Monday, May 16, 2011

Abrahamic violence revisited: a new book

The Scriptures of the Abrahamic Triad--the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Qur’an--have enormous intrinsic interest: historical, anthropological, literary, and ritualistic, Yet these are not the only reasons for studying them, for through the centuries they have functioned in various ways as guides for human behavior. For better and (oftentimes) for worse, this activism has continued down to the present.

At my related site,, I have sought to explore the intersection of the the intrinsic and extrinsic dimensions of the Abrahamic Scriptures. One of the most disturbing aspects of the path that leads from texts to behavior resides in the monotheistic tradition of violence.

This issue has been addressed anew in a useful book by Robert Eisen: The Peace and Violence of Judaism: From the Bible to Modern Judaism (Oxford University Press, 2011). Right away, Mr. Eisen deals with one of the thorniest issues in the Hebrew Bible, the genocide of the Canaanites and Amalekites as a function of God's election (“chosenness”) of the ancient Israelites. He follows this brief, but horrifying recitation with a survey of efforts to mitigate or counter the perception of divine authorization for these efforts at elimination of entire peoples. This reflects his principle of “double reading,” whereby he finds evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that points in both directions.

How then can one seek to excuse acts of genocide? One approach is to follow the Minimalists and say that the episodes of the acquisition of land depicted in Joshua and the other books did not actually occur. But if they did not occur, why would any people want to perpetuate such a horrible memory? Another assertion is to contextualize: we must take the reports in the context of a harsh Near Eastern environment in which the ancient Israelites actually lived. Surely, though, a standard of morality requires that some acts are simply beyond the pale, and not to be explained by the excuse that "everybody was doing it." And then there is the response that the ancient Israelites were just exercising tit for tat--a response in reaction to what had been done to them. Yet this is the excuse of many bullies: I was bullied, so now I am going to bully someone else. To be blunt, much of this commentary seems to amount to rationalization, pure and simple.

After the initial discussion of the Hebrew Bible, Mr. Eisen turns to the issue in the early rabbis, the Kabbala, and modern Zionism, both secular and and religious. It is this last phase, one that is occurring right now, that is most troubling with regard to the tendency to regard the Scriptures as a guide for action. The situation in Israel is complex, with many point of view expressed; I can only suggest that readers turn to Mr. Eisen, who seems to know this ground well.

To be sure, the book deals only with the Judaic tradition, but informed readers can easily apply the insights to the two successor faiths of Christianity and Islam, both of them just as problematic in this regard as the Judaic tradition.

This volume is carefully researched, clearly written, and well organized. In addition to the coverage of the main theme, there are a number of valuable collateral observations by Mr. Eisen. I recommend it wholeheartedly as a counterbalance to my own, more somber account.



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