Tuesday, October 29, 2002

I have a number of problems with this piece from the NYRB: with the author's opinions as well as the book being reviewed, which is about the evolutionary 'success' of the idea of religion. But in the meantime, it will serve to remind us of the charms of The Good Book, which are important to bear in mind now that everybody is worrying about the Koran.
The Bible, especially the Old Testament, is full of exhortations to be cruel to heathens. Deuteronomy 20:10–18, for example, explains the obligation of the Israelites to practice genocide: when your army approaches a distant city, you should enslave all its inhabitants if it surrenders, and kill all its men and enslave its women and children and steal their cattle and everything else if it doesn't surrender. But if it's a city of the Canaanites or Hittites or any of those other abominable believers in false gods, then the true God commands you to kill everything that breathes in the city. The Book of Joshua describes approvingly how Joshua became a hero by carrying out those instructions, slaughtering all the inhabitants of over four hundred cities. The book of rabbinical commentaries known as the Talmud analyzes the potential ambiguities arising from conflicts between those two principles of "Thou shalt not kill [believers in thine own God]" and "Thou must kill [believers in another god]." For instance, according to some Talmudic commentators an Israelite is guilty of murder if he intentionally kills a fellow Israelite; is innocent if he intentionally kills a non-Israelite; and is also innocent if he kills an Israelite while throwing a stone into a group consisting of nine Israelites plus one heathen (because he might have been aiming at the one heathen).

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