To be sure, Deuteronomy does not eradicate the notion of tribes, just as it did not eradicate the notion of kingship. But in seeking to establish a collective power strategy, it sought to foster within Israel a more collective, national identity and corresponding bureaucratic form. (55)

It is worth noting in this vein that whereas the rebellion of the Israelites against the central authority of Moses and Aaron is a ubiquitous motif in the wilderness narratives of the Pentateuch, we have not a single account of a struggle for control of power at the tribal level. (56)

An innate property of the notion of citizenship in a polity is a proclivity to perceive the individual in a universalistic fashion, without reference to his or her narrow, parochial, familial roles. … To speak of Deuteronomy’s political agenda, then, is to speak of not only the rejection of an exclusionary power strategy but also–and less commonly identified–the adoption of a collective power strategy, with its emphasis on the people as a whole and its relatively egalitarian agenda, entailing the rejection of the traditional tribal hierarchy and kinship value system. (56)

The Divestiture of Exclusionary Power in Deuteronomy

The King as Commander-in-Chief

It represents the capacity through which he served his god. … One of the most ubiquitous genres of ancient Near Eastern literature is the battle report of a king to his god. (57)

cf. Deuteronomy 17:14-15

Not only does the king play no role in the conquest of the land; a king may be requested only after the conquest has been completed! (58)

King and Cult

Throughout the ancient Near East, among the most important duties taht fell to the king were his cultic duties. (58)

In contrast, Deuteronomy envisions no role for the king at the central shrine or indeed in any cultic activity whatsoever. More striking, perhaps, is that (58) Deuteronomy 12 prescribes that a temple be established, yet no mention is made of the king as its royal patron. (59)

The King as the Benefactor of Debt Remission

In Deuteronomy,…debt remission and the freeing of slaves are detached from any royal decree. Rather than being enacted to serve the political needs of the ruler, these are enacted by law every seven years as a national obligation, without recourse to any action on the part of the king (15:1-7; 12-18)

The King as Lawgiver

…the Hebrew Bible maintains that the law is of divine origin. The king is neither the source of the law nor even its adjudicator, as judicial powers are granted to others in the polity as laid out in Deuteronomy 16:18-22 and 17:8-13,… (59)

Deuteronomic Kingship in a Collective Power Strategy

Thus the injunction against marrying widely may be understood as seeking to prevent the influence of cronyism–“so that his heart does not go astray.” (61)

The great twentieth-century political philosopher Friedrich Hayek saw Athenian political philosophy as the origin of the notion of equality before the law. But it is already present in Deuteronomy. All public institutions–the judiciary, the priesthood, the monarchy, the institution of prophecy–are subordinated to the law. No institution is self-legitimating. Moreover, the law is a public text, one read aloud before the entire nation (31:10-13). Its dictates are meant to be widely known, thus making abuse of power more obvious. (62)

| The requirement that the king engage in the study of the law (17:19-20) further extends the egalitarian thrust of the laws of the king. (62)

Indeed, unlike in Mesopotamia, where the king was issued responsibility for the law, in Israel the entire community is the recipient of the law. The upkeep of the laws in Deuteronomy is a responsibility shared by every member of the society. (63)

…the king’s responsibilities are essentially those required of every other Israelite citizen. … The prerequisite for being a good Israelite king is to be a good Israelite citizen. (63)

It portrays the leader, Moses, engage din consultation with the people concerning issues of national policy. In chapter 1:9-18, Moses recounts the need he felt to decentralize his regime. He notes explicitly that he did not take unilateral action, but rather shared his musings on the subject with the people, suggested a plan, and then sought and received their approval. [via: Is this a “spirit-led” approach?]The picture that emerges is one of collective power par excellence. Moses emphasizes that in spite of his stature and authority, the right way to rule is by way of discussion and consensus between the ruler and the ruled. When reading the laws of governance of Deuteronomy within the framework of the book as a whole and its agenda of establishing a collective power strategy, the two narratives of Moses’ leadership style are part of the message to any future leader: leadership according to Deuteronomy, even for a monarch, should be executed within a collective framework. (64)

Deuteronomy has its ideal vision, one that apparently does not require kingship. Yet it also incorporates flexibility in response to multiple sociopolitical needs. (64)

The Power of the Priests/Levites

While Deuteronomy envisions specific cultic roles for the priests and Levites at some points (with reference to priests–21:5, 26:4, 33:10), it describes these roles, for the most part, in the broadest terms; they “serve” at the central shrine… (65)

I wish to suggest that the dearth of cultic detail ascribed to the priests and Levites in Deuteronomy may reflect a transformation of the primary role of the priesthood in accordance with a collective power strategy agenda. In Deuteronomy, a new emphasis is ascribed to the priesthood: the priests emerge as the guardians of the law, the constitution. (65)

Divination by means of the Urim and Thummim is almost by definition a process that can have no control, no oversight, no inspection. Few priests will learn this art, and fewer still will have access to the breastplate to corroborate the findings. Divination has the potential to be an exclusionary source of power, par excellence. By contrast, authority that is rooted in the interpretation of a public text written in a language that is accessible to a wide audience limits the potential for domination by the priests, because their pronouncements may ultimately be measured against the spirit of the text itself. (67)

It is instructive to note that the Levites apparently were so dependent on others that Scripture saw it fit to include them with the categories of the underprivileged (14:28-29). (67)

| While the general blueprint for Israelite society is egalitarian in nature, it must be admitted that the election of the priests and Levites contravenes this tendency. (67)

The Judicial Power

First, adjudication must be based on the application of written laws and not on the arbitrary decision of the judge. Second, only when the judiciary is fully independent of the other branches of the government will the regime be deemed moderate as opposed to despotic. Third, the judiciary should be drawn from the body of the members of the people, without regard for rank or social standing. (68)

What Deuteronomy emphasizes is that justice is determined by the interpretation and application of law alone. (69)

Even as representatives effect the appointment of judges, the ultimate authority and responsibility rests on the people. (69)

For thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle, the ideal citizen is the one who participates in governance. As Pericles, the leader of Athens in the fifth century B.C.E., is reported to have said, “We do not say that a man who is not interested in politics minds his own business, but that he does not belong here at all.” Now, Deuteronomy does not maintain that every citizen should strive to assist in the affairs of public administration. Nonetheless, it does exhibit its own brand of civic participation: the collective is ultimately held responsible for the actions of its representatives,… (70)

The Power of the Prophet

…the prophet’s own power is checked as well. Deuteronomy identifies the potential prophet by saying, “I will raise for you a prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like myself,” implying that he is not the member of any elite lineage, does not possess inherent powers, but rather, an ordinary citizen. Though the prophet receives divine communication, he never participates in the cult in order to communicate with the Lord. Nor does this inspired individual play any role whatever in the justice system. The emphasis on the citizenry as the ultimate authoritative body is seen here as well, as the prophet’s validation is determined by the people (18:20-22), not by the priests, the king, the judges, the elders, or other prophets. (71)

This dynamic…is at play in the transition in the politics of Deuteronomy–the transformation of an enslaved people to a responsible, proactive citizenry. … Put differently, this call offers the people a stake in what is being established, in the hope that they will be capable of rising to the challenge. (72)

Gerhard Lenski notes that mountainous regions are better suited to republican regimes than river valleys and broad valleys. Because the topography naturally limits the economic surplus produced, and transportation problems are acute, it is difficult to amass in one location a quantity of surplus capable of sustaining a royal retinue. Moreover, the military forces necessary to uphold a major power have to be  based on cavalry and horse-drawn chariots, both of which frequently prove impractical in mountainous areas. (72)

Deuteronomy and the Rejection of Clan

It is striking that in Deuteronomy, many of these structures are simply absent. There is no mention of the neśi’îm [נשיאים] at all, or of the ad hoc political body, the ‘ēdâ [העדה]. Moreover, a relatively lesser role is granted to the notion of tribe in Deuteronomy. As a federated bureaucratic structure, Deuteronomy seems to know of two units only: the nation and the city. (74)

The attempt to dissipate tribal identity is evident in Deuteronomy’s rhetoric as well. We see in Deuteronomy a transformation of the valence of the word “fathers.” In Numbers, especially, the word “fathers” is used in exclusive fashion (over 40 times) to refer to the tribal patriarchy in the phrase “house of the fathers,” a reference to the kinship structure of the tribes. In sermons spoken to the people in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the word “fathers” as a reference to the patriarchs appears only a handful of times (Exod 3:15; 13:5, 11; Lev 26:42). In Deuteronomy, the trend is reversed. In the various sermons and laws, “your fathers” never refers to a tribal kinship structure but instead refers to the patriarchs (over 30 times). The social purpose of this is to stress common ancestry and hence collective national identity, rather than identity fractured along clan and familial lines. (75

cf. Deuteronomy 14:1-2

The implication here is that although every individual has bloodlines that dictate his genealogical identity, that identity is superseded by Israel’s collective filial relation to God. (76)

The ancien [sic] régime of patriarchy, though, is not altogether expunged from Deuteronomy. As I noted with regard to its unequivocal treatment of kingship. Deuteronomy has its ideal vision. Yet it also incorporates the flexibility to answer multiple sociopolitical needs. (76)

Deuteronomy 16-17 breaks the link between the judiciary and the monarchy on the one hand and the judiciary and the tribal hierarchy on the other. (77)

Thus we see that the collective power structure of Deuteronomy is achieved by attenuating, though not eradicating, the rule of kingship on the one hand and the rule of kinship on the other. (78)

Of Moses and Montesquieu

Central to republican schemes–and Deuteronomy’s is no exception–is the notion of a mixed government and a degree of separation of powers. (78)

For the first time in history, a division of at least some powers is articulated along lines of institution and instrument rather than of class and kinship, where office legitimizes preexisting societal seats of power. … First of all, anyone who is “among your brethren” is eligible to be appointed king. Equally important, no tribe or other entity is (79) sanctioned as the appointing body; the king is appointed by the collective “you.” (80)

It is natural that God should choose to whom He wishes to convey His words, and thus the prophet is determined solely by God: “I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people” (Deut 18:18). It is also natural that the priests, likewise, are chosen by God alone… (Deut 18:5). The king, however, is dually chosen, by the people he leads and by God whose people he leads:… (Deut 17:15). The judiciary, however, is chosen exclusively by human agents:” you shall appoint judges and officers in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving to your tribes” (Deut 16:18). … The judiciary in Deuteronomy is radically independent. Here, for the first time, is a view of public office as institutional and instrumental. The appointment of judges is mandated with the sole purpose of achieving the execution of justice, rather than the assignment of office to perpetuate the standing of a noble class. In this sense, this program is suggestive of the program that would appear only with the American founding fathers. Deuteronomy is a document in which heredity and class play little role in government–a document that has no word for class, caste, noble, or landed gentry. (80)

3. Egalitarianism and Assets: God the Economist

In this chapter, I examine how the law collections of the Pentateuch articulate a philosophy of riches with the social goal in mind of ensuring (81) that a broad swath of the citizenry remain landed and economically secure. From these codes we may derive the western tradition’s first articulation of a prescription for an economic order that seeks to minimize the distinctions of class based wealth and instead seeks to ensure the economic benefit of the common citizen. (82)

Analyzing Biblical Law Codes: Methodological Considerations

It is less secure to establish the origin and provenance of a law than to establish what I would call the social world of the text: the relations of social classes that the text assumes and the ideology it inculcates to guide these relations. (83)

When we read a particular “law,” it does not stand on its own, available for immediate interpretation, but must be understood as just one element of the culture in which it is embedded. (84)

…the laws are, first and foremost, treaty stipulations. They are the conditions and mandates set down by the sovereign king YHWH for His treaty with the vassal Israel. (84)

Economies Modern and Premodern

Once upon a time, [Karl Polanyi] noted, the economic order was merely a function of the social order in which it was subsumed. In the capitalist world we inhabit, however, the opposite is the case: social relations have become embedded in the economic system. … For us, the agents of production–land, labor, and capital–are impersonal, dehumanized entities. We buy and sell as anonymous economic agents. Any social relations between the buyer and seller of, say, a house or an automobile are merely incidental. (85)

| By contrast, in premodern economies, economic exchange is often an act of building a social relationship. (85)

…at many junctures throughout the history of the ancient Near East, the primary economic structure in society was the divide between the dominant tribute-imposing class and the dominated tribute-bearing class. One leitmotif in the biblical law codes is an attempt to restructure society in such a way that the exploitative role of tribute paid to a political elite is eliminated. (86)

…records of debt-slavery in Mesopotamia emerge as early as the Ur III period (2050-1955 B.C.E.) and the institution was a permanent feature of the socio-economic landscape of the ancient Near East. (87)

| To counter this cycle, the biblical laws introduce a series of legal and conceptual reforms that together seek to achieve social equality. …it takes the form of an economic system that seeks equality by granting communal and divine legitimation to respective households that assist one another in agrarian labor and granting relief to other households in need. … It is a system that rejects both statism and feudalism. … Israel defined itself, according to the Pentateuch, in opposition to the empire of oppression, Egypt, but also in opposition to the centralized, bureaucratic states taht populated the land of Israel. (87)

The Pentateuch, however, while mentioning the heavenly host, does not indicate the presence of a well-developed heavenly hierarchy, one that would ipso facto grant metaphysical legitimation to an order of haves and have-nots. … All land, all persons are under His direct sovereignty. (88)

| A second theological postulate at work in these laws is that of God’s identity as the liberator of slaves. (88)

Land Tenure

Land was a primary means of production in agrarian society, and the legal collections, particularly those in Leviticus 25, reformulated ancient Near Eastern norms of land tenure in order to ensure that the Israelite peasant would retain his means of production. (89)

…in the ancient world, it was more common for land tenure to be conceived in terms of the parceling out of various rights. One person, say, an official, or a king, could own the land, while the rights to a portion of its yield could belong to someone else. Peasants had rights of usufruct, or “use-ownership” of the land they lived on, while title to the land belonged to the state. (90)

In Leviticus 25, however, the inalienability of property is presented with theological overtones. The ultimate owner of the land is God, and He grants rights to it to His people, Israel, as an everlasting holding, or in the legal terminology of the ancient Near East, as a land grant. In the ancient Near East, a land grant represented a promise by a donor, often a king, to a recipient, in presupposition of the loyalty of the latter, or in recompense for services rendered. (91)


A text from Seleucid Uruk dating from the end of the first millennium B.C.E. indicates that a daily ration of half a ton of bread and fifty-four containers of beer and wine were brought as food offerings. Seventeen hundred milk cows out of a total herd of nearly ten times that size are recorded for the temple at Nippur processed 350,000 sheep and goats annually. By contrast, even on festivals, the Pentateuch never mandates community offerings in excess of a dozen or so animals a day. [Occasions mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, however, indicate that major cultic events could involve massive economic resources (see 1 Kgs 8:5).] So the scope of tribute is greatly minimized in the biblical law codes, and repercussions for failing to comply with its demands are entirely absent. (94)

…the tithe of the third year in Deuteronomy represents the first known program of legislated taxation for a social purpose. (94)

Tithes, therefore, make good economic sense–as hunger insurance for all involved. (95)

To summarize, the biblical law collections minimize the scope of religiously sanctioned taxation for purposes of supporting the crown, and even the cult. In Deuteronomy, instead, the tithes are recast as catalysts of a social program. Tithes afford the general populace the opportunity to engage in a collective numinous experience at the central shrine, which underscores the significance of all members, and fosters national cohesion. Tithes become transformed into a form of taxation in order to support a social agenda of caring for the disadvantaged. Finally, taxation through tithing emerges as a form of premodern insurance among a large pool of individuals bound by extended kinship ties and by a common ideology and purpose. (96)

Interest and Borrowing

The creditor’s right to repayment in all of these laws [cf. Deut 23:20; 24:10-13; 24:6] is subordinated to the economic survival and the personal dignity of the debtor. (97)

| To summarize, the prohibition against lending at interest to fellow citizens, nowhere else legislated, served the biblical agenda on a number of fronts. It closed an avenue through which the rich could accrue greater wealth at the expense of the needy. It fostered a sense of community and shared responsibility. (97) It further served as a boundary marker between those within the collective brotherhood and those who stood outside it. (98)

Release Edicts: An Overview

What all these releases in all these periods and locales have in common is that they were edicts by the king–usually at the time of his coronation–and reflected his will to demonstrate his grace to the people and to reward loyal subjects. (98)

The Bible’s reformulation of these laws begins with a fundamental departure from the norms of the ancient Near East: the decoupling of these releases from the political order. … The Bible, however, regulates these proclamations by mandating them on a periodic basis. (99)

By contrast, the Bible addresses debt release as a statute that is prospective in nature, with the intention that the people will alter their affairs accordingly. (100)

Because the biblical “laws” worked as not merely legal remedies but bodies of teaching, it is critical to note the interdependence of these laws with distinctly biblical notions of God’s sovereignty as Creator. … The ancient Near East, however, knew no calendar that operated around the notion of a week. …there is no knowledge of a regular cycle of time known as a seven-day week. Units of time were functions of astronomical time, such as a day, a month, or a year. The week is the invention of the Bible. … The significance of the week lies in its origins. Uniquely, it is not a unit of time that emanates from nature. Neither the lunar month or even the solar year divides evenly into weeks. The only significance to the week is that the Bible ascribes to it. It represents not the cycles of nature; it represents the span of time in which God set nature into motion at Creation. (100)

Thus, the biblical law codes, in transforming release edicts theologically, neuter them as tools of manipulation. (101)

Debt Release

…equity is a vital component of equality.The release of debts, presumably to the poor, ensures the preservation of a relatively homogeneous society from an economic standpoint. …it may also be read as a simple and natural outgrowth of the statutes: the release of debts every seven years serves as a hedge against the permanent development of an indigent underclass. (102)

Land Redemption

In Mesopotamia and in (103) Egypt, when lands and residents were released from tribute and conscription, it was so that those resources could be dedicated to the cultic worship of a deity, in its temple. But within the release laws of Leviticus 25, the focus of the service of God is no longer expressed in cultic terms. Rather, the service of God is expressed as a fully released people returns to its fully released land to live out life in accordance with God’s religious and ethical commandments. The theological sanction to land redemption further ensures that the common man has a chance to return to economic viability. (104)


cf. Code of Hammurabi 117 [CH 117]; Exodus 21:1-11; Leviticus 25:8-13, 39-42, 47-55 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18.

With the exception of the law prohibiting lending at interest, no other civil law is repeated as often throughout the Pentateuch as the law of manumission. The formulation and specifics of this law differ in each of the three law collections. Nonetheless, the aggregate rhetorical effect of apprehending the Pentateuch as a whole on this score is that the presence of this law in triplicate may be understood as a powerful message (104) of the premium the Pentateuch places on ensuring a homogenous society of equally free citizens. (105)

The inclusion of such a stipulation in the biblical codes stems from its theology. Man is truly meant to be free; debt-servitude represents an anomaly, and should be viewed only as an exigency, a temporary state of affairs. (105)

‘Ebed [עבד] means a servant, a subordinate, an official, but does not connote ownership of the person, and does not indicate the duration of the status. More significant is the term ‘ibrî, [עברי] “a Hebrew.” From a literary standpoint, the term used here–the one Moses used to address slaves recently redeemed from Egypt–harkens back to two contexts. One is a specific moment in the Joseph account…(Gen 39:17) … The second context the term harks back to is the one in which freedom for the Israelites had been demanded from the Egyptians in the name of the God of the ‘ibrîm (e.g., Ex 5:3; 7:16); thus, the debtor snubs the salvation afforded him by the exodus when he voluntarily seeks to remain in servitude (Exod 21:5-6) (106)

In these ways, the laws of manumission interrelate with the other laws I have examined–not only theologically but also from a purely economic standpoint. A man who became insolvent could, in theory, have a number of avenues open to him to relieve his debt. But I have shown already how some of these were legally limited. He could seek to sell his land; but the laws of land (106) tenure and redemption severely limited this. He could borrow money; but there was no financial incentive for the lender to lend, as interest of any sort was prohibited, and according to Deuteronomy 15:1-6, the loan would be canceled in the sabbatical year. Under these circumstances, the capacity to sell his services of labor for an extended period of time could be an important avenue for the debtor to gain access to the capital he needed. Moreover, the capacity of the creditor to hold the servant for an extended period of time would provide incentive for him to invest in the worker and train him in a skill that would then translate into human capital he would take with him on his release. (107)

Conclusions: Capitalism and Community

What the economic laws of the Bible sought to achieve was an experiment with economic principles that existed elsewhere in the ancient Near Eastern (107) social milieu. In many areas, peoples of a common status, members of a tribe or a clan, conducted their affairs placing a premium on strengthening mutual responsibility and kinship, following premodern modes of economic behavior. The Bible’s economic laws sought to extend this sense of kinship and this form of economic activity to a national level, encompassing individuals who might be at a great divide, in terms of geography and in terms of kinship, but united in a common covenantal community. The biblical law collections sought to erect an economic order that was not centrally controlled, and indeed recognized the legitimacy of acquiring wealth. At the same time, they sought to ensure a modicum of social equality by placing a premium on the strengthening of relationships within the covenantal community and minimizing extreme advantage. These laws sought to ensure that all would have a chance to live honorably, mitigating against the establishment of a wealthy elite, while at the same time allowing the market to operate freely otherwise. (108)

If the institutions of democracy and capitalism are to work properly, they must coexist with certain premodern cultural habits that ensure their proper functioning. Law, contract, and economic rationality provide a necessary but not sufficient basis for both the stability and prosperity of postindustrial societies; they must as well be leavened with reciprocity, moral obligation, duty toward community and trust…not anachronisms, but rather the sine qua non of modern society. – Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, 11.

4. Egalitarian Technology: Alphabet, Text, and Class

The revolution wrought by the printing press may be seen as a heuristic mechanism for understanding the implications of alphabetic texts in ancient Israel. The adoption of the technology of the alphabetic script and its use in creating texts in ancient Israel was a function of a dynamic relationship between technology on the one hand and the theological and social mind frame of that culture on the other. (110)

Text and Class: Mesopotamia and Egypt

…in the cultures of the ancient Near East as well as ancient Greece, the production and use of texts was inextricably bound up with the formation of class distinctions: those who possessed the capacity to read and write were members of a trained scribal class who worked in the service of the ruling order. Writing originated in the ancient Near East as a component of bureaucratic activity. Systems of writing were essential for the administration of large states and for the creation and propagation of compositions taht were used to incise the key values of the culture on the hearts and minds of its royal elite. (111)

Most collections and archives from the ancient world include, perhaps even primarily, what we may term documentary texts–texts that were important only to the generation in which they were produced: correspondences, receipts, contracts, and the like. But then there were the texts that served neither documentary nor administrative function but rather were the cornerstones of cultural continuity and were passed on from one generation to the next. These would include works such as the Gilgamesh Epic, the Egyptian myth of Osiris, or, within the Greek context, the works of Homer and Euripides. These were texts whose creation, reading, and transmission were key instruments int he grounding of class distinctions; one scholar has termed them “long duration texts.” (111)

The text of Enuma Elish was never seen by the common man, but was read by the high priest on the fourth day of the new year festival, Akitu, in the presence of the statue of Marduk, in the inner sanctum of the temple. (111)

One king of Ur, Shulgi (c. 20094-2047 B.C.E.), wished to establish his fame, but found stone inscriptions insufficient. Instead he ordered:

May my songs be (placed in every mouth,
May my poems never pass from memory!…
To that end, I made the Wisdom-House-of-Nisaba resplendent with scholarship, like heavenly stars,
(So that) nothing (of these hymns) will ever pass form memory…
Let them be played in the cult places!

Note that the venues for the perpetuation of the songs are not mass public ceremonies but the halls of study and the temples. (112)

From time to time, Mesopotamian commoners did have access and exposure to such long duration texts, in the form of the display of monumental inscriptions. Yet the display of monumental writings was a display of royal power. Few could read the cuneiform writing. The alien nature of the script would naturally have served to affirm for the common man his place within the Mesopotamian hierarchy, that is to say, well below the place of the literate scribe and the court he serviced. This sense would be further corroborated by the relief that often appeared on the stele, depicting the gist of its written text, exalting the king who had promulgated the inscription. (112)

cf. The Satire of the Trades

I have seen many beatings–
Set your heart on books!
I watched those seized for labor–
There’s nothing better than books!
It’s like a boat on water
I’ll make you love scribedom more than your mother,
I’ll make its beauties stand before you;
It’s the greatest of all callings,
There’s none like it in the land.

He concludes:

See, there’s no profession without a boss,
Except for the scribe; he is the boss.
Hence, if you know writing,
It will do better for you
Than those professions I’ve set before you
Each more wretched than the other.
A Peasant is not called a man,
Beware of it! (114)

Text and Class: A Biblical View

The Pentateuch, it would seem, seeks out the promulgation, the oral publication, of its written texts. In Deuteronomy, Moses and Joshua are instructed to “write down these words and teach them to the children of Israel, that they should be fluent with it” (lit. “place it in their mouths,” Deut 31:19). Scripture continues, “Moses wrote these words on that day and taught it to the children of Israel” (Deut 31:22).

The fact that much of the Torah speaks in the second person plural (“you shall…”) implies taht it is meant to be publicized. It stands apart from other law collections of the ancient Near East in that it regularly features motive clauses (e.g., Exod 22:20, “You shall not wrong a resident alien or oppress him, for you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt”), which suggest that the legal codes are to be viewed not only as law, but as a body of teaching; dissemination is of their essence. (115)

The Meaning and Purposes of Literacy in the Ancient World

…the word [“literacy”] first appeared only in 1883. Today we would assume that literature is available only to the literate, but in premodern times this was hardly the case. Those who were exposed to texts and shaped by them numbered far more than those who had the actual capacity to read them. In his acclaimed study of literacy in medieval England, Michael Clanchy reminds us that “to read” in medieval times did not mean to set one’s eyes to a text in silent meditation. Rather, much reading was done aloud, thus allowing the nonliterate to participate in the use of documents. Charters in twelfth-century England routinely addressed “all those seeing and hearing.” The medieval recipient would listen to an utterance rather than scrutinize a document visually, as a modern literate person would. The same was apparently true in ancient times as well. The Egyptian stele of Montuwoser, from the second millennium B.C.E., concludes: “now as for everybody who will hear this stele, who is among the living, he will say, ‘It is the truth.'” (116)

…we have two highly distinct words, “to read” and “to call.” … Yet in Hebrew, these two verbs are designated by the same infinitive: liqr’ō. [לקרא] … In fact, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible is there reference to an individual reading silently to himself. The norm in the Hebrew Bible is that texts are composed with the intent of later being read aloud. (117)

The Mesopotamian and Egyptian literate accessed these texts as part of a broader oral-written mastery of the centerpieces of literature. This mastery consisted of reading these key cultural texts and committing them to memory. The texts were the basis, the core curriculum, for the memorization and oral recitation of the tradition of a culture. It was by mastering the key cultural traditions that scribes became the living repositories of the treasures of a culture. … This form of literacy, with its emphasis on enculturation and socialization, was, by design, the domain of a distinct and separate class within the society. They formed a class whose responsibility was to establish the cornerstones of the culture in the minds and hearts of kings, ministers, and priests. When the Bible envisions Israel as “a nation of priests” (Exod 19:6) or as a “wise and discerning nation” (Deut 4:6), it is, in effect, reassigning the task of transmitting the culture to the whole of the people themselves. (117)

Though there are inscriptions of the alphabet (known as abecedaries) from as early as the twelfth century B.C.E., the epigraphic evidence points to a sharp rise in writing activity during the eight and seventh centuries B.C.E. (118)

cf. Jeremiah 36:10; Isaiah 29:11-12; Habakkuk 2:2

To “run with it” here means to disseminate the message to a wider audience. … This understanding is supported by other biblical passages in which the trope of running stands as a metaphorical description of the medium through which God’s works and words are announced. (119)

I did not send the prophets, yet they ran; I did not speak to them, yet they prophesied. (Jer 23:21; see Ps 147:15)

Alphabet and Class

Neither cuneiform nor hieroglyphics fully converted speech into a semiotic system of writing. Rather, they were a mnemonic aid and, as indicated earlier, were used to record already familiar works that had been committed to memory. (120)

[via: Cuneiform ~600+ signs. Egyptian hieroglyphs = several hundred signs]

The hallmark of the early history of the alphabet, by contrast, is that it was a medium of communication adopted by the lower strata of society and not the state apparatus. The first linear alphabetic inscription known to us is from the early second millennium B.C.E., at Wadi el-Hol in eastern Egyptian desert. What is most important and striking about this inscription is that it is a graffito and was produced by a commoner. … By employing an alphabetic script, one could align a single consonantal sound (a phoneme) with one distinct sign (a grapheme), totaling somewhere between twenty-two and thirty letters, depending on the system. (121

Because of the relative simplicity of the alphabet, the gap between the fully literate and those with a vulgar level of literacy would, perforce, have been narrowed, thus facilitating the transmission fo the biblical texts broadly across the populace in the oral-written matrix described earlier. (121)

The Diverse Implications of the Alphabetic Text

It bears repeating that an advance in communication technology is not, in and of itself, always a blessing. Many scholars subscribe to the view that “power over texts allows power to be exercised through texts.” … Claude Lévi-Strauss declared that writing “seems to have favoured the exploitation of human beings rather than their enlightenment” and that “the primary function of written communication is to facilitate slavery.” … Advances in communication technology, then, cannot be automatically traced to and associated with progress. Rather, their effects will depend on the social institutions and prevailing ideologies of the cultures with which they interface. (122)

The Rise of National Vernacular Literature

The Hebrew Bible is the first written history of a people, and as such may be said to reflect a new vernacular politics. … The printing press engendered the standardization of a written vernacular, rendering literary audiences into the citizens of political entities, leading to the rise of the modern nation-state. Likewise, the composition of the Hebrew Scriptures in the relatively simple system of the alphabetic script may have more readily allowed the creation of a diffusible vernacular literature designed to distinguish the local cultural universe from that of the surrounding environment. (124)

The Domestication of Religion

What had formerly been the purview of the priest within the Church was now brought home. … Husbands and fathers assumed new roles within Protestant households that Catholic family men entirely lacked. (124)

[cf. Eisenstein, The printing press as an agent of change]

Much, if not most, education in ancient Israel took place in the home. (124)

The lost cannot be recovered; but leet us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them in from the public eye and use, consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident. – Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard, 1791

The notion that valuable data could be preserved best by being made public rather than by being kept secret ran counter to the traditional sensibilities of an earlier age. (126)

There is hardly a book in the Pentateuch–the historiographic books or the prophetic books–that does not have the them of exile at its center. (128)

…we find in the books of Ezra-Nehemiah, composed with the return to the land of Israel after the Babylonian exile, an unprecedented emphasis on texts. The leader is now Ezra, who is a scribe, not a prophet. The books of Ezra-Nehemiah cite “the book of the Torah of Moses” some 30 times. All of this indicates that the role of the written text was instrumental in helping preserve the tradition during the period of the Babylonian exile. (128)

From Image Culture to Word Culture

Iconoclastic theology and practice, which reached its apex in the writings of John Calvin, ushered in a cultural shift from the visual to the verbal. The pulpit replaced the altar. … The Bible, the written word of God, replaced the stained-glass window and the Mass as the primary didactic and liturgical focal point of faith and worship, and in turn presented a new and different basis for the common culture of the West. (128)

We have given practical proof of our reverence for our own Scriptures. For…it is an instinct with every Jew, from the day of his birth, to regard them as the decrees of God, to abide by them, and, if need be, cheerfully die for them. Time and again ere now the sight has been witnessed of prisoners enduring tortures and death in every form in the theatres, rather than utter a single word against the laws and allied documents. … What Greek would endure as much for the same cause? Even to save the entire collection of his nation’s writings from destruction he would not face the smallest personal injury. For to the Greeks they are mere stories improvised according to the fancy of their authors. – Josephus, Contra Apion, 1:42-44

The Role of the Text in Ancient Greece

At the time that Isaiah and later Jeremiah were writing down their sermons for dissemination and the Book of Deuteronomy was calling for Israelites to convene every seven years for a mass reading of the law, Greece was still preliterate, and very few Greeks ever had contact with a text. The earliest Greek ostraca come from Ionia and are dated to the first half of the eighth century B.C.E. (130)

SOCRATES  Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has now power to protect or help itself.

PHAEDRUS  You are quite right about that, too.

SOCRATES  Now tell me; is there not another kind of speech, or word, which shows itself to be the legitimate brother of this bastard one, both in the manner of its begetting and in its better and more powerful nature?

PHAEDRUS  What is this word and how is it begotten, as you say?

SOCRATES  The word which is written with intelligence in the mind of the learner, which is able to defend itself and knows to whom it should speak, and before whom to be silent.

PHAEDRUS  You mean the living and breathing word of him who knows, of which the written word may justly be called the image.

SOCRATES  Exactly. … He who has knowledge of the just and the good will not, when in earnest, write them in ink, sowing them through a pen with words which cannot defend themselves by argument and cannot teach the truth effectively. … [Rather the wise man] writes to treasure up reminders for himself, when he comes to the forgetfulness of old age. … But nobler far is the serious pursuit of the dialectician, who, finding a congenial soul, by the help of science sows and plants therein words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them. (132)

Such a view of texts could hardly have found a place in the Pentateuch’s view of society. Learning was not to be restricted to the elite. Rather, the communication of texts and their messages was envisioned as the key tool for exposing a broad society to the written word of God. (133)

5. Egalitarianism and the Evolution of Narrative: The Rescue of Moses (Exodus 2:1-10) and the Sargon Legend Compared

This shift in notions of what should be told in a story and how that story should be told is a reflection of philosophical and ideological developments. As an illustration of how ideology shapes both what is told in a story as well as how it is told, we may consider the rise of the modern novel. (135)

Social Ideology and the Rise of the Modern Novel

…the novel first emerged as the new form of literature in England in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, replacing the modes of writing employed in the beginning of the seventeenth century in the plays of Shakespeare and the epic poems of Milton. (135)

Nature was believed to be whole, eternal, and unchanging. … The novel bucks this trend by eschewing conformity to accepted models of plot. The primary criterion of the plot was now truth to individual experience. (136)

An example of the new poetics developed in the novel can be seen in the names of the protagonists. Classical Renaissance genres exhibit a preference for historical names or type-names that establish that the character is to be understood within the context of a canon or tradition rather than of his or her own age. But the eighteenth novel, following thinkers like Descartes, placed a premium on the thought processes within individual consciousness. So the novelist gave unprecedented attention to the personal identities of characters and gave them names that were more contemporary and related to the experiences they endured. (136)

The genre of Greek tragedy had dictated that action be restricted to a time frame of twenty-four hours. Since the classical world viewed reality as reflective of time-less universals, teachings about the human condition could be drawn from the events of a single day no less well than from the duration of a life. The novel, by contrast, narrated events that unfolded over lengthy spans of time, sometimes even a lifetime. Individuals were conceived for the first time as living out a historical and developmental process. (137)

Social Ideology and the Evolution of Biblical Narrative

The royal theology of the ancient Near East I examined in chapter 1 provided a milieu for the creation of narrative compositions with two primary foci: gods and kings. … The most important audience was the gods themselves–as evidenced by the fact that these texts have often been discovered in foundation deposits or other inaccessible locations. Myths were (137) recited to remind the gods of their responsibilities. (138)

Thus, in the Hebrew Bible generally, and the Pentateuch in particular, we find a new focus for narrative content: the story of a people, a nation, to be told and retold by that very people across their history. In the stories of the Pentateuch, the covenantal people would learn, not primarily about the exploits of their leaders, but rather about themselves as a collective in relationship with their sovereign deity: about their origins, their moments of greatness, and to an even greater extent, their moments of collective covenantal failing. In this regard, the Hebrew bible is the first literature before the Hellenistic period that may be termed a national history. (138)

…much narrative material in the Pentateuch is devoted to the characterization of individuals, particularly in the Book of Genesis. No doubt, this material may also be seen as national in perspective: it informs the audience of its (138) ancestral roots. …no other culture recorded its earliest beginnings to this extent. (139)

In the biblical conception of things, the relationship between man, nature, and God is radically reworked. Gone are the notions of material emanation from a divine creator whose seed, blood, or tears are the primordial elements of nature. The empiric and natural universe is no longer taken to be a throbbing and dynamic playing field for divine personages. There are no conflicting powers to be propitiated, no harmonizing forces, no interaction at all between divine figures. Now, it is God alone who guarantees victory in war, bounty int he fields, and the fecundity of the animals and the people. Moreover, God is transcendent over all natural phenomena, and not palpably manifest through them. For a person to conceive of divinity in this way thus entails a definite sacrifice, for it requires one to surrender the sense of a life lived in tangible and visible harmony with the cadences and vagaries of nature and the divine forces that govern them. (140)

cf. Deut 11:13-15

[via: This is a shift from “divine determinism” to contingency upon human will and responsibility.]

…men are no longer simply the servants of the gods, but rather are charged with the task of realizing His will. The Bible is the record of Israel’s collective successes and failings at realizing that will. (141)

Because the course of events–all events, historical and natural–depends on Israel’s behavior, each member of the Israelite polity suddenly becomes endowed with great significance. … Each person becomes endowed with a sense of responsibility unparalleled in the literatures of the ancient Near East. (141)

While the stories of individuals int he Pentateuch include episodes of divine revelation and the occasional miracle, they are unparalleled in their focus on mundane human circumstances, when viewed in contrast with the myths and epics of the ancient Near East. (143)

Not only do these narratives about individuals exhibit a different focus in content, the what; their intense interest in personality and character development, in the complexity of the human condition, leads to more developed ways of telling a story–the how. Biblical storytelling builds on narratological techniques for the exploration of personality that were first used in the narrative epics of Ugarit in the Late Bronze Age (fifteenth to twelfth century B.C.E.). The result is a mode of narration that stands in stark contrast to the one employed int he service of the royal theologies that predominated in the ancient Near East. (143)

The Rescue of Moses (Exodus 2:1-10) and the Sargon Legend

I am Sargon, the great king, king of Agade.
My mother was a high priestess, I did not know my father.
My father’s brothers dwell in the uplands.
My city is Zaupiranu, which lies on Euphrates bank.
My mother, the high priestess, conceived me, she bore me in secret.
She placed me in a reed basket, she sealed my hatch with pitch.
She left me to the river, whence I could not come up.
The river carried me off, it brought me to Aqqi, drawer of water.
Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as he dipped his bucket.
Aqqi, drawer of water, brought me up as his adopted son.
Aqqi, drawer of water, set (me) to his orchard work.
During my orchard work, Ishtar loved me,
Fifty-five years I ruled as king.
I became lord over and ruled the black-headed folk,
I…[] hard mountains with picks of copper,
I was wont to ascend high mountains.
The [la]nd of the sea I sieged three times,
I conquered Dilmun.
I went up to great Der, I [],
I destroyed [Ka]zallu and [].

“Birth Legend of Sargon”

[via: Note the “reed” basket, the “drawer” of water (which is Moses’ name), the river, adoption, ruling as a king, being loved by Ishtar; all resonances to the Moses story.]

cf. Exodus 2:1-10

…these two accounts represent only two instances of what folklorists call the type-story of the hero cast away in infancy. The form is attested in written sources from as early as the first half of the second millennium. One count identifies seventy-two versions of this tale across ancient, medieval, and modern history. The motif of an imperiled child of illustrious parents abandoned in infancy and raised by foster parents before rising to assume the mantle of leadership or the status of hero is a skeleton biography of Oedipus, Romulus, King Arthur, Snow White, Tarzan, and Superman. Harry Potter is only the most recent reincarnation of the motif. In premodern versions, the structure of the tale usually includes the following seven elements: (1) a note that the infant was of noble birth; (2) an explanation for the abandonment; (3) preparations for the infant’s exposure; (4) the act of exposure; (5) protection or salvation in an unusual manner; (6) discovery and adoption; (7) a listing of the accomplishments of the hero. One scholar has identified ten tales from premodern sources in which the abandonment occurs at a river or a riverbank, as in the Moses and Sargon stories. The ubiquity of the motif suggests that it is rooted in a social reality. … In ancient times, no site was more the focus of day-today activity in riverine cultures than the river bank, where the chances were greatest that the child would be noticed and saved. (146)

Motifs recur in independent fashion because they are universal. (146)

…first person narration well suits the construction of an authoritarian personality. Nearly all the first person narration from the ancient Near East revolves around the feats and accomplishments of kings and sometimes other public figures, figures who dominate the populaces that served them. … What underlies these first person compositions is a king’s desire to gain acceptance, legitimacy, or sympathy, either from a deity or from the judgment of subsequent generations of the elite. (147)

By contrast, the Bible–in nearly universal fashion–depicts its narratives in the third person, as in the Moses rescue narrative. … Biblical narrative essentially sets forward a series of situations and scenarios that allows the reader or listener to fully empathize with the characters and, as it were, endure the experience, the challenges, and the dilemmas together with the protagonists. (148)

Whereas the Sargon legend is presented as related by Sargon himself, the biblical stories are not presented as being related by any specific person; the narrator seems to practice what one scholar has called “drastic self-effacement.” He is, moreover, differentiated from the Almighty. God does not tell the story; in fact, God is a character in the Bible’s stories. Rather, the narrator fades into the background, omniscient, yet not himself God. The way the story’s presentation seems to approach objectivity, without commentary, allows the reader to identify with the circumstances, as the protagonists of the story themselves do. The implicit omniscience of this mode of storytelling also allows the narrator to freely weave in and out of minds and to be privy to all relevant information–to help shape the moral dimensions of the dilemma at hand. (148)

In royal narrative inscriptions, there is little development of character, because essentially, the fortunes of the king are solely a product of the providence of the gods, or of the king’s capacity to please them. (149)

| Surprisingly, by contrast, we note that the Bible makes relatively little overt mention of God in its narratives about individuals and their lives. The Moses rescue narrative is a case in point: God is nowhere explicitly mentioned. Seemingly, the hand of God is here. But it is behind the scenes, and not explicitly mentioned. … Were the text to make explicit what is only implicit, it would do so at great cost: the flood of divine presence in the story would drown out the possibility of seeing the characters’ actions as autonomous choices. Acts of heroism, the moves made after agonizing inner struggle, would all be nullified. Instead, protagonists would be viewed as props made to act, marionettes animated by a divine puppeteer. At one and the same time, from the biblical perspective, God implicitly guides events, while all the while the agents who act do so in utter freedom. (149)

Everything is foreseen on high, yet free choice is given. – Rabbi Akiva

Childbirth is referred to elsewhere as the opening of the womb (154) (Gen 29:31; 30:22), and the literature of the ancient Near East abounds with imagery of the womb as a river. So Pharaoh’s daughter at this point experiences a profound, birth-like first encounter with the child. (155)

[via: Stanislav Grof and the birth archetype?]

What is so obviously true from a human standpoint, and so consonant with the tone and tenor of verses 2-3, is totally absent here. Her feelings are silenced, as she plays the part assigned her. The account is told from the perspective of the proprietress who has legal deed to the child. The outsourced lactation provider completes her services, and returns the child to its legal “mother”: and he became for her as a son. (157)

Speech, then, in this story is not merely a record of the words spoken during the unfolding of these dramatic events. Speech functions as a marked rhetorical tool that highlights the attempt at persuasion and the execution of power. It signals to us where power resides–primarily in Pharaoh’s daughter, secondarily in the child’s sister–and whence power has been stripped: the baby’s mother, as evidenced in her silent anguish. (159)

Figure 5.1 Moses Brought before Pharaoh’s Daughter, by William Hogarth (1746).

Figure 5.2 The Finding of Moses, by Gerrit de Wet (1650).

This painting–nay, this close reading of the verse–endows the princess with a sharpened acumen and distinctly acute sense of caring. (161)

Figure 5.3 The Finding of Moses, by Francesco Zugno (1920).

Figure 5.4. The Finding of Moses, by Orazio Gentileschi (1633).

The story of the rescue of Moses, finally, may be seen as a story of two hierarchies–one Hebrew and one Egyptian–that collide, destabilizing the place and role of all involved. From the top down, the Hebrew hierarchy appears in the form of three figures: the father, the mother, and the sister. The father is introduced vis-à-vis the mother in terms that are typical of the biblical discourse that establishes the primacy of the head of the household in the Israelite patriarchy: “A man of the house of Levi went and married the daughter of Levi.” Rounding out the lowest rung of the hierarchy is the daughter, whose natural role is to display filial loyalty and deference to her parents. (163)

Figure 5.5 The Finding of Moses, by Paolo Veronese (1575)

From the top down, the Egyptian hierarchy also exhibits three levels: Pharaoh, the daughter of Pharaoh, and the maidens. It is true that Pharaoh plays no active role in this passage. Nonetheless, the king of Egypt is everywhere present in this story. It is his decree that sets up the entire scene. His daughter, second in the hierarchy within this story, is identified by his name (164) only. Finally, we have the complement of maidservants mentioned in verse 5 who form the lowest rung of the Egyptian hierarchy here. (165)

| These two triadic hierarchies are concomitantly disrupted. (165)

The crossing of boundaries and the blurring of hierarchy is encapsulated in the trajectory taken by the child at stake, who passes from Hebrew hands to Egyptian ones, back to Hebrew ones, and finally to Egyptian ones again. (165)

| The account of the rescue of Moses, in contrast with the Sargon legend, demonstrates that the narrative portions of the Pentateuch may be construed as a polemic against the hagiography of royal inscriptions and royal theology. (165)

The actions of Pharaoh’s daughter represent an act of disobedience against monarchic rule, such as the midwives of Exodus 1 (Exod 1:15-21) also perform. These stories are harbingers of the tradition in which prophets challenge royal authority, as in Moses’ stands before Pharaoh, Nathan’s castigation of David (2 Sam 12:-14), Elijah’s censure of Ahab (1 Kgs 18) and Jeremiah’s call to disobey the order of King Zedekiah (Jer 38:2; 37:13). (166)

Conclusion: Egalitarianisms Ancient and Modern

This has been a book about an idea–the egalitarian impulse found int he warp and woof of the books of the Pentateuch. In a larger sense, however, this has been an exploration of an assumption: that we may fruitfully engage a religious text such as the Hebrew Bible in search of political teachings. … The notion of the separation between church and state is fundamental to the functioning of pluralistic, multicultural democracies. Yet in a peculiar fashion, it would seem that this notion has conditioned our modes of thinking, corralling us into a philosophical bifurcation. Fitted with blinders that split religion and state into separate realms, we view our intellectual and cultural heritage accordingly. When we look for the ancient antecedents of our legal history, the earliest formulations of political science and the beginnings of constitutional theory, we look–in exclusive fashion–toward ancient Greece. And when we look for the earliest sources of our notion of monotheistic belief, moral teachings and individual piety, we look–again in exclusive fashion–toward the Hebrew Bible. This study has been a call to remove those blinders, and to see once again how the religious and the political in the Hebrew Bible must be viewed as part of an inseparable whole, if that work is to be properly understood. (167)

Theories and thought systems that espouse equality among persons may be seen to entertain three fundamental questions:

  1. What is the basis for claiming that such equality exists?
  2. What is it that gets equalized among putatively equal persons?
  3. How do these two issues–the metaphysical basis for claiming equality, and the way that equality is palpably felt and expressed–contribute to conceptions of the proper regime structure? (168)

The Pentateuch, we saw throughout, devotes great attention to the values and traits that must be instilled in the minds and hearts of the populace in order for them to rise to their covenantal obligations. The Pentateuch has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature–it expects that an entire nation can behave in exemplary fashion with regard to one another and with regard to their sovereign king, God. Earthly kingship is greatly attenuated, and the various seats of power in Deuteronomy are all subject to the aegis and supervision of the people as a whole–“you.” By investing greatly in the creation of a covenantal brotherhood of individuals bound by law and theology, the Pentateuch envisions an ideal society that holds together on the merits of its members, rather than on the basis of the authority of its power brokers. (169)

It is manifestly natural and beneficial for the body to be ruled by the soul…the same holds true of human beings with respect to the other animals…in addition, the relation of the male to the female is by nature that of better to worse and ruler to ruled. Things must also hold in the same way for all human beings. Thus those who are as widely separated from others as are soul and body or human and beast–and that is the condition of those whose work is the use of the body and from whom such work is the best there is–are slaves by nature. For them it is better to be ruled over by a master. – Aristotle, Politics

While Aristotle and particularly Plato were affiliated with the aristocracy and championed oligarchic regimes, even the democrats of Athens likewise affirmed hierarchy as an organizing principle of authority. Citizenship in ancient Greece–even in democratic Athens–was denied to women, farmers, laborers, mechanics, freedmen, and metics (resident aliens). Only males with the proper pedigree, who underwent military training, could be granted citizenship, and these constituted no more than 20 percent of the population of Athens at any time. The denial of citizenship to so great a proportion of the population meant that the vast majority of the residents of Athens were the subjects of discrimination in terms of capacity to hold political office, receive justice equal to that of citizens in the courts, hold land, and participate in religious festivals. (170)

The notion of a law-based polity, therefore, serves multiple tasks in the thought of classical Greece, as in the Pentateuch. It enables the creation of alternative power structures to tyranny, and at the same time encourages the forming of bonds of cohesion around a central set of rules established to promote the common good, granting citizens equal status before the law. (171)

While some voices in the Bible may exhibit an egalitarian streak concerning who may hold certain offices, and who may elect persons to these offices, the Bible nowhere puts forth an ideal of the citizen as one who actively participates in the affairs of government. The ideological distance between Athens and Jerusalem is great indeed. (172)

All are not equal at birth, but all can become so in the embrace of Jesus Christ. (cf. 1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:28) (173)

It is true that, as in the Pentateuch, the sense of equality Lock assigned to individuals was as citizens, on equal footing in their relations to government, and to each other, and before the law. For the Pentateuch, however, equality is born of a communitarian ideal. The equality between members of the Israelite polity is granted to them in order that they should collectively answer the higher calling of serving as subordinate kings in covenantal partnership. Individual rights exist, but they exist essentially to advance a collective good. (174)

By contrast, because much of modern political thought sees persons as fully autonomous selves prior to the establishment of any community, the purpose of government is now found in the concept of agreement between individuals previously existing in independence of one another. (174)

A final avenue for further study would be to look for ways the egalitarian blueprint for the covenantal community of Israel can contribute to our thinking about the relation of rights to duties, the rights of individuals to the rights of groups, common goods and goals, and group relations in political theory. (175)

If there was one truth the ancients held to be self-evident it was that all men were not created equal. If we maintain today that, in fact, they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, then it is because we have inherited as part of our cultural heritage notions of equality that were deeply entrenched in the ancient passages of the Pentateuch. (175)

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