Six Flavors of Jewish War

by Susan Niditch [Oxford University Press, 1993], $32.00

War, in Hebrew Scriptures, is a complicated affair. The stereotype of it, however, is fairly predictably oversimplified. “Old Testament” war means, stereotypically, the “extirpation ideal” [herem]—that is, the total annihilation of one’s enemy regardless of age, gender or military status. Mercy has no place here. To understand the “sense” of this model requires a heavy-duty non-presentist stretch: liquidating one’s enemies represents a “deal” with God. We’ll give You, God, what you want (we know you’re a blood devourer who appreciates human sacrifice); You give us what we want: military victory.

This “total annihilation of the enemy” model of biblical war became the rationale for sanctioned brutalities for millennia (though the belief in a sacrifice-loving deity no longer in any way supported the ideology). Cotton Mather used King James’ electric, intense cadences to whip New England Puritans into a frenzy of Indian (“Amalek,” in Mather’s word) killing. U.S. preachers, well into the 18th century, conducted campaigns against native Americans which they called “extirpations of the enemies of Israel and Canaan.” In Europe, Christians led what were called “justified” crusades against Saracens and Jews by summoning this biblical “ideal.” One contemporary scholar, James Turner Johnson, goes so far as to characterize, disturbingly, such war ideologies as “fundamentally Hebrew and Jewish.”

Susan Niditch points out, however, in War in the Hebrew Bible, that while this conception of war conforms snugly to other stereotypes of the so-called “Old” Testament (that is, that Jewish morality is underdeveloped and wrongheaded, championing law instead of gospel, justice instead of mercy, judgment instead of love), it is patently incorrect to put forward the extirpation ideal as the only ancient Israelite model for collective aggression.

Niditch, a professor of religion at Amherst College, presents at least five other typologies of war. First (after the extirpation ideal) comes the tradition of nonparticipation (“wait for a miracle; God loves a helpless people”); second, there’s the ideology of tricksterism, which is a guerrilla warfare-type strategy of the weak (re: the Samson story, Dinah and the Shechemites, Jael, Ehud). Third, there’s the model of expediency employed by the powerful (war as brutal “business as usual” in which “all is fair”). Fourth, there’s the “priestly ideology of war,” in which everyone is annihilated but virgin girls, reflecting, interestingly, a post-monarchic emphasis on “clean” and “unclean” (even Israelite .soldiers, according to this model, become unclean through killing—an odd acknowledgment of the enemy’s humanity). This latter ideal of war is different from the Deuteronomic “extirpation ideal” in which the annihilated enemy are “sinners”—here the priests are concerned with purification, not sin.

Lastly, Niditch presents a bardic stylized tradition of war—most probably originating in the royal courts of Judah—which puts forth an “aristocratic, prettified” view of battle, in which warriors’ courage and skill are made glamorous. In this model, “men fight only their equals,” and war becomes a sport in which there’s a kind of boys’ code of fair play.

For contemporary women readers who may experience all kinds of war—no matter what flavor—as bizarre and simply puzzling, this scholarly book more than gratifies other personal, as well as intellectual, interests. Niditch addresses Jewish texts’ genuine grappling with issues of compassion and enmity, and the deep paradoxes implicit in the biblical ethics of violence. These explorations give us a new, rich context for the war-and-peace questions plaguing contemporary Israel, as well as a context for the conflicts within each of u.s— between empathy, fear and loathing.

In Niditch’s sweet and glancingly personal conclusion, she relates the rabbinic story in which God silences the angels at the Red Sea—they are chanting in jubilation after the Israelites have escaped Egypt. Why does God silence them? Because many Egyptians have drowned as a result of the miracle of the parted waters, and no one should rejoice at that.

Niditch then explains the Passover tradition of spilling a drop of wine from one’s cup as each plague is recited (the idea being to diminish one’s cup of joy), and she recalls how “someone in my family always says, ‘Remember how Pa used to cry at the plagues?'”

She continues. “My grandfather would participate in a sort of ritual wailing for the Egyptians, an action counterpart for the midrashic story about God’s staying the angels’ song. There were causes in his own life for sadness, and perhaps in his crying he identified with the Egyptians and found release, reaching out beyond the community of Israel to the community of humankind, bonded by Job-like experiences and the rocky relationships all of us have with powerful forces of authority—familiar, political, and divine.”