Here's another "first" for the Jews, according to Harvard law-school professor Noah Feldman. And it's especially significant because on this matter, we Jews beat out the Nazis, who are really Johnny-come-latelies. According to Feldman, the Jews committed "the first intentional and explicit genocide."
A ton of ink has already been spilt over Feldman's New York Times Magazine article "Orthodox Paradox," so you might think anything more said at this late date would be supererogatory.
Much of this critical ink is justified, and I agree with it. Feldman is T-ed off because his Orthodox yeshiva excluded his personal announcements from the alumni newsletter because he married a non-Jewish woman, and so their children are presumably not Jewish. But in all the criticism of the piece that I have seen, none has referred to the words quoted above. To my mind, they are key in revealing the author as a self-hating Jew.
Let us look at these four telling words in the Times article — "first," "intentional," "explicit" and "genocide." "First" suggests that we Jews actually invented the concept; before us, no one had thought of it. We can therefore hardly complain if it's later "payback" time. "First" also suggests that there is a listing somewhere containing all the genocides that have been committed over the last 3,500 years. And, on this list, the Jews, like Abou ben Adam in the Coleridge poem, "led all the rest" — the first genocide in history.
"Intentional." This Jewish genocide wasn't one of those accidental genocides. The Jews knew what they were doing. Lots of genocides occur by happenstance; they didn't mean it. But not this one.
And "explicit." Have you ever heard of an "implicit" genocide?
Finally, "genocide." There is no question that the Amalekite episode Feldman refers to is problematic. Because the Amalekites had surprised the "famished and weary Israelites" on their trek out of Egypt, killing "the stragglers in the rear" without cause or provocation (Deuteronomy 25:18), the Lord vowed to destroy Amalek: "I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Exodus 17:14).
After Saul was anointed king, the prophet Samuel pronounced the word of the Lord. All Amalekites were to be killed, plus sheep, camels and asses. The order did not sit well with Saul. He disobeyed. He spared Agag, the Amalekite king, and some of the animals. When Samuel learned of this, he had Agag brought before him: "As your sword has bereaved women, so shall your mother be bereaved among women" (1 Samuel 15:33). The text continues: "And Samuel slew Agag to pieces before the Lord in Gilgal."
To call it genocide simply puts the worst spin on it. Here is why it is unfair to call it genocide.
First, the Israelites under Saul resisted the Lord's command. Saul objected to the order. He disobeyed it. It was not the Israelites' doing, but rather the command of the Lord. In this sense, the story is symbolic, like the Akedah — the binding of Isaac — God's word is to be obeyed, even to the point of sacrificing one's child. So here, God's word is to be obeyed even to the point of obliterating a community. In short, God's command is to be obeyed even when it seems to conflict with your moral values. This is a biblical principle, not an event.
Although Orthodox exegetes may say the episode is historical and actually occurred, it is the rare secular scholar who would support that position, anymore than we think of the Akedah as a historical event. And, of course, this was written at a time when a society was considered an entity in which all members were equally a part, even though they were individually uninvolved.
Finally, to characterize this episode as genocide after the Shoah and in a venue read mostly by non-Jews, some of whom will make use of it against us, is irresponsible and vindictive.
Admittedly, this episode can be described as genocide, but it can also be characterized as a theological construction from another time. It can even be criticized without using the word genocide. To call this episode "the first intentional and explicit genocide" says more about the author than it does about the Bible.
Hershel Shanks is the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and editor emeritus of Moment magazine.