Like all other known societies, Israel emerged into political life from mankind’s primeval organization, the tribe. In fact, Israel maintained its tribal identification even after becoming a territorial monarchy, and its tribal identity will be preserved as long as the Jewish people endure. Thus, the patriarchs–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–remained key to Israel’s corporate self-understanding throughout the time the Bible was being written and redacted. The three patriarchs are symbols of Israel in Voegelin’s sense that they represent Israel in such ways as to manifest that nation’s understanding of itself. (Of course, that they serve as symbols doesn’t mean that they didn’t also exist as historical individuals. The tribes of Israel had to get started somehow, after all.)
Each patriarch represents the people Israel in a different way. My understanding of these representations (which should be regarded as speculative) are as follows. Abraham is the first patriarch. He is the one called out of the profane nations by God; he is the one to whom God makes His promises to the people as a whole; it is with him that God initiates the first Israelite covanant. Thus, Abraham represents the Israelites as a people called forth by God and formed by Him. Abraham represents Irael as the recipient of God’s politically creative initiative. Isaac is Israel as sacrifice; he represents the people offering themselves up to God, an offering-up manifested both in the worship given to God in the Temple and the obedience given to his laws. Thus, the initiating movement of God which forms the community (represented by Abraham) is followed by a return movement, the response of Israel to God (represented by Isaac). Finally, there is Jacob, whose name is also Israel. By his name, he represents Israel’s self-awareness, its consciousness of itself as a corporate person. From him directly come the twelve tribes.
Many of the above themes will be familiar to readers of Voegelin or of my writings here, but there are also challenges to both of us. In particular, the order of patriarchs is not what a Voegelin or “bonald” reader would be led to expect. In The New Science of Politics, for example, we start with “existential representation” (Jacob, in this case), from which we build to the higher representations, with the soteriological representation (God’s movement toward man–Abraham in this case) not coming until Christianity. Of course, Voegelin’s was a historical study, but it seems natural to imagine that the order would be conceptual as well: a people must first recognize themselves as a people before they recognize themselves as a people called by God or a people devoted to God. In the lingo of this blog, a community’s “horizontal completion” should be conceptually prior to its “vertical completion“. Jacob should come first. The Bible, however, says “First Abraham. Then Isaac. Then Jacob.” This birth order has meaning. If Abraham didn’t come first in the mind of the Israelites, they would never have survived the Exile, when their State (the embodiment of corporate existence) was destroyed. For the Jew, the first political idea was that he was called by God. The second was his affirmation of the covanant offered to him. The third was the realization that it was not an “I” responding to God, but a “we”. In this, Israel’s political consciousness mirrored an individual’s consciousness. We are not primarily aware of ourselves as conscious subjects. Rather, we are first aware of external objects, and then only through reflection on these acts of external awareness do we become aware of ourselves as conscious subjects.
Although it’s said that only “fundamentalists” believe it, it is nevertheless true: the Bible has a great deal to teach us about politics. I suspect I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this one issue yet.