Letting the Bible be what it is, not what we would like it to be

I didn’t grow up in a christian family, but I was sent to Sunday School from when I was young. And so I learnt to believe that the Bible was true.

It was only later, in my late teens, that I began to discover some anomalies in the Bible that didn’t fit what I had been taught.

I didn’t continue to believe what I was taught, despite the problems, as many people do. And I didn’t decide that if the Bible isn’t what I thought it was, it couldn’t be true at all, and so give up my faith faith, as others do.

Instead I grappled with the anomalies and often ended up modifying my understanding of the Bible and of God.

I want to share my journey with one such anomaly that has changed some of how I think about the Bible and about the christian faith.

The Canaanite genocide

I became aware of this when I was a young christian, perhaps 45 years ago. We are probably all familiar with the story.

Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt then hands over to Joshua, who leads them into the Promised Land, Canaan. The Canaanites are evil, with particularly nasty religious practices which will corrupt the Israelites, and so God orders Joshua and his army to “destroy them totally” – to kill every one of them, not just the warriors, but women, old men, children, babies and even animals – “do not leave alive anything that breathes”. And so Joshua obeys God, attacks and captures city after city, kills the inhabitants and takes over the land God promised.

I found it deeply troubling that God would order people to commit murder, which was explicitly condemned in the Ten Commandments. And I wasn’t really comfortable with the thought that I must be happy about it because the Bible couldn’t be wrong. So my dissatisfaction just sat there, waiting to be resolved, for decades.

Too many nasty thoughts

About six years ago I felt I needed to resolve the matter, so I started to pray that God would show me the truth. How could there be such a difference between God’s commands in Joshua and the teachings of Jesus? Was there another way to understand these passages?

Then I started to read and investigate.

I came across teachings by christians that killing the Canaanites was just and good because they were so evil – after all, they sacrificed babies and had sex with temple prostitutes. And it was OK even for the babies who hadn’t been sacrificed to be killed by Joshua, even though they weren’t having sex with temple prostitutes, because they were innocent and would go straight to heaven. Everyone’s going to die sometime, so why the fuss?

I couldn’t believe I was reading this stuff, even from a person I admire so much as philosopher William Lane Craig. Besides these rationalisations being obnoxious and demeaning to God, they didn’t make logical sense. If it was OK then, why not now?

After all, we still sacrifice children now, it’s just that the gods are warfare (“collateral damage”) and child sex slavery. And while we don’t have temple prostitution, we have every form of sex and porn you can think of, and a few you wouldn’t want to think of.

If the Canaanites deserved to die, why should we be exempt? And if you say to me that you’re not doing any of those things, so why should you die, I’d say tell that to the Canaanite babies.

And do we know the babies were innocent and went straight to heaven? Those who hold a doctrine of original sin believe no-one is innocent

And anyway, if that was good for babies to be killed back then, why would we think it bad to murder babies today?

No. The arguments of the christians defending God’s actions didn’t add up. This was genocide and it was as evil as the practices of the Canaanites.

There has to be a better answer.

A better answer

So I investigated further, and read some useful books on Old Testament archaeology and theology. Four clear truths I hadn’t realised before now became clear.

1. The Bible tells two stories

Sure the Bible (Joshua 1-12) tells stories of great conquest, and repeats several times that the invading Israelites wiped every last Canaanite out.

But if you read on in Joshua and into the book of Judges, you find another story. They didn’t capture every city, they didn’t kill everyone. At least nine cities are named as being conquered in Joshua 12, but later said to have resisted capture.

In fact the later chapters of Joshua and the book of Judges show that Israelites and Canaanites coexisted with occasional fighting, apparently for centuries, until they all became one nation.

So there are two stories in the Bible, and they are not compatible. One story isn’t factual.

But which one?

2. Archaeology to the rescue

Israel and Palestine must contain some of the most dug up territory in the world, and so we have oodles of archaeological information about many of the cities that Joshua is said to have conquered. And the archaeology gives a very clear picture.

There was no rapid conquest. There was plenty of fighting, but over a long period. Some cities Joshua is said to have conquered were destroyed years before he got there. There was also coexistence and assimilation.

There were nowhere near as many people in Canaan as the Bible suggests (2 million Israelites as well as the Canaanites). The numbers in the Bible are exaggerated.

There was a gradual cultural takeover, shown by Canaanite artefacts gradually being replaced by Israelite one. The two races became one, and DNA testing shows this.

3. No genocide?

So there was no genocide either. Yes, there was killing, but on all sides, and nothing like genocide.

The Bible’s second story is the correct one. The first story was propaganda – talked up claims typical of the time (we have records of similar over-stated claims by other nations too).

4. So what did God command?

We can’t know for sure what God commanded.

We do know that alongside the Biblical commands for annihilation there are other statements that suggest the conquest should be slower, and that God would “drive out” the Canaanites without the Israelites having to kill them.

So there are two stories among the commands as well.

So I think we can reasonably assume that, just as the total conquest story was hyperbole, so were the reports of God’s commands.

So what do we learn about the Bible?

I think we can learn several things about the Old Testament at least.

The Bible can tell two conflicting stories

It is quite clear here, and perhaps it happens elsewhere. (Certainly scholars say this is the case in many places – for example creation, the life of king David, and some of the saying of the prophets.)

The Jews who compiled the Old Testament didn’t seem to find this a problem. They were apparently happy to preserve different traditions and allow them both to speak. So why should we have a problem?

Sometimes the Bible records what people thought, not what was actually true

This is a challenging thought for most of us. But if God didn’t actually command genocide and the Israelites fought and killed but didn’t actually commit genocide, maybe the later writers got the commands wrong. Maybe they didn’t yet fully understand that God is love. Maybe Jesus’ teaching of loving enemies was still to be revealed to them.

This thought fits with our understanding of the creation story in Genesis as reflecting ancient understandings and not modern scientific understandings. We need to read the Old Testament in its ancient context.

God appears to have revealed himself in stages

All the books in the Bible are not equal. The Old Testament is God’s old covenant with the Jews alone (which probably doesn’t include many of you who read this), whereas the New Testament is God’s new covenant with everyone who wants it.

The earlier books of the Bible show God beginning with an ancient pagan people and slowly teaching them new truths – first that there is one God and that he is ethical, later that he is everyone’s God (not just their tribe’s God), and that he is love.

But it took a thousand years or more to get that into the Israelites’ heads, and the Bible records the process.

We need to read the Bible thoughtfully and in context

If the Bible has conflicting stories in places, if it sometimes records what people thought rather than what God thinks, and if the revelation of God comes in stages, we need to avoid reading the Bible simplistically.

It’s not a rule book where we can just take a statement out of context and apply it as truth today.

We need to understand context and take it into account. We need to understand that earlier books contain incomplete understandings. We need to learn from God’s process of revelation. And we need to pray for the Spirit’s guidance as we read and interpret.

We haven’t been given a Spirit of fear

It seems clear to me that these are deeper truths about the Bible than I was taught as a young christian.

It can seem a little scary at first. We long for certainty.

But it is clear that the Bible gives us assurance but not certainty about all things. (We knew that already, because those who hold to an inerrant Bible still argue about many doctrines.)

But if we learn to trust God, and trust him to lead us to understand and apply the Bible correctly, then we need not fear.

Why is it so?

Why hasn’t God given us a book that he wrote, and which contains his unambiguous commands about what we should believe and do?

This can only be guesswork on my part. But I think that sort of instruction manual Bible would make us slaves, when Jesus said we are his friends.

God has gifted us with autonomy – the ability to choose and even choose against what he knows is best. He wants us to be less like robots and more like “little gods”, with a reflection of his ability to love, reason and make moral choices.

So his revelation hasn’t come in an instruction manual handed down from the clouds, but a human book which he has inspired, and which records his one step at a time revelation of himself, culminating in Jesus coming to earth.

So rest easy, unkleE!

So I can rest easy, and so can you.

It appears God didn’t command genocide and we don’t have to try to justify that he did such an abominable thing.

It appears that Joshua didn’t commit genocide either, that was just a later story, talked up to justify the Israelites belief that this was their promised land.

Get the facts – I didn’t just dream this all up

Read more, check out references, quotes and Bible passages, at The Canaanite genocide – a historical perspective.

CS Lewis on progressive revelation at CS Lewis on the Bible, history and myth.

Background information at What the scholars tell us about the Old Testament.

Graphic: Free Bible Images and Photo Credit: Rachel-Esther via Compfight cc

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