One of the thorniest issues that people deal with when trying to understand the Bible is what to make of the brutal violence depicted in the Old Testament. A recent interview of Paul Copan, author of the book Did God Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms With the Justice of God, reveals just how difficult in may be to come up with satisfying answers. Questions and answers search for any kind of handle on the situation in order to deal with the natural discomfort that is felt by people today in the age of terrorist and anti-terrorist ideology. One snippet of the interview proceeded thusly:
RNS: In these passages, the text says God told them the Israelites to slaughter children, women, even animals. How do we even begin to process this?
PC: We must first understand that the Canaanites engaged in acts that would be considered criminal in any civilized society–incest, infant sacrifice, ritual prostitution, bestiality. Also, God waited over 400 years for Canaan to hit moral rock-bottom before commanding they be driven out (Gen. 15:16).
Answers such as this are poorly thought out, and the implications of such ideas are not considered. For example, may we say, then, that genocide is just and proper if the targeted people are barbarous in their behavior? Exactly how bad must they be before we proceed with our genocide? Is life sacred only to a point, a point where genocidal killing becomes defensible?
These answers also miss the ancient Near Eastern context of holy war. The Hebrew term ḥērem used of the wars of Joshua in the conquest of Canaan indicates a ritual warfare by which the enemy was devoted to God as a sacrifice. If the Canaanites deserved to be killed because of their child sacrifices, what then of the Israelites who sacrificed men, women, and children to God through holy war? In a world ravaged by militant jihad, is it so easy to find justification for it, when we find it in our Bible?
Thankfully, we do not have to resort to such handwaving excuses to justify our Bible, and herein we find a case where critical scholarship of the Bible and the patristic tradition of biblical interpretation may be found to be in harmony.
Biblical scholarship has generally settled upon a theory of composition of the books Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, known as the dual redaction of the Deuteronomistic History. The theory states that through a series of redactions (either two or three major periods), this series of books was shaped according to a consistent ideological and theological tradition. For example, it is hypothesized that an early edition of Joshua, chapters 1-12, was written during the time of King Josiah of Judah as he sought to retake Benjaminite territory previously captured by the Assyrians. Josiah wished to present himself as a new Joshua, taking back territory that rightly belonged to the people of God. Subsequently, the book of Joshua was expanded by Jews taken into exile in Babylon, who looked to their own eventual return to the Land of Israel as a reconquest of Canaan in the manner of Joshua and the Children of Israel who entered the Land after the Exodus. The Exilic Jews were awaiting their own Exodus that would allow them to return to the Promise Land.
Now, it is expected that traditionally-minded Orthodox Christians might take issue with this scenario as I have presented it (in a very simplified form), but I caution jumping to conclusions too quickly, for we find that such a scenario may enable us to more closely approximate patristic interpretation of the Book of Joshua. In positing a redaction of the Book of Joshua during the time of Josiah and the Exile, we are able to move away from an overly literal, historical-factual reading of the book. If indeed the book was composed in order to express certain ideological and theological ideas, then such a historical-factual reading would in that case not even be “literal.” If Joshua was composed to promote the ideology of Jewish kingship and the hopes of an exilic community awaiting their own “Exodus” and return to the Land, then a properly “literal” reading will take these ideas into account.
If we do so, we may approach a more patristic style of exegesis. We may, for example take the ideology of kingship and apply it to the King of Kings, Jesus Christ. As Joshua is depicted conquering the land of Benjamin, so Josiah wished also to view himself as a new Joshua taking back land that had been captured by the Assyrians. In the same way, Christ, the New Joshua (Yeshua), leads the people of God to reclaim the “Land” of their heart, overtaken and captured by sin. He leads His people into the promised land of the Kingdom of God, which is found in the heart, and he establishes His kingship there.
If we understand the hopes of the Jews in exile in Babylon, and we interpret Joshua as reflecting their hopes of reentering the Land of Israel, we may also see in this a type of Christ who leads us out of the bondage of sin and the exile of godlessness into the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God. Within this Kingdom, that is externally the Church and internally within our hearts, we must drive out the Canaanites, which is interpreted to be sin.
This is indeed how the Fathers understood the book of Joshua. St. John Chrysostom writes:
The name of Jesus [Joshua] was a type. For this reason then, and because of the very name, the creation reverenced him. What then! Was no other person called Jesus [Joshua]? But this man was on this account so called as a type… He brought in the people into the promised land, as Jesus into heaven; not the law; since neither did Moses [enter the promised land] but remained outside. The law has not the power to bring in, but grace. (Homilies on Hebrews 27.6)
From Ode VI of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete:
Like Joshua the son of Nun, search and spy out, my soul, the land of thine inheritance and take up thy dwelling within it, though obedience to the law.
Rise up and make war against the passions of the flesh, as Joshua against Amalek, ever gaining the victory over the Gibeonites, thy deceitful thoughts.
O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time like the Ark of old, and take possession of the land of promise: for God commands thee.
Many more quotations could be provided from patristic and liturgical texts, but these should suffice to illustrate the matter. When we read and are repulsed by the slaughter and carnage in the Bible, we may take some solace in the very real possibility that these texts do not record history exactly as it happened, but rather they represent the ideology and theology of the Israelites and Jews as they struggled to take possession of the Land of Israel. Seeing it this way brings us closer to the manner in which the Fathers interpreted these things, in a spiritual fashion, not literalistic.
Origen offers his explanation:
You will read in the Holy Scriptures about the battles of the just ones, about the slaughter and carnage of murderers, and that the saints spare none of their deeply rooted enemies. If they do spare them, they are even charged with sin, just as Saul was charged because he preserved the life of Agag king of Amalek. You should understand the wars of the just by the method I have set forth above, that these wars are waged by them against sin. But how will the just ones endure if they reserve even a little bit of sin? Therefore, this is said of them: “They dd not leave behind even one who might be saved or might escape.” (Homilies on Joshua 8.7)
What to Take Away
- Critical scholarship does not have to be conceived as an enemy to proper biblical interpretation in the Church, for it often enables us to follow patristic exegetical techniques by allowing us to see more clearly non-literal meanings in the text.
- When we encounter violence in the Old Testament that unsettles us, we may take some solace in the possibility that these texts were never intended by their authors as reporting factual history. Rather, they reflect theological and ideological concerns as encountered by the communities that first read these books.
- While the Fathers did not have recourse to modern critical scholarship, they nevertheless interpreted the Bible in non-literal ways which are able to work harmoniously with critical scholarship, in that both allow us to transcend literalist readings.
- This is a pastoral issue. There are many people out there who reject Christianity because of such literalist readings of the Bible. It is incumbent upon Orthodox Christian leaders to assure them that the God we believe in is not a genocidal maniac, and our Bible does not have to be read in such a manner. Furthermore, we do not need to try to justify such heinous acts in order to support a literalistic reading of the Bible.
Patristic quotes are taken from:
Franke, John R. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament Vol. IV Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005
The Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is taken from:
Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware. The Lenten Triodion. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2002.