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Deuteronomy 11:26 — Parshah Re'eh
Conquest and the light of civilisation
Last’s week’s parshah — Re’eh, or To See / To Covenant — is a continuation of Deuteronomy’s recounting and rebinding and reminding of the covenant the Jews have with their God, including imparting features that distinguish the Jews from the nations around them, most notably the laws of kashrut.
They are also a lesson in the deep, ancient laws of men: of conquest and the light of civilisation.
29 When the Lord, your God cuts off the nations to which you will come to drive out from before you, and when you drive them out and dwell in their land,
30 Beware, lest you be attracted after them, after they are exterminated from before you; and lest you inquire about their gods, saying, "How did these nations serve their gods? And I will do likewise."
31 You shall not do so to the Lord, your God; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates, they did to their gods, for also their sons and their daughters they would burn in fire to their gods.
I wish I could see Tenochtitlan, but there is nothing to be missed in the deposition of its ruling class by the Spanish conquistadores, whose gods consumed so many men, women and children.
In Will Kingston’s interview of Tom Holland (author of Dominion, which I wrote about), Holland notes that anti-colonialism is a very Christian sentiment — a natural outgrowth of a theology that elevates the victim and the powerless. The rise and fall of bands of men and their claims to territory has for most of history been defined by sheer power: the ability to claim and hold land. This has been the defining trait of man since there was such a beast. The repudiation of the right of conquest has taken countless cultural and theological evolutions (I wrote a bit about the Catholic and Australian evolutions here). This repudiation is relatively new — the global conquests of the Age of Exploration up to probably around the First World War were made in God’s name, and usually that God was Christian (Australia was first coined Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo by Spanish explorers). This ethic is nicely encapsulated by the God of the Jews in the passage above — annihilate your enemies and their gods for they are evil.
Australian colonisation has been on my mind. I plan on releasing a very short history of Australia at some point. Reality rarely fits neat narratives — usually we impose narrative as a sense making tool, and usually in the service of some current power. There is a very Christian anxiety (guilt) in modern Australia. There’s a temptation to paint the brilliant and scrupulous Captain Cook as a villain. No doubt acts of villainy were perpetuated against the natives at various points during settlement (well after Cook). But as to the existential question of mass settlement — it’s unclear exactly what a European power should have done instead with this vast land sparsely populated by a shockingly primitive people. Do what no other people in the history of the world has done, and simply walk away?
Some select extracts from Robert Hughes’ superb and iconic The Fatal Shore, on the indigenous Iora tribe that Captain Cook first encountered:
the unalterable fact of their tribal life was that women had no rights at all and could choose nothing. A girl was usually given away as soon as she was born. She was the absolute property of her kin until marriage, whereupon she became the equally helpless possession of her husband.
As a mark of hospitality, wives were lent to visitors whom the Iora tribesmen wanted to honor. Warriors, before setting out on a revenge raid against some other aboriginal group, would swap their women as an expression of brotherhood.
A night’s exchange of wives usually capped a truce between tribes. On these occasions most kinship laws except the most sacred incest taboos were suspended.
If a woman showed the least reluctance to be used for any of these purposes, if she seemed lazy or gave her lord and master any other cause for dissatisfaction, she would be furiously beaten or even speared.
Aboriginal children were weaned until 3 — 4 as the grub was too tough for them otherwise. Excess children were aborted with poison or beatings or killed when born. If a mother died in child birth her child’s head was crushed with a large rock and burned with her. Disabled and the elderly were done away with.
It was a harsh code; but it had enabled the Aborigines to survive for millennia without either extending their technology or depleting their resources.
None of the above is an indictment of a people. Something like it was probably once the reality of all men. I’m not sure we really understand how the first men anywhere emerged from this state. Australian Aborigines stayed isolated in this super-primitive state — more primitive than their Tahitian or Maori neighbours — due to their isolation on a vast harsh land that offered no animals for domestication and few other prospects for technological advancement.
For the Australian Aborigine — as for the pre-Christian Jews and all other peoples then — inter-tribal warfare was a fact of life and to the victor went the spoils. The evolution from this world where the male fist is the sun to one of complex social technologies that subordinate men into monogamous marriage from which civilisation springs would be impossible to imagine if we did not live it.
In the history of the world, it is only in the last few hundred years that we have somehow collectively tapped into civilisational lift-off. A gift we enjoy every day and a frontier we continue to press with every technological advance. We bear a light — technology — that already reaches beyond the comprehensible, and possibly verges on the immortal. The society we have built in Australia and Australia’s modest contribution to that ongoing lift-off is not glibly dismissed. We can be repulsed by immoral acts done in the past by the settlers of this nation. Yet it is laughable to the point of obscenity to recoil at the magnificent world we have built on this land, especially in light of the civilisational darkness that preceded it. Hopefully, we are still in the early innings, and of course our indigenous Australian co-patriots are along for the ride.
1 You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall neither cut yourselves nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.
2 For you are a holy people to the Lord, your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be a treasured people for Him, out of all the nations that are upon the earth.
Rashi notes that the Amorites among whom the Jews lived had such a practice of cutting themselves — hence the prohibition.1 This practice was not unique to the Amorites. Here is how the Comanche reacted to the death of one of their chiefs and other warriors, from Empire of the Summer Moon:
the Comanches reacted with a mixture of horror, despair, and cold fury. More or less in that order. The women screamed and wailed in mourning. They slashed their arms, and faces, and breasts, and lopped off fingers. Some even injured themselves fatally.
Speaking of the horsemen of the American Great Plains, the Jews’ historic scar tissue with respect to horse-peoples is written into their scripture. Psalm 147:10 reads:
He does not prize the strength of horses,
nor value the fleetness of men
Psalm 33:17 says:
A horse is a false hope for victory
The God of the Jews is unimpressed with the horsemen. The horse has haunted Eurasia since the first nomadic warriors swept out of the steppe and across Europe, and the many times since, from the Scythians to the Huns to the Mongols. The Pharaoh of the Hebrew Bible who enslaved the Jews chased after them ahead of an army of chariots. Deuteronomy (17:16) forbids the accumulation of horses, and even amidst Joshua’s battles, he crippled their horses, and burnt their chariots with fire (Joshua 11:9).
This week’s parshah (Shoftim) starts with:
1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and you see horse and chariot, a people more numerous than you, you shall not be afraid of them, for the Lord, your God is with you Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.
Who brought you up out of the land of Egypt — repeated throughout Deuteronomy, it is one of the defining covenants that bind the Jews to their God.
All men are bound by covenants, whether they know them or not. What are yours?
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The rest of the chapter deals principally with the laws of kashrut. One day I hope to write about these — surprisingly perhaps, they are endlessly fascinating. Like the prohibition against cutting oneself in mourning, it also serves a purpose to set apart the Jews, a useful feature in sustained nation building.