Monday, August 22, 2011

The God of Moses and Joshua (and his implications)

Every now and then, books or articles I read touch on the question of the (apparent) immoral behaviour of God as presented in the early books of the Old Testament - particularly the stories of the conquest of Canaan.

God, as presented in these books, commands his people to slaughter entire towns and nations, not merely killing the soldiers involved in battles, but killing women, children and even animals. Sometimes it is implied that the women and children of the defeated enemies may be kept as slaves, sometimes even sex slaves. But it goes beyond that, God is also presented as enacting extreme vengeance on his own people - sometimes commanding groups of them to slaughter other groups of them, and sometimes sending disease, poisonous snakes, etc. among them.

What are we supposed to do with these passages? Ignore them, explain them away, believe them, in some way base our own behaviour on them? Did these events actually happen? Did God command these events?

Here are all the possible options, as I see it (if there are others, please comment and tell me):
  1. It happened more or less as recorded. God did and commanded these things. His people carried out genocide in his name. This makes God (and the people who obey his commands) morally responsible for the actions and would mean that the bible contains accurate history and theology.
  2. The events happened; the people did the genocide. But not all of the events were commanded or enacted by God. This makes the people morally responsible, but lets God off the hook. This would mean that the bible contains accurate history but inaccurate theology.
  3. God commanded such things, but the people did not carry out the genocide. This makes God morally responsible, lets the people off the hook, and would mean that the bible contains inaccurate history but accurate theology.
  4. God did not command such things. The events did not happen. This would make the bible neither historically accurate or theologically accurate.
Ever since I first wrestled with these issues, I have kind of assumed that option 2 was the closest to the truth. That the (later) writers of the biblical accounts knew the events in their own history and theologised them by inserting the commands of God into the story to explain or defend the behaviour of their ancestors.

The reason for this choice was basically based on the presupposition that God is good. And therefore God could not have commanded such acts. The story (as presented) seems inconsistent with the known character if the loving God, so there must be something wrong. God could not have issued these commands, so they must be insertions of the authors, not historical events.

The problem with this assumption is that it reduces the biblical accounts to being simply wrong on the question of what God is like. I never really grasped the consequences of this belief before, but if the bible is wrong on this issue, then we have no basis for knowing what God is like from any parts of the bible. If this bit is wrong, why should we expect that (for example) Isaiah or Jeremiah are any more accurate, and what about Matthew or Romans?

Pretty much all we know about the character of God comes from the bible. So here all I was doing was taking the picture of God as presented in one part of the bible, and assuming that to be true, and using it to dismiss an alternative picture of God, given in another part of the bible. I never, until recently, noticed the flaw in that reasoning. Put simply, there is no way of knowing which of the pictures of God presented in the bible is the true one. Indeed, there is no way of knowing if any of them are true.

But if we can't distinguish between them, how can we have any faith? I think there's three options:
  1. Choose to believe that all of the biblical pictures are able to be reconciled and that all, equally, paint an accurate and true picture of God. This is the view of most conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists and is more or less the view I was raised to believe. However, it is now a view I have to reject. The more I read, the more I reflect on these issues, the more I see that the bible does not present a uniform and reconcilable picture of God, rather it presents multiple pictures which, quite simply, do not present the same God. At best, the bible presents multiple flawed views and misunderstandings of the real God. At worst, it could be that none of the views contain enough truth to be trustworthy. Which brings us to point 2.
  2. Chose to disbelieve all of the biblical pictures. If none of the pictures can be shown to be trustworthy, then all should be rejected. This way, inevitably, leads to agnosticism. Possibly the whole way to atheism. The more I read (on all sides of the discussion), the more compelling this option seems to become. Perhaps this is the only truly rational choice. But its a choice I haven't made (yet?).
  3. The final option, as I see it, is to pick your favourite view of God, as presented in the bible, and run with it. I think that's what most believers do in practice anyway, without actually thinking about it, but it is possible to be intentional about it too. This seems to be what certain denominations do by defining a statement of faith, etc. For example, in a recent sermon from The Meeting House, they expressed the opinion that their whole belief system is intentionally viewed through the lens of the Gospels. In other words, they start with the words of Jesus and if they encounter anything that seems to disagree with that picture, the Jesus picture trumps the alternative. Jesus trumps Paul's opinions, Jesus picture of the loving Father trumps the OT God of vengeance, etc. The problem for me is that this leaves you with the problem of how to choose which picture to follow? There is no compelling reason to choose one over another. Yes, choosing the Jesus picture is more consistent with contemporary morality than choosing the Moses/Joshua picture, but that doesn't make one more true or accurate than the other. It really does boil down to picking a favourite, or, in most cases, accepting (or never questioning) the picture that you were raised with. I'm no longer sure what to believe, and I'm also not sure if I can justify (to myself) deciding to believe one option, when the evidence for any of them is so slight.
But back to the original question of the Canaanite genocide.

The more I've read on the subject recently, the more things point to options 3 or 4 (from the first list up there) being closer to reality. There is no archaeological evidence that these events actually happened. Indeed, a close look at the biblical evidence (the list of unconquered lands at the end of Joshua) makes it clear that the genocide never happened either - the unconquered lands after the alleged genocide include several of the lands which should have been wiped out already.

So, either God commanded genocide, but the Israelites did not follow through, or God did not command any such thing, so it never happened.

Believing either of these options is to acknowledge that the bible is wrong. The stories are not history, they are reduced to tall tales of the olden days, which may contain nuggets of events which actually happened, but most of the story, including the commands of God, are embellishments, added by storytellers around the campfire or added by historians with an agenda to push - perhaps bolstering the claim that the Israelites were ethnically different from the Canaanites ("We must be, there's none of those guys left...").

This leads us to the point of acknowledging, once again, that some of the stuff in the bible is simply not true. Perhaps, in some cases, it is deliberate fiction. This brings us, of course, again, to the question of how you can distinguish the truth from the falsehood, and if there is any truth in there at all. And I'm slowly coming to the realisation that you can't.

Its an all or nothing thing. Accept all of the bible as true and accurate (yes, I know that some of it is poetry and some is allegory, so some of it can't be true or accurate within its own genre type) with regard to history and with regard to claims of the character of God. Or. Reject it all as true or accurate.

Problem is, I can't accept it all without rejecting reason, logic and common sense, but I don't want to reject it all. I am more than slightly concerned that "can't" inevitably trumps "don't want to", which leads to only one inevitable outcome. Maybe I have to make that choice eventually. But not yet.


beowulf2k8 said...

"So, either God commanded genocide, but the Israelites did not follow through, or God did not command any such thing, so it never happened....This leads us to the point of acknowledging, once again, that some of the stuff in the bible is simply not true. Perhaps, in some cases, it is deliberate fiction. This brings us, of course, again, to the question of how you can distinguish the truth from the falsehood, and if there is any truth in there at all."

The Bible is the record of a war over the meaning of God and want he wants of humanity. The record is in the interpolations that require everything but morality (including immoral actions like murdering everyone) and in the sensible statements made every now and then require only morality.

There was a war of ideas going on in Israelite society where some viewed God as desiring us simply to live moral lives--and others viewed him as desiring us to kill all the infidels who wont offer the never-ending list of prescribed sacrifices and rituals.

To read the Bible rationally one must pick a side.

Micah 6:6-8 "Wherewith shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before the high God? shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves of a year old? (7) Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (8) He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Will you side with the loons who are so keen on sacrifice that they will kill their own firstborn? or with those who dismiss such ideas as immoral and absurd and call us to simple morality? That's the choice, for the war continues today.

Ricky Carvel said...

"To read the Bible rationally one must pick a side."

Or acknowledge that more than one side is represented there, and opt to choose neither?

beowulf2k8 said...

"Or acknowledge that more than one side is represented there, and opt to choose neither?"

There are so many different sides represented there that I'm not sure you can find one that isn't represented.