Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Is God good?

For quite a while now I've been struggling with large chunks of the Old Testament. By struggling I mean finding it hard to engage with passages of scripture from my 21st century perspective, for example the amount of wanton and apparently God-sanctioned or even God-initiated violence. So on the whole I've buried my head in the gospels and hoped that I might be able to just ignore all that stuff. But of course it's impossible to ignore all that stuff as one of the amazing things about the bible is the continuity of it's meta-narrative and for better or worse those ancient tales make up a large part of it.
The other day I was challenged to re-engage with this stuff and to see what deeper examination of the text might reveal, so I did. So far I've just looked at the first 7 chapters of Joshua (one of the most bloodthirsty books) and guess what I found... Prior to embarking on the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of Jericho the zealous Joshua has an encounter:
"Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, "Are you for us or for our enemies?" "Neither," he replied, "but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come." Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, "What message does my Lord have for his servant?" The commander of the LORD's army replied, "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy." Joshua 5:13-15.
Fascinating. Bible scholars pretty much all agree that this incident was a christophany. And what message is delivered to Joshua? "I'm not taking sides here OK." And then he goes on to remind Joshua of the sanctity of the world in which he has been granted leadership responsibility. Even more fascinating then reading on to chapter 6 when: "the LORD said to Joshua, "See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men." (v2). Er, did you hear that Joshua? According to the rules of engagement your army may put to the sword the enlisted men of the city, but who mentioned the women and the children? The NIV tactfully translates the genocide of the city as a 'devotion' to the Lord. Interestingly chapter 7 begins with God's anger burning against Israel because of the 'devoted things'. I'm no Hebrew scholar but seems to me that this incident is not at all what it first seems. What truth is hiding in that opaque language? I'm now wondering how many more of these Old Testament stories may have similar undercurrents? I'll do some more digging and let you know what I find.

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Anonymous said...

hmm...very interesting. I've been reading Brueggemann on the tension between the theme of creation and covenant in the OT. Creation being the 'covenant with creation' that God has bound himself to (focussed around Gen 1-3 and the covenant with Noah - i.e the commitment to sustain all things - links to Hebrews 1 and Romans 8) [hence forth just "creation" or theme of creation"], Covenant being the specific covenant with Israel that God made so that they become a people who shine a light to world and with whom he partners to usher in the new creation. [hence forth just "covenant" or theme of covenant"] Brueggeman's point is there has been a massive emphasis on covenant to the detriment of creation - evangelicals/moderns have massively emphasised the mosaic covenant above the noahic covenant, distorting the true picture. In the midst of all god calls Israel to do, we must never forget that it is always ultimately in keeping with the commitment he made to bless the whole earth through noah (and abraham).

So I think you are very right to point out this cristophany is not taking sides, and that in the midst of the particularity of what God calls Joshua to do there is still a commitment to the whole of creation. This links back to the famous section (in Deuteronomy?) about how God leaves 400 years to allow canaanite evil to come to fruition before judging it.

I find it very interesting that some folk major on pointing the finger at the bloodthirsty God of Israel (very politically correct to do this) but what would you say if you had been living in Glasgow for 400 years and people, despite having prophets come to them, had continued a culture of child-sacrifice? Paedophiles get short shrift in our society, what about people who kill their own children? Also, there is the issue of context. Canaan in those days had a very different culture than we know today, almost alien in fact. A key issue is that today we live in a system of redemptive justice that clouds our perception...redemptive justice (I would argue) is a result of the christianisation of the west, rooted in a knowledge of Christ that the Israelites simply did not have)

So, usually I hear this complaint (more from the liberal end of the spectrum) - "How could God/Israel do this?" but there is almost a willful disregard of context (despite contextualisation being a massive emphasis in liberation theology - its just that on its terms contextualisation usually overlooks HISTORIC context), and a massive disregard of the issue of justice - ie how do we restore justice to the society of the canaanites which was massively oppressing its young, poor and women (probably through very similar patriarchal oppression to the israelites). Its interesting that you say that Joshua did not necessarily kill the women and children...this is a crucial point. In fact, he musn't have, because the whole point of the rest of the story is that the Israelites intermarried in the next generation.

So I'm happy to have this debate but lets not sentimentalise or avoid the whole picture! Canaanite society was not innocent and oppressed, it was cruel and oppressive...how was god going to honour his covenant with noah in that day within the historical bounds of accepted human culture of the time? How could God ultimately stop injustice in those days when global sanctions and the UN did not exist, and when he had exhausted all means of calling the canaanites to account?

Thats not to mention bringing in the theology of the land which cries out against bloodshed and oppression and slaughter.

Finally, I have been reading Colossians Remixed where it talks about the christian story being a metanarrative but NOT a regime of truth. Post-moderns have confused metanarratives with regimes of truth - not all metanarratives are oppressive, though they can be high-jacked to become so. Whats the difference between a metanarrative and a regime of truth? A regime of truth is used as a destructive ideology that suppresses dissenting voices. A metanarrative weaves dissenting voices into its very text so that it has narratives of resistance continually challenging the potential for one perspective to totalise the whole story into a regime of truth. This is exactly what we see in the scriptures - the wto strongest counter-narratives are the covenant with Noah (which puts constraints on God's call to Israel...they exist to be a light, not an oppressive force) and the very death of christ, in which worldly power is totally subverted. Not to mention the prophets...they were all marginal, counter-narratives that challenged Israel's complacency and sin. I heard a preach at Jesus in the City by Kathy Galloway of the Iona Community which trashed the church for its colusion with empire and colonialism...AND SAID NOTHING MORE. Lamin Sanneh, however (Sri Lanka, post-colonial) emphasises that the church and the scriptures also provided a counter-narrative that enabled those oppressed by colonialism to break free! Hence indigenous churches all round the third world today.

So lets not read the OT as a regime of truth and see in Joshua the evil of nazism or any of that nonsense. Quite the opposite...he was the one fighting the nazis of his day. NB I am an anabaptist and pro pacifism, but I can only afford this luxury post-christ...

myemanna said...

The Bible is an incredible multi-faceted diamond. How many times have you read the same scripture, only to have God turn the "diamond", and reflect a new understanding? It keeps you going back for more. Keep digging...and keep praying for His revelation to flood your spirit. Truly it is time well-spent.