by Doctor Science
Last weekend I noticed two religion blogs, one Jewish and one evangelical (though not fundamentalist) Christian, discussing the same passages in the Bible: the ones commanding the Israelites to fight, slaughter, enslave, and dispossess the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land of Israel. To commit genocide, in fact.
The two ministers come across as reasonably similar in personality and emotional tone -- I suspect they would get along quite well. Both read the Bible in historical-critical context, but they insist that it is necessary to read the Bible, not to just follow your bliss. Neither is willing to accept the "genocide commandments" as-is, but neither is willing to just throw them out or ignore them, either.
And they approach this text from different perspectives: asking different questions, using different tools. I was brought up as a Christian (in a Catholic/Lutheran family) but am now a practicing Jew, so I find a compare/contrast very illuminating. In this case, the Christian asks about the character or personality of God; the Jew asks what we Jews should *do*.
The Two Readers
Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian trained in Calvinist (Presbyterian and Reformed) institutions. He starts talking about the Canaanite Genocide in response to an interview with John Piper, a Baptist General Conference minister. Piper said, speaking of these same verses:
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”Enns rejects such a reading because of what it says about God's character. The central question for Enns is theology, strictly speaking: what sort of a Person is God? His methods are largely historical, about the context of the text and our own, but he always reads the Tanakh as the Old Testament, precursor to the New.
Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, is in the Reconstructionist/Jewish Renewal strain of Judaism. She's reading these passages because they were last week's portion in the cycle of yearly Torah reading, Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13. The question she struggles with is that these verses are used as
justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over "Greater Israel." Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?Her fundamental approach is to *wrestle*, to re-think and re-analogize, to read, as she says, creatively and "expansively". She doesn't want to just read the text, she wants to *redeem* it.
Peter Enns' Christian reading
First, until you are clear on what the motive is for God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites, you will not feel the true weight of the theological dilemma.He gathers evidence from various parts of the Torah, leading to the conclusion:
Iniquity is not the reason for the extermination. All nations are iniquitous. The reason is that the iniquity will lead Israel into idolatry.Basically, God is doing a horrible thing to make things more convenient, not as a moral principle.
The Canaanites are wiped out because they occupy the land Yahweh means to give Israel, and sharing the land with Canaanites and their abhorrent religious practices runs the risk of luring the chosen people into spiritual adultery.
Second, if you are willing to accept Canaanite genocide as compatible with God’s character, to be consistent, you must also accept as compatible with God’s character other troubling issues that come up in those very same passages.Specifically, Enns means the mandated infanticide, slavery, and rape described in Numbers. Even those (like John Piper) who say that it's God's right to kill anyone whenever he pleases are maybe not willing to say that it's God's right to order mass rape.Enns' basic approach to this dilemma is to ponder the historical context of Scripture, while thinking of God as a *person*, with a personality and character that he can relate to.
He thinks about how he talked about his own father to other boys in the schoolyard, as they bragged about who had the best dad (who could beat up the other dads). He didn't say his father was from a pacifist Mennonite community, he *did* talk how his dad won a turkey shoot.
That story was genuinely connected to my real father, but honor was at stake. How I told the story was dictated, unwittingly, by rules of the schoolyard.And this is how he looks at the Bible now:
The Bible is what happens when God allows his children to tell his story–which means the biblical writers told the story from their point of view, with their limitations, within the cultural context in which they wrote.Enns is aware that his historical-critical method looks to some Christians as though he's removing inspiration from Scripture, but he points out that traditional Christian (and Jewish!) scriptural interpretation has always talked about context:
When God lets his children tell the story, the way that story is told is deeply and thoroughly influenced by the “rules of the schoolyard”; in the case of the Old Testament that means ancient tribal societies that valued in their people and in their gods such things as taking land, vanquishing (i.e., killing or enslaving) their foes, and generally bragging about who has the best gods and the best kings.
That is how people thought, and this “rule” is stamped all over the Old Testament. This is a way of understanding why the Bible behaves the way that it does. It bears the marks of the limitations of the cultures.
Bear in mind this is only an analogy, but if we want to extend this to the New Testament, we can think of the teachings of Jesus as a more “mature” telling of God’s story. Jesus tells the story in a way that is more in line with who God is (“you have heard it said, but I say to you…”). Such things as land acquisition and killing and enslaving enemies is no longer part of God’s narrative.
What marks off recent generations is not that a renegade group of scholars and other troublemakers are now, all of a sudden, allowing “historical context” to invade our understanding of the pristine Word of God. Rather, the problem is that we have come to understand much more of that ancient context than ever before. The fact that many Protestant communities are deeply committed to Scripture as a clear word from God, which, therefore, can safely be understood without engaging the messiness of history, creates an antagonistic attitude toward those who are perceived as sacrificing Scripture on the altar of (unbelieving) scholarship.
The problem, again, is that the more we know of ancient contexts, the more uncomfortable grammatical-historical exegesis has become, and so threatens to undermine the very Evangelical theological system that relied on it so heavily. Rather than abandoning the method, however, it is wiser, I feel, to be willing to do the hard work of trusting God, going where the questions lead, and rethinking theological articulations when necessary, knowing that the survival of the Christian faith does not hang in the balance.
Rachel Barenblat's Jewish reading
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.Christians should be aware that one of the defining differences between Jewish and Christian Biblical interpretation is that Hasidim are generally classed as "Ultra-Orthodox", but they do *not* have a "fundamentalist" approach toward the Bible in the sense Christian Fundamentalists do. "Orthodoxy" in Judaism is a misnomer, it's really "Orthopraxy": Right (or traditional) Practice, not Right/Traditional Belief.
So Hasidim are both very traditionalist about Jewish practices (such as keeping kosher or wearing certain types of clothing), but also very open to mystical or emotional readings of Scripture. But then, I'd say that no Jew approaches the Bible expecting (or wanting) its meaning to be clear or simple, or for there to be a reading of any passage that is the "real" or sole intended one. If you can't read it a number of different ways, you're not reading it right.
I love the idea that we ourselves are the "borders" into which holiness can flow...but I chafe at the ethnocentrism. I espouse a post-triumphalist Judaism; I understand other religious traditions as meaningful paths to God. I can't accept that only we are capable of true holiness and true connection with our Source.Notice that the question that exercises Enns -- what kind of Person is God, to say such contradictory things? -- is not the issue for Barenblat. She's thinking about what Jews should do, *now*:
What, then, can we do with these verses?
How do we balance this week's Torah portion, with its instructions regarding displacement and violence, with the verses in Torah which call us to social justice and which champion the needs of the widow, the orphan, and the stranger? (For that matter, how can we balance the bloody slaughter of the Midianites with Torah's repeated calls to seek peace and pursue it?)
Is it possible, or desirable, to read these verses today without thinking of Gaza and the West Bank: those who settle in Judea and Samaria, and those who argue that the settlements are a primary obstacle to peace?
Allow me to read our Torah portion expansively. What if we read the verses like so:If you choose to dispossess the inhabitants of the land, then you'd better kill or displace all of them -- otherwise you're in for a world of reciprocal suffering, a spiral of violence which will enmesh generation after generation in hatred and bloodshed. But maybe someday, when humanity has evolved beyond this kind of tribalism, you'll reach the possibility of treating one another as fellow human beings despite your religious and cultural differences. That's the path to wholeness and peace, and if you don't seek it, you'll be driven out of the land yourselves.Does Torah actually say this? Not in so many words. But we can choose to read between the lines, to seek the white fire between the black fire of the text. Have we collectively evolved to the point where we can seek coexistence and common ground? I don't know. I hope and pray that the answer is yes.
Rabbi Arthur Segal notes in a d'var Torah on Matot-Masei that this week's portion contains instructions about the "cities of refuge" to which accidental murderers could flee in order to prevent the vicious cycle of blood feuds. He points out that we can come away from this week's Torah portion either "remembering to do genocide to our enemies," or choosing to relinquish vengeance. I believe I know which option I would rather pursue.
For myself, the context I start with is genre: what type of text is this? Even the most fundamentalist evangelical readers can tell that the Bible includes books in different genres: songs, proverbs, strongly personal statements (the prophets), apparently objective history (e.g. Chronicles), etc.
But we can't know the genre unless we understand the actual historical context, which for this period (broadly 2000-500 B.C.E.) means archaeology. Here we find the biblical archaeological discovery of the past 50 years that has surprised me most: there is no evidence for the conquest of Canaan. No evidence for war, widespread destruction, massacres, or a sudden cultural shift.
Current scholarly thinking is that:
.. for most historians, too many clues point to the Bible's greater Israel having its genesis in the Palestinian hill country in the last part of the Late Bronze Age and the early part of the Iron Age. The Bible, these historians reason, is the collective memory of a group that at some point saw itself as unified. This collective biblical memory places early Israel in the central Palestinian hill country or highlands in approximately the Iron Age, when archaeology also indicates that many new villages arose there.In other words, the Israelites *were* Canaanites. Israelites didn't cross the physical desert to conquer Canaan, "Israel" arose when some Canaanites changed their minds -- to wrestle with God.
In that case, the Conquest narrative is a kind of fiction, and there's no bar to me reading it as fiction. I can read it as Sfat Emet does, as a story about how when we prepare our hearts and souls with Torah...God causes holiness to flow into us, contained by the borders of who we are.
Enns points out
It is not at all clear that these biblical stories were even written to depict “what God did.” Recent work has made the case that the book of Joshua is not a “conquest narrative.” Rather, using conquest as a narrative setting, Joshua is a statement about what it means to be an insider or an outsider to their community.I can work with this.
The conquest stories are symbolic narratives that point to a theological truth. For example, the fact that Rahab, the Canaanite prostitute, is spared but the Israelite family man Achan and his family are treated as Canaanites (Joshua 6-7) is designed to make people think long and hard about what insider and outsider even means. (See Douglas S. Earl The Joshua Delusion?: Rethinking Genocide in the Bible and Daniel Hawk Every Promise Fulfilled: Contesting Plots in Joshua.)