Book Review: In God’s Shadow

In God’s Shadow:  Politics In The Hebrew Bible, by Michael Walzer

This book has an essential difficulty, and it is notable that the author is aware of it but unable to entirely transcend it.  That difficulty is that the Bible itself does not take a political approach but rather an ethical approach to life.  There is no shortage of people who seek to find support for their own political worldviews in the Bible [1], but this author deserves credit for manfully struggling with the anti-political nature of the Bible even if he ultimately fails to provide the insight he wishes about the subject.  It would appear, moreover, that the anti-political nature of scripture is related to the fact that the Bible entirely denies autonomy to mankind, making the philosophical view of the Greeks unbiblical by definition.  That said, although the author gets a lot right, he gets a lot wrong as well because he approaches from the wrong mindset.  Unfortunately, much of what the author gets wrong he shares with a great many would-be biblical experts, and that makes this book impossible to recommend even if it does have some worthwhile things to say.

This short book of just over 200 pages is divided into 12 chapters.  After a preface and acknowledgements section where the author shows appreciation to some (very) liberal Jewish instructors who helped the writer with his understanding of the Old Testament and various apocryphal material included herein, the author gives some discussion of politics as it relates to the following areas:  the covenants (1) and the legal codes (2).  After this the author discusses issues of conquest and holy war (3), the rule of kings (4), prophets and the audience of their fierce denunciations of immoral conduct (5), the role of prophecy in international politics (6), exile (7), the priestly kingdom (8), and the courtly politics of wisdom (9).  After this the author examines Messianism (10) without even getting into the question of Jesus Christ, before asking the question “Where are the elders?” in the Bible’s accounts of leadership (11) and closing with a discussion of how biblical politics operates in a kind of shadow (12) of God’s ultimate control over history.  Many readers will note the far greater willingness the author has to deal with questions of Jewish interpretation of  the scriptures than with Christian ones.  How the reader feels about this will depend in large part on their own perspective in such matters.

Amittedly, had the author not gone out of his way to cite imaginary authors like Second Zechariah and Second and Third Isaiah, this book would have been easier to approve of.  The author’s adherence to critical theory makes this a tough book to enjoy because one is constantly being interrupted from enjoying a comment the author makes about covenant lawsuits to hear the author’s ideas about Job and Ecclesiastes and making speculations about the timing of when books were written by his ideas of the experience of exile and other concerns.  The author’s speculations are sometimes quite intriguing but are too unreliable to make this a book worth recommending.  As it is, the author fails to understand that those who do not follow the Bible and do not believe it to be a coherent whole are seriously handicapped in their abilities to draw insight from the scriptures.  To be sure, the Bible is a deeply layered text, but it is not a pluralistic or incoherent text, and to adopt critical and documentary theories about the Bible only makes it more likely as a writer that one will be greatly deceived by one’s self-concept of how much honor and respect and understanding one has of the scriptures.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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