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An Examination of Justice and Politics in the Bible

Robert A. Burt
In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict

Harvard University Press, 2012

In his latest book, Robert A. Burt ’64, Yale Law School’s Alexander M. Bickel Professor of Law, reads the Hebrew and Christian Bibles in order to explore the political theory underlying both regarding the legitimacy of authority. 

In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict recounts the narratives of key biblical figures—including Adam and Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus—to examine God’s relationship with humanity as it evolves from initial harmony to an increasingly fraught struggle. In the biblical accounts, Burt argues, God’s authority is neither unlimited nor self-evidently legitimate. The relationship between God and humanity is instead ambivalent and mutually dependent.

Justice, in the biblical conception, is complete harmony between God and humanity. This goal is repeatedly pursued on one side or the other but is never attained. Thus justice is always beyond reach—in sharp contrast with modern secular political theories that set out principles and/or processes that promise the ultimate attainment of justice.

Burt writes in the book’s preface, “I offer this account not simply to tell a good Bible story—though I see it as a very good story, as a collection of richly engrossing, psychologically acute, beautifully rendered portraits of the variety of relationships between God and humanity. I offer this reading also to show the relevance of the biblical portrayal of God’s authority to modern secular accounts of political relations between State and Subjects. I see a political theory about what differentiates legitimate from illegitimate authority embedded in the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. By explicitly drawing the theory out from these narratives, we can see some valuable lessons for secular political theory in its various efforts to identify principles that establish the legitimacy of authority relationships.”