Dialectic in the Hebrew Bible

In philosophy, dialectic means a lot of things to a lot of different people.  It is, in its most simple form, the understanding of when two parties engage with one another in an inquiry or conflict that, upon finishing, leads to a closer understanding of the truth.  We should avoid applying the Hegelian and Marxist connotation of dialectic to History when reading ancient philosophy however – since in Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero, St. Paul, or St. Augustine, it does not have that historicist implication.  In classical philosophy, the dialectic is purely inquisitive.  While Socrates is generally seen as the first systematic dialectical philosophy (concerning the pursuit of wisdom), Zeno is seen as the first expositor of dialectical method in Greek philosophy.  However, does the Greek dialectic have a competitor in the Hebrew Bible?

The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has books that are older than the Greek philosophical texts, and many of them also concern themselves with the nature of dialectic.  In fact, it is impossible to understand the more modern connotations of dialectic (with its explicitly political implications) without knowledge of the dialectic in the Hebrew Bible – especially in the Prophetic texts.  Unlike Greek philosophy, Hebraic philosophy – contained within the Hebrew Bible – incorporated dialectic in its metaphysics and epistemology just like the Greeks, but also highlights the first visible reflection of political dialectic and leads to what Michael Walzer calls an Old Testament political legacy of “almost-democracy” (cf. Walzer, In God’s Shadow: the Politics of the Hebrew Bible).

Awareness of the dialectic (and more generally, philosophical themes) in the Hebrew Bible has been well-known since forever (except is now apparently lost to moderns for reasons I will not discuss here).  Georg Hegel, Johann Fichte, and Karl Marx were all influenced by the dialectic of the Hebrew Bible – though they equally were repelled by other aspects of it.  Nevertheless, the Hegelian dialectic and all of its outgrowths are in some way all in the shadow of earlier generations of dialectical philosophy and especially the political dialectic of the Hebrew Bible.

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There are two major strands of dialectic in the Hebrew Bible: metaphysical and political.  The metaphysical dialectic is related to epistemology since it is the dialectic of Reason; it is the dialectic of Logos.  Although Christian philosophers will alter the Old Testament dialectic to include the tripartite Logos (this is especially true in the epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel of St. John), there is already the first signs of the dialectic in the Book of Genesis when the Priestly author pens Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning…” and reaches crystallization with the creation of man in Genesis 1:26 “Let us make man in our image.”  Dialectic is also in the Jawhist source in Genesis 2.

Jewish and Christian commentators have long noted that the impetus of the Genesis creation myth is not to be taken literally, but that it is one that is allegorical, philosophical, and deeply participatory.  As St. Augustine explains in Confessions, the entire contrast of “light and darkness,” of the “spirit [calling] over the face of the deep,” and the creation of man as a “renewal of mind,” all invoke that creation, and especially humankind, is to participate in a dialectic of ascent toward truth.  The tripartite Logos dialectic read by Christian readers of Genesis also envision that “In the beginning was the dialectic” (Desiderius Erasmus).  Talmudic tradition also posits that the emphasis of the creation story is a participatory dialectic with light, which is principally wisdom and truth.

The play with the dialectic toward truth is also the dialectic of coming to know Reason.  The coming to know Reason is what is traditionally understood as Revelation.  Revelation is the coming to know truth – it is coming to understand what has always been revealed since the beginning of time.  And what was revealed at the beginning of time was Logos (Reason).  In fact, the “Reason-Revelation” dichotomy is a product of Protestant anti-philosophic attitudes.  Martin Luther famously retorted that Catholic neo-Platonic rationalism was “the devil’s whore.”  Philip Melanchthon also famously remarked that the Catholic Church had “embraced Aristotle instead of Christ.”  John Calvin and the Calvinists are more peculiar since they – historically – promoted the reading of philosophy but not because it was truthful, but because it was important to know in order to highlight where Catholics had went wrong.  The Protestant Reformation is not merely about church reform (Magisterial Reformation), it was also a wholesale rejection of the Greek and Roman philosophical aspects to Catholicism as “being against the Bible.”  As Yoram Hazony notes in his book Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture that this dichotomy is completely alien to the Jewish authors of the Bible.

That wisdom and reason is what brought order to the world at the beginning of creation is one of the most remarkable features of the Genesis narrative as it breaks with the traditions of the ancient Near East as Joshua Berman notes in his stupendous work Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.  In the ancient near eastern creation myths, humanity are created as the toiling servants of the gods while in Genesis humanity is created autonomous and given dominion over the earth.  Likewise, the ancient near eastern myths are ripe with chaotic conflict as the chaos monsters (Tiamat in the Enûma Eliš) is confronted by the warrior gods of the land (Marduk in the Enûma Eliš), battle ensues in which the land god beats back (kills) the sea monsters and order is brought out of chaos but there is always the worry that the chaos monsters will return and destroy the order that had been won through violent struggle.  Genesis articulates the view that order is found at the very beginning and was decreed by word (law) rather than conflictual violence.  Thus, at the very beginning of Genesis there is the dialectic of reason and order and reason coming to know order rather than chaos and violence and through chaos violence subdues chaos and brings temporary order.

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This is subsequently expanded through the Old Testament narrative most famously expressed by the phrase “who speaks for God?”  That is to say, per Philo of Alexandria, who speaks for reason and truth?  The struggle of the metaphysical dialectic in the Hebrew Bible is one of coming to know truth much like how the Socratic dialectic operates.  In one of the most famous Genesis stories (of which there are many): Jacob wrestling the Angel, Philo argues that this is Jacob wrestling with himself – he is wrestling with reason in order to see reason (God).  Jacob is engaging in the dialectic of struggling to come know reason – which is the coming to know truth which is also the coming to know God.

Angels are luminaries of light because they are luminaries of reason.  Angels in traditional Jewish religion (and also Christianity) are purely rational beings.  The struggle with the angel in the story of Jacob wrestling the angel is not one of Jacob actually wrestling a literal angel but his struggle with reason in coming to know truth.  The wrestling narrative is one of guidance according to Philo.  The “wrestling” is Jacob’s struggle with reason as he is on his journey to understanding Logos.  But we need the struggle, for without, there is no progress made in the journey.  This struggle with Logos is the basis of Philo’s longstanding commentary on “righteous” and “unrighteous” philosophy: righteous philosophy being the philosophy of life which is related to reason and wisdom since reason and wisdom is what brings life to the world, over and against unrighteous philosophy which is the suppression of reason (the rejection of Logos) and the surrendering of oneself over to disordered passion which makes people engage in “irrational” actions.  According to Philo, Jacob is the heroic ideal and Jewish archetypal hero – he struggles with Logos to attain Sophia (Wisdom) in his journey toward the light, but this journey is a struggle rather than some simple exercise or waltz.

Preceding Philo’s famous exegesis of Jacob wrestling the angel this theme of righteous and unrighteous philosophy first emerged in his reading of the Murder of Abel by Cain.  I began with Jacob rather than the Cain and Abel story because it is easier to understand Philo’s reading of the dialectic in the Jacob story than in the Cain and Abel story.  According to Philo – who, again, reads Genesis allegorically and philosophically – understood the story as showing the danger of improper reasoning and the danger of passionate envy.

The “voice of God” is the voice of moral reason that haunts us – as it haunted Cain and cried out to him after committing the murder.  Cain rationalizes his actions (is not truthful) by claiming he has no idea where his brother is or what happened to him.  Philo reads unrighteous philosophy as the suppression of the voice of reason – its utter rejection – which is the pinnacle of what being unrighteous entails.  In a twist, Philo argues that it is Cain who truly died because he had ruptured the roots of moral reasoning from himself.  This is the “curse of Cain.”  The stain of having destroyed moral reason in a fit of rage and then rationalizing the action; Cain was not acting in accord with reason and it killed him.

Philo also notes that Cain passes onto urban life the stain of unrighteous philosophy, as it is Cain and his sons who found the first cities.  This casts an early rural vs. urban (bourgeois) contest that will come to fore of the political dialectic contained in the Hebrew Bible which we will explore later on in this piece.

Part of the dialectic of struggling to know reason in the Hebrew Bible goes through shifts in the Old Testament corpus.  Contrary to people who like to pick out passages from Genesis and then skip to Kings and find “contradiction,” the stories are highlighting the development and evolution of dialectical thought over the course of a thousand years of composition.  The people who “speak for God” in the Torah are the quintessential heroes: the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), the Prophet (Moses), and the Priests (Aaron).  However, by the time we reach the Prophetic Texts, this has expanded infinitely and without any ambiguity concerning the matter (as it is in Torah).

The “Prophetic Revolution” is seen as one of the most important moments in Western history in sociology, philosophy, and religion.  Not only is the Prophetic Revolution going to produce the political dialectic of the Hebrew Bible – the “almost democracy” and the roots of populist rage according to Walzer – but it also expands upon the metaphysic of Logos and who participates with Logos and who possesses Logos.  Genesis 1 makes clear that all humans possess Logos, and that all should participate with Logos, but the rest of the Genesis narrative is one in which we only see the heroes participating with Logos and, in fact, only the heroes seem to possess Logos.  Now, however, any doubt of whether reason is granted only to a select few is swept away – all possess the “voice of God” and all can participate in reasoning itself.  This is an expansion of the dialectic of reason but now has implications for civil life as we’ve moved out of the wandering and tribal origins in Genesis.

The conflict over wrestling with reason and who speaks for reason is crystallized in a most famous example in Jeremiah: Jeremiah vs. Hananiah.  This is the famous story of the Prophet of God (Jeremiah) going up against the false Prophet (Hananiah).  Both are claiming to speak for God.

What is a prophet? A prophet is simply someone who speaks.  Prophet has no connotation with “fortune telling” or “predicting the future” as it now has today.  Prophétés (in the Greek) simply means someone who has the gift of speech.  Who is the Prophet of God?  The person who speaks truthfully and reasonably.  Of course, the problem is this is really only ever verified after the fact, which is why Jeremiah states, “As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”  This is not a prediction into the future.  He is merely saying that when destruction cometh onto the people, they will recognize Jeremiah was the true Prophet all along because he was the one who was speaking reasonably and truthfully earlier about why they should seek peace rather than war (because peace is more reasonable than war).

During the famous exchange in Jeremiah 28, the contest is a dialectical one between who speaks for reason.  Hananiah is claiming he speaks for reason when he claims to speak for God.  Jeremiah is claiming that Hananiah does not speak for God because he is speaking unreasonably, and that Jeremiah is the reasonable one in this dialectical contest.

For those unfamiliar, this is the moment before the Exile.  The Babylonian armies are outside the gates of Jerusalem and are about to lay siege to the city.  Hananiah claims all is fine, and that God will deliver the city.  Jeremiah rebukes Hananiah, claiming that if one just look over the walls to see the Babylonian army one should know that the end is nigh.  Thus Jeremiah preaches that the Jerusalemites should seek peace with Babylon because peace with Babylon would allow peace in Jerusalem and stave off destruction.  Peace is reasonable.

Jeremiah, then, is saying that Hananiah does not speak for God because he is being unreasonable and that his unreasonableness is leading to rash action.  This is also very Aristotelian but Jeremiah predates Aristotle.  In Nicomachean Ethics, which we explored in this post, Aristotle links knowledge with virtue, and knowledge with proper action (the mean).  Improper knowledge, which is the result of improper reasoning, leads to excessive action.  Hananiah is guilty of improper reasoning leading to improper action (excess) in Aristotelian language.  Jerusalem followed the improper reasoning of Hananiah and suffered the consequences of it.  There are consequences to improper reasoning after all.

As many Jewish philosophers and teachers have long noted, the “call to repentance” and the public speaking of the Prophets differs from the one-on-one conversations and struggles as are found in the Torah (Jacob wrestling the angel or Moses at the burning bush), it is now a public affair which means it is a universal affair.  The call to repentance is a call to all to return to Logos and order their lives in accord to “the word of the Lord.” It is a call back to participation, to engage in the dialectical struggle for reason, wisdom, and truth that Genesis implies is for all, but the subsequent narrative in the Torah generally only gives to the heroic archetypes.  Thus, in the Prophetic Texts, there is no ambiguity as to who can participate with the struggle for reason anymore; it is available to all (though this certainly does not mean all will embrace it).

This brings us to the most important aspect of Hebraic dialectic that disassociates itself with the Socratic/Greek dialectic.  In the Hebrew Bible, the dialectic is not progressive.  The Hebraic dialectic is one of rise and fall.  Dialectic does not always lead to the best outcome – as with the Jeremiah case, it was the exact opposite.  In the dialectical confrontation of who speaks reasonably, Hananiah won and Jerusalem was conquered and many Jews were sent into exile in Babylon.  The dialectic does not always advance toward truth during the dialectical cycle.  In many cases the Hebrew Bible tells us that the struggle for reason often is suppressed and defeated – people just don’t like to be reasonable because it is difficult.  It is much easier to give oneself over to the passions and suppress Logos.  For following Logos is demanding, hard, it requires the cultivation of mind and body, and the attainment of virtue (classical philosophy universally saw the pursuit of knowledge as also being related to the attainment of virtue).

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The second aspect to the dialectic in the Hebrew Bible is political.  And while we like to claim that Athens is the progenitor to our democratic traditions, this is simply untrue, and all historians and philosophers know it to be untrue.  Modern democracy, which should be read neutrally – not inherently good or bad despite what the Fourth Estate tells us in its newspapers and television sets – was really the product of the Hebrew Bible.  Harvard professor Eric Nelson, in his prize-winning work The Hebrew Republic, notes how early modern democratic theorists in Europe drew on the Hebrew Bible and not the decisively anti-democratic and anti-plebeian Greek and Roman political theorists of Antiquity like Plato, Aristotle, or Cicero.

Plato despised the mob and loathed “democracy” because he associated democracy with the passions of the plebeians who were being used by the sophists.  Democracy was, in Plato’s view, a complete sham.  The sophists (the upper classes) stoked the passions and emotions of the lower classes to overthrow the aristocratic classes.  Democracy, then, in Plato’s eyes, is a politics of egoistic self-advancement for the upper-middle class in using the legitimate grievances of the lower classes.  The lower classes, however, are kept enchained as Plato recounts in his Allegory of the Cave and the sophists will use the enchained masses to kill the philosopher who returns to the Cave to try and bring light to the ignorant masses in his attempt to free them from the sophists.  Plato, then, despised the sophists for their egoism, but Plato doesn’t have much sympathy for the plebeians who allow themselves to be enchained by the sophists and also – through their rage – allow for the sophists to advance themselves on the backs of their inflamed rage (legitimate or not).

Likewise, Aristotle was no fan of democracy either.  While Aristotle favored constitutional government, which is somewhat close to democracy, when constitutionalism is corrupted its deformed form becomes democracy which is the chaotic rule of the masses as Law and Reason (“the law is the rational”) is suspended in the tidal wave of mob rule.  Even though Cicero says democracy is ideal on paper in his Republic, Cicero fears democracy too because the inflamed and impassioned plebeians fall for demagogues (Julius Caesar) and threaten the admirableness of the Roman Republic which has the best interest of the plebeians at heart while the demagogues – like the sophists in Plato’s view – care not about the masses but only themselves and will utilize the masses to wage war against their personal enemies.  Intellectually, the roots of democracy is the “almost democracy” of the dialectic in the Hebrew Bible.

In two places we see the political dialectic of the Hebrew Bible in full gale: Judges and the Prophetic Texts.  In Judges, although the people turn against God, it is generally the elites in Israelite society who turn away and the peasantry suffers.  The elites are doing fine, even under occupation, but the peasants are the ones suffering.  This is why the judges are raised up, to overthrow the occupiers and free the peasants to restore peace and prosperity to the peasants rather than for the elites.  The political dialectic in the Hebrew Bible is one of “elites” vs. “commoners,” and the Hebrew Bible decisively sides in favor of the commoners.  As the Song of Deborah so poetically captures, “In the days of Shamgar son of Anath, in the days of Jael, caravans ceased and travelers kept to the byways. The peasantry prospered in Israel, they grew fat on plunder, because you arose, Deborah, arose as a mother in Israel.”  There is the heart of the political dialectic right there!

The contest of the peasantry vs. the elites is most explicitly visible in the Prophetic Texts, especially among the Minor Prophets (pre-Exile) like Amos and Hosea.  The upper-class elites in Israelite society prostitute themselves in their mansions, high walls, and engage in systematic commercialism with other nations and traders all at the expense of the commoners.  This produces a rupture between the lower-class masses and their leaders who do not have their interest at heart or in action.  As mentioned, this appears as early as Genesis 4 in Philo’s reading where Cain and his sons establish the cities which are then infected with the unrighteous philosophy of rejecting reason, order, and rootedness.

As Amos highlights in Chapters 3 and 4, the Israelite elites – “the cows of Bashan” – take delight in their wealth and are blind to the plight of the lower classes who labor to produce the wealth that they indulge in.  They build their mighty fortresses on Mount Samaria and are confident in the works of their hands while deaf to the screams of the poor and downtrodden (though God is not deaf to the screams of the poor and downtrodden).

Israel rejecting the Lord in Amos is Israelite leadership rejecting reason itself.  Rather than work together and stay true to their roots, they atomize themselves, break away from the common classes, uproot their traditions and would rather becoming international cosmopolitans, all of which hurts the majority population to whom they “oppress in their own midst.”  This is even a threat against the serene and lavish living of the elites when Amos declares, “I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end, says the Lord.”  Amos makes no amends in declaring righteous vengeance against those who betray their people, “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…Through breaches in the wall you shall leave, each one straight ahead; and you shall be flung out into Harmon.”

The political dialectic of the Hebrew Bible, especially the Prophetic texts, is – ironically – the exact opposite as the Greco-Roman political philosophers.  It is not the plebeians who threaten political systems and orders – it is the elites who do it, and in the elites twisting and turning the political systems to their benefit as they lavish themselves in cow’s milk and silver, the commoners are oppressed, hosed, and robbed at every level.  The prophets warn about what will happen when a nation prostitutes itself for lavish wealth and ignores the cries of its own people.

The tension of the political dialectic in the Hebrew Bible is decisively populist.  It is, in the truest sense, democratic because it sides with the rule of the majority (who are seen as the oppressed, poor, widowed, and orphaned over and against the ruling classes in their mansions on Mount Samaria).  But unlike the Greco-Roman theorists, who can only see goodness and admirableness in the elites who are defending political orders against demagogues and the unruly mob, the Hebrew Bible casts an alternative die in articulating a view that many of us today are familiar with or have heard of (or might even sympathize with): the elites are greedy and power hungry wealth seekers who oppress the poor and don’t have the interests of the common majority in the hearts or in their political policies.

Walzer highlights this dialectical tension but calls the politics of the Old Testament “an almost-democracy” because it never codifies into a democracy.  Either the elites fall from their own undoing and everyone suffers, or the commoners rise up, restore some sense of justice and fairness for a short period of time, before it all collapses back to the elites codifying their rule again, building walled mansions and fortresses, and within two generations, are back oppressing the commoners and engaging in their own self-centered interests and advancements. Again, the dialectic of politics, just like the dialectic of metaphysics in the Hebrew Bible, is not one of unfolding progress to utopia but one of a rise and fall ebb and flow that we seem unable to escape from.

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It is a true shame, for most in philosophy, philosophical-sociology, political philosophy, and intellectual history circles that all of this is lost on the public and our “celebrity intellectuals” who parrot nothing but myths and falsities concerning our own intellectual heritage and outgrowth.  Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising since Plato informs us that the struggle of society is the struggle against nihilism and ignorance – what should alarm us is how the ignorant are the elevated “heroes” of our society as opposed to what Socrates or even the Hebrew Bible see as the proper heroes: those who struggle for reason and the light.  The dialectic in the Hebrew Bible has been an interest to people ever since the Bible was codified and disseminated.

The matter of the political dialectic in the Hebrew Bible is equally fascinating because of how it was received through history.  Per Nelson, Radical Protestants utilized it for revolutionary means – associating the cows of Bashan to the European aristocratic gentry and all the false priests and prophets as representing the Catholic Church.  As all true historians and political theorists know, true even of Locke in his own work, the origins of “modern democracy” are rooted in Radical Protestantism – especially of the low church and congregational stripe.  Catholics, moreover, always tried to strike the balance between the political outlooks of the Greeks and Romans with that contained in the Bible.  For instance, it is not either or, but that both reflect certain truths of concerning the concept of the political.

Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero may have had little love for the common masses and the dangers they pose to established order and courts, but Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero all agree with the Hebrew Prophets concerning the abuse of the elites which rightly lead to political change (this is especially true in Cicero).  Furthermore, all – interestingly enough – find a convenient scapegoat, pardon the pun, for why political orders fail: money.  The sophists are the emergent merchant class in Athens. Commercialization is a problem in Aristotle’s Politics.  And Cicero cites the love of wealth as problematic for any political order, but especially among democratic ones.  Likewise, as shown with the Prophets, especially Amos, the elites are swimming in castles of gold and cow’s milk.

The political dialectic in the Hebrew Bible became exhaustively influential on the thinking of Fichte and Hegel, and especially Hegel.  And through Hegel also on Marx.  Marx unconsciously inherits the Hebraic political dialectic through Marx, which is why – as Bertrand Russell noted in his History of Western Philosophy back in 1945, there is a strong symmetry between aspects of Marx’s political thought to those steeped in Jewish and Christian tradition and literature.  Fichte saw an extensive legacy on the metaphysical dialectic leading to universalized consciousness, this was through him being Lutheran and also reading that development continuing through St. Paul and St. John to where St. John remarks in the first passage of his Gospel: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος (En arche en ho Logos, “In the beginning was the Logos”).  Though this issue of metaphysical dialectic as the struggle to truth is as much Greek as it is Hebraic.  The political dialectic in the Hebrew Bible holds more weight over the metaphysical dialectic since it is unique to the Hebrew Bible when compared with the political tracts of the Greek and Roman philosophers.  While Hegel altered that political dialectic in his work, his alteration thereof was found in the dialectic of the Hebrew Bible more than in the political theories of classical antiquity.

Perhaps it is also telling how far into the depths of the abyss we have fallen in the way we read too.  The fact that Philo, in the first century, and the multitude of Christian writers, theologians, and philosophers, in Antiquity and Late Antiquity, read the Bible with a philosophical lens while we, today, read it opposite of Jewish and Christian hermeneutical tradition, should also worry us.  Even into modernity the philosophers who have shaped our intellectual culture have always seen the Bible as the greatest collection of books the West has ever produced because it is; it contains everything: oral stories, literature, poetry, philosophy, politics, war, lust, murder, the struggle for reason, anxiety, hope, fear, the dialectic, and touches upon every facet of the human condition and struggle. 

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