We took our first brief excursion into the hidden underbelly of Scripture last time. Now, it’s time to go deeper down this murky path. This is going to be a longer, much more arduous trip, so make sure you bring plenty of water and good batteries for your flashlight!
Before we make our descent, I would like to bring us back to “red spade” post where I referenced what is known as our brain’s “Delete key.” Here’s Bible scholar, Philip Jenkins again, with a little more explanation this time. It’s rather long but I’ve highlighted the salient parts:
“WE ARE HARDWIRED TO edit reality. Memory and experience teach us what to expect from the world, but on occasion we encounter facts or situations that fail to mesh with those preconceptions. At that point, a part of the brain comes into play, the component popularly known as the mind’s Delete key. (Its technical name is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, or DLPFC.) We suppress or inhibit unsettling anomalies, to the point that we honestly do not absorb or remember them. Within our brain, each of us has a personal censor. This does not mean that the development of moral consciousness slavishly follows some predetermined biological pattern, but we do have a natural tendency to ignore or underplay those things that do not fit our reality. Whatever our particular religious or ethnic tradition, human beings are very good at explaining away wrongful actions performed by “people like us,” while condemning identical behaviors undertaken by others.” (Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, p. 185)
I’ve personally experienced this strange DLPFC phenomenon in my own understanding of the Bible. I went through a season where I read through the whole Bible, from cover to cover (Old Testament once, New Testament twice) every year, for fifteen years without fail. But, in all that time, I never once honestly dealt with the implications of passages like the one we will look at here (emphasis mine).
“When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them. (Deut. 7:1-2 NKJV)
Then, later God reiterates this order in more stark terms…
16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them.” (Deut.20:16-17 NKJV)
First, let me say that if these passages don’t send a cold chill down your spine, you’re probably experiencing DLPFC big time! I know I was for most of my “Bible-believing” Christian life.
And this is where the path gets steeper and murkier. Unlike last time with Ezra, where we could say that he was projecting and probably not speaking for God, God Himself is explicitly giving the orders here!
This passage is part of what’s known as the “Canaanite Conquest.” The order to “let nothing breathe” is known as a “holy ban” (herem), meaning to devote something to utter destruction as an uncompromising consecration to God.
The Canaan conquest has been wrestled with and argued by Christians since the second century. More recently, Old Testament passages like this have been the subject of much derision by skeptics and atheists. Here’s an example from atheist, Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character of all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (“The God Delusion,” p.51)
The late Christopher Hitchens pretty much summed up his sentiments with the title of his book, God Is Not Great: Religion Poisons Everything.
Now, before you dismiss their critique and push the “Delete” key in your brain, let’s pause for a moment…
Imagine if your loved ones were the victims here?
What if we could ask other victims of genocidal “holy bans” in history: from the Arawaks in the West Indies who were exterminated by the Spanish in 1493, the Jews of Hitler’s Holocaust (an ironic and evil twist of events), to the black Africans of Darfur, and the Tutsis and the Hutus of Rwanda? Or, recently, the victims of Kony’s atrocities in Uganda?
All of these people were systematically slaughtered for the cause of “God” or some ideology.
And before we press the popular Fundamentalist “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” delete button, let’s put Richard Dawkins’s argument into a logical syllogism:
PREMISE 1: Genocide is defined as: “the deliberate and systematic extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group….the deliberate destruction of an entire race or nation.”
PREMISE 2: God ordered Israel to kill “everything that breathes” in Canaan Land and show no mercy. This is “the deliberate destruction of a race of people.”
THEREFORE: According to a “flat” literal reading of this holy ban, God is a genocidal warlord. (He’s a warlord because He commands His people to commit genocide in an act of war.)
Logically speaking, Richard Dawkins’s argument is sound.
Morally speaking, if genocide is deplorably evil, it’s always deplorably evil.
Of course, we don’t want to conclude this about our “good, good Father” who is called Love in New Testament revelation! Nonetheless, this text creates a dilemma for us. Either God ordered Israel to do something inherently reprehensible, or He didn’t order it and the story is not true. Neither answer is good if you believe in Bible inerrancy (Inerrant means having no theological or textual errors. The Bible does not necessarily have to be inerrant in order to be inspired).
This is why Origen (185 -254 AD) said that if the Canaan conquest is to be taken literally then Marcion was right! (Marcion was a second-century heretic who rejected the Old Testament as Christian Scripture).
Over the next (possibly several) posts I will look at various ways the Canaanite conquest has been interpreted and defended by Christians. For now, I would like your input.
Like last time, I would love to hear your take on any or all of the following questions:
- What is your gut reaction to this “holy ban” given in Deuteronomy 7:1-2?
- How would you answer a skeptic (briefly summarize) if he or she pointed this passage out to you? What would be your rationale for telling someone like Richard Dawkins that his or her conclusion is wrong?
- How does this holy ban fit in with the teachings of Jesus (Sermon on the Mount), how He interfaced with sinners and explained His Father to us?
I look forward to hearing from you. Keep your flashlight on and your finger off the Delete key!