(For a short introduction to Philo, his family and their connections with Rome, see Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10.)
The treatise On Abraham is part of Philo’s Exposition of the Law, a series containing “a treatise on the creation, three extant Lives of biblical patriarchs, four books on Mosaic law, and two concluding treatises on virtues and rewards and punishments,” which Maren Niehoff considers as having been composed after Philo’s embassy to Rome (Niehoff, Philo of Alexandria, p. 7-8). As the title indicates, it centers on the figure of Abraham. However, the treatise begins with a preliminary reflection on biblical characters that preceded Abraham, led exemplary lives and embodied certain virtues: Enosh, Enoch and Noah (§§7-47). Then Philo briefly explains what Abraham, Isaac and Jacob stand for: virtue reached either through study, or naturally, or through training (askēsis) (§§48-59). Philo also emphasizes that in contrast to Adam and Noah, from whom flawed humans were born, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are the ancestors of the holy people who “sees God” (§§56-57). The section dealing with Abraham alone (§§60-276) is divided into two parts, corresponding to Abraham’s relationship with God (§§60-207) and human beings (§§208-261), respectively, followed by a conclusion (§§262-276). In each of the two parts, Philo comments on various episodes of Abraham’s life as told in Genesis, at both the literal and allegorical levels. These two parts illustrate the patriarch’s exceptional piety (eusebeia) and humanity (philanthrōpia), two cardinal virtues in Philo’s writings (on the importance for Philo of highlighting the humane behavior of the patriarchs and the benevolent nature of the Mosaic Law, especially in view of Apion’s attacks against the Jews, see Philo, On Virtues 106-108; Berthelot, Philanthrôpia judaica, p. 252-300).
The passage under study is located at the very beginning of the section dealing with Abraham’s relationships with fellow human beings, which Philo describes in §208 as characterized by philanthrōpia. The first example of Abraham’s exemplary behavior in dealing with others is based on Genesis 13, the story of the dispute between Abraham’s shepherds and those of his nephew, Lot. According to the biblical narrative, Abraham left Egypt extremely wealthy, having received many gifts from Pharaoh (Gen 13:1-2, and 12:16). Both he and his nephew had big herds, and their shepherds had to find pastureland for their cattle. The scarcity of ressources led to tensions and a fight between the shepherds (Gen 13:6-7). Therefore Abraham decided to part from Lot, and let him choose the region he wanted to settle in, saying: “Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left” (Gen 13:9, NRSV). Lot chose the Jordan valley, which is described as having been extremely fertile at that time (Gen 13:10).
While commenting on this biblical narrative, Philo adds a few details that have great relevance. He indicates that Abraham had a larger number of men than Lot, and could have imposed his will on his nephew by force (§215). Insofar as Abraham was the stronger partner, it would have been logical for him to seize the best and most fertile lands, rather than giving them up to Lot. Abraham is thus characterized by his reluctance to exert his military power in order to get the best lands. Philo argues that the Hebrew patriarch is free of greediness (pleonexia), that is, free of any desire for self-aggrandizement. Elsewhere in his work, Philo describes Israel as sharing this characteristic with Abraham. In On the Life of Moses I.307, while retelling the biblical story of Israel’s war with the Midianites (Numbers 25), he writes: “The contest before you is not to win dominion (archē), nor to appropriate the possessions of others, which is the sole or principal object of other wars, but to defend piety (eusebeia) and holiness (hosiotēs), from which our kinsfolk and friends have been perverted by the enemies who have indirectly caused their victims to perish miserably” (translation by F. H. Colson, LCL, p. 437). Philo suggests that wars waged for the sake of conquest and dominion, or to seize others’ property, are wrong, whereas Israel’s fight against the Midianites was legitimate because it was undertaken in the name of piety (that is, to defend Israel against idolatry). Similarly, in Against Apion II.272, Josephus insists that “We have trained our courage not for undertaking wars of self-aggrandizement (pleonexia) but for preserving the laws” (translation by John Barclay, in Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, p. 323; see also Jewish Antiquities IV.102, 296-97). In short, Jews do not wage wars of conquest, and are thus free of imperial ambitions. In this respect, Philo and Josephus do not align Jews with Romans.
It is in fact difficult to read On Abraham 216 without hearing implicit criticism of Roman imperialism. Abraham’s refusal to exert his military power to seize the best lands is completely at odds with Roman expansion and conquests. Philo’s association of pleonexia with rhōmē (a Greek word that means “strength,” but also “Rome”) increases the plausibility that this passage indirectly alludes to Roman military conquests. It may represent a kind of “hidden transcript” (on this phrase, see Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, xii).
In his work, Philo repeatedly criticizes those who seek wealth and authority acquired by military means, and lauds those who cherish virtue and wisdom, the true goods. Here, the reason for Abraham’s unconventional attitude, Philo argues, is the fact that he cherishes peace more than any other good. Already in §§209-210, Philo emphasizes Abraham’s peaceful relationships with his neighbours, the autochtonous inhabitants of the land, and the good reputation he enjoyed because of his virtues. His attitude toward Lot further illustrates his peaceful nature. Abraham’s longing for peace may also be read as a counterpoint for the Roman promotion of the Pax romana. Even though Roman discourses and monuments (such as Augustus’ Res Gestae 13 and the Ara Pacis built in Rome during his reign) emphasized peace as an important benefit brought to the populations of the empire, for conquered peoples Roman peace was in fact synonymous with Roman domination; it could not be disconnected from the military power of Rome (see Cornwell, Pax and the Politics of Peace; and the commentary on Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 8-10).
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