The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom

By Fania Oz-Salzberger

What modern republican thought learned from the Bible, the Talmud, and Maimonides.

Two aspects of this ancient polity intrigued Cunaeus. First, the agricultural and social laws of the Bible; and second, his understanding of the Israelite kingdom of the FirstTemple period as a successful federal republic. A political Calvinist, Cunaeus was impressed by the harmony that prevailed between rulers and priests, between the divine word and its legal interpretation and execution, between theocracy and earthly politics. In the Bible he found what Aristotle, Cicero, and the Stoics all lacked: A clear notion of social responsibility and communal justice. For this reason, Cunaeus dedicated several chapters of The Commonwealth of the Hebrews to the biblical commandments about tithes, leaving part of one’s field for the poor, and forgiving debts, redistributing land, and freeing slaves during the sabbatical and jubilee years. He understood these commandments to complement and maintain the just distribution of landed property among the tribes and households during the era of Israelite settlement in the landthe distribution reported with such meticulous detail in the book of Joshua. The agricultural and social laws enacted in the biblical Hebrews’ nomadic period and listed in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy continued to act as a permanent corrective, ensuring that the avarice of a few should not invade the possessions distributed with so fair equality among the tribes.40 This lost thread of social justice is worth picking up, for although it was cut short by post-Lockean liberalism, it was tightly coiled around the very cradle of that liberalism.41

Cunaeus’ second concern was with the constitution of ancient Israel, a federation of almost wholly autonomous tribes. The books of Joshua and Judges paint a picture unlike anything found in Athens, Sparta, or Rome, which were all in essence homogeneous and exclusive, imposing an oppressive rule. By contrast, the Hebrew republic offered a federative and inclusive model, which allowed for a range of cultural experiences within its borders. This was a single political entity comprising a range of local centers, and marked by geographical and cultural variety. The republic of the Hebrews had powerful local leaders, bold and idiosyncratic historical figures, the likes of Gideon and Samson. Jerusalem was its spiritual capital, but its civic heart pulsed in many other cities throughout the tribal lands.42

What held this republic togetheruntil Jeroboam came and divided it irrevocablywas the principle of the concordia, the basic human social impulse towards unity that was celebrated by Cunaeus’ great teacher and rival, Hugo Grotius. The very concordia that held the tribes of Israel together throughout their early republican age would serve during the seventeenth century as the basis for the powerful idea that Grotius would pass on to his disciples, and especially to John Locke: The idea that a sense of social responsibility and a natural desire for peace connect the members of every civil society, and bring polities and their neighbors into peaceful cohabitation.43

The three interlinked concepts derived from the Bible were thus well established by the middle of the seventeenth century: Political boundaries as the basis for the application of universal laws; rules of social and economic justice as an inseparable component of a well-governed republic; and the decentralized federal state, existing by virtue of the concordia prevailing in a people that lives in accordance with the natural law.



The glory of the Hebrew republic in Western political thought reached its apex in the middle of the seventeenth century, when the English republican revolutionaries made it their central historical model, sometimes alongside the Roman republic, but more often above it. James Harrington did so in his Oceana (1651), John Milton followed suit in his In Defense of the English Nation (1658), and they were joined by several other republican writers who have recently enjoyed a revival of scholarly interest, such as Algernon Sidney and Marchamont Nedham.44

These thinkers all repeat, with individual variations, the same basic theme: The people of Israel had a republic, a nearly perfect republic, from the time of the Exodus until at least the coronation of Saul.45 Despite its transcendent origin, this republic was the product of a historical, political society. And precisely because of its transcendent origin, it was an exemplary state of law and a society dedicated to social justice and republican liberty.46 When at times these authors follow Josephus in using the term theocracy to describe early Israel,47 the term signifies for them a legal and political system involving citizen participation and civic freedom, uniquely blessed in having been founded by divine imperative in accordance with natural law. Not a supra-political state, but a political state, as close to the ideal republic as God intended. A kingdom of priests and a holy nation48—but not quite a monarchy, and certainly not meant to be ruled by king or priest alone.49

Some thinkers, including Cunaeus and Sidney, deemed the Hebrew republic an aristocracy, governed by a Sanhedrin that functioned as a senate, ruled by priests and other magistratesand, when necessary, by a warrior-judge.50 But civic participation and the relative equality of property guaranteed that it was nevertheless a true republic. Harrington in particular made a point of emphasizing ancient Israel’s historicityor, in effect, its normalcy. At the same time, it was the state of the Chosen People, and its divine laws carried a spiritual and universal weight unknown in the agora or in the forum.51 The political and ethical touch of God could be seen in this republic, a touch unknown to the Romans.52 The English Puritan republicans hoped to inherit this precise admixture of the profane and the sacred, to establish within England a second Israel, the true Jerusalem.

Most of these authors painstakingly showed that the Bible favored the early republic over the subsequent kingdom, and argued that it was the very existence of an Israelite monarchy as such, or at least its division into two rival kingdoms, which brought decline, destruction, and exile upon the Chosen People.53 In this view, the coronation of Saul was both a theological and a political error, because kingship rightfully belongs to God alone, and because the revelation at Sinai was aimed at creating a republic, not a kingdom:54 A polity blessed with republican laws and institutions, and with a civic spirit.55 In its demise, however, the republic of the Hebrews passed the divine command on to other republics. From the perspective of the English revolutionaries, they had inherited a godly mandate for political existence, subject to a constitution independent of church and crown.

The Hebrew Bible, buttressed by Josephus and Maimonides, thus offered these devout republicans an archetypal political  community, divine in source but wholly historical in its life and aims. This republic would partake of wars and internal struggles like any other historical nation, but would at the same time be bound to an imperative for social justice embodied in its unrivaled code of law.56

The demise of the Israelite commonwealth was no evidence against its political wholesomeness. As disciples of Aristotle, Polybius, and Livy, these early modern republicans knew only too well that history, alas, devours all its political creations. The republic of the Hebrews is no more; its progeny wander through Europe, scarred and shamed. Concordia gave way to discord, due in no small part to the kings and their appetites. But that ancient codex was still within reach. It lay on bookshelves, in Oxford and Leiden and Naples and Geneva, alongside the annals narrating the years of its political realization. The codex is eternal, and it is written in Hebrew.



John Locke, the founder of classical liberalism, was a Christian who based his political outlook on the imperative of obeying God-given duties. Indeed, Locke may have been the last major political theorist of the Western canon who possessed, and deployed, a detailed knowledge of the biblical text.57 His immediate followers, in particular the thinkers of the French and Scottish Enlightenment, found little room for the Scriptures on their desks.

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