Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Genocide for Jesus (Joshua 12-19)

The above engraving of Joshua sparing Rahab is one of the reasons why Gustave Doré is my favorite biblical illustrator. We see the somber Rahab stepping over the mutilated corpses of the citizens of Jericho, as her terrified father peers over her shoulder. The two spies lend a firm and perhaps comforting hand as they guide her towards Joshua. A towering Israelite commander looks like Genghis Khan sitting atop his camel. Crude spears glimmer against a landscape of smoke and ruin. A plainly dressed but imposing Joshua sits atop his mighty horse, pardoning Rahab and her family while crushing a man underfoot.

How different from the images I grew up with in illustrated Children's Bibles, with the kind smiling faces of the Israelites cheering at the collapse of the walls! These dark themes are a constant reminder that the Bible is first and foremost a book for grown-ups.

I suppose it's time I deal directly with what is without doubt the most troubling part of the Bible. What are we to make of the merciless slaughter of the inhabitants of the Promised Land, by God's people, following God's clear direction?

I’ve said before that I don’t think the kind of mental gymnastics necessary to justify the annihilation of entire peoples is good for the modern soul. We are horrified by genocide, and rightly so. What Joshua did to Jericho should never be justified in the abstract, and even trying to do it in the particular ends up becoming rather embarrassing.

But this, even this, is Holy Scripture, and so we’re stuck with it. If we cannot justify Israel’s atrocities, we must at least try to understand the part they play in the story the Bible is telling. And to see this clearly, we need to clear away the debris of modern prejudice.

Dehumanizing the Enemy

We are told, quite clearly, that the people of the Promised Land are being destroyed as judgment for their horrible wickedness – especially their custom of burning their children as sacrifices to their gods. The modern audience immediately responds that this is rationalization. To justify such atrocities, the perpetrators always need to somehow dehumanize their victims, or convince themselves that they are so evil as to deserve such cruelty. The Israelites no doubt made up these outlandish tales of barbarism to ease their conscience. This is so obvious to us that it hardly needs saying.

Nevertheless, we’re wrong. The Israelites wouldn’t have felt the need to conjure up justifications for the conquest, for the very simple reason that they were ancient and not modern people. In the ancient near-east, might really did make right. A powerful conqueror would have said the following, without a hint of shame. We will level your cities, kill your people, smash your babies against the rocks, desecrate your sacred temples, and take your land and property, simply because we can. If we spare some of you, it is only because we find you useful as slaves or curiosities. If you have any objections to this and wish to keep your honor, feel free to kill yourself.

The ancient victims would obviously be upset about all this, but not in the same way that we would today. A person drowning in the ocean swims his hardest to stay afloat, and cries desperately for help. But he doesn’t say “curse the properties of air and water and human biology that make drowning possible!”

I think we can safely conclude that the description of just how low the Canaanites had sunk in their idolatry is quite real. After all, there truly were cultures whose gods were specifically designed to be as ugly and horrible as the craftsman could fathom. We have stories of huge hollow metal idols, where sacrificial prisoners are locked inside, a furnace is lit underneath, and the human screams echoing out of the mouth of the idol embody the hellish voice of the devil they worship. Such things were done in the ancient world, at the heart of bustling cities, under the clear light of day.

The Sins of the Fathers

Even if the culture as a whole is said to be under God’s righteous judgment, what about individual justice? Surely the babies, if nothing else, should have been spared and cared for. What good is it if they are rescued from the furnaces of the idols only to have their throats cut by Israelite swords? I have no argument against this, and I shudder at the thought of those little ones.

Yet if we cannot (and must not) give up our firm convictions on individual justice, we must at least try to understand the ancient notion of collective identity. Nations and peoples were defined in terms of the strong personalities of their archetypes – Jacob, Esau, Anak, Amelek, Midian, Hercules, Romulus & Remus, etc. Sometimes their founders were even worshiped as gods. The cultures were very conservative, with their distinct character being passed from one generation to the next.

I sometimes wonder whether there is more to this than we like to think. Isn’t it curious that so much of what see as our own personal tastes, ideas, and opinions seem to fit key trends and movements (or counter movements) of our time? Even our personal individualism is an expression of a key American archetype. Most other cultures even today understand this better than we do, and hold individual Americans accountable for the actions of their country. Why shouldn’t they? We certainly benefit from our country’s actions – why should we not share the responsibility?

I am haunted at times when I find an old Indian arrowhead on my parents’ land. These are the artifacts of the people who were once here – peoples all but destroyed today. I can say it’s not my fault, but like it or not, I enjoy the lush beautiful land that their great grandchildren will never see. Is this just? Were the former inhabitants wicked enough to warrant their dispossession? If not, is there to be a reckoning? Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Reading these Stories

In the end, as hard as it is, we must try to read Joshua with ancient eyes, if we are to see what God would have us see. We have the sons of Jacob, who were once slaves, now hammered into a nation. The former inhabitants have grown fat with injustice and idolatry, and their time is at an end. The creator of Heaven and Earth, in his wisdom and justice, has chosen to give the land of Canaan to the twelve sons of Israel as an inheritance.

They are encouraged to be strong and courageous, even though they have no earthly reason to be. They are a rag-tag disorganized rabble. But God gives them the power to annihilate powerful armies and tear down imposing city walls. And he requires them to leave nothing alive. To do otherwise would imply that they are conquering out of their own strength, and showing mercy at their own whim.

It is not because of their righteousness or power that they are given the land. It is because the Lord is faithful to his promises to Abraham. It is because he has a plan to bless all nations through the nation that Israel is becoming. And it is because the nations currently there no longer deserve their place under the sun.

You have to be careful, WfO, not to fall into the trap of thinking the ancients were less than we were. They had reason and they had the Law of Conscience. We see that clearly in some cultures. Both the Babylonians and the Persians were working on a system of rule by law. Even the Egyptians could recognize ultimate truth.

However, like all peoples throughout history there are localities that develop barbarism in the extreme. The Canaanites had pulled that off in spades.

Hi Nick,

I hope I don't exude a contempt for the ancient world that I see so often in people today. I just saw the movie Beowulf and ugh...what a hatred it had for the sort of people who might have written the original Beowulf. But I also don't think that two thousand years of Christian influence have done nothing to the cultures of the world.

Not a contempt and you are right that Christian influences in our world abound (despite peoples claims that it was the enlightenment). However, they did have law. They did suffer when they killed.

One of the reasons war was so brutal is that effective command and control (and recon) didn't exist. Even if you were a well meaning chieftain restraining your men, who you might not see for weeks, was difficult. Leaving behind a whole village of maturing men who were angry at you for killing their dads and could disappear into the woods and hills a mile out of town was suicide.

Beowulf's bad? That's too bad...I was going to slip off and see it today.

Beowulf is glorious computer graphics with a well-crafted cynical modern deconstructionist message.

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