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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Interpreting Deuteronomy - with sophisticated theology

In one of the Bible's most notorious passages, Deuteronomy 7:1-7, the Jews are commanded as follows:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you - the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you - and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on Earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

You might think this injunction to commit acts of genocide would be an embarrassment to modern-day Christians, but Ian S. Markham, in his book Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris Are Fundamentally Wrong, assures us that the key here is "to read the text closely and on a number of different levels." Fine, so that's how it's done. Let's follow Markham's analysis on pp. 89-91.

Apparently the the injunction not to intermarry with them shows the "self-correcting nature of the Hebrew Bible", since such a command shows that God's injunction to destroy them completely had not been carried out at the time when this passage was actually written down in the Book of Deuteronomy. After all, you can't marry them if you've killed them all, right? The real point is not the genocide that God is said in the book to have commanded, but the importance of holiness, in the sense of being separate from other peoples and being faithful to the God of Israel. That's all that was really being commanded. Or something like that.

Moreover, we can deduce that God could not have actually commanded the genocide of these seven peoples, because we can find other verses in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament where God calls on Israel's neighbours to find better ways of organising themselves (see the first chapter of Amos), while elsewhere the faith of an outsider, in this case a Moabite, is affirmed (i.e. the faith of the title character in the book of Ruth).

So, miraculously, the words don't mean what they say. The overall correct interpretation is that God did not order the massacre of the Hittites, etc., as represented here, because, well because he also explicitly ordered no taking of their children for intermarriage, and because there are passages in completely different books of the Bible where God is shown to care for outsiders. The opening passage should be read as saying: "When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you - the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you - and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you do not have to utterly destroy them."

I hope that's all clear. This analysis is held out by Markham as an example of the sort of sophisticated theology that Richard Dawkins and others constantly fail to take into account. Indeed, Markham rebukes Dawkins for not understanding this passage correctly, and for failing to note that the biblical text gives as a reason for this total obliteration of the Hittites, etc. (the command that was not actually given) that they practised infant sacrifice. Markham accuses Dawkins of being lazy in comparing the genocide that was not commanded here anyway with modern day genocides because Dawkins neglects to discuss "the child-sacrifice issue." Right. Oh, and because Dawkins compares the actions ordered by God with those of secular dictators, which apparently isn't a legitimate comparison for reasons that escape me.

Apparently, if we try to follow Markham's logic, Dawkins should have thought carefully about whether or not to reason along the following the lines: "They practise child sacrifice. What will we do about it? Let's kill them all, making certain that we don't save any of their children for intermarriage! That'll solve the problem." Oh, and apparently it would have been better to find a modern example of genocide committed on strictly religious grounds (rather than grounds relating to racial or political ideology) before condemning what the Bible appears to approve of. Don't ask me why: I'm totally lost by this point. Apparently you can condemn the genocides commanded in the Bible only if you can find comparisons with modern-day genocides carried out on strictly religious grounds.

Look, it's always possible to take a text and apply a method of interpretation that turns its plain meaning on its head. Literary critics and lawyers (I'm trained in both of those disciplines) are pretty good at this sort of thing. But there are limits.

And yes, it's easy to see why theologians might want to reinterpret and rehabilitate an offensive text like this. But really, theologians are going to have to do better than that if they are going to take this sort of debate outside their own cloisters. The meaning, in its context within the Book of Deuteronomy, is absolutely plain. The whole conquest of the Holy Land needs to be turned into a metaphor or something; it's no good offering us this sort of weak attempt to claim that black is white.


MH said...

I don't really understand what theological exercises of this kind are meant to accomplish. Seems to me the most reasonable and economical interpretation of this passage is not that the God of the OT is a genocidal maniac, but that some ancient Jewish leader wanted to justify his aggressive policies by putting words in the mouth of God. Even if you did start from the assumption that the Bible is divinely inspired, all you could hope to demonstrate is that God is a monster - but that would still implicate that there is a God, and the Bible is his holy book. If God is a monster - well, that would be unpleasant, but you’d have to be a believer in any case.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, I suppose the idea is to show that the Bible or bible-based religion is not as gnasty as it appears on its face. Once you understand it properly, you see that it is much gnicer.

MH said...

That is what Jews and Christians want to do, of course - to explain away the nastiness and rationalize the apparent contradiction of having a benevolent God advocating wicked things. What I meant is I don't think it's useful for secular people to participate in such discussions. At best, you might force believers into admitting that their god is a nasty piece of work, as I understand some believers have indeed done. That is not much of an accomplishment, in my opinion, because it still leaves the "god" bit standing.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, but it's worthwhile showing how contrived those rationalisations are once looked at. That's all. If that's not done we're stuck with their claim that it's all a misunderstanding and that there's no real contradiction, and if only we understood the correct interpretation, etc.

I do think we have to chase at least some of these rabbits down at least some of their holes at least some of the time.

MH said...

Some of the time, sure. I still wish more time would be devoted to historical and anthropological inquiries into the origins of the Bible, as opposed to this biblical interpretation stuff.

If you look at some body of knowledge that is essentially dead - say, orthodox psychoanalysis or marxism-leninism - one approach of dealing with it would be to devote a great deal of time looking at the details and demonstrating problems in the theory, but that is slow and tedious and the sheer volume of writing is going to be so large that people who want to obfuscate things can go on doing so ad infinitum. An alternative approach would be to take up other strains of theory that deal with similar issues, but are better, and that allows you to make comparisons instead of discussing the internal problems of a single theoretical body.

In the case of biblical interpretation, that would mean producing and discussing accounts of the sociocultural situation in which the Bible was written in, which explain quite nicely why the Bible says what it does. When you have that background in place, questions about God's genocidal tendencies and suchlike just become moot and uninteresting, because the idea that the book is anything but an anthology of ancient literature is so far-fetched in the first place. People who are already accustomed to seeing the Bible as divine and to explaining away all problems will probably not be swayed, but the next generation is likely to prefer the explanation that is not a convoluted mess.

steve oberski said...

and the Jebusites

But the bable must be true, it foretold the conflict between xtians and jews.

James Sweet said...

I feel the need to point out that the "it's okay because they engage in child sacrifice" thing actually makes it more like modern genocides, not less. Remember that the Blood Libel was (and probably still is) believed by a great many folks.

If the Third Reich had conquered all of Europe and Hitler's minions got to pen the historical books of the time, it's quite possible that several centuries later it would state as an obvious fact that the Jews engaged in child sacrifice. So it's alright, you see!

(Also, even if we are incredibly generous with Markham's claims, the best conclusion he can really achieve with this line of argument is, "God really wasn't commanding genocide, he was forbidding miscegenation! See how progressive the Bible is?")

Eamon Knight said...

Seems to me the most reasonable and economical interpretation of this passage is not that the God of the OT is a genocidal maniac, but that some ancient Jewish leader wanted to justify his aggressive policies by putting words in the mouth of God.

Which IIRC is what the more liberal commentators like Spong do with it. Now whether there's still anything in there worth having faith in, once one has a-historicized all the nasty and absurd bits, is another question (to which my answer is "No, not really").

Yewtree said...

I think the problem here is actually the attempt (whether by Christians or atheists) to interpret the Bible as a unified text.

Actually the Bible is a collection of different books compiled of several centuries from books written by authors with very different political and social agendas.

Karen Armstrong has pointed out in her book about the writing of the Bible that the author known as the Deuteronomist was very interested in smiting and genocide, whereas other authors (such as Amos) are much more liberal. In addition, some OT authors anthropomorphise God, and some make him/her/it much more abstract.

Add to the many layers of Jewish editing and rewriting the attempts by Christian theologians to create some sort of unified theology out of all this, and to retrospectively try to make OT texts predict the coming of Christ, and you have a huge mess.

I think it's a complete waste of time trying to rehabilitate texts like this. It's a much better idea to disentangle the bits of the Bible from each other and view them as separate pieces of writing.

Marshall said...

I say this is what happens when the Biblical stories are taken out of their historical context. I agree with MH, "some ancient Jewish ruler wanted to justify his aggressive policies." Spinoza as usual had a useful thing to say: prophecy is given with respect to the the needs of the community at that moment and personality of the prophet (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, ch 1 and 2). Deuteronomy reflects the situation and thought of the very pre-modern Israelites wandering with their flocks in the desert.

Being historically situated isn't the same as being unable to make progress although some on either side insist so. As Christians, we (people like me) give particular authority to the stories about Jesus, who famously said the Main Thing is to love your neighbor. That's where we are on our journey from "fallen man" to "the kingdom of grace". We are all condemned under the law, but through grace we can occasionally do something right.

I think the problem is not lack of sophisticated theology, but an egoistic desire to be in control (esp. of other people) and have all the answers, a desire not limited to theists. Post-hoc rationalizations, just so. We could better move to a simple theology: Love God - respect the Universe as it presents itself to us - and love your neighbor - encapsulating the humanist agenda. I say, when we get that down we can worry about what comes next.

... pardon me if I'm witnessing and bible-quoting again, but you brought it up ...

Anonymous said...

Ian S. Markham's "reasoning" shows the stupidity to which a man is reduced when trying to defend the indefensible.

Anonymous said...

I've never been quite clear why the conquest-of-Canaan passages create such a problem. When first I read the KJV, back in my Long Ago Youth, the smiting-the-Amalekite parts were the Good Stuff, the parts that were like Robt. E. Howard or E.R. Eddison, the exciting bits. I never related them to the real world. I'd think that for many readers, all the smite-the-Amalekites parts are just that--- the Good Stories, and things that happened in the Long Ago and Far Away where the Trojan War took place, things that don't actually attach to the real world or to history, just storytelling that's exciting.

Sean Carroll said...

I played this game with the New Testament once.


Charles Sullivan said...

Nicely done!

Russell Blackford said...

Oops, I accidentally what looked like a perfectly good comment from an "anonymous" commenter went it went into my spam box. Didn't spot it until to late.

My apologies. Feel free to try again.

Russell Blackford said...

Accidentally deleted, that is. Again, my apologies.

Dave Ricks said...

You accidentally this.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, I deleted (or rather never typed) the word "deleted".

sailor1031 said...

Well if it doesn't mean what it says and can be made to mean whatever someone wants to make it mean - then it doesn't mean anything does it? So we don't need to waste time on it......

Aquaria said...

As Christians, we (people like me) give particular authority to the stories about Jesus, who famously said the Main Thing is to love your neighbor.

He's the same guy that got a woody talking about unbelievers burning in hell, too.

And bragged about tearing apart families.

You might want to come up with something different than your emo scumbag deity''s hypocrisy to justify your delusion.

His "philosophy" is a sick and perverse one that is full of masochistic self-loathing and utter disrespect and disregard for anyone who doesn't march lockstep with it.

But then, that does explain most Christians, doesn't it?

Rosemary Lyndall Wemm said...


Your comment is just as screwed up as the apologetics example above.

You say “this is what happens when the Biblical stories are taken out of their historical context”. If you take the historical context into account then it is reasonable to argue that the Nazis were morally correct in exterminating German Jews. Both of the most senior prophets of their god (the Pope and Martin Luther) were in favor of treating all Jews extremely harshly and their pastors and priests regularly preached this message in the churches. The German secret police honored their god with their uniform that had belt buckles reading “God with Us” (in the local language, of course). Ridding the nation of this religiously perceived threat to the purity of their country’s earnest wish for purity was obeying the will of god as relayed to the faithful by the god’s most blessed messengers. As you say, it may be true that some past ruler wished to justify his aggressive policies, but as you point out, we have to respect to the the needs of the community at that moment and personalities of the religious leaders of the times.

Of course, Jesus of Nazareth is reputed to have concurred with earlier ethical gurus in suggesting that the most important social rule is to love your neighbor. Naturally, the difficulty with following these ancient injunctions is to decide who your neighbor is. Jesus went along with the view of his heavenly father in treating outsiders as trash. Although he suggests that the similar Sumaritans might qualify for leniency he dismisses non-Jews as “dogs”.

After his death his new followers decide that he and/or his Father, have decided to break his/their exclusive covenant with the Jewish nation and make another one with the previously vilified nations. Now it is Jews who are “dogs” and non-Jews who are favored by this racially discriminatory god.

So much for universal, absolute and fixed moral laws. This god clearly reflects the moral and intellectual level of the people who worship him at the time. Instead of setting an example of the more matures stages of these normal developmental traits, he stoops to the level of the people whom he is patronizing. If he had completed a few more human psychology classes perhaps he would have had the intellectual maturity to realize that this is a poor prescription for fostering development in these areas. Humans do not progress to the next intellectual or moral level without mature example and challenge to their current stage. Nor can they develop properly emotionally if frequently subjected to behavior that is morally immature by their leaders, bosses and care-takers. Your version of god is a very poor behavioral scientist.

So what you have painted is a moral and intellectually immature god who is poorly educated in the social and physical sciences, nationally and racially bigoted, emotionally fickle, contractually unreliable, biased towards those who are equal or inferior to him in educational and developmental areas and unjustly nasty towards those who outclass him in social, intellectual and emotional maturity. Unless you are substantially different from other humans your view of god is a good reflection of your own level of achievement in these areas.

Rosemary Lyndall Wemm said...

--- concluded ----

Prophets, preachers, apologists and rudely annoying evangelical conversion seekers tell us far more about themselves than they do about the characteristics of whatever version of god they claim to know.

I think the most endearing part of your nature is that you seem to be genuinely unaware of this and sincerely believe that you, and those you have been persuaded to respect, are the only people who really “know” the “truth”. Like most people indoctrinated into beliefs about the supernatural, whether you “grow out of” this perspective will depend a lot on your age, your level of emotional security, your intellectual integrity, your curiosity level, your response to challenge and how much your personality needs closure and the illusion of certainty. It also depends on whether you are exposed to or shielded from material and experiences that challenge your current world view. You have some control over this last factor.

Lausten North said...

Nicely done Russell. Much of the discussion here seems to be about where we should focus, on historical analysis, or chasing theologians. My analysis is that history is important, but determining just what was going on when these books were written is extremely difficult. It's bad enough that we have people who ignore facts claiming to know what people were thinking, we also have archaeologists claiming to know what evidence they will find before they find it. My guess is we will have more success unveiling more recent lies and made up interpretations. That will lead to more discrediting of those who claim to have proven Biblical accuracy based on a few shards of pottery.

Marshall said...

OMG, it's the Hitler card. Rational discussion has left the building.

I don't see where I claim to "know" the "truth". As a follower of Mackie in that there are no objective moral facts, I understand that all such claims are not valid in any final sense. What I intend by "historical context" is that stories reflect the views of the people who created them, and they should not be relied upon except as insights into those people.

The Slumaritans were the despised people of the day, the only job they could get was collecting garbage like the Copts in Egypt now. Un Clean. The Pharisee is the Director of Important Enterprises in favor of firm property rights. The man in the ditch is anybody today who feels like they've been beaten and robbed. The question is, who can the man in the ditch look to for help? (... do you think he should let himself be picked up by an unclean man who collects garbage? ...)

I like doing bible study, but Russell has asked me to keep it to a minimum here, so any more please do come over to my house.

... whether you are exposed to or shielded from material and experiences that challenge your current world view...

Amen to that thought, Sister!

Kirth Gersen said...

My favorite thing about the "sophisticated, nuanced theology" we're supposed to take into account is that it comes fast on the heels of the claims that the truths of the Bible are "obvious to anyone with common sense," and that one has to "wilfully reject them" in order not to believe.

Cognitive dissonance indeed.