Leon Kass, "Exodus and American Nationhood," Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2021.
What makes a people a people? What forms their communal identity, holds them together, guides their lives? To what do they look up? For what should they strive?
These questions have risen to the surface in our turbulent times, as controversy swirls about the goodness of the nation-state and the meaning of “peoplehood.” Celebrating globalization, cosmopolitan elites increasingly act and regard themselves as “citizens of the world.” Reasserting older identities, many citizens who treasure their own nation’s ways see them as being threatened by foreign ideologies and non-assimilating immigrants. Even in our long-established American republic, what defines and unifies the nation has become an urgent question.
For help in thinking about these issues, I have turned to the book of Exodus. Why Exodus? This biblical book not only recounts the political founding of one of the world’s oldest and most consequential peoples. It also invites us to think about the moral meaning of communal life, the requirements of political self-rule and the standards for judging a social order better or worse.
Many great thinkers, religious and not, have studied Exodus for its political wisdom.
Many great thinkers, religious and not, have studied Exodus for its political wisdom. In the 17th century, political thinkers found guidance for reform in the ancient “Hebrew Republic,” while jurists saw in the Hebrew Bible the foundation for universal principles of justice. The idea that the best body politic rests on the biblical notion of covenant entered the American colonies with the Mayflower Compact, and the American tradition of civic republicanism owes much to the Puritans’ devotion to the Hebrew Bible.
The case for investigating the political teachings of Exodus was made perhaps most eloquently and succinctly by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the late 18th century: “The Jews provide us with an astonishing spectacle: the laws of [Greek and Roman lawgivers] are dead; the very much older laws of Moses are still alive. Any man, whosoever he is, must acknowledge this as a unique marvel, the causes of which, divine or human, certainly deserve the study and admiration of the sages.”
What then can we learn when we turn to Exodus?The second book of the Bible tells the story—begun in Genesis on the family level—of how God addresses the evils and miseries of uninstructed human existence by instituting His teaching for humankind among the Children of Israel. Offered as an alternative to the ways of the Mesopotamians, the Canaanites and especially the Egyptians, it is a way devoted to human decency and dignity, to righteousness and holiness.
As Exodus starts, the Israelites are flourishing in Egypt. Seeking to curb their proliferation, a new Pharaoh reduces them to slavery and orders the drowning of all male infants. When the Israelites finally cry out from their oppression, God charges Moses and his brother Aaron with securing from Pharaoh the release of His people through a series of “signs, wonders, and chastisements”—the so-called ten plagues. After the tenth and most devastating plague, Pharaoh finally relents and urges the Israelites to depart, only to set out the following morning in pursuit of the escaped ex-slaves and, for his efforts, to drown with his troops in the Sea of Reeds.
Having passed unharmed through the sea’s parted waters, and been nourished subsequently with manna from heaven, the Israelites wandering in the desert arrive at Mount Sinai, where God, through Moses, offers the motley ex-slaves an everlasting covenant: “If you will hearken to My voice and keep my covenant, you will be My treasure from among all the nations and you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Even before hearing the details, the Israelites with one voice accept the offer. Amid thunder and lightning, God issues the Ten Commandments—principles that are to guide the people when they come to the Promised Land.
Central to the principles are injunctions to sanctify the Sabbath day and to honor your father and mother, along with proscriptions of idol worship, murder, adultery, theft, swearing falsely and coveting what belongs to your neighbor. Next come dozens of ordinances, not only covering crimes and torts but aiming at ethical and spiritual uplift. They limit indentured servitude; demand proper treatment of strangers and care for widows, orphans and the poor; and institute festivals of thanksgiving to God. Again without hesitating, the people freely embrace the constituting Law.
But if the founding looks complete, something important is still missing. The Law fails to address the deep longing of human beings to be in touch with what is highest and best, to relate directly with the divine. The final part of Exodus deals with this necessity. God summons Moses to the mountaintop and gives him detailed instructions for building the Tabernacle, a sanctuary intended to enable God to “dwell among” His people and the people to experience His presence in their everyday lives.
The need for such a sanctuary is revealed in the story of the golden calf, as the people down below, fearing loss of contact with God, demand that Aaron make them a god who will go before them in Moses’ stead. Their apostasy discovered, Moses restores order (at great human cost), purifies the camp and pleads successfully with God to forgive the sinners. Knowing that there can be forgiveness, even for the ultimate covenant-breaking sin, the people accept the covenant again and eagerly build the Tabernacle, following letter for letter the detailed instructions. The Creator of the world is at last known by a nation of the creatures made in His image.
Throughout this story, God and Moses provide initiative and direction. But the people, gradually shedding their slavishness, increasingly become co-partners in the venture. Although their story has just begun, and many trials—and failures—lie ahead, they have embraced the grand founding vision of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation who will carry to all of humankind the example of God’s way for a better life.
Indispensable to Israel’s founding is the unique philanthropy of her mysterious God. Unlike indifferent natural powers, He enters into a covenant with human beings, aiming to make them holy as He is holy. Unlike the edicts of despotic human rulers, His Law applies equally to all and intends everyone’s benefit. Most impressively, He is merciful and gracious, willing to forgive in the presence of repentance. Repudiating the tragic view of the world, He encourages high striving despite the recurring likelihood of failure.
The three parts of the Exodus story—slavery and deliverance; covenant and law; worship and presence—become the three pillars of the Children of Israel’s enduring national existence. The tale of oppressive slavery in prosperous Egypt and of the astonishing deliverance and miraculous sustenance in the wilderness—the first pillar—is the constitutive national narrative, memorialized and retold annually by parents to children at the Passover Seder. Absent a relation to God, the Jewish people might still be enslaved to man; remembering our own servitude, we should deal kindly with the vulnerable.
The covenant and constituting Law—the second pillar—establish the way of life under which the people are to live and rule themselves. Not content merely to provide instruction for rectifying mutual wrongdoing, the Law is also a moral teacher, touching all aspects of human life. Its guidelines protect human dignity against abuse and self-abasement and encourage reverence for life and property, care for the needy and fair dealing in all transactions. Aiming beyond justice, the Law seeks to promote grace and gratitude, lifting human beings to fulfill the promise implied in man’s being in the image of God.
The human longing for something better than our mortal selves is satisfied in the third pillar, a place for the community to meet and to seek and commune with God. The center of communal life, it is a home for showing gratitude and seeking atonement, for prayer and sacrifice, and for dedicating personal and collective life to serving God and His higher purposes for humankind.
What can today’s American reader carry away from this old story? Does it have any universal or contemporary significance?
Thoughtful people have long detected numerous parallels between the United States and biblical Israel. We Americans, too, owe our origins to an escape from despotism and a desire for religious freedom. We, too, are a particular and distinctive people with a universal creed, one of biblical provenance: In announcing our birth, we declared that “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” We too have a constituting national law, a Constitution approved by the consent of the people. And when in the mid-19th century our Union was challenged and its founding creed repudiated, we renewed it through the sacrifice of a bloody civil war, so that, as Abraham Lincoln said, “this nation under God shall have a new birth of Freedom.”
For most of its history, America was a nation characterized by reverence as much as by love of liberty. Like the Israelites at Sinai, the Pilgrims aboard the Mayflower, seeking to serve God, covenantally entered into a civil body politic even before they hit land or had an economy. Our Constitution is not neutral as between religion and irreligion. Although, unlike other nations, we have no established religion, our most fundamental right, enshrined in the First Amendment, protects religion’s free exercise.
In describing Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated our mutually reinforcing spirit of liberty and spirit of religion. Lincoln called us an “almost chosen people.” Herman Melville made the comparison explicit: “Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the ways of the Egyptians. To her was given an express dispensation; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.”
Like Israel of old, we, too, have stumbled and fallen, and committed apostasy against our creed. But half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. , like an ancient Hebrew prophet, summoned us to return to our ideals of liberty and justice for all, appealing explicitly to our founding creed and the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. Until only yesterday, it could be said of America that it was, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “a nation with the soul of a church.”
But times have changed. For today’s reader of Exodus, a crucial question cries out from the three-pillared structure of Israel’s founding. Can a people endure and flourish if it lacks a shared national story, accepted law and morals, and an aspiration to something higher than its own comfort and safety? Can a devotion to technological progress, economic prosperity and private pursuits of happiness sustain us when our story is contested (or despised), our morals weakened and our national dedication abandoned?
The bonds of shared history create attachments that induce people to care concretely for one another, while the universal law recognizes and advances the dignity of all human beings. People who remember estrangement and deprivation are likelier to feel sympathy for strangers and compassion for the needy than those familiar only with prosperity. People who have experienced tyranny are likelier to treasure freedom than those who have known nothing else. People nourished collectively in the wilderness are likelier to be grateful for the blessings of existence than those who regard human life as a zero-sum game and grasp all they can for themselves.
We also have need of the abiding wisdom in the Ten Commandments and the ordinances: the importance of honoring father and mother for decent family life and cultural transmission; the human dignity and equality promoted by Sabbath remembrance; the reorienting of the heart toward shareable goods in the injunction against coveting; the high valuing of human—and animal—life and limb; the special regard for a pregnant woman and the child she carries; the humane treatment of the stranger; the compassionate protection of widows, orphans and the poor; the devotion to truth and justice in disputes at law; the teaching of communal gratitude through the sacred festivals; the inspiring call to imitate God in his holiness.
Against degrading human proclivities, the Law not only prohibits wrongful conduct that threatens civil peace and order; it also promotes human excellence and directs the soul toward the divine source of all blessings.
To be clear: Such a reading of Exodus is no call for theocracy. We know that mixing militant religion with politics often has deadly consequences—from the Crusades and the Thirty Years’ War to today’s jihad against the infidels. But last century’s godless politics of Hitler, Stalin and Mao slaughtered and degraded more people than all religious wars combined. As Chesterton put it, “when men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.” With both atheism and political fanaticism on the rise in Western societies, we may soon discover what happens should humanity return to the dehumanizing pre-Biblical alternatives whose modern equivalents lurk offstage: the techno-despotic ways of the Egyptians, the earth-worshipping and licentious ways of the Canaanites or the cosmopolitan and soulless dream of the Babel builders that man will be a god to man.
In these confused and dangerous times, with most Western nations struggling to articulate why they should exist at all, and with the human future in the balance, we can ill afford to neglect any possible sources of wisdom about human affairs. Precisely because we 21st-century Americans are not theocrats but loyal yet worried members of a modern liberal democracy, we have much to learn from the book of Exodus. As Rousseau argued 250 years ago, this timeless book remains an indispensable resource for thinking about the good life and the good community, freedom and law, justice and holiness, and the meaning and purpose of our existence. It deserves—and rewards—our most serious attention.
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