Tag Archives: Genocide

Is the Bible Inerrant?…and did God command genocide?

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the first chapter of Peter Enns new book The Bible Tells me so…why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It.

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I have since finished the book, it’s fantastic!

I wanted to reflect on what I saw as the main points of the book and where I resonated the most.

The main point of the book is that too many people have attempted to defend the Bible as an inerrant rule book that gives one harmonious story and picture of God, and this view has thus hindered them from reading the Bible as it is.

Enns’s conclusion?

The Bible doesn’t behave like a divinely dictated, inerrant rule book. The Bible contradicts itself, gives various pictures of God, and often tells stories that are not factually or historically true.

Enns jumps right into the complexity by dealing with one of the hardest stories in the Hebrew Scriptures, the genocide of the Canaanites that was commanded by God.

In the book of Joshua it states, “For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

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Enns writes, “It’s hard to appeal to the God of the Bible to condemn genocide today when the God of the Bible commanded genocide yesterday.”

Enns goes a step further and writes, “…this God is flat-out terrifying: he comes across as a perennially hacked-off warrior-god, more Megatron than heavenly Father.”

If you are like me and have struggled with understanding how a loving God could command such atrocities your not alone!

Enns shows that the archeological evidence suggests the annihilation of the Canaanites never happened. (I have written about the historical inaccuracy of this here.)That’s correct…what the Bible claims to have happened appears to have never taken place…at least not on the scale that the story claims.

Before we get into other places where the Bible contradicts itself ( in Joshua it says that they annihilated all the Canaanites except for a few, but Judges makes it clear there were many still alive), we still need to answer the question of why this story is in the Bible.

Christians believe the Bible is somehow inspired by God. If this is the case, why would God allow such stories to become a part of the Bible?

Enns answers this (and I agree) by showing that God lets God’s people tell the story. The picture of God, in the case of the Canaanite annihilation, was not an accurate picture of God, but it was the way they viewed God at the time. Enns writes, “the ancient Israelites were an ancient tribal people. They saw the world and their God in tribal ways.”

I would add that we should be careful here to not think ourselves as having it all figured out. In another three thousand years I am sure people will look back upon us in many of the same ways we do to ancient people now.

So the story of the Canaanite annihilation is not a factually true story and God did not command genocide, but it was rather the view of ancient Israel of God as a tribal warrior deity similar to all other tribal warrior deities in the surrounding areas?

Yes.

Recently Richard Rohr wrote, “But, some will say, the Bible talks about God’s wrath. Yes, it does, but I would say that it was the people who were hateful at that point, and we wanted to create a God in our image. So we justify our wrath, our vengeance, and our violence by saying, ‘God orders us to kill all the Canaanites.'”

In other words, God works within whatever system or view humanity has of God at the time – even views that are not completely accurate (doesn’t this makes sense? If God is working through our limited views now, which I’m sure are not completely accurate, than our experiences would confirm this). We are limited in our perspectives. We see the world through certain lenses that our science, technology, archeology, cosmology makes available to us at the time. In the story of the Canaanites, the people of the Bible viewed their God in much the same way other people viewed their gods. Israel saw the world in much the same way other ancient people saw the world.

If the Bible is not an inerrant rule book or manual for life, what then is the Bible?

According to Enns, the Bible works, “as a model for our own spiritual journey. All of us are on a journey of faith to encounter God from our point of view.”

“The Bible presents a variety of points of view about God and what it means to walk in his ways. This stands to reason, since the biblical writers lived at different times, in different places, and wrote for different reasons. In reading the Bible we are watching the  spiritual journeys of people long ago.”

The Bible is inspired because it reveals the story of God that climaxes in Christ, yet it is always written from the perspective of humans and humans have different ways of seeing things.

So the Bible is not a simple, laid out, harmonious story that we just passively absorb. The Bible is a complex, multilayered, collection of stories with different perspectives that don’t always align. Thus, we are invited to enter into the story, engage with the story, learn from the story, struggle with the story, wrestle with the story, and even…yes…disagree with the story, in hope that we can continue the story of God in the present and into the future – this is actually what the people in the Bible were also doing when they wrote it down.

How do we handle historical inaccuracies within the Bible?

The majority of modern critical scholarship openly admits the historical inaccuracies and inconsistencies within the Bible.

In my Hebrew Bible class (which I absolutely love!) we are given a question we are to respond to in an essay form. Several weeks ago we were asked this question and below is my response.

– I plan to do an addendum in the future which deals more specifically with the question of how/if God commands genocide. (That addendum can be found here)

Note – in respect to my Professor who is a Jewish Scholar, I do not spell out the Hebrew name for God  – Yahweh (YHWH).

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Today’s question is “given the differences between the biblical books of Joshua and Judges and historical account of that period,  how then do we read Joshua or Judges as sacred scripture?”

This week we read through Joshua and Judges which tell of Israel’s conquest of the land of Canaan under Joshua and Israel’s time in the land until Samuel.[1] Even from the outset, it is clear that the Joshua narrative begins with the Israelite belief that YHWH has given the land of Canaan to the Israelites.[2] As the Israelites cross the Jordan, YHWH miraculously provides a dry path for them to walk across[3] and YHWH divinely intervenes by bringing down the powerful walls of Jericho[4]. Next, Israel defeats the city of Ai[5] and then turns toward the Gibeanites who trick the Israelites into a peace treaty[6], and finally bring the city of Hazor to complete ruin[7]. Repeatedly, the Joshua narrative describes these conquests as a divine mandate in which the Israelites completely annihilate everyone[8]. Joshua 11 best summarizes this conquest by stating:

“There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle. For it was the Lord’s doing to harden their hearts so that they would come against Israel in battle, in order that they might be utterly destroyed, and might receive no mercy, but be exterminated, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”[9]

What is most interesting about the Canaanite conquest in the Joshua narrative is that the following narrative found in Judges opens by stating, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’”[10]

Clearly the Canaanites were not completely wiped out as the Joshua narrative suggests.

Not only are there biblical inconsistencies but there are also historical inaccuracies. First, it is now well known that the Israelite nation grew out of the Canaanite population and were greatly influenced by this culture.[11]

Second, the archeological evidence shows that Jericho, Ai, and Gibeon were all uninhabited during the time the Israelites entered into the land of Canaan around 1200 BCE.[12]

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Concerning this one scholar wrote, “…the observation that the historical portrayal of the complete conquest of the land of Israel and the destruction of the Canaanite population is simply not true”.[13]

Should we throw out this narrative since archeological evidence, as well as biblical inconsistences, show it is historically inaccurate?

If we were to throw this out, as some may suggest, I think we would be falsely assuming that truth can only be found when it is conveyed with perfect historical accuracy. I’m not sure the author of Joshua was all that concerned with perfect historical recollection. One historian writes, “The theological messages that the biblical writers sought to convey are so thoroughly intermeshed with their perceptions of history that it is difficult to separate one from the other”.[14] When it comes to the Joshua narrative in particular, and any part of the Hebrew Bible in general, when the narrative does not align with historical and archeological evidence, we should ask what the main theological message of the narrative was – this is key.

One easy way to help uncover what the theological message concerning the specific narrative in question is to find out when and why this narrative was written. Concerning historical narratives Dr. Sweeney writes, “History was not written simply to provide an account of the past; it is written so that both its writers and readers can reflect on and learn from the past in order to build a better future”.[15]

It seems the Joshua narrative was not written primarily to give a perfect historical account of Canaanite conquest, but was written to answer the question, “why are we, as the nation of Israel and the people of YHWH, in exile?”

Much of the Joshua and Judges narratives were written to show YHWH’s fidelity throughout Israel’s history. The people who were living in exile were certainly wrestling with the question of why – something we consistently wrestle with when we endure hardship today. By reflecting upon their history as shown in the Joshua and Judges narratives, Israel was reminded that YHWH was always faithful and that the nation of Israel prospered when they were faithful to YHWH, but were faced with difficult circumstances when they were unfaithful to YHWH.

How then should we as modern readers understand the Joshua and Judges narratives?

We should read these narratives in light of the theological message which include the questions of why and when they were written. If we get hung up on the historic and archeological inconsistencies (or on arguing against archeology and science) it only encourages us to miss the main message which is still applicable today.

The message suggests that if we face difficult situations it is not because of YHWH’s infidelity. YHWH is always faithful.

 

 

[1] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 179, 193.

[2] Joshua 1:11, 2:9, 2:14 etc.

[3] Joshua 3 & 4.

[4] Joshua 6.

[5] Joshua 7 & 8.

[6] Joshua 9 & 10.

[7] Joshua 11:11-14.

[8] For Jericho see Joshua 6:21; for Ai see Joshua 8:22-24; for Libnah and Lachish see Joshua 10:32, 35, 37, 40; for Hazor see Joshua 11:11-14.

[9] Joshua 11:19-20 NRSV.

[10] Judges 1:1 NRSV.

[11] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 182.

[12] Ibid, 183.

[13] Ibid, 182.

[14] Steven L. McKenzie & Stephen R. Haynes, To Each Its Own Meaning (Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press, 1999), 21.

[15] Marvin A. Sweeney, Tanak: A Theological and Critical Introduction to the Jewish Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 172.