If Western civilization can be said to have a clear beginning, the ancient Hebrews are it. After the introductory lecture I discussed here, Hillsdale College’s free online Western history class we’re working our way through together therefore begins with this little tribe in the Middle East.
While tiresome and unfair complaints about Jews are also a staple of world history, Dr. Mark Kalthoff opens with a rare line of critique that turns into a compliment, saying the Hebrews’ main contributions to the West’s heritage are not in the arts, in military victories, technological advancement, and so on, but in religion. While a relatively tiny minority of people now and ever have been religiously Jewish, that minority religion has had inestimably large historical effects.
As thinkers including Russell Kirk have famously noted, culture itself arises largely from religious ideas and practices. For a thing called a culture to exist, its participants must have some kind of understood social order that “has a purchase on us,” Kalthoff says, some transcendent truths the people hold in common. These truths are almost universally religious in nature, as they must be accepted on faith rather than demonstrated through scientific proofs. Kalthoff outlines four key beliefs about the Hebrew deity crucial to creating the West: God is one, not many; he is transcendent, not a part of this world; he is sovereign; and he is good.
From these abstract religious concepts have developed a variety of practical and political arrangements now inside the air we breathe. The idea of God’s transcendence, for example, establishes a higher law applicable to all men equally, even those who rule. This was a particularly unusual idea among peoples at the time, whose rulers tended more toward tyranny, in which the king or tribal leader was sovereign and those under him essentially serfs.
This, in turn, affected Hebrews’ laws about human dignity and the meaning possible within an ethical human existence.
“Hebrews were the first to make people more important than physical property,” Kalthoff says, comparing their legal code to that of Hammurabi. “Hebrews regarded all people as equal before the law. This is a fundamental notion in the Western culture, the equality of people before the law, the dignity of the human person, the applicability of God’s moral truths to all men.”
The Hebrews also held a distinctive view about agreements between God and man, and between man and man. Their core idea of a covenant is more encompassing than that of a contract because it binds the parties to their promises even if they break the agreement. These ancient views of Hebrews influenced Christian and therefore Western ideas of not only eternal salvation but also earthly arrangements such as marriage and government. The “social compact” language Puritans and other early American colonists used politically was consciously derived from the Hebrew covenant.
Kalthoff, the chairman of Hillsdale’s history department, uses the biblical story of the Hebrew king Saul to illustrate how these religious principles shaped politics then and now. God initially constitutes the Israelites as a theocracy, with God as their direct ruler, who communicates to them through priests and prophets. But then the Israelites demand a king, so they can be “like the other nations.” This is a direct rejection of their covenant with God, for him to lead them personally.
The prophet Samuel warns the people that if they get a king, he will use his power in his own self-interest, which will take away their freedoms. They persist. They don’t care if it means a slide into slavery, they will have a king.
So God allows them one, and picks Saul. You would think this marks a transition from theocracy to monarchy, Kalthoff says, and it does — but not entirely. Saul proposes to the people that he will lead from within their religious tradition rather than against it, by subjecting himself to God’s laws and prophets just like the people are, rather than breaking them and thereby becoming a tyrant. Israel will be a “theocratic monarchy.”
It’s pretty easy to see here the beginnings of what we nowadays call “the rule of law” and “equality before the law,” ideas crucial to not only the U.S. Constitution but undergirding an entire infrastructure of U.S. and western law. But King Saul, as a man and not a god, couldn’t keep from breaking his promises both to God and his people. Saul soon directly disobeys God’s command in battle, which ultimately leads to revolt among his own children then among his people.
The Hebrew insight from personal stories with “universal application” like this, Kalthoff says, includes that “Governments are made of men, and men will be given the job of exercising power, and if those men entrusted with that power aren’t subject to a higher law, their lives can come out of kilter and become disordered… As the soul goes of the leader, so goes his family, and as the family goes, so goes the commonwealth, or the kingdom. So there’s a direct connection between the private morality of the leaders and the public success of the kingdom.”
Insights like this have, of course, been reinforced throughout all of not just Western but also human history. Recognizing that men are typically too weak to wield much power impartially and for others’ service is a particularly Hebraic and influential cultural insight. America’s founders, for one, incorporated this insight into our form of government in “checks and balances” that limit leaders’ power. Kalthoff says the Hebrews’ religion and therefore culture reflected a deep concern for “order in the human soul and human family,” both to uphold their promises to God and to serve humanity.
“If the king is a good king, life will go well for the kingdom. If the king is disordered in his soul, his family might be disordered, and the decline of his family might be mirrored in the decline of his kingdom,” Kalthoff says of the ancient Hebrews’ understanding of the world. “This possibility is ever more prevalent in modern republics, when the people are kings. If they are disordered in their private lives, the challenge of self-government itself might fail, as well.”