Monday 21 February 2011

Re-creating a nicer Yahweh

Tim Bulkeley is attempting to get to grips with Deut. 7:2. Tim quotes the verse in a range of translations - NRSV, NIV, NLT, KJV and the notorious Young's Literal. Just to be different, here it is in the Revised English Bible:
... and when the LORD your God delivers them into your power for you to defeat, you must exterminate them. You must not make an alliance with them or spare them.
Seems pretty clear. Tim at first seems to agree.
God told the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites, the argument goes, so God is not loving and forgiving but a genocidal maniac  like Slobodan Milošević only worse because God should have known better. Deuteronomy 7:2 is a prime example, and it hardly matters which translation you read, they are all as bad as each other...
The expression "the argument goes" is, however, a flashing red light that indicates that Tim wants to slip out of the obvious but uncomfortable implication of the text. The problem is, the verse is anything but ambiguous. What to do, what to do... It can't mean what it clearly means, can it? And so Tim grabs his apologetic glasses and sets out to redeem Yahweh from all evil. the verse we can see something strange is happening… God apparently says “Exterminate the Canaanites [the verse before helpfully specifies several different nations that are to be specifically included] and while you are at it, make sure you do NOT make treaties with them. Either one part or both parts of this verse are not intended to be taken literally... (At least) one of the two things God says in this verse is not to be taken literally. It is difficult to see how “do not make a treaty with them” could be understood any other way, so perhaps it’s “Exterminate them!” that is non-literal. In fact such expressions are common among sports fans, and even in talking about the more aggressive board games, in our world should alert us to the possibility that this language is not literal.
Something strange? Not nearly as strange as this explanation. My response was a comment referring Tim to the story of the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Here you have the threat of extermination and the prospect of a treaty together, and there's nothing non-literal in either. The people of Gibeon are understandably reluctant to be murdered ('ethnically cleansed' if you prefer) by Yahweh's servants, so they send a delegation to Joshua in order to make a treaty. In doing so they present themselves as coming from far off, well outside the extermination zone. Joshua enters into an agreement with them only to discover shortly thereafter that they're not from a distant land after all, and he has been tricked.

If you're anything like me you send up a silent cheer for the Gibeonites. Okay, it's probably not history, but perhaps an etiology explaining why the Gibeonites were able to coexist within the dominant Yahwist culture of a later time. This much is certain though, the Gibeonites in this narrative didn't regard the threat of genocide as merely a little boastful sports banter, an aggressive game of checkers, or harmless metaphor.

Wise Gibeonites!

Tim responds:
You choose to read suspiciously, I choose not to. Except where the text provides clues or directions why should I read Deut 7:2 as a response to Josh 9?
I suppose, if it was worth replying, I could note that Tim reads naïvely with an agenda of his own, but as I recollect he's previously accused me of doing that (yup, I'm suspicious and naïve: no wonder I'm confused!) I could also note that I was suggesting that Joshua 9 illustrates the thrust of the verse in Deuteronomy. I certainly wasn't suggesting the latter was a direct response to the former, just an exemplar (though a pretty darn good one!)

Special pleading won't make the problem of a genocidal Yahweh go away. The only honest way through, in my opinion, is to front up to the evil of these passages in a way not dissimilar to Thom Stark's proposal. Yahweh cannot - and should not - be rescued by the Bible College cavalry.
[T]he archetypal liberation story is also an archetypal liquidation story, that of a divinely inspired fanaticism which commands ethnic cleansing, extermination and genocide. What is happening in the "Holy Land" today, as I write, looks like an enactment of the mythical commandment of Yahweh in Deuteronomy 7...
 Even before the entry into the promised land, Yahweh's servant Moses orders the extermination of the Midianites and is furious when only the Midianite men are killed and the women and children are kept as booty. Moses orders the killing of all except 32,000 virgins, who are to be retained as sex slaves, and the married women and boys follow their menfolk to the death camps. Such stories are told without qualms.
That final quote comes not from an atheist or anti-Christian, but from British Quaker David Boulton (The Trouble With God, p.96-97). Elsewhere he can even refer to "The monster tribal god Yahweh-Elohim" (p.164). Is Boulton just reading naïvely from a hermeneutic of suspicion, or is he a braver soul by far than those quivering evangelicals who want to remake Yahweh in their own image.


  1. This illustrates one of the main reasons that people have difficulty reconciling the Old and New Testaments, and accepting the idea that the God of the first is also the God of the second. The explanation probably deserves more space than can be allotted on this forum.

    But, primarily it comes down to this: our (that is, human) lives exist at God’s pleasure and discretion, and He has ultimate jurisdiction over His creation, including humans. This tends to offend the sensibilities of those of us raised in the ambience of Western civilization, where individual human rights to “life” and liberty are so ingrained. But, even our founding documents admit that those rights come from God. So, strictly from a legal point of view, God indeed has the right (and perhaps other reasons as well, we don’t know) to exterminate a people if He so chooses.

    Remember the famous words of Yul Brenner in “The Ten Commandments”, after the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea, when his wife had chastised him for not challenging Moses any further, he said, “His god IS God.”

  2. Actually Boulton is arguably an atheist (although of a different order than Dawkins et al) even though also a Quaker. He's part of the non-theist trend in quakerism.

    Of course, that doesn't invalidate the point of your post.

    Glad to have come across the blog, it's duly added to my feed list.

  3. The literal meaning comes first, and when the metaphoric meaning comes later it does not nullify the literal meaning. Another metaphor in sports is when the All Blacks dance the haka before a match. They are telling the opponents, "We are going to kill you." We know it is metaphoric, both the dance and the message being conveyed. But it does not nullify the history of the war haka, danced just before a battle, where the Maoris had as a goal to kill *all* their opponents, so nobody was available to exact revenge. And if they took any prisoners, they used them as a walking food source on the way to their next battle, in a land where there was no livestock. Fortunately for the Wallabies, they don't have to worry about that.

  4. Yeah, it absolutely amazes and dumbfounds me how much traction this ridiculous argument is picking up. They argue that kill them all and don't make treaties with them are mutually exclusive commands. Huh?

    No, in reality, they're flipsides of the same coin. If you didn't exterminate a people, what would you be doing with them? Making a treaty. If you weren't making a treaty with them, what would you be doing? Exterminating them. Thus, exterminate them and make no treaties with them stand in parallel, reinforcing each the other.

    How the apologists think they somehow stand in tension is beyond me.

    This is your brain -- :-)
    This is your brain on apologetics -- XP

  5. That's why Marcion said that the old testament god was really the demiurge. But, the true answer is that the old testament was made up, invented, by Jews during and after the Babylonian exile.

    The Babylonian exile is about the only true history OF the Jews and even that was only included upper crust from Judea.

    There were Jews everywhere in the then known world and they weren't called "Jews" because of being a separate race from the other Semitic people of the Middle East but because of their religion, Judaism.