The Jewish Eye
Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought
By Joshua A. Berman
Oxford University Press, 2008, 249 pages.
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 7, 2009
Joshua A. Berman answers a question that bothered Bible readers - Jews, Christians, and Muslims - for centuries, and answers it in an interesting, eye opening, and engaging way. Why was the Bible written? The author is a lecturer in Bible at Bar-Ilan University and Associate Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, Israel.
The common misconception is that the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, was composed to teach people how to relate to God. Dr. Berman shows by a clear reading of the biblical texts, comparisons with ancient cultures, and analyses of many rather interesting biblical details that the Bible ventures far beyond that. Indeed, it is the precursor of modern ideas about the purpose of society and the dignity of the individual.
The Bible asserts the equality of all people in its statement that everyone, without distinction, is created in the image of God. This was remarkable for the period in which it was written. Later, Thomas Jefferson captured, actually copied, this biblical teaching when he wrote "all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights."
In contrast to the ancients, all Israelites are equal citizens because all were liberated from Egyptian bondage, all stood at Mount Sinai to receive the law, and all entered into a covenant with God; in a word, all participated in the past and have a right and duty to be involved in the present and future. This scriptural individual responsibility - highlighted by the oft-repeated biblical use of the singular "you," an address to each Israelite separately - is unfortunately still underemphasized in modern societies.
Dr. Berman shows in 175 pages, followed by notes, bibliography and index, how in ancient societies the common person was a servant, the lowest rung in a self-serving hierarchy, a non-entity, a being without self-worth, a creation designed to enhance the comfort of arrogant despots. Ancient leaders justified their worldview with theological writings that declared that the state exists solely to carry out a will and whim of the gods, whose earthly representative was the king, and not the protection of humans.
The Bible countered this notion. Biblical checks and balances were instituted to curb the powers of authority, of kings, priests, judges, and even of prophets. Berman shows how the Torah innovations, its teaching of equality, spawned the great political theorists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and served as the basis for modern ideas of human rights, civic duties, egalitarianism and democratic government.
Josephus wrote to his Roman audience in the first century - where only about twenty percent of the population had citizen rights - informing them that the ideas of government that they and the Greeks before them extolled are found in the Bible. In June 1788, one of the constitutional delegates addressing the issues facing the new American nation, referred to the lessons of the book of Deuteronomy, and said, "If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel we may substitute the thirteen States of the American union." These men understood what Berman highlights, that the Bible was teaching that rather than working as servants for leaders, a perfect society is one where everyone joins together to help and improve each individual.
Dr. Berman offers a host of enlightening examples of the biblical innovations and a newer and deeper understanding of the biblical laws than contained in many Bible commentaries. He shows how Deuteronomy 4:8 was correct in stating: "what nation is there so great that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law!" Readers will find it fascinating to see how the Torah poor laws contributed to equality, as did the rules regarding the sale of land, and many others such as the laws concerning non-Israelites.
Rather than tokens of respect and honor being a one-way streak, from inferior to superior, as required in ancient societies, the Bible portrays the relationship between humans and God as a marriage requiring intimate reciprocal acts of affection.
Like the restrictions placed on the executive branch of government in the United States today, the Bible strips the king of many of the powers that he had in other cultures. He was not responsible for religion, nor the author of legislation, and did not appoint judges. The judges, in turn, could be from every class of society.
Thus, with these and many more examples, Dr. Berman dramatizes the Torah in a new light, a light focused on an enlightened future, the forerunner of societies based on the equality. One has to agree with Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, that "Jonathan Berman has written a superb, scholarly, and paradigm shifting work on the Hebrew Bible as perhaps the first attempt to create a truly egalitarian society. I can think of no better way of renewing our encounter with the biblical text, and I recommend it highly."
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.
The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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- Onkelos on the Torah: Genesis, by Israel Drazin and Stanely M. Wagner.
Understanding the Bible Text: The text of Sefer Bereishis in English and Hebrew, along with the text of Targum Onkelos and Rashi's commentaries, and extensive commentaries from a variety of ancient and modern sources.
- Onkelos on the Torah: Leviticus, by Israel Drazin and Stanely M. Wagner.
Understanding the Bible Text: The text of Sefer Vayikra in English and Hebrew, along with the text of Targum Onkelos and Rashi's commentaries and extensive commentaries from a variety of ancient and modern sources.
- Onkelos on the Torah: Exodus, by Israel Drazin and Stanely M. Wagner.
Understanding the Bible Text: The text of Sefer Shemos in English and Hebrew, along with the text of Targum Onkelos and Rashi's commentaries, and extensive commentaries from a variety of ancient and modern sources.
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