One Text, Many Bibles

Over at Obsidian Wings, the inscrutable Doctor Science has a post comparing three different methods of interpretation for the Canaanite genocides in the Bible.

He starts with a series of posts by Peter Enns, who is responding to John Piper’s assertions that the slaughter of the Canaanites is justified through his divine command ethics.

Quite naturally then, Enns arguments stem from his belief in the benevolent character of God as revealed in the Gospels:

It is unguarded to make a general principle of God’s character on the basis of the treatment of the Canaanites in the Old Testament. Of course, Piper would likely retort that all of Scripture is God-breathed, does not mislead us, and reveals the character of God. But then he would need to address squarely Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that “death to our enemies” is no longer valid.

The argument that biblical interpretation must be balanced with this understanding of a loving God is one of the hallmarks of progressive Christianity, dating back at least as far as William Ellery Channing. Meanwhile, John Piper sounds quite a bit like the old time Calvinists that so vexed Channing. (That means this argument is 200 years old now. Can we move on now?)

Doctor Science then considers Rachel Barenblat from the Velveteen Rabbi who takes an allegorical approach to the text:

The Hasidic rabbi known as the Sfat Emet reads this text creatively. He says that we ourselves are the “borders” into which holiness can flow. Those other inhabitants, he argues, weren’t able to experience the holiness inherent in the land. Only when the Israelites entered did the supernal land of Israel, the ideal Israel on high, merge with the earthly land of Israel here below. And when we prepare our hearts and souls with Torah, he says, God causes holiness to flow into us, contained by the borders of who we are.

That method is not a million miles away from the techniques used by the Christian church fathers. For example, Origen suggested that the genocide tales were an allegory explaining how we much defeat and eradicate our own internal vices, led by the spirit of Christ. Both Barenblat and Origen believe that the text has multiple meanings as well as underlying meanings beneath the face value of the text.

My problem with all of this is that no one seems interested in the history beyond the most basic level. Barenblat has a sectarian commitment to finding hidden meanings breathed into the text by the Holy Spirit, but the other two presumably do not. So why are they not talking about authorship, dating and historical context with any real depth?

The Canaanite genocides are brutal texts, and they require a frank analysis. For that, it’s always best to rely on the clear-eyed take of Thom Stark. Some time ago, Stark did a careful break-down of Douglas Earl’s The Joshua Delusion?, which tackled a lot of the issues here. His complaint was much the same as my own: we know a bit about the history behind these passages, so why is no one interested in connecting the dots?

We know that much of Joshua is deuteronomic history, and the consensus is that these were written during the time of King Josiah. We don’t know the specific authors, but we know that these histories were created by a political and religious elite. We know what the elites were concerned about at this time: Josiah was undertaking a massive centralization of religion in Judea. Stark puts it into perspective, “Imagine if all of a sudden Barack Obama tried to outlaw paying tithes to local churches, and demanded that all tithes be paid to the U.S. treasury. That would incite revolution, and this is essentially what Josiah was doing.”

Not surprisingly then, many historians believe that the Canaanite genocides are works of monarchical propaganda. Stark’s final take:

By ignoring the actual historical context behind the composition of the Book of Joshua, Earl failed to allow the book to speak in its “own voice,” which is the very thing he set out to do. For this reason, among others, it is with regret that I must deem Earl’s thesis to be a failure. He is correct that the Book of Joshua was written with the purpose of shaping a faith community, but his inattention to the historical background behind the composition of Joshua allowed him to claim naïvely that the Book of Joshua sought to shape the faith community in the direction of inclusiveness. To the contrary, the Book of Joshua was composed as propaganda for a violent reform which sought to eradicate religious diversity in Judea and Israel, all for the sake of power and money.

This is exactly the type of historical criticism we give to the annals of the Assyrians or the court records of the Egyptians. If you’re going to pretend to be using the historical-critical method, you have to take this kind of analysis seriously.

  • Some guy

    100%… well written vorjack.

  • dmantis

    Indeed…great post

  • vasaroti

    I think there might be other reasons why Biblical authors included genocides in their writings. Could be that as a 4-th rate power in the ancient world, the Israelites were trying to create an alternate history when their ethnic group was fearsome. Kind of reminds me of Marcus Garvey claiming the powerful Ptolemies were Black.

    Or, like the piles of bodies in Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs, it could just be that slaughter was the idiom of the times. If you wanted to make a story seem older than it actually was, tossing in some genocides would be a good touch.

    “Imagine if all of a sudden Barack Obama tried to outlaw paying tithes to local churches”
    Why do they always say “Barack Obama,” instead of a president or the President? Oh, never mind, I know why.

    • Thom Stark

      “Why do they always say ‘Barack Obama,’ instead of a president or the President? Oh, never mind, I know why.”

      Actually, vasaroti, you don’t know why. I voted for Obama. I used “Obama” because he is the sitting president, and because to conservative Christians he is seen as a threat to their religion. He isn’t of course. But Josiah was the kind of threat to rural religion in ancient Judea that Christians today think Obama is to them. That’s why I used him.

      • Len

        I don’t think that’s what vasaroti meant.

  • trj

    Historical criticism helps to explain, better than any amount of apologetics ever could, why the God of the Bible is such an inconsistent creature.

    Some authors (especially in NT) have wanted to portray God as merciful and just. Josiah wanted to portray him as a vengeful war god who has no compunctions about genocide, a god who forged a (largely fictional) Judaic nation by brutally vanquishing neighboring cities and nations.

    Once you realise that the various parts of the Bible was written for different purposes, it’s much easier to understand why they don’t fit each other very well. The Bible is a disjointed compilation of documents, written by different people with different theological and political agendas, and the way they choose to portray God follows directly from that.

  • http://afrolatinoatheist.tumblr.com dantresomi

    great post. i enjoyed it tremendously

  • kessy_athena

    I wonder if the reason no one wants to “connect the dots” has to do with the current political situation in the Middle East? Certain groups in the US tend to respond to any criticism of Israel’s actions today as if the person doing the questioning is advocating eating children alive or something. Perhaps there is a resistance to examining the actions of ancient Israel and Judea too thoroughly because such an examination might lead to uncomfortable questions about the actions of modern Israel?


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