by Barry Edelson
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Shepherd v. Farmer


Lies Our Forefathers Told Us

Ideologies, however radically they begin, eventually devolve into conservatism, or even reaction. Those who live many generations after a political or social order has been overturned, and a new one planted in its place, would scarcely recognize the original intent of their forebears. The more time that has elapsed, and the more layers of history and culture are grafted onto a national story, the more the founding myths become an unquestioned reality. And the more profoundly the past defines that reality, the further it becomes removed from its founding purpose. We imagine that we are the cultural descendants of our distant ancestors, but in fact, we are as different from them as we are to strangers from another continent. What we are taught and what we believe derive less from the heroic examples of ancient patriarchs and matriarchs than from the bowdlerized versions of history that have passed through too many hands to be taken seriously. And yet, our belief systems are taken with deadly seriousness, in inverse proportion to their veracity or verifiability. No absurdity is too great nor atrocity too unforgivable in defense of an ideology whose only remaining purpose is its own perpetuation.

Every so often we are confronted by an idea that challenges all of these ingrained ideas that guide our lives. Even those of us who retain an aloof distance from the ideologies of our forefathers, and are preternaturally skeptical towards power and faith and their rationalizations, tend to define our opposition according to the distrusted system itself. Thus "atheism" and "agnosticism" have no meaning without theology, "communism" would be nonsensical without capitalism, "democracy" is hopeless without the constant reminder of dictatorship. But there are thinkers who occasionally present a notion so unsettling to the world view upon which we have been nurtured, that they give us pause to wonder whether our most fundamental understanding of history and society, including our skepticism of their essential tenets, is fundamentally wrong.

The Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony has offered just such an idea in "The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture", a startling book whose prosaic title and calm tone give no hint to a series of assertions that undermine the most basic reading of Jewish history and, by extension, all monotheistic teaching.

Why is every single hero of the
Old Testament a shepherd?

Hazony's argument is rooted in one very simple question: Why are all the heroes of the Hebrew Scripture shepherds? Without exception, all of the men upon whom the Hebrew God bestows his favor are shepherds. Abraham leaves the city of Ur to become a shepherd in Canaan. Moses flees the Pharaoh's court after killing an Egyptian and becomes a shepherd in the wilderness. David is a shepherd boy who rises to become king of the Israelites. This is not a mere metaphor, as Jesus is likened in the New Testament to a shepherd who protects his flock of human followers. Every Hebrew protagonist in the history of the Israelites is literally a shepherd. But why is that, when most people at that time and place were farmers?

The depiction of man's story from the outset, in the Garden of Eden, establishes a sharp dichotomy between the shepherd and the farmer. Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden, a metaphor for the abundant wilderness in which our now town-dwelling species originated, and forced to work the land to sustain themselves. In this view, farming is not a natural development of human endeavor, but a punishment. In the very next generation we see this edict put to the test: Abel defies God's will and becomes a shepherd. When Cain, the farmer, makes a sacrifice, it is rejected by God. He does exactly what he is supposed to do, and yet he is not rewarded for it. This would seem to be the exact opposite of the great moral lesson that the Bible is supposed to teach us, that disobedience to God's law is the primary cause of disorder and human suffering. But it is the defiant shepherd, Abel, who is both hero and victim of this story. Again, why?

If we consider what we have learned from scientific study about the origins of human civilization, we can see how canny Hazony's question is. As man discovered the cultivation of grain from wild grasses, and learned to domesticate animals, he gradually left behind the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that had sustained him for millions of years and settled into agricultural communities. We know from archaeological and anthropological research that the Middle East was one of the major centers of this transformation from rural to urban life, and that this change took place in the few millennia immediately preceding the setting of the first Bible stories. Agricultural surplus enabled man to sustain ever-larger towns and cities, and with them both the benefits and depredations that come with farming: the security of a food supply, technological advancement, and a sophisticated social and cultural life. But along with the hierarchies of large human settlements arose fiefdoms and kingdoms, which, as in all human communities larger than tribal villages, were organized kleptocracies whereby a small minority exploited the labor of the majority to establish and maintain power. Since man's beginning as a city dweller, he had to accept that the safety of the chief's embrace brought with it the risk of suffocation: the banishment of hunger and a defense against predators on the one hand, and social inequality, slavery, the subjugation of women, warfare, and other social evils on the other. These and other ills constantly tore at the social fabric that the concentration of power made possible in the first place.

The God of the Hebrew Bible would have none of it. Every story in Genesis depicts cities as centers of evil and corruption, where man becomes a tyrant over his fellow man, ceases to think for himself, and fails to follow a path of decency. The most potent metaphor for the early development of cities is the story of Babel in Genesis, which appears early in the text and is clearly meant to caution man against both the centralization of power and the belief that human society is capable of achieving perfect knowledge. The result of such efforts is never the unity sought by its proponents, but disintegration and chaos, as symbolized in the divergence of languages that makes it impossible for man to achieve harmony on Earth. The people in the best position to observe these processes objectively and resist them effectively are shepherds, who stand apart from society and live beyond the reach of unreason.

The Text and Its Purpose

The books of the Old Testament, Hazony concludes, were assembled in the time of Jeremiah, following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by Babylonian invaders in 586 B.C. and the subsequent exile of the Israelites. Jeremiah was among those who fled to Egypt, where he and his followers assembled the history of the Israelites as a cautionary tale that is as much political as moral. The apex of this history, after centuries of enslavement in Egypt, wars of conquest against the "gentile" tribes, and internecine conflict between the Israelite tribes, was the establishment of an Israelite kingdom under the house of David. This united kingdom lasted barely a century before a rift opened after the death of King Solomon, David's son. The dominant tribe of Judah installed a king not from the house of David, prompting ten tribes who did not accept this king's rule to create an independent kingdom in the northern part of the nation, with a monarch of their own choosing. About a century and a half before the Babylonian catastrophe, this Northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and destroyed by an Assyrian invasion, which was quite possibly abetted by the Judean kingdom as the climax of a ceaseless and frequently violent conflict between the two rivals. This first invasion was cataclysmic for the north, leading to the legend of the ten "lost tribes" that were taken into captivity and dispersed among their conquerers, and eventually assimilated into oblivion.

The sole reason why the exiles wrote down these stories after the Babylonian exile, Hazony proposes, was to prevent this same fate from befalling the descendants of Judah: to explain to the children of Abraham why their story was important not only to themselves but to all mankind, to help them understand why they lost their kingdom, and prevent them from being lost entirely to history. Though we traditionally group the five Books of Moses as the formative Hebrew text, with all of the other books as a lesser commentary, Hazony makes the case that the Bible is actually divided into three major parts: the first part encompasses the entire arc of the history of the Israelites, with the Pentateuch grouped with the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. The second part comprises the orations of the major and minor prophets, including Jeremiah himself. The third part are the "writings" that include Psalms, Proverbs, Chronicles and Song of Solomon. It is the first part, which begins with creation and ends just before the Babylonian disaster, which Hazony believes was essential to binding the disparate communities of the exiled nation together, and which holds all the important clues to its own purpose.

Hazony's truly radical idea is that the reason for the destruction of the Israelite kingdom was not the one that we have been handed down through the generations — essentially, that the Israelites incurred God's wrath and disfavor by failing to adhere with sufficient righteousness to the laws of Moses. Such a limited view is just not supported by the story. Instead, he poses an alternative interpretation: that a failure of the Israelite leaders to admit their own political failures and correct their course led to a decline into corruption and an eventual descent into tyranny and barbarism. Hazony writes:

"The ability of the ruler to humble himself and change his ways is seen as the only hope of correcting the direction of the state when it is off course. A ruler who is capable of such correction is thus needed as a matter of political prudence — prudence on which the fate of the kingdom depends."

In other words, what caused the destruction of Israel was the Israelite's becoming too much like farmers and forgetting their historical origins as shepherds.
I fear there's a bit more to it than this.
In story after story, God does not reward those who faithfully obey the rules but those who stand apart from human society and think for themselves. Those he truly favored were the iconoclasts who challenged authority, including God's authority, and questioned the accepted wisdom of their times. Thus the Hebrew Scripture is as much a political document as a moral one, intended to save a people from oblivion and revive an ancient kingdom, not solely through adherence to law but through the application of human reason and judgment.

Through this differently colored lens, nearly every story of the Old Testament takes on a totally different hue. The expulsion from Eden, then, is not about Adam and Eve's disobedience of God's command to leave the forbidden fruit alone, not the "original sin" that looms even larger in Christian than in Jewish theology. Their transgression was in believing that knowledge — in particular an understanding of right and wrong — was a gift to be handed down from God like a revelation, rather than something to be gained through experience and reflection. One of Hazony's most compelling arguments is that man possesses a moral nature independent of God's commands. This concept has always been self-evident to non-believers, and is supported by masses of anthropological evidence. But Hazony asserts, astonishingly, that making this case was one of the essential reasons why the Bible was written. He cites a number of convincing examples: How could Cain have known that it was wrong to murder his brother if there were yet no commandments from God? How were the people of Sodom and Gomorrah to know that their behavior was immoral if there were yet no laws to tell them so? Why does God agree with Abraham that he would spare the people of these wicked cities for the sake of one righteous person among them, when the definition of righteousness had not yet even come to light? These early tales are placed where they are in the narrative, Hazony argues, to establish the idea that man is capable of discerning the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, perfectly well without any god having to tell him.

The Israelites, and Everyone Else

Hazony goes to great lengths to distinguish the Hebrew texts, as works of reason, from the later Christian books, which are works of revelation. Even the word "testament" is a misnomer, applied retrospectively by Christian theologians to the Hebrew Scripture, as it contains no testimony as such. There is no single truth for the Israelites to follow, no account of the beginnings of Judaism in which mortals are exhorted to place their faith, no single point of light to serve as a beacon of guidance and faith. Instead, Abraham and his descendants are encouraged time and again, through example after example in the story, to reason out the law and morality for themselves. God even allows them to argue with him, as Abraham does on behalf of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah, and as Moses does when he frequently voices his doubts and connives time and again to see God's face, as though negotiating terms. When Jacob wrestles with the angel, he is given the new name of Israel, which literally means to struggle with God. What deity, who wants man merely to obey his commands, rewards him with a name that glorifies the struggle against those commands? Only through an unceasing process of individual discovery, which allows doubt as a constant companion, can man determine the correctness of law and morality. [From the perspective of the non-observant, Hazony's reading of the Bible inadvertently makes a very strong case that the Jews invented their God as they went along, shaping him through dissent and argument just as they shaped their body politic through dissent and argument.]

The constant exhortation for the Israelites not to be like the other nations means literally that they must avoid becoming too much like farmers, that is, they should not be too interested in property and the trappings of power, or unquestioningly obedient to the arbitrary rule of kings. Morality does not reside in legal codes but, remarkably, in the process of questioning the law. For the fallen kingdoms of Israel, the lesson could not be more plain: You will not be saved by mere obedience to the law, nor punished for mere disobedience alone. There is no revelation that will save you, no fixed idea that will see you through your troubles. There is only the endless process of contemplation that is available to every person, and must be renewed in every generation. The greatest error a person can make is failing to use his own powers of reason.

As an observant Jew, Hazony must surely know that his preference for reason and doubt over revelation and obedience are a form of apostasy little tolerated in the strict domains of law and custom. But he consistently holds to this conviction, maintaining that the imperative of following the commandments is not the central point of the Bible story, nor even the most important lesson for the Jews and their history of suffering. What will doom the Jews is deviating from the independent thinking of the shepherd patriarchs, not deviating from the law. He writes,

"…from the moment that God's name is invoked, the law is no longer a matter to be adjudicated by reason. One has to obey because God said so." [But] "the fact is that no one has to obey because God said so. From the story of Adam in Eden, through almost every page of Scripture, and down to our own time, people choose to live as they choose to live."

This lesson could not be more different from the strict teaching of the law upon which Jewish children have been weaned for the better part of two thousand years. The term musar, which translates literally as ethical teaching, is often used derisively (by young people, in particular) to describe the sermons of a rabbi who doesn't know how to talk about anything but the do's and don'ts of the law. This is the pathetic fate of all systems of thought: the sharp edges of truth are gradually whittled down into the monotony of daily obedience.

2,000 years of studying the law may  
  explain the survival of Judaism
   but not the survival of the Jews.

Critical thinking devolves into musar. It is only too comfortable to accept what we are told, and go along with the crowd. Conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason: to allow no dissent and to punish those who stray from the official line. The Bible, Hazony insists, was written as a counterbalance against this natural tendency towards social uniformity, which is a stepping stone to centralization and tyranny. Even the very books included in the Scripture support this argument; for example, Chronicles offers a version of the history of the Israelites that is at odds in a number of fundamental respects from the "official" version told in the other books. At every step, Jeremiah and his followers were sending the message that disagreement is more vital than orthodoxy, and is necessary to the security of a free people.

The notion that argument is central to Jewish thought and identity is as old as the Old Testament. Though it is easy to caricature (Question: "Why does a Jew always answer a question with a question?" Answer: "Why not?") it is a characteristic, if Hazony is right, that derives from Jeremiah's deliberate scheme to establish skepticism as a fundamental ingredient in the survival of his people. Hazony would perhaps agree that studying the Torah and the Talmud and obsessing about the law for two thousands years may be the main reason why Judaism survived to the modern day, but not the reason why the Jews survived. Religion relies on dogma, but dogma is static and therefore anathema to the social and political success of a people. The tension between trying to belong to the established order, while at the same time trying to maintain a distinct identity and avoid assimilation, is a constant theme in the history of the Jewish diaspora. In this highly political reading of the Scripture, there is no solution to this dilemma that does not acknowledge the need for a balance between both both strands of thought. One cannot live without principles, but survival demands adaptation, and adaptation requires reason. Too strict an adherence to principle leads to complacency and corruption, and turns into the enemy of reason.

The Persistence of Doubt

Doubt, of course, carries risks. One of those risks is that people will seek other truths entirely. The tendency of the Israelites to drift toward idolatry is an ever-present theme in the Bible. We forget that the ancient Hebrews were not an alien people plunked down in the midst of hostile tribes, as the Israelis are viewed today by their Arab neighbors, but were the product of those neighboring peoples and closely related to them.
But will anyone listen?
There are numerous stories in the Bible about the interactions between the Israelites and the nearby Canaanites, Moabites, Philistines and others, include many accounts of intermarriage, even as they were continually at war with one another. In this context, it is not difficult to imagine how, in times of dissent or decadence, the Israelites would be tempted by the rituals and customs of their close neighbors, from whom they had diverged only a few generations earlier. The story of the golden calf is mirrored several other times in the narrative. Again, this is a political as much as a moral lesson, depicting as it does the natural inclination of man to forget the struggles by which his forebears won their independence, and decline towards systems of thought and practice that disregard the collective memory.

As Hazony says of the original golden calf episode, during Moses's long absence while he is receiving the law on Mount Sinai: "The act of liberation carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, tending immediately to tear open a void in the lives of those who have been freed that is most easily filled by idolatry, whether of one form or another." We have witnessed this repeatedly in modern times. As societies follow the pattern from tyranny to rebellion to chaos and back to tyranny, they are constantly at risk of being hijacked by opportunistic ideologies: false idols with false promises of security, stability and prosperity. As each of these ideologies takes hold, and becomes the dominant mode of thought at each stage of a society's development, any deviation espoused by prophets and iconoclasts who dare to question it is undertaken at great peril. But these are the very people, according to Hazony's reading of Scripture, upon whom the harmonious reorganization of society depends.

The imperative of independent thinking, like that of the shepherd heroes of Hebrew Scripture, does not negate the necessity of human social organization. Indeed, the purpose of the Bible, according to Hazony, is not to disperse the Jews to the hills to herd flocks of sheep, but to find a way back to the united, peaceful kingdom that reached its brief pinnacle under Solomon. As a pure statement of anti-despotic political philosophy, one could hardly do better than this:

"If one wishes for political betterment, there is no choice but to establish a state. Yet this state cannot be unlimited in principle, like the states of 'all the nations' in the ancient Near East. Rather, it must be a state that will steer a course between the two extremes, seeking 'the good and the right'. For this, one must have rulers who understand that virtue emerges from limitation of the state: from the limitation of the borders of the state; from the limitation of the size of the armed forces and of what one is willing to do in the name of foreign alliances; from the limitations of the income of the state; and from the limitation of the degree to which the king sees himself as being raised above his own people. It is within the framework of these constraints that both the people and their king are to find the love of justice and of God that characterized the herdsmen who were their forefathers."

It is nearly impossible for an American to read these lines and not hear the echo of these ideas in the founding documents of our republic, and in the political debates of the present day. It is easy to imagine that the learned men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution read this political lesson between the lines of Scripture, which they most assuredly knew well. Of course, Hazony is an Israeli with American roots and an American college education, and has no doubt been influenced by the democratic principles that are rooted not only in the American Constitution but the Israeli one as well (however imperfectly our respective nations live up to the ideals espoused in them). The author is a philosopher and not a political commentator (though he has a brother who is), so it is not possible to say with certainty to what degree his experience of modern democracy has informed his reading of Hebrew Scripture, at least not without asking him directly. But one thing is certain: this is not your father's Old Testament.


February 3, 2013


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