Last weekend I noticed two religion blogs, one Jewish and one evangelical (though not fundamentalist) Christian, discussing the same passages in the Bible: the ones commanding the Israelites to fight, slaughter, enslave, and dispossess the Canaanite inhabitants of the Land of Israel. To commit genocide, in fact.
The two ministers come across as reasonably similar in personality and emotional tone -- I suspect they would get along quite well. Both read the Bible in historical-critical context, but they insist that it is necessary to read the Bible, not to just follow your bliss. Neither is willing to accept the "genocide commandments" as-is, but neither is willing to just throw them out or ignore them, either.
And they approach this text from different perspectives: asking different questions, using different tools. I was brought up as a Christian (in a Catholic/Lutheran family) but am now a practicing Jew, so I find a compare/contrast very illuminating. In this case, the Christian asks about the character or personality of God; the Jew asks what we Jews should *do*.
I am cutting this because it's almost 2500(!!) words. A lot are quotes, thank goodness, but even so I may have gone a trifle overboard for many tastes.
The Two Readers
Peter Enns is an evangelical Christian trained in Calvinist (Presbyterian and Reformed) institutions. He starts talking about the Canaanite Genocide in response to an interview with John Piper, a Baptist General Conference minister. Piper said, speaking of these same verses:
“It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die.”
Enns rejects such a reading because of what it says about God's character. The central question for Enns is theology, strictly speaking: what sort of a Person is God? His methods are largely historical, about the context of the text and our own, but he always reads the Tanakh as the Old Testament, precursor to the New.
Rachel Barenblat, the Velveteen Rabbi, is in the Reconstructionist/Jewish Renewal strain of Judaism. She's reading these passages because they were last week's portion in the cycle of yearly Torah reading, Matot-Masei, Numbers 30:2 - 36:13. The question she struggles with is that these verses are used as
justification for establishing Jewish sovereignty over "Greater Israel." Are our only options either to accept that interpretation, or to disregard these verses altogether?
Her fundamental approach is to wrestle, to re-think and re-analogize, to read, as she says, creatively and "expansively". She doesn't want to just read the text, she wants to redeem it.