Academic journal article Shofar

"Remember Amalek!" Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus

Academic journal article Shofar

"Remember Amalek!" Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus

Article excerpt

"Remember Amalek!" Vengeance, Zealotry, and Group Destruction in the Bible According to Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus, by Louis H. Feldman. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2004. 272 pp. $34.95.

Professor Louis Feldman opens his excellent work with critical questions in the ethics of war: How could a merciful God desire to exterminate all Amalekites as commanded in 1 Sam 15:3? How did some of the early thinkers in Jewish intellectual history make sense of such a command: the hellenistic philosopher Philo who died c. 50 CE; so-called Pseudo-Philo, the first or early second century author of the Biblical Antiquities; and Josephus, the pre-eminent Jewish historian of the first century? Feldman's study of treatments of the Amalekite enemy expands into a wider examination of the ways in which these classical Jewish authors dealt with a variety of biblical cases in which God commands the total annihilation of groups of people, without attention to their status as non-combatants, their age, or their gender. Included in this set of texts are the stories of Noah's flood and Sodom and Gomorrah, the plague of the Egyptian first-born, the vengeance of Phineas, and the whole phenomenon of herem. Often translated "the ban," this term, rooted in the verb meaning "devote to destruction," refers to the wholesale destruction of men, women, and children in an ancient Near Eastern war ideology that emerges, in particular, in biblical conquest traditions preserved in Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua. Feldman is interested in the extent to which Philo, Pseudo-Philo, and Josephus "raise issues of divine morality." He asks also how war was perceived to be justified.

Feldman's work includes a beautifully careful and systematic review of each ancient author's response to relevant biblical scenes or sets of texts; a useful summation concludes each section. Feldman nicely contextualizes the ways in which the three understand biblical events pertaining to war in terms of their own historical-cultural settings, experience, and worldview. He examines what their views of biblical tales of mass killing might tell us about them and their first-century intellectual orientations. He concludes, for example, that Philo's understanding of warring relations with Amalek teach "the superiority of the ethereal to the material," "one of Philo's favorite themes." The incident involving Amalek allows Philo to present the heroism of an aged Moses, a "great leader." As one might expect, Philo allegorizes, equating Amalek "with passion or evil" (pp. 21-22). Pseudo-Philo treats Amalek as an "embodiment of wickedness (p. 23)." He has no qualms about "the divine command of genocide." The evil must be rooted out. Josephus has the greatest number of references to Amalek, and provides a military man's lengthier version of the enemy's attack than the terse biblical account. He has considerable interest in Saul's and David's encounters with Amalekites.

Feldman also provides a useful collection of relevant Rabbinic midrashim concerning Amalek. Their "creative historiography" concerning Amalek, to use a phrase of Yitzhak Heinemann, indicates that the Rabbis are troubled by the demand that all Amalekites be destroyed, suggesting that even Amalekites might convert to avoid being placed under "the ban." Such Rabbinic views concerning Amalek tally with other midrashic treatments of passages such as Deuteronomy 20 directly related to the ban (see, for example, Sifre on Deuteronomy 202 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 5:14). …

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