This is part of the ongoing Forest Hills Israel Holy Wars series. The rest of the content can be found here: .

As of now, we have read a lot of Torah together, focusing in on some of the passages which speak of herem. We also saw some other contemporaneous works by the Israelites' neighbors, which also spoke of herem (the Moabite Mesha Stele unit).

Today, I want to explore some of Castellano's claims in his Ethical Evaluation. While much of what he says is worth looking at, we will only see a few brief excerpts.

(His paper in full can be found here: .)

In his introduction, he states the following:

A noxious epistemological error among historians is to suppose that there is a single, static human nature characterizing all the behavioral psychology of humanity throughout history. In this view, we appeal to our own intuitions and assume that the ancients, being fellow humans, must have perceived the same. In fact, much of what seems obvious or self-evident to us was not so to people of other cultures. This does not necessarily mean that they were inferior in wisdom, for they had their own set of self-evident truths which are not at all obvious to us.

Have we seen anything so far which could speak to this point above? That there is something self-evident to them that is completely foreign to us? What comes to mind?

Castellano then goes on to speak of the same contradictions of the concept of YHWH with which we began on the very first day. (Remember we saw all those sources celebrating the extent of YHWH's love, kindness and mercy?

The ancient Hebrew notion of cherem (or herem), whereby conquered peoples are reserved for utter destruction, was a self-evident reality to the Israelites, yet resists easy categorization in terms of modern concepts. We might characterize it as heartless fanaticism or holy war, yet the same Biblical books also commend mercy to enemies in other circumstances, and they never characterize bloodshed in war as holy. In fact, King David is considered unfit to build God’s temple because he is a man of war. We may resolve this incongruity by lazily accusing the Israelites of inconsistency or hypocrisy, or we can embark on the difficult task of trying to understand their ethical landscape, which made distinctions based on circumstances we might find irrelevant. It is in this latter course of action that we might hope to learn something new, by stepping outside ourselves.

He's not wrong about characterizing King David as a man of war. In fact, we saw much of that ourselves, as we looked at some of the bloody history between our ancestors under King David and the Moabites.

Here is the passage to which Castellano refers, in which we learn from David why he was not considered the right man for the Temple-job:

(א) וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל דָּוִ֣יד אֶת־כָּל־שָׂרֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֡ל שָׂרֵ֣י הַשְּׁבָטִ֣ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י הַמַּחְלְק֣וֹת הַמְשָׁרְתִ֪ים אֶת־הַמֶּ֟לֶךְ וְשָׂרֵ֣י הָאֲלָפִ֣ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י הַמֵּא֡וֹת וְשָׂרֵ֣י כָל־רְכוּשׁ־וּמִקְנֶה֩ ׀ לַמֶּ֨לֶךְ וּלְבָנָ֜יו עִם־הַסָּרִיסִ֧ים וְהַגִּבּוֹרִ֛ים וּֽלְכָל־גִּבּ֥וֹר חָ֖יִל אֶל־יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ (ב) וַיָּ֨קָם דָּוִ֤יד הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ עַל־רַגְלָ֔יו וַיֹּ֕אמֶר שְׁמָע֖וּנִי אַחַ֣י וְעַמִּ֑י אֲנִ֣י עִם־לְבָבִ֡י לִבְנוֹת֩ בֵּ֨ית מְנוּחָ֜ה לַאֲר֣וֹן בְּרִית־יְהוָ֗ה וְלַהֲדֹם֙ רַגְלֵ֣י אֱלֹהֵ֔ינוּ וַהֲכִינ֖וֹתִי לִבְנֽוֹת׃ (ג) וְהָאֱלֹהִים֙ אָ֣מַר לִ֔י לֹא־תִבְנֶ֥ה בַ֖יִת לִשְׁמִ֑י כִּ֣י אִ֧ישׁ מִלְחָמ֛וֹת אַ֖תָּה וְדָמִ֥ים שָׁפָֽכְתָּ׃

(1) David assembled all the officers of Israel—the tribal officers, the divisional officers who served the king, the captains of thousands and the captains of hundreds, and the stewards of all the property and cattle of the king and his sons, with the eunuchs and the warriors, all the men of substance—to Jerusalem.

(2) King David rose to his feet and said,

“Hear me, my brothers, my people! I wanted to build a resting-place for the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH, for the footstool of our elohim, and I laid aside material for building!

(3) But the elohim said to me,

‘You will not build a house for my name, for you are a man of battles and have shed blood!’

In my opinion, the importance of this text cannot be overstated. Don't forget the lovely way that we saw YHWH described by our dear friend Richard Dawkins once upon a time.

Here's a reminder:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: ... a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal,... bully (!)

---The God Delusion, page 31

Well, we have certainly seen some passages which seem to justify Professor Dawkins' description by now.

But then we get to this passage in Chronicles!!! This is such an incredible line, for it's David we're talking about! Someone who would go down as one of the greatest heroes of all of ancient Israel and Judah, who was described by those around with such descriptions as the following:

הִנֵּ֨ה רָאִ֜יתִי בֵּ֣ן לְיִשַׁי֮ בֵּ֣ית הַלַּחְמִי֒ יֹדֵ֣עַ נַ֠גֵּן וְגִבּ֨וֹר חַ֜יִל וְאִ֧ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֛ה וּנְב֥וֹן דָּבָ֖ר וְאִ֣ישׁ תֹּ֑אַר וַיהוָ֖ה עִמּֽוֹ׃

“I have observed a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilled in music; he is a stalwart fellow and a warrior, sensible in speech, and handsome in appearance, and YHWH is with him!

David is the standard against whom all Judean and Israelite kings after him would be judged.

Here is just one example of how he would be remembered:

(א) וּבִשְׁנַת֙ שְׁמֹנֶ֣ה עֶשְׂרֵ֔ה לַמֶּ֖לֶךְ יָרָבְעָ֣ם בֶּן־נְבָ֑ט מָלַ֥ךְ אֲבִיָּ֖ם עַל־יְהוּדָֽה׃ (ב) שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים מָלַ֖ךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְשֵׁ֣ם אִמּ֔וֹ מַעֲכָ֖ה בַּת־אֲבִישָׁלֽוֹם׃ (ג) וַיֵּ֕לֶךְ בְּכָל־חַטֹּ֥אות אָבִ֖יו אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֣ה לְפָנָ֑יו וְלֹא־הָיָ֨ה לְבָב֤וֹ שָׁלֵם֙ עִם־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו כִּלְבַ֖ב דָּוִ֥ד אָבִֽיו׃ (ד) כִּ֚י לְמַ֣עַן דָּוִ֔ד נָתַן֩ יְהוָ֨ה אֱלֹהָ֥יו ל֛וֹ נִ֖יר בִּירוּשָׁלִָ֑ם לְהָקִ֤ים אֶת־בְּנוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וּֽלְהַעֲמִ֖יד אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִָֽם׃

(1) In the eighteenth year of King Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijam became king over Judah. (2) He reigned three years in Jerusalem; his mother’s name was Maacah daughter of Abishalom. (3) He continued in all the sins that his father before him had committed; he was not wholehearted with YHWH his elohim, like his father David.

(4) Yet, for the sake of David, YHWH his elohim gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, by raising up his descendant after him and by preserving Jerusalem.

David certainly was far from perfect; But he would be remembered, by many, as pretty close to it in many ways. Through him, Judeans would merit redemption for hundreds of years! If there was ever a king worthy of building YHWH's Palace, one could be forgiven for thinking that it could only be David.

And yet, because he was a man of war with bloody hands, he would not be the one to merit this responsibility.

Any thoughts on this?

My conclusion is that while war was a part of life, it was an unfortunate part of life. It wasn't holy and it wasn't celebrated. And extensive warfare was enough to even disqualify David himself from being the man to build YHWH's permanent home.

I want to now look at one more extensive passages of Castellano's work:

In modern society, it is considered a war crime to willfully kill civilians who are not combatants, when this can be reasonably avoided. It is also considered a crime to impose collective punishment, inflicting harm on an entire community in retaliation for the militant actions of their young men. The killing of women and children is considered especially contemptible, as they are perceived as relatively weak and defenseless. In the case of young children, we may add a perception of moral innocence. Lastly, owing to the experience of the Holocaust, we regard any deliberate attempt to exterminate an ethnic group, regardless of justification, to be the most heinous of all crimes, which we call genocide.

It should be noted that all of these principles are informed by historically determinate circumstances that did not obtain in the ancient world. In the first place, there was no neat distinction between the military and civilians. In times of danger, all able-bodied men were expected to participate in war. There was no distinction between combatant and non-combatant men, which is why we find, not only in the Bible, but in innumerable ancient accounts of war, occurrences of exterminating the men of a defeated enemy. This is not because all ancient people were heartless and evil, but because they correctly perceived that all able-bodied men among their enemies were real threats. In an age when warfare was decided by muscle power rather than machines, allowing men to live would be like allowing a modern defeated enemy to retain its armaments.

below: Strength in numbers!

What do you think of this? Do you buy it? Do any sources from the TaNaKh come to mind which either support, or undermine what Castellano is claiming here?

I think of a few things. Firstly, my mind goes to something we saw in 2 Samuel 8, detailing the aftermath of one of David's encounters with Moab:

(א) וַֽיְהִי֙ אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֔ן וַיַּ֥ךְ דָּוִ֛ד אֶת־פְּלִשְׁתִּ֖ים וַיַּכְנִיעֵ֑ם וַיִּקַּ֥ח דָּוִ֛ד אֶת־מֶ֥תֶג הָאַמָּ֖ה מִיַּ֥ד פְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃ (ב) וַיַּ֣ךְ אֶת־מוֹאָ֗ב וַֽיְמַדְּדֵ֤ם בַּחֶ֙בֶל֙ הַשְׁכֵּ֣ב אוֹתָ֣ם אַ֔רְצָה וַיְמַדֵּ֤ד שְׁנֵֽי־חֲבָלִים֙ לְהָמִ֔ית וּמְלֹ֥א הַחֶ֖בֶל לְהַחֲי֑וֹת וַתְּהִ֤י מוֹאָב֙ לְדָוִ֔ד לַעֲבָדִ֖ים נֹשְׂאֵ֥י מִנְחָֽה׃

(1) Some time afterward, David attacked the Philistines and subdued them; and David took Metheg-ammah from the Philistines.

(2) He also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and he measured them off with a cord; he measured out two lengths of cord for those who were to be put to death, and one length for those to be spared. And the Moabites became tributary vassals of David.

I can now think of two vastly different ways of reading this passages. How about you?

I also find my mind wandering to our eternal arch-enemies, those Amalekites.

Here is what our Torah mandates regarding them:

(יז) זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ (יח) אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחַרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (יט) וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ מִכָּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ (פ)

17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt!— (18) How, undeterred by fear of elohim, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.

(19) Therefore, when YHWH your elohim grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that YHWH your elohim is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!!!

Ancient peoples seemed to have long, long memories. And it seems like losing a war would result in a bitterness that would be harbored, would fester, and then get passed on to the next generation. (Remember all the warfare we saw, spanning hundreds of years of back-and-forth between Moab and Israel/Judah?)

The bitterness that Israel would have towards the Amalekites would resurface hundreds of years later, long after the settlement throughout Canaan. We'll turn to that in a second, but before we do, I want to just summarize a couple more important points regarding differences between the ancient near east worldview, and ours today:

  • Collective punishment was a matter-of-course, as the entire point of society was to form a collective; Moral solidarity of communities were taken incredibly seriously. "All [the members] were expected to share the same fate, for good or ill."
  • Similarly within the household; Wives and children fully expected to share the same fate of the husband/father, for they traded "total allegiance" for welfare and security. Many would willfully and unhesitatingly choose death over becoming servants in the household of of a people who had vanquished their men.

This was the shared moral universe of Isarelite, Canaanite, Moabite and Amalekite alike! We are about to read another passage of difficulty. Keep the above points in mind, and I'm intersted to hear if it results in a different take on this verse than what you otherwise might have had.

Also, as we read, keep your eyes open for our term herem, and pay extra-careful attention to the difference between what the Israelites end up proscribing herem to, and what they don't.

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל֙ אֶל־שָׁא֔וּל אֹתִ֨י שָׁלַ֤ח יְהוָה֙ לִמְשָׁחֳךָ֣ לְמֶ֔לֶךְ עַל־עַמּ֖וֹ עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְעַתָּ֣ה שְׁמַ֔ע לְק֖וֹל דִּבְרֵ֥י יְהוָֽה׃ (ס) (ב) כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת פָּקַ֕דְתִּי אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה עֲמָלֵ֖ק לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֥ם לוֹ֙ בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ בַּעֲלֹת֖וֹ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ (ג) עַתָּה֩ לֵ֨ךְ וְהִכִּֽיתָ֜ה אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֗ק וְהַֽחֲרַמְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר־ל֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ל עָלָ֑יו וְהֵמַתָּ֞ה מֵאִ֣ישׁ עַד־אִשָּׁ֗ה מֵֽעֹלֵל֙ וְעַד־יוֹנֵ֔ק מִשּׁ֣וֹר וְעַד־שֶׂ֔ה מִגָּמָ֖ל וְעַד־חֲמֽוֹר׃ (ס) (ד) וַיְשַׁמַּ֤ע שָׁאוּל֙ אֶת־הָעָ֔ם וַֽיִּפְקְדֵם֙ בַּטְּלָאִ֔ים מָאתַ֥יִם אֶ֖לֶף רַגְלִ֑י וַעֲשֶׂ֥רֶת אֲלָפִ֖ים אֶת־אִ֥ישׁ יְהוּדָֽה׃ (ה) וַיָּבֹ֥א שָׁא֖וּל עַד־עִ֣יר עֲמָלֵ֑ק וַיָּ֖רֶב בַּנָּֽחַל׃ (ו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שָׁא֣וּל אֶֽל־הַקֵּינִ֡י לְכוּ֩ סֻּ֨רוּ רְד֜וּ מִתּ֣וֹךְ עֲמָלֵקִ֗י פֶּן־אֹֽסִפְךָ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֞ה עָשִׂ֤יתָה חֶ֙סֶד֙ עִם־כָּל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בַּעֲלוֹתָ֖ם מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם וַיָּ֥סַר קֵינִ֖י מִתּ֥וֹךְ עֲמָלֵֽק׃ (ז) וַיַּ֥ךְ שָׁא֖וּל אֶת־עֲמָלֵ֑ק מֵֽחֲוִילָה֙ בּוֹאֲךָ֣ שׁ֔וּר אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ח) וַיִּתְפֹּ֛שׂ אֶת־אֲגַ֥ג מֶֽלֶךְ־עֲמָלֵ֖ק חָ֑י וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעָ֖ם הֶחֱרִ֥ים לְפִי־חָֽרֶב׃ (ט) וַיַּחְמֹל֩ שָׁא֨וּל וְהָעָ֜ם עַל־אֲגָ֗ג וְעַל־מֵיטַ֣ב הַצֹּאן֩ וְהַבָּקָ֨ר וְהַמִּשְׁנִ֤ים וְעַל־הַכָּרִים֙ וְעַל־כָּל־הַטּ֔וֹב וְלֹ֥א אָב֖וּ הַחֲרִימָ֑ם וְכָל־הַמְּלָאכָ֛ה נְמִבְזָ֥ה וְנָמֵ֖ס אֹתָ֥הּ הֶחֱרִֽימוּ׃ (פ)

(1) Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one YHWH sent to anoint you king over His people Israel. Therefore, listen to YHWH's command!

(2) “Thus said YHWH-of-Legions! :

I am exacting the penalty for what Amalek did to Israel, for the assault he made upon them on the road, on their way up from Egypt. (3) Now go, attack Amalek, and herem all that belongs to him. Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!”

(4) Saul mustered the troops and enrolled them at Telaim: 200,000 men on foot, and 10,000 men of Judah. (5) Then Saul advanced as far as the city of Amalek and lay in wait in the wadi.


(7) Saul destroyed Amalek from Havilah all the way to Shur, which is close to Egypt, (8) and he captured King Agag of Amalek alive. He he heremed all the people, putting them to the sword; (9) but Saul and the troops spared Agag and the best of the sheep, the oxen, the second-born, the lambs, and all else that was of value. They would not herem them; they heremed only what was cheap and worthless.

There are two things I'd like to focus on here. Firstly, in light of what Castellano said above, what do you make of this passage? This passage shocks and disturbs. But do you see it differently, reading it with the background provided by Castellano in mind?

And secondly, after all that we've seen on herem so far, how are you inclined to understand it in this context?

The last thing I'd like to share today is a brief excerpt about an encounter between Martin Buber (1878-1965) and an observant Jew on a train. This comes from an article called Purim, the Bible, and a Vengeful God, by Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin.

Fun fact; Buber was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 10 times, and the Nobel Peace Prize seven times!!!!!


The portrayal of a vengeful God full of wrath has led many people to reject the Bible as the fountainhead of faith. Buber himself was moving in that direction when he experienced a chance encounter with an old Orthodox Jew on a train. Buber told him of being very troubled by this episode. He admitted that he did not believe that God had commanded Saul to kill every Amalekite.

The old man responded in a gruff tone:

"So, you do not believe it?" "No," I answered, "I do not believe it." "What do you believe then?" "I believe," I replied without reflecting, "that Samuel has misunderstood God." And he again slowly but more softly than before: "So? You do not believe that?" And I: "Yes." Then we were both silent. But now something happened….The angry countenance opposite me became transformed…."Well," said the man with a positively gentle tender clarity, "I think so too." [Martin Buber, Autographical Fragments]

Buber concluded: "An observant Jew…when he has to choose between God and the Bible, chooses God."

What a magnificent declaration of faith! Buber understood that those who recorded and preserved our sacred texts were human beings, fallible mortals who may have occasionally misunderstood the biblical intent. "Nothing," Buber declared, "can make me believe in a God who punishes Saul because he did not murder his enemy."

Did Samuel indeed kill Agag at the command of God? Or is it possible that a zealous scribe, one who might have had reason to despise the memory of the cruel Amalekites whose treachery had gone back to the days of Moses (Deut. 25:17), believed that Samuel would have hacked Agag to pieces?

What does this all mean? What does it mean to say that one has to choose between God and the Bible? What does this imply about how, or from where we have access to the mind and/or nature of the Almighty?

I'd like to contrast this passage of Buber with what we've been reading from Castellano, specifically naming the difference in assumptions they have when approaching the TaNaKh, if any at all.

Here is our list once again:

  • YHWH is all-good;
  • YHWH is all-knowing
  • YHWH is all-loving;
  • YHWH is all-powerful;
  • The TaNaKh is the word of YHWH;
  • The narrative passages of the TaNaKh describe events that occurred as the TaNaKh describes them;
  • When YHWH is quoted, he is quoted accurately and honestly.

Does it seem like Casellano does not assume all of the above? How about Buber?