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Friday, February 25, 2011

Alexander v. Joshua

Alexander the Macedonian and Joshua the Israelite were two military leaders. They both are reported as being on a divinely sanctioned mission, e.g., Alexander was told by a priestess of Apollo that he was invincible and he loosed the Gordium knot indicating that he would conquer the world. Perhpas Joshua's mandate was stronger because he was directly carrying out the will of God to take possession of the promised land for the Israelites. Consider this passage describing Joshua's conquest, which I submit is a typical description.
Joshua took all these royal cities and their kings and put them to the sword. He totally destroyed them, as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded. Yet Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds—except Hazor, which Joshua burned. The Israelites carried off for themselves all the plunder and livestock of these cities, but all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. As the LORD commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and Joshua did it; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD commanded Moses.
Josh. 11:12-15. Now, Alexander's conquest seems generally limited to defeating armies rather than razing cities, but there is at least one exception. Here is how Plutarch recounts the defeat of Thebes.
The Thebans indeed defended themselves with a zeal and courage beyond their strength, being much outnumbered by their enemies. But when the Macedonian garrison sallied out upon them from the citadel, they were so hemmed in on all sides that the greater part of them fell in the battle; the city itself being taken by storm, was sacked and razed. Alexander's hope being that so severe an example might terrify the rest of Greece into obedience, and also in order to gratify the hostility of his confederates, the Phocians and Plataeans. So that, except the priests, and some few who had heretofore been the friends and connections of the Macedonians, the family of the poet Pindar, and those who were known to have opposed the public vote for the war, all the rest, to the number of thirty thousand, were publicly sold for slaves; and it is computed that upwards of six thousand were put to the sword.
Full selection. The thing is, Alexander is reported as feeling great guilt of his treatment of Thebes. So much so that he attributed "the unwillingness of the Macedonians to follow him against the Indians, by which his enterprise and glory was left imperfect, to the wrath and vengeance of Bacchus, the protector of Thebes." Of course, there is no reason to take either author at face value. I think it is fair to assume that both authors are intended to exault their subjects. It seems likely to me that Plutarch felt that Alexander would be well served by a compassionate image, while the author of Joshua felt that Joshua would be well served by an image of unflinching resolve. I wonder if there are any obvious reasons for the differences.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


The opening to Plutarch's description of Alexander includes this.
I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others.
Full selection. Plutarch then proceeds to recount how Alexander was descended from Hercules and the miraculous circumstances of his conception. It seems to me that the Gospels were not "histories, but lives." Recognizing how common in was for authors of this period to write like portrait-painters rather than news photographers comforts me. It comforts me because it justifies my understanding of what the Biblical authors were trying to accomplish.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Marriage in Western Civilization

So, first off, if you are really interested in Marriage in Western Civilization you should read Rita Nakashima Brock's piece on the Huffington Post, or one of her books on the topic. If, on the other hand you are interested to hear what I think about Plutarch, keep reading.

In comparing the stories of Lycurgus and Numa Pompilius, Plutarch writes:
With respect to wives and children, and that community which both, with a sound policy, appointed, to prevent all jealousy, their methods, however were different. For when a Roman thought himself to have a sufficient number of children, in case his neighbour who had none should come and request his wife of him, he had a lawful power to give her up to him who desired her, either for a certain time, or for good. The Lacedaemonian husband, on the other hand, might allow the use of his wife to any other that desired to have children by her, and yet still keep her in his house, the original marriage obligation still subsisting as at first. Nay, many husbands, as we have said, would invite men whom they thought likely to procure them fine and good-looking children into their houses.
Full selection. Did the modern institution of marriage evolve from traditions like this? These traditions do seem to have something in common with this: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor, what with wives included in a list of things that belong to a neighbor. I have written before about the nontraditional nature of the Patriarchs' marriages. E.g.

This all reminds me of one of the more clever assaults on marriage equality from this summer. Ross Douthat suggested we should pause in our inevitable march toward marriage because
lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support. . . . It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.
When I read this over the summer, I knew that the Bible did not support monogamy, but this reading from Plutarch suggests that neither did the ancient Greek and Roman traditions. It actually makes me wonder where we got the current understanding from.