Monday, August 4, 2014

Netanyahu's Bible Story: Genocide by the Book

I was at the corner market last Sunday, picking up some food and sundries for the week, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began speaking on the television above the checkout line. I didn’t see who it was right away, but I was immediately struck by the tone of his delivery. He sounded genuinely concerned but reassuring; disappointed but optimistic; reluctant but resigned. He could have been talking about having to take away his child’s cell phone privileges after a lousy grade on a trigonometry test. What he was actually talking about was a ruthless and bloody military assault on a confined, impoverished and largely helpless people.

Curiously, the group on the receiving end of this profligate carnage was made up of the natives who used to call that region home before a few charitable foreign powers decided to drop a whole new country down on top of them as if the place were uninhabited. To be fair, a native might be forgiven for thinking this peremptory exercise in nation-dumping somewhat rude; but keep in mind, some of the new residents’ ancestors had actually lived in this region only a couple of millennia ago, so this was really more like returning home from a protracted vacation only to find that the parties taking care of the place in your absence were less than enthusiastic about leaving now that you’re back. WTF, right? But not long before you returned, many in your number had just survived being evicted from where they were living at the time—and then imprisoned, enslaved, tortured and very nearly annihilated—so it wasn’t like you didn’t know the feeling. Maybe if you just gave them a few additional lessons in what you'd recently gone through, they’d be more understanding (nice to see you got right on that). But either way, once you explain to the previous residents that you’re a people chosen by your god, aren’t they kind of obliged to grab their hats and start making for the door?

Let's be clear: an awful lot of Israelis and even more Jews around the world have disagreed with the way Israel has treated its native Palestinians in the strongest possible terms, among them many of the planet’s most influential thinkers. Unfortunately, even the most distinguished of these voices are pretty thoroughly swallowed up in a cacophony of righteous nationalism and zeal before they can get a fair hearing. Leading the primal chorus is the great Benjamin Netanyahu, man of his people and scourge of the heathen. He is a canny political operator and a shrewd media manipulator with a crack team of messaging specialists. He can conjure the narrative of a beleaguered father figure for his international audience from one side of his mouth, while whistling up the dogs of genocidal war among his compatriots listening at home from the other.

A number of times over the past five years the name “Amalek” has come up in both the official and unofficial communication of Netanyahu and his inner circle when speaking of countries deemed enemies of Israel. If you aren't Jewish or haven’t read the Old Testament, the name 'Amalek' might not resonate at all in your symbolic infrastructure. But once you know the back story, you realize that it's actually pretty absurd to invoke Amalek when speaking of, say, Iran or Palestine in the nation of Israel. The Amalekites were early Israel's arch-enemies. Israel's interaction with this group constitutes some of the most ignoble chapters in their bloody history / mythology in the region1. It also provides a splendid example of the Hebrew sky god YHVH's2 renowned predilection for scorched-earth genocide. 
Curiously, on the Genesis account, the eponymous Amalek wasn't an Arab or Persian ancestor; he was actually Hebrew. [OT geek alert] In fact, he was Esau's grandson, through his first-born son Eliphaz - Jacob's own great nephew! This is, of course, the same Jacob who was dubbed 'Israel' (yea, the eponymous) after a rather, eh, puzzling all-night wrestling match with a frisky angel back at the end of Genesis 32. So Isaac and Rebekah are the common ancestors. This is a family feud.

In Exodus 17, the Amalekites attack the Israeli tribes from behind at a spot called Rephidim in the Sinai desert. Sources don’t offer a reason for the attack, but if you saw a massive group of armed strangers marching across your patch of wilderness, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the worst and act accordingly. In any event, in our story Moses tells Joshua to choose a few good men and go crack open a can of Twelve-Tribal whoop-ass on these rapscallions. It was Israel's first major battle. According to the story, Moses goes to the top of a nearby hill to watch the fun, holding aloft his rod toward his sky god. In a remarkable twist, so long as he holds his rod erect, the home team scores; but whenever he begins to droop, the Amalekites prevail. So he has two young men bring him a rock to sit on, then instructs them to stand on either side of him to keep the thing up until Joshua's team brings the day to a satisfying climax. Hey, what are friends for?

The Lord then tells Moses he's going to "blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (oh, thanks a lot, Bibi—you weren't supposed to remember...). Two verses later, however, we are informed that "the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation," so one is inclined to suppose that the threat of obliteration from memory just two verses earlier was more of a divine crotch grab than an actual statement of heavenly intent. And, of course, Bibi's off the hook in the eyes of the Lord for summoning a bothersome memory of an unkept promise. This should occasion no small relief—you know how He gets. If not, read on.

The unpleasantness resumes a few hundred years later, in especially pungent form, in the book of 1 Samuel, wherein Israel's sky god—still sore about that business in the Sinai—instructs their first king, Saul, to pop on over to Amalek and "destroy them utterly3." In fact, this is a point on which he's fairly specific:
[G]o 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.
Now you or I might think, (D)ude, that seems a little severe... But no, YHVH (some consider the tetragramaton to be an unusual misspelling of 'S-A-M-U-E-L' in this case) still has an axe to grind with this crew and he appreciates attention to detail. Alas, the original King of Israel decides to be a bit creative in his interpretation of YHVH's commandment:
But Saul and the people spared Agag [according to tradition, Agag was the hereditary name of all the Amalekite kings], and the best of the sheep, and of the oxen, and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them: but every thing that was vile and refuse, that they destroyed utterly.
As with any unlicensed good deed in such a superstitious climate, Saul's rather dubious clemency (if "all-but" counts as mercy) goes neither unnoticed nor unpunished. His reluctance to comply with YHVH's edict to the very letter turns out to be costly indeed. When Saul returns from his shoddily prosecuted genocide, the high priest Samuel confronts his star-crossed king. Of course Saul tries to play it off at first:
Blessed be thou of the Lord: I have performed the commandment of the Lord!
Oh yeah? says Sam,
What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear? [I kid you not, that's what it saith—rather amusing, one might suppose, in any other context]
Oh, that... goes Saul.
They have brought them from the Amalekites: for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the Lord thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed.
After a bit of back-and-forth in which Saul tries to pass the buck, he is more or less asked "what part of 'genocide' have you failed to understand?"
And Samuel said, Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, he hath also rejected thee from being king.

And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the Lord, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice.

Now therefore, I pray thee, pardon my sin, and turn again with me, that I may worship the Lord.

And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.

 But you know, as the adage goes, when you want something done right...

Then said Samuel, Bring ye hither to me Agag the king of the Amalekites. And Agag came unto him delicately. And Agag said, "Surely the bitterness of death is past."
And Samuel said, As the sword hath made women childless, so shall thy mother be childless among women. And Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
Atta boy! One imagines Samuel resting easy on that night, the requisite human sacrifice—culminating in regicide-by-dicing as the coup de grĂ¢ce—properly discharged, secure in the knowledge of a job well executed.

So, where were we... Oh yes: this self-righteous memory of the total extermination of an entire people, down to the last helpless animal under their care—men, women? children? Infants? oxen? sheep? camels and donkeys?—is the image Bibi's crew is inviting modern, semiotically-aroused Israel to entertain vis-a-vis its current relationship with people by whom it feels threatened. You’re either for us or you’re burnt toast. It pointedly suggests not only a war of extermination, but a war in which mercy is a sin that can cost you your job.
While some might protest that the historicity of the Biblical account is highly suspect (to put the matter charitably), that objection perfectly misses the point. An awful lot of scared, angry and pious people actually believe it’s literally true. And here’s the terrifying part: they believe it approvingly. The fate of the Amalekites in this account is their perfectly just and unexceptionable penalty for messing with the Chosen People—so much so that, should even a leader of Israel fail to carry out the prescribed annihilation with sufficient assiduity, he might find himself inscribed indelibly on the Lord’s shit-list. Natanyahu's invocation of this episode from the shared history of his people is nothing short of criminally insane. If there were any justice in our world, this man would be socked away in a safe, antiseptic, cozily padded room for the balance of his days.

See chapter 17 of Exodus; chapter 15 of 1st Samuel, through verse 33, as well as numerous passages in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges and 1st Chronicles

2 Lordy, it's the divine tetragrammaton! Just don't say it out loud in the Auld Holey Lande. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but this word got you snuffed. For heaven's sake, of course.

3 To enact cherem, or "total destruction." Like, in the kill-iest way imaginable. As in "Cherem if they got 'em." Crazy as a fly in a fucking drum. The next time you hear somebody say “we’re gonna get Biblical on their asses,” you now have the picture.

An important distinction: in modern times, cherem 'merely' means complete exclusion from the Jewish community - the highest current ecclesiastical censure available. However, in early Israel—back in the tribes—the term denoted the practice of "consecration by total annihilation" at YHVH's command. Israel visited this special form of worship on a number of ungrateful indigenous peoples, e.g. those of Midian, Amalek, and Jericho. Our dubious accounts do not recall whether or not the annihilatees felt any particular spiritual elevation during their participation in this sport as they were consigned to oblivion. To be fair, it appears not to have been their game.