How the Bible calls for Freedom

Freedom Blog

Are you familiar with the Biblical verses that served as the inspiration for The Declaration of Independence?

Did you know that the giving of the Torah to the Hebrews in Egypt. was the first link in a long chain of events designed to eliminate hierarchical societies over millennia?

Can you see the Hebrew Bible as a protest against absolute political power?

In his essay on Parsha Bereishit, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes these points. They are more relevant than ever, in these times of government officials the world over attempting to impose tyranny.


“So God created mankind in His own image,

in the image of God He created them;

male and female He created them. (Gen. 1:26-27)”

“The idea set forth here is perhaps the most transformative in the entire history of moral and political thought. It is the basis of the civilisation of the West with its unique emphasis on the individual and on equality. It lies behind Thomas Jefferson’s words in the American Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal [and] are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights …” These truths are anything but self-evident. They would have been regarded as absurd by Plato who held that society should be based on the myth that humans are divided into people of gold, silver and bronze and it is this that determines their status in society. Aristotle believed that some are born to rule and others to be ruled.”

“Revolutionary utterances do not work their magic overnight. As Rambam explained in The Guide for the Perplexed, it takes people a long time to change. The Torah functions in the medium of time. It did not abolish slavery, but it set in motion a series of developments – most notably Shabbat, when all hierarchies of power were suspended and slaves had a day a week of freedom – that were bound to lead to its abolition in the course of time.”

This same principle, that Genesis 1 is a polemic, part of an argument with a background, is essential to understanding the idea that God created humanity “in His image, after His likeness.” This language would not have been unfamiliar to the first readers of the Torah. It was one they knew well. It was commonplace in the first civilisations, Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, where certain people were said to be in the image of God. They were the Kings of the Mesopotamian city-states and the Pharaohs of Egypt. Nothing could have been more radical than to say that not just kings and rulers appear in God’s image. We all do. Even today the idea is daring: how much more so in an age of absolute rulers with absolute power.

Understood thus, Genesis 1:26-27 is not so much a metaphysical statement about the nature of the human person as it is a political protest against the very basis of hierarchical, class- or caste-based societies whether in ancient or modern times. That is what makes it the most incendiary idea in the Torah. In some fundamental sense we are all equal in dignity and ultimate worth, for we are all in God’s image regardless of colour, culture or creed.

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