In discussing the genocides in the Old Testament, it is important to note that there are two completely different narratives about the genocides and whether they occurred.
In fact, when looking at the Old Testament, over and over again there will be more than one narrative and often the different narratives will disagree.
For example, the creation. In one it is Adam and Eve who are the first humans. In the other it is Ish and Isha who are the first humans.
“This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman (ishah), Because she was taken out of Man (ish).” For this reason a man (ish) shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife (ishah); and they shall become one flesh.Genesis 2:23-24″
Or the flood — it also has two different stories.
In the one story the rains fall and everyone (but Noah and family) dies. In the other, the Nephilim and others all survive and Noah’s grandson divides the land with other peoples who speak a different language than he does.
Which leads us to the Nephilim in the promised land.
“33 There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”— Numbers 13:32–33. New Revised Standard Version.”
Yes, when Moses got to the promised land it was filled with the descendants of those who had not died in the flood. That double narrative (in one, no one survives the flood except for Noah, in the other the survivors of the flood are alive and well and some of them living in the promised land when Moses arrives) leads me to the two narratives of the Children of Israel, the promised land and genocide. Did the Children of Israel engage in wholesale slaughter?
The first narrative — in the scriptures — is that the incoming Israelites were a small people, and that God told them they would incrementally inherit the land rather than by conquering it and exterminating everyone else.
“I will send hornets ahead of you so that they will drive out the Hivites, the Canaanites, and the Hittites before you. 29″I will not drive them out before you in a single year, that the land may not become desolate and the beasts of the field become too numerous for you. 30″I will drive them out before you little by little, until you become fruitful and take possession of the land.”
On the other hand is a translation that has the Israelites as a people numbering over a million. They go into the promised land and completely annihilate everyone there. That is pretty much the story in Joshua.
That compares to is a translation that has them numbering in the area of ten or twenty thousand or so and who move in, eventually becoming a significant presence, but initially swamped by others — which is pretty much the story of the early book of Judges where it turns out that everyone else in the land has not be annihilated.
Thus we have the convergence where we have stories where the people slain and destroyed through genocide (for their worship of Baal and others by child sacrifice and sexual exploitation) show up a few years later as if never slain.
Those will not be the last of the multiple, conflicting narratives.
I’ve written about David. Either he is part Moabite (and thus can never enter into the congregation of Israel according to the law that Nehemiah followed), or he is part Moabite and his foremother Ruth is an exemplary person from whom the Messiah would descend. Obviously those are vastly different narratives.
But with the genocide stories, you have to ask, what is going on?
First, the scriptures we have combine a multitude of narratives and stories into one collection. That collection was then edited heavily, several times and includes popular poetry, wisdom and other genres as well as history and two different sets of histories (if you read Kings and Chronicles side by side you will often notice they disagree on details such as when a king’s rule ended or whether it was good or bad).
That leads to stories ending up in the same book that don’t agree with each other.
Second, the child sacrifice, the sexual exploitation and other ritualistic issues, made for a culture divide that the Bible condemns strongly. Part of that is the narrative that those who were a part of it were worthy of death and to be purged out of the land or terrible things would happen.
Third, after the Babylonian Captivity, when the people returned to the land, the scriptures were consolidated and then heavily edited. Part of that was to make them “real scriptures” which meant adding what are called “triumph narratives” (in common with much of the literature of the area) where conquered peoples = genocide = proof of the power of God. The scriptures could not talk of God being God unless he had a triumph narrative, so one is added to the story. It is hard to imagine (for our day and age), but it is a literary device to make God look better.
The entire story of genocide in the Bible makes a good reminder that:
- When we think we are taking steps to make God look better, maybe we should think twice.
- The Bible is much more nuanced than it looks.
- Further, it is often that the surface story had a completely different meaning than we think it does (the story of the genocides is not that they happened, but that they should have happened and that the story itself is proof of the worship of God).
- The different stories in the Bible should remind us that perhaps the facts are not as cut and dried as we think they are.
- When did you first read or hear about the genocides in the Bible?
- When did you first realize that the people destroyed in the wars, just like the people drowned in the flood, were still around afterwards?
- What is your takeaway from the stories?
- Do you think we lose something when we simplify the narrative in the Bible?
- Do we need to add things to the narratives to make God look better?
Thanks for this, Stephen. It’s eye-opening for me.
Answers to questions:
1. I learned about the genocides on my mission. Zealous me justified it the same way as the flood.
2. I never noticed the destroyed people were still around until you pointed it out just now.
3. Years later, during my progressive Mormon phase, I came to see the stories as existing almost solely to justify Israel’s claim to the land and to ruling it. I also saw Nephi’s story the same way.
4. Simplifying requires interpretation (of things that were already interpreted). Every time we do it, we lose information and the possibility of other interpretations.
5. I think humans make their gods in their own image. Every time we try to make them look better, we’re really trying to make ourselves look better. It’s always a self-aggrandizing or group-aggrandizing act, the effects of which are oppression and aggression.
Incidentally, one of the greatest things about Jesus, and the reason I find what I call a “spark of the divine” in him even as an agnostic, is that he’s resistant to such aggrandizement. (Unfortunately, as the history of Christianity with all its variants and restorations repeatedly show, he’s not immune.) He always identifies himself with the unclean, the oppressed, and the outsider. Because of this, when you draw a line between “us” and “them,” you’ll always find him on the other side of it. That makes it hard to aggrandize “us” by aggrandizing him.
I read Israel Finkelstein’s book The Bible Unearthed where he writes that there is no evidence for the exodus and conquest. There were no walls around Jericho to come tumbling down. The Tell-elAmarna letters ” reveal that Canaan was an Egyptian province closely controlled by Egyptian administration” p.77. In another area neuroscience has challenged the traditional view of the soul.