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 Bronze-age nomads who wandered on the edge of 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 grand as the pyramids of Egypt or temples of Greece.
Yet what these desert nomads gave us is arguably more powerful than any political system, more dynamic than any economic system, more vivid than any painting, and more enduring than any stone monument. What they gave us through their sacred writings were timeless laws of behavior, moral insights that people from every continent and every age have accepted as fundamental to right living. They helped men and women order their souls.
Let’s explore ancient Israel’s remarkable contributions to Western civilization in more detail.
1. The Hebrews’ most basic insight: religion is the bedrock of culture.
The inventory of Jerusalem’s contributions to our historic outlook as Americans is striking. The belief in one transcendent God, the notion of a transcendent moral order, the separation of the Creator from creation, linear time, the covenant of a “chosen people” with God, the ethical critique of rulers, the moral evaluation of history, the evil of human sacrifice, and the notion that this “chosen people” has a “manifest destiny” in the Promised Land—all are notions Americans recognize in their own history and culture.
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.
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.
2. The Bible — the most influential assemblage of books in human history?
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 Bible is the classic of classics. You know what the classics are: They’re “something everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” But for those who really grapple with it, the Old Testament probes deep into the mysteries of the human condition. It is no accident that some of the giants of modern thought – proud nonbelievers even – were greatly influenced by the Bible. Recent research has revealed that leading atheists – Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, among them – were drawn to the Old Testament for its insights into the human condition.
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 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.
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.
(It should be mentioned that there was one brief instance of monotheism in ancient Egypt. Not surprisingly, it coincided with the period time the Hebrews were there, but before Moses came of age. It occurred during the 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, and put all his faith in the god Aton, the sun disc. But Akhenaton’s faith was never passed down to the people. 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.)
This one God is extraordinary compared to the pantheon of lesser gods that populate the ancient world. He loves his creation. And he loves the crown jewel of his creation, humankind. He cares about us. He wants us to prosper and to live. He enters a covenant with us and promises us prosperity and life if – if – we abide by his laws.
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.
. . . 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.
5. Human rights of each individual
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.
Being created in the image and likeness of God is also a powerful argument for human freedom. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy tells of how each of us is morally free to choose good or evil. Interestingly, our Liberty Bell has an inscription on it, straight out of the Old Testament, Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Then there is one of the greatest liberation stories of all time, of the Hebrews being enslaved by the Egyptians, and of Moses leading them out of Egypt to the promised land. This was a favorite theme of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his sermons to blacks and whites. In fact, it was a powerful theme of the entire Civil Rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. The example of Moses, the Lawgiver, was hard for whites to ignore or argue against.
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);
- Moses and the Law (Exodus 19-20);
- David and the Kingdom of Israel (2 Samuel 7);
- Renewal of the covenant with the prophets.
The Pilgrims were thoroughly familiar with biblical covenants, and when they came to New England, it was with a solemn sense that they, too, were entering into a Covenant with God, in a way re-enacting His Covenant with the ancient Hebrews. And this time, they were determined to succeed on their “errand in the wilderness.” As you know the Pilgrim experience, as well as that of the Puritans, was to provide a tremendous source of national pride and identity. It has a mythic place in American history.
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
It follows that if there is a covenant with God, you’d better not break it. Here the Jewish notion of a “judgment of the nations” has also shaped our moral life. The Hebrew prophets often confronted kings — they spoke truth to power. The ethical critique of rulers was relatively rare 2,500 years ago.
God judged Israel and punished the entire nation when rulers and the people disobeyed his commands. This was much on the minds of some of our founders and early presidents. Thomas Jefferson, in his old age contemplating American slavery, said, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Then there were the powerful ruminations of our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, who in his Second Inaugural Address posed the question, Why was America suffering a bloody, devastating Civil War? The answer: because we had tolerated slavery on our soil, thus betraying the promise of freedom born out of the American Revolution.
Closely related to the judgment of the nations is the idea of a surviving “remnant” that holds fast to the covenant. Biblically, these are the blessed few who escape some heaven-sent catastrophe. God in his grace spares a portion of a people to witness to his mercy, tell of divine judgment, and begin the human community anew. The Old Testament is full of such remnants – of Noah and his family, who survive the Flood; of Amos and his followers when the Northern Kingdom (Israel with its capital Samaria) is destroyed; of Isaiah and his followers in anticipation of the Southern Kingdom (Judah with its capital Jerusalem) being destroyed; of Jeremiah and his followers upon the destruction of the Southern Kingdom; and so forth.
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
Yet another influence on American thought that originated with the ancient Jews was a linear conception of time – with a beginning, middle, and end. Beginning: the Creation. Middle: struggles between good and evil. End: the coming of the messiah and, with him, redemption.
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.”
One more observation on how important is was to be competent to search the scriptures for oneself. Daniel Boorstin has explained how the Pilgrims, whenever they grappled with some moral or historical problem, thought analogously. Further, they drew most of their analogies from Jewish experience as depicted in the Old Testament. At every stage of their journey to the New World, they compared what they were doing with what the Israelites had once done. Their journey from Old World bondage, through the wilderness, to a land flowing with milk and honey was a way of reliving what the Hebrews had done. Their covenant with God was not unlike those of the ancient Jews. They would even search out the meaning of specific events by trying to pair them with Old Testament happenings. Thus the “great and terrible Earthquake” of June 1, 1638, and the one that followed on January 14, 1639, reminded Captain Edward Johnson of how “the Lord himselfe . . . roared from Sion (as in the dayes of the Prophet Amos).”
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 not have: 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;
- 2 Mount Pisgahs (Arizona and Vermont); Pisgah refers to the mountain range in Transjordan that Moses climbed to gaze upon the promised land. In the Pisgah Range he climbed a peak called Mount Nebo.
- 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. Leadership and the moral order
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?
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.
Books on the topics in this essay, including those by Dr. Kirk, are available from The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.