Thursday, April 18, 2013

The spoils of war

And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2 Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

4 So Saul summoned the people and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand men on foot, and ten thousand men of Judah. 5 And Saul came to the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the valley. 6 Then Saul said to the Kenites, “Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt.” So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites. 7 And Saul defeated the Amalekites from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt. 8 And he took Agag the king of the Amalekites alive and devoted to destruction all the people with the edge of the sword. 9 But Saul and the people spared Agag and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fattened calves and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them. All that was despised and worthless they devoted to destruction (1 Sam 15:1-9).

OT holy war is a favorite target of unbelievers. Mind you, the same unbelievers who wax indignant at OT holy war generally support abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

In light of the popular new TV drama Vikings, it’s instructive to compare OT holy war with traditional warfare. Although Vikings isn’t strikingly historical, I think it’s accurate with respect to what motivated their raiding parties.

In that regard, Saul would make a great Viking. The incentive for Viking warfare was booty. They were looters. Murderous looters. Pillage everything of material value. Enslave the able-bodied survivors. Rape the women. Slaughter the “useless” men, women, and children. Burn whatever you leave behind.

By contrast, OT holy disincentivized warfare for personal aggrandizement. Israelites did not wage holy war for plunder. They were denied the conventional spoils of war.

I’ll make one related observation. To my knowledge, social ethics in “primitive” cultures is mainly a tribal code of honor. Unwavering allegiance to your kith and kin.

For instance, in primitive cultures, I don’t think rape and adultery were considered intrinsically evil. That’s an outrage rather than a sin.

Although it may sound counterintuitive, I suspect that in most traditional cultures, rape doesn’t dishonor the woman so much as it dishonors the male members of her family. Indeed, sometimes rape is committed with that in mind. In traditional cultures, the male members of the family are the protectors of the female members. So raping a woman is an affront to her father, uncles, brothers, cousins–or the entire clan. A slap in the face. Look what we did to your women! It’s an expression of dominance, not over the woman so much as the men in her family or clan who were impotent to defend their honor (not her honor) by defending their women.

It’s not the woman who brought shame on the family; rather, the rapist is using the woman to shame her father, brothers, &c. They were powerless to protect her.

I think that sort of thing underlies many classic blood feuds. Before you had a police force, it was up to family members (mainly the men) to protect the women and children. That reinforced the sense of in-group solidarity and camaraderie. “You come after my come after me!”

Likewise, I suspect that adultery is similar. It dishonors her husband. Brings shame on her husband. Consider the old literary/dramatic convention of the cuckled husband. He can’t protect his honor.

In a similar vein, adultery was treated more harshly than fornication because adultery blurs the lines of inheritance. That’s especially problematic in tribal cultures where the major land holdings belong to the clan, not the individual.

The Iliad is a good example. Agamemnon is the commander, not because he’s the best warrior (Ajax, Achilles, and Diomedes are all better fighters), but because he’s the tribal chieftain. Paris dishonored the Achaeans by stealing the wife of Menelaus, who is–not coincidentally–the brother of Agamemnon.

Conversely, Paris has endangered Troy. Yet Priam defends his son rather than extradites his son out of family loyalty.

We can see a similar dynamic in Judges 20. In the history of Israel, there’s a constant tension between the Mosaic covenant and the tendency of Israelites to revert to their pagan social mores.  Likewise, Islam is a throwback to tribal morality. Dishonor instead of sin.

Although the socioeconomic system of Israel was tribal, the Mosaic law cuts against the grain of tribal morality. In the Mosaic law, some things are wrong, not because they are shameful or dishonorable in the sociological sense, but because they are sinful or intrinsically evil. From what I can tell, that’s a novel concept in human history.


  1. And Achilles dishonored the Greeks by sitting most of the war out, until he dragged Hector around the city. So it seems he had the greater dishonor by throwing the whole system of self-aggrandizement away just because Agamemnon had to have his girl.

    1. Yes, because Agamemnon dishonored Achilles by pulling rank and purloining his mistress, Achilles goes into a big pout and retaliates by sitting out the battle. Classic honor/shame ethics.