According to Dr. Rabbi Joshua Berman one need look no further than the Five Books of Moses to see the origins of many of our modern notions of equality. He describes these ideas, ones that are wholly unlike what existed in the ancient world, as revolutionary - and they are.
Here are several examples that you can read about at length in his book Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought:
Universal Private Ownership of Land
In ancient times land was held by the king or the priest. The idea that an average citizen would also be a land owner would have struck most people as extremely odd. As Rabbi Berman notes "land was owned by the king and by the temples, while the common folk worked as serfs or as slaves. But in the Torah, God – who officially owns the land – gives it over to the Israelites. Every common Israelite is a land owner (Leviticus 25), which means that every Israelite has a source of income – history's first example of universal private ownership of land by the citizens."
The forgiving of debts in the ancient world was a political tool used by kings to triangulate against the rich - at once weakening them and increasing the king's popularity with the masses - which had the added benefit of keeping him safer. Rabbi Berman notes that "debt cancellation of this sort is actually the original Greek meaning of our modern day English words amnesty and philanthropy. The Greek historian Plutarch writes that when the Spartan ruler Agis sought to impose debt relief, the measure was considered by his detractors as nothing more than a Robin-Hood scheme: "By offering to the poor the property of the rich, and by distribution of land and remission of debts, he [bought] a large bodyguard for himself, not many citizens for Sparta." Contrasting that with the Torah's system he says "in the Torah, debt-cancellation is enacted automatically every seven years. No longer the political tool of a new monarch, debt relief in the Bible becomes the legislated right of the common citizen (Deuteronomy 15)."
History's First Redistributive Tax for a Social Purpose
In the ancient world taxes were levied for the purpose of supporting the political and priestly classes. The poor were, by and large, left to struggle on their own. There was no concept of government assistance and certainly no attempt by the government to coerce the rich into supporting the poor. In sharp contradistinction the Torah required an agricultural tithing system that mandated that successful farmers gift a portion of their crops to the needy (Deuteronomy 14).
Rabbi Berman notes that "only with the American Founding Fathers do we eventually find a new notion of political office, in which a political office exists without reference to class, and which any citizen is eligible to hold." Again, long ago, it was considered right and proper that the prosperous and "high born" were fit to rule. The idea that a commoner could make decisions and rule over the wealthy would have been seen as an absurdity. Nonetheless, "this revolutionary notion of political office has only one precursor: the Torah. Any citizen can be chosen to be a judge (Deuteronomy 16). In fact, the Torah doesn't speak about the process of choosing judges, other than that the people (the collective "you") must choose them from among themselves. That is even more significant when one considers that the monarch was beneath the law. The "elders" and "judges" we meet throughout the Bible—and later in the Mishnah—formed a veritable parliament for the people, of the people. In practice, many came from common homes and supported themselves with menial labor and crafts."
Amazingly, the Jewish people had no king or centralized government for longer than the United States has existed. The Torah actually grants the authority to the people to decide if they want an king or not (and ends up criticizing them for choosing to have one). Furthermore, the king need not be bred of noble stock and like David, can come from rather simple backgrounds. Again, Rabbi Berman shows that "the Torah specifies that the people will have a king over them, only if they initiate the idea (Deuteronomy 17:14; cf. 1 Samuel 8). Until David was chosen as king, any citizen could have been chosen (Deuteronomy 17). Even afterwards, the hereditary rights were predicated upon the king finding favor in the eyes of God and the eyes of the people. This is the halachah (law) today as well: the future Davidic king will be deemed legitimate only if he is able to rally the people around him (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 11:4-5)."
There is debate as to exactly who first became literate in the ancient world...and when, but all agree it was in the vicinity of Israel/Canaan sometime around when we became a nation and began following the Torah. Either way, the usage of an alphabet, as opposed to hieroglyphs or impressions on clay tablets, universalized writing and took it out of the hands of professional scribes. Rabbi Berman writes that the Torah "is the first text in the ancient world to suggest that it be copied and disseminated to the masses (Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy 31). The Torah was unafraid of the Israelites achieving literacy, because it sought to create an ennobled and empowered citizenry."
The Value of Women
Ancient literature takes a fairly negative and short-sighted view of women. One well-known quote from the Greek poet Palladas suggests that "Marriage brings a man only two happy days. The day he takes his bride to bed and the day he lays her in her grave." (Morton M. Hunt, The Natural History of Love, Alfred Knopf, 1959). Very much unlike this pervasive attitude the Torah clearly cares for and values women. Rabbi Berman concludes that "perhaps nowhere did the Torah revolutionize the standing of the common person, as it did with regard to the standing of women. In the narrative literature of the ancient Near East, we find that women fill only two roles: they either satisfy mens' desires, or they tempt them. It is in the Torah that we first encounter women like Sarah, Rebecca, Miriam and Yocheved who are noted for their industriousness, insight, courage, and spiritual acuity. For the first time in the history of western literature women are people too."
The Torah is not just another ancient document. In many ways it was a radical departure from all known social and political thought of its day. Its effects continue to reverberate in our culture today and much of what we think of as right and good comes directly (or indirectly) from the revolutionary ideas that it introduced to the world.