The Hebrew Bible—in a sea of competitors—survived and bequeathed to the West many of our cherished principles and values. For this reason, the Bible is exceptional. To abandon the Hebrew Bible is not only to abandon the roots of our modern sensibilities and values, but ultimately to abandon the wellspring of the religion that nurtured Western civilization.
Western civilization is back in vogue, or, at least, is starting to have defenders again in the midst of civilizational malaise, crisis, and desecration. But what is the West? That question is essential moving forward and our answer will have serious consequences. As such, it is one of the most important questions to wrestle with in the still young 21st century.
“We must understand the Bible is not exceptional.” That is how my Hebrew Bible professor began his first lecture when I attended Yale as a theology student, concentrating in historical theology and the Hebrew Bible. By “de-mythologizing” the Bible and placing it in its Near Eastern context, the point of the Hebrew Bible curriculum was to cut the Bible down to size and show that it was just one text of many texts containing a number of ideas among many similar competing ideas. Or so that was the intent.
The Hebrew Bible, however, is exceptional. It is exceptional in its Near Eastern context not for what it shared in similarity with other Mesopotamian and North African texts but what it radically differed in. It is also exceptional in the mere fact that it survived in its fullness for posterity, something that cannot be said for much of the literature of Sumer, Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt, however inspiring these antecedent texts are and were.
Regardless of how we wrestle with Scripture, the reality remains: The Bible is exceptional precisely because the Bible persevered into modernity while its many competitors did not. As a result of this, Western history and our intellectual traditions are tied to the Bible whether we like it or not, or whether we want to admit it or not. Refusing to acknowledge this doesn’t change historical reality; but it does have serious ramifications for our intellectual culture and its future.
Students of philosophy will tend to recognize that much of Western sensibilities and values—the dignity of persons (made in the image of God); liberation against forces of oppression; social justice; compassion for the widow, orphan, resident alien, and sick; equality before judge, jury, and law; the true understanding of democracy as national self-determination to cultivate a national destiny—has its very roots in the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible. This is not, in and of itself, triumphalistic. It’s a historical fact that the Hebrew Bible among many competitors just happened to win out and became a major source of nourishment for Western civilization.
In Created Equal, Joshua Berman highlighted an aspect of Biblical scholarship that is prominent but largely ignored: the role that the Hebrew Bible played in breaking with the hierarchal political theologies of Near Eastern religions. But Professor Berman notes many of the same things that my professor also noted, and that are repeated to death in our assigned textbooks: the influence of Suzerain treaty models, structural similarities between Bible and Near Eastern texts, and so forth. At no stage does Professor Berman, or anyone involved in this strand of scholarship, assert that the Bible is wholly “unique” in that it doesn’t share certain similarities with Near Eastern literature. What Professor Berman reveals, however, is that there are meaningful—if not otherwise very significant—differences that had major ramifications in the development of Western thinking as time went on, especially after the Bible seeped into Western culture and consciousness.
Professor Berman highlights what we’re not told in class, or what our textbooks are hesitant to affirm: that the Hebrew Bible—while having structural similarities to Near Eastern literature—has important differences that clearly influenced the development of Western intellectual thought.
Near Eastern cosmogonies are rooted in the hierarchy of the gods which extends to the realm of the socio-political. From Ugarit to Sumer, Professor Berman highlights how the Near Eastern myths were hierarchal battles between gods and opposing pantheons. Everything is power struggle and social hierarchy, old against new, the empowered against the disenfranchised. It’s very Spenglerian, in a way.
Humans are not created in the image of God but simply molded from clay and the blood of deceased gods/goddesses, and humans toil as servants to lower gods. The creation myths of the Near East reinforce hierarchy at every turn. As Professor Berman states quite clearly concerning Near Eastern myths, “The tale is a virtual celebration of social hierarchy. From the beginning of time, the gods have already been divided along social lines. The rebellion of the lower gods simply serves as an occasion to bring humans onto the scene.”
Professor Berman notes that a rigid focus on the similarities of humans being created from clay and superficial similarities between “the deep” and watery chaos deities (like Tiamat in the Near East) distracts us from recognizing the fundamental shift in the Genesis account of creation. Humans are created independent and free, to have dominion rather than to toil as servants (as they are in the Epic of Atrahasis). But the differences are never taught and pondered. Better to concentrate entire classes on how women are created last, after man, after Adam, and all that jazz which fits the feminist and intersectional zeitgeist, it seems.
But this isn’t new to scholarship of the previous few decades. In The City of God, St. Augustine explains the importance of the Genesis creation myth, especially regarding Adam and Eve, and the meaning of Eve being “created last” (contrary to harmful feminist readings that suggest it implies a negative interpretation of women). As Augustine explains, Eve being created from Adam’s side—his rib—symbolizes togetherness and unity; that Eve was taken from Adam’s side reflects companionship and fulfillment of the man-woman relationship rather than the domination of the male sex akin to the paterfamilias of Romanitas. Augustine and other Church Fathers articulated unity and companionship concerning male-female relations.
The origin of Western equality and unity is found in Scripture even though both Judaism and Christianity have complicated relationships with this in their history. One who reads Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Livy, or any of the Greek and Roman sources of the Western patrimony will not find the same dignity and humanity afforded to both sexes as found in the interpretative traditions of Sacred Scripture. To not highlight this strand of scholarship is a great travesty and disservice to the mission of the university as one of “opening minds.” As Professor Berman concludes, “If we maintain… inalienable rights, then it is because we have inherited as part of our cultural heritage notions of equality that were deeply entrenched in the ancient passages of the Pentateuch.” That, of course, stands in great contrast with the prevailing deracinated wisdom that inalienable rights are the products of modern Enlightenment thought which sought to free itself from everything prior to the seventeenth century.
Most political philosophers are aware that most of the great figures of the Western political philosophy pantheon—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Pufendorf, and others—all looked to the Bible. It is irrelevant whether these men were religious practitioners in this regard. Thomas Paine, after all, knew his Protestant audience in America well and drew upon the Old Testament and English Puritan dissenters in stoking the flames for revolution against English monarchy. Paine may have been a radical deist and scoffed at the tenets of dogmatic Christianity, but he wasn’t without knowledge of the deep debt that certain radical beliefs owed to Scripture and the Christian tradition.
Eric Nelson, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote an award-winning and path-breaking work The Hebrew Republic in 2010. Dr. Nelson carefully constructed the fact that Western ideas of republicanism, national identity, self-determination, and religious toleration emerged with what he calls “The Hebrew Revival,” a new encounter with the Hebrew Scriptures that resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from Lisbon and their relocation in the Lowlands and England. Dr. Nelson writes, “I argue that the Hebrew revival played a crucial role in forging this nexus between a pious Erastianism and toleration.”
After all, it’s impossible not to recognize that Old Testament Hebraism influenced Calvinist revolution and Puritan identity as they fled persecution and oppression for the New Canaan—America. Far from the “rise of reason” and secularization, it was the “Hebrew Revival” that bequeathed the ideas of modern democracy, religious toleration, and self-determination to the West. What used to be common knowledge is only now being restored in light of the myth of modernity (ironically still most powerfully peddled in seminaries and religious studies departments while political philosophy and political science departments are returning to sacred sources as the wellspring of nascent democracy, republicanism, and self-determination).
The great Puritan father Richard Mather once said, “Is not the way to Canaan through the Wilderness?” All the Puritans, from John Winthrop, the Mathers, Jonathan Edwards, even the exiled Roger Williams, used Exodus to articulate their mission, identity, and ultimate destiny. The flight from oppression and the erection of separation of church and state—religious liberty—are not the result of a flight from religion but the result of returning to the Hebrew Bible. (Nicholas Miller has explained this paradox in his work The Religious Roots of the First Amendment.) Furthermore, the compendium of essays, Political Hebraism, edited by Gordon Schochet, Fania Oz-Salzberger, and Meirav Jones, highlights the importance of the Hebrew Bible in the formation of early modern Western political thought.
But this isn’t all new scholarship of the last few years. Avihu Zakai also noted the importance of the Hebrew Bible—and the Exodus narrative in particular—in the thought and formation of the Puritans as they left Egypt (Europe) for the Promised Land (America) in Exile and Kingdom (1992). The great Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons equally noted the importance of the Puritans in laying the foundations of American democracy and egalitarianism back in the mid-twentieth century.
Following the British referendum to leave the European Union, Israeli philosopher and historian Yoram Hazony wrote “a salutary thesis” on the roots of modern democracy and liberty in the Hebrew Bible. “Nationalism and the Future of Western Freedom” was breathtaking in content and heroic in ambition. The book spawned from that essay and intellectual reflection, The Virtue of Nationalism, is even more ambitious and heroic—and, of course, timely given the continued attacks on nationhood and self-determination and the claims that self-determination is a coup against the democratic process.
The revival of interest in the Hebrew Bible was revolutionary, with reverberating ramifications for the development of early modern political thought and ideas. As Dr. Hazony writes:
The idea that a ruler must serve as the protector of his people had existed in various forms throughout the history of Christendom. Already in the 12th century, Catholic political theorists like Honorius of Augsburg and John of Salisbury, relying on the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy and the descriptions of the Israelite kingdoms in the books of Samuel and Kings, had articulated this explicitly. But the second principle—permitting each nation to determine for itself what constitutes a legitimate ruler, a legitimate church, and appropriate laws and liberties—brought the Christian world for the first time into dialogue with the biblical vision of an order of independent nations. And it was this principle that set the world free.
National self-determination, liberty emerging from “ancient customs and privileges,” democracy, and egalitarianism are all seeds found in the Hebrew Bible. After all, Yahweh proportions the land of Israel explicitly, establishing a well-defined “nation-state” some 3,000 years ago that stood against the pretensions of universal empire (and still does today). These ideas rooted in the Hebrew Bible (re)gained great momentum in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the so-called “Bible Centuries.” Part of the crisis of modern democracy—and I agree with both Dr. Nelson and Dr. Hazony on this—is the abandonment, both consciously and unconsciously, of the Hebrew Bible. Aware of it or not, many of the most fervent secularists wish to ride on the fumes of the very religious tradition they mock.
Yale political scientist and historian Steven B. Smith captures this so powerfully concerning the relationship of Hebraism and democracy (from Spinoza’s perspective) in the pages of Commentary Magazine:
What distinguished this theocracy from all other regimes was the aspiration to be ruled directly by God with no human intermediaries. By giving the people over to God alone, theocracy was also the most democratic form of government that ever existed. No individual or group was authorized to speak for God, but each retained the right to interpret God’s law and share equally in the powers of the state. The de jure theocracy was a de facto radical democracy.
It might be passé for moderns to think theocracy, or religious sentiments, laid the roots of democracy, but that reality is right in front of us. The fact that none of this is widely and readily promoted, despite the generous and extensive scholarship done, shows that forces intent on destroying the West are going straight for the foundation of the West: the Hebrew Bible.
Excluding this in studies is a disservice to academia and the mission of the university to present a diversity of views and opinions—of course, whenever such views deviate from the current universal orthodoxy, just like the Catholic persecution of Protestantism, those views must be dismissed or deliberately swept under the rug. But this is not just a disservice to academe; this is a major disservice to our culture.
“In the last decades, some of us have become increasingly aware that modern individualism, when seen against the background of the other great civilisations that the world has known, is an exceptional phenomenon.” So wrote Louis Dumont, the famed French sociologist who dedicated much of his scholarship exploring what he considered the Christian and Biblical origins of Western individualism during the latter half of the twentieth century. While not discounting the Greco-Roman individual tradition—the tradition of the hero and demigod—Dumont concluded that it was ultimately the self-introspective tradition of Christian natural law, bound up with consciousness of sin, that was the true seed of the individual’s journey to dignification as a self-conscious being.
The recognition of morality is a terribly frightening thing for many moderns. This is why most people shun the existence of morality and assail any judge or politician who speaks extensively of its importance in our lives and society. The existence of the moral law has many consequences for human existence and life.
The terrible prospect of a morally demanding life is overburdensome for most. To sink back into the abyss of unconsciousness allows for the bliss of ignorance in temporal life, but it means separation of the bliss offered in eternity. But human dignity and dignification depends on morality—it cannot exist apart from it. The West’s uniqueness in fostering a legal code and understanding of man based on dignity is owed to the West’s development of moral theory and the moral law and not, as is in vogue nearly everywhere, “white supremacy.”
The Psalms are among the most stirring soliloquies in all Western literature. David speaks aloud for us to hear. We are witnesses to his plight, his psyche, and his yearnings. “My heart grew hot within me: and in my mediation a fire shall flame out. I spoke with my tongue: Oh Lord, make me know my end,” the great prophet king speaks.
David’s search to know his end reflects his quest to know himself. To know thyself is to know thine end. To know thyself and thine end is to know God—specifically, God as the source of all beatitude and felicity.
David’s burning and restless heart is the same burning and restless heart of St. Augustine. “You have made us for yourself,” Augustine boldly opens in his Confessions, “and our heart is restless until it finds rest in you.” Augustine’s Confessions is, in many ways, one giant psalm to God. Just as the Psalmist does, Augustine confesses his sins to God and his need for mercy, seeks to know himself and his purpose in life, and yearns to behold God, his life and his salvation.
The Psalms were—and remain—the great book of praise, introspection, and prophecy. The Book of Psalms was the most read and commented book of all Scripture in the early Church. Augustine devoted himself to countless hours meditating on the Psalms since meditation of the Psalms is “the meditation of [the] heart understanding,” as Psalm 48 says.
What makes the Psalms so moving and powerful is that it is a window into the agony and hope of a man, a mortal man like the rest of us, a man whose glory is well-known but whose failures and sins are also well-known. This is why Augustine’s Confessions remain, after one and a half millennia, an enduring testament of Western and Christian literature. Confessions is a window into a broken but ambitious sinner-turned-saint. Augustine’s Confessions, like David’s Psalms, penetrates the depth of the human psyche like no other ancient work of literature and gives a grand display of the self in its earliest formation.
Augustine’s movement to God is largely in response to his realization of guilt and sin. In a remarkable passage, Augustine reflects how he delighted in his own ways while being masochistically pursued by God as a runaway slave who has broken his master’s laws is thrilled by the pursuit of the law: “I loved my own ways, not yours. The liberty I loved was merely that of a runaway.” He was autonomous in his flight, but he was not flourishing because of his sin. Augustine tells us how he “burned, how [he] burned with longing to leave earthly things and fly back to [God],” just as David yearned to have the wings of a Dove and fly to God where he would be at happy rest.
The frank discussion of sin and lawlessness in Augustine’s Confessions—from his sexual impurity, having a mistress and a child out of wedlock, to stealing a pear with his peers merely to delight in sin—bears down on Augustine as he thirsts for the Lord. He is a restless pilgrim. He becomes a broken wreck. This great rhetorician and intellectual finally breaks down in tears when he is told how St. Antony the Great, an illiterate, seized the kingdom of God, while he—a man of great learning and culture—is left behind as a restless and disordered mess sizzling in a frying pan of lusts.
The Psalms are special because the Psalms narrate a spiritual journey, a spiritual flight, the ascent of David (in particular) to be with his God. They are far more influential on Augustine than Plotinus’s unemotional elaborations on the Soul’s desire to reunite with the One. The movement of the inward soul to the seat of Divinity planted in the heart of man is revealed in Scripture and not Greek philosophy. Following Scripture, not Plotinus, Augustine’s Confessions narrates a spiritual and physical pilgrimage.
When Augustine came to Carthage, burning restlessly, he attempts to rise out of the ditch of carnal lusts. Augustine describes himself as an empty vessel: “I became to myself a region of destitution.” But in a remarkable stroke of literary genius, as well as spiritual insight, Augustine recounts how his empty body of sin, of lustful desires, mirrors the literal Babylon called Carthage, the city of lustful desires. Augustine’s spiritual destitution is bound up in a physical place of spiritual destitution. Augustine becoming an empty vessel is partly due to his dwelling in a place that celebrated the nothingness of lust as the highest expression of human liberty and the good life.
Augustine tells us that when he tried to flee to God in this state of destitution, spiritual and physical, he failed and failed miserably. He doesn’t even bother to recount his attempts to ascend but reflects only on the failures of his vain efforts at stoic self-ascent. This is what makes the tripartite movement of his ascents so powerful.
After leaving Carthage for a more spiritually wholesome place, Milan, Augustine receives his first remarkable vision. During his Neoplatonic ascent in the garden, he glimpses the Beatific Vision but he quickly crashes and burns. Here he reflects not on his great ability to have ascended—however briefly—to catch a glimpse of Eternity, but on how far away he was. In a beautiful paradox, Augustine states, “When I first came to know you, you raised me up to make me see that what I saw is Being, and that I who saw am not yet Being. And you gave a shock to the weakness of my sight by the strong radiance of your rays, and I trembled with love and awe. And I found myself far from you.” It was far away, and through the effort of the mind, that Augustine briefly encountered the Lord but, just as quickly as it came, it drifted away. Greek philosophy, which influenced this ascent, remains ignorant of the true name of Salvation and happy rest of man’s yearning soul—so Augustine, rightly, put the books of the Platonists aside and cemented his conversion by picking up the Scriptures: tolle lege, tolle lege.
After his conversion and baptism, Augustine has another great vision at Ostia. This ascent is successful whereas his earlier attempts all ended in failure. He beholds and touches a “region of inexhaustible abundance.” Moreover, his visionary ascent at Ostia isn’t made in lonely isolation. It is with his mother, St. Monica, who had earlier dreamed of him and her together but only as a figment of the imagination. Now, however, their bonds are sealed in love as their hearts are lifted up together to God.
The Psalms and Confessions are more than just soliloquies. They are conversations. They are conversations of self-introspection, the discovery of the self-conscious self, and conversations of relationality—between God and man. Just as the Psalms contain David’s pleas and conversations with the Lord, so too does Augustine’s Confessions contain a series of psalms, pleas, and conversations with God. And just as the Lord is David’s salvation, the Lord is Augustine’s salvation. David and Augustine discovered themselves in discovering God, the moral law, and their relationship to God and the moral law.
When we forget who we are, selfhood inevitably is reduced to a bland and empty autonomy—but the inner life of man still yearns for something beyond this autonomy. Authentic individuality, for Dumont, entails coming to grips with the reality of the self, rooted in Biblical and Christian understanding of man. Human flourishing cannot exist, then, apart from God and morality, no matter how hard one tries. When we run from this reality, we become wrecks like David and Augustine in their darkest and most miserable moments. When we unite ourselves to God and the moral law, we are transformed into agents of love.
Without the Psalms it is not a stretch to say that we would not have the Confessions—in fact, Augustine references the Psalms more than any other book of the Bible. For Augustine, the Psalms are as integral to the growth of the self as any work of modern philosophy—if not more so.
To abandon the Hebrew Bible is not only to abandon the roots of our modern sensibilities and values, but ultimately to abandon the wellspring of the religion that nurtured Western civilization.
Recognizing this is not theocratic or reconstructionist; it is simply being honest to the historical fact that the Hebrew Bible—in a sea of competitors—survived and bequeathed to the West many of our cherished principles and values. For this reason, the Hebrew Bible is exceptional. Western exceptionalism and Western civilization are thus intimately tied to Hebraic exceptionalism and the Hebrew Bible. And there is no future for Western civilization without the Hebrew Bible.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been brightened for clarity.