Monday, February 20, 2012

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses by Phillip Jenkins

Note: I intended some times ago to start a blog about the horror genre and its relation to Christianity. I was going to call it "Spirituality and Horror," and maybe have a black background instead of a white one, and (if possible, a red splatter suggesting blood over the title). When my freind Randy Streu changed the format of "A Flame In The Dark" to a blog, he asked me to contribute--so that is what I did. The blog is found here:
and I sure wish I could make it work without having to cut and paste. I post under the same name.

Before last Christmas, we had a Bible class at my church. The subject was authors who do not have a correct understanding of scripture, and therefore might not truly beleive. The one author examplified was Phillip Jenkins. The passage under discussion was taken from his recent book, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses. The discussion focussed the troubling NT story of Jesus approached by a Gentile woman who pleads with Him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus refuses, but then relents. It is troubling becuase Jesus (at first) seems to respond very tribalistically, telling her his mission is first to the house of Isreal, and that must not food from its children and throw it to dogs. Was Jesus perhaps "testing" ho the woman would respond? Jenkins explains that a possible interpretation here (in contrast to more common one that this was an early stage in the Jesus movement) that Jesus, in providing the desired miracle, was reaching out to a descendent of the Canaanites, who the first Joshua had slaughtered (pgs 240-241).

Whether of not such an interpretation is valid, there are reasons why an orthodox (and very "culture war Christianity" oriented) church such as mine would be dismissive of Jenkins. The book, which I went out and read cove-to-cover, focuses, as its title indicates, on one of the most controversial Christian topics: namely Old Testement atrocities. As Jenkins shows, the topic is not merely a modern one: ever since the Bible's inception, the bloody crusades allegedly carried out by the ancient Isrealites have appalled readers.

One major point Jenkins drives home from the start is that Christians and Jews should refrain from criticizing Islam overtly as being a religion of terror based on its violent passges, when the Bible contains very many passages that are even more monstrous. I'm not sure I'm entirely in agreement with him here. It is very likely true that the atrocities commintted by God's chosen people indeed overshadowed any commanded by the Koranic texts; however, modern accounts of Muslim inspried violence speak for thenselves. Jenkins explains (correctly) that this is partially due to the extreme poverty in Muslim nations, and that the fact that they have been occupied by US Millitary forces. However, as Sam Harris has observed at length in The End of Faith, Muslim passages sanctioning violence against infidels are far more numerous given a much briefer text; nor are they strictly historical records, as are the OT accounts of violence. More to the point, however, is what is lacking in the Koran; specifically, the entire ministry of Jesus Christ. Harris also makes the point that:

Yes, the Bible contains its own sadistic lunacy -- but the above quotations can be fairly said to convey the central message of the Qur'an -- and of Islam at nearly every moment in its history. The Qur'an does not contain anything like a Sermon on the Mount. Nor is it a vast and self-contradictory book like the Old Testament, in which whole sections (like Leviticus and Deuteronomy) can be easily ignored and forgotten. The result is a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred that has become a problem for the entire world.

Beyond the comparison to Muslim extremists, however, Jenkins explains that the concept of Herem warfare carried out in the OT, in which women, children, and even animals were not spared, was atrocious even by the standards of the ancient world. And though they are often looked on as mere historical records, in the past, and even in moden times, there have been Christians and Jews who drew inspiration from OT atroicities to justify violence against current peoples. And since we are often told that the peoples slaughtered in the OT accounts somehow "deserved" what happened to them, why should't we expect such ugly justifications to arise when applicable?

There are certain approaches to the OT atrocities which are common used, and which, Jenkins tells readers, should be avoided. One is to simply ignore or gloss over them; the fact that the ugly texts still exist, and are used, on occasion, to justify violence, as ample argument against this. Another common tactic is to merely say something like "Oh, that's just Old Testement; it doesn't pertain to us today." It is true that we now have a new covenent in Jesus Christ. But to simply brush the passages off thusly begs the question: why were such ugly atrocities ever moral or necessay? Indeed, when it comes to herem warfare I've to encounter a defense which is morally acceptable. Another common (and quite bad) approach is the defense that God has infinite wisdom which we do not possess, so we ought not to question it, or, worse, the power-argument which holds that God is God is God, and whatever he declares correct, therefore is. Neither of these is sufficient, as Jenkins observes. Another insufficient defense is to charge that the conquered peoples were guilty of terrible atrocities themselves. Jenkins explodes this by showing that no evidence exists that the practices of the ancient Canaanites and Amalkemites were any more depraved than those of other peoples who were spared Biblical wrath. Perhaps the best defense offered is by Rev. Jonathon Anderson, who owns this webiste:

According to Rev. Jonathon Anderson, the atrocities carried out by the Isrealites against the canaaaites and other peoples were not really approved by God, but God allowed his people the freedom to follow their own barbarous instincts. That is, until the coming of Christ. This seems to hold true, in a way, since the dynamics of herem warfare certainly seem,and I would say are, human-centered. Waging war is, after all, observed frequently among chimps (who share 90 percent identical DNA with our own species), who have been documented to slaughter rival tribes, not excepting to young, and even to cannibalize them. Perhaps given the barbarous times in which they lived,the ancient isrealites were not yet ready for the covenent established by Jesus. But Jenkins warns, too, of merely dismissing Biblical bloodshed as beleonging to earlier period of primitive barbarism. Not only are the accounts more vicious than most others even before that time, they often do not even seem practical: why the command to leave the treasure vaults of Jericho unplundered by the conquerors? As far as Rev. Anderson's explanation goes, I'm not sure I'm convinced the atrocities weren't allegedly commanded by God; as the Bible indicates that some, at least, were, and even if they were not, that still leaves the account of the Flood, in which God Himself wipes out the whole of human race, save for one family.

Jenkins does finally offer a solution, however. The accounts of bloodletting must be understood within the context in which they appeared, he tells us, for the original texts were written at a time when there existed among the Isrealites pressure to fall away from the faith and worship other gods. The writers essentially exaggerated the harshness of the accounts in order to impress upon readers the possible consequences of abandoning the faith. This interpretation shows why even the wealth of the conquered went to waste. The scribes wanted to warn readers that what had befallen the Canaanites Amalkenites might also befall them.

In other words, the purpose of OT atrocities was to instill fear of the Lord.

Why might not modern conervatives be confortable with jenkins' approach? The answer, by now, should be obvious. Jenkins' interpretation depends on a non-literal reading of the texts. And that is something conservative evangelicals won't have. Why? Because, largely, they're doing the some thing themselves, both with the doctrine of hell, and also, as my next post will show, with OT atrocities.

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