Ancient Israelite Violence and The Morality of Roadkill
This morning I started thinking about a Jewish law which prohibits prostitutes from putting money into the temple treasury. I’ve always had a problem with this idea - after all, why should you avoid doing something good (contributing to the temple) just because you did something bad (prostitution) in the past? And why shouldn’t the temple accept this money for the good of the society? And since all money is the same, the money will ultimately become part of the broader economy anyway, and eventually make its way into the temple treasury.
So what’s the problem? Why this concern?
I think what the law is trying to do is to build compassion. If we accept the benefits of certain activities (prostitution, thievery, warfare), it becomes very hard for us to mentally separate ourselves from those activities. The benefits coming to us become a corrupting force, sneaking into our consciousness, and contaminating our entire selves.
I’m not an ethical vegetarian (I’m a “taste” vegetarian), but this is really easy to see when applied to animals. There are some vegans who will not buy meat (for fear of encouraging animal slaughter), but who will eat meat that is already killed (roadkill, for example - I’m not making this up).
But this becomes really problematic. If you eat and enjoy dead animal flesh, but don’t believe in killing animals, what is your secret wish? Wouldn’t you slowly begin hoping to find a dead animal? Wouldn’t you begin wishing to find an animal killed in an accident? Wouldn’t your compassion for animals ultimately become warped into a kind of moral absolutism, and an attempt to find loopholes? What would keep you from gradually accepting free burgers from friends, eventually even suggesting they buy them for you?
At some point your rational moral stance becomes a rationalization for whatever you want to do.
In contrast, if you refuse animal meat whatsoever, your compassion will gradually become strengthened. Eating meat will seem more and more strange to you. The horror of animal death will become clearer and clearer. You will become a more and more extreme vegan.
It occurs to me that this is connected to the ancient Israelite wars.
In the early parts of the Jewish bible, there is a lot of bothersome destruction - cases where God apparently commands his people to go in and kill men, women, and children. This purported genocide of the native Canaanites is a tough point in the bible, making it hard to argue for the morality Jesus exhorted.
A lot of people have spent great effort defending the rightness of this slaughter at that particular point in history. I’m not going to get into that quagmire. What I want to do instead, is question what the text might be telling us on a larger level.
A curious fact about this destruction is that in many of the cases, the Israelites were ordered to utterly destroy everything taken in the battle. They were to take no plunder, no spoils, because this destruction was to be “holy”.
Joshua 6-7 gives the account of Achan keeping some plunder from the destruction of Jericho for himself. As a result, the Israelites are punished (losing their next battle), until they find out about the offending contaminant hidden among them. Once they have rectified this problem (killing Achan and burning everything he took), they return to their successful campaign.
Why is this so important?
Even in these early, brutal chapters of the bible, we see a move away from violence. The identity of the Israelite people was never supposed to be a conquering empire, but a peaceful society living within its own borders. And as a result, it was important that Israel not become addicted to killing, not begin to value death for its own benefits, and certainly not to value conquest for what spoils they could take. *
King David, later on, becomes the subject of just this sort of distancing. His successful but violent kingship “did what was necessary” for Israel to become established, but he is forbidden from creating a temple. He is a violent man, and the temple will not benefit so directly from the results of violence.
If you’re reading this as an attempt to defend the violence that happened, don’t.
But if you live in an extremely brutal world and society, and you wish to move towards compassion, what is your first step? Wouldn’t it be to introduce space between the necessity of violence you see around you, and the enjoyment of that violence? Wouldn’t it be to remove the profit motive of killing, eradicating that particular “conflict of interest”? And wouldn’t it ultimately be to establish the concept of an idealized “holy space”, which might acknowledge the existence of terrible things in the world around it, but would never allow them to enter its own peaceful sanctuary?
1) An ethical vegetarian refuses to eat animals because of concern for animal rights. I choose not to eat meat because I don’t like the taste/texture/concept. So I call myself a “taste vegetarian”. Nevertheless, above, I’m arguing using ethical vegetarian thought-processes.
2) In fact, some of the most brutal elements of these stories (killing women and children), should possibly be read as a refusal to benefit from war. At this point in time, women captives would have been considered plunder. Killing them instead is a move to prevent the most extreme forms of war-lust from taking hold.