Of Genocide, Joshua, and the Jewish Community after the Exile

So far, my posts in this journal have been fairly abstract, dealing with the question of whether or not we should think of God’s revelation in terms of the transmission of facts, data, information. In the last hundred or so years, militant Fundamentalism has said Yes with a very loud voice. The result has been absurd claims about the Bible’s creation stories and a hostile attitude toward scientific accounts of origins. But militant Fundamentalists are not alone in saying Yes, even if most Christians are not as strident in their affirmation. Many, probably most, in the Christian tradition would answer Yes. As I noted in an earlier post, the authority and truth of the Bible seems to require that it be a communication of truths from God.

My concern in denying this claim is to do understand the Bible as well as to avoid attributing unworthy attributes to God. To make my point, I want to consider the passages in Joshua in which God commands Israel to exterminate the inhabitants of the land.

Deuteronomy 7:2 and Joshua 11:19-20

Dt. 7:2 commands Israel, when it enters the promised land, to defeat and utterly destroy the inhabitants, showing them no mercy. 7:3 tells Israel not to intermarry with the inhabitants, a curious command if they’ve already been destroyed–who would be left to marry? The book of Joshua narrates the execution of this command. According to Joshua 11:19-20, God hardened the hearts of the locals, prompting them to fight Joshua and Israel, with the result that were exterminated and received no mercy.

There are several problems with these passages:
• I’ve already noted the oddity of commanding Israel not to intermarry with the pagans who were supposed to have been destroyed.
• I for one don’t want to believe that God commanded Israel to kill all of the men, women, and children of the land.
• The book of Judges contradicts the book of Joshua by showing in great detail that, Joshua notwithstanding, Israel did not exterminate the locals. Of course, Judges laments this fact, wishing that Israel had done so, but it nonetheless records Israel’s failure to do so, thus contradicting the claims of Joshua.

This is all very strange if Joshua is a bunch of historical facts that God communicated to the biblical writer(s).

But everything makes more sense if we attend to Dt. 7:3, with its prohibition of intermarriage. At what point in Israel’s history was there anxiety about intermarriage with pagans? It was in the post-exilic community (400s B.C. and later). Both Ezra and Nehemiah rail against intermarriage because it seems to threaten the well-being of the community.

What we have in Dt. 7:2 and in Joshua are the concerns of the Jewish community, small and feeling threatened after the Babylonian exile, expressing its fears in a historical narrative about its past. Dt. 7:2 and Joshua do not, therefore, represent historical facts or the command of God. They represent instead an expression of the Jewish community’s struggle to survive and to be faithful to God, an expression given narrative form. It’s as though post-exilic Israel were saying, “If only our ancestors had exterminated the pagans, then we would not have to worry about our sons marrying the local pagan girls.”

The Old Testament’s talk about extermination, in other words, does not directly reflect God’s wishes, but is instead a violent way of talking about the Jewish community’s need for purity and separation from its pagan neighbors, especially after the Babylonian exile.

The lesson to draw from this is that, in the Bible, we have to distinguish 1) the historical and grammatical meaning of passages (the “literal” meaning) from 2) the actual meaning. In Joshua, the historical meaning seems to be a reference to historical events. The problem is that, according to Judges, these events did not take place (as Joshua claims they did), at least not nearly as thoroughly as Joshua narrates. The actual meaning relates to the post-exilic community’s understanding of itself in relation to its pagan neighbors and its need to enact separation and prevent intermarriage.

The distinction between the historical meaning and the actual meaning explains why allegorical methods have been so popular in Christian history. Most Christians have felt that there is something more to these stories than just historical narration.

So, to the extent that the Bible contains information in these sorts of narratives, it is information about the struggles of the community to come to terms with its situation. But this is not the communication of information from God. The Bible is, accordingly, best thought of as the record of a dialog among God’s people as they struggle to understand their calling and to be faithful to God.

Next week I want to use the same approach in dealing with those passages in John’s gospel that characterize all Jews as persecuting Jesus and hating the disciples. I’ll make the point that here, as in Joshua, the struggles of the community have been projected back onto the time of Jesus, so that the actual meaning has to do with the Christian situation in the last decades of the first century.

As always, comments are welcome.

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