Monday, February 23, 2009

Mythic and Ritual Genocides in the Bible, or, Why We Should be Afraid to Read Atrocities as Stories and Why We Need To.

A talk for students of the Trinity College Religion Department on what many have seen as the most morally difficult part of the Hebrew Bible: divinely commanded genocides, and trying to figure out how we can respond to them in a way that is moral but not anachronistic.

Those who wish to remind themselves of the worst parts of the Old Testament are invited to glance at Joshua 6-8 and I Samuel 15, which look rather fictional, and compare it to the actual 9th-century BCE inscription of Mesha, king of Moab (also mentioned and fought against in the Bible), who uses precisely the Biblical vocabulary of ritual genocide to claim:

“And I killed all the people of the city as a sacrifice for Kemosh and for Moab. And I brought back the fire-hearth of his uncle from there; and I brought it before the face of Kemosh in Qerioit, and I made the men of Sharon live there, as well as the men of Maharit. And Kemosh said to me, "Go, take Nebo from Israel." And I went in the night and fought against it from the daybreak until midday, and I took it and I killed the whole population: seven thousand male subjects and aliens, and female subjects, aliens, and servant girls. For I had put it to the ban for Ashtar Kemosh.”

It will draw on the pioneering work of Lauren Monroe, "Israelite, Moabite and Sabaean War-herem Traditions and the Forging of National Identity: Reconsidering the Sabaean Text RES 3945 in Light of Biblical and Moabite Evidence," Vetus Testamentum (2007) 318-341.

As well as Bruce Lincoln's wonderfully challenging little essay, "Myth and History in the Study of Myth: An Obscure Text of Georges Dum├ęzil, Its Context and Subtext" in his Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology & Practice (Chicago, 1991)

And perhaps Michael Taussig's wild, intelligent, loosely-argued but usefully provocative "The Language of Flowers".


Tim said...

Thanks for an interesting teaser post! Will you be telling us more?

Jerry A. said...

Hi Tim,

Sure will! This material is kind of the dark side of my first book, The Invention of Hebrew.