The Biblical Basis Of Nationalism

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Posted: Feb 14, 2019 12:14 PM
The Biblical Basis Of Nationalism

I wrote previously in this column about Yoram Hazony's highly consequential new book of political philosophy, The Virtue of Nationalism.

In this book, Hazony argues that the idea of an international order of nation states arose from the Hebrew Bible, from the law, and the prophets.

What did the world have before that?

First, we had tribalism; then we had imperialism.

The Bible was written during the imperial ages, though it contains echoes of the prior order of small, typically nomadic tribes of sheep (and other domesticated animal) herders.

The Torah presents itself as a response to the empire of the Egyptians (who we are told hated shepherds). Later we get the rise of the Assyrian empire, then the Persian, Macedonian, and finally the Roman Empire. Though the Old Testament was completed before the rise of Rome, it was common for ancient Israelites to view Rome as a successor to that line of empires which captured them during the Babylonian captivity.  According to Hazony, every one of these empires shared a common premise: That the gods had sent the king to unite the four corners of the earth under a single law. This ideology holds that human beings left to their own devices will fight endless, needless wars. So, the gods send a king to suppress needless violence and striving on the earth to unite all mankind under one peaceful regime.

That is the imperial ideology. And if one simply excises the gods from the picture (and replaces them with some class of allegedly superior god-like men), this ideology sounds suspiciously familiar to modern ears.

I found myself wanting to read more about the ancient imperial ideology. There clearly was a system of political ideology of ancient empire, which we tend to ignore perhaps because it comes wrapped in religion. But religion and ideology were intertwined in the ancient world (just as irreligion and ideology are intertwined in the modern world). Hazony's book is more of a manifesto, though, than an exhaustive study, so deeper dives into ancient near-eastern political texts will have to remain on the future research agenda for now.

I'm reminded of current trends in Christian scholarship. One of the hottest topics in New Testament studies is the study of the interaction between Roman imperial ideology and early Christian thought, currently being led by N.T. Wright and others.

If Wright is right, and I think he is, the New Testament critique of imperialism is a testament indeed, but not a new one. Rather, it is in continuity with the Hebrew Bible, which, through the prophets and sages, holds a worldview that is consistently anti-imperial in both Testaments.

As an aside, you may want to listen to the discussion between Hazony and Peter Leithart of The Theopolis Institute. Leithart is not so sure about the prophets being completely opposed to the rise of all empires. This is a complex area, and I recommend From Babel to Beast as a long-form discussion of Leithart's view. Suffice it to say that it is not entirely clear that these two views are direct contradictions as opposed to differences in emphasis. Empires might play the role of necessary evil in God's plan to restore the Biblical vision of national orders. In fact, Theopolis recently re-published a book by Leithart's mentor, James Jordan, called Christendom and the Nations, which argues strongly against empire and for independent nations.

For Hazony, the key text is when Moses, in Deuteronomy chapter 2, gives Israel borders.

Unlike the other gods who tell their followers to conquer in their name, God tells Israel to leave her neighboring nations (such as Edom and Moab) alone. Because just as he had given borders to Israel, he also gave borders to other nations.

This is the birth of self-determination.

Buttressing this, we have provisions which hold that only an Israelite can be the king, a priest or a prophet in Dt. 17 & 18.

According to Hazony's book, the Catholic church to some degree adopted Roman imperial universalism during the Middle Ages. I found his view of this to be more nuanced in our discussion than in the book. He seemed to be putting more emphasis in our interview than he did in writing on the fact that certain branches of Catholicism in the later Middle Ages began to rediscover the original Hebraic view. But it is clear that the anti-imperial view among Christians does not come into its own until the Reformation opens up space for the discussion, and rediscovers the Hebrew language and Hebraic thinking.

One thing which surprised me in my interview with Hazony was the degree to which he argued up from tribal order to national order. The Virtue of Nationalism mainly argues down from empire to nation, spending much less time on the nationalist critique of tribal thinking than on the nationalist critique of imperial thinking.

For Hazony, the political background of the Bible is the transition from wandering tribes, towards large-scale imperial agricultural enterprises concentrated in river valleys, and the rise of the ideologies which justified these vast imperial states and their enslavement of captured tribes.

The heart of imperial idolatry is that, as long as people are divided and living in perpetual strife, they will be on the verge of starvation. A great example is the famines which Abraham and even his son Jacob faced in Canaan.

Israel went down to Egypt to avoid famine, because Egypt was a source of food. But the Bible calls Egypt 'the house of bondage/slavery' not just because Israel had been enslaved but because the system was built on slavery. So, imperial ideology presents forced labor and conquest of the tribes as the alternative to starvation.

Israel struggled with the question of tribal fragility and vulnerability. The prophets tend to side with the shepherds over empire. But they also decide that anarchical shepherding is no longer workable as population grows. In this view, nationalism is a via media between kin-ship based villages and multi-national empires.

So, some of the Bible is critique of tribal, nomadic order and some is critique of imperial order.

The book of Judges is the preeminent example largely of the former.  Hazony argues that Judges’ political message is that tribal Israel is not able to resist the foreign imperial powers.

I wonder about this view. I think the book of Judges endorses the view that Israel was defeated by imperial powers because it was weakened by idolatry, or even allowed to lapse into oppression as a corrective to apostasy and idolatry. I see it as less an argument for a united monarchy and more an argument for Israel to honor the monarchy established in the Torah with God as king.

But the Bible is also a critique of empire. The God of Israel is conspicuously different from the gods of the nations, in that he gives borders to his people and warns them that they would be punished if they crossed over these borders.

This critique of empire is a revolutionary idea both morally and politically. It starts in the Torah and continues with the prophets, looking forward to a time when empires no longer trouble smaller nations. That's the meaning of images such as the lion laying down with the lamb.

The prophets believed that eventually the nations would come to God, but not by conquest. Instead nations were left to develop best when each one is allowed to pursue its own independent course. Letting them go their own way was the way for them to come to God.

I'm reminded of St. Paul's Areopagus discourse:

And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;

That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: (Acts 17:26-27 KJV)

But despite Paul's seeming endorsement of the Hebraic vision of borders and nation-states, Christendom went through a kind of see-sawing between the Roman ideal  (e.g. Holy Roman Empire, or Russian attempts to be a Third Rome as the true heir to Constantine, etc.) on the one side and the independent idea of the nation state which is that of the Bible.

More on the Christian loss of its heritage from the Hebrew Bible and how it is being regained in an upcoming column.

If you have not yet listened to my conversation with Professor Hazony, you can do so here.