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Nation-Building 101

Column: Leon Kass reads Exodus

Moses receives the Ten Commandments / Getty Images
• February 5, 2021 5:00 am

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Eighteen years after he published Genesis: The Beginning of Wisdom, Leon Kass has released a sequel. It is worth the wait. Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus is substantial not only in length (726 pages) but also in depth. Using the techniques of close reading and "living with the text" that have made him such a revered teacher, Kass has come to understand Exodus as more than a narrative of national formation. It is also the story, he says, of how a people brings itself closer to God. And it is a story worth recalling at this particular moment, as America tries to put itself together after years of polarization, antagonism, fracture, and decay.

Exodus begins with the Jews enslaved. That means the people are a blank slate. They have been emptied of their prior life and beliefs. But they also have a basis for community. They are distinct from their oppressors and from the other cultures that surround them. They share an enemy in Pharaoh. They have an obligation to God, who brings them out of Egypt. They have a persistent memory of otherness, which compels them to welcome the stranger and be kind to the weak. And they have knowledge of what not to be: not Mesopotamian, not Canaanite, and definitely not Egyptian.

Egypt stands as the great challenge and alternative to biblical life. Its civilization was oriented toward and integrated with nature: The Nile was the center of its universe, animals and heavenly bodies were incorporated into its pantheon, the only individual that mattered to its society was the deified Pharaoh. Egypt was not anthropocentric. Humans were playthings to the gods.

Egypt was obsessed with death and with achieving immortality. Its fixation with retaining physical existence and material bounty, Kass observes, was the enemy of thinking about life as an intergenerational compact. And Egypt was a technocracy. Its feats of engineering and colossal architecture went along with its denial of individuality, human agency, and equal protection of the law.

Perhaps all this sounds familiar. Ancient Egypt is dead, but parts of its cosmology live on. "Egypt is here," Kass said recently.

The Israelites were nation-builders in a world ruled by empires. Their experiences under slavery in Egypt, and their deliverance from bondage, gave them a shared identity. Kass says that this history, expressed through story and song (and in a common tongue), is the first ingredient of nationhood.

The second is a founding: a singular episode that crystallizes a people's collective purpose. That is what happened at Sinai. There the Jews entered into a covenant with God that established the rule of law and a code of conduct for the community. Of course, a founding requires a founder: Moses. Kass notes that Moses differs from the biblical patriarchs. He wants to know the causes of things—why, for example, the bush burns but is not consumed by the flame. He wants to know God's name.

In leading the Jews out of Egypt and communicating to them God's law, Moses highlights the differences between service to God and servility to Pharaoh. The commandments are a form of self-rule to which the Israelites freely consent. And the commandments establish the principle that members of the community are equal under God. They offer instruction in policing the impulses that can enslave us from within. Kass writes that the Ten Commandments feature two injunctions unique to the ancient world: Keep the Sabbath holy and honor one's father and mother. The nation whose foundation is the Mosaic law dignifies both work and family.

Kass happened unexpectedly upon the third ingredient in nationhood. Like most readers, he had found the instructions for and building of the Tabernacle to be boring. Two decades of living with Exodus brought him a different understanding. People aspire to communion with something higher than ourselves, Kass writes. But this desire can run amok, can lead us astray. For the Jews, free from Egypt but fearful in Moses's absence, it led them to idolize the Golden Calf.

After they repent for this mistake, however, their passions are redirected from the idol to the Tabernacle. It's a collaboration between human beings and God that provides a location for daily contact with the highest things. The Tabernacle, Kass teaches, shows how to cabin, modulate, and inform our instinct for awe, reverence, and worship through ritual and tradition.

These are just a few of the insights contained in this magisterial book. Each passage invites reflection. The other day, Kass spoke to Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute, where I work, about Founding God's Nation. Their conversation was engrossing—you can watch it here—but the section I found most moving was at the end. Kass lamented the centrifugal forces ripping our nation apart. "I'm blessed beyond belief to be living in post-World War II America," he began.

Then he posed a difficult question: "Can we allow our reliance on technological progress, economic prosperity, and pursuing our share of private wealth and happiness to take the place of having a shared story? I'm not sure."

This solemn and troubling answer is reason enough to return to the wisdom of the Bible, and to the profound learning of Leon Kass.

Published under: Bible, Culture