God deserves obedience simply because he’s God—or does he? Inspired by a passion for biblical as well as constitutional scholarship, in this bold exploration Yale Law Professor Robert A. Burt conceptualizes the political theory of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. God’s authority as expressed in these accounts is not a given. It is no less inherently problematic and in need of justification than the legitimacy of secular government.
In recounting the rich narratives of key biblical figures—from Adam and Eve to Noah, Cain, Abraham, Moses, Job, and Jesus—In the Whirlwind paints a surprising picture of the ambivalent, mutually dependent relationship between God and his peoples. Taking the Hebrew and Christian Bibles as a unified whole, Burt traces God’s relationship with humanity as it evolves from complete harmony at the outset to continual struggle. In almost every case, God insists on unconditional obedience, while humanity withholds submission and holds God accountable for his promises.
Contemporary political theory aims for perfect justice. The Bible, Burt shows, does not make this assumption. Justice in the biblical account is an imperfect process grounded in human—and divine—limitation. Burt suggests that we consider the lessons of this tension as we try to negotiate the power struggles within secular governments, and also the conflicts roiling our public and private lives.
Burt’s discussions provide many useful and challenging insights. He demonstrates the difficulty inherent in the relationship of authority between rulers and ruled, whether human or divine.
Burt’s study of the interaction of divinity and humanity in establishing authority, divine and human alike, in the Bible is a closer literary reading of the entire Bible than most on offer from either divinity schools or literature departments. Yet his interest as a professor of law in contrasting the reciprocal establishment of mutually heteronomous authority in the Bible with the unilateral establishment of autonomous authority in modern political theory gives his work the forward thrust of a courtroom argument. The book of Job, in which the protagonist calls God’s authority into explicit question, and then God, from the whirlwind, calls the protagonist’s standing into question, becomes here the fulcrum of a study that brilliantly establishes this problematic as common to the Old and the New Testaments alike.
Many of Burt’s arguments are enlightening and theologically sophisticated… Burt uses the Bible as a prism through which to reassess the modern obsession with analyzing and defining legitimate political power… Burt’s book is full of thought-provoking ideas and it goes to show that law professors can sometimes turn out to be accomplished and challenging biblical interpreters.
A work highly recommended not only for Bible students and political scientists but also for general readers who welcome new approaches to both sacred texts and contemporary political concerns and discourse.
The plot of the Hebrew Bible is a grail in the vault of a mountain fastness, and it may be that no assault will ever quite take it, if it is even there to be taken, but what a siege Robert Burt has mounted! The closest of readings, the subtlest and most seductive of midrashic inferences, the severest of ethical verdicts, all with the precision of a first-rate legal mind and the wrestling effrontery of Job.
In this intriguing and moving book, Robert Burt reads the Bible as a tragic vision of the gap between perfect justice and what humans actually can achieve. Burt movingly unpacks the Biblical stories to argue that they show God and human beings constantly attempting to find their way to love and trust, through constant disappointments.
- 400 pages
- 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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