Liberty, the West, and the Judeo-Christian heritage.
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Yet the history of Israel is the story of a liberation. The conquest of the Promised Land is the last episode in a process that leads the people to an independent life. The people are said to have been freed from a state of captivity they suffered in Egypt. Whether this matches a historical fact is scarcely relevant. What is important is the kind of experience of God that is implied in such a narrative. When God introduces Himself to His people, He does what we do when we first tell our name, then the trade that we ply: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). God’s job, so to speak, consists in setting people free.
Now, this introduction explains the meaning of what follows, i.e., the famous “Decalogue,” which we commonly translate as “ten commandments.” But the word means more exactly ten utterances, for the very first one, which I have just quoted, is not a commandment but a self-description. Yet it provides us with the key to a proper understanding of the socalled “commandments.”
The Code of Free People THOSE COMMANDMENTS, be they positive or negative, are not expressed with the imperative particle (“do this,” “don’t do that”), but with the particle that invokes or negates a future tense (“thou shalt do this” or “not do that”). They describe the logical consequences of the liberation wrought by God. We have to understand: Because you are now free people, you won’t have to do anymore what slaves do, i.e., you won’t kill, you won’t steal, etc. The word “commandment” has a ring of submission. But the Decalogue is not about submission at all. What we call the laws are the codification of liberty. They don’t limit freedom by setting rules that we are not allowed to trespass. Abiding by the law is nothing more than remaining faithful to the logic of liberation, taking one’s freedom seriously and drawing whatever consequences it might have. In fact, the “commandments” are something like the code of honor of free people, of gentlemen who are aware of “what is not done.” They connect the gift of freedom with the responsibilities that naturally flow from it.
With some irony, we could interpret many features of the Ten Commandments in the light of aristocratic ethics: A gentleman does not bow down to a graven image nor serve it (Exodus 20:5); a gentleman does not tell fibs (v. 7, 16); he does not toil all the time but grants himself and his manservants a day of rest (v. 8-10); he honors his lineage (v. 12); he does not mingle in dirty business like killing, betraying his wife, or pilfering (v. 13-15); he does not even stoop to look at other people’s property (v. 17), etc.
On the other hand, the liberty that the people of Israel enjoy is not that of the aristocratic libertine. The trouble with born gentlemen is that even if they indulge in the most shameful vices, they will do so with perfect grace and propriety, like Mozart’s Don Juan, never losing their exquisite distinction and manners. As a consequence, they won’t be particular about morality. Even if they “play the game,” they won’t take such things too seriously when none of their peers are watching. On the other hand, people who retain the gnawing consciousness of being, at the end of the day, mere upstarts will normally react by behaving in a more gentlemanly way than “real” gentlemen. They will even slightly overdo things, just to be on the safe side. We can spot something like that in ancient Israel, especially among the prophets.
Liberty for the Slaves ISRAEL’S PAST LIBERATION from Egypt is constantly brought to memory as a gift, so that liberty cannot be separated from the consciousness of a former bondage. This unpleasant remembrance is almost harped upon: “And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:5). This has consequences for the behavior that is expected of the Israelite towards foreigners: “Thou shalt neither vex a stranger, nor oppress him: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21; see Deuteronomy 10:19). Because liberty is nothing natural, but something that was vouchsafed by God, being born a free man loses its relevance, and the difference between true-blue Israelites and the others is played down: “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Also “thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Hence biblical liberty is not peacefully enjoyed by a privileged caste. It exists in a dynamic dimension: it must be shared with other people and expanded to the whole of mankind. Freedom introduces a dynamic of liberation.
The Bible generalizes aristocratic ethics to a people in its entirety. This may have something to do with a fact that had momentous consequences in Western political theory: The legitimacy of monarchic rule was always implicitly qualified, and often explicitly attacked. Such a critical stance towards monarchy was a new phenomenon. In the ancient world, we find from time to time critiques leveled at this or that concrete ruler. More than one Roman emperor was portrayed by Tacitus as a bloodthirsty tyrant and lampooned by Suetonius because of his deviant sexual practices. We find reflections on the respective value of the various political regimes, e.g. in Herodotus, who reports in his Histories (III, 80-82) the discussion that allegedly took place between the supporters of those regimes, after a revolution did away with an impostor. The upshot was the choice of monarchy.
The Bible is the only ancient text that contains a critique of monarchy as such, not of this or that concrete king, not as pitted against another political system (I Samuel 8:10-18). The only legitimate rule is supposed to be God’s direct rule. This is not a claim in favor of theocracy, if we mean thereby the rule of priests over lay people. It is an appeal to everybody to behave as a priest, as Israel is “a nation of priests” (Exodus 19:6).
Free Discussion with God THE WAY IN WHICH God behaves with His people shows that the Lord Himself respects the freedom of His creatures. This comes to the fore in a scene that several prophets, among the most ancient, repeatedly put on stage: the God of Israel is supposed to have with His unfaithful people a lover’s tiff, and even to bring a lawsuit (Hebrew r îv) against them. Thus Hosea, a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the eighth century, declares: “Hear the word of the Lord, ye children of Israel: for the Lord hath a controversy with the inhabitants of the land, because there is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and committing adultery, they break out, and blood toucheth blood” (Hosea 4:1-2). Likewise Isaiah, a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the same period, announces that “the Lord standeth up to plead, and standeth to judge the people. The Lord will enter into judgment with the ancients of His people, and the princes thereof: for ye have eaten up the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What mean ye that ye beat my people to pieces, and grind the faces of the poor? saith the Lord God of hosts” (Isaiah 3:13-15).
The reasons for God’s wrath and desire to litigate with His people have nothing to do with God’s own “interests” (supposing this could make any sense), but very much to do with the good of those who most urgently need protection, i.e., the poor. There is a particularly revealing passage in Micah, another prophet from the eighth-century Kingdom of Judah: “Hear ye now what the Lord saith; Arise, contend thou before the mountains, and let the hills hear thy voice. Hear ye, O mountains, the Lord’s controversy, and ye strong foundations of the earth: for the Lord hath a controversy with His people, and he will plead with Israel. O my people, what have I done unto thee? And wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me. For I brought thee up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed thee out of the house of servants; and I sent before thee Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Micah 6:1-4).
The powers of nature are called to witness. They are described according to the worldview that prevailed at that time: the earth is seen as a flat surface posited on pillars. But discarding this as obsolete would let an important element go: God and the people are not facing one another. There is a third character in the drama, before which their dispute is being judged. In this case, the part is played by mountains, hills, and the primeval abyss. We would call this character by a name that is lacking in the Old Testament: “nature.”
In short, we have entered the realm of law. The dimension of the juridical begins where two litigants contend in the presence of a third, neutral person. God argues with His people on the basis of commonly received moral principles. Those principles are not simply what God happens to will. They exist by what later thinkers will call “nature.” There is a common ground of basic decency between God and man, a ground on which man can stand even without an explicit knowledge of the God of Israel. This is what Hosea calls “knowledge of God” in the passage quoted above: the “god” there has capital letters for the translators only. “Knowing God” or “fearing God” means hardly more than abiding by the rules of common decency (see Genesis 20:11). The Koran does not mention such scenes. The recurrent pattern is: God sends a prophet to a human group and commands that something should be done or avoided; He is not obeyed; the disobedient group is utterly destroyed by some device: a strong wind, an earthquake, a flood, etc. (XXIX, 40.) To be sure, many contradictory discussions between the prophets and their people are reported, but none takes place between God and the prophets whom He sends. Exchange takes place only between beings that exist on the same level. God does not admit any bargain with Him. Little wonder that Abraham’s famous haggling with God about the fate of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-33) should be quickly alluded to, but not told (XI, 74).
THE FIFTH CHAPTER of Isaiah opens with a well-known song: “Now will I sing to my well-beloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?” (Isaiah 5:1-4).
The allegory is quickly explained. God’s vineyard is the country of Israel, the vine is the people, the fruit stands for the latter’s deeds, good or bad. The whole passage belongs to the literary genre of the lawsuit between God and His people: the Israelites are summoned to judge between God and the vine, viz. themselves. Their guilt is, as always, moral in nature: They have denied justice, taken bribes, and so on. The interesting point, however, is the attitude of God. He does not command the vine to produce good grapes. This is what the vine is expected to do (God “looks that…”), because this is what a vine, when it is properly looked after, normally and spontaneously does. To use a non-biblical word, it is the nature of the vine to produce grapes. In the same way, God does not, properly speaking, command righteous moral behavior. How one should behave is already a matter of common knowledge, which can be brought back to the memory, but not taught. God expects moral behavior to spring forth from human nature, and to spring forth freely.
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