This is the final entry in our current series on the Canaanite Genocide. Over the past weeks we have been exploring ways to handle the apparent contradictions in the Bible that tell us that God is good, yet God also commanded the Israelites to commit genocide as they took possession of the Canaan. As one of my overall purposes for Faith Seeking Revelation, I have been using this conflict as a case study demonstrating how we can integrate philosophy and logical reasoning into understanding the Bible and living a life of faith.
So let’s summarize the problem and the possible ways of solving the problem one more time. The conflict is that the Bible says that God is good and that God did something generally considered evil. Both cannot be true, so we need to reconcile (or reject) the conflicting passages. The four ways of doing this are:
- Define goodness as that which God commands; the genocide was not evil because it was commanded by God and thus, by definition, impossible for it to be evil. (Divine Command Theory)
- Maintain that while genocide is generally evil, in this particular case, God was justified for commanding it.
- Deny that God is good
- Reinterpret the genocide passages in a way that avoids making God responsible.
As we have already covered the first three options (1, 2, 3), this week we will flesh out how the fourth alternative would work.
The heart of the strategy of reinterpreting the Old Testament passages lies in separating the biblical texts from a historical account of Israel. Imagine a legal court setting where a witness testifies she saw the defendant commit the crime. If the defendant can provide an alibi, or if he can prove that the witness is wrong, then the defendant is acquitted of the charges. Likewise, if a reinterpretation of the genocide passages results in an understanding that the command of genocide never actually happened, then there is no longer any conflict. There are several ways to go about this; we will discuss three.
The first way to reinterpret the Old Testament passages is under the umbrella term of “Progressive Revelation,” which states that the revelations of God to humanity grew over time, first blurry (as in the Old Testament) but increased in clarity to the point of the Incarnation of Jesus, which is the perfection of God’s self-revelation to the world. With this understanding, one could read the problematic passages as a lesser revelation of God, and we would expect them to have conflicts with New Testament revelations of God. We would then ignore the older passages in favor of the newer. God is not guilty of commanding genocide because the OT authors did not receive as clear of a revelation of God; they must have gotten that part mixed up when writing down the Bible.
This interpretation has its merits; Christ is definitely the keystone of the Bible and God’s revelation to humanity. It also has a broad application. This one theory could be applied to almost anything in the Old Testament that is problematic. Another merit is that it maintains a straight-forward understanding of Scripture whenever possible, just with the one caveat that the original authors were sometimes mistaken.
Progressive revelation has its problems too. First and foremost, it sometimes borders on the edges of doctrines of the inspiration of the Bible—other times it simply crosses the line. If the human authors of the Bible were wrong in presenting God’s nature, then in what sense can we say they were inspired? Another problem is that with the theory’s broad application, it can often be used to throw undesired parts of the Bible under the rug. Even if God did not command the genocide, there is still a reason it is part of the Bible; simply disregarding it as error misses the purpose of its inclusion.
Israel’s Origin Story
Library–New Testament Studies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A second method of reinterpretation comes from archaeology and higher criticism biblical scholarship. The argument is that much of the Old Testament, including the passages on the invasion of Canaan, were created much later than the time frame of the stories portrayed. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians in approximately 722 BC, who subsequently collapsed and was subsumed by the Babylonians. Later, in 582 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah also fell to Babylon. Many of the social elites–the political, religious, and educated leaders–were deported to Babylon while the common folk were left behind to maintain the land. During this Babylonian Captivity the deported leaders had some hard thinking to do. Israel and Judah always had a tradition of polytheism, but prior to the Captivity, the royal courts of Judah had adopted political/religious monotheism centered around worship of Yahweh alone. Now in Babylon the deported came to understand their situation as a result of divine punishment for not strictly adhering solely to Yahweh worship. To remedy the problem, the history of Israel was rewritten, starting with a fiction of an Egyptian exodus that centered on Yahweh’s deliverance. The authors then blended oral traditions with a revised history of Israel/Judah to portray their nation as unfaithful to their God, thus breaking their agreement of obedience and protection. Their new rewritten history resulted in a greater sense of unity and new religious practices as the Hebrews returned to Israel/Judah during the Second Temple era.
As far as providing an ‘alibi’ for God’s commanding the Canaanite genocide, this understanding of much of the Old Testament definitely fits the bill. According to this interpretation, not only did God not give the command, but nothing like the Exodus and Canaanite Invasion ever happened. Clearly God cannot be held accountable for something that never happened!
This sort of higher criticism understanding of the Old Testament is very controversial, and I will try to handle its evaluation even-handed (most likely resulting in upsetting conservatives and liberals alike). First with the strengths. The greatest advantage this interpretation has is that it fits with the best archeological and literary evidence we have. Although I do not reject the possibility that someday we will find sufficient archeological evidence to support the Old Testament narratives, there is a larger issue at hand of how we are to relate science (including archeology) and Scripture. There are many modern-day conflicts between science and faith, but I will illustrate the point with Galileo’s controversy. Galileo said that the sun was the center of the universe, but the Catholic Church said that the Earth must be the center. The Church had good reason to think so, as the Bible “clearly” states the Earth does not move. Take Psalm 104:5, “He established the earth on its foundations; it will never be upended” (NET, the NIV translates it “it can never be moved”). Or look at Joshua 10:13, “The sun stood still and the moon stood motionless while the nation took vengeance on its enemies. The event is recorded in the Scroll of the Upright One. The sun stood motionless in the middle of the sky and did not set for about a full day” (NET). These and other passages led the Church to support a cosmology with Earth at the center of the universe, backed with the force of Scripture and faith. Galileo, however, did not let up: he kept on sharing his sun-centered universe model along with his motto, “the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go.” The Church disagreed, claiming that Galileo was undermining the reliability of the entirety of Scripture. The Church forced Galileo to either recant his theory or face excommunication, but Christianity as a whole has never finished eating crow for the decision. Perhaps in a couple hundred years, people will laugh at our modern-day conflicts between science and faith–including the distaste for archaeology and higher criticism.
Another great advantage of this reinterpretation is that it is a powerful tool for reconciling many similar conflicts in the Bible. For example, there is a back-and-forth argument in between books of the Old Testament about the relationship between disobeying the Law and God’s punishment. Books like Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, and Ezra say that bad things happen to people because they disobey the Law. Other books like Ecclesiastes and Job disagree, saying that bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. While this could be a troublesome contradiction for people who interpret the Bible literally, it makes perfect sense if understood as a debate between the historical revisionists and later authors who saw the everyday life shortcomings of the disobedience-punishment principle.
On the other hand, there are some deep challenges facing this reinterpretation of the Old Testament. One would be the question of just how frequently should the community of faith recreate their own understanding of Scripture in order to accommodate the latest scientific findings or the newest literary theory? Things that were once considered good scientific theories are now discredited–that’s the way of science.. Maybe tomorrow we will find a copy of the book of Deuteronomy that dates back to the 13th century BC and this entire hypothesis of the Babylonian era authorship will disappear. While I think that the Church made the wrong choice with Galileo, jumping full in with every theory de jour will only add confusion and discredit the faith as a whole.
Once again, another challenge is to maintain the inspiration of Scripture. Although it is possible to hold that the Bible is God-breathed while large parts of it were written as historical fiction, in practice it is often hard to hold that balance. In many ways higher criticism can be the Pandora’s Box of faith: Once you start looking down that road, it is easy to take an attitude of unbelief towards anything the Bible has to say, or even worse, to treat the Bible as a tool meant to promote your own agendas. There is good reason why so many laypersons think of Seminary as a cemetery–a place where people’s’ faiths die.
Allegory of Spiritual Warfare
The final method of reinterpretation I will describe is an allegorical reading. An allegory is a symbolic way to speak about one topic while talking about something else. Some examples of allegory would be The Wizard of Oz, Animal Farm, and the movie Avatar. While you could watch The Wizard of Oz and think it is about a girl who is dreaming about a way to get back home from a fantasy realm, many people think the story is about the political/economic events that were current at the time of the story’s creation. The scarecrow represents the agricultural sector, the tin man represents industrial, and the yellow brick road represents the gold standard by which the American economy was based. In the same way it is possible to understand the events of the Canaanite genocide as an allegory for spiritual warfare. In this interpretation the various nations that Israel was commanded to destroy would represent sins and temptations and the conquest would be a metaphor for overcoming spiritual impurity. Since no physical genocide was commanded, there is no more conflict between an evil command and God’s goodness.
What I like most about this perspective is that it recasts the difficult passages of the Old Testament into a theological framework that is consistent with that of the New Testament while maintaining the overall themes of the Old Testament–those of holiness, God’s protection and provision, and the general struggle of humanity to follow God. What we do lose is a sense of the historicity of the Old Testament, which, if the above-mentioned conclusions of archaeology and higher criticism are correct, would be yet another boon for an allegorical reading.
The problematic side of an allegorical reading of the Old Testament is that it really challenges many of the assumptions of contemporary Bible study. The most foundational principles of studying the Bible is that it cannot mean today what it had never meant in the first place. Stated another way, you cannot read into the Bible something that was never intended by the original author. And there is good reason for this principle: for over a thousand years the church had read their own situation into the Bible, resulting in bad interpretations and misguided consequences. A quick example: although I don’t want to say bad biblical exegesis caused the Crusades, I will suggest that it was used to support the war cause. As a result of these sorts of bad interpretations and applications, biblical scholarship has placed safeguards around how we should and should not read the Bible, all intended for avoiding error. So our problem here is that regardless of who we think originally wrote Deuteronomy for example–whether Moses or a captive in Babylon–none of these authors wrote the story as allegory. If it were Moses (or another author contemporary with the events described in the book), then the genre of the book as a whole is the historical biography of a nation. If revisionists wrote it during the Babylonian Captivity, then the work is historical fictional narrative and is used as political and religious propaganda. In neither case was the author intending for the book to be understood as allegory. So if you want to take the allegorical reading of the Old Testament, you need to be ready with an explanation as to why you should read against the natural purpose of the Bible.
I have really enjoyed doing this series on the Canaanite Genocide. It is my hope that I have not been too heavy-handed with any one particular “solution” to the problem. My goals have been to model an analytical approach to Scripture and present tools for interpretation that are not common either in Academia or among the laity of the church. Although I do not think it is the only–or even the best–way of reading the Bible, I do find it useful myself. Thank you for joining me as we walked through this puzzle.