Book Review: The Beginning Of Politics

The Beginning Of Politics:  Power In The Biblical Book Of Samuel, by Moshe Halbertal and Stephen Holmes


This book is a stellar example of what happens when someone gets biblical, historial, and political analysis right.  There are a lot of bad books that try to talk about God’s politics [1] but few manage to ask the right questions to the Bible or read the details that provide one with stark insight.  This book manages to do that with flair and elegance, and is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the essential ambivalence that the Bible has towards authority from the very beginning of the monarchy.  Reading this book helped me better understand my own thoughts about the absence of commentary in the Bible about the ideal forms of the Bible, and the authors of this book would suggest that such an absence is a reflection of the fact that there is no form of government that can deal with the essential tensions and dilemmas faced by those who set up or govern, or those who have to deal with the authority of others over them, and so little attention is paid in the Bible to such matters, despite our own great interest in them as children of the Enlightenment who believe that everything can be improved through rational analysis and proper structure.

The contents of this book are pretty straightforward but also rather impressive close reading at the same time.  The roughly 200 pages of this book include about 30 pages of pretty essential and deeply interesting endnotes, not a section of a book that many people read.  After acknowledgements and a note on the text they are using of 1 and 2 Samuel, the authors begin with a discussion of the emergence of politics in the space between viewing God as a sovereign over a nearly anarchical people as was the case in the book of Judges and the view of the king as a god as was common in the states surrounding Israel during the early Iron Age.  After this introduction, the authors discuss the way that even people who are not power-hungry by nature (Saul) or are pretty confident in the way they deal with power (David) become consumed by the need to keep a grip on power (1) before looking at the stories of the priests slaughtered at Nob and David’s cold-blooded killing of Uriah to show two faces of political violence in the abuse of power by rulers (2).  The author then looks at the problems of dynastic legitimacy and the way that a lack of concern for daughters or a lack of ability to rein in one’s sons can threaten the feasibility of dynasties (3) and also looks at the last words and will of David and the ruthless realpolitik shown by David and Solomon at the transition between the two (4).

Overall, this book is superb.  To be sure, the language used is a bit difficult, as it may be hard for those who are not familiar with the language of political science, for example, to appreciate the discussion of instrumentality by which people view other people as objects to be manipulated rather than people to be respected and see emotions through the rubric of personal and political advantage.  The authors convincingly show that the anonymous author of 1 and 2 Samuel does a good job at pointing out the fundamental ambivalence of authority, that the successful wielding of authority requires certain moral compromises, that one’s authority is always limited and that subordinates will act to improve one’s orders or manipulate authority for their own purposes, and that any authority that is strong enough to protect the people from outside harm will also be strong enough to oppress that people for the selfish whims of the ruler, a problem that is impossible to solve by constitutional means.  This is by no means a pleasant book to read but it is an essential book to read for an understanding of the complexities of the biblical view of power and politics, and there are clear implications that can be taken by the reader to understand a biblical view of institutional politics in our own time.

[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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Book Review: The Beginning Of Politics

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  2. Pingback: Book Review: One Nation Under God | Edge Induced Cohesion

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