To understand America, do not start with 1787. Or 1776. Or 1492. To understand America -- or more precisely the most ancient roots of American order -- go back to the second millennium B.C., to the Hebrews. Ancient Israel has had more influence on American culture than you think. So argues Russell Kirk in his magisterial work, The Roots of American Order.
Why the Hebrews? After all, they were marginalized nomads who wandered around the edges of Bronze Age civilization more than 3,000 years ago, in the wastelands of Egypt and Sinai. When they finally did settle in Palestine, they never developed into a great power as did ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, China, India, or Rome. They left us no form of government to imitate. No economic system to marvel at. No enduring art or painting or sculpture to admire. The Western (Wailing) Wall from the foundation of the Second Temple is the best remnant of their architecture – hardly as striking as the pyramids of Egypt's Old Kingdom or the greatest temples of ancient Greece.
|The stoning of Stephen under Jewish law|
If every civilization imparts wisdom to the world, if every civilization hones and sharpens certain virtues among its people, the Jews honed and sharpened the virtue of being in right relationship to the divine -- piety. Let's explore ancient Israel's remarkable displays of piety and its everlasting contributions to Western civilization.
1. The Hebrews' most basic insight: religion is the bedrock of culture.
|Ark of the Covenant|
These major elements of Hebrew culture grew out of their relation with their God. Thus religion is foundational to Jewish culture -- it puts the “cult” in culture. This is a major theme of Roots, not just in the chapter on the Jews, but throughout the entire work. Kirk adopted this idea from the British Catholic historian Christopher Dawson. Kirk, following Dawson, wants us to see that the first social organization that formed beyond family groups is the cult that sought to communicate with the supernatural power that created human beings.
“Animals survive by instinct; true human beings cannot. Possessing reason, even primitive men ask questions. They find themselves, as did the Israelites in the desert of Sinai, in a condition of danger, suffering, and ignorance. Led perhaps by some man of marvelous insights, they join together in seeking answers to their questions. So the cult, the religious association, comes into existence. Men try, through the cult, to acquire protection and knowledge from a power that is more than human. Without such communication, they cannot survive on the human level -- and perhaps not even on the animal level."2. The Bible -- the most influential assemblage of books in human history?
“All the aspects of any civilization arise out of a people’s religion: its politics, its economics, its arts, its sciences, even its simple crafts are the by-products of religious insights and a religious cult. For until human beings are tied together by some common faith, and share certain moral principles, they prey upon one another. [But] in the common worship of the cult, a community forms. At the heart of every culture is a body of ethics, of distinctions between good and evil; and in the beginning, at least, those distinctions are founded upon the authority of revealed religion. Not until a people have come to share religious belief are they able to work together satisfactorily, or even to make sense of the world in which they find themselves. Thus all order -- even the ideological order of modern totalist states, professing atheism -- could not have come into existence, had it not grown out of general belief in truths that are perceived by the moral imagination.”
Our knowledge of this root of American order -- ancient Jerusalem -- is conveyed primarily through the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, ask Americans the first thing they think of when recalling ancient Israel’s legacy to us, and they’ll say the Old Testament. Every hotel room has one. In it are contained the great moral and spiritual insights of the ancient Jews. It is a book – or, rather, a collection of 24 books in the Jewish canon – written by numerous authors over many centuries. The Hebrew Scriptures correspond largely, with some variation in content and organization, to the Protestant and Roman Catholic Old Testament.
The Hebrew Scriptures, as filtered through Christian scribes and scholars, were to prove enormously formative of the American mind and character. Indeed, the study of Hebrew was in vogue in the 18th century, about the time America was founded. University of Houston political theorist Don Lutz has gone back through all the literature of the late-18th century to see what the Founders read. Of all the sources available to them, the Founding generation cited the Bible 34 percent of the time – more, by far, than any other single work. They cited the Bible four times more than Blackstone or Montesquieu, and twelve times more than Locke. And within the Bible, they referenced Deuteronomy more than any other book in either Old Testament or New. Presented with this kind of evidence, two Newsweek reporters, Kenneth Woodward and David Gates, noted that some “historians are discovering that the Bible, even more than the Constitution, is our founding document.”
3. Moral Order
Most of us first learn about moral order – about telling right from wrong – by being taught rules of behavior and laws to follow. The Jewish version of the Hebrew Scriptures opens with a long section called “The Law.” It’s the first five books of Moses, called the Torah in Jewish tradition and the Pentateuch in the Christian tradition – and in them are laid out 613 laws. The most famous among these laws are the Ten Commandments. It seems God/Moses was a practical teacher. There are ten of them, one for each finger, so that they can be easily learned and recalled.
The promulgation of timeless laws is based on the premise that human nature does not change. Indeed, Jewish teaching insists that man’s moral nature does not change. The Jews taught that it is constant throughout history and in every land. Thus God’s moral laws are absolute, objective, and universal. They are everywhere and in every case to be obeyed.
Because these ancient absolutes are chiseled into relativistic modern cultures, the Ten Commandments still make the news – in legislation passed in Congress, in court cases involving public schools where people have tried to post them (or remove them), and in Dr. Laura’s bestsellers. Even people who don’t believe in them pay the ancient Jews a compliment by feeling the need, more than 3,000 years later, explicitly to deny or debunk them.
|The two tablets were placed in numerous colonial churches.|
The power of the Commandments is abundantly evident from the beginning of American history. Every time I go back to Williamsburg, Virginia, I am reminded of just how visible the Ten Commandments were to the colonists. Every Anglican Church I go into has two large tablets embedded in the wall behind the altar, with the Decalogue inscribed on them. James Madison – the same James Madison who sponsored legislation authored by his friend Thomas Jefferson, called “The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom” – nevertheless wrote: “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions . . . upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
Moses and the Decalogue are memorialized in a host of ways today. On the American scene, they are literally carved in stone all over the government buildings in our nation’s capital.
- For example, a bas-relief of Moses can be seen in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Moses or the Ten Commandments are depicted in several places in the U.S. Supreme Court building.
- When approaching the building from the east, you see the frieze over the east portico titled “Justice the Guardian of Liberty”; Moses, holding the two tablets with the Commandments on them, is the tallest figure, directly in the center.
- Gaining access to the inner courtroom, one goes through two wood doors on which are engraved the Ten Commandments.
- In the inner chamber, directly over where the chief justice sits, is a marble bas-relief of a figure resting his elbow on the Ten Commandments.
|Moses the Lawgiver -- in the frieze of the U.S. Supreme Court Building|
As we have seen, the moral and spiritual innovations of Jews living thousands of years ago bear on American history. Kirk believed, like many scholars and people of faith, that the Hebrews were virtually unique in the ancient world. They gave to humankind the idea that there is one, all-powerful God – one God who suffers no rival. He created the universe, and he created human beings. This distinction between the Creator and the creation is fundamental. There is no mistaking an animal or a tree or the sun for divinity. They are infused with divinity, as Psalm 104 proclaims, but they are not the same as God.
It should be mentioned that there was one brief instance of monotheism in ancient Egypt's Middle Kingdom. Not surprisingly, it coincided with the period when the Hebrews were there, but likely before Moses came of age. It occurred during the odd reign of the pharaoh Akhenaton (a.k.a. Amenhotep IV), who ruled from 1375 to 1358 B.C. He might be considered Egypt’s “heretic king,” since he went against Egypt’s long-established tradition of worshipping multiple deities like pharaohs, cobras, cats, and the sun. In a revolutionary act, he put all his faith in the god Aton, the sun disc. But Akhenaton’s faith in the one sun god was never took root through the generations. Nor did it stick with the rulers. When Akhentaton died, his temples were destroyed, and Egypt reverted to polytheism. Moses was probably born sometime about the end of Akhenaton’s reign. Interestingly, there is a striking resemblance between Akhenaton’s “Hymn to the Sun Disc,” and the Old Testament Psalm 104, especially verses 19-28.
Speaking of ancient rulers whose thought resembles that of the Hebrews, we should note Shabakah, the Nubian pharaoh who had a basalt stela inscribed with the only extant philosophical discourse that archaeologists have found from ancient Egypt. The discourse -- also known as "the philosophy of a Memphite priest" -- was already old when Shabakah encountered it. It involved a creation story that was hauntingly similar to that of Genesis and the Gospel of John. According to the stela, one of the gods created the world by thinking it and saying it on his tongue. Yes, in the beginning was the Word.
It should also be mentioned that Israel's monotheism alternated at times with monolatry, which is the worship of one god in a field of many. Many of the struggles between the ten northern tribes and the 2 southern tribes arose precisely from the monolatry of the former versus the monotheism of the latter. Many Old Testament prophets railed against the northern tribes' monolatry, reasoning that it violated Israel's covenant with YHWH and brought down His wrath. Monotheism eventually won out.
|"Moses and the Burning Bush," by Sebastien Bourdon, 1642-1645|
God's laws are essential to good order. As Kirk noted,
“the ancient civilizations desperately desired some principles of private and public order. One can make out an attempt to reach such principles in certain Greek myths, and the Egyptians, or some of them, endeavored to find ethical authority that would make life worth living. . . . The quest for enduring order is a natural and necessary search among any people. But the first real success in that quest was achieved by Israel, and that surprising triumph has not been forgotten by mankind.”5. Human rights of each individual
“. . . by an extraordinary perception, the Israelites came to understand the human condition as it had not been understood before.” “. . . through Moses, the Hebrews learned more distinctly that there watched over them an all-powerful intelligence or spirit which gave them their moral nature.”
Why is Israel’s moral law so powerfully persuasive? It all starts from the belief of the Jews that each human being is spiritually created in the image and likeness of God. This provides a powerful motive to champion the dignity and equality of all persons. It is a source of our gospel of human rights.
Human rights are meaningless if they do not apply to each of us individually. So our individuality and human rights are closely linked. While each of us shares something in common with all other people by virtue of being created in the image of the divine, each of us is also a unique creation. Jewish prophets told how each human being is known in the womb by God, and called personally by name. This recognition of the uniqueness of each individual was a powerful buttress for the eventual emergence of a democratic form of government – “one man, one vote.” Each citizen was to have the same human rights as all other citizens. Before the law, before our magistrates, including our magistrates, we are all equal.
|Liberty Bell, Philadelphia|
7. A "chosen people" with a Covenant and a "Manifest Destiny"
Another way the Jewish people have influenced American moral life is in the notion of the Covenant. The God of the Old Testament formed numerous covenants with the ancient Jews:
• Adam and Eve (Genesis 2-3);
• Noah and the ark (Genesis 9);
• Abraham and the Promised Land (Genesis 15-18);
|Abraham, Sarah, and their family accept the new covenant with YHWH|
• Renewal of the covenant with the prophets.
|"Embarkation of the Pilgrims," by Robert W. Wier, 1843 -- one of eight historical paintings in the Capitol Rotunda|
If a "chosen people" are in right relation to God, then the logic of Manifest Destiny can arise. The Jews looked back to Abraham and Moses in the belief that they were entitled to the land of Canaan, a land flowing with milk and honey. This notion of "Manifest Destiny" also became part of the American creed in the conquest of the West.
8. Judgment of the Nations
|"The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah," by John Martin|
|Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC|
American culture is full of remnants. The idea helps explain why some out-of-the-mainstream and even extremist groups sequestered themselves from the greater culture or issue dire apocalyptic warnings. UFO groupies, millenarians, Branch Davidians, Seventh Day Adventists – all identify with a chosen remnant who are somehow divinely privileged.
Sometimes traditionalist conservatives refer to themselves as a “remnant,” not in the sense of a religious cult, but in the sense that the conservative remnant is called to guard the treasures of America's cultural inheritance against the barbarians inside the gates (the usual culprits being Hollywood, the media, and universities). But the idea of the remnant is hardly restricted to conservatives. Progressives have their self-appointed remnants, too, in the environmental movement, women's movement, etc.
10. Linear conception of time
|Michelangelo's "Creation of the Sun and Moon," Sistine Chapel|
This was in marked contrast to pagan Greeks and Romans, who believed that time was cyclical. Indeed, cycles were how the vast majority of peoples in the ancient world understood the passage of time. After all, it is plain to see that the sun goes round the earth each day, and that the seasons come back in a predictable pattern each year. It's all cyclic, observable, and thus comprehensible. This notion of unending cyclical time may account for the fatalistic attitude one encounters in Greek and Roman literature.
By contrast, a linear conception of time is based not on the days and seasons, but on an organism's birth, life, and death. This organic progression gave rise to the notion of history, to the study of the drama of human free will responding to challenges and trying to change life for the better. The idea of history on a time-line would, in turn, eventually give rise to the possibility of progress – which is fundamental to the American creed.
Interestingly, where the Old Testament suggests a cyclical view of time, the influence of Greek thought is never far away. The Book of Ecclesiastes – the very title comes from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, meaning “one who convokes an assembly” – presents a cyclical view of time that, like its pagan counterparts, urges a certain resignation.
The Book of Daniel, although written primarily in Aramaic, has a number of words of Greek origin. One section of the work suggests parallels to the well-known civilizational cycle found in Greco-Roman thought as well as other pagan cultures. Daniel has a prophetic dream in which future empires process across the stage of history. The cycle, according to one interpretation, goes from an age of gold (represented by the Chaldean/Neo-Babylonian empire), to an age of silver (Persian empire), to an age of Brass (Greek civilization), to an age of iron (Roman empire).
11. Education: We, too, are a people of the book.
American education is another area where Jerusalem influenced the formation of American culture. Both the Jewish and Christian faiths require believers to know Sacred Scripture, and to know Sacred Scripture, it is necessary to be able to read. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to this country, at least until recent decades, have followed some Christian denomination. Often the only book in a frontier home was the Bible. As Kirk writes: “In colonial America, everyone with the rudiments of schooling knew one book thoroughly: the Bible. And the Old Testament mattered as much as the New, for the American colonies were founded in a time of renewed Hebrew scholarship, and the Calvinistic character of Christian faith in early America emphasized the legacy of Israel.”
12. Naming America – a tribute to the moral order of the ancient Jews
Whenever I speak about The Roots of American Order, I mention the names Americans appropriate from the past to convey meaning in the present. Think of the importance of names in your own life. Think of the thoughtfulness with which many of you or your relatives name a new child. We usually devote a great deal of thought to this naming because we humans are meaning-making creatures. In the act of naming someone, we consciously seek to identify with a person, place, virtue, or event from the past. Our aspiration, our hope, is somehow to participate in the being of the thing named.
The impact of Old Testament names in American culture is significant. Most obviously, if there were no Old Testament, think of the names we would lack: Sarah, Ruth, Leah, Esther, and Oprah (actually a misspelling of Ophrah); David, Adam, Joseph, Joshua, Daniel, Benjamin, Nathaniel, Jacob, Samuel, Saul, and -- love this one -- Zebulon. (It turns out that the American explorer Zebulon Pike was fittingly named after a man, a tribe, and the place the tribe inhabited. Zebulon was made famous by Handel's Messiah and the prophet Isaiah.)
Speaking of places, think of the names on a map that Americans would not have. It is revealing to see how many American places are named after Old Testament sites, and thus honor the ancient Jews. There is a logical reason for this. Often the Bible was the only book that pioneers took with them as they pushed the frontier westward. So it is no surprise that many American place names allude to something in the Old Testament. They didn’t just do this because the names sounded pretty. They recognized the role of the ancient Jews in establishing moral and spiritual order in the wilderness. More than that, they wanted to identify with the ancient Jews. Thus an inspection of a map of the United States reveals:
• 17 Salems and 2 New Salems (Short form of Jerusalem, but in the Old Testament Salem was the city where Melchizedek was king; Salem is derived from the Hebrew shalom, meaning “peace.”);
• 11 Bethels and 2 Mount Bethels;
• 10 Hebrons and 1 Mount Hebron;
• 7 Carmels or Mount Carmels;
• 5 Edens and 1 Mount Eden;
• 5 Bethlehems and 1 New Bethlehem;
• 5 having to do with Zion or Mount Zion;
• 4 Mount Olives or Olivet;
• 3 Palestines and 1 New Palestine;
• 2 Mount Gileads and 1 Gilead;
• 2 Mount Hermons and 1 Hermon;
• 2 New Sharons and 1 Sharon;
• 2 Mount Sinais;
• 2 Bethesdas;
• 1 Galilee and 1 New Galilee;
• 1 Moab (Utah);
• 1 Timnath (CO); a city in the territory of Dan.
• 1 Mount Ephraim;
• 1 Mount Horeb; place where Moses experienced the theophany in which God gave Israel the law (the Ten Commandments); the name for Sinai in Deuteronomy.
• 1 Mount Nebo;
• Newark – perhaps a double entendre, referring not just to the English village in Nottinghamshire with the famous castle where King John died, but also perhaps, in the context of the New World, to the idea of a “New Ark.” This is not such a stretch when one recalls that the Newark in New Jersey was settled by Puritans in 1666.
An enlightening exercise would be to combine history and geography, and trace the westward extension of biblical place names on the ever-moving frontier.
13. Ethical Critique of History and Leaders, Who Are Held to an Ethical Standard
Prior to 800 B.C., most kings commanded scribes to record events that glorified the king. These chronicles do not deal much with causation or ethical interpretation. The Israelites had this tradition, too. For example, I Kings 11 references The Annals of Solomon (although no copy has ever been found). But the Israelites went further. They were the first people on earth whose historians, scribes, and prophets wrote independently of the king. They did not just chronicle events, but also interpreted them in universal ethical terms.
|The Prophet Nathan confronting King David|
One final point regarding the moral order. Kirk argued convincingly that a moral order cannot survive without leadership. To illustrate this point, recall the story at the end of the book of Judges, in which a woman is brutally raped, murdered, and dismembered. The point is that in those days there was no king in Israel. There was no great leader. Every man did what he wanted.
This haunting story raises compelling questions that press on every aspect of what we think about moral order:
• What is the role of leadership in the moral order?
• What is justice, especially when one wants to avenge a wrong?
• To what extent should the innocent be held accountable for the crimes of the guilty?
• Which leads to the question: are we all equal before the law?
• Is there a judgment of the nations that follows from the logic of the natural order of things?
- To what degree are leaders responsible for that judgment?
The Jews developed piety -- the virtue of being in right relationship to the divine -- above all others. It is interesting to ponder what our world today would be like if these desert nomads had not introduced such striking innovations in moral and spiritual life. Many of their insights persist to this day. The belief that each human being is created in the image and likeness of God; each person’s uniqueness; our moral freedom to choose; the perpetual power of the Ten Commandments to guide human conduct; the notion of a covenant, and a judgment of the nations; a linear conception of time with the possibility of progress; insistence that everyone be competent to read in order to divine God’s will – these are ways in which the Jews permanently changed the human estate. These are ways in which bronze-age nomads, striving to survive in a desert, would eventually make an enduring impact on the American experiment in ordered freedom.
Russell Kirk went so far as to write:
“. . . the American moral order could not have come into existence at all, had it not been for the legacy left by Israel.” “We cannot well understand order and disorder in America today, or elsewhere in the world, unless we know something of the beliefs and the experiences of the Hebrew people in a remote land and a remote time. . . . Our modern moral order, at least in what is called the West, runs back to the burning bush on Sinai.”