Yesterday I looked at Steven Pinker’s discussion of violence in the non-existent fantasy land of “Homeric Greece” (an amalgam of elements of Mycenaean, Dark Age, and Archaic Greece, infused with Indo-European mythological survivals), so today let’s look at this equally odd discussion of violence in the Hebrew Bible, which immediately follows in his first chapter of The Better Angels of Our Nature. I am going to assume that he is joking when he asks us to think that the murder of Abel, at a time when the world population was “exactly four,” should be read as a homicide rate of 25 percent, “a thousand times higher” than today.
While he will later reverse course and admit none of it ever happened, Pinker next describes the Flood of Noah as “genocide,” though he does not acknowledge, even cursorily, that this story is not unique to the Israelites and descends from a widespread Near Eastern flood myth. Further, he claims that God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19) “in a divine napalm attack” for having “anal sex.” Never mind that this is a conservative Christian view and that traditionally Jewish theologians attributed the destruction of Sodom to a breach of hospitality, an important concept in tribal societies, because the Sodomites tried to rape the visiting angels instead of treating them as honored guests. (God, of course, had no trouble with Lot offering up his virgin daughters for rape because that’s good hospitality.)
Yesterday, we saw that Pinker was outraged that the Greeks attributed warfare to the caprice of the gods because that failed to recognize human agency in violence. Now, just pages later, Pinker has no trouble with reading the flood or Sodom as the violent actions of a deity against humanity. So when Zeus causes a war (or, for that matter, the Flood of Deucalion—see Apollodorus 1.7.2), that’s just a silly example of pagans unwilling to take responsibility; but when Yahweh kills a bunch of people, that’s evidence a serious contemplation of genocide and the nature of violence by an ancient people obsessed with violence. Some ancient peoples are just better than others.
But I think you see the larger problem: These stories no more reflect a bloodlust and desire for interpersonal violence than Hollywood movies and crime scene TV shows “reveal” widespread explosions, homicides, and mayhem in America’s cities—which, you will recall, Pinker wants to make the case are generally more peaceful than any in history. Take this, for example: The USA TV series Psych routinely depicts more than a dozen murders in Santa Barbara, California in each of its seven seasons (totaling somewhere around 100 murders since its 2006 debut). In real life, Santa Barbara had only 12 murders between 2007 and 2010, with three years having zero murders. So, does that mean that, on the evidence of Psych, Santa Barbara has a furtive, evolutionary-derived desire for frantic vengeance? Or is it the case that what is presented as violence in a work of art has other narrative purposes?
Pinker then catalogues other elements of biblical violence, including the rape of Dinah, Pharaoh’s culling of the children of Israelite slaves, etc. He pauses to critique the Ten Commandments for allowing “slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide” of non-Jewish groups, though he curiously omits the commandment forbidding murder, which one would think is important in a book on the history of violence. He describes God’s punishment for various offenses (death), and he expresses shock that God needed a “steady stream of animals” sacrificed to his glory. Animal sacrifice is one of the darker elements of ancient life, but Pinker fails to note that the ancient world did not in general have butchers; the priests slaughtered the animals and distributed the meat to feed the people. What seems to us to be cruelty was for them essentially an apology to the animals, recognizing that their lives were forfeit that humans might live, and asking God or the gods to make holy that sacrifice and restore the animals in the afterlife. The Greeks, for example, imagined that a sacrificed animal was made whole on another plane, and they made a great show out of asking the animal to give consent to be slaughtered. Today, we essentially feed animals whole into large grinders at slaughterhouses, out of sight and out of mind, and therefore, to Pinker, less cruel because he doesn’t have to see it.
I’m not defending the violence of the Bible, and Pinker means his trip through Biblical atrocities—which continues for several more pages, listing the various times the Israelites massacred the people of some city or another with Yahweh’s blessing—to show us the radically different morals and mores of Bronze Age and Antique peoples. But Pinker’s own language belies the contrast he intends to draw between yesterday and today. In describing Samson’s destruction of the two pillars of the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:23-30), killing “three thousand,” Pinker claims it is “a 9/11-like suicide attack,” which makes the opposite case from the one he is pressing, not to mention that it fails to understand the mythic themes at play in the Samson story. It’s like asking whether The Walking Dead represents a widespread acceptance of rioting, rampaging, and anarchy—or whether it proves that untold millions died in bouts of inner-city violence. But seriously: How tasteless is making the two pillars of Dagon into the Twin Towers, or the three thousand Philistine dead into analogues for the three thousand killed on September 11, 2001?
Pinker also expresses shock at the “brutality” of the world of Solomon, asking who among us today would threaten the life of an infant to adjudicate a maternity dispute (1 Kings 3:16-28). He seems unconvinced that this biblical allegory did not show the casual brutality of the Bronze Age world because, again taking the story as something more than fable, he assumes Solomon would have killed the child to maintain royal “credibility” had the real mother failed to reveal herself. This is literature, written centuries after the fact, and as allegory or myth; it is like asking whether Oedipus Rex represent widespread incest and self-mutilation among Corinthian elites.
But surely civilized men and women such as we would never merely pretend to execute someone for nebulous legal reasons. I’ve got a few waterboarding sessions that say otherwise. By Pinker’s logic, Guantanamo Bay represents every American and all of American society. Consider this:
The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure.
Do tell me which part of this is not more or less like the modern world? Pinker asks us to confuse life within a group, tribe, or state—which is relatively ordered, organized, and secure, barring the obvious problem that, with fewer resources, from ancient times down to the twentieth century capital punishment was more frequent—with conflicts between states, where atrocities frequently occur. Everything listed in his bill of biblical outrages still occurs to today during conflicts between tribes or states, from intertribal conflicts in the Amazon to proxy wars in Africa, to Western interventions in the Middle East.
Pinker then cites Matthew White’s figure that the Bible counts 1.2 million people killed in the wars of the Israelites, with 20 million more in the Flood. Fortunately, Pinker is happy to tell us that this never happened since the Bible is, in his infelicitous phrase, a “wiki”—a compilation of lies and exaggerations. But: “Whether or not the Israelites actually engaged in genocide, they certainly thought it was a good idea.” So do large numbers of people today, from the Balkans to sub-Saharan Africa (where, full disclosure, I recently worked on a U.N. speech for the government of South Sudan to help end genocide there). Even here in America more than a few people have voiced a desire for ethnic cleansing, though usually in the form of shipping away minorities rather than murdering them. The same goes for Europe, where conflicts over the increasing Muslim populations, predominantly from Africa, have led to calls for mass deportations that in another context (i.e., among less powerful countries) would be considered ethnic cleansing.
Pinker asks us to take the opinions of a small slice of modern-day elite Western liberals as representative of a new era of humanity, a civilized race who have evolved beyond those nasty old ancients. But even among that group, the humanitarian impulse extends mostly to in-group protection and protection of those who earn qualification as subject peoples willing to support Western liberals; external groups can be bombed into submission, killed off with drone attacks, cordoned off to starve behind “sanctions,” and otherwise treated just as great powers have treated lesser powers since the barbaric ancient times that give Pinker the vapors. I am not expressing judgment about whether this is good or bad; my point is only that the veneer of civilization is not quite as thick as the elites who never peer behind it might believe.
I think tomorrow I will take a look at his ideas about the Roman Empire and finish up with his summary of all the things we lucky modern people do not have to face, such as fisticuffs!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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