War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East: Military Violence in Light of Cosmology and History. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 407. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009.
War and Ethics in the Ancient Near East (or War and Ethics to its friends) is the result of my doctoral research at the University of Oxford, where I studied for both my M.Phil. and my D.Phil. with John Barton, then Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture (a title that never, ever fit on an application form).
In good fledgling doctoral student fashion, I set out with grand ambitions, intending to undertake a comparative study of the ethics of ancient Israel and Judah and those of the rest of the ancient Near East. Having been raised in the United States, where the public discourse surrounding religion and ethics usually presumed that the interaction of ‘biblical’ ethics with the moral considerations of contemporary American culture meant their deterioration or degradation, I was interested in the relationship of these biblical ethics to their own contemporary culture, in the form of the wider ancient Near East. Whilst there is now a small cottage industry in study of the ethics of the Hebrew Bible from an historical perspective, with monographs appearing at the rate of a few a year, at the time this was still quite unusual.
Having decided to focus (somewhat) on violence, with the idea of doing a series of case studies at the familial, local and international levels, I began with the last of these, in the form of ethical ideas about the conduct of warfare. It soon became clear, however, that a dissection of the military ethics of the ancient Near East was not going to happen in the space of a chapter; having sat down one weekend to bash out a few thousand words on the Assyrian royal inscriptions for some application or other, I came up on Monday with 14,000—without having gone anywhere near the rest of the Assyrian sources, not to mention the biblical material. The dissertation, it seemed, was destined for war.
That the dissertation—and ultimately the book—became something other than a mere catalogue of gruesome practices owes its inspiration to a book by Klaus-Peter Adam, Der Königliche Held, which drew attention to the parallel presentation of the human and divine kings in Psalm 18, and an article by Elnathan Weissert, which noted something similar occurring in the accounts of Sennacherib’s battle at Halule, with particular attention to the use of language stemming from Enuma elish. With my antennae up, I realised that this language—the language of the creation accounts—was all over the military accounts of the Assyrian kings, as well as being visible in the biblical material.
This use of specific phrases and imagery drawn from the creation accounts had two significant implications for our understanding of the ethics of ancient Near Eastern warfare. First, the use of the same language to describe both the human king and the divine king had the effect of mirroring their activities, creating an image of the human king as the divine king’s earthly counterpart, who acted on his behalf in the terrestrial realm.
At the same time, the origins of this language in the accounts of creation imbued the human king’s actions with cosmological significance. If the human king was fighting on behalf of the creator god, his enemies were allied with the destructive forces of chaos which threatened that creation (and are indeed described as such). The violence involved in the conduct of warfare was thus justified as necessary for the preservation of creation.
War and Ethics is in use in courses in Europe, North America, the UK and Australia and continues to be available in hardback from de Gruyter. In fact, it’s been so successful that they’ve brought it out as one of the first books in their new paperback editions. Of course, if you prefer to try before you buy, it is also available in preview mode from Google Books.