Q. I saw this review and it made me think of many of the difficult questions you’ve been untangling on your Understanding the Books of the Bible blog. Perhaps you’ll find in it a few more.
The friend who sent me this note was referring to a review by Patrick Allitt of Philip Jenkins’ book Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. I should specify that I haven’t read the book itself, only this review. But it does indeed raise difficult questions.
According to Allitt, Jenkins insists that “the Bible contains incitements not just to violence but also to genocide.” He argues that “Christians and Jews should struggle to make sense of these violent texts as a central element of their tradition.” This, he says, would be much better than past approaches, which have included:
• Taking the passages about merciless warfare literally and imitating them when the occasion seems to justify, as the Crusaders and conquistadors did.
• Ignoring the passages, as the Revised Common Lectionary and most preachers do today. This is equivalent to taking them out of the Bible, as Marcion wanted to do in the second century.
• Allegorizing them as metaphorical descriptions of the individual believer’s struggle against sin, as Origen and Augustine did.
• Arguing that they discredit the God of the Bible, as some Enlightenment figures did and as today’s “new atheists” are doing.
Instead of taking any of these approaches, Jenkins argues, we need to recognize that the biblical stories of divinely commanded genocides are actually a historical fiction made up many centuries after the facts, to encourage Israelites to “live up to the rigors of monotheism” by having nothing to do with the gods of the surrounding nations. The biblical authors were “‘telling a story and at every possible stage heightening the degree of contrast and separation between Israel and those other nations,’ not for the sake of historical accuracy but to send a spiritual message to their own people.”
Jenkins, citing archaeological evidence that “the Hebrews coexisted with many other peoples in the Canaan of the 12th century B.C.,” is convinced that “the pitiless massacres in question almost certainly did not take place.” So “perhaps,” he concludes, “the later commentators, Jewish and Christian, were not that misguided in seeing the massacres in allegorical terms.” “Israel had to kill its inner Canaanite.”
This is a very attractive proposal, because the biblical stories of genocide are so disturbing. It would be a great relief to think that they never really happened. However, I do have some concerns about this proposal, at least as it’s summarized in this review.
As I understand the Bible, it’s the written record of God’s initiatives throughout history to bring humanity back to himself. I allow that the recounting of this history, like all historiography we do on this earth, was necessarily shaped and limited by the sources available to the human authors of the Bible. In it we may encounter multiple perspectives on the same events. But this is very different from saying that the biblical authors, in telling their story, deliberately altered events as they were known to them from the historical record.
We shouldn’t have to read the Bible with a built-in skepticism about what it says happened. We may sometimes get slightly varying accounts of how, and there are often questions of why, but in general we are supposed to trust that we are hearing an overall narrative of what God has actually done in human history.
So I would take a different approach to the violent stories in question. I would accept that they actually did happen. (Even if there is archaeological evidence of co-existence with Canaanites in ancient Israel, this is no more than the Bible itself says: Joshua’s campaigns were against the fortified royal cities of the region; when these were subdued, Joshua gave the individual tribes the task of conquering the Canaanites remaining in their allotments, and in many cases they chose to co-exist with them instead.) But I do not believe that followers of Jesus should consider these stories a “central element” (admittedly Allitt’s phrase) of their tradition.
Quite the opposite. I see these stories as exceptional and even incongruous within the Bible. The challenge is not to see how we can incorporate them into the heart of our faith and practice (as epitomizing the struggle against sin, for example), but rather to see whether we can somehow account for them without losing our faith.
I talk about how we might do this in this post, in which I argue that “Jesus’ life and teachings provide, for his followers, the interpretive key to the entire Scriptural record of God’s dealings with humanity. In light of them, believers identify what things are normative and what things are exceptional. Jesus taught that we should love even our enemies, and that we should show mercy to others so that we will receive mercy ourselves. He died to save people who were, at the time, his own enemies. So his life and teachings show that judgments of total destruction, like the one described here, are “exceptional.”
The question then becomes, “Why did exceptional events like this occur as the Israelites took possession of Canaan?” This is, as I also say, “one of the greatest difficulties in the entire Bible for thoughtful, compassionate followers of Jesus.” It does not have a simple, easy solution.
But I would suggest that if we did abandon the God of the Bible because we found these violent episodes impossible to reconcile with the biblical presentation of God as essentially loving and merciful, then we would also be abandoning that loving, merciful God in the process.
I think it’s better to take as our bottom line John’s statement that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” If we want to know what God is really like, we can look to Jesus. This is the “made him known” part The challenging questions that remain then have to do with the “no one has ever seen God” part, and we can hope that they will finally be resolved once we do see God.