Early America as a “Hebrew republic”

At First Things, Peter Leithart summarizes the work of Haifa University’s Eran Shalev in American Zion. Shalev argues for the centrality of the Old Testament in Americans’ interpretation of their world, and that references to the New Testament began to increase in 1820s and 1830s. A couple of tastes:

American history was seen as a repetition of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Oppressed by a series of cruel English Pharaohs, the people of God crossed the waters to discover a land flowing with milk and honey. (That the land was populated by “Canaanites” who might need to be exterminated was a tragic implication of the story.)

During the Revolution, writers and preachers turned to the historical books of the Hebrew Bible to fill out ancient Roman analyses of political corruption. George III was Rehoboam, Solomon’s son whose high taxes divided Israel, or Ahab, who seized the vineyard of innocent Naboth. The charges against King George were sometimes moderated by reference to the book of Esther: The hapless king was manipulated by Haman-like advisors who turned him against the children of the land of the Virgin. Patriots were Mordecais or Maccabees, while loyalists were “sons of Meroz,” a Hebrew town cursed because its inhabitants refused to follow Deborah and Barak into battle. Colonial writers saw links with Roman history: Washington was Cincinnatus. But Washington was also Gideon, the judge who delivered Israel and very deliberately refused an offer of kingship….

The shift to the New Testament was partly due to the fervor of the Second Great Awakening. Debates about slavery are complexly implicated in the process. Abolitionists liked to cite Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth (“proclaim liberty to captives”), and Southerners defended slavery from the Old Testament. But Theodore Weld’s The Bible Against Slavery showed that ancient Israelites knew nothing of chattel slavery, and pro-slavery writers pointed out that Paul sent Onesimus back to his master Philemon. African-American hymns and writings turned the old Puritan narrative upside down. America had become Egypt, white rulers Pharaohs, slaves the oppressed Israelites who would be liberated by bloody plagues sent from heaven.

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