Is God a War Criminal? January 30, 2012Posted by Matt in EfM.
Tags: Bob Dylan, conquering Canaan, EFM, evil, genocide, God's favor, Israel, Joshua, war crimes
I’ve written before on more than one occasion that I’m going through the EfM (Education for Ministry) program at our church and that it has been quite interesting and enlightening. In case you don’t recall what it is, EfM is a four year program from the Sewanee School of Theology that takes participants through the Old Testament (year 1), the New Testament (year 2), Church History (year 3), and Theology (year 4). Each week we work through in depth readings from the Bible and the materials from Sewanee, then we meet on Sunday evenings to discuss the things we learned and talk our way through various issues. Every time we meet I’m struck by the level of intelligence and insight from my fellow parishioners and it has quickly become something I greatly look forward to each week.
Last week’s reading was a troubling one for me, though, as I read through the book of Joshua, the account of Israel’s conquering of Canaan. In this book, you read time and again where, according to the writer, God tells Israel to completely wipe out cities, killing every man, woman, and child, in order to take possession of it. In essence, God is telling Israel to commit genocide.
It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around a God characterized by love, who later in the manifestation of Jesus is known as the prince of peace, that then demands these sorts of atrocities be carried out. It’s certainly not a God I would want to follow. So the question must be asked, should God be automatically absolved of these acts? Should God be held accountable? Is our sense of morality today better than God’s? We would surely not hesitate to condemn actions like these if taken today.
It’s a difficult situation, and one that I can only reconcile by looking beyond the actual text. In reading the accompanying materials, you learn that these accounts were most likely written much later, centuries after the actual conquest took place. I wonder if, when looking back, the writers felt the need to justify these actions and in doing so, bolster their claim to be the chosen people of God. Is there a better way to legitimize unconscionable acts than to proclaim it the will of God?
This of course led me to reference the great Bob Dylan song, “With God on Our Side,” and its lyrics describing the dangerous American myth of divine predilection. It’s a dangerous thing to believe that deity can be claimed and contained, yet the idea continues to perpetuate itself around the world, whether in followers of radical Islam, the fundamentalist churches of America, or untold numbers of other ways.
The farther away I’ve gotten from a belief that the Bible is inerrant and perfect, the better my understanding has become. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of questions to ask, but this look at things has done wonders to soothe my soul.
P.S. In succeeding meetings I’ve name dropped Derrida and Dylan. This is my kind of program.
On Unknown Writers and Myths October 3, 2011Posted by Matt in EfM.
Tags: Documentary Hypothesis, EFM, god, inspiration, Marcus Borg, myth, Pentateuch, textual problems, truth
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After only two weeks of readings and meetings, the EfM (Education for Ministry) program I am involved with at our church has proved to be quite revelatory. Last week’s reading continued the introduction to the Pentateuch, as we this time looked at two major concepts of interest: the writers of the books and the concept of myth.
I had read about the Documentary Hypothesis in the past and had found it to be an intriguing alternative to the verbal, plenary inspiration that had long dominated my church experiences, but, despite i’s merits, this was the first time I had ever heard it spoken of in a church situation that wasn’t either mocking it or drawing an “us vs. them” line in the sand. In case you are not familiar with the idea, the Documentary Hypothesis makes the case that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses in the centuries before Hebrew was a written language, but that it was actually composed by four sources known as J, E, D, and P. This line of thought began a few centuries ago (CE 1685) when a French priest took note of the seeming contradictions and repetitions found in the text. Upon investigation, he also noticed a “regular variation in the name for God,” that some sections referred to God as Elohim (“the gods”) and some referred to an actual name, YHWH. Later scholars took this idea and partitioned the writings into sections along these lines, calling those parts referring to Elohim the “E” document and those referring to YHWH the “J” document (In German it is transliterated JHVH). As time went on and more biblical scholars investigated the matter, it became clear that two sources were not enough. They found that there were sections of E that were much different than the rest of the document. These sections dealt with temple worship, the priesthood, and the lengthy genealogies found in the text. Because of its concern with the priesthood, scholars called this the P document. Then another source, the D document, was also singled out. It included the “new Law” purportedly discovered in the Temple under King Josiah (621 BCE). These were then combined by redactors, or people who take already existing documents and weave them together to make a common document.
J is the earliest of the documents and dates to 950 BCE. E follows that around 850 BCE, D is from roughly 650 BCE, and P originated in the post-exilic period, 538-450 BCE. There were several other points of interest to me in the comparison of the four sources. For example, though J and E are both anthropomorphic (using human characteristics to describe God), J is more direct, with God coming down to speak to humans face-to-face, while E uses intermediaries like angels. Another difference that caught my attention was regarding miracles and natural happenings. According to the lesson, J and E describe “God’s use of natural phenomena,” that he sent plagues to Egypt and used an east wind to blow back the Red Sea, while P is more likely to use miracles, saying that it was the “supernatural rod of Moses which divided the water.”
Perhaps the most important thing in this section for me was the ease with which the Documentary Hypothesis can deal with textual problems, those things which are usually either glossed over or put through theological acrobatics to squeeze them into a predetermined perspective.
The second piece of subject matter revolves around the nature of the stories told in the text, most importantly, the concept of myth. Those of you who are longtime readers of this blog know that I have had a fascination with myth in scripture for some time. Back in December 2009 I wrote a lengthy series entitled, The Birth Myth, regarding the story of the birth of Jesus. Later on I touched on the Creation myth and then spoke of it again when I told of seeing renowned scholar Marcus Borg speak at the Lenten series held by Calvary Episcopal Church.
Myths are usually misunderstood in our post-Enlightenment culture, in which we tend to disregard stories for being unfactual, and therefore not important. Yet myths, as the lesson reads, are “the deepest expressions of truth that a culture or a people can speak.” The aformentioned Borg defines a myth as, “stories about the way things never were, but always are.” Myths are the stories that help us to understand our place in this world, in this universe, that aid us in finding meaning in life, in coming to grips with the human condition and how we relate to the Divine. According to the reading:
Myths are more than just bits of literature. They speak of the important things that lie at the heart of a religion. They are not just stories about things long ago, even very mysterious things long ago. They describe the deepest matters of life at any time. The point is not that long ago something happened that caused the world to be here; the point is that the world and all that is created (and is being created) stand in a particular relationship to the god or gods, and that relationship is described in the myth. Thus, the myth says something that is true about the world now, or at least something that the myth claims is true.
The myth that describes the point of view out of which you live your life, make your decisions, and hold your values, will express the most important depths of your life.
As we continue on with our study of Genesis, we will “study the myths of creation, sin and judgment in order to see how the people of Israel saw the terms of human life under God.”
It should be interesting.