Laying Down the Sword
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Laying Down the Sword

Philip Jenkins

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eBook - ePub

Laying Down the Sword

Philip Jenkins

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About This Book

Philip Jenkins delivers a fearless examination of the darkand violent verses of the Bible—and a call for us to read them anew in pursuitof a richer, more honest faith. From "one of America's best scholars ofreligion" ( The Economist ), this daring exploration of the Scripture'smost difficult passages forces us to confront and accept the violence that wasas integral to the formulation of Christianity's message as it was for manyother of the world's religions, and shows us how a full understanding of theScripture will allow us to finally move towards a more peaceful, spiritualworld. Readers of Bart Ehrman's God's Problem, John Selby Spong's The Sins of Scripture, andJenkins's own The Jesus Wars, as well as every Christian eager to squarethe recurrent violence of the Scripture with Christianity's enduring message ofpeace, will find these difficult questions explored in full in Laying Downthe Sword.

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The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is his name.
—EXODUS 15:3
The Bible records the annihilation of the native peoples of Canaan. Looking at such accounts, we may find comfort in the belief that total massacres of this sort were regrettably normal practice for conflicts in this primitive age, and that however dreadful such acts might appear now, they were nothing exceptional for the time. That view would be wrong. Even by the standards of the ancient world, the reported biblical massacres were incomprehensibly savage. Nor does anything in the later biblical record condemn or question these campaigns. To the contrary, these events represent the foundations of later biblical faith.
For it is not up to me, but to Muslims themselves to tear out the hateful verses from the Quran.
—GEERT WILDERS, FITNA
EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS OFTEN CHOOSE a life verse, a short biblical text that summarizes the teachings they want to keep before their minds. Usually, such passages teach reliance on God, or faith in his love, and they give comfort in moments of stress or conflict. But imagine meeting a Christian who wanted to share his life verse with you, and it was Deuteronomy 7:1–2:
When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations . . . and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.
Or perhaps verse 16, from the same chapter of Deuteronomy:
You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity.1
Your first reaction might be to doubt strongly that such passages—such death verses—exist in the Bible at all. Surely the fact that God forbids pity or mercy for the victims is in monstrous contrast to the underlying themes of the whole book? But once you had established the bona fides of these verses, you would be horrified that any modern believer could view them with anything but loathing. Anyone who regarded these passages as guides for life would not be someone you would wish to know under any circumstances. However passionately one may believe in the inspired truth of the Bible text, parts of it seem so tainted as to be beyond redemption.
Tales of Terror
THE BIBLE CONTAINS MANY passages that to us seem bloodthirsty or upsetting—stories of casual murder, mass slaughter, rape, adultery, and treachery. In many cases, these texts are so ugly that they have dropped out of memory. How many faithful believers know the macabre story from the time of Elisha the prophet, when a woman begs the king to enforce the contract she had made with her neighbor in response to the raging famine? They had agreed to eat the son of one woman, then the son of the other, and they had already completed the first stage of the gruesome deal. Now, though, the second woman was reneging on the deal. Would the king not grant her justice, by ordering the promised second act of cannibalism? Few readers meditate profitably on the closing chapters of Judges, an incredibly violent saga of rape, mutilation, dismemberment, and military extermination. Other portions of the Bible recall instances of human sacrifice.2
Actually, these cases should be fairly easy for modern readers to deal with, because the acts are not described as divinely ordained. Biblical authors offer a faithful depiction of the world they knew, which was barbaric and violent. The authors were not justifying cannibalism or rape, still less crediting this behavior to divine command. Had they failed to describe such acts, the authors would be failing in their duty as historians and social commentators.3
But in other cases, accounts of violence lead the authors far beyond merely depicting or reporting the world around them. Instead, they state explicitly that God actively commanded such actions, including the extermination of whole races. Most of these instances occur during the period after the Hebrew escape from Egypt, in movement toward the land of Canaan, and then during the actual period of conquest, around 1200 BCE. Both under Moses and his chosen successor, Joshua, the Hebrews encounter a number of rival peoples, including other wandering tribes like themselves, but also settled city-states. According to the Bible—chiefly in the books of Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Joshua—the Hebrews waged very destructive wars against these rivals.4
Biblical accounts of the conquest tell two distinct stories, one east of the Jordan and one to the west. In Numbers and Deuteronomy, we hear of Moses’s eastern wars in the lands of Transjordan, while Joshua describes a full-scale invasion of the land of Canaan, later Palestine.5 Numbers recounts Moses’s war against the Midianites. Under the leadership of Phinehas, Hebrew armies devastate the people of Midian, killing every man and taking all the women and children as plunder. Moses, however, is furious at their leniency. He commands, “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” These virgins—reportedly, some thirty-two thousand in number—were to become sexual slaves for Hebrew warriors.6
One short passage in Exodus describes the Israelites’ interaction with the people of Amalek, who ambush the children of Israel as they pass through Rephidim in the desert. Under the generalship of Joshua, Israel defeats the raiders. God then commands Moses:
Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. . . . For [Moses] said, Because the Lord hath sworn that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.
Not only is the Amalekite race to be utterly destroyed, but the last verse explicitly proclaims an eternal conflict against them, a struggle without end. The text has had an astonishing afterlife.7
Other massacres follow. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells how he requested safe passage for the wandering Hebrew people from Sihon, king of Heshbon, but he refused. God then commands his followers to conquer and possess Sihon’s land. As Moses reports,
The LORD our God delivered him before us; and we smote him, and his sons, and all his people. And we took all his cities at that time, and utterly destroyed the men, and the women, and the little ones, of every city, we left none to remain.8
Lethal Sanctity
IN DEUTERONOMY, MOSES OUTLINES the rules that the children of Israel must pursue in their upcoming wars, presenting three options.9 When approaching a city, the Hebrews must first offer peace, and if the offer is accepted, then the residents become tributaries and must perform forced labor. If the natives reject the offer, then the city must be defeated and every male must be killed: the Hebrews are allowed to take the women, children, and animals for their own property. But in other select instances, the children of Israel must be nothing like as generous or forbearing. Where God has given lands as part of the Hebrew patrimony, all current residents must be subject to the law of herem—that is, of extermination. In those cities, “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee.”10
Herem, usually interpreted as “utter destruction,” is the single most frightening term in the whole Bible.11 A related word is actually quite familiar today in another religious setting, but one that is far less brutal. In Islam, a behavior or object that is ritually forbidden is haram, as in the case of pork, as opposed to halal, or approved. The term haram also applies to a place of special sanctity, so that Jerusalem’s Temple Mount is for Muslims the Haram al-Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary. In domestic use, a related word describes another special or forbidden place—namely, the harem in which wives live in seclusion.
But in the biblical context, the word has very different implications. The noun herem represents a “ban,” but translators use different forms when describing how a city is given this status: it is “devoted” or “accursed” to God, or “set apart for YHWH under a ban.” Few Bible translations accurately give the full connotations of the language, generally using a phrase such as “destroy utterly,” but the meaning is clear. Every living thing in the doomed city must be destroyed wholly. Any valuables, any gold or silver, must be consecrated to God and given to the priestly caste, to be reserved for ritual use. When the text was translated into Greek, the “ban” became anathema, and that word provides another way of understanding the process: cities like Jericho were placed under an anathema, given a lethal sanctity.12
Herem warfare has its origins in the common mythology of a warrior god defeating the forces of chaos. In the Hebrew tradition, though, we have the idea of holy war or YHWH war, named for the sacred and unpronounceable name of the Lord. This kind of combat had its elaborate rules and even an ideal sequence, from the initial trumpet call that proclaimed the state of war, through the consecration of the warriors, followed by their ritual preparation, and on to the final dismissal. This was a war for God, which was also at the same time a war by God. Earthly warriors served as God’s auxiliaries, while all treasures taken in the fight were devoted to God. Battle itself became an act of worship. A strong sexual element ran through the mythology, with God as the king and Israel as his chaste bride. God fought to prevent his people falling away into seduction or adultery by other lovers. The resulting wars were the ultimate manifestation of God’s holiness, a concept inextricably bound up with earthly notions of honor.13
In practical terms, this kind of warfare is unconditional, in that defeated inhabitants have literally no chance, no way out, no option to surrender. Once banned, once devoted to God, they cannot win their lives by offering to convert to the faith of the conquerors, to raise an altar to YHWH. They cannot agree to hand over all their possessions, to abandon the land forever. They can’t even voluntarily accept the most degrading form of slavery or sexual submission. They are pledged to death. As the story of King Saul demonstrates, God left no room for waverers or fainthearts. Far from being marginal or incidental to the biblical tradition, this type of genocidal warfare was associated with some of Israel’s greatest heroes, including Moses, Samuel, and Joshua.14
Joshua’s Wars
IN NUMBERS AND DEUTERONOMY, accounts of warfare and massacre punctuate longer and more systematic statements of ritual and legal code. In Joshua, however, the massacres occupy center stage. The fall of Jericho itself begins the bloodiest portion of the saga of conquest. As a banned city, everything within its walls is destroyed, except for the prostitute Rahab, who sheltered the Israelite spies, winning salvation for herself and her family. The Israelites then move on to Ai, where they meet unexpected defeats. The reason for this soon becomes apparent: it is revealed that a Hebrew named Achan has violated the taboos of herem by keeping for himself part of the loot from Jericho. The Israelites can restore cosmic order only by stoning and burning Achan together with his entire family. This brutal purgation then opens the way for the sanctified conquest of Ai. The Hebrews take the city, killing all its inhabitants: the king himself is “hung on a tree” until evening. Joshua then burns Ai, which remains desolate centuries afterward.15
The remaining kings of the region unite against these lethal invaders, but to no avail. Joshua’s forces eliminate the rival cities one by one:
And that day Joshua took Makkedah, and smote it with the edge of the sword, and the king thereof. He utterly destroyed [imposed herem on] them, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain: and he did to the king of Makkedah as he did unto the king of Jericho[;] . . . and he smote [Libnah] with the edge of the sword, and all the souls that were therein; he let none remain in it; but did unto the king thereof as he did unto the king of Jericho.
And then Joshua’s forces moved through Lachish, and Eglon, and Hebron, and Debir, in each case killing “all the souls that were therein.” The book then summarizes recent accomplishments:
So Joshua smote all the country of the hills, and of the south, and of the vale, and of the springs, and all their kings: he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded.16
He distributed the conquered lands among the Hebrew tribes. In the final chapter of Joshua, God recalls the blessings he has given his people: “And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat.”17 (See Table 1: “The Most Disturbing Conquest Texts”).
Table 1
The Most Disturbing Conquest Texts
Exodus
17:8–16
Israel’s struggle with Amalek: “[God] will utterly put out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven. . . . The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.”
23:23
The expulsion of Canaan’s native peoples: “For mine angel shall go before thee, and bring thee in unto the Amorites, and the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites: and I will cut them off.”
34:11–17
The expulsion of Canaan’s peoples and the destruction of their religious practices: “ye shall destroy their alt...

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