Recently I’ve studied government political structures and the balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility. As messy as American politics is, we take for granted the design of our system, and the dangers when it strays from its foundation. Ours is a “word covenantal” system, one that exists because the collective agrees to be bound by laws passed in a legislative system, as opposed to laws handed down from a ruler or governing elite.
Covenants between individuals, clans, and nations were a familiar feature of the ancient Near East. Archeological discoveries brought to light covenants between neighboring powers in Mesopotamia dating from the third millennium BCE. These could be parity treaties between nations of equal size, or a suzerainty treaty, a covenant between a strong power and a weaker one.
Most political structures develop either organically, through a long process of history or the result of a conquest. In both cases, a hierarchical society emerges, with a ruler, an elite, or both. These are politics of power or politics of the elite. They made and enforced laws subject to their will. As Thucydides’ said, “The strong do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must.”
According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book, Covenant & Conversation – Deuteronomy, the Hebrew Bible introduced a new covenant, a politics of the word. Oxford philosopher John L. Austin gave it the name “performance utterance.” As opposed to normal language that describes or expresses an action or a thought, a performance utterance creates. When I say “I promise to” I do not merely describe a promise, I make one.
This political structure binds its citizens to a collective responsibility, rooted in the principled equality of dignity of all citizens. Sacks notes that the American Constitutional phrase, “We the People,” was inspired by the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, who were in turn influenced by the word covenant found in Deuteronomy.
Several things had to happen for today’s western political structure to occur. First was the invention of printing by Johannes Gutenberg in 1439. Books became less expensive and more accessible. Literacy spread. Then in 1517 came the Reformation with its emphasis on “sola Scriptura,” the authority of “Scripture alone.” Then came the translation of the Bible into the vernacular.
Sacks points out that the Hebrew Bible is a subversive work. It does not preach submission. It speaks of prophets unafraid to challenge kings, of Saul losing his throne for disobeying the word of God. Ruling authorities had good reason for preventing the Bible from being available in language ordinary people could read and understand. As such, translating the Bible into the vernacular was forbidden until late in the sixteenth century. In the 1530s English scholar William Tyndale violated this law and paid for it with his life, as he was burned at the stake.
The cat was out of the bag, however. By 1560 English Bibles, including the Geneva translation, continued to be printed and sold in massive numbers, influencing Shakespeare, Cromwell, Milton, and John Donne, as well as Calvinists and the Puritans, the early English settlers of America. The Tyndale and Geneva Bibles led to a group known as the Christian Hebraists, who according to Harvard political philosopher Eric Nelson, in his book, The Hebrew Republic, Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought, influenced American politics in three ways.
First, Nelson argued, the Christian Hebraists were republican rather than royalist. They took the view that the appointment of biblical kings was a tolerated sin rather than a fulfillment of divine law. Second, they placed at the heart of their politics the idea that one of the tasks of government is to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, an idea alien to Roman law. Third, they used the Hebrew Bible – especially its separation of powers between the king and the high priest – to argue for the principle of religious toleration.
Applying these concepts to today’s discussion on raising taxes for three trillion-dollar budgets – in our covenantal society, how big of a problem is wealth concentration in the hands of a proportionately few?
I close with Sacks’ warnings about what can go wrong with a biblical-based word covenant political structure. First, he says, it can lead to overconfidence, “God is on our side.” Second, it can lead to moral self-righteousness. Third, it can easily slip into nationalism: the worship not of God but of the nation, the people, or the land. Fourth, politicians and their supporters can forget the fundamental truth of covenantal politics, as expressed by Abraham Lincoln:
“We are a nation formed by a covenant, by dedication to a set of principles and by an exchange of promises to uphold and advance certain commitments among ourselves and throughout the world. Those principles and commitments are the core of American identity, the soul of the body politic. They make the American nation unique, and uniquely valuable, among and to other nations. But the other side of the conception contains a warning very like the warnings spoken by prophets to Israel: if we fail in our promises to each other, and lose the principles of the covenant, then we lose everything, for they are we.”
© Craig R. Hersch learn more at floridaestateplanning.com