The Limits of a Secular Exodus
Exodus and Revolution
By Michael Walzer
Publisher: Basic Books
Review Author: Robert N. Bellah
Michael Walzer has written a commentary on the book of Exodus and its influence on Western political thought and practice that thoroughly deserves the widespread attention it is receiving. He comments on the Exodus story itself (including the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy) and its influence on ancient Jewish history up to the Maccabeans, on the Reformation, on socialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, and on liberation theology. He achieves a great deal in a short space by suggesting a coherent four-act structure to the Exodus story that provides the basis for reflections on the nature of liberating political action and for comparative study of subsequent cases. The four acts are bondage in Egypt, murmurings in the wilderness, the covenant of a free people, and the Promised Land.
But before considering the useful things Walzer does with this structure we must note a self-imposed limitation that has serious consequences for his analysis in the end. In the Preface he writes, “I don’t mean to disparage the sacred, only to explore the secular: my subject is not what God has done but what men and women have done, first with the biblical text itself and then in the world, with the text in their hands.” A secular Exodus, an Exodus that provides political instruction unrelated to faith, is a strange and ultimately incoherent idea, one that results in grave defects in Walzer’s analysis. Yet on the way, in spite of this weakness, there is much of value.
The Exodus story as Walzer tells it is not bedtime reading for children. It is a grave and at moments even a terrifying tale. Egypt is not only oppressive to the Hebrew slaves but also corrupt and attractive in its corruption. The children of Israel will not abandon their slavery without the promise of a land of milk and honey that will replace the affluence they are leaving and for which they periodically yearn. Centuries of bondage may create a people who yearn for freedom but not a free people. It is the slavishness of the people that leads to their murmurings in the wilderness and to the grimmest part of Walzer’s analysis. For this people hankering for the fleshpots of Egypt must be disciplined and it would seem that only revolutionary violence can supply the discipline. We remember that Moses was angry when he descended from Sinai and found the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. But do we remember that he stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.”? And the sons of Levi came to him and he told them to go from gate to gate throughout the camp “and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” And that day there fell 3,000 men.
Walzer is not wrong in suggesting here a “Leninist” style of revolutionary leadership. And indeed the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness were necessary so that no one who was over 10 years old when the Israelites left Egypt would be alive when they entered the promised land. A servile people could not build the new and better society.
And yet the Leninist style is not the whole story. According to Walzer there is also a more “social democratic” side to Moses’ leadership. It is Moses as republican pedagogue who leads the people willingly and consciously to accept their covenant with God — and this creates their new society. Walzer emphasizes that a free contractarianism, depending on individual choice, forms the basis of this free people. In his treatment of the Promised Land, Walzer reveals the tendency of the people to turn the promised land into Egypt again and then groan in their bondage. He also considers here the temptation of apocalyptic messianism that hopes for a drastically new heaven and new earth and abandons the patient march through the wilderness that is the only way to a reasonably decent promised land. In general, Walzer’s preference for a moderate politics of the possible is persuasive.
I have been able to give only a very foreshortened version of the many insights Walzer gives us into the Exodus story and its implications for later political history. But I think it is time to consider the price Walzer pays for his relentless secularism. God is mentioned repeatedly in the book — one could hardly tell the Exodus story without doing so. But for Walzer, God is not an actor in the story. This, of course, greatly simplifies things and allows Walzer to stick to his task of analyzing the Exodus action as secular politics. It is not, as Walzer makes clear, that the story is unproblematic, even at that level. But the problems that the ancient Jews had with the story, seen as one in which God is an actor, indeed the actor — problems that preoccupied the deuteronomists, the prophets, the author of Job, not to speak of Jews and Christians ever since — are simply avoided. Yet Walzer must realize that until very recently no one would ever have imagined treating Exodus in entirely secular terms, and that even for him it has its authority because of its religious meaning, even though he chooses to bracket that meaning. But there is a more serious problem for Walzer’s approach.
Treating Exodus entirely as a secular political paradigm deprives it of any meaning when politics, extremist or moderate, fail. That his approach has this consequence is indicated by the extraordinary hiatus in his historical account. For Walzer’s interests, from the Maccabees to the Reformation essentially nothing happened, or at least nothing useful. He sees Jewish apocalyptic and Christian messianism as misguided forms of Exodus politics that lead either to suicidal insurrections or to political quietism. The story picks up with the Reformation again because the Reformers, according to Walzer, were essentially “Judaizers.” In his treatment one would hardly know the Reformers were Christians. Similarly in his treatment of liberation theology he sees the Exodus model completely overshadowing the New Testament. Yet for the Jewish and Christian communities that took the Exodus as central for their identity, it was a deepening understanding of God’s action as creator, as sustainer, as judge and punisher, but also as one who loved the people even in their sinfulness (Hosea) and one who participated in their suffering (Second Isaiah, but most clearly in Jesus Christ), that was decisive.
To leave all that out or to dismiss that as some kind of aberrant apocalypticism or messianism is not to see how the religious communities that carried the possibility of Exodus politics could ever have survived at all. Thus it would seem that even a political understanding of the power of this story is eviscerated if its religious meaning is obscured.
Yet even a truncated version of the story, when pressed for all the political wisdom it can render, is deeply instructive. Walzer’s final summary of what Exodus has to teach us about the possibility, meaning, and form of politics gives us a great deal to think about:
∙ first, wherever you live, it is probably Egypt;
∙ second, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land;
∙ and third, “the way to the land is through the wilderness.” There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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