I’m going to start a series here on the biblical origins of the American character. We all know, or should, that the early settlers, especially the ones we call the Pilgrims, felt a close affinity with the Patriarchs of the Old Testament. But why? I’ve always felt it was a disenchantment with the King of England, not least because of their sympathy for Oliver Cromwell. Turns out that I was fairly close to right. Kenneth Hanson has studied in far greater depth than I have ever seen, this paper was published in the New English Review. It’s a fascinating story as well, which sheds light not only on American History but on early Jewish history.
Here you will find the biblical basis of what we as Americans hold sacred.
“Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers
by Kenneth Hanson
“Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime… In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food.” – Lord Acton
Open the pages of the Bible. Pull it off the dusty shelf, and whom do you meet from the outset? The Patriarchs – biblical “pioneers” – rugged individualists in search of a new land. They were the ancestors of Israel’s twelve tribes, just as America’s Pilgrims and early colonists were the founders of the thirteen separate states that would one day comprise a federal union.
We’re all familiar with the story of Abraham, the revered father of three world faiths and progenitor of the people who came to be known as Israel. According to holy writ, he hailed from ancient Babylonia, today known somewhat ignominiously as the country of Iraq. He didn’t, however, follow the advice that most people today would give a son: “Get an education. Become a professional, perhaps a doctor or a lawyer. Find a nice Jewish girl. Settle down. Raise a family. Put something away for retirement.” Surprisingly enough, ancient Mesopotamia boasted such an advanced culture that young Abram, as he was called before his famous name-change, could have done just that.
But this illustrious individualist chose a very different tack. He and his family uprooted themselves and left the city they had called home, known as Ur of the Chaldees. They followed the trade routes that took them far to the west, toward a land they knew not. We take the story for granted, as we do most well-trodden tales of biblical lore, but its particulars strain credulity. While already en-route, at a way-station in the vast deserts called Haran, a voice from the unknown addresses Abram’s inner being and bids him: “Go ye!,” or perhaps better translated, “Go! Go!” – or as we say in the South, “Git!” It’s greatest imperative in religious history, as the voice continues: “Leave the land of your birth, your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you.” The otherworldly command is delivered in the future tense, since this “land of promise” hasn’t yet been revealed. Abram must take it on faith, along with the secondary declaration, that his descendants will be “as sands of the seashore.”
The question begged by this peculiar text is never addressed by sincerely religious readers: Is Abram out of his mind? Has he lost touch with reality? Why does a man who came of age in the “cradle of civilization,” where humankind’s earliest geniuses invented everything from writing to the wheel to giant ziggurats to barley beer, take to the roads as a wandering nomad? What might have troubled him so much about this splendid culture that he felt compelled to leave it? We can only take the Bible at face value when it suggests that Abram’s erratic behavior had something to do with matters of faith.
We are of course told that Abraham was history’s first monotheist, but a case can be made that there was something more going on here. The “bottom line” about Mesopotamian religion is that every one of its many gods and goddesses were integral parts of nature itself. They were aspects of the cosmos. To name a few, there was An, the sky god, Enlil, god of the atmosphere, Enki, god of the primordial waters, and Marduk, who slew the goddess Tiamat, creating the heavens with the top portion of her torso and the earth with her lower half. This ancient pantheon was of course immortal, and no single deity could die, lest an aspect of the cosmos itself die. But an unfortunate consequence of this was that the Mesopotamians felt a sense of helplessness before nature. Since the forces of nature are obviously fickle, “the gods themselves must be crazy!” Rains may water the land in just the right quantity to produce an abundant harvest, or too much rain may fall, and everyone may be carried away by a flood. The sun may shine down mercifully to warm the earth, or it may shine relentlessly, parching the ground, turning gardens into deserts and bringing inevitable famine.
These Mesopotamian gods sound to my modern ears an awful lot like environmentalists, don’t they?
Sure enough, when students of the literature of ancient Babylonia pour through the crumbling cuneiform tablets on which the texts are preserved, what they find is a profound sense of fatalism. “No one knows what tomorrow may bring; so eat, drink and be merry, and have another barley beer!” Perhaps Abram simply couldn’t make peace with this fatalistic approach to life and existence. Things don’t just “happen.” There has to be an overarching sense of purpose and meaning, co-mingled with divine justice, as only a good and just God can bestow. So it was, that he saddled up his camels and left.
Could this be the basic cause of the malaise we sense in Western Civilization today? We can’t make any difference anyway, so have another beer, it doesn’t matter.
Whatever the reason that Abram left this storied land, there’s a pattern to be discerned in his narrative that wasn’t lost on the “patriarchs” of early America, who not only devoured the Bible, but were intent on making it part of their personal experience. We know them as the “Pilgrims,” who sadly have been reduced to little more than caricatures in children’s books.
These “Pilgrims,” as we know them, were people of extraordinary faith. It’s rather difficult in our own day to imagine that people might really be motivated to do extraordinary things by pure faith, but such were the Pilgrims. It was their powerful piety that led them to withdraw from the religious structure of their European land – the Church of England. Originally part of a larger movement known as the Separatists, they incurred the wrath of Britain’s King James I, who expected strict obedience from his subjects and condemned them as fanatics. Their first move involved crossing the Channel to the Netherlands, taking refuge in Amsterdam and subsequently Leiden. Holland was their equivalent of the ancient city of Haran, Abram’s midpoint on his long trek out of Mesopotamia.
Such parallels weren’t lost on the likes of William Bradford, who later became governor of this rag-tag group and recorded their adventures in an illustrious memoir, Of Plymouth Plantation. Of their desperate crossing for the New World, undertook in September, 1620, he wrote: “They knew they were pilgrims, and looked not much on those pleasant things they were leaving, but lifted up their eyes to the heavens, their dearest country, and quieted their spirits.” Whereas Abram followed the desert trade routes of the ancient tribal nation called the Amorites, the Pilgrims navigated the sea routes of English colonists. Theirs was as much a voyage into the unknown as was that of the first biblical Patriarch, who knew nothing of his future “promised land.”
Politics and Pilgrims
Whether speaking of Abraham’s clan or the Pilgrims, a case can be made that their creed was individualism, and that for them freedom meant deliverance from the intrusive power of empire (whether Mesopotamian or British) to tyrannize their lives by forced conformity. To be a bit adventuresome, we might imagine both Abraham and William Bradford’s Pilgrims not only as people of religious fervor, but as distinguished political scientists. They well understood what Lord Acton would later famously articulate, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Furthermore, hasn’t it always been the nature of the state to stifle individuality and retard creativity? So it is, that history’s most brilliant thinkers, from Socrates to Ghandi, have often found themselves at odds with it.
In fact, I think its a very good case. How do we, the average American, feel about the monster we have created on the banks of the Potomac? Do we really think it’s promises of security are worth it, or do we yearn to breathe free? Remember, the Pilgrims are our spiritual ancestors, whatever our particular heritage. We are the descendants of the people, all over the world, who yearned to breathe free and not be stifled by the government. We are of the people that followed the dream.
Literary theorists love to point out that the meaning of texts (such as the Bible) is in the eye of the beholder. They like to see them as a product of the dynamic interchange between author and reader. Self-proclaimed “progressives” naturally want to read the Bible as a testament to a caring and compassionate state, to the virtue of centralized authority. They choose to emphasize the concept of “covenant” in God’s promise to Abraham, as well as the promise that his descendants will be as the sands of the seashore (Genesis 22:17). This, however, is more than a trifle at odds with religious individualists, who find in the stories of the patriarchs a bulwark against state intrusiveness.
Bearing this in mind, let’s consider another possible rationale for Abraham’s departure from the “cradle of civilization,” that involves the political realities of that ancient day. History tells us that by 2334 B.C.E. a single king named Sargon comes to dominate Mesopotamia. Having built an Akkadian army, Sargon hastens to take control of southern Mesopotamia. During a reign of fifty-six years, Sargon conquers northern Mesopotamia, Syria, and westward to the Mediterranean coast, even capturing southeast Asia Minor. He carves out for himself the world’s first empire, encompassing people of assorted nationalities, religions and cultural traditions. Sargon’s empire is unique in organization as well as scale. He is the first king who claims to possess a standing army – 5,400 men in arms – conscripted from all the cities in his domain. An army being a costly venture, Sargon initiates a new tactic by which to feed the troops – plunder. The soldiers simply raid and loot the cities and towns along the road of conquest, setting out on the warpath each spring. Some might call it history’s first version of the income tax! For all its advances, the price of developing a complex civilization turns out to be oppression. In 2197 B.C.E. Sargon’s empire collapses at the hands of raiders, who swoop in from the mountains, visiting the Akkadian warlords with a dose of karmic justice.
I’ve told you the American prejudice against a standing army was very deep, I guess you can see why here?
Chaos follows, during which time a nomadic people known as the Amorites rush in, only to settle down and become absorbed in the larger culture. In 1792 B.C.E. a new king arises – the illustrious Hammurabi. During the course of his long reign he decides to emulate Sargon, casting a covetous eye on cities with whom he had previously been allied. His military adventures are characterized by the increasingly popular practice of taking hostages, who are held for ransom. Specialized merchants ransom Babylonian soldiers from the enemy and then demand repayment with interest. War thus becomes an enterprise, as Hammurabi extends his domain from the Persian Gulf to Syria. While Hammurabi is best known for his renowned law code (resembling in many respects the laws of Moses), it’s also true that even his legal ordinances reveal a striking inequity between various classes of citizens, the upper classes being treated quite differently than servants and slaves. Again, we find the state eminently capable of oppressing its own subjects.
Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s difficult to know for certain in what century Abraham may have lived, and some question whether he is a historical figure at all. His wanderings, though, are consistent with those of the Amorites, and we may suspect that he possesses a healthy disdain for state-sponsored oppression, and the kind of rugged individualism that links him with America’s early pioneers – the Pilgrims. His ultimate destination (revealed to him only after he had already set out on his way): the land of Canaan, a patchwork society that was diffuse and localized, conspicuously lacking anything that remotely resembled a strong central government. Its contrast with the empire of Babylonia’s legendary kings, Sargon and Hammurabi, couldn’t be more striking.
We may liken Abraham’s journey to an ancient version of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century classic that depicts the hero, Christian, setting out from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, meeting many adversaries along the way. The story is an emblem of the kind of religious individualism that came to characterize Protestant theology in both England and America. But let’s cast Abraham instead as “Hebrew” and his destination much more “down-to-earth” in a Jewish sense than the notion of “going to heaven.” Moreover, the lessons are not merely spiritual, but political as well, for individualism is what the “civil society” envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers was all about.
Abraham’s rugged individualism does not, however, override his sense of community, another lesson grasped by America’s earliest settlers. Indeed, in the case of both patriarchs and Pilgrims, clan was everything. Nor does individualism undermine the need for a solemn pact by which to live. There is broad agreement that the most important word in the entire Hebrew Bible is “covenant” – brit – that may best be understood as a legal contract binding Israel to God and the subsequent tribes to each other.
The Pilgrim Chronicles makes deliberate allusion both to Abraham and the covenant, extrapolating the term to their own society:
A covenant, or confederation, according to all the Congregational fathers, is what constitutes a church, and a person a member of it; it may be in writing, or verbal, implicit or explicit… A separation from the world into the fellowship of the gospel and covenant of Abraham, is a true church, truly gathered, though ever so weak.
Their core principles were arguably even more radical, for the Pilgrims audaciously proclaimed that “every … church is strictly independent of all uninspired authority.” In other words, in a day when ecclesiastical and temporal authorities tended to be wedded at the hip and at the head, their greatest desire was to be completely free from the coercive power of the church-state. Freedom was thus understood as emancipation from coercion, from the arbitrary power of others. Moreover, at every juncture, the American pioneers chose to root this understanding in the biblical text.
As most of us do still!
The Tension We Never Mention
All of this in time set up an inevitable tension (though glossed over by religious-minded readers of the Bible). Who, exactly, is Abraham, venerable forefather of Judaism, Christianity and Islam? And what does he represent? Is he (according to one socio-political model – “liberation theology”) an individual, leading to a family, leading to a clan, leading to some sort of “national commune”? Or is he an individual, leading to a family of individuals, leading to a clan of individuals, leading to a nation of individuals – the “libertarian vision”? That’s more in line with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and, arguably, the “American dream.”
The famed existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, loved Abraham for the individualism of his life-choices, dubbing him his “knight of faith.” He makes no apology for parts of the narrative that strain credulity, even praising the patriarch for the most controversial of his actions. Students of the Bible are well familiar with the disturbing story of how Abraham hears the divine voice yet again, being told to take his son, his only son, the one he loves, to the land called Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on a makeshift altar. To the impartial reader this amounts to nothing less than child sacrifice, commanded by a barbarous deity. The story is called the Akkedah, or “binding” of Isaac, by Jewish sages and rabbis, who have engaged in multiple forms of mental gymnastics down through the centuries trying to defend it. True enough, Isaac is not sacrificed in the end, since Abraham’s hand is stayed by an angel at the last minute, before he can perform the grisly act. It was only a test, the commentators rationalize, to prove that Abraham was in fact prepared to follow the divine command, even at the cost of his son. But such justifications sound weak and strained to many.
There is perhaps another, more important message of the Akkedah, namely, that if Abraham’s promised son, Isaac, is to become the vanguard of an empire, then he is to be relinquished on the altar of vanity. Abraham’s calling is not about creating a dynasty or a monarchy. He mustn’t become an autocrat; that was for other builders of empire. His son and scion is to continue a legacy of faith, not raw power. His descendants, who will be as “sands of the seashore,” are not a mob to be ruled; they are “we the people” – just “folks,” comprising a new body politic in which all are “created equal.” The politics of Abraham is revolutionary, especially for its time, when power comes through sword point and grows at the expense of individual liberties.
True, Abraham and his clan understand the power of the sword and are not above acts of brutal brigandry. For example, he and his band of three hundred eighteen rescue his nephew Lot from an alliance of four Mesopotamian kings who had taken him prisoner when they attacked his city of domicile – Sodom. Military conquest, yes, but empire-building, hardly. The Mesopotamians are aware of the riches that pass across the land bridge known as Canaan, and they want their cut, taking it by force if necessary. Lot happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Mesopotamians are all about creating empire; Abraham’s rag-tag force of fighters are all about thwarting it.
Some have identified Abraham as one of a number of tribal brigands known as Habiru, a word that sounds curiously similar to “Hebrew.” They are semi-nomadic people described by ancient Egyptian sources as “wanderers” or “outcasts.” They are shepherds, agriculturalists, stone-cutters, and soldiers. They should be understood as “guerilla warriors” – a kind of ancient militia who rose up as needed. America’s Pilgrims understood that they likewise were wanderers and outcasts. Hardly pacifists, they also brandished weapons as needed, for survival in a sometimes inhospitable land. While their little outpost was initially organized as a colony of the British empire, the first American settlers were, like their biblical model heroes, fundamentally at odds with autocracy.
This may well be the first instance of a “Just War”.
In another biblical episode, were are told that Abraham journeys down to Egypt during a famine, only to become fearful that he will be killed and his beautiful wife Sarah be taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. He cowardly pretends that Sarah is only his sister and allows her to enter into the great Egyptian’s household. As divine punishment, plagues are sent upon Pharaoh and his clan, and Sarah is sent back to her true husband. After receiving many gifts from Pharaoh, lavished upon him in order to placate patriarch’s incensed deity, Abraham heads for the desert of Canaan once more, resuming his nomadic ways. However, in focusing on Abraham’s moral deficit, we forget another issue regarding his choice of residence. Why doesn’t he simply opt to join the venerable civilization of the Nile? After all, if you’re not going to live in the splendor of Mesopotamia, with its temples, palaces and ziggurats, isn’t Egypt, with its equally grandiose temples, obelisks and pyramids, an acceptable second choice?
Well, not really, if individuality means anything. Abraham might have found security and relief from occasional famine in the land of the Nile, but he still prefers his nomadic existence. What’s so great about being a nomad, and having to cope on a daily basis with camel spit? Perhaps it has something to do with the simple fact that the Egyptians are history’s first true bureaucrats. Being for the most part protected from marauders by deserts to the east and west, and by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, they are free to focus inward. The phenomenal growth of the empire of the Pharaohs also means the proliferation of unfettered bureaucracy. Egypt is in fact able to stretch its tentacles all the way up Mediterranean coast, even taking on the Hittites in Asia Minor. Their overarching attitude: “You will be absorbed; resistance is futile!” When it comes to the ancient near east, the Egyptians are everywhere, and “omnipresent,” but the Bible seems to be shouting at us, that Abraham wants no part of them, or their well-oiled bureaucracy. In spite of its obvious cultural superiority, Egypt traditionally symbolizes slavery and bitter servitude – the “house of bondage.” And so, Father Abraham is content to sojourn down to Pharaoh’s household when the need arises (taking advantage of Egypt’s “famine protection plan”), but he’s also more than happy to hit the dusty roads again after the scandalously embarrassing interlude with wife/ “sister.”
By the end of his life, however, Abraham does in fact become “rooted,” when he makes a point of not just settling, but actually buying the land in which he settles. Driving home the point is the fact that when it comes time for him to secure a proper burial place for Sarah, he goes to the trouble of purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in the fabled site of Hebron:
And he spoke with them, saying, If it is your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and ask for me of Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he has, which is in the end of his field. For as much silver as it is worth he shall give it to me for a possession of a burying-place among you.
On a political level we understand the precedent set by the great patriarch, given that private property rights are ensconced as “sacred” in the U.S. Constitution. The idea is that land held in one’s own hands is less likely to fall prey to government control.
It seems, then, that the Bible is no friend of “big government” and/or bureaucracy. Oh yes, the Israelites will develop their own bureaucratic system of government, wrapped in a chief executive depicted as a God-appointed monarch, but that will be a long time coming, and laden with dark controversy and sharp rebuke from Israel’s great prophets. In the meantime, however, the “people’s patriarchs” will continue to dwell in tents, water their feisty camels, cope with famine and scrounge for food. In the final analysis, wayfarers are wayfarers, and Abraham’s clan and the passengers on the Mayflower are doubtless cut from the same pilgrim-cloth.
And so we see that our emphasis on private property rights also go back to Father Abraham.
Kenneth L. Hanson is an Associate professor in the University of Central Florida Judaic Studies Program. This is the first chapter from his new book, The Eagle and The Bible: Lessons in Liberty from Holy Writ published by New English Review Press.
Professor Hanson’s end notes will follow the final installment.
In the meantime, I’m interested in your thoughts.
If you can’t wait, I encourage you to go to “Go ye!” – Patriarchs and Pioneers > Kenneth Hanson.