The Biblical Origins of Equality

By Joshua A. Berman

The Torah as the constitution of an egalitarian polity.

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” proclaims the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is, without doubt, an inspiring statement, but it is also definitive, historically speaking. Although the American founding fathers regarded equality as “self-evident,” many civilizations throughout history did not share this view. In fact, they were based on precisely the opposite paradigm—that people are not created equal; rather, that the human community is like a pyramid, with the privileged few perched at the top, and the feeble masses below them.
The history of this hierarchical notion is as old as mankind itself. Social stratification was an accepted phenomenon across the ancient Near East and its ruling empires. While Greece and Rome gave rise to democratic and republican regimes that introduced various forms of political and legal equality among their citizens, their economic systems, for the most part, continued to serve small, entitled groups. It is true that the classical world produced bold social reformers who sought to protect the disadvantaged, but it has also left no evidence of any struggle to eliminate class distinctions.1 In short, none of the ancient authors championed egalitarianism. “From the hour of their birth,” wrote Aristotle, “some are marked out for subjection, others for rule.”2 The medieval mind, too, believed that in an ordered society each socio-economic class performed its tasks for the common good.3 Political theorists from classical times through the Italian Renaissance assumed that independence and freedom could not be achieved by those who did not already possess it.4 It is only with the European revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the privileges of rank and nobility were rejected, and the entrenched caste, feudal, and slave systems declared illegitimate.
The first political philosophy to rise up against this anti-egalitarian consensus, thus generating the ideals that are today considered the cornerstones of an enlightened society, emerged in the sacred writings of ancient Israel. It was composed in the literary, theological, and legal corpus known to us as the Pentateuch, or Torah—the Five Books of Moses, which narrate the stories of creation, the Patriarchs, the exodus from Egypt, the wandering in the desert, and the laws God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai.5 The Torah—primarily considered a religious text—revolutionized social and political thought in ways that still influence us today. Indeed, when seen against the backdrop of ancient norms, the social blueprint found in the Pentateuch represents a series of quantum leaps in a sophisticated matrix of theology, politics, and economics.
To be sure, the Pentateuch mentions multiple classes of individuals within the Israelite polity, an order that cannot be termed egalitarian in the full sense of the word. It speaks of those with entitlements and privileges, such as the king, priests, and Levites.6 Yet the control of society’s resources enjoyed by these groups was quite limited compared to the authority wielded by the rulers of the surrounding civilizations of the ancient Near East. Most significantly, the Torah rejects the divide between the class that imposes tribute, and thus concentrates economic and political power in its hands, and the larger class of those who pay the tribute. Instead, it calls for a new social, political, and religious order, founded upon egalitarian ideals and the notion of a society whose core is a single, uniformly empowered, homogeneous class. It is hard to overestimate the importance of this call and its impact on the course of human history.

Joshua Berman is a lecturer on the Bible at Bar-Ilan University and an associate fellow of the Shalem Center. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008).

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