Several years ago my friend and former colleague Paul Marshall wrote a review of Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics for The Review of Faith & International Affairs: Jim Wallis’ Politics — or Lack Thereof. Marshall’s paragraph below is worth rereading:
Obviously, no popular book should be weighed down with ponderous theological reflection, but it should show some sign of having considered such reflection. For example, Wallis writes, “The place to begin to understand God is with the prophets.” There is no wisp of an argument justifying this unusual contention. He never asks why the Bible does not begin with the prophets, but with Genesis. He never mentions that the majority of Christian reflection on politics has begun with Genesis. He never carefully relates what the prophets say to the Torah, hence acknowledging that they challenge their rulers on the basis of God’s law, not on their own feelings of injustice. Maybe most of the church has been wrong for two millennia on how it addresses politics; it has certainly been wrong on other things. But Wallis never says why. He simply asserts a novel doctrine as indubitable fact.
This critique seemed obviously right to me when I read it. Of course the prophets were calling the people of Israel back to obey God’s law. How could anyone doubt it?
Since reading this review, however, I’ve come to wonder whether there might be something else behind Wallis’ “unusual contention” — one related to some of the more contestable assumptions of modern biblical scholarship. Since Julius Wellhausen and others articulated the Documentary Hypothesis on the origin of the Pentateuch more than a hundred years ago, it has generally been thought that the first five books of the Bible were written long after Moses. Indeed there are indications of later authorship embedded in the text itself (e.g., Genesis 36:31–43, Deuteronomy 34:5–10), as Spinoza pointed out already in the 17th century.
The Documentary Hypothesis ascribes the bulk of the Torah’s legal code to the priestly source (or P), who ostensibly wrote around 500 BC during the Babylonian exile. Deuteronomy is similarly thought to have been written around the time of King Josiah, who is assumed to have instructed Hilkiah to “find” this in the temple to justify his reforms (2 Kings 22). These late dates are crucial because they imply that the law, so extolled in Psalm 119, was written well after such prophets as Isaiah and Amos had railed against the wickedness and injustices committed by the peoples of Israel and Judah. If so, then perhaps there was no actual law at that time to which the prophets could refer their hearers. Yet the prophets managed to demand forcefully that the people do justice, especially to the widow, the orphan and the sojourner — something that came to resonate with the people who codified these precepts a century or two later.
It is entirely possible that I am off base here, but I do wonder whether the Documentary Hypothesis might in part account for Wallis’ “novel” approach of beginning his discussion with the prophets. If, on the other hand, one accepts the tradition that the bulk of the material in the Pentateuch is Mosaic in origin, one is more likely to start one’s reflections on “God’s politics” where the Bible itself starts: with Genesis.