Archive for April, 2012

Why Christians Love the Bible (part 3)

by   |  04.29.12  |  Bible, Christianity, Church, Identity

            In the previous post, I talked about objections that many people lodge against the Bible and thus against those of us who understand it as a book representing in some fashion a window onto the true character, practices, and convictions of God.  Obviously, the discussion here can only hint at some of the depths of the issues.  For some of them, you might consider the profound new book by Feldmeier and Spieckermann, The God of the Living (Baylor University Press, 2011).  It’s not an easy read, but is well worth the effort.

            The final two objections I noted consisted of the claims that the Bible advocates the mistreatment of various groups of vulnerable people, most notoriously the Canaanites but also women.  Let me briefly think about those issues.

            First, the Canaanites.  A number of biblical texts seem to advocate the eradication of the aboriginal settlers in Palestine.  The Bible never advocates ethnic cleansing of anyone else, indicating that the writers considered the Canaanites a special case.  The authors of Deuteronomy and the texts influenced by it (notably, Joshua) were concerned lest the local people persuade Israel to practice idolatry, or at least those are their stated reasons.

            Does the fact that the Canaanites present a special case reduce the horrible level of immorality associated with their extermination, if it actually happened?  No, of course not.  Can we reasonably argue that, well, they were uniquely horrible human beings and so their removal was justified, much as some people believe capital punishment for heinous criminals is justified?  Doubtful, since it is hard to imagine an entire population, including women and children, so sunk into depravity that execution was the only way to prevent the spread of their contaminating influence.

            There is, we must admit, not easy way to deal with the case of the Canaanites.  Christians who take seriously Jesus’ calls to love or the earlier prophets’ call to justice will find it impossible to work toward a fully convincing defense of the anti-Canaanite texts.  There are a few qualifications to be made, however:

  1. The ethnic cleansing never happened.  There is no archaeological evidence of mass destructions of the pre-Israelite population.
  2. In fact, the Canaanites survived as a recognizable population for centuries after the birth of Israel.  Solomon impressed them into forced labor, for example.  They were “the other” for much of this time, but were not eliminated.
  3. The texts advocating their elimination seem to be much later than the events they purport to describe.  The first few chapters of Deuteronomy, for example, assume settlement in the land and arguably even exile and deportation for Israel and Judah (scholars debate this point).  That is, the call for elimination seems to be a sort of historical fiction retrojected into the past in order to show how things went off the rails.  (Remember what I said last time about how texts may not be what they seem at first.)
  4. This means that the texts about the Canaanites aren’t really about them at all, but about the desire for a sort of national purity.  Still a problematic idea, perhaps, but not the same as massacre and mayhem.
  5. And, yes, the Bible does contain some apparently old stories about how various Canaanite individuals and groups became integral parts of Israel.  Think of Rahab, the ancestor of David, and also the Gibeonites.  There must have been many others, and probably a DNA test of these ancient people, if such a thing were possible (which it is not), would have found lots of Canaanite ancestors for some Israelites at least.  This is not very surprising, by the way.  You may have seen the recent study of the gene pool in Scotland, which found lots of folks with Moorish, Asian, Corsican, and other gene markers in people with unobjectionable Scottish names like Hamilton, McDonald, and Stewart.

There is more to say here – much more – but maybe this suffices for now.

            But what about the women, to paraphrase Abigail Adams?  We have to acknowledge two things: (1) ancient texts assume a world of limited choices for many people, including women; and (2) Christianity has a very mixed record of validating the lives of women.  Here a good bit of history would help us.  We would learn that the history of women’s roles in Christianity has been very complex.  On the one hand, Christianity made space for women to be something other than a commodity under the control of a father or husband.  The creation of monastic life for men and women in the Middle Ages made space for a new way of living that made gender roles worked out in the dominant culture far less important.  Many of the modern moves toward full equality have their foundations in this earlier period.

            Moreover, it should be clear that much of the contemporary religious defense of sharply delineated gender roles has little real backing in the Bible itself.  For example, conservative Christians often speak of male headship and the need for women to have a primary responsibility in the home while men work outside it.  Both of these are simply bogus ideas.  Or at least they are greatly oversimplified.  Male headship is not a biblical term or concept in any meaningful sense.  It is a ghost idea, a misreading of texts.  And the situation in which home and workplace are sharply differentiated is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not the first.  Much of the current discussion in church thus seems to reflect a fairly gross ignorance of history.  It is almost as deep as the ignorance outside the church.

            Having said all that, on the other hand, we should not pretend that the Bible is really a modern feminist tract very cleverly disguised.  Rather, I would argue that the Bible reports gender roles of past eras without necessarily endorsing them, and that, more importantly, it shows how real human beings work toward general principles of dignity and honor for all within the realities that they face.  Today we face different realities, but we still seek the dignity of human beings before God just as our ancient forebears did.  We could simply reject that history and the texts that came from it, but as the historian Simon Schama put it once in an interview on Dutch television (which you can see on Youtube), to be ignorant of the past is to be locked inside the mind of a small child aware neither of where we come from nor where we might go.  So we do not ignore this history or dismiss this book simply because it does not reflect our own historically conditioned, flawed, and temporary perspectives.  Rather, we seek to find behind the surface appearance of things the ideas that really matter.  When we do, we learn that all human beings are made in the image of God and are worthy of the fullest consideration.

Next time, Part 4 of 4 will appear!  We will return to the original topic of why we Christians love the Bible, in spite of all the difficulties we can name, of which we are all certainly aware.