Book Review: Created Equal by Joshua Berman

“All men are created equal.”

It’s one of the foundational beliefs of our country, one that nobody dares question. But some things we sometimes can’t help but question: What does it mean to be equal? If we are born different, how are we still equal? Where did we get the idea that all men [and women] are created equal? This question becomes important when we consider that when this phrase was written into the US Constitution, “men” was defined as white, land-owning males. So how we define equality and how we put it into practice are important questions. And for some reason, we have this idea that the idea of everyone being equal is new. Like, within the past 200 years new.

For Christians, this brings up the question of how our Christian beliefs interact with our enlightenment beliefs. Is our faith as egalitarian as our culture? Did our sense of everyone being equal in a society come from religion, or from a revolution away from religion? And if we believe in equality because of Christianity, what does that equality look like?

Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought is Joshua Berman’s deep look into the Old Testament’s view of equality. He looks mostly at Exodus and Deuteronomy, establishing a case for the Old Law being more egalitarian than any other in its time.

Church vs State
Berman’s first focus is on how the creation stories of the ANE (Ancient Near East) were a “celebration of social hierarchy”. Man is created to do work for the gods to benefit from. Disease was invented just to control the population so the gods could nap through the noise of people. Kings of the ANE used religion to validate their throne, even claim that kings were gods or related to gods. But in Deuteronomy, kings are only an option, and would barely have any power at all. Instead, everyone in Israel is a “king”, as Deut. is written like a treaty between a Lord sovereign and a collection of lesser sovereigns, as well as a marriage contract.

Class and Leadership
Berman then moves to the structure of class in Deuteronomy, and by that I mean the one class. The govt. has incredibly little power in the law. “Nowhere else [in the ANE] do we find legal curbs on the size of the military, the treasury, and the harem”. Anyone can be chosen as king. And rather than using b.s. divination to “know what the gods need”, Kings had to consult the one text that the people had access to. Law couldn’t be rewritten to suit leaders. Every family had land that they could not permanently lose, and only the priests, who could potentially gain extra power, were stripped of the ability to own land, a “vow of poverty” to hedge against the abuse of their positions. Due process was law as well.

In our world, the social is only part of the economic. Companies have to teach people “interpersonal skills”, and grocery store chains redecorate to fabricate a “small market” feel. Our Capitalism is anti-family, anti-community. But in Deuteronomy, business is a small part of the social world, and social always comes before business. This is why debts are forgiven and land given back to its original owners every 7 years. The King had no land.  Israel had “the first legislated taxation for social purpose”. Tithes are placed on all owners as “hunger insurance”, but not as taxes for military spending, etc.

But what about slavery? Doesn’t the Bible condone slavery? Berman doesn’t get into the issue too deeply, but brings up some important observations. In Deuteronomy, laws were written so that you could only own a person’s service, not the person. The placement of the laws at the beginning of Deut. show the importance of freeing slaves, as Deut. is centered on the narrative of Israelites being freed from Egyptian slavery. Deut.’s concept of voluntary slavery was also unparalleled. What we end up seeing is indentured servitude that could only last up to 7 years, a far cry from the slavery Israelites endured in Egypt and what categorized much slavery over the millennia.

Berman spends some time on the development and use of the Hebrew alphabet, especially in comparison to hieroglyphics, because language is a tool for knowledge, communication, and power. Deut. implies that a high number of people would be able to read, and for those who were not, much public reading and memorizing would be given. The text was in the hands of the people as much as a text could be in its time, compared to the secret literacy of priests and symbols that exist in other lands. It’s hard to be ruled when you have ownership over your own knowledge of history and law.

Berman ends his journey with the story of Moses’ birth, which seems odd. He compares it to the very similar Sargon legend, to reveal how Moses’ story is one for the people, not gods and kings. Other religions didn’t care to explain much history, morality, or nuances of the human condition, but rather codified the way things were and why they should remain in order to suit the leaders. But Moses’ story, and the whole of the Bible, is a history of a people, the first national history of its kind. Moses’ story shows a psychological profile of multiple characters, including women, like none other. As just one example, Pharaoh’s daughter subverts him by rescuing Moses, mocking empire and empowering women in one act. Berman calls Moses’ story “a polemic against the hagiography of royal inscription and theology.”

Berman’s book reveals a lot of things I never knew about the Old Testament, and confirmed many of my beliefs about the egalitarianism of the Old Law. It employs excellent scholarship and gives a close reading of texts.

I want to go over the weaknesses of the book, which do not make it a bad book, but only a limited book.

  • It is written in a very scholarly fashion, and may not make for an easy read for a lot of people. You need to be familiar with terms like “hagiography”. But he is not so academic that he can’t be understood.
  • Berman’s title is misleading: He limits his study to the Old Testament. He is more interested in how the Old Testament broke with political thought, most notably the Pentateuch. However, this is important, because the words of Jesus and the writings of the NT must be placed in context of the Old. Berman lays what makes for excellent groundwork in such a study.
  • Berman does not go into the implications this means for us. He says he will not. It’s not his purpose. But if you’re looking to apply easily, that will be difficult. He mainly aims to show us why the Pentateuch was radically egalitarian for its time. We can learn things from it, certainly:
    Kings are useless, and more of a trouble than help. A military should be incredibly small. Nobody should own anybody. Citizens should be well read and wise. Debt is bad and should not become an industry. Ideally, everyone should own some land. Class distinctions are not godly. There is one God, he loves us, and he gave us the earth to tend and keep for our own sake, and wants us to seek a relationship with him.
  • I wish Berman explained more his distinction between equality based on Exodus and equality based on Genesis. He runs the mistake, I think, of letting people assume that they are incompatible. (See, the founding architects of America paired Genesis’ creation account with enlightenment thinking to produce a “created equal” individualistic notion that they could apply to white men with entitlement. If they had paired Genesis with Exodus and minimized the enlightenment thinkers, they might have seen the necessity to free slaves in their new country, as well as understood that equality in God’s eyes does little use to a people not in a covenant with him, a people who understand their own salvation and place in the universe, and not just a man-made text based on social contract theory. America is not in a covenant with God. She cannot fully understand freedom and equality. She always has abused these terms, and likely always will.)

Berman briefly mentions the NT and how it ties in, as well as briefly goes into the connections between the OT and the US Constitution. The founding architects of America were inspired by, among other philosophies, the book of Deuteronomy and the teachings of Christ. Berman does draw the distinction, however, between the idea that “man was created equal” as an enlightenment motto for individualism, and the teaching of equality defined by freedom in rescue by God in Deuteronomy. American’s notion of equality and freedom is not the same as the Bible’s—never has been. We cannot mistake them.

I do wish Berman had spent time on discussing how the OT was meant for Israel, and how Christ progressed the law into something newer that then took hold on people from all nations. Many people struggle, for example, with the allowance of slavery in the Old Testament. Berman’s study would be more powerful coupled with a historic study of the teachings of Christ. After all, the narrative of Israel escaping Egypt and the teachings of Christ were two of the most powerful rhetorical foundations for ending slavery in America.

The Pentateuch was not meant to be a “for all people for all time” law, but a covenant with a people who would produce a Messiah for all the world, one who’s radical act of love would abolish fleshly, empire notions of class and ownership to all people who truly embraced him as Lord. But if you want to trace this back to the first 5 books of the Bible, Berman’s book is a great way to start.

One response to “Book Review: Created Equal by Joshua Berman

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