Total Pageviews

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What of the Wars in Deuteronomy?

One of the more difficult parts of Deuteronomy is God's command to annihilate the inhabitants of the land. [Dtn 2:34 "in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor."] What is one to think of such a reading?

Liberals and Fundamentalists each have offered an approach. The Liberals say the Bible is flawed and such parts of Scripture illustrate its limits and errors. The Fundamentalist, advocating the belief that God is the author of Scripture, says God can choose to do with the world He created as He sees fit. The dilemma is mass extermination, genocide, is obviously evil. If God demands genocide, then how does one twist that into a paradox where "an apparent evil" is actually "a good"? And if God says genocide is good, setting a precedent for it in Sacred Writing, on what grounds do we condemn the various peoples around the globe who have, at one time or another, engaged in that heinous practice?

Does this mean that the Liberals are right? That the Bible is a flawed document and it does not reveal God, rather it reveals the religious feelings/beliefs of an ancient people? That it serves an interesting historical purpose providing insight into religious practices from long ago, but not much else?

As a Christian I say, "the Word of the Lord" when we read from the Bible, and I call the Bible, "the Word of God." As such, I have a high respect for its content and would contend it reveals God to us in and through the words. So what kind of God then is revealed?

A God incarnate.
A God who deals with people where they are and when they are.
A God whose message expresses the timeless in the context of time, which conveys the infinite in the limits of language and grammar, a God whse perfection is poured out in and through fallible words. In other words, The Truth, in becoming "enfleshed" chooses to self limit. No passage of Scripture conveys all of the truth. As such, isolated bits are open to misinterpretation. Isolated bits of Truth can be untrue or in error, depending on how you look at it... (It is the nature of language)

This is why interpretation is vital. One cannot simply say "it means what it says and says what it means" without the caveat, "and it was written long ago so our struggle is determining what it is saying and what it means!" Words have connotation and denotation. Words change in meaning in different contexts.

When you're with the Flintstones
you'll have a yabba dabba doo time.
A dabba doo time.
You'll have a gay old time.


Anyone want to bet that last line would not mean then what it means now? More to the point, 'yabba dabba do' was a made up expression which had no meaning prior to that in the wider culture. In fact, outside of Fred yelling it on a regular basis, it did not exist. (It is the nature of language)

So what of the Bible? The spoken words from one generation are handed down from father to son, father to son. Over the hundreds of years the context changes. A close study of the laws reveals the changes which happen. We understand why. Things change so laws must be adjusted. [that is why we have silly laws on the books today, silly because in this context they make no sense, just like someday some of our laws will appear funny] With law that is easier to understand. We see how a clan of shepherds, a small village, and a large city would create different social settings, demanding different values and differently ordered life. Some principles are the same (be honest, do not do violence, love your nieghbor) but the actual concrete rules would be different.

What does that have to do with the wars in Deuteronomy? As I said yesterday, Deuteronomy is part of a long written tradition encompassing much of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings. It is written in Judah and that perspective (central worship in Temple) is found throughout. It also aims to explain the sorry state of things at the end of the story with the exile. So "how did we end up  here?" is a driving influence on the literature. The answer is "we were unfaithful." Sin produces death, figuratively and literally. (It is the nature of creation) Deuteronomy in its final form is written with the end in mind.

Archaeologists say that their digs in Ancient Israel reveal no evidence of the Jews destroying cities. [The Liberal would claim this 'fact' is another proof that the Bible has error in it. They say it is not historically accurate.] In fact, the "scholarly" opinion is that escaping slaves were reintegrated into a kinship group already in the land. The "conquest" was a slow motion event, taking place over a long time and was not the holy war described in Scripture. Except, of course, the Scripture speaks with two voices. In Joshua the massacres have annihilated all the inhabitants, while Judges (slo-mo) indicate all manner of ongoing problems with the inhabitants. The Jews are told to kill everyone and also told not to intermarry with the inhabitants (slo-mo). There are pro-social rules governing the alien among the Jews, even as there are commands that no alien is to be among them. How to understand this incongruity?

My belief is that the texts are NOT meant to be modern history. [That is, after all, why it is called modern, it started in the modern era of history.] It does not mean they are not true. Truth and factual history are related but not the same. It is all about purpose! Ancient history was written for different reasons. I believe the revelation of God in these works must be understood in a symbolic/spiritual sense. [For a more obvious illustration consider Paul on "spiritual armor" or Revelation where the sword (=Word of God) comes from the Rider's mouth and 'slays' the enemies of God.] They communicate in starkly violent words a spiritual principle: Purify the land and make it holy, make no room for sin and infidelity. Killing "babies" is rooting out "little sins." Baby snakes grow into big snakes. Poison kills. There is no innocent in the symbolic meaning. The texts are literal, but literally figurative. They do not provide a new take on social morality, rather they illustrate the deadly seriousness of the all or nothing call to love and obey God. The truth of the Deuteronomy war texts can and should be applied in any age. Root out every semblance of evil. It is not an invitation to project our sins on another (especially another race or group of people). The Scripture makes that clear, too, in saying "if you act like them then I will sweep you from the land just like I did them." It is theological more than geo-political. It is a warning, a stern threat, that the way of God is all encompassing. It makes use of an ancient experience (receiving the land as a blessing from God) and expresses it (consistent with the culture and time) as we find it in our Bible.

So, it can be asked, why not just say it is symbolic? My response is no one would ever do that, it makes no sense to thnk they would. The Fred Flinstone lyrics do not have a disclaimer because they assumed the audience knew and understood the words: yabba dabba do and gay are clear if you understand. The purpose of Deuteronomy is historical theology and theological history. It is meant for the audience then and is appropriated by us now only through that original context. When I say symbolic I am not saying only symbolic, meaning less serious.Symbolism is far more serious than any stale fact. For example, we are studying about Aslan this week in VBS. Aslan is symbolic but his story really conveys the historical reality of Jesus. Symbols include things like spitting in someone's face or lifting there arm up in victory. Those symbols are very, very real!

This is a blog, not a book,  but I hope even this brief treatment provides a venue for continued reflection. And the beginning of an answer to the question "What of the wars in Deuteronomy?"

1 comment: