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.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Kelvin,
Thank you.
Where indeed do we go with the distasteful stuff? And it is not limited to the middle of the book of Joshua.
In my view an extreme conservative application of the bible is made null and void by the selectivity by which it is practiced. Christians (some, to be sure) ignore the extensive dietary regulations in the Old Testament, have no problem with receiving interest on invested funds and wear their bible out looking for verses which comment (negatively) on other people's sexual practices. The genius of Shakespeare, "...my lady doth protest too much" (Hamlet)
The Holy Spirit is involved with the church today or (s)he is not. The Holy Spirit is involved with me today -- or not. No point running back to the bible -- or tradition which is often also applied selectively. If the Holy Spirit is involved with you, and me, and the church, now, this day; good and well. And if not we are in more trouble than can be described.
Bill Schroeder

VenDr said...

As James Barr points out, maintaining the inerrancy of scripture involves a considerable amount of interpretive dexterity. Not only the passages chosen but the way they are read and interpreted is usually highly selective.My great beef with proponents of inerrancy is that so few of them have actually read all of the Bible. Many use tools such as Every Day With Jesus, which are fine but they are very selective in the passages chosen, and as we know, lectionaries are also prone to skip over the emarrassing bits. Sit down and read it - every word, preferably more than once: doing so is the greatest cure for fundamentalism that I know.

Alden Smith said...

My take on the words “inspired by God” goes like this:

In the year 1930AD there were three Quakers. A wise Quaker, a foolish Quaker and a Quaker who was a Journalist. They were in a room together waiting for the still small voice of God. God told the wise and foolish Quakers to go and get a HT truck license each. He told the journalist Quaker to observe the other two and write a book about how to get an HT truck license. Inspired by God they leave the room and go off to do their God inspired work.

The wise one goes away and after going through the correct channels and doing a lot of driving practice he obtains a license.

The foolish one steals a truck after killing the driver (nothing would stop him from carrying out the Lords bidding). The truck he steals is a semi trailer petrol tanker. He crashes this tanker on a bridge and incinerates all the people in cars on the bridge and the trailer falls onto a cruise ship underneath the bridge causing more deaths.

The journalist Quaker only sees some of what happens to the other two so from his own observations and the stories and evidence of a lot of other people he writes his God inspired book. It is published in a black leather cover with the gold embossed title “How to Obtain an HT Truck License”. It has two chapters, the most interesting the second titled “How Not To Get An HT License”.

Questions:

Were these three men inspired by God? – Yes they were.

Would God approve of the actions of the foolish Quaker? – Absolutely not. The foolish one used his free will and got it badly wrong. God gave us brains to think with, an inborn imperative towards common sense and a sense of justice – everyone knows this all over the world,(and have know it throughout the centuries) its best summed up as “The Golden Rule”.

Is the black book written by the journalist Quaker inspired by God? – Yes it is, God inspired him to write it, but the words don’t glow in the dark and are not magical in any way. Because the journalist is relying on other accounts of what happened, it is a general account rather than a definitive record. The bit that is inspired is the inspiration given to each Quaker. The words describe the inspiration and the results of the inspiration but are not the inspiration itself – books of words are just books of words.

If you use this inspired book as helpful advice to obtain a license does it mean that you have to find a 1930s truck to practice in to be fully authentic in your undertaking? – No not at all. We use the brain and common sense that God gave us and move with the times.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear, Kelvin, I thought I was reading one of those old tracts I used to come across in the library from the NZ Rationalist and Humanist Association, with a dash of Lloyd Geering and Jack Spong thrown in ...

You must know that Christian commentators have grappled with these texts from at least the time of Origen, and have offered a range of interpretative approaches a good deal wider than the one you mention (without the sarcasm either). The range includes: literal/historical (reflecting ancient warfare; e.g. Kitchen); literary-rhetorical; spiritualized; fictionalized; hyperbolic (e.g. Lawson Younger) etc. I don't feel too bothered to arbitrate right now, but can only offer this quick observations:
1. We fundies (or evangelical Christians - and classical cathlics too, as we prefer to call oursleves) may indeed be bloodthirsty Eurocentric homophobic politically incorrect African evil bigots - but please remember to address us as DOCTOR Evil Bigot! (credit: Austin Powers).
Before you set fire to a platoon of straw men, read and interact with at least some of the literature on the subject, including: John Wenham, 'The Goodness of God'; D A Carson, 'The Gagging of God'; K A Kitchen, 'On the Reliability of the Old Testament'; K L Younger, 'Ancient Conquest Narratives; W L Craig (see the video of his Auckland debate on his website 'Reasonable Faith' with Bill Cooke of NZRHA). Lane actually handles a question from an Auckland philosopher on this very question.
2. Whatever you make of the Joshua narrative (historically, ethically, theologically), the problem is nothing compared to that of hell/Gehenna.
This is why you MUST read Carson in the book cited above, 'On Abolishing the Lake of Fire'.

gotta dash now - work beckons!
Brian

VenDr said...

Yes of course there have been a range of interpreative approaches over the centuries, Brian. We have had to rationalise this stuff somehow.
I acknowledge that my reaction was intemperate. I read this stuff every year, and every year it incenses me more.
Thanks for the suggestion of reading material. I will look out the Carson book, but I have to say it will go at the back of my to be read shelf (currently standing at around 30 volumes and growing) I am interested in the conquest narratives in much the same way as I am interested in the Holocaust - in much the same way and for much the same reasons - and make myself read Elie Weisel's "night" once every two or three years. But to be perfectly frank, there are other things I'd rather read. Quantum physics for example, and Medieval religious poetry.
As for Hell... I am interested in it phenomenologically - (why does such a belief persist? and what forms does the belief take?) but other than that, I am not all that bothered.

Anonymous said...

You highlight well the struggles Scripture presents us with, Kelvin. I'm not a universalist and one of the inevitable results of that position is that, as not everyone is saved, God says "No" to some at least: eventually he does damage to them. Even if a position of no life after death is taken, death overtakes all eventually. What this means, it seems to me, is that we see this reality reflected in Scripture, where God is shown to be directing killing. This occurs largely in the OT but is not unknown in the NT (Revelation on a large scale, Acts 5:1-11 on a small). So many of the answers to the conundrum this presents in view of Jesus on the cross, etc, seem to me to apply the standards of the creation to the creator. Rather, I think we are to continue to grapple with all of Scripture and grasp in a small way the mystery of the God we know who is love, but dangerous. Entirely selfishly, I'm pleased to be observing Joshua's invasion from the distance of 3,200 years or so and have the rich pleasure of trying to sort out what it means for me. In doing so, I am intensely aware that I am the creation, at the disposal of the creator.
Peter Ross

VenDr said...

I'm not sure whether I'm a universalist or not as I'm not sure what the term means, but that's by the by.
I can see your point about Joshua reflecting the universality of death as part of the human condition. But what is recorded in Joshua is genocide. It is the deliberate extermination of a people on ethnic/rerligious grounds. Josh 12 ;ists 31 (thirty one!) cities destoyed: populations killed, cities burned. There was no free will here, no choices for or against god, no inevitable consequences of moral choices. There was indiscriminate, ruthless slaughter of every living soul. Then from chapter 13 onwards the book is concerned with divvying up the lands obtained by theft and murder. Now it seems to me, but I may be missing something, that this has little to do with doctrines of grace or salvation or reward or punishment. It certainly seems to have little to do with the "God who is love but dangerous". I, personally, can find no help in Joshua for forming a theology of salvation or for learning anything profitable about God.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, what you are essentially raising is one aspect of theodicy - and my reply was basically: If you think Joshua is tough, wait till you read Jesus on hell! The problem of evil - or pain, as Lewis called it, since not all pain is strictly moral evil - is not obliterated by the NT, rather it is ratcheted up in the NT to a higher level by the doctrine of eternal punishment. As an evangelical who reads the Bbile in a christocentric, salvation-historical perspective (one that I think the NT actually enjoins) I have no difficulty in affirming continuities AND discontinuities in Scripture from the same, One God - I will not follow Marcionite liberalism here or rehash those hoary old (rather antisemitic) cliches about the OT. The simple fact is that our Lord and Teacher Jesus Christ spoke (and warned) about hell more than anyone else in all the Bible. Isn't that a skandalon to ponder for anyone who claims to know the mind of Christ?
Second, the herem against the Canaanites (however we understand this trope - and it's obvious the Canaanites were NOT destroyed!) is actually enjoined in Deuteronomy - which any quick check of a concordance will show this book was Jesus' favorite OT reading!
Third, it by no means follows that every OT command is still incumbent on Christians. This is a pretty basic point, so it does get tiresome hearing people repeatedly bring up the 'shellfish argument', as Bill Schroeder does - I have to wonder if he has ever read Mark 7.19 and a host of other NT passages on food laws etc.
I think medieval poetry (think: Dante) had quite a lot to say about hell!
every blessing,
Brian

Janice said...

Kelvin - as I have nothing intelligent to add to the debate (heck, I'm still trying to figure out what the debate is about!), I do want to comment on your "sarcasm" (love it!), and the gorgeous photograph you used this time, (outstanding!). It's good that you are feeling well enough to take all this on, I stand in awe of your self-discipline, especially when one considers that you have to sit on the wounded spot to use the computer, that has to hurt!

I have a friend from Bermuda whose great-grandfather, himself a slave, took an axe and chopped down the slave rail in the Anglican church, twice, because it was rebuilt after the first time. I think maybe our karma has run over our dogma!

VenDr said...

Thanks for your concern Janice. I am making great progress. I drove for the first time yesterday, and given a laptop and a wireless connection and a comfortable couch, computer work is OK.
Brian, you raise some challenging issues for me. Yes, Jesus words on Hell are a skandalon and your raising them at this juncture is providential.
The last two months have been perhaps the most challenging, the most profound and the most blessed of my life. I am in the process of re-evaluating almost everything I stand for. I have made some far reaching decisions about my future, and the way I conduct my ministry in the present. During this time I have had some huge gains in understanding and knowledge, and my own personal theology is in a stage of plastic reformation.
In this time, you raise the issue of Hell, and rightly point to the prominence of Hell in Jesus teaching. My problem is this: if God created sentient beings for the purpose of confining the overwhelming majority of them to an eternal Auschwitz then I will have to rethink not only my personal theology but my whole cosmology. In the time scale of eternity, there would be an entree of a brief flicker of troubled earthly existence followed by the main course of everlasting, unremitting, unbearable torture with no possible hope of reprieve. This is what the Old Wise One who called all of this magnificent universe and the wonders of consciousness into being has in mind for most of us? You really believe that?

VenDr said...

I'm not reading Dante by the way. My old favourite, Meister Eckhart of course, Catherine of Sienna, John of the Cross, Theresa of Avilla. Also some poets from other faiths: the Sufis Hafiz and Rabia of Basra. None of them have Hell as a long suit.
Rabia is extremely interesting. She was forced into prostitution at an early age, and wrote some of her most searing spiritual poems in that context. She has an insight into both sensuality and spirituality that is probably unequalled, and is regarded by Moslems as a great saint. The translation of her works by Farideh Azodi Davidson is particularly lovely.

Anonymous said...

Kelvin, glad to hear you're on the mend. Regarding hell, I don't for a moment claim to grasp this (who honestly can?), but I have long felt the force of the issue you mentioned (the apparent and possibly real incommensurability between a reprobate life in time versus eternal conscious pain), which is why I incline (along with John Wenham and John Stott - see his 'Essentials' debate with David Edwards) to believe in annihilationism, taking 'the second death' to mean a punishment which is eternal in consequence tho' not in subjective experience. But I can't be sure. What I do know, from the sure warrant of Christ's apostle, is that God is love - that is his essential, relational, innertrinitarian nature - and that his wrath against sin is what Luther called God's 'opus alienum'. The whole point is brought out well in Carson's little book 'The Difficult Doctrine of God's Love' (and the clue is in the title - as Carson says, we moderns rather quickly assume God's love is a simple idea, while his wrath is a difficult even repulsive one). Let me also say I love Dante (or the bits I'm familiar with) but I don't want to draw the details of a doctrine of hell therefrom! My fallback position is that God is just and indeed the foundation of objective morality - otherwise, sans God, what we call 'morality' basically devolves to one of three(?) options:
1. hedonic utilitarianism (cf. the coercive state today)
2. emotivism (which really means taste)
3. Nietszche's anti-Christian, Homeric vision.
(Well, I guess there are others - Schopenhauer's atheist pessimism grounded in Buddhism come to mind.)
Which is why I'm drawn to a form of Christian elenchic discourse that makes us think all them more clearly by what we mean by 'good', 'just' etc. (I've been reading a lot of Alasdair Macintyre recently.) Which is also why you may be interested in watching (from the comfort of your recuperative couch) this video of the Christian philosopher Craig debating (or at least trying to debate) the atheist Bill Cooke at Auckland Uni last month:

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=audio_visuals

where questions of morality (and Joshua!) and theodicy feature.

in Christ,
Brian

Peter Carrell said...

Kelvin
I think these passages trouble more people than one might think. Fundamentalists do read them and ponder!
Providing we are neither annihilated nor find the lake of fire distracting, I wonder if these matters (one could add Herod's slaughter of the innocents) simply sit with us as questions we long to have answered one day when face-to-face with God?
Peter Carrell