Thursday, 10 July 2008
What Do You Do With This Stuff?
For a long time now I have been in the habit of reading through the Old Testament once and through the New Testament and Psalms twice a year. Usually it's a pleasure. Sometimes it's a discipline. Occasionally it's a burden. Today was occasionally. One of the four chapters I read today was Joshua 11, which carries on the story of Joshua's genocidal progress through the land of Canaan. Joshua, like most mass murderers, has a ritualistic pattern to his butchery. He takes a city. He butchers every person in the city - men, women and children. He makes off with those things - sheep cattle and basic equipment, for example - which his limited imagination can make use of and those things which are too sophisticated for his taste- houses and chariots, for example - he burns. Lastly, if he has captured him, he ritualistically tortures and murders the king of the city, mutilates the corpse and erects a stone cairn as a sort of trophy.
Of course it's wrong to apply the moral standards of the 21st Century to events that happened a millennium and a half before the birth of Jesus. Joshua was no worse (and, obviously, no better) than any other petty despot of the period pursuing the main chance. What is more tricky for us modern readers is the fact that God is portrayed as party to the programme of ethnic cleansing. Not only does God sanction this behaviour he aids and abets it. When Joshua was committing so many murders that he couldn't fit them all into his working day, God, acting on orders from Joshua, caused the sun to stand still in the sky so that more babies, women and men could be hacked to bits. The stories of Joshua are interspersed with brave and heartbreaking stories of the Canaanites desperately gathering in attempts to defend themselves, their lands, homes and families from the murderous Hebrews. These attempts always fail. How could they not? God is on the Hebrews' side.
It is not passages like the profound metaphors of the early chapters of Genesis which should cause us to question our approach to scripture but, rather, passages like these middle chapters of Joshua. The only way anybody could ever possibly take these passages literally is by never reading them. The archaeological record does show a sophisticated Canaanite culture being over-run by a cruder Hebrew one at about this time, so they are, I suppose, of some historical interest, although the fiction of the Earth stopping it's rotation for a while should alert us at once not to place too much emphasis on their factuality. They could be read metaphorically, but even as metaphors they don't work well. They are metaphors of what? What sort of God is displayed here? The murderous, petty, foul tempered old God of Joshua seems to have nothing in common with the father of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ or with Einstein's Old Wise One.
The only way I can deal with these passages is to remind myself that evolution is the way the universe works. These passages come from the dawn of historical humankind. A petty leader of an agglomeration of itinerant tribes, a despot who makes Robert Mugabe look good in comparison, is recorded carrying out the business of all petty leaders of his time: carving a homeland out for his people with no regard for the cost to others of his actions. Even in the midst of these brutal, but for the times, probably unexceptional actions, he and his recorders perceive a sense of the numinous. Around this sense of The Other they construct an image of the deity not too different in personality and intention from Joshua himself. It is hardly ultimate truth, but it's a start. Reading these distasteful stories tells us, the people of God, where we began on the great spiritual quest. As we read further, seeing the transformation of Joshua's vengeful tribal deity into the global God of the prophets and the cosmic God of John's Gospel we can see how far we have moved. Further, we can get the sense of a direction, an evolutionary path along which our understanding of God is growing. Further still, we can gain a sense that this growth is not meandering, and is not accidental: there is a mind here, guiding it. God is leading us: God is discovering us just as much as we are discovering God. Even further, as we see the pattern of growth we can speculate further as to where God may be leading us.
All Scripture is inspired by God, says Paul to Timothy. I guess the difficulty with passages such as the one served up to me this morning, is exactly what do we mean by "inspired". If we think "inspired" means "infallible" or "inerrant" or "literally true", we make a tyrant of God and a jackass of Holy Writ. The inspired book of Joshua, distasteful though it appears, requires far more of us than that.