Thursday 27 January 2011

Stark choices (4)

Forget the people - save my tree.
[Continuing a review of The Human Faces of God by Thom Stark]

Chapter 1 is called The Argument: In the Beginning Was the Words. Apart from wanting, due to force of habit, to take a red pen and cross out 'was' (surely it should be 'were,' regardless of intended biblical allusions), it's an impressive beginning.

Section 1 contrasts the tendencies to universalism and xenophobic nationalism that yell at each other throughout the biblical narrative. The exemplar offered is one I'd never noticed before, the relative value of human life and woody plants.

No, really. The passages in question are in Deuteronomy and Jonah. Here's the former.

But in the cities which Yahweh gives you as an inheritance, you shall not leave anything that lives. You must destroy them all according to the law of anathema - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites - as Yahweh, your God, has commanded you, that they may not teach you all those evil things which they have done to honor their gods, for by imitating them you shall sin against Yahweh, your God. If, on attacking a city, you have to lay siege to it for a long time before capturing it, you shall not destroy the fruit trees around it nor cut them with your axe, that you may eat their fruit. Do not cut them, then. Are the trees of the field men that they should also be stricken? (Deut. 20: 16-19)

People can be butchered freely, but for heaven's sake don't touch the fruit trees!

But then, the word of the Lord also came to Jonah, who found shade under a castor oil bush (gourd, KJV) after preaching to the city of Nineveh. The citizens unexpectedly repented and were spared, but Jonah was less than pleased. Yahweh then killed off the shady plant...

When the sun rose, God sent a scorching east wind; the sun blazed down upon Jonah’s head, and he grew faint. His death wish returned and he said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” Then God asked Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the castor-oil plant?” Jonah answered, “I am right to be angry enough to wish to die.” Yahweh said, “You are concerned about a plant which cost you no labor to make it grow. Overnight it sprang up, and overnight it perished. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish right from left and they have many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned for such a great city?” (Jonah 4: 8-11)

Stark notes: "According to the Yahweh worshipped by the architects of the Canaanite conquest narrative, Yahweh cares more about trees than he does about human beings. According to the Yahweh worshipped by the author of the book of Jonah, Yahweh cares more about human beings than he does about trees. It's an interesting argument." (p.6)

The point being that in scripture there is a conversation going on - a heated conversation that stretches across generations. When we read scripture we're caught up in a debate - a whole series of debates - and not a tidy set of coherent theological positions with handy proof texts. "To put it bluntly: the Bible is an argument - with itself." (p.1) That's not a weakness, in Stark's view, but a strength.

To be continued. Scripture quotations from the Christian Community Bible.


  1. It would be a strength if Nineveh ever repented and converted to Judaism because of the preaching of a Jewish prophet.

    Talk about a miracle, forget the whale. The repentance of Nineveh simply didn't happen.

    Maybe the story comes from the fact of Jewish proselytes converting so many people to Judaism in the Greek/Roman world before Christianity became the new branch of the Jewish religion.

    No, really, Judaism came that close to being the religion of the then known world. Those gentiles who had already converted to Judaism, or at least on the way to being converted, would have been the same folks to whom Paul preached to and converted to Christianity.

  2. I think there is a simple explanation. In Deuteronomy they were invading cities to take over as the "promised land". Thus they were to live in the land, why destroy something that might be useful? The way it was put was: are the trees of the field men? Well no, they're not and men were supposed to be wiped out. Considering what was said in that paragraph, it runs rather smoothly.

    In the case of Jonah, God had a group of newly found converts and he dotes upon "newly founds" throughout the bible making various covenants and promises. The tree was to teach Jonah a lesson, I might be stating the obvious but Jonah has to learn many lessons, in some ways he is worse than Nineveh ever was.

    The two stories work because God did not have a love affair with the trees in Deuteronomy, they had a purpose. The tree in Jonah also had a purpose.

    In the bible all manner of creatures and plant/tree life are used to serve a purpose. Whether it's the whale, the burning bush or Balaam's ass.