Monday, January 22, 2007

Thinking about the Book of Joshua

My current series of bulletin articles for the parish concerns violence in the Old Testament--in particular, the conquest of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua. The Lord establishes a Herem or curse against Jericho, such that everything in it is forfeit and must be destroyed, including women and children.

Beyond this, there is the story of Achen. He was caught hoarding forbidden treasure, admitted his crime, and so he and his wife, children, and possessions were stoned and burned. So much for leniency for a 'guilty' plea.

My original motivation for researching this issue was to respond to a YouTube video that expressed distaste for the God of the Old Covenant. Yet I am now writing for a largely conservative Catholic audience--much of which believes that Biblical inerrancy means that the whole thing is literal. So I am trying to balance a persuasiveness suitable for an agnostic with a theological caution suitable for sensitive Catholics. Fun!

I've looked at the 1966 Catholic Encyclopedia, the Jerome Biblical Commentary, Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt, and A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. So, nothing really cutting-edge.

What is becoming apparent to me in the research is that (as far as I understand it) the inerrancy of the Bible may not exclude the hermenutical possibility that the Book of Joshua is lacking in precision in the way it describes God as "commanding" the Israelites to carry out certain acts. Rather, the divine will underlying the slaughter of the Canaanites and the brutal authoritarianism of Joshua may not be God's direct will, but rather his "permissive" or "possibilizing" will. In other words, it was God's direct will that the Canaanite religion be eradicated and that the land come into possession of the Israelites. But he did not intend, in the same way, that these goals should be carried out by means of indiscriminate murder. Rather, it was that God allowed these means to be used, though they be objectively sinful, and their executors, even Joshua himself, may not have been necessarily acquitted the guilt.

What are some reasons why this might be? Although God was not averse to putting miracles in the service of his ends, it would not fit the pattern of the Old Testament to miraculously imbue Israel with anachronistic, enlightened ways of thinking about war, conquest, religious purity, and himself. Nor, for similar reasons, would God miraculously turn Jericho into a nation of faithful Israelites overnight. Either case would involve a violent override of the free will of human beings. Thus it was fitting for the Lord to be, as it were, minimalistic in his intervention: he, and he alone, is the reason why Israel was able to win.

[BTW, all of this is: other historical-critical problems and their theories notwithstanding. I know that the Historical Books are complex interweavings of narratives of different traditions, genres, disparate chronologies, etc. and so on. But these are not really relevant to the issue at hand.]

The problem with a literalistic interpretation of Joshua is not so much that God could will the annihilation of a people, if they were an obstacle to his mysteriously elected vehicle of the salvation of the world. If God directly destroyed Jericho, a la Sodom and Gomorrah, it would be less of a logical problem, both because of God's absolute supremacy over Creation, and because (from the standpoint of Christian faith) death, from God's point of view, is not the unmitigable end of the person. Yet even so, such would be difficult to reconcile with Ezekiel 33:11, "As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live."

The problem is, rather, that in employing Israel to carry out the deed, in every grizzly result that ensues, there erupts instances where God seems to contradict himself. Not only does the Herem on Jericho appear to contradict several of the more enlightened statements of God through the later prophets, but it also contradicts points of the supposedly already-established Deuteronomical law concerning guilt and warfare.

The ultimate result is that one seems to be forced to accept one of two breaches of traditional religion. If one holds steadfastly to as literal a sense of the Old Testament as possible, this appears to result in either a self-contradictory or a changing god. If one is convinced, as I myself am, that notwithstanding his absolute power and freedom, God does not contradict himself or leave his beloved creatures to dwell in absurdity, then this presents serious problems for a literal interpretation of the divine commands in Joshua.

The picture of divine inspiration portrayed by the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the Catholic Encyclopedia--both of which have Nihil Obstats and Imprimaturs (though I understand that these can mean much less than their stated purpose)--is that the Spirit is everywhere in Biblical history moving individuals to write his Word in their words. And although they are assisted by the Spirit to "without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures," (CCC 107) yet nevertheless the Old Testament can "contain some things which are incomplete and temporary" (Dei Verbum 15).

Will elaborate more, if I haven't already fallen into too much heresy.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

What a wonderful enticement (bait) impartiality is to the little fishies. So bright and shiny it is when set against the murky depths of contemporaneous bias.