In case you haven’t noticed, so far this year I’ve been posting regularly to this blog—just about every Sunday or Monday, I’ve put up something new here. But lately, I’ve fallen off. I have a good excuse: I’ve enrolled in a program at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership to obtain a Master of Arts degree in Jewish Studies. I am currently buried in a class on the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East, taught by Professor Leonard Greenspoon of Creighton. This is a serious class taught by one of the top people in this field, and it’s taking up a lot of my time. Something has to give, and lately, it’s been this blog.
With my focus on my Spertus study, it will be logical for me to post here from time to time about what I’m studying there. This means interrupting whatever series I might be working on at the time, whether it’s my unfinished series on posture in interfaith dialogue, or my unfinished series on Jesus’ arrest and trial, both of which series were themselves interruptions of something I’d started and didn’t finish. Ah well. It’s not like I’d be able to write the last word on any of these subjects. And it’s not like you haven’t seen my mind wander before.
In this piece, I want to return to one of my favorite topics: violence and nonviolence in the Bible. You might recall, a while back I had a blogger back-and-forth with friend of this site Anthony Le Donne about problem Bible texts. In our discussion, we hit on some doozies. There’s the war rule in Deuteronomy (21:10-14), where male soldiers are given permission to kidnap female captives and force them into marriage. We also discussed G-d’s command to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 20:16-17 to conquer certain cities in a way that does not “leave alive anything that breathes.” Somehow, these awful Bible passages become less awful when we isolate them. We can dismiss Deuteronomy 20, since it’s historically unlikely that the Israelites conducted a military campaign like that envisioned in the Torah’s war rules. We can try to live with Deuteronomy 21 by remembering that warfare in the ancient world was normally conducted outside of anything like a Geneva Convention, and that the treatment of women captives described in the Torah was probably an improvement over the prevailing norm.
But thanks to Professor Greenspoon, I’ve had the privilege of reading the Bible books of Joshua and Judges, not one isolated passage at a time, but all together in one sitting. It’s not an exercise for the weak of heart. In Joshua, Jericho is the first city to fall to the Israelites, and Joshua reports that the Israelites “exterminated everything in the city with the sword; man and woman, young and old, ox and sheep and ass.” (NOTE: I’m using the 1999 JPS translation for my Bible quotes in this post.) The Israelites next ran into trouble trying to capture the city of Ai, but once they got matters straightened out with G-d, the Israelites enticed all of the city’s men out into the field to do battle, and with the city unprotected, the Israelites put the city to the torch, then “slaughtered” the city’s men, “so that no one escaped or got away.” With this work done, the Israelites returned to Ai “and put it to the sword,” a nice way of saying that the soldiers killed “the entire population,” which at this point consisted solely of defenseless women and children.
Look. I’m a committed Jew and I believe in G-d, but if you’re looking for a book that best argues for atheism, forget your Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Just read Joshua. Once Ai was reduced to an ash heap and its population of 12,000 all killed in an act of genocide (or at least, an act that comes perilously close to genocide), Joshua proceeded (according to the book) to annihilate the cities of Makkedah, Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron, Debir and Hazor. In each case, the story was the same. Joshua let none escape. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed each city and everyone in each city. Not a soul survived.
I mean, even if these accounts are purely fictional, even if historians believe that the Israelites never conquered Canaan—what is all this carnage doing in my Holy Book? We cannot gloss over this carnage. For certain, the Bible does not gloss over this carnage. The Bible reiterates, over and over, what Joshua was supposed to do, and what he did:
So Joshua subdued the whole region, including the hill country, the Negev, the western foothills and the mountain slopes, together with all their kings. He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the L-RD, the G-d of Israel, had commanded.
The above quote reveals what might be the most troubling aspect of the book of Joshua. It would be one thing if Joshua was just a bloodthirsty warrior. But the Bible makes Joshua’s character clear: he was a dedicated servant of G-d, who faithfully observed G-d’s commands. It is G-d who gives Ai into the hands of Joshua’s army, and G-d who in succession does the same to the cities of Libnah, Lachish, and presumably, all of the other cities destroyed by Joshua. No city except Gibeon tried to make peace with Joshua, because “it was the L-RD’s doing to stiffen their hearts to give battle to Israel, in order that they might be proscribed without quarter and wiped out.” G-d makes it clear in Joshua: the conquest of the land was “not by your sword or by your bow.” This was G-d’s doing, G-d’s plan, history unfolding as G-d wanted it to unfold.
The Book of Judges goes on to make the same point, in a different way. Judges reports that time after time, “the Israelites did what was offensive to the L-RD.” It seems that the initial offense was the failure of the Israelites to continue fighting Canaanites, and worse, making peace treaties with them. And yes, there was a recurring problem of idolatry. Each time the Israelites offended G-d, G-d “surrendered them to their enemies”: Moab, Canaan and Midian, the Philistines and the Ammonites. Each time Israel fell, the Israelites cried out to G-d for a redeemer chieftain. G-d would then deliver Israel’s oppressor into the hands of the chieftain, the chieftain would eventually die, and Israel would return to their offensive ways, lose G-d’s favor and be conquered by someone else. The pattern repeats so often, even G-d seems to grow tired of it!
My point here is not to question the character of the Israelites in Judges (though that character is highly questionable!). My point here is to point out the character of G-d in Judges. That G-d, like the G-d portrayed in Joshua, is a warrior. The character of G-d in Judges is perhaps most clear in Judges’ description of the battle fought by Gideon against the Midianites. Gideon had amassed an army of 32,000 men to face a Midianite force of 135,000. One might be concerned that Gideon’s force was too small, but G-d’s concern was that Gideon’s army was too large. G-d wanted credit for the defeat of the Midianites, and G-d was concerned that “Israel might claim for themselves the glory due to Me, thinking, ‘Our own hand has brought us victory.’” So G-d ordered Gideon to shrink the size of his army, down to a mere 300. With only 300 soldiers at Gideon’s disposal, it couldn’t have been Gideon and the Israelites who defeated the Midianites—it must have been G-d. Judges makes this crystal-clear: “the entire [Midianite] camp ran around yelling, and took to flight … [for] the L-RD turned every man’s sword against his fellow, throughout the camp, and the entire host fled.” Indeed, with the warrior G-d on his side, it’s a wonder that Gideon needed even 300 troops to accomplish the extermination of the 135,000.
In my above anaylsis, I may have omitted a battle or two. I’m no military historian. I’m just a Jew trying to get his hands around all this violence. I’m not trying to make it nice and pretty, or justify why it’s there in the text. Recall our discussion from last year about problem Bible texts, where I quoted Eric Seibert to say that “the Bible should never be used to harm others” and “if we are going to keep the Bible from harming others, we need to learn to have problems with it.” And if you like, please read my post on ways that don’t work in dealing with problem Bible texts. However we’re going to come to terms with Joshua and Judges this year, we want to stay away from approaches that we rejected last year! So, don’t expect me to argue that the Canaanites had it coming, with their Baal-worship. Don’t expect apologetics from me, or for me to reach elsewhere in the Bible for a “canon within the canon” showing that the real Bible is the one where G-d is love. I’ve written before that the Bible is like a family history, my family history. The fact that there are pages of that history recounting events that may never have happened, pages that don’t tell my family history the way I wish they did, gives me no right to rip those pages from my history, or to direct your gaze to other pages I’m more proud of.
Nope. On this blog, in this version of religious dialogue, we deal with problem Bible text head on. And, indeed, we have a problem here. How do we come to grips with a G-d who insists that G-d’s people must engage in total war, who leads G-d’s people onto the battleground, and who appears to participate in the resulting carnage? I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this question next time; in the meantime, please post thoughts of your own.