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ManhuntsA Philosophical History$

Grégoire Chamayou

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780691151656

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691151656.001.0001

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Nimrod, or Cynegetic Sovereignty

Nimrod, or Cynegetic Sovereignty

(p.11) Chapter 2 Nimrod, or Cynegetic Sovereignty

Grégoire Chamayou

Steven Rendall

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter focuses on Nimrod, whose story in Genesis describes him as the son of Chus, the grandson of Cham, the founder of Babel and the world's first king: “He was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” The chapter concludes that what emerges with the story of Nimrod is a forgotten continent of Western political thought. If Foucault could say that beginning with the rise of Hebrew, and then Christian, pastoralism, politics has been largely considered a matter of the sheepfold, we can add that it was also, though in accord with a parallel and opposed genealogy, a matter of hunting.

Keywords:   manhunting, manhunts, Nimrod, hunting, political thought

History is stained with the memories of such crimes by these early kings. War and its conquests is just a kind of manhunt.


Look at them, they are dreadful and proud; their flaws are part of their beauty. This one is Nimrod, the man-hunter.


IN GENESIS WE FIND THE STORY OF NIMROD, the son of Chus, the grandson of Cham, the founder of Babel and the world’s first king: “He was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord.”1 This very short passage has given rise to long interpretations.

In what sense is Nimrod said to be a hunter? The commentary in the Zohar explains: “By the word hunter the Scripture does not designate a hunter of animals, but a hunter of men.”2 An exegete adds: “If Nimrod was a hunter properly so called, this would not concern Moses here; but for him, hunting animals serves as a transition to hunting men; it is in this sense that he is called ‘a mighty hunter’; it is thus that, in a completely opposite case, David is called ‘a shepherd of the peoples.’”3

After the Flood, God commanded humans to go forth and populate the Earth. Nimrod disobeyed and brought them together (p.12)

Nimrod, or Cynegetic Sovereignty

Figure 1. Nimrod. Nimbrod Filius Chus, in Athanasius Kircher, Turris Babel (Amsterdam: Janssonius van Waesberg, 1679), p. 112.

(p.13) by force.4 That is why he is called a hunter of men: in order to become a king, he acquired his subjects by violence. He captured his people.

Nimrod’s authority—that of the first sovereign—thus has no foundation other than force. He practiced the abduction of humans, robbed the patriarchs of their authority, and contravened the divine commandment.

In the biblical tradition, the power of the sovereign is thus placed from the outset under the sign of the manhunt. This motif, which the Greeks reserved above all for the analysis of the master’s economic power, was to be directly mobilized in the conception of political sovereignty. The theory of the master of slaves and the theory of the hunter-king were superimposed to produce a theory of cynegetic sovereignty.

For example, when Jean Bodin seeks to define despotic monarchy, he refers to these two models together: “the first monarchy that ever came into being arose in Assyria, in the time of Nimrod. The Scriptures speak of him as the mighty hunter, which in Hebrew is a common way of referring to a robber. Aristotle and Plato themselves include brigandage as a form of the chase.”5 The king of despotic monarchy is a king-master, whose political sovereignty appears as isomorphic with the master’s domination over his slaves.

To the power of tyrannical domination will be opposed power in accord with law, just as voluntary adhesion will be opposed to violent capture. This shift takes place in the modern period, with the development of contractual theories of sovereignty, which did not fail to remember Nimrod.6 But much earlier, Nimrod had served as a counterpoint to a very different kind of power.

In the Bible, the portrait of the hunter-king is followed by that of Abraham, the shepherd. The contrast is striking. On the (p.14) one hand, Nimrod, a cruel and idolatrous tyrant; on the other, Abraham, a peaceful and virtuous shepherd. The former, a conquering hunter, glorifies himself, carried away by the passion for domination, while the latter, a humble shepherd, glories only in his obedience to the Lord and his devotion to his flock. The parallel between the two figures becomes a topos of commentary on the Scriptures that is adopted over and over by the vulgate and the preachers: “The first king of Babylon began by being a mighty hunter: the first leader of Israel began by being a shepherd.” Whereas “the hunter thinks only of capturing and killing,” the shepherd “loves the members of his flock, he knows them; he calls them by their names, he walks in front of them, leads them to good pastures, … binds up their wounds, carries them in his arms when they are tired, … looks for them everywhere when they have gotten lost; joyfully brings them back on his shoulders, watches over them day and night, risks his life to defend them from the wolves.”7

What is at stake in the comparison of these two figures goes very far beyond the didactic function of two biblical exempla. In this symmetry and term-for-term opposition are defined two utterly different and incompatible models of political power.

Michel Foucault located, on the basis of Hebrew tradition, the emergence of a pastoral power. But I think this genealogy is missing an essential component. To what, in fact, is the pastorate opposed? In the Old Testament, Foucault explains, “the bad kings, those who are denounced for having betrayed their task, are designated as bad shepherds, not in relation to individuals, but always in reference to the whole.”8 But the figure of the bad king cannot be reduced to the case of the failed shepherd. The real counterpoint to pastoral power, what is opposed to it not simply as a defective form of itself but as its true antithesis, its inverted double and at the same time its foil, is Nimrod, the hunter (p.15) of men. In the long history of the thematization of power that began in Hebrew tradition, there are in fact two opposing terms: Abraham and Nimrod, pastoral power and cynegetic power.

What are the characteristics of this opposition? The first principle of pastoral power is its transcendence. God is the supreme shepherd, but he entrusts his flock to subordinate shepherds. The schema is that of the human shepherds’ entire dependency and complete submission to divine authority. With Nimrod the opposite is true: far from receiving his people from the hand of God, he captures it by force, with his own hands. The reign of the hunter-king is not only the first power on Earth but also the first power that is specifically terrestrial, whose authority is not inherited from a transcendent source. Nimrod is the first figure of the immanence of power.9 His rationality is that of a physics rather than a theology of power.10 This is the first major characteristic of the opposition between cynegetic power and pastoral power: the immanence of the power relationship or the transcendence of the divine law as the foundation of political authority.

For Foucault, pastoral power was still defined by three other characteristics: it is exercised over a multiplicity in movement (a flock); it is fundamentally beneficent (caring for the flock), and it individualizes its subjects (knowing each member of the flock individually). A mobile, beneficent, and individualizing power. Now, as it is presented by tradition, cynegetic power is opposed term for term to this triple characterization.

Cynegetic power is exercised over prey, living beings that escape and flee, with a double problem: how to catch them and how to retain them once they are caught. This power is thus mobile, but not in the same way as pastoral power. Whereas the shepherd walks in front of his flock to guide it, the hunter pursues his prey to seize them. But the essential difference does not (p.16) lie there. Despite its mobility, cynegetic power remains to a very large extent also a territorial power. While the shepherd knows only a single type of space, that of the pasture, the hunter constantly moves back and forth between two spaces, or more exactly between a space and a territory: Nimrod is both a hunter and the founder of a city. He reigns over Babel, but he periodically plunges into the space outside to hunt down his prey, which he brings back and piles up inside his walls. His is an urban power, but its exercise is not limited to the circumscribed unit of the city: on the contrary, everything takes place in the relationship between the city’s territory and the space outside it, in a movement of annexation that constantly appropriates outside in order to accumulate inside. Although it is deployed on the basis of a territory, Nimrod’s power is not limited in its predatory extent by any external boundary. It is exercised, from a territory of accumulation, on the resources of an indefinite exteriority. If Nimrod hunts and builds, that is also because one is the condition of the other: he hunts in order to build. Cynegetic power gathers together what is scattered, centralizes and accumulates it in a limitless logic of annexation. That is the image of Babel: the hunter’s accumulation is manifested by a vertical piling-up that will reach even the heavens. The captured people are employed in building the city that imprisons them. The dynamics of cynegetic power is oriented by these two vectors: centralization through the annexation of external resources, and verticalization through the accumulation of captives in the internal territory.

Thus, whereas pastoral power guides and accompanies a multiplicity in movement, cynegetic power extends itself, on the basis of a territory of accumulation, over a space of capture. Whereas pastoral power is fundamentally beneficent, cynegetic power is essentially predatory. If the shepherd Moses was chosen as the political shepherd of the people of Israel, that is because he had demonstrated, through his aptitude for guiding flocks, (p.17) qualities that could be transferred to the government of people. In contrast, as John of Salisbury wrote, “The arrogance of the tyrant … had no other founder than he who learned to scorn the Lord by slaughtering wild animals and rolling in their blood.”11 Just as pastoral power prepares for good government, hunting is the school of tyranny. Whereas pastoral power is governed by a managing rationality of the growth of internal resources, cynegetic power imposes a logic of raids or levies. In the medieval imagination, Nimrod is the symbol of fiscal power: “When he could capture a man or a woman, before he let them go he made them promise to hand over every year, to him or to his heir, an ox or a certain amount of wheat.”12 While the shepherd is concerned with the life and the health of his subjects, the hunter taxes and consumes, if necessary to the point of exhausting and even killing his subjects.

Finally, whereas pastoral power is an individualizing power—in the sense in which the shepherd has to give individual attention to each of his sheep—cynegetic power, although it proceeds by division, does so with a view to accumulation. The hunt begins by scattering the group of prey in order to isolate the most vulnerable. This is a process of division: separating the individual from his group. But if this process first isolates its prey, it is only the better to massify them again afterward. In a monumental inscription, King Ashurbanipal “prides himself on having killed with his own hands no less than 450 great lions, 390 wild bulls, mounted on his chariot, also to have cut the heads off 200 ostriches, caught 30 elephants in traps and seized, alive, 50 wild bulls, 140 ostriches, and 20 large lions.”13 Cynegetic power accumulates; it does not individualize.

Because it has to labor for the salvation of its subjects, pastoral power is caught in a dialectic of the whole and the part, with the dilemmas this entails: can one sacrifice one sheep to save the rest of the flock? No such question arises for cynegetic power: (p.18) they can all die. In the event of losses, it can always seek further resources outside. This power is not governed by any imperative of preservation. Consequently, for cynegetic power there is no choice to be made as to who shall survive and who not; there is no problematics of sacrifice.

Christianity continues this opposition between pastoral power and cynegetic power, which it uses chiefly to distinguish between the spiritual and the temporal modalities of governing humans.

The Gospels say: “As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said unto them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”14 Christian proselytizing finds here one of its great metaphors: fishing for men. To gather together its faithful, Christianity does not hunt; it fishes.

Hobbes comments: “And [regeneration] is compared by our Saviour, to Fishing, that is, to winning men to obedience, not by Coercion, and Punishing, but by Perswasion. Therefore he said not to his Apostles, hee would make them so many Nimrods, Hunters of Men; but Fishers of Men.”15 Strict persuasion is opposed to the right of coercion. Thus, in this tradition the sovereign’s political power is distinguished from the strictly spiritual power of the Church.16

What emerges with the story of Nimrod is a forgotten continent of Western political thought. If Foucault could say that beginning with the rise of Hebrew, and then Christian, pastoralism, politics has been largely considered a matter of the sheepfold,17 we can add that it was also, though in accord with a parallel and opposed genealogy, a matter of hunting.


(1.) Genesis 10:8–9.

(2.) Sepher Ha-Zohar, Le livre de la splendeur. Commentaire sur Deutéronome (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1985), vol. 6, p. 182.

(3.) Friedrich Julius Wilhelm Schroeder, Premier livre de Moïse—Commentaire (Paris: Ducloux, 1850), vol. 1, p. 282.

(4.) An unproven etymology derives Nimrod from the Hebrew ררמ‎, mārad, “to rebel,” with the ambiguity that in this form the word would rather signify, in the passive, the person against whom the rebellion takes place. Nimrod appears both as the one who disobeys and the one who elicits disobedience.

(5.) Jean Bodin, Six Books of the Commonwealth (Oxford: Blackwell, 1955), p. 57.

(6.) David Loewenstein, Representing Revolution in Milton and His Contemporaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 43.

Émile (p.159) J.-J. Rousseau, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), vol. 4, p. 837.

(7.) René François Rohrbacher, Histoire universelle de l’Église Catholique (Paris: Gaume, 1857), vol. 1, p. 312.

(8.) Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 170.

(9.) Antiquities of the JewsG. W. F. Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1970), p. 184.

(10.) The Zohar says that Nimrod’s clothes came from Adam: “They had fallen into the hands of Nimrod; and it was thanks to these clothes that Nimrod was a great hunter.” By Adam’s clothes “the Zohar means the laws of nature, or physics, as we now say, which God revealed to Adam. It is certain . . . that according to the Zohar, Nimrod, having explained all phenomena on the basis of natural laws, led the people to believe that it is these laws that rule sovereignly over the world.” Sepher Ha-Zohar, p. 101.

(11.) Philippe Buc, “Pouvoir royal et commentaire de la Bible (1150–1350),” Annales 44 (1989): 691–713, 698.

(12.) Claude Thomasset, Commentaire du Dialogue de Placides et Timeo (Geneva: Droz, 1982), p. 217.

(13.) Pierre Briant, “Chasses royales macédoniennes et chasses royales perses: Le thème de la chasse au lion sur la Chasse de Vergina,” in Pierre Lévêque, Dialogues d’histoire ancienne (Besançon: PUFC, 1991), pp. 211–256, 219.

(14.) Matthew 4:18–20; Mark 1:17.

(15.) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, part 3, chap. 42.

(16.) (p.160) Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas, La Seconde Semaine (Paris: S.T.F.M., 1992), vol. 2, p. 313.