This is a slightly edited version of an excursus I wrote in this week’s notes for the Bible Survey Class I’ve been teaching at my church. Follow that link for more information on the class. Also, I’m well-aware that the second half of this is exactly the “angle” talked about in the venerable Pete Enns’ recent blog post. I wrote this before he posted that, but still, I wanted to put it up on the off-chance this articulation might be helpful to others.
In the books of Numbers and Joshua, God commands the Israelites to commit genocide on many different people, including their women and children. He also commands them to forcibly enslave others. And in still another story, he commands Moses to take the remaining virgins of this particular people of which they disobediently did not kill all, and divide them evenly among the soldiers and the “rest of the Israelites”. We can only imagine what for.
A few quick thoughts:
One, you can’t appeal to any standard of “iniquity” or sinfulness” or “all people deserve that kind of justice” because Yahweh says specifically–several times–what his reasoning for commanding this was. It was not because these people were evil. It was simply because they lived in the land that Yahweh wanted to give to the Israelites, and there was a fear their faith would woo the Israelites away.
Every Christian needs to figure out what they’re going to do with this. This is the main attack of our generation of atheists, and so each of us needs to figure out how we might sleep at night while worshipping the God of this Bible.
But first, there’s a temptation some times when it comes to this stuff to try and find the answer in studying the history/archaeology/cultural context for this post. This is certainly what I’ve done, and I’ve found a lot of help in that. But, whatever you might want to do with this history of the text, there has to be a way to appropriate these texts regardless of how much studying the reader has done. We can and should investigate the backgrounds of these books, but at the end of the day, the only truly satisfying answer should come from within the materials we have to work with here.
In other words, if our response is not something readily available to even the most un-educated among us, then it won’t be ultimately helpful in the ways it needs to be.
While there’s much more that can/should be said about this than what we can do in this post, here’s what I’ll say to try and help us: our interpretive framework and presupposition with which to approach these texts cannot first and foremost be a belief about the Bible itself. The primary filter we bring to this should not be a belief about the historicity or literalness of the Bible–one way or the other. Our interpretive filter must be Jesus himself.
Why? The Bible says that he is the clearest and truest revelation of the nature of God–not the Bible. As I’ve said in an earlier class, the Bible itself is not the revelation of God; it’s the place where the Holy Spirit reveals God to us within the text. Some writers have poetically articulated this by saying that God is revealed “behind” or “in-between” the letters of the Bible’s words and not “within” them. The words on the page are not God, no matter how “clearly” it seems to be making some claim as to his nature or his prerogative. Jesus is.
So what does this mean practically? Well, lots of people whose most important belief seems to be “the Bible is such-and-such kind of way” seem to inadvertantly prioritize the Bible over Jesus. They will twist and force our picture of Jesus to fit him into the harder parts of Scripture, rather than vice versa. They would rather greatly de-emphasize–and in some cases, completely toss out–clear parts of Jesus’ revelation of God in order to make him seem in line with this God of Numbers and Joshua.
And though those justifications may satisfy us intellectually for a time, I hope we all agree that these explanations still feel deeply hollow and unsatisfactory at a spiritual and worshipful level.
As Christians, we have a responsibility to choose Jesus over the Bible. And so, when you have to choose between God as revealed in Joshua, and God as revealed in Jesus, being a Christian means you have to choose Jesus. You must be at least willing–if necessary–to twist, reinterpret, change your perspective on, and, yes, maybe sometimes even toss some ideas out when anything goes against who God is as seen in Christ. The writers of the New Testament did this constantly. Many Christians will say that we’ll never have to make that choice, but the older I get, I personally have to question that.
The Bible is a human book. It itself is no more divine than a church building. But, it is the sovereignly chosen meeting place of God with His People, when used by the Holy Spirit to that end. So, in that way, it is still definitely sacred ground.
We also have to understand that in the whole sweep of redemptive history, the Israelites at this point still have only a fuzzy picture of who Yahweh is. He has not revealed very much about his nature yet at this point in the story. In these early books, we have hardly any statements referring to the afterlife, angelology, life after death, any sort of “heaven” idea, any idea of “holy writings”, what faith logs like without a temple our tabernacle, or even that Yahweh is the only God in existence (the Israelites, for most of their pre-exilic history, believed in the existence of other gods, they just believed there’s was superior)!
As an analogy, if you want as comprehensive and accurate of a picture of someone’s father as possible, would you rather talk to one of their children when that child is two, or 42?
The book of Joshua is when the Israelites are still two, using whatever words they can to describe their Daddy. The New Testament is, in a sense, God’s older children–with perspective, age, and wisdom–talking about this Father. And ultimately, in Jesus, we’re talking to the Father himself.
I hope these things begin a conversation and some thoughts that lead us to seeing God more clearly–as he is seen in Jesus–and not more confusedly as he is sometimes made in our silly attempts at resolving things that need not ever be brought together.
(You can download this article for free in various forms by viewing it on Scribd.)
[image credit: Marc Chagall “White Crucifixion”]