Several months after the shocking naval victory at Salamis in the fall of 480 BC and Xerxes’ hasty retreat to Asia with his navy, a delegation arrived in Athens. Leading this embassy was Alexander I of Macedon, a longtime friend of Athens but now client-king and agent of the Persians. Alexander offered a deal to Athens on Persia’s behalf: switch sides now, and Xerxes will forgive the former hostilities and offer you favorable terms. Had the Athenians accepted the offer, it would have turned the tide of the war back in the favor of Persians.
For that reason, an opposing delegation of Spartans hastily reminded Athens of its fault in originally provoking Persia, urging the city to hold to its original commitments and not enslave Greece through betrayal. After telling off Alexander, the Athenians reassured their Spartan allies that they had no interest in enslaving the Greeks or remitting their grudge against the Persians who had burned down their city just prior to Salamis. And besides, “it would not do for the Athenians to become traitors to their Greekness: the same blood, the same language, shared temples and sacrifices to the gods, and identical customs.”
This episode, which closes Book 8 of Herodotus’ history, offers one of the clearer depictions of what national identity meant in the ancient world. Back in our own times, however, nationalism has become a more common but endlessly muddled topic of conversation. Particularly on the American Right, there has been a running dispute about a specifically Christian nationalism: some for, some against, and some arguing that the notion itself is intellectually useless. Nested within the conceptions of Christian nationalism or nationalism at-large, there has also been a back-and-forth over what we might loosely term “biblical” nationalism, that is, a nationalist ideology drawing support from models found in ancient Israel or the Hebrew Scriptures generally.
In the last four years alone, three books have appeared in the conservative aether touching on biblical nationalism: Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (2018), Rich Lowry’s The Case for Nationalism (2019), and most recently Paul Miller’s The Religion of American Greatness (2022). While Hazony and Lowry are decidedly pro-nationalism, Miller offers an extended criticism of nationalism generally and religiously inspired nationalism in particular. All three make extensive claims about what nationhood did and did not mean in the Hebrew Bible, but I argue here that none of them offers a satisfactory account of Israel’s history or the ancient Hebrew notions of political theology.
Hazony, Lowry, and a Rhetorical Exegesis
Hazony begins his book by offering two contrasting visions of human community, namely, imperializing universalism versus national particularism. “For centuries,” writes Hazony, “the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding; and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.”
The conflict of these two visions runs back into the Ancient Near East, where the universal model was evinced by the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia while the particularist approach was embodied in Israel’s institutions and theology. In Israel, Hazony discerns a nascent nation-state, with not only a shared culture but a shared political constitution through the Torah. Furthermore, because God had specifically instructed Israel not to impinge on the borders of their neighbors, there lies an anti-imperialist agenda rooted in Israel’s very national identity. Although his analysis here is only a few pages long, Hazony’s implied claim lacks no grandeur. We the readers are to understand divine endorsement for his preferred international order in the present: “a political order based on the independence of a nation living within limited borders alongside other independent nations.”
In its rhetoric and explicitness, Lowry’s own engagement with ancient Israel makes Hazony’s look modest by comparison. Beginning with the Bar Kokhba revolt against Rome in the 130s, chapter four of The Case for Nationalism tells an inspiring tale of Israel’s victimization and perseverance from antiquity down into the twentieth century. His effusive account bounces to-and-fro between various elements of the biblical story, modern Jewish history, and features of nationalism observed therein.
Lowry is particularly interested in Israel’s land and borders: “The Torah is, in part, a long elaboration of this theme, and therefore a kind of how-to guide for nationalism,” he suggests. Nor did the Israelites’ divinely-granted land solely define their national identity, but so too their “genealogy, history, traditions, law, and language.” Specifically on language, Lowry posits that Hebrew offered a cultural glue to support national identity despite the Jewish Diaspora. As the story approaches the present day, one section header declares that “Zionism was a Great Nationalist Movement.” Much like Hazony, Lowry’s purpose is to hold up Israel as a model to be followed in the contemporary United States, stated explicitly by the chapter title itself: “The Exemplar of Ancient Israel.”
In this way, Hazony and Lowry both appeal to the sentiments of the religious (or at least traditionalist) Right. The nation of Israel was a good thing ordained by God in the Bible. If one believes in the Bible, then one ought to instantiate that biblical model in the present world. Mustering a substantive rebuttal is difficult because Hazony and Lowry are mainly exhibiting ancient Israel for rhetorical effect in the course of several pages each, which means their reasoning is far too brief compared to the ambitiousness of their more sweeping claims. But perhaps this is to be expected in that their books chiefly intend to shape political coalitions in the twenty-first century United States, rather than to provide a comprehensive sense of Israelite nationhood or thorough exegesis.
Nationhood in the Old Testament: Another Try
Even so, some of their points are more testable against the historical record than others. For instance, Herodotus’ scene of the Macedonian-Persian embassy to Athens should warn us that in antiquity generally, nationality was hardly dependent upon a shared national government or sovereignty, as Hazony seems to suppose. While the Athenians confirm their shared bonds with the Spartans and the rest of Hellas, they retain their own independent politeia, hence Sparta’s worry over Athenian foreign policy. The problems only multiply when we turn to ancient Israel per se. For much of its history, Israel did not have a unified government but existed under a divided monarchy, a rupture which God himself had instigated and promised to make permanent, pending Jeroboam’s obedience (1 Kings 11:26–40). Although this split was initially prompted by Solomon’s idolatry, Israel’s God was apparently not too concerned with the integrity of its national sovereignty.
More crucially, there are numerous passages in the Hebrew Scriptures that either connect national identities with supernatural misconduct and idolatry or specifically instruct obedience to an imperial or universal power. On the matter of supernatural misconduct, we could look at the collective picture of three passages: Deuteronomy 32:8–9 (and attendant Jewish traditions), Psalm 82, and Daniel 10:12–4. The ESV renders Deuteronomy 32:8–9 as follows:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
The Greek translation of this passage is even more explicit:
And when the Most High was dividing the nations, As he scattered the sons of Adam, he established the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God And the Lord’s portion was his people, Jacob, the allotment of his inheritance, Israel.
Equally blunt is the later Jewish tradition of the Targum Yerushalmi on this passage:
When the Most High made allotment of the world unto the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations . . . .
In Deuteronomy itself, this allotment of the nations to angelic powers seems like a neutral element of God’s providence: he was simply doing what any great Near Eastern king did in antiquity, namely, delegate power. Psalm 82, however, informs us that all is not well in this suzerain arrangement, and it prays for a reversal of the allotment described in Deut. 32:
God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:
“How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked? Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
“The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
“I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.’ But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance. (Adapted from ESV)
Here we are given a different title for the angels, “gods,” and these deities have apparently mucked up the divine arrangement, perpetuating evil in the world. God’s reaction is the dreadful threat of a suzerain against misbehaving client monarchs (see a concrete example in 2 Kings 25:3–7), and the psalmist ends by asking Israel’s own deity to overthrow the prior division of nations, make them all more like Israel (cf. Isaiah 25:23–24).
In Daniel 10:12–14, an angel informs the eponymous seer that the “Prince of Persia” resisted his arrival for weeks until the chief prince Michael came to his aid. Daniel’s messenger then warns of future trouble with the Prince of Persia and the Prince of Greece (vv. 20–22). Nor is the theme of rogue angelic powers unknown in other Jewish and Christian traditions, such as the one found 1 Enoch, whose general outline was highly regarded by the writers of the New Testament and the earlier church fathers. If we truly want a thick description of Hebrew notions of nationhood and cosmology, we will have to account for these strange passages and traditions, which insist that a system of discreet nations comes at a cost.
On the other side, there are further elements of the Old Testament that undermine the system of nations envisioned by Hazony. We have already seen one at the end of Psalm 82, but another occurs in Psalm 2, which became a hallmark passage for Israel’s Messianic aspirations in the Second Temple era:
Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.” I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and celebrate his rule with trembling. Kiss his son, or he will be angry and your way will lead to your destruction, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Westphalian nationalism this is not. A better description would be Davidic imperialism. Or consider Isaiah 45:1, which encourages the imperial ambitions of Cyrus the Persian: “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped, to subdue nations before him and to loose the belts of kings, to open doors before him that gates may not be closed . . . .” Or again in Jeremiah 27:17, where God commands the remnant of Judah: “Serve the king of Babylon, and you will live.”
Ancient Jewish Nationalism
This brings us to another problem with these rhetorical invocations of Israelite nationalism: its nearest manifestations or parallels in antiquity poorly align with the preferred political and cultural program of the contemporary nationalists. Take one small example with language. Lowry passingly stresses the importance of Hebrew in maintaining Jewish national identity, Diaspora vernacular tongues notwithstanding. While Hebrew probably did have that effect at various places and times, we should not overstate Hebrew fluency even in ancient Judea. Thus, for Lowry’s example par excellence of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 130s, the scribes of this nationalist movement in Palestine wrote in a Hebrew-Aramaic creole — or else had to apologize to their recipients that they could not compose in Hebrew at all and instead wrote in Greek. This is exactly what we would expect, given that all three languages — Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek — are common in the inscription record for the region at the time. Then in subsequent centuries, the experts and guardians of traditional Judaism, the rabbis, frequently wrote in Aramaic themselves.
This does not mean there was no Jewish nation or ethnos in premodernity; there clearly was, by any standard of the time. But it does suggest that those features to which modern commentators casually gesture were far more variable, fractured, and contested. Similar obstacles spring up in other bedrock national traditions cited by Lowry, such as the application and adherence to the Torah. Even a fairly conservative Jewish apologist like Josephus had to acknowledge to his Gentile readers that there were major differences of opinion over what constituted proper Torah observance and national identity, noting four major sects in the Judaism of his day: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Sicarii.
While the first two sects will be familiar to readers of the New Testament, the latter two tended toward radicalism. The Sicarii — Josephus calls them the “Fourth Sect” — opposed Roman rule and instigated revolt: their methods would likely have accorded with those of the later nationalist Bar Kokhba. The Essenes, on the other hand, favored rigorist separatism, and many scholars have proposed a connection between this group and the community at Qumran which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the many texts recovered from Qumran, one document, the so-called “War Scroll,” offers insight into the expectations and aspirations of some rigorist, nationalist Jews for the end of history. This highly stylized manual may date to the lifetime of Christ or just before it. It opens with this heading:
For the M[aster. The Rule of] War on the unleashing of the attack of the sons of light against the company of the sons of darkness, the army of Belial: against the band of Edom, Moab, and the sons of Ammon, and [against the army of the sons of the East and] the Philistines, and against the bands of the Kittim of Assyria and their allies the ungodly of the Covenant.
As the scroll unfurls, the reader would have found a detailed, quasi-hieratic description for how “the sons of Levi, Judah, and Benjamin” would destroy the other nations of the world. The “dominion of the Kittim” (a standard Jewish alias for Rome) would give way to the “sons of light,” leaving “no remnant.” For the sons of darkness, there would be “no escape,” while “[The sons of righteous]ness shall shine over all the ends of the earth.”
Further on, the War Scroll instructs its readers on the drafting and deployment of soldiers who would fight “for all the lands of the nations” over the course of a 33-year period:
During the first year, they shall fight against Aram-Naharaim; during the second, against the sons of Lud; during the third, against the remnant of the sons of Aram, against Uz and Hul and Togar and Mesha beyond the Euphrates; during the fourth and fifth, they shall fight against the sons of Arpachshad; during the sixth and seventh, against all the sons of Assyria and Persia and the East as far as the Great Desert; during the eighth they shall fight against the sons of Elam; during the ninth, against the sons of Ishmael and Keturah. In the ten years which follow, the war shall be divided against all the sons of Ham according to [their clans and in their ha]bitations; during the ten years which remain, the war shall be divided against all [the sons of Japheth in] their habitations.
The upshot of this dizzying patchwork of archaic ethnonymns and biblical allusions is universal conquest — and possibly outright extermination of the sort God had once specifically prescribed against the Canaanites (e.g. Deut. 7:2). In brief, like many sections of the Hebrew canon, the War Scroll does not suppose that God prescriptively instituted a world order of discreet nations as the ideal for all time. Instead, the many nations appear to be tolerated temporarily rather than sanctioned.
On one hand, the War Scroll offers a sense of how many Jews probably felt about Israel and its relation to imperialist Rome and the rest of the Gentile world. Violent resistance groups like the Sicarii probably would have agreed with major planks of the Scroll’s ideology, if not every item of its Levitical minutiae. In the New Testament, the gospels depict violent revolution as a point of contention between Jesus and those who would follow. Apparently, the Messianic hopefuls were eager for a dramatic overthrow of the Rome-backed status quo while Jesus himself urged Israel to turn away from zealotry that would lead to national disaster and the destruction of the foremost institution at the heart of Jewish identity: the Temple in Jerusalem. From the modern liberal perspective anyway, the War Scroll perfectly illustrates how ardent nationalist instincts can feed into xenophobia or imperialism.
Miller and National Identity Beyond Cultus
Because Hazony and Lowry’s appeals to ancient Israelite nationalism are so highly rhetorical (and thus largely superficial), Paul Miller faced a confusing task attempting a rebuttal in his book. And while we may sympathize with Miller’s instincts and larger conclusions, his own reconstruction of Israel’s national identity goes too far in the other direction. To be sure, Miller has the matter dead to rights where he argues that culture, national identity, and state sovereignty often did not overlap in antiquity generally or Israel’s history specifically. He insists “Israel was strongly defined and unified by religion, by doctrine, belief, and corporate worship, which Lowry and Hazony explicitly deny is their goal. They claim that they want to reinforce modern nations’ cultural identity, but Israel was not culturally homogeneous.”
Elsewhere, Miller writes, “God nowhere commands Israel to keep its language separate or even its nonreligious cultural practices distinct.” Rather, it is “solely [Israel’s] relationship to its God” that defined it. Skimming a bit into the biblical terminology of nationhood and ethnicity, Miller even seems to deny that the Bible (both Old and New Testaments) envisaged God’s people to be an ethnos. In all, Miller appears to impress upon readers that Israel was always intended to be a people but not a nation per se: “the biologico-historical or national element was of no significance.”
This analysis would have puzzled ancient Jews and Christians alike. Where Miller and his secondary sources would draw sharper distinctions between, say, Greek terms such as laos and ethnos, the Jews who translated the Old Testament into Greek apparently saw no meaningful distinction, such that they rendered God’s promise to make Abraham into a great “nation” —repeated verbatim numerous times in the Old Testament — as ethnos. Likewise, the author of 1 Peter conflates laos, ethnos, and a third term genos, whose etymology (much like the Latin natio) directly connotes “birth” or “generation” in Greek. This is a strong indicator that these terms were largely synonymous rather than discreet. Or take the second-century Christian apologist Aristides, who divided the world into multiple such gene, some of which have directly ethnic connotations to our ears (e.g. Egyptians) where others (e.g. Christians) do not. In all, positing strict terminological distinctions does not get us very far on this question, since the terms themselves beg further investigation.
Miller’s move to distill Israelite and Jewish identity to mere cultic loyalty does not account for how virtually all nations had their own peculiar gods and religious traditions (e.g. Judges 11:24), such that religious descriptors were one of the first things that marked ancient ethnicity. If Israel used “religion” to define itself, it was hardly unique. So in the example from Herodotus given above, shared gods, temples, and rites serve as key markers of Hellenic identity, though they are not the sole markers, as common blood and language are also noted. In the Jews’ own history, we also find evidence that creed and rite were not purely “religious” phenomena easily separated from other cultural features of ethnicity.
Thus, when Antiochus Epiphanes and “renegade” Jews fostered a program of Hellenization in the early second century BC, their efforts contested ostensibly cultic markers (i.e. covenant, circumcision, dietary restrictions, the Temple) but also introduced distinctively Greek “cultural” institutions, such as the gymnasion. What was a policy with cultural and ultimately political aim was also simultaneously directed at “religious” activities. In other words, what we moderns label “religious” issues were inextricably embedded in “culture” and “politics.”
Perhaps the best counterevidence to Miller’s confessional, cultic nationhood comes from the Apostle Paul’s own career. Were Miller’s conceptualization of Israel historically accurate, it would have made Paul’s own mission far easier as he wrestled with how to include Gentiles in the Christian movement. That Paul so often relativized the biological definition of Israel — “not all those descended from Israel themselves constitute Israel” — indicates that many Jews and Gentiles alike imagined Abraham’s seed in those very terms.As in the Old Testament, there were mechanisms available in the first century that would allow outsiders to cross these semi-permeable boundaries and join Abraham’s family: a God-fearer could be circumcised, keep kosher, observe the Sabbath and other holidays, not observe the rites of other deities, etc.
Yet Paul famously rejected most of these standard mechanisms, and it took the best of his theological abilities to midwife a conception of “God’s people ” away from rigid ethno-cultural categories. In Philippians 3:2–7 as he attempts to challenge “mutilators of the flesh” (i.e. probably the sorts of “Judaizers” he attacks in Galatians), Paul lists his own traditional Jewish credentials, some of which are cultic (e.g. righteousness under the law), but others are ethnic and even tribal: “of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” Just because Paul’s preferred criteria for Christian identity succeeded, we should not anachronize his schema back onto the Jewish or Hebrew identity of prior eras.
From a broader view, we do biblical material a different kind of disservice by forcing its round pegs into modernity’s square expectations. Not only do conceptual efforts to separate nationhood, ethnicity, culture, and religion make little sense in the categories of the ancient world generally, they also smack of modern Western (and especially American) anxieties about identity, religion, and polity, anxieties which would prefer to neutralize apparent features of the Bible that sit awkwardly with today’s moral priorities. Admittedly, moral anachronism is a temptation for exegesis in any context, but nationalism seems like an especially odd choice. If the biblical authors in the Old and New Testament alike could prima facie tolerate institutional slavery and patriarchal family arrangements, then they could probably countenance modes of identity that would also bother many Westerners today.
In the end, biblical notions of nationhood do not easily lend themselves to modern political projects or cultural sensibilities. This applies equally to efforts enlisting scriptural support for the archetypal nation-state as well as to contemporary (American?) Christian embarrassment over the Old Testament’s substantive particularism and exclusivity.
The underlying problem is that — to differing ends and varying degrees — Hazony, Lowry, and Miller all seem to accept Israel’s status as an exemplar. From the perspective of an ancient historian anyway, it has been particularly bizarre to observe a years-long debate about the applicability of ancient Israel to the American context when there is a considerably closer analogy — for better or worse — in the Roman Empire, which was noted for its own cultural syncretism even by ancient commentators, much like the United States today. As I have argued elsewhere, however, any historical analogizing faces the immense problem of scale. While not the world’s largest or even second-largest polity by population, the contemporary United States is still about five times larger than the maximum estimation of Rome’s peak population. Notwithstanding modern communication technologies and their melting-pot effect, to expect comparable cultural homogeneity between the United States and a society like Rome’s is still a fairly outlandish proposition. When such comparisons turn to an “exemplary” ancient Israel of perhaps a few million, we have left the land of serious political and theological thinking far behind to wander nigh-satirical ground.
See Jude 6–14, 2 Peter 2:4, 1 Peter 3:19, all of which invoke the Enochian tradition. For patristic sources, see Justin Martyr’s Second Apology 5, Athenagoras’ Plea 24, Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 4.36.4. Contrast Augustine’s distaste, City of God 15.25. ↑
Seth Schwartz, The Ancient Jews from Alexander to Muhammad, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 95.↑
Guido Baltes, “The Use of Hebrew and Aramaic in Epigraphic Sources,” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea, ed. Randall Buth and R. Steven Notley (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 35–65. ↑
Géza Vermès, ed., The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, Rev. ed, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 2011), 165. Bracketed text–e.g. “M[aster. The Rule of] War”–reflects the editor’s “hypothetical but likely reconstructions,” because the scrolls themselves are often fragmented or damaged. ↑
A full exegesis of this idea lies beyond us here, but see the examples of Mark 11:12-25, Luke 13:1-9, 19:20-37, 23:31 and the “little apocalypse” of Matthew 24. These passages from the synoptic gospels connect the themes of Jesus’ ministry and the possibility of repentance, a coming national disaster through God’s judgment, and the Temple’s ultimate destruction. ↑
Paul D. Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2022), 120. ↑
Miller, 123, quoting Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 4:55. ↑
See the earlier assessment from Plato’s Symposium 182b–c, where it is a cultural mark of certain Greeks distinguishing them from barbarians: “For [pederasty]is shameful to the barbarians because of their monarchies, as are philosophy and love of gymnasion.” ↑
Seth Schwartz, “How Many Judaisms Were There?: A Critique of Neusner and Smith on Definition and Mason and Boyarin on Categorization,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 2, no. 2 (2011): 208–38. ↑