Michael Walzer on Politics in the Hebrew Bible

Michael Walzer, photo credit Jon R. Friedman

As one of America’s foremost political thinkers, Michael Walzer has written about a wide variety of topics in political theory and moral philosophy, including political obligation, just and unjust war, nationalism and ethnicity, economic justice, and the welfare state. In his forthcoming book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Walzer turns his attention to the political views of the writers of the Bible and investigates how they illuminate important moral issues in our own time. Following in the tradition of political philosophers such as Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel, he questions how political society is conceived, how political power is organized and should be used, and most of all, how we can learn from the book and its writers, and improve our ability as readers of a text.

Yale University Press: Why did you write this book?

Michael Walzer: I think about politics all the time when I read, and I’ve been reading the Bible all my life. So why should this book be different from any other book? There is a politics in the Bible, and sometimes an anti-politics, and the stories and arguments are gripping. They cry out for our engagement.

YUP: What did you find most surprising in the Bible?

MW: The many voices, the radical pluralism of the Bible, which is really an anthology, a book of books. The last editors would never have called themselves pluralists or articulated a doctrine of pluralism, but they were remarkably inclusive. They brought together radically contradictory views, without seeking to harmonize the contradictions.

YUP: So, is there a biblical political doctrine, a single teaching, a lesson to be learned?

MW: No. Biblical fundamentalists will have a hard time finding the foundations. There is a biblical doctrine about religion and one about justice, but there is radical disagreement among the Bible’s authors about politics. Some are actively hostile: when God is king, what need is there for human politics?

Michael Walzer is Professor Emeritus of social science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ. He is the author of twenty-seven books and more than three hundred articles on political theory and moral philosophy, and he has served as co-editor of the journal Dissent for some fifty years. His newest book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible will be published in June, by Yale University Press. See all of Walzer’s YUP books.

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