Is America Rooted in Exodus?
Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus
By Leon R. Kass
Publisher: Yale University Press
Review Author: Preston R. Simpson
Does the Book of Exodus have anything to tell us about modern political systems? This is the question at the heart of Leon R. Kass’s latest book, Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus. Kass is a physician and biochemist by training but has spent much of the past few decades of his professional life teaching the great books to university students and writing on bioethics. He most prominently came into the public eye in 2001 when President George W. Bush made him head of the newly established President’s Council on Bioethics. The council’s job was to advise the president on bioethical issues, of which the most controversial at the time was stem-cell research.
Kass was raised in a Yiddish-speaking, secular Jewish home. The son of immigrants, he did not attend synagogue or show any interest in Scripture until after the birth of his first child. Then he discovered in the Hebrew Bible the “teachings of righteousness, humaneness, and human dignity — the source of my parents’ teaching of menschlichkeit [a man of great humanity] that had been missing from my philosophizing.”
Kass acknowledges that the Bible is not ordinarily thought of as philosophy. Philosophical inquiry looks to nature and reason, whereas the Bible uses divine revelation and prophecy. Nevertheless, he sees his book as a work of philosophy, and by reading Exodus philosophically he means wisdom seeking and wisdom loving. His book is the distillation of years of teaching Genesis and Exodus and studying them largely from a philosophical viewpoint. “My primary questions came from political philosophy,” he explains. “I looked for insights into political founding and people formation, freedom and order, law and morality, the leader and the led.” Founding God’s Nation “in part conveys what I have discovered about these matters.”
My attention was drawn to the book by an adaptation Kass wrote as the Saturday essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “Exodus and American Nationhood” (Jan. 9, 2021). I had also read his earlier book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), which took a similar philosophical approach to the first book of the Bible. In the current book, however, political philosophy is largely limited to the introduction and the epilogue. In between is a detailed and sometimes tedious examination of the biblical text. More about that later.
Kass sees the formation of the Israelite nation as having three key components. The first is their experience of slavery in Egypt and their remarkable and miraculous deliverance from it. This experience was to be remembered and taught to future generations in the Passover celebration, reminding them whence they had come. The memory of their enslavement would make the Israelites more sympathetic to the alien and the dispossessed. During their flight from Egypt and their travails on the way to the Promised Land, they would gradually shed their slavish mentality, at first looking to Moses as a replacement Pharaoh, then gradually taking more of a role in their own government.
The second component is the covenant and the associated Law. This would guide nearly all aspects of community life — governing marriage, children, property, Sabbath observance, care for the needy, and the administration of justice — and act not only as a set of organizing principles but as a moral teacher. Kass believes that in the absence of the instruction of the Torah, man will look to nature as the ancient Egyptians did. This alternative is still evident among “modern-day Buddhists or deep ecologists who worship Gaia.” The modern worship of technology bears some similarities.
The third and final component is the Tabernacle, which serves as the community meeting place where the people gather to share and remember their communal experience and to worship the God who gave them all they have. Kass places quite a bit of emphasis on the Tabernacle and indicates that his interpretation of its significance is unusual among Exodus readers. He admits that the extraordinarily long and seemingly repetitive attention and detail given in Exodus to the Tabernacle’s construction and its associated furnishings and priestly vestments seem odd, but he sees this as concomitant with the Tabernacle’s importance in the Israelites’ community life. He views the Tabernacle as “a portable Sinai in miniature,” which they take with them as they move.
How much these lessons can be applied to the modern world is not so clear. The first foundational principle, deliverance from bondage, obviously does not apply to all people. Kass claims that our American nation began with an escape from despotism, but the tyranny our colonial forebears experienced under King George III was of a very different sort than that which the Israelites experienced under Pharaoh. Of course, there were slaves in America, but they played no role in forming the post-revolutionary mechanics of government. And the millions of immigrants who came to these shores before and after the revolution were not escaping slavery in the Old World, although they certainly knew hardship. Furthermore, the colonists had considerable experience in self-government, something the Hebrews completely lacked. Kass contends that “people who have experienced tyranny are more likely to treasure freedom, especially if they have struggled to attain it, than if they have never known anything else.” I am not certain this is true. Is freedom a universal value? Some cultures seem unable to break out of despotism for reasons that are unclear but presumably deeply rooted in their cultural makeup. The United States has found this to be true by its shattered assumption that every people wants a Western-style democracy.
Kass quotes Jean-Jacques Rousseau as one who understood the contributions of Exodus. “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,” Rousseau opined. “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.” Rousseau, of course, wrote before the U.S. Constitution was drafted. But James Madison and other American founders drew considerably from Greece and Rome, and little to nothing from Exodus. Moreover, Rousseau’s idea of a general will, later embodied in despots like Napoleon, is in sharp contrast to the individualism that arose among the Americans.
The Tabernacle is the center of community worship, a place where the people acknowledge their blessings, honor God, and contemplate their need for reconciliation with Him. Although not part of his discussion of the Tabernacle, Kass elsewhere mentions the importance of songs by Moses and Miriam early in the escape from Egypt. Singing, in Kass’s view, has an important role in building a community of purpose. While we and most modern societies do not have a Tabernacle, we do have communal rituals and icons, including songs, that unite us. This societal unity is now under attack, and many want to dismantle it. I understand this to be the issue Kass addresses in the following passage from the book’s epilogue. The fact that he included it in the vastly shorter WSJ article presumably indicates the importance he attaches to it. He ponders:
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, our morals weakened, and our national dedication abandoned? I doubt it. Living increasingly between technocracy and hedonism, defined not by our duties or callings but by our devices and whims, we are feasted in body but famished in soul, and our national fabric is unraveling.
Whether the form of government we possess derives from Exodus is not convincingly answered in Kass’s book. Consider that the form of government bequeathed to the Israelites was a theocracy run by priests. After the time of Exodus but still in ancient times, the Israelites demanded and were given a monarchy, but it was riven by civil war and ended with their people dispersed. Is modern liberal democracy the ultimate end point of the events and institutions recounted in Exodus? Was that God’s ultimate intention? These are questions indirectly raised, but not answered, in Founding God’s Nation.
Indeed, some of Kass’s analyses of political systems are puzzling. He defines politics as “rule addressed to the souls of men,” and so any system, such as that of Pharaoh’s Egypt, in which “administration and technology, not law and governance, are supreme,” is said to “lack any real politics.” In a footnote, Kass goes on to say, “Ancient Egypt thus anticipates the dream of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who looked forward to the…withering away of the state, when the rule of men would be replaced by the administration of things.” I doubt Pharaoh foresaw himself and his descendants as withering away. Kass does rightly acknowledge that the Marxian dream has everywhere turned disastrous for the people so governed. But as Kass also credits (or blames) Joseph, the son of Jacob, for creating Pharaoh’s administrative state, does this make Joseph a proto-communist?
What can be said about the vast expanse of the book, in between the probing questions of the introduction and the epilogue? Kass’s discussion is thorough and comprehensive, taking the reader through Exodus chapter by chapter, often line by line. He uses various translations in his study, but the wording he chooses is not the most readable or free-flowing available. Any serious reader or expositor of the Bible knows that the choice of translations is a complex and difficult tradeoff between accuracy and readability. Suffice it to say that in the view of this layman, Kass did not lean toward readability. Even more frustrating than the sometimes stilted language of the text is his frequent, exasperating, and needless parenthetical insertion of Hebrew words after their English counterparts. One example from his quotation of Exodus 23:1-3 reads: “You shall not bear (‘take up,’ ‘utter’; lo’ thissa) a false (‘vain’; shav’) report (‘rumor’; shema’); put not your hand with the wicked (rasha’) to be an unrighteous witness (literally, ‘witness for violence’: ‘ed chamas).” Such translational speedbumps take considerable joy out of reading the sacred text.
Kass dilates at length on various Hebrew words and their uses, including discussion of some words that are difficult to translate. In nearly all cases, these digressions seem gratuitous and pedantic. Perhaps they are of interest to the small number of readers who are Hebrew scholars, but for the average reader it is an annoying distraction. By contrast, the footnotes, which are numerous, sometimes contain pertinent elaborations that could have been included in the main text. In sum, a lot of the translational minutiae could have been put in footnotes, while some of the footnotes belong in the main text.
Kass’s exegesis fills several hundred pages with commentary on virtually every event and law mentioned in Exodus. His approach is to try to imagine the events as a participant would have experienced them. We who know what comes later in the Bible tend to see the events of Exodus in light of what else we know about God and the history of Israel. Kass urges us to read it as if we had no other knowledge and were encountering God for the first time through the eyes of the reluctant leader Moses and the bewildered, frightened, oppressed, and ignorant slaves to whom he was sent. At times, Kass takes considerable liberty with the text in speculating on motives, fears, political considerations, and other thoughts of the participants. In other places, he makes odd literalistic arguments from silence, as when he notes that the text makes no mention of God’s commanding Noah’s sacrifice after the flood and therefore concludes that the sacrifice was unauthorized. I am no Hebrew scholar, but I have observed that the biblical text is often rather terse, and I simply assumed that the intended readers were so familiar with sacrifice in the ancient world that the author did not find it necessary to reiterate every time God desired one.
Kass does show great respect for the longstanding rabbinical tradition that has amplified and extended passages on the Law’s seemingly excessive punishments and applied them to many varied and complex situations. He observes that “a single, often cryptic verse from Exodus gets several talmudic chapters of elaboration, reflection, and refinement, against which our naïve reading will unavoidably seem simplistic.”
As a Christian reader, I find it interesting how Kass’s Jewish interpretation of the Hebrew Law seems incomplete in light of later revelation. Kass is rather cagey about who exactly God is. For example, he claims that Exodus 34:6-7 “is the first clear instance in the Torah in which God discloses His loving side, foreshadowing His reputation as ‘father’ — or ‘parent’ — to His people. A careful reader may wonder: Was this always part of God’s character, or was it evoked or elicited only by Moses’s persistent pleading?” If it were not part of His character, Kass has a very different view of God than most Christians. He seems to be implying that God developed along with the children of Israel.
Kass makes only brief, fleeting references to the New Testament and never mentions Jesus by name. Yet there were several societal problems among the Israelite people that the New Testament answers. One wonders if these questions have ever come up in Professor Kass’s classes. He writes, “We should redirect our desire to ‘know God’ away from philosophy and theology (speech about God) and attend instead to what He reveals of Himself in ‘history,’ to what He says to and does for human beings.” An attentive Christian student in his class would immediately ask whether Kass is aware that Jesus of Nazareth, a famous Jew, claimed to be the ultimate revelation of God to the Jewish people and did the ultimate thing for human beings. Kass is silent on this issue. In another passage, he seems to believe that man is, in theory, perfectible, but, at the same time, he seems to realize that man is not. Again, he does not mention the Christian solution to this problem.
Where he comes closest to acknowledging Jesus, Kass draws a contrast between the Decalogue’s injunction to honor your father and mother and “a later scriptural teacher” who “exhort[s] you to leave your father and mother and follow me (Matthew 10:34-38).” Is he saying Jesus is illegitimate because He does not follow the Decalogue? This lies unexplored. In another passage touching on the teachings of Christ, Kass explains why the Law commands you to return your enemy’s lost animal and then writes, “These obligations to your adversary do not, however, translate into a comprehensive teaching of ‘love your enemy,’ however much they tend in that direction. The ordinances seek to govern people’s actions, not their feelings.”
Kass goes out of his way to distance himself from Christianity. Might it be inconvenient to admit that the teachings of Jesus are directly linked to the Law? Would this tend to draw attention to Jesus’ legitimacy? Kass goes on to write that the Law “does not say ‘Love your enemy.’ Such a demand would likely be regarded as unreasonable, even if confined to your opponent within the covenantal community.” This purely practical interpretation seems to be in keeping with Kass’s philosophical approach to reading the text, as outlined in his introduction. But to the reader who approaches the Bible as revelation and prophecy, the “unreasonableness” of keeping all God’s commandments leads to a different conclusion.
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