Is God Hospitable? The Amalekites Didn’t Think So

The residents of Jericho probably didn't think Yahweh was very hospitable (The Taking of Jericho, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot; image in the public domain)

Hospitality is a key virtue in the emerging and missional church movements, as I’ve even argued in my latest book.  In some ways, it is an understandable response to the perceived inhospitality of the late-20th century church.  The conservative/evangelical church is seen as inhospitable for its exclusivistic theology.  And the mainline/liturgical church is considered inhospitable for its anachronistic practices and rites.  While each claims to be “seeker sensitive,” both, it can be argued, are relatively inhospitable.

That’s led me to consider if God is actually hospitable — it would seem harder to justify hospitality as a key virtue of our churches, if God isn’t setting the precedent.

The first place to look is the Old Testament, aka, the Hebrew scriptures.

The primary example of hospitality that people trot out in the Hebrew scriptures is Abraham, running to kill and ox when the three mysterious visitors suddenly appear standing above him under the Oaks of Mamre.  But Abraham, as good of a model as he may be, is not God.

Yahweh exemplifies some serious hospitality in the Old Testament.  In fact, it’s woven into the Law: every field is required to lie fallow on a once-every-seven-year cycle.  But during that sabbath year, animals and wayfarers are able to pick and eat the gleanings of that field, unmolested by the field’s owner.

The Lord also prescribes, in Leviticus 19,

33When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. 34The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

The countervailing examples, those of Yahweh’s inhospitality, far outweigh these.  It would seem hospitable, for instance, that the Israelites would share the land on which the city of Jericho was built, or even build a settlement on some neighboring land [gasp!].  Instead, with Yahweh’s help, Jericho is destroyed, along with every man, woman, child, and creature within it.

Or take the Amalekites, on whom David “waged a sacred war of extermination,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia.  They probably didn’t consider Yahweh very hospitable.

So, my question is, how does the God of the Old Testament jibe with your understanding of Christian hospitality?

  • http://www.MannsWord.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    More importantly, Jesus gave no indications that He though His Father inhospitable. This is because He thought nothing wrong about the righteousness/judgment of God. In fact, the mercy of God is predicated upon the judgment of God. Without judgment, mercy is irrelevant.

    Judgment is not incompatible with hospitality. If I invite you to stay in my home and you proceed to vandalize it, I am not lacking in hospitality if I call the police.

  • Jim Armstrong

    I’m inclined to think – unless I just miss the point – that this is a bit of a red herring, …this looking into the oral histories of the interactions among people groups and their warrings for some sense of God’s hospitality. I am much more inclined to take note of the providence of God in the whole of this in incredibly fecund Creation, making a place for life and sentience and curiosity and discoverability and …well…us and our intrinsically inadequate ruminations concerning the divine and how the nature and calculus of that divine may or may not fit into our templates of understanding. Now THAT’S what I call hospitality!

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Yes, Jim, that is a generous reading of the OT. And we can write off those books as so much primitive hogwash, as many Christian traditions have. But I refuse to. Wrestling with these difficulties makes our religion interesting.

  • Justin B.

    “Instead, with Yahweh’s help, Jericho is destroyed, along with every man, woman, child, and creature within it.”

    This isn’t exactly true. Rahab and her family were spared during the battle. That probably doesn’t make the story less disturbing for a lot of folks, but it’s incorrect to say that none of Jericho’s inhabitants survived.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Yes, of course, a lying prostitute was spared. Makes perfect sense.

      • Justin B.

        And that is upsetting because …?

        • Dan Hauge

          Yes, I get the problems with the overall narrative, but I’m not sure I get your comment here, Tony. Rahab being spared is objectionable because she’s a ‘lying prostitute’? She hid the spies (the text is obviously Israel-centric, so protecting the spies would be seen as a good thing), and her being a prostitute, I think, is a fairly radical statement that those who would be considered ‘sinners’ and ‘undesireables’ are welcomed when they recognize and ‘side with’ God.

          I get how this causes problems in terms of exclusiveness, and obviously the violence (Get on God’s side or you’re toast). But to sound indignant that it was a ‘lying prostitute’ the Israelites spared sounds a bit . . . off. Sparing those who society condemns seems to me to be one of the rays of light in this text.

          • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

            Dan, I don’t think that Rahab’s sparing is objectionable. It’s just another complicating factor in the narrative. Honestly, it adds to the richness of this story and the overarching narrative of the OT, which makes me love it more.

          • Dan Hauge

            Tony, (regarding last response), oh OK. I mis-read your tone in the first comment.

            • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

              Yes, my tone was off. This post was a bit rushed.

          • Justin B.

            That makes two of us. I thought Tony was objecting to it.

  • http://www.MannsWord.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    Justin,

    I think that Rehab and her family illustrate an important point. They all knew that God was with Israel. They had heard about the miracles in Egypt and Israel’s conquest over their enemies (Joshua 2:10). This should have brought all to repentance. Instead, the Canaanites hardened their heart, confirming that they deserved God’s judgment.

    • Justin B.

      Interesting thoughts, Daniel. I take Rahab and her family’s deliverance to show that God’s ultimate goal wasn’t ethnic cleansing or genocide; if it was, it would’ve been a sin for the spies to strike the deal with her in the first place.

  • dopderbeck

    The comment that the “counter-examples” “far outweigh” the examples of hospitality in the Hebrew Bible is tendentious, at best. Why exactly is it that the conquest narratives bear more weight than the Law’s hospitality codes? And why are the Prophets and the Wisdom Literature being ignored in this weighing? Does this “weighing” involve any attention to genre or historical-critical factors underlying the construction of these texts (does it matter, for example, whether the conquest narratives are post-Exhilic exhortations to holiness in the reconstituted nation??)

    And then there is the failure to read all of these different genres theologically through the narrative of Christ, which is of course what “missional” theology seeks to do….

    Sigh.

    Yes, the conquest narratives are disturbing. Yes, they deconstruct any simplistic hermeneutic for a Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible. Yes, they require careful attention to genre, context, historical construction, etc…. And this is nothing new.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      David, you are so often exasperated with my posts!

      These passages do not dent my commitment to the love or hospitality of God, but they are troubling and demand sophisticated hermeneutical responses. I do not, however, allow the NT to provide me an escape valve for the troubles of the OT. These passages must stand or fall on their own.

      • dopderbeck

        Exasperation is ok. Life is exasperating and I’m becoming a grouchy old man.

        I don’t think the “escape valve” comment with respect to the NT is fair at all. Why is a Christocentric hermeneutic not the sort of “sophisticated” response you’re looking for? I love the theological interpretation movement. I think it’s how the Church historically read the Bible, before nominalism and before modernity and so-on. Theological reading of the Hebrew Scriptures through a NT / Christocentric lens is IMHO exactly what we have to do with something like the conquest narratives.

        Such passages cannot “stand or fall on their own” because standing or falling “on their own” is not their purpose as scripture for the Christian Church. “Stand or fall on their own” is in fact a naive hermeneutic from the perspective of the function of these texts as scripture.

        You can of course analyze these texts “on their own,” diachronically, simply as bits of historically situated literature rather than as “scripture.” But that sort of “scientific” exegesis just rejects a priori the Church’s claim to these texts part of a canonical collection of scriptures, and therefore as texts that don’t just stand on their own.

        Because the “scientific,” diachronically-bound exegete rejects theology out of hand, I don’t think the “scientific” exegete has any right at all to argue what the texts might say about “God’s” hospitality or lack thereof. Importing the notion of a “God” who has attributes and intentions immediately boots the interpretation into the realm of theology.

        The “scientific” exegete who insists on slicing and dicing the text “on its own” might be able to say something about what some class or classes of scribes or priests or so on thought about God at some point or points in the composition of the redaction of a particular text. But nothing can be said here about what “God’s” character is really like, because that requires theology, which from a Christian perspective of course centers on Christ.

        Even as to what the various writers and redactors of the conquest narratives thought about God, I’m not sure the situation is so historically clear, given that the likely function of these texts when first collected by the post-Exhilic Jews probably was not to tell a more-or-less literal history of conquest — see Douglas Earle, “The Joshua Delusion”. But in any event, if the point of developing a “sophisticated” hermeneutic is to assess the hospitality of God from the framework of Christian theology, it seems to me that these texts can only ultimately be read from a Christocentric perspective — or else we’re doing something other than reading them theologically, which renders the project of speaking about “God” impossible.

        • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

          In all honesty, I think that my pendulum has swung to the other side. After attending an evangelical seminary and learning to read the OT through the lens of the NT, I did that for many years. Lately, however, I’ve been challenged by several Jewish friends — most notably, Joseph Edelheit, the rabbi-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch — to allow the Hebrew scriptures to stand on their own. I’ve been taught to look to the rabbinic commentaries for amazing unravelings of these passages, with nary a connection to Jesus.

          That being said, I think you make a great point. A Christocentric reading of the OT is available to us as Christians, and it is deeply theological — or at least it should be.

          • dopderbeck

            Tony, great conversation, thank you.

            I absolutely agree with you that it’s also vitally important for us to hear Jewish readings of the Hebrew scriptures. At the Catholic university where I teach, there is a program in Christian-Jewish studies, and I have a chance now and then to interact a bit with the Jewish scholar who runs that program. And I’m part of a group of law profs interested in “theology and law” (not just the usual American Constitutional culture war stuff), and I learn tons about Torah and justice from some of the Jewish thinkers involved in that group. The post-Vatican II Catholic perspective on Jewish-Christian dialogue, I think, is a very good and healthy model.

            But I’d add two things here:

            (1) A Jewish theological reading of the conquest narratives is still a reading that takes them as scripture and places them into a broader narrative / hermeneutical framework. Just as we would as Christians, no serious Jewish theological interpreter would start or end with the conquest narratives. They would start with the creation narratives, and they would “end” with the exile and the prophetic narratives, leading into the Second Temple period and the diaspora, and in contemporary times the Shoah. Obviously different Jewish communities will reach different conclusions about all this, and perhaps some of the ultra-Orthodox sects help fuel contemporary Israeli military politics with visions from the conquest narratives, but I don’t think this represents the “mainstream” of Jewish theological interpretation.

            In any event, the point here is that for Jewish theological interpreters as well as for Christians, the conquest narratives never stand “on their own.” They are in some way woven into a narrative of judgment and redemption.

            (2) Ultimately, a Christian theological interpreters of scripture, IMHO, even as we hear and benefit from Jewish readings of the texts, we can’t and shouldn’t avoid the hermeneutical center of Christ. This does not, I think, have to imply some kind of supercessionism, but it’s simply a distinctive of Christian communities that the center is Christ.

          • dopderbeck

            BTW just one other thing — I also don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Christocentric hermeneutics is an “Evangelical” thing. If anything, I think evangelicals are only in recent years really coming back to a Christocentric hermeneutic instead of a more literalistic “common sense” reading. It’s an effort to recapture how the Church Fathers read, and its always been part of Eastern Orthodox and Catholic hermeneutics. The “theological interpretation” movement now is broadly ecumenical and is led by many folks that most Conservative Evangelicals wouldn’t think of as “Evangelical” (e.g. Richard Hays, Beverly Gaventa, Robert Jenson, etc.).

  • John Mc

    To require that the OT be read through a Christocentric perspective before such readings can claimant theological significance, or to dismiss any reading of the OT which is not through a Christocentric perspective as naive is problematic for me. Such a narrow holding denies Jews any claim to their own Scritpure.

    I agree that these stories must stand on their own and carry their own water. Perhaps they can be viewed as ethnocentric apologies for the Hebrew Conquest, or perhaps as a vindication for the authenticity of the Promise, or merely the truth that when we genuinely place our whole trust in God, God will deliver us from existential threatas. They can stand on their own.

    Perhaps the story demonstrates what can happen when religious zealots wear blinders and choose to see only themselves as significant components in Creation, thusly empowered to kill and destroy all who impede their “faith-filled” way in the world. Surely there are sufficient stories in the OT which stress the cherished bond between the Creator and each human being that when juxtaposed with the Jericho destruction sequence the narrative of zealotry gone dangerously awry becomes more evident…and this can be seen without appeal to a Christocentric hermeneutic.

    By the way the irony of the prostitute Rahab’s survival when so many presumably moral and ethical and otherwise “innocent” people and creatures were slaughtered without any opportunity for appeal to justice or mercy, or any chance whatsoever for redemption suggests to me the naked truth that the slaughter itself was not necessarily authored by God, the contrary claims of the story’s human author notwithstanding. Like most Scripture, there are levels of truth, heard by those with ears to hear.

    • dopderbeck

      But John, your reference to “religious zealots” completely undermines your concern for the integrity of these texts as Jewish scriptures for the Jews. If you want to say that these are just stories of bigotry and brutality and nothing more (ala, say, Richard Dawkins), then you really need to say that Jews who take them as “scriptures” are just as nutty and misguided as Christians who do s0.

      Dawkins says the God of the Hebrew scriptures is

      “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction:jealous and proud of it; petty, unjust, unforgiving, control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty, ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevent bully.”

      Personally, I think comments like this brand Dawkins as anti-Semitic. It’s the background of comments like this — and many others like them throughout the history of anti-Semitism — that make me react against the kinds of dichotomies Tony seemed to draw in the original post.

      • John Mc

        Let me start my response by acknowledging that I have no expertise In this area. That being said, I perceive that it is a common aspect of the earliest scripture of many faith traditions to be ethnocentric, claiming the divinity as personally committed to them and as violently predisposed against enemies of the home culture. The ancient Jews were no more immune to this phenomena than any other people. Indeed, contemporary zealots in most faith traditions including Christianity, continue to lift up this aspect of their divinity, and hence to engage in allegedly divinely inspired violence against the “enemy”. I take as my point of departure in reading violent texts of the OT the Noah story and the regret God expresses at having created such violent creatures. From that I conclude that interpersonal violence breaks God’s heart like no other sin. Period, without qualification, even when deemed necessary, even when inescapable – it pains God to the core. So any story contained in Scripture which describes violence and fails to proclaim God’s abhorrence, I cannot help but re-read for clues to the divine distress which the human author failed to communicate.

        I intend no attack by observing this point – it appears in the Scriptures which define my faith (perhaps best described as progressive mainline Protestant Christianity). We all have to come from somewhere and it would be a mistake to deny our past. The fact that our Judeo-Christian Scriptures preserved this narrative, compels me to take it for what it is and what it says about the forebears of my faith in Yahweh, and to discern from the story what says about Yahweh and distinguish that from what those Scriptures say about those who first came to believe in Yahweh. Hopefully these Scriptures serve as a warning to future generations.

  • http://finalinsurrection.blogspot.com/ Lock

    I will admit I didn’t read the above statements, but ,”The conservative/evangelical church is seen as inhospitable for its exclusivistic theology.”

    Theology by its very nature is exclusivistic. Even your’s is.

    • Beth Walters

      You state, “Theology by its very nature is exclusivistic” as fact. Would you explain what it is in your thinking that makes that a given about the exploration of God — other than it perhaps excludes who believe there is no God to consider?


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X