Ethnic Cleansing is Sanctioned by the God of the Old Testament

Ethnic Cleansing is Sanctioned by the God of the Old Testament

gaza_explosionWhile Israel is engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing in Gaza, and Ann Coulter and other conservatives, including House Republicans, embrace the idea of a similar program here, through deportation if not outright slaughter, we would do well here to recall that this is not the first time Israel has engaged in these activities.

There is, for example, the Hasmonean Jewish treatment of Pagan minorities within their borders in the late second century BCE: ethnic cleansing, expulsion (1 Macc 13.47) which often goes unremarked in the historical record: forced conversion, etc., events which must have been well-remembered in Tacitus’ day (these conquests were also noted by Strabo, Geography 16.2.37).

The Bible, of course, condones ethnic cleansing. It is an activity ordered by God himself on numerous occasions. Remember, the “Promised Land,” when the Jews arrived out of the desert (according to the Bible’s account) was owned by somebody else when they arrived. The Jewish response was ethnic cleansing: killing, ejecting, and forcibly converting the Canaanites in order to create a Jewish state. Today’s modern Canaanites, the Palestinians, are now in the way and are discovering first-hand that Israel is still for Jews only.

Ancient Israel was, after this early ethnic cleansing, itself under the dominion of foreign powers and suffered greatly, but no more so than others suffered under Israel when it had the upper hand. Once the Hasmonean dynasty got into a position of power about a century-and-a-half before the birth of Jesus, it was the turn of the Gentiles to suffer once more. Why? Because of ancient promises that come allegedly from Israel’s god, that Israel, no matter who else might live there, belongs to the Jews.

(Continued Below)

And yes, this is relevant. History, because it informs the present, it always relevant:


As Lee I. Levins of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem writes of the Hasmoneans,

[A] much more expansive understanding of Eretz Israel became a new reality under the Hasmoneans, with enormous ideological and social implications.

The Hasmoneans saw themselves as successors to Israel’s biblical leaders, particularly the judges and kings of the First Temple era. This self-perception is made very clear in I Maccabees, a book written under their auspices and in the style of which is reminiscent of the biblical books of Judges and Kings.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes.

As we know, wishes aren’t reality and no more than is Netanyahu’s Israel was the rule of the Maccabees/Hasmoneans (165-63BCE) a return to the fabled Golden Age of Solomon and David. Yet it marked a resurgence of sorts in the fortunes of Israel. The reigns of John Hyrcanus (reigned 134-104) and his son Alexander Jannaeus (Yannai), who reigned 103-76 BCE, was a period of dramatic expansion for the Maccabean kingdom and it was in this period that both Galilee and Idumea (ancient Edom) were added to Judaea.

Hasmonean Conquests - or Gentile loss of land
Hasmonean Conquests – or Gentile loss of land

Their conquests, noted by Strabo (Geography 16.2.37), are seen as glorious from the Jewish perspective, but resulted in great hardship for the non-Jewish populations of these areas and many cities were abandoned or destroyed, their Pagan populations fleeing, and many others were conquered. Hyrcanus forced the Gentile populations to convert to Judaism, and claims made by some that this represents the “only forcible mass conversion in the history of Judaism” [1] ignores the forced conversions of polytheistic Jews and Gentiles by Hezekiah and Josiah and down through the post-exilic period.

In both the second and first centuries BCE the Hasmonean rulers “forcibly circumcised Gentile peoples after subduing them in battle.” [2] The joy of the cities of the Decapolis at their liberation by Pompey speaks volumes.

No doubt well aware of the above appeal (and the divine mandate at Deut 7.1-6), Mattathias, leader of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids, is said to have gone “around destroying the illicit altars and forcibly circumcising all the uncircumcised babies they found within the boundaries of Israel” (1 Macc 2.46).

The Hasmonean rulers followed this injunction in their conquests, practicing forcible conversion in both Galilee (Ant. 13.318) and Idumea (Ant. 13.257-258) as Josephus tells us and burning cities, for example Pella (Ant. 13.397) that refused to convert, and there is no reason to suppose that if the rebels of 66 would have gotten the upper hand against the Romans that they would not have done likewise, as their record and their rhetoric indicates.

Our literary sources bear this out: 1 Maccabees is implacably hostile to Gentiles, putting them on a par with the ancient Canaanites. 2 Maccabees amends this view to one which, to paraphrase General Sherman, would amount to “The only good Gentiles I’ve seen are converted.” We’ve seen rhetoric like this come out of Israel today, with the enemy now not Canaanites or Gentiles but Palestinians.

This was all part of a process that has been called by one scholar, “Judaization,” [3] and by another “internal colonization” [4] which are both happy terms for what was, in essence, a holy war, or to use a modern term, ethnic cleansing, as the capture of Akra by Simon in 141 BCE demonstrates. The account of the city’s capture in 1 Maccabees 14:49-52, and that of Gezer (14:43-48) leaves us in no doubt as to the motivation of the Hasmonean Reconquista. [5] The religious purity demanded by God requires not just rejection but ejection.

That this was not a happy situation for Pagans living either within Israel’s borders or in neighboring areas scarce needs be said. The best the Pagan population could hope for was expulsion (such as at Acre, Gezer, Joppa, and other cities whose entire Pagan populations were expelled); at the worst, death or forced conversion.[6] Indeed, the Greek version of Esther 8.17 in the Septuagint admits that “many of the pagans were circumcised and became Jews out of fear of the Jews.”

1 Macc 13.47 celebrates an event in which Simon (d. 135) expelled the inhabitants of Gezer and repopulated it with “men who observed the Law.” This was apparently part of Simon’s general policy of removing idolaters from Israel (1 Macc 14.36) and archaeology seems to confirm it.[7]

Those who were not expelled sometimes fled: Tel Anafa, some 10-12 km north of Lake Huleh, was abandoned by 75 BCE”perhaps due to the flight of its pagan population after the incorporation of the area into the Hasmonean kingdom.”[8] Richard Horsley makes much of the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE and the fate of Corinth in the same year, as actions that “bore ominously on the fate of other peoples that they were to conquer in the future”[9] but takes no notice of Hasmonean Jewish imperialism and what can only be called ethnic cleansing of Pagan population centers.

French scholar Maurice Sartre suggests that the abandonment of “Gezer, Bethzur, Shechem, Bethshan, Lachish, possibly Bethel, Dothan, Shiloh, Tell Zakariyeh, and less important sites…not to mention cities whose destruction is well known, such as Samaria, Marisa, Adora, and Beersheba” was due to “imperialist Hasmonaean policy.”[10] The campaigns of Antiochus VII Sidetes in the 130s, culminating in a negotiated settlement in 132 BCE, temporarily put an end to Hasmonean ethnic cleansing (Ant. 13:245-248), but the death of the Seleucid king in 129 while on campaign against the Parthians saw its resumption under John Hyrcanus.

The beacon of a Greater Israel ever beckoned, and with it, the conversion of the “Nations” – the Pagan world.[11] As we are seeing with our own horrified eyes, that beacon of a Greater Israel beckons still.

The Jewish historian Josephus alludes to the forced circumcision of Gentiles during the Jewish revolt of 66 while he was in charge of Galilee’s defenses (Life, 113) and it is possible that Bar Kokhba in the revolt of 132 may also have practiced forced circumcision.[12]

The Jews of the Second Temple period were quite capable then of following the injunctions of these various biblical texts, which John J. Collins characterizes as “programmatic ideological statements”:

We can no longer accept them as simply presenting what happened. Whether we see these texts as reflecting expansionistic policies of King Josiah or as mere fantasies of powerless Judeans after the exile, they project a model of the ways in which Israel should relate to its neighbors. In this perspective, ownership of the land of Israelis conferred by divine grant, not by ancestral occupancy or by negotiation, and violence against rival claimants of that land is not only legitimate but mandatory, especially if these people worship gods other than YHWH, the God of Israel.[13]

This was also the Israel that the Fourth Philosophy and the Essenes hearkened back to, an Israel ruled by God and unpolluted by Gentiles (Pagans), back to the days of the Maccabees and beyond, just as the Maccabees had hearkened back to the zeal of Phinehas (Num 25.10-15): Mattathias “burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri, the son of Salu” (1 Macc 1.26). Horsley can argue that all the violence and all the terror was done by the Romans to the Jews, but as John J. Collins and others have shown, these biblical texts have served to “legitimize violent action.” It was also ancient texts which legitimized the expulsion of Gentiles from Judea and their forced circumcision.[14]

For some radical Jews and our own Religious Right, we can see that it legitimizes the expulsion of Palestinians today.

As we are seeing in America today, letting ancient religion dictate domestic policy, let alone global politics, is a recipe for disaster. The state of Israel is today repeating crimes of which it has often been victim, and as we have seen here, not for the first time. There was no court of global opinion in the second century BCE and kingdoms and empires could get away with barbarous behavior. This is a lesson applicable not only to Israel, but America under Bush and Russia under Putin.

In our supposedly enlightened present, there is far less excuse, and Israel will have a difficult time presenting itself as a victim if it continues on its current course. The Religious Right will be happy to believe them, as always, that the only deaths have been Jewish, because the Palestinians, after all, are not really people, but we know better. Don’t we?


[1] For example, in Stephen M. Wylen, The Jews in the Time of Jesus (NY: Paulist Press, 1996), 64.
[2] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision and the Shifting Role of Gentiles in Hasmonean Ideology,” HTR 92 (1999), 37.
[3] A. Kasher, Jews and Hellenistic Cities in Eretz-Israel. Texte und Studien zum Antiken Judentum 21. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 105.
[4] Shimon Applebaum, Judaea in Hellenistic and Roman Times: Historical and Archaeological Essays (Leiden: Brill, 1989), 44.
[5] We are informed by 1 Maccabees that Simon “cleansed the houses in which idols were” and “cast out of it all uncleanness” before settling it with those who observed the Law.
[6] While ethnic cleansing may at times constitute genocide, it can also be distinct from genocide. The United Nations defines ethnic cleansing as activities designed to render an area “ethnically homogeneous”. It cannot be denied that this was the intent of the Hasmonean policies in question. See Final report of the United Nations Commission of Experts established pursuant to security council resolution 780 (1992), Annex IV The policy of ethnic cleansing.28 December 1994.
[7] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision and the Shifting Role of Gentiles in Hasmonean Ideology,” HTR 92 (1999), 43.
[8] Mark Alan Chancey; Adam Lowry Porter, “The Archaeology of Roman Palestine,” Near Eastern Archaeology 64 (2001), 82. See also Andrea M. Berlin, “Archaeological Sources for the History of Palestine: Between Large Forces:Palestine in the Hellenistic Period,” The Biblical Archaeologist 60 (1997), 2-51.
[9] Richard Horsley, Jesus and Empire (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 17-18.
[10] Maurice Sartre, The Middle East Under Rome (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 16.
[11] But the victories of these Jewish kings did not restore the glory of David and Solomon, immersed as they were in Hellenistic culture and what emerged was itself a Hellenistic state in the mold of those that had come before. Ironically then, the Hasmonean revolution, as Elias Bickerman observed, “eradicated one kind of Hellenism only to facilitate the growth of another kind.” See Elias Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees. Foundations of Post-Biblical Judaism (New York: Schocken Books, 1962), 178.
[12] Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision,” 43 and n 25. Weitzman suggests the possibility that Roman laws against circumcision might be an outcome of forced circumcisions by Bar Kochba.
[13] John J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” JBL 122 (2003), 11.
[14] Steven Weitzman, “Forced Circumcision,” 43-44 and n 24. Both Genesis 34 and 2 Sam 18.25-7 are examples of anti-Gentile violence the Maccabees, and later, the Hasmoneans, may have hearkened back to, and 2 Bar 66.5 celebrates Josiah as a king who “left no one uncircumcised.”

Map of Palestinian land loss from Jewish Voice for Peace
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