It was Jan Assmann, with his background in the history of ancient religion, who undertook to clarify the relationship between monotheism and violence.1 He interpreted the remarkable link between Moses and Egypt in the Bible as the faded memory of a reform that was carried out by Pharaoh Akhenaten, who wanted to replace the Egyptian deities with the sun god Ra. Assmann drew a distinction between this exclusive monotheism, which disputed the right of all other gods to exist, and another type of belief in one god, ‘cosmotheism’, which postulated a cosmic ordering as the dwelling place of the gods and goddesses who were worshipped.2 The attempt to permanently replace this type by an exclusive monotheism failed in Egypt; it succeeded only in Israel. The ‘counter-religion’ of Moses was the true religion, in contradistinction to the false worship of gods, and in Israel it was only through violent means that it could be enforced.
The Charter of the United Nations disapproves of a practice long a standard feature of human history, one often glorified by history books and religions. Article 2 stipulates:
3. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered. 4. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
On this view, when Alexander the Great acquired territories ‘with the spear’, deriving from this the right to rule without limitation, he would, according to contemporary law, have to reckon with a war crimes trial. The settlement of land by the tribes of Israel or the conquest of the Middle East by Islamic armies are also violations of current law, though they are transfigured and idealized in religious writings. ‘Conquest no longer constitutes a title of territorial acquisition’, as Graf Vitzthum sums up the modern-day conception of the law in the volume Völkerrecht (‘international law’). I would like to look into a case which demonstrates howgreat, even today, the tension can become between this international prohibition on violence and religious claims to a territory, bringing out the political turbulence to which this gives rise.
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