Asymmetric Warfare: The First Three Thousand Years

 Asymmetric Warfare: The First Three Thousand Years

By Marcia Pally  ·  Thursday, April 27, 2017

The thoughts below were first presented at the 2017 Telos Paul Piccone Institute conference, “Asymmetrical Warfare: The Centrality of the Political to the Strategic.”


On the perhaps naïve presumption that politics are grounded in ideals, norms, and values that guide (if not govern) societal conduct, I have extended the title to “Asymmetrical Warfare: The Centrality of the Ethical to Politics and the Strategic.”

Since the writing of these remarks, Donald Trump has taken the office of president, promised a vast build-up of the U.S. military, and proposed large increases in the military budget alongside substantial decreases in humanitarian aid programs. He has detonated in Afghanistan the largest non-nuclear bomb in U.S. military history, he is saber-rattling with North Korea, and he has bombed Syria—all in his first 100 days, indicating a certain unconsidered readiness to use military force.

I would like to inject a note of considered-ness in the form of ethics whose formation began three thousand years ago and which have been with us since, hence this article’s title. They are biblical and rabbinic,[1] and I propose that they offer much in an approach to enmity and war. I also note the great number of conflicts today that are asymmetrical wars; all those in which the United States is involved are, as our military dwarfs all others. Thus, war ethics developed under conditions of asymmetry through millennia of history and thought might have something to say. I will first sketch the biblical and rabbinic regulations of warfare and then the ontological principles on which they’re based.

Between the writing of the Pentateuch—mostly sixth and seventh centuries BCE—to the end of the rabbinic period in the sixth century CE, almost all war, from the Israelite perspective, was asymmetric as a matter of theology and historical experience. Historically, most wars were indeed waged by powers far larger than the Hebrews—the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Selucids, to name a few even before getting to the Greeks and Romans. The long duree of Israelite experience was enslavement, national weakness, and conquest. Exceptions to this asymmetry include the more symmetric Davidic wars with local kingdoms such as the Phoenicians. Yet even the Maccabee revolt against the Selucids,[2] which included both guerilla warfare—classically asymmetrical—and symmetrical battles,[3] was overall a highly asymmetrical fight against an empire, adding to the David-and-Goliath imprint upon the Israelite worldview and religion.

Thus, the theology of the biblical wars—projected back onto the twelfth through the tenth centuries, long before their actual composition in the sixth and seventh—emphasizes God’s power to protect even the puny Hebrews. The Deuteronimic conquest tales, the story of Gideon, and the wars of Samuel and Kings are substantially a series of God-bails-the Hebrews-out constructions that offered a ray of hope sorely needed by the collapsing houses of Israel and Judah in the seventh and sixth centuries as they faced multiple threats, as the northern kingdoms of Israel were destroyed and disappeared, and as the Babylonians exiled what was left of Judea.

And constructions they were: indeed, the conquest tales told in Joshua never occurred at all. The Canaanite nations were not destroyed but rather for centuries lived precisely where they always had, neighboring the Hebrew tribes; overall, relations were good.[4]What the conquest tales did provide was a vision of courageous Hebrews, united in loyalty to God, who rescues the nation from ruin—a fictitious balm for the real sixth and seventh century nation of vulnerable, fractious idolaters. Something like the fantasy provided in Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Bastards for First Temple Jewry.

What were the ethics of these historical and fictitious asymmetric wars? Standard warfare practice for the era was the slaying of the defeated males, possession of all the property and lands, and the rape and enslavement of the women and children. Biblical standards are something of an upgrade, requiring just cause for war or plunder (Psa. 7:4; Psa. 35:1, 7–8) and a suit for peace before beginning any war (Deut. 20:10). Those who surrender peaceably must pay tribute and work but may not be killed (Deut. 20:11, also 1 Kings 9:21; 2 Kings 18:14; 1 Chron. 18:21 6; 2 Chron. 8:8; 2 Chron. 27:5; 2 Chron. 36:3), and those who are conquered and captive must be provided for (2 Kings 6:22–23). Civilians of a besieged city must be allowed to leave unharmed, an impressive innovation.

Enemy nations may not be oppressed even when at war with them (2 Chron. 28:8–15). Truces and peace agreements must be honored even if the enemy breaches them (Joshua 9). A scorched earth policy is prohibited (Deuteronomy 20:19–20)[5] though the property and land of the defeated may be taken by the victor (Num. 21:24–25, 35; Num. 31:9-18; Deut 20:14; Josh. 11:14). It was considered inappropriate, however, to take more than to compensate for the costs of war.[6] While males of a warring army may be killed (Num. 31:7, 17; Deut 20:13; Josh. 11:14), any woman taken must be left untouched in the victor’s house, allowed a month’s mourning for her homeland, and the victor must marry her and treat her as a wife with the usual rights and responsibilities. Should the victor no longer want her, she must be returned to her people and may not be sold into slavery (Deuteronomy 21:10–14), another war ethics extraordinary for the era.

The later, rabbinic era raises the standard for both obligatory and discretionary war (Mishnah Sotah 8:7). While the medieval Maimonides held that discretionary war includes any effort to enlarge the state (Yad, Melakhim 5:1; Sot. 44b; TJ, Sot. 8:10), several rabbis labeled as discretionary also pre-emptive attacks (Leḥem Mishnah ad loc.). Obligatory wars protect against a present attack. In rabbinic law, both types of war require the decision of the monarch and a court of no fewer than 71 judges (Mish., Sanh. 1:5; Yad, Melakhim 5:2, Tosefot Yom Tov on Mish. Sanh. loc. cit.).[7] The earlier, biblical protections for residents of besieged “cities” are confirmed by the rabbinic code[8] and Maimonides[9]—and in a typically Talmudic argument, the rabbis interpret the word “city” to limit sieges per se. A city may be besieged, they write, but not a village (kfar) because one may not starve civilians when the small number of village soldiers can easily be defeated without harm to non-combatants. Similarly, a metropolis (krach) may not be besieged because one cannot justify starving such large numbers of non-combatants. In both Pentateuch and rabbinic code, these war regulations apply even to the enslaving, genocidal Egyptians, who, by the third generation after the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, “may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:7–8)—that is, be welcomed into the community of nations with the rights, respect, sovereignty, and responsibilities entailed.

The one group to whom these standards do not apply are the seven nations, described in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua as “God’s enemies,” whom Joshua is supposed to slay entirely in the conquest of Canaan.[10] But as mentioned, these conquests were palliative fantasies and recognizable as such to their audiences. The genocidal mandate against these seven nations, written in the sixth and seventh centuries BCE and projected back onto a twelfth century war that never occurred, is a bit like a war protocol for fighting unicorns.

To understand the biblical and rabbinic ethics for real wars—and to see what it might offer us as we consider present geopolitics—we must look at both the biblical ethics mandated for wars that might in fact occur and at the discussions of the rabbis, who as subjects of Rome had no authority to wage war but whose prime project was to develop a persuasive legal ethics.

These biblical and rabbinic war ethics, described above, are grounded in a covenantal ontology. It begins with the idea that all existing entities are in primary covenant with the transcendent, the source of all exist-ability—the source of there being something rather than nothing. This primary covenant involves our partaking of the source-of-exist-ability in order to exist. Genesis expresses this metaphorically as God breathing nishmat cha’im, the spirit of existence, into persons. From God’s “spirit” into our spirit is what makes existence. As Aquinas later wrote, “in all things God works intimately.”[11]

Though we are radically different from the source of existence—differences in finitude and infinitude, materiality and immateriality–we in some way intimately partake of this source. This difference yet intimate relation is the way anything comes to be. The structure of existence is difference-amid-relation.[12] Kirk Wegter-McNelly writes in his book The Entangled God: Divine Relationality and Quantum Physics, the cosmos is “a place in which entangled independence-through-relationship is the fundamental characteristic of being.”[13]

This grammar of existence is covenantal because, on the biblical and rabbinic worldview, covenants are bonds between (even radically) distinct parties who give reciprocally for the sake of the other. Covenant is a name for difference-amid-relation. As this covenantal setup is the grammar of existence, human life and society too are covenantal. Each of us, while unique and different from other persons, is also in foundational, covenantal relationship beginning with those nearby but extending out, as the economic and educational opportunities we have and the stresses we undergo emerge from nexes of relationships that may reach across the globe.

Covenant in the Bible is described first dyadically: between God and Adam, God and Noah. Yet the covenant is triangulated. Covenant with the transcendent is constituted by giving to third parties, other persons. In this triangulation, covenantal concern for others constitutes covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains persons in giving covenantally to others. As each of us has something of the source of exist-ability in order to exist, each has something of a “moral correspondence” to divine giving, a capacity to act covenantally, givingly, to others as God gives. In biblical metaphor, this is not the “image” of God, tselem Elohim, but correspondence and co-incidence, dmuth Elohim. When we act covenantally towards other persons, we are acting on the covenantal spirit in us and we act covenantally towards the spirit, the nishmat chaim, of God that is within each of them.

Covenant thus extends from dyadic bond to larger associations. Reciprocal giving becomes gift exchange network, where gift from God to person generates gift from person to neighbor and on to the next person through the giving loop, thus sustaining it.[14]

We see the triangulated, extended nature of covenant—with God, among persons– in the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to person and God and the rest, seamlessly, to persons in community. Numbers 5:6 reprises: “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty.” Harm to persons, breaking covenant with them, breaks covenant with God. Amos and Proverbs denounce the hypocrisy of performing rituals while abandoning the afflicted, as if one could maintain bond with God without bond with the needy[15]—one of the most oft-repeated of prophetic and rabbinic ideas. In the medieval period, items given in charity were in Jewish law called hekdesh, made holy as they are given also to God. From the medieval period we also have this soaring expression of the gift-exchange nature of covenant. The great French biblical commentator Rashi reads in Isaiah, “I cannot be God unless you are my witness” and Rashi glosses, “I am the God who will be whenever you bear witness to love and justice in the world.” God can be God when persons are loving and just to each other.

Who is in the covenantal loop? All the nations. The Abrahamic covenant, repeated with each patriarch, declares that “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3; Gen. 26:4; Gen. 28:14). Whatever God’s bond with the children of Abraham, it is to bless all humankind.[16] Amos makes the point in mirror image—not that the world’s peoples will be blessed through Israel (making Israel the first portal of blessing) but that Israel is blessed as other nations are: “‘Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?’ declares the Lord” (Amos 9:7). In Genesis, God makes covenants with non-Israelites as all persons have moral correspondence with the divine and so may act covenantally with God and in world. Yoram Hazony concludes that the biblical author “wished to persuade his readers that there exists a law whose force is of a universal nature, because it derives from the way the world itself was made.”[17]

It is this covenantal law that grounds mandates to help the needy and the stranger—mandates so extensive that they were taken as a model of how to treat the Israelite poor (Exod. 22:21; Lev. 19:34; 23:35–39; Deut. 15:12–15, among others). And it is covenant that grounds the requirements for treatment of the enemy. A covenantal ontology—bonds with the source of exist-ability and among persons—undergirds the ethics of asymmetrical warfare for both the more powerful and less powerful party.

There is some argument today that covenantal networks and ethics are not possible absent the tight-knit groups and physical proximity of the pre-modern era. But gift-exchange networks of covenantal support were sustained across infrequent contact and vast distances—thousands of miles of Pacific over scores of islands, for instance, as described by Marcel Mauss in Le Don.[18] In short, modern societies, with airplanes, Skype, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc., cannot claim impossible what was done in canoes.


1. Biblical sources include texts from the ninth through the sixth centuries BCE but mostly the two or so centuries prior to the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE and texts from the early Second Temple period of the fifth and fourth centuries with a few later books, such as Daniel, being written in the third or second. The rabbinic period ranges from the second to the sixth centuries CE, both in Israel and Babylonia.

2. The Selcuids had gotten control of the territory from the Ptolemaic Egyptians after the death of Alexander the Great. During the governorship of Antiochus IV Ephiphanes (ca. 215–164 BCE), religio-political competition between Jason and Menelaus (for the high priesthood) and to a lesser extent, socio-religious tensions between the Hellenized and traditional Jews fomented civil skirmishes if not war. Following a rumor that Antiochus Ephiphanes had died in Egypt in a battle against the Ptolemies, Jason, perceived as an Egyptian ally, led a revolt to unseat Menelaus, which Antiochus saw as a political challenge and, perhaps more importantly, as a disruption to his supply lines down to Egypt, where the real action was. Antiochus sought to put down the revolt and, in a departure from Selucid practice of religious toleration, cracked down on religious practice possibly in response to the religious factors (competition for the high priesthood) that seemed to spur the uprising. The crackdown in turn inspired revolt against him by the restive orthodox Jews. As Victor Tcherikover writes, “It was not the revolt which came as a response to the persecution, but the persecution which came as a response to the revolt.” See Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistc Civilization and the Jews, trans. S. Applebaum (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1966). My thanks to Rabbi Avinoam Sharon for assistance with this material.

3. In one, the Macabees were trounced. When Antiochus IV shortly thereafter died, the Selucid military commander Lysias, now focused on the internal power vacuum and other Selucid business, compromised and allowed religious practice and the Maccabean/Hasmonean dynasty to establish rule; see Bezalel Bar-Kochva, The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1976).

4. David and Solomon established treaties with them, and Solomon invited the Canaanite Tyrians to build the temple.

5. This wartime prohibition became the basis for the general prohibition against destroying fruit trees and property in general (Maim., Sefer ha-Mitzvot, negative commandments, 57; Yad, Melakhim 6:8). Although the Torah prohibits only the destruction of fruit trees, the baraita (BK 91b) extends this to all trees; where there is need for wood, non-fruit bearing trees must be used first (BK 91b).

6. As Abraham took from the king of Sodom “nothing but what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me,” Gen. 14:24; Radak and Sforno, loc. cit. In the Scroll of Esther we find that the Jews were permitted to plunder the property of their enemies, yet the text emphasizes “but they laid no hands on the plunder” (Esther 8:11; 9:15).

7. According to Nahmanides, decision to wage was requires also consultation with the Urim and Thummim—divination signs–of the high priests (Hassagot Ramban, on Sefer ha-Mitzvot, gloss no. 17).

8. The Midrash (Sif. Num., ed. Horowitz, 157) cites the tanna Rabbi Nathan that when Israel laid siege in its war with Midian (Num. 31), one side was left open so that the Midianites could flee.

9. See The Laws of Kings 6:1 (Melakhim 6:1).

10. Deuteronomy 20 16–18: “However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them….Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.”

11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1–5, trans. Fathers of the Dominican English Province (Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1948), Ia, q. 105, art. 5.

12. See Irenaeus of Lyons, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive,” Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, bk. 4, ch. 20, sec. 7, in English St. Irenaeus: Against the Heresies (Book 3), trans. Matthew C. Steenberg and Dominic J. Unger, Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation (Mawhah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2012).

13. Kirk Wegter-McNelly, The Entangled God: Divine Relationality and Quantum Physics (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 136.

14. See also Jacques Godbout and Alain Caillé, The World of the Gift, trans. Donald Winkler (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1998).

15. Amos 5:21–24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”; Proverbs 21:3: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than [ritual] sacrifice.”

16. This idea is illustrated in Abraham’s family. Not only Isaac but his half-brother Ishmael becomes a great nation; not only Jacob but his brother Esau too founds a great family. Amos makes the point in mirror image — not that the world’s peoples will be blessed through Israel (making Israel the first portal of blessing) but that Israel is blessed as other nations are: “‘Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?’ declares the Lord” (Amos 9:7).

17. Hazony, Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, pp. 22, 249.

18. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Society, trans. W. D. Halls (London, UK: Routledge, 1990); original work published as Essai sur le don: Sociologie et anthropologie (1923).