What about Those Old Testament “Texts of Terror?” Review of a (Relatively) New Book by Philip Jenkins
I just finished reading Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses by my colleague Philip Jenkins (Harper One, 2011). Philip is one of the most prolific Christian scholars these days. And he writes on a broad variety of issues related to contemporary Christianity. Of course, he’s best known for The Next Christendom—a ground breaking book about Christianity in the Global South. Now he has given us a volume about religion and violence and especially the value of our Bible’s “texts of terror.”
I’m going to keep this brief; a thorough review of the book would necessarily be quite lengthy and detailed as it covers a lot of ground—from discussions of the Qur’an and Islamic terrorism to the dating of Deuteronomy. When I read a book I try to identify the few paragraphs that communicate its thesis or theses. I would say that one thesis of Laying Down the Sword is that the Old Testament texts of terror that record God’s genocidal commands to Israel regarding the Canaanites were written in the context of Israel’s much later crisis of exile and restoration. The prophets (e.g., Isaiah) and the historical writers (e.g., the Deuteronomist) wrote at approximately the same time and for approximately the same reasons—to urge God’s people to return to monotheistic belief and strict adherence to the laws of Yahweh.
So here is one of Jenkins’ theses: “The fate of the Canaanites had to be painted in the darkest possible colors because the writers were sending an urgent, eleventh-hour warning to the Hebrew people, to turn back to God or else face annihilation. Israel had to kill its inner Canaanite. Perhaps the later commentators, Jewish and Christian, were not that misguided in seeing the massacres in allegorical terms.” (p. 222)
Clearly Jenkins does not think the massacres actually occurred. Or, if they did, he does not believe God commanded them.
Still, unlike many liberal-leaning theologians and biblical scholars, and certainly unlike Marcionites and Deists of all kinds, Jenkins thinks the Old Testament texts of terror have contemporary relevance and should not be thrown out or ignored. First, they must be understood non-literally, he says, like many portions of the Bible. He points to story of God making the sun stand still in response to Joshua’s prayer at Gibeon. (p. 236) Jenkins says no modern person can believe the sun really stood still. Everyone (except the most obscurantist fundamentalist) interprets it some other way than literally. He offers an alternative interpretation to the story which, he says, was and remains its main point. Similarly, “Hearing Deuteronomy 7, those early listeners [viz., the Hebrews at the time of the prophets] were not intended to stand on their guard against Amorites or Canaanites, but against themselves and their neighbors, who together make up a society pledged to God. For modern believers, too, the text is not a message of hatred against any outsiders—still less a justification for violence or exclusion—but a call to absolute dedication [to the one true God].” (p. 237)
I recommend Jenkins’ book not because I agree with every statement in it or even all of its theses but because it is thought-provoking and informative about many matters (e.g., the Qur’an and historical Islamic beliefs and about modern biblical scholar’s dating of Deuteronomy and Joshua, etc., and the Sitzen im Leben of those books). Like all of his books, this one is invigorating.
One thing I found lacking was acknowledgment or recommendation of a Christological hermeneutic. I suspect Jenkins would worry that such would water down his concern that we recover and value the Old Testament texts of terror.
Better in that regard, in my opinion, is the chapter “The Case for Radical Discontinuity” by Nazarene scholar C. S. Cowles in Show Them No Mercy: 4 Views on God and Canaanite Genocide (Zondervan, 2003). There Cowles asks “Can we image [sic] the God revealed fully and finally in Jesus ordering the killing of children and infants? At any time? In any place? For any reason?” (p. 31) His implied answer is “no.” Of course, he goes on to argue for continuity between the Old Testament and the New and Jesus, but he emphasizes discontinuity without endorsing Marcionism:
There is a better way of dealing with the conflicting divine commands regarding the treatment of enemies [than the traditional ways]. It is to acknowledge what is everywhere assumed in the New Testament, namely, that while there are vast and vitally important areas of continuity between Israel’s faith and that of the church, there are significant instances of radical discontinuity as well, none more so than in reference to divinely initiated and sanctioned violence. There were good reasons why the church fathers, in settling upon the canon of sacred Scripture, separated the Hebrew Scriptures from the Christian and gave to the former the designation “old” and the latter “new.” (p. 19)
I realize that fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals will howl with righteous indignation at this, but let them explain their own view. I suspect it will make most Jesus-centered Christians’ skin crawl. If we take the deity of Christ and the Trinity seriously, and interpret the genocidal texts of Joshua, for example, literally, as God’s will, then we have to picture Jesus commanding the merciless slaughter of infants. Few conservative evangelicals can bring themselves to say it, but they do not hesitate to condemn others who admit that they cannot say it.
I am not going to declare unequivocally about the historicity of those texts; I will bracket them out and say “I just don’t know what to make of them” and “I cannot picture Jesus, who is the God I worship and adore, commanding those things.” And “I look forward to finding out from God himself, from Jesus himself, what I am supposed to think about those texts.” For now, all I can say is, they do not speak God’s voice to me. I do not understand them. They are dark and obscure and frightening. I run to Jesus. That was Luther’s approach, too, but he held onto a “hidden God” behind Jesus who commanded the slaughter of the innocents and who uses the devil to carry out his commands (“The devil is God’s devil!”). I do not believe in a “hidden God” behind Jesus. With Barth I affirm that Jesus is God for us and all we need when contemplating the character of God.