Exodus and Revolution: A Review Essay

I. Summary of Exodus and Revolution

In his insightful retelling of the Exodus narrative, Michael Walzer attempts to “give a reading of the Exodus that captures its political meaning” (133).¹ He accomplishes this task by examining the archetypal story from the following different angles: (1) the uniqueness of the Exodus history, (2) the nature of Israelite oppression in Egypt, (3) the aftereffects of oppression upon the Israelites, (4) the distinctiveness of Israel’s covenantal identity, (5) the this-worldly goal of the Exodus from Egypt, and (6) the struggle between Zionism, messianism, and the realism of an Exodus politics. I shall briefly treat each in that order before offering some reflections on how Walzer’s account of the Exodus might inform the political vision and involvement of socially conscious individuals, particularly Christians, in America today.

First, what uniquely distinguishes the narrative of Exodus from other ancient narratives is its progression from Point A to Point B, or more accurately, from Point A to Point Z—since it is the goal of Israel to reach an end that is “nothing like the beginning” (11). Moreover, the Exodus history is important in that it offers a “narrative frame” within which later historical movements can find a place; other stories take shape in light of this particular story (7). Right from the start, Walzer emphasizes that the Exodus is a narrative within time and space. The Exodus is a grounded, earthly, historical story—regardless of its historicity—and thus it provides a model for later political thought.

The second and third sections of the book both deal with the nature of tyrannical oppression as we see it described in the biblical testimony. The second part specifically deals with the Israelite enslavement in Egypt as something which the book of Exodus roundly condemns; there is no Stoic resignation or sense of destiny, but instead the real hope of a better life “here and now” (22). The pharaonic regime is marked by repression, “rigorous service” (27), and the bondage of a whole people “to the arbitrary power of the state” (30). While the portrayal of tyrannical power is important in order to understand liberation, Walzer makes the interesting point that the Israelites have a strange and even simultaneous attraction and revulsion to Egypt. As part of the psychological effect of slavery, the people of Israel waver between longing and resentment, temptation and anger (36-37). Egypt begins to take the form not only of savage oppression but also of wealth and luxury, a kind of alluring “decadence” (39). In the third part, then, Walzer teases out this tension between a desire for the goods of Egypt and a desire for the promised land—which cannot be so easily split up so that the former is physical and secular, while the latter is spiritual and religious. Walzer instead interprets the tension as between materialism and idealism, between the impulses of the present and the patience for the future. The “vanguard” of Moses and his followers represent the idealists, while the “masses” of those who simply want the “fleshpots” of Egypt represent the materialists. When these two groups clash, the result is bloodshed, which leads to one of the hard, unanswered questions: “When can the sword rightly be used?” (62).

Fourth, after examining the negative results of liberation (murmuring, infighting), Walzer next examines the positive outcome of liberation: the covenant. What makes this covenant distinct is its stark contrast to slavery: the latter is enforced by coercion, the former by communal consent (74). Moreover, the covenant is “radically inclusive,” in that all the people of Israel are involved in the ratification of this new, positive form of bondage (75). This leads to perhaps the central thematic tension with Walzer’s book, which can be looked at in a few different ways. It is the tension between an unconditional liberation and a conditional covenant, between past passivity and future activity, between what “has happened to them” and what “they make themselves” (76). The tension is even larger, for Walzer also frames it in terms of the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant: the former is unconditional and from God alone, while the latter is conditional and demands the faithful response of the people. If we bring this into the political sphere, the tension is between “Exodus politics,” rooted in the Sinai covenant, and “apocalyptic and millennialist politics,” rooted in the Abrahamic covenant (79). The question is, when it comes to radical politics, which covenant ought to be the foundation? Walzer makes it clear that the Abrahamic covenant leads toward eschatological, Last Days expectations, while it is only the Sinaitic covenant which inspires human action here and now.

In the fifth section, Walzer examines the continuing struggle between materialism and idealism, between a land of “milk and honey” and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” But, of course, “the material and the ideal, the carnal and the spiritual are not so easily separated” (105). Nevertheless, “it makes a difference whether one emphasizes the milk and honey or the divine commandments”—and so the political tension between materialism and idealism remains (108). The materialistic vision of “milk and honey” seeks a negative equality by ensuring that there will be enough for all and oppression will be no more; the idealistic vision of “a holy nation” then “aims at positive equality” by seeking a people shaped by divine law (109). The other major struggle occurs when the promise is not fulfilled as one might expect. The promise is not myth but reality, and the land is not Eden but Canaan. We find that liberation remains incomplete, and the fulfillment of the promise is now postponed. The story of Exodus must go on. Out of this disappointment arises the messianism which conditions apocalyptic and Christian thinking and has political ramifications.

Thus, in the final sixth section, Walzer examines the broad political tension between an Exodus politics and a messianic politics. Both are “radically entangled in Zionist thought” but have very different approaches—the former takes its bearings from the wilderness training and embraces the ambiguity of a liberationist politics, while the latter takes its bearings from the apocalyptic “end of days” and allows no ambiguity (136, 139). In other words, the distinction between conditionality and unconditionality remains fully operative. Exodus Zionism is realistic and aware of limitations; messianic Zionism is utopian and aware of no limitations (141). The one is “cautious and moderate”; the other is absolute (147). In the end, what the Exodus teaches us is that the “door of hope” remains open, that there are other alternatives beyond the black-and-white options we are often given, but that such alternatives require “the hard and continuous work of men and women” who must go on marching in the wilderness (149).

II. A Christian Reflection on Exodus and Revolution in Light of the Contemporary Situation

While there is much in Walzer’s account that lends itself well to our contemporary political landscape, I wish to focus primarily on how this book might inform political discourse and action from within the framework of the Christian gospel. In particular, I wish to comment on the tension between the unconditionality of liberation and the conditionality of covenant and the corresponding tension in humanity between passivity and activity in relation to the promised land. In light of this tension, we might ask, what is the role of the messiah? What is the role of the church as the covenantal community of those who confess that the messiah has already come? What then is the relation between Christians and the sociopolitical realm?

At times, Walzer seems to play the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants against each other, as if they represent two mutually exclusive positions struggling for prominence. The former tends toward radical messianism while the latter tends toward radical politics. Since he writes from a Jewish perspective, the messianic position is one that looks entirely to a future “end of days” reality. Millennarian radicalism seeks an edenic paradise; Exodus radicalism seeks the promised land. The former is located “at the very end of human history,” while the latter is “firmly located within history” (120). The Christian narrative changes things decisively. What the New Testament gospel proclaims is that the messianic event has arrived within history; the tension between an Exodus historicism and messianic utopianism is effectively nullified—at least potentially. Walzer points out that “Christian writers tended to spiritualize the Last Days and to describe redemption as a state of the soul, not of the world” (123). This, of course, is reinforced by the fact that Jesus as the confessed Messiah did not bring his people to any this-worldly promised land. He was no Moses in that respect, and spoke instead of the “kingdom of heaven.” Seen from this angle, Jesus is the source of this spiritualization of redemption. On the other hand, the Gospel of Luke portrays a Jesus who explicitly adopts the mantle of Isaiah 61 and proclaims himself a liberator of the captives, which directly echoes the Exodus account (Lk. 4). Moreover, the Christian gospel stands or falls with its confession that Jesus is the promised messiah, and thus, as Walzer states, “the material and the ideal … are not so easily separated” (105).

So should Christians emphasize the “milk and honey” or the “divine commandments”? That is, should they stress a spiritual liberation or a this-worldly hope? Walzer says that “Christian revolutionaries … are plausibly called judaizers: they defend the ‘carnality’ of the promise; they seek a worldly kingdom” (123). The question must be asked: is it really either-or? Must a this-worldly hope exclude spiritual redemption? Walzer stresses that the messianic-paradisal visions of the Last Days “do not invite anything like the ongoing human effort required in the Exodus story,” and thus the importance of an Exodus politics is precisely its ability to inspire human action (122). Again, though, does a spiritual hope rule out this-worldly involvement? I suggest that the distinction between unconditionality and conditionality holds open an alternative to the false dichotomy (which, I should add, Walzer more often undermines than upholds, though it remains effective in spite of his attempt to question many of these black-and-white dualisms).

The unconditionality of liberation and the conditionality of the covenant must be read christologically, so that both the unconditional grace of liberation and the conditional response of the covenant are embodied in the mission of Jesus. Because the church confesses that he is both the divine liberator and the human who is liberated, the Christian community is then freed for sociopolitical action by an unconditionally established covenant of grace. In other words, this-worldly involvement no longer stands at odds with a spiritual redemption; the two, in fact, go hand-in-hand within the framework of the Christian narrative. Passivity and activity are no longer connected to liberation and covenant, respectively, because both are located in the mediation of Jesus Christ. This thoroughly Christian account stands at odds with the notion of a messiah seemingly put forward by Walzer. He writes that had the people of Israel “not chosen them a captain—here, a king—back for Egypt, the messiah would not be necessary.” The messiah “will merely establish what the people could once have established for themselves” (129). The Christian narrative would read this as essentially Pelagian, since the need for a messiah is spiritual as well as physical—we need a savior from sin as well as one who will bring us to the promised land. The messiah is not potentially unnecessary, but essentially necessary.

How, then, does this Christian reading of the Exodus liberation inform ecclesial involvement in the sociopolitical realm? First, Walzer’s distinction between prophet and priest—the “priests act for the people” while “the prophets call upon the people to act” (91)—must be located within the christological triplex munus, in which Jesus both acts on behalf of humanity and also calls humanity to action. (The third aspect of the triplex munus is that Jesus also reigns as king, which has important political ramifications that cannot be elaborated on here.) Second, it has been my contention that a Christian account of the Exodus does not necessitate a spiritualizing of liberation, but rather frees the Christian community for a proper pursuit of this-worldly goals—ones which unite the material and the ideal. The covenantal community (which extends beyond the visible church) must have the two promises of Exodus in mind: a land of “milk and honey” for all people, and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Not either one or the other, but both-and.

As I stated in my summary, Walzer quite helpfully points out the important distinction between an Exodus politics and a messianic politics: the former is “cautious and moderate,” while the other is absolute. The former allows for compromise and ambiguity, but “within the world of political messianism the argument is foreclosed” (140). We see this play out in contemporary political and religious discourse, in which certain this-worldly goals are equated with religious redemption. The identification of Zionism with messianism, which Gershom Scholem so adamantly rejected (140-41), not only affects the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The messianic idolization of this-worldly, material goals conditions much of our contemporary secular politics. Of particular relevance to North American Christians is the current black-and-white unconditionality that idolizes American security and precludes any possible political compromise. Those of Arab heritage are immediately suspect, and many are arrested outright and detained without trial. In a way, the situation in the United States is a replication and secularization of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. The imaginary borders that define the United States are, in a way, not unlike “the newly conquered territories” which Israel must hold “against all opposition” (140). Thus, Muslims, like the Canaanites, “are explicitly excluded from the world of moral concern” (142). The American media counts the dead American bodies but not the dead Iraqis. Those who perpetrate anything against the United States, or simply could perpetrate anything, fall under a secular form of the “ban.” As Walzer notes, “right-wing Zionists who cite the biblical passages are practicing a kind of fundamentalism that is entirely at odds with the Jewish tradition” (144). The same could be said of right-wing Americans who idolize national security at the expense of Exodus 23:9: “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (140). The Christian stance in such a situation can only be the kind of judgment against such absolutism and idolatry that Exodus has against slavery. An Exodus ethic combined with a christocentric unconditionality of grace can and should result in the pursuit of historical, this-worldly justice for all people in light of the divine justice accomplished in Christ.

In conclusion, I wish to look more closely at a comment by Walzer regarding the stark difference between Eden and the promised land. He writes that “they are not identical at all, for … Eden is a mythical garden while the promised land has latitude and longitude” (120). This is surely correct and helpful, but Walzer does not scrutinize the statement by Northrop Frye which he quotes directly before this statement, that for the Christian, “Eden, the Promised Land, Jerusalem, and Mount Zion” are all “interchangeable synonyms” (119-20). Frye is quite wrong about this, and W. H. Auden shows why. Auden writes in his essay, “Dingley Dell & The Fleet,” about the difference between Eden and the New Jerusalem, between what he calls Arcadia and Utopia. Both are the same in that each finds the present world unbearable, but each presents a different alternative: “Eden is a past world in which the contradictions of the present world have not yet arisen; New Jerusalem is a future world in which they have at last been resolved.” The messianic New Jerusalem is not the same is Eden, but Walzer is correct that the vision of Exodus liberation falls somewhere in between—though leaning toward New Jerusalem.

In his mature writings, Auden composed a lengthy poem entitled, “Horae Canonicae,” which closed with a meditation on the distinction between Arcadia and Utopia, this time, however, focusing on the Christian foundation for all radical politics, secular or otherwise. At the very end, he speaks of the messianic “victim,” the one “on whose immolation … arcadias, utopias, our dear old bag of a democracy are alike founded.” Both Arcadia and Utopia, Eden and New Jerusalem, are grounded upon this “one Sin Offering.” Moreover, since Walzer demonstrates that the early American political leaders drew heavily upon the Exodus narrative for their new democratic vision, the mention of democracy means that the middle ground of the Exodus is also established on this foundation. Auden then closes with these profound words—words that effectively bridge the religious and the secular, the material and the ideal, by locating them both properly in the person of Christ, whose self-offering on the cross is the basis for all radical this-worldly politics here and now:
For without a cement of blood (it must be human, it must be
innocent) no secular wall will safely stand.
¹ Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1985). All parenthetical citations are from this book.

² W. H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (New York: Vintage International, 1988), 409.

³ Auden, Collected Poems (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 639.


This is a good summary and evaluation of one of my favorite books by Walzer.
Mikewind Dale said…
I haven't read Walzer's book yet, but at least going by your summary, I have a few disagreements with him.

First, he identifies the Abrahamic covenant as a fatalistic messianic one, and the Sinaitic one as more temporal and political. Frankly, I fail to see the basis for this. G-d muses to Himself at Sodom that Abraham will teach his children after him the G-dly way, and Abraham moreover engages in such acts as the war against the kings and the feeding of the three angels. Abraham's life was very material and temporally-oriented, and actually, I see his life as an example for how Judaism is meant to be this-worldly and not otherworldly. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century German Neo-Orthodox) is famous for his description of Judaism as an anthropological theonomy, a man-centered Divine law, and I believe Abraham's life epitomizes this.

Now, there most definitely is such a thing as a fatalistic otherworldly eschatology in Judaism, but we find it not with Abraham, but rather, at the opposite end of the Tanakh, in the book of Daniel. That book, along with the apocryphal apocalypses, is very much otherworldly. As Rabbi Dr. Isidore Epstein shows in his The Faith of Judaism, whereas the Prophets envisioned the messianic redemption as a very this-worldly, historical, sociopolitical development performed by man's own actions, by contrast, Daniel and the apocalypes expected an otherworldly rupture of the Divine into our world, to save man where man could not save himself.

(See Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler's The Biblical View of Man for an excellent description of the difference between Judaism and Christianity regarding the efficacy man's own deeds to save himself. Adler additionally shows how IV Ezra portrays a bridge between Judaism and Christianity, how one evolved into the other.)

As Professor Ephraim Urbach shows in The Sages, most of the Talmudic rabbis also held by the apocalyptic model. Perhaps the most (if not only) notable exception, says Professor Urbach, is Rabbi Akiva's choosing a military general, Bar Kokhba, as the messiah. According to Rabbi Akiva, the messiah is to be a very this-worldly figure, who operates in a very political fashion. Obviously, all of the Talmudic rabbis discounted the Christian view of the messiah having any powers of atonement or mediation between G-d and man. What is key, however, is how the messianic redemption itself will occur; will it be from G-d Himself, or will man initiate it? There is even a view in Midrash Rabbah that there will be no messiah at all, that G-d Himself will be the messiah. According to this view, man has very little role, if any, in his own sociopolitical redemption.

to be cont.
Mikewind Dale said…
cont. from above

Contra Walzer, what right-wing Zionism did was reestablish the olden Jewish non-apocalyptic perspective. According to the right-wing Zionists, redemption is in man's hands. Rabbi Yehuda Alkalai, for example, removed redemption from the context of theurgical rectification of th cosmos (Lurianic Qabala), and instead replaced it with a very temporal framework of agricultural renewal of the land and political and economic negotiations with the powers-that-be.

In fact, the entire opposition to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak ha-Kohen Kook was precisely on the question of whether man may initiate his own redemption. According to Rabbi Kook's opponents, it was solely G-d's prerogative to return the Jews to Israel. But according to Rabbi Kook and his school (which includes also Rabbis Alkalai, Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, Yehuda Mohilever, Eim ha-Banim Semeikha, etc.), redemption is in man's hands to accomplish.

Rabbi Kook's view is epitomized in something my rabbi (a teacher in Machon Meir, a partner of the Merkaz ha-Rav yeshiva) said to me once. According to the Ani Ma'amin, he said, we must believe everyday that the messiah may come. But what does this mean? Does it mean that we believe that everyday the messiah can come, or does it mean that everyday we believe that the messiah will come someday in the future? The first interpretation, he said, is absurd. Frankly, he said, the world is not ready for the messiah. The world has improved immensely since the time of human sacrifices and the like, but still, he said, if the messiah came today, the world would simply not be ready. G-d most definitely will not bring the messiah anytime soon. Instead, my rabbi said, we must trust that someday in the future, when the world has been still further improved by social action, in that day, when the world is ready, the messiah will come. We don't trust that the messiah will come today; we instead trust today that the messiah will come someday. My rabbi was speaking from the tradition of right-wing Kookian Zionism.
John Hobbins said…
Hi David,

FYI I've assigned your review as required reading for an essay topic students may choose to write on in a class I'm teaching entitled "The Bible and Current Events."

John Hobbins