This post was written in 2014. We’re publishing it now before a new round of posts in the lead-up to our time in Australia.
‘So what do you and I actually think about the Canaanite genocide these days, Tamie?’ I asked. It’s a curly question for anyone who considers themselves a Bible person, and a question we revisited after Tamie read Eric Seibert’s book on the violence of scripture. Here’s where we’ve got up to.
The focus of our conversation wasn’t on the extent and nature of the conquest. That’s a bit of a moot point; we can talk about hyperbolic language and archaeological evidence and so on, but What Actually Happened remains ambiguous.
However, what we clearly have before us is a national story of conquest which is determined to show the superiority of Yahweh through his people, the Israelites.
The next question for me (I said) is the extent to which the conquest story reflects (Spectrum A) God’s commands in a direct sense, and/or (Spectrum B) the writers’ perceptions and descriptions of God.
If it’s more Spectrum A, and God’s agency is in plain view, then God is implicated in violence. (What we do with that is another question — and this is the point at which William Lane Craig and others argue that God’s command for violence is justified because of who God is.)
If it’s more Spectrum B, and the conquest story reflects a limited, human understanding of God’s activities, then something a bit strange happens. You might think that stressing the humanness of the text would draw us nearer to the text, but the opposite seems to happen, and the conquest story becomes a bit of a curiosity. It is no longer obvious that this story is part of us, our scripture, our tradition. Sure, the text is human, yet we no longer quite know how to own it. (That’s the vibe I’ve been getting from Rob Bell’s tumblr series, here in PDF.)
Both Spectrum A and Spectrum B can therefore leave us with a similar dilemma to do with culture. In Spectrum A, culture can be sort of incidental to God’s presence. In Spectrum B, culture can be so murky that God gets pretty obscured. Either way, there is a divide between God and culture. Which might be fine, except that we ourselves (being human and all) are never anywhere apart from in culture.
For Tamie and I, there is a way forward in a robust sense of divine accommodation: that God speaks in and through culture, and that culture is thick enough (or thin enough?) that we can still learn about God today through the conquest story.
If Spectrum A risks suspending the humanity of the Israelites, Spectrum B risks suspending our own humanity. By characterising ourselves as nonviolent and ancient Israel as violent, we maximise the cultural distance and elevate our culture as superior to theirs. In reality, while there may indeed be great cultural distance between us and the ancient Israelites, that distance probably doesn’t have the weight we might assume. Are we less morally ambiguous than the Israelites? While individually we may be justified in boasting of our own moral aptitude, we are much less adept at considering the collective moral aptitude of our culture and society — which is the level on which the conquest story operates.
The violence of the conquest story causes us not only to reflect on violence in history but also to reflect on our own complicity in violence today, and our own apathy in the face of God’s ongoing call for our holiness. That call to holiness is, I reckon, the abiding theological lesson of the conquest story.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.