Slaughter of the innocents?

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FOR THE FIRST FOUR CENTURIES OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA, the historical church dealt with the knotty problem of the Conquest by reading the accounts in a non-literal sense. Augustine, however, changed all that by insisting (correctly) that no objective reason could be found for reading Joshua in any but its literal sense. Reform theologians, Luther and Calvin, “saw it as the acid test of whether one would accept the Bible even when it contradicted human reason and morality” (Lake). How have recent Christian apologists dealt with the issue? Eryl Davies has trolled the literature and summarized the differing methods taken by modern theologians to tackle the problem of scriptural offensiveness, of which the Conquest stands as chief example. He lists the following approaches:

•  The evolutionary approach : Cultures have “evolved gradually from a lower to a higher level of civilization” (p. 200). The Israelites were, like all peoples, dragging their knuckles around in the primeval swamp of cultural barbarity.

•  The cultural relativists' approach : “The biblical authors expressed their insights in terms appropriate to the times in which they were writing, and it was therefore inevitable that they should reflect the attitudes, outlooks and beliefs of the people of their age” (p. 205). In theory, everybody was practicing genocide, so why would we marvel that the Israelites did too? This approach seems, to this author, to merely be a variation on the evolutionary approach.

•  The canon-within-a-canon approach : Based on the belief that Scripture contains the Word of God but cannot be described as being the Word of God, some hold that the good portions of Scripture come from God while the dicky sections may well have been written by the JK Rowling of the day, an unevolved savage, or a genocidally-addicted child of the times. Guess where Joshua fits.

•  The holistic approach : A hard one to get a handle on. “Scripture is viewed as a vast canvas in which the individual details are not as significant as the picture as a whole. Just as we cannot properly appreciate a masterpiece if we stand too close, so we cannot properly interpret Scripture if we focus exclusively on particular messages… Scripture establishes certain norms and values as acceptable and others as unacceptable, and whatever impression is left by individual incidents or provisions, there is a general drift to be discerned which makes it abundantly clear what is required and what is prohibited” (p. 212). We are to note that numerous other passages describe God as love and faithfulness to the n th degree. This approach seems to suggest that if we focus on the real emphasis of Scripture, the unpalatable bits seem to somehow be cast in a clearer perspective. The advice to readers is: don't get hung up on the occasional atrocity.

•  The paradigmatic approach : Harder to follow than the holistic. In essence, both the laws and narratives of the Old Testament serve as models from which we are to derive general principles that transcend the centuries and can be applied in all situations. “It is not the law or custom per se that is to be applied but the essential principles that can be drawn from it” (p. 215). We would be horrified to sacrifice animals today, yet reading about the practice “serves as a reminder of the gravity of sin and the human need for forgiveness” (p. 216).

To this author, some of these approaches are just plain too abstruse to understand, while the others amount to clutching at straws. Davies himself picks each one to pieces and then offers his own preferred approach — “The reader-response approach” which can be summed up accurately this way: You choose what to accept and reject. “Instead of tacitly accepting the standards of judgment established in the text and capitulating uncritically to its demands, they [readers] must be prepared to challenge its assumptions, question its insights, and (if necessary) discredit its claims” (p. 219). In short, the Bible is full of errors, both in fact and in moral value. Feel free to accept what works for you and reject the rest.

It would seem, however, that not all explanations fit into one or other of the above approaches. Some authors take the view that the conquest narratives were written in a much later age, perhaps during the time of King Josiah, to justify the existence of the priestly class or the religious purges carried out by Josiah. As one author puts it, “The invasion of the land of Canaan by Israel under Joshua was an invention of DtrH” (Van Seters quoted by Lake). Lake himself has formulated yet another way of reading the book of Joshua — it's sheer exaggeration:

The way out of the dilemma is to examine the texts in question in their cultural and linguistic context. One must not assume that it is a simple matter to understand commands or battle accounts from three millennia ago. Israel indeed saw history as the arena for God's action, but in describing God's work in history, they used poetry, prosaic reportage, and in the case of the herem, hyperbole. In fact, taking the herem as hyperbole, allows one to make sense of Old Testament texts which refer to the Canaanites being driven out of their cities (not killed), and their continuing presence in the land. The authors who used the herem knew that though the actions should not be taken literally, total dedication to God of everything and everyone must be taken literally.

However, his assertion that being “driven out” refers to just that — being driven out rather than killed — does not stand up under a contextual study of the Hebrew term used. Nor, this author feels, can his thesis that the ancients were addicted to exaggeration be supported. The quest for different ways either of reading Joshua so that it doesn't mean what it appears to mean or of justifying the actions its plain meaning report will no doubt go on indefinitely. The simplest approach is the best — everything God does is right, no matter how it may offend our received wisdom. He is infinitely good, wise, and just. One day we will understand fully.

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