Redeeming God in Canaan


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.

Too Many Words by Payana, based on Umbrella by Snyckeeers. You may want to bring yours.


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, MatotMasei, 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.

Written By: Doctor Science
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  1. The article to me demonstrates the lying or “woo” as some say about the Bible with very clear passages being interpreted as very unclear in a public relations effort at damage control.  On one hand some warlord said he talked to god and wiped out his neighbors to steal their land.  On the other hand, some have speculated that the Cannites are the ancient Hebrews and one faction took a myth of some hearders to establish their political will to separete themselves from the great unwashed.

    I have been wasting my creativity on art when I should have gone into theology, there so much room to make stuff up.

  2. From my dictionary:

    Hermeneutics, n. The art of saying that something says something other than it says. Of course any of these takes may be true (as may be Santa), but looking at them from a discrete distance leaves one with the impression that they, like WLC, will say or think absolutely anything about the Bible in order to bring his character into congruency with their own.

  3. From this quote alone I don’t believe that man knows a thing about Judaism or the Jewish people. 
     “the Christian asks about the character or personality of God; the Jew asks what we Jews should *do*. “

    The Mishna is the book on Jewish Law. The Tanakh is commentary on the entire OT. The Talmud ( which includes the Mishna ) is immensely philosophical and covers ethics. If anyone here asks about the character or personality of God it is the Jews. They are ten times the intellect of any Christian.  There is alot of rule abiding in Judaism, but there are also alot of traditions they follow that all revolve around their relationship to their God and their God’s relationship to them, and they pass these traditions onto their children by challenging them to critically think.  Jews encourage inquisitiveness.  Christians encourage blind faith. 

    The Tanakh was never considered to be a precursor to any ” New Testament”.

    I’m not giving any excuses for genocide, or even advocating for belief in Judaism. But I have studied with both a reform Rabbi and the Lubavitcher/ Kabalists. I respect them immensely for what they have taught me and the time they took to do so.  They make Christians look like simpletons.

  4. What the apologists of both faiths fail to realize is that they are coming off like the hand of Carl Sagan was deep into their backs working the gears as they mouth the words, “My god is a little god,” in synch with Sagan’s voice.

    If an all-powerful god wanted the Jews to relocate to that barren stretch of real estate, he could simply have blinked the current occupants elsewhere (or out of existence, for that matter) without turning his chosen children into savages.

    Of course, an all-knowing god would have been certain from the get-go where he wanted them to live and put them there in the first place.  He just might also have endowed them with the wherewithall to hang on to it.

    This little god was just not very good at his job, still isn’t and if there is pantheon of little gods governing each inhabited planet in the universe, his application for promotion to regional galactic god would be summarily rejected with great rumblings of laughter from his higher-ups. 

  5. An ex-catholic/lutheran now jew, says it all really. How hard do you need to be looking to change the rules that many times and still think that “someone” “somewhere” has the answer. The double or perhaps even a triple God Delusion!

  6. For the definitive explanation of this type of verse one can never do worse than listen to Professor William Lane Craig. In his debate with the empty chair he explained one such verse where god had commanded the Israelites to slaughter all the Canaanites including the women and children. In my opinion the empty chair won that debate.

  7. God may have the right to smash his creations, but he also should be setting a good example for his creations.  He behaves like a spoiled brat, hardly worthy of worship.

  8. Some Christian traditions do work more like this and de-emphasise or do not emphasise faith. They are disappearing for for fairly obvious reasons. There are Jewish traditions which do encourage a kind of faith, in that the the interpretations they allow to be considered are limited and based on tradition. I think you’re broadly right, but that you over-generalise.

  9. I never understood why people feel the need to “translate” the words of god.  If they believe in god and they believe that the bible was given by god to humans than what is written in the bible are the words of god. 

    So if god says “kill everyone”  that’s what he means obviously, after all those are his words aren’t they?

    If they do feel the need to paraphrase god does it mean they don’t believe those words are actually his?  Do they think god needs a translator, as in “he said X but what he really meant is Y…” 

    I never could understand how someone that believes god is omnipotent thinks that god can’t say what he means and mean what he says without the need for translations

    But I guess that’s why I’m an Atheist…

  10. “They make Christians look like simpletons”
    My friend, you religios are ALL simpletons, whatever your claims to intellect; the virus of Faith is no respecter of intelligence. This is no ad hom but a statement of fact.

  11. I alternate between being amused and being contemptuous at the gyrations all the monotheist faiths engage in to explain and therefore justify savage and/or nonsensical passages in their holy book. There IS no justification for genocide. Period. End of discussion.

    The arguments are mostly variations on a) we have misinterpreted the actual meaning or b) it is a mistranslation, or c) it is part of god’s great plan which in the end is perfect.

    Except in momentary fits of  anthropological curiosity, I don’t give a damn about the differences in Christian, Jewish, Muslim mind gymnastics, which can be seen in whole mountains of literature. They are all fictions based on myths built on longings founded on fear.

  12. Why do these people spend their time splitting hairs? Trying desperately to analyse the character of a supernatural being, to justify (or otherwise) his supposed ‘love’ of humanity. 

    I regard the Jesus myth as a transparent attempt to clean up the viciously genocidal god of the OT on realising that no rational mind would accept him.

  13. Well said but…please don’t use the title ‘Professor’ in the same sentence as ‘WLC’, it demeans the word! Try as I may, my time for listening to Craig is over; just too frustrating to hear the same tired logical fallacies trotted out. 
    Philosophy as applied to religion gives me the s**ts. 

  14. Indeed. And the authorities thereto are mere storytellers.

    Old Hebrew snuff porn, pauline guilt trips, and a liberal spread of hallucinations.

  15. Peter Enns was mired in controversy a few years ago for not being “fundie” enough. Although he is an evangie, he is no fundie,  probably a reasonable sort of guy to talk to. His book  “Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament” caused a storm at the same time a similar book caused controversy here  – a guy called AT B McGowan wrote a book called “The Divine Spiration of Scripture” and got it in the neck for being “liberal” and daring to suggest that the Bible might not be all its cracked up to be. Well thats how it was spun anyway.

    Enns and McGowan are cut from the same cloth – however in todays climate , where the evangies are becoming more extreme (IMO anyway) there is little room for those that try to be bit more reasonable. For example, David Arnott, who was the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland last year said:

    “The Church of Scotland was once noted for its moderate liberalism. It was also noted for its concern for social justice. It is now becoming much more right wing and conservative in its theology. It is a theology full of certainties which expresses a literal understanding of scripture.”

     And the evangelical response was “and this is a bad thing?”

    People like Enns and McGowan will find themselves homeless. Unless of course they have an epiphany moment and realise “Hang on, its all bollocks, isnt it? Hey, Prof Dawkins, fancy going for a drink?”



  16.  Perhaps I just got very lucky and studied with some extremely cool Jews. So funny because they were across the street from each other. I don’t know of any Christian traditions who do not emphasise faith. How could they finagle that? I’d say the Lubavitchers do emphasise faith, but Reform Jews don’t seem to ( except on the high holidays, lol ). Alot of them are just going through the motions, but their views are highly varied.  But the Jewish people teach very differently. For example, they might set up a sort of devil’s advocate to argue for Jesus in your study group just for the sake of sparking a good debate and test your reaction. 🙂

  17. Indeed…or the whole thing could just be made up nonsense for a different time and for what was political purposes of control. Or as one hypothesis states, a cover up story for what was later deemed an embarrassing episode in the early Hebrew tradition.

  18.  I have spent much fruitless time arguing with a faith merchant on an Australian website, and this was the absurd situation – if I dared to say anything interpreting a text in the Bible, he would indignantly tell me to leave it to the theologians. He, however, does not hesitate to make pronouncements about molecular biology (probably cribbed from Michael Behe), declaring macro-evolution impossible.
    I am no scholar, but I did win a prize for English at school, and can I believe understand the archaic but basically simple Biblical language. As far as I can discover, my religiose friend has no biological qualifications. The sad thing is, he comes over as an intelligent person. What a shame he betrays that intelligence.
    As you say, why can’t God say what he means?

  19. So 2 Jews you studied with were smarter than any Christian. So what?

    The Jews are 10 times the intellect of any Christian? What a dumb thing to say.
    So. You, who are presumably a Jew, are 10x smarter than any Christian? You are
    10x smarter than Francis Collins?

    You can ask as many questions as you like about an imaginary being but that doesn’t make you an intellectual. All religions require faith – even yours.

  20. Actually, my father was Catholic and my mother was Jewish. I do not claim any allegiance to any faith. I never said i did.  I do not rescind one word i had said. You can assume all you want. Frankly, I really do not give a damn. Oddly enough, you seem to have some residual loyalty to Christianity.

  21. That’s fine if you want to hold to your statement that
    Jews are ten times the intellect of any Christian. People make incorrect statements all the time.  But this borders on bigotry.

    I don’t have any loyalty to Christianity. It doesn’t matter which religion you used in your post. To rate one group of people as being smarter than another is dangerous. That kind of dogmatic thinking has led to many atrocities over the years. Also I am related to and have met many other Christians. Some of them are very smart. My grandfather was a Christian and one of the smartest people I’ve
    met. I won’t ask you to back up your earlier statement because you won’t be able to. But I think it’s important to take a moment before you post such an obviously ignorant and stupid comment.

  22. Might I remind you that your Christianity is a branch of Judaism. In fact, the apostles were all Jewish and their philosophy was actually not so unique for that time period. They never called themselves ” Christian”. That label was not applied until after Constantine when the Romans took over. Who knows what else the Romans perverted? The Savior myth is very old. I said they were ten times the intellect, not “now let’s go out and kill all of the Christians.” I never said that Christians were not intelligent.  That seems to be something you have very defensively inferred. is it less bigoted to say that atheists are intellectually superior? By your argument, that is just as dangerous. But I refuse to debate with someone who is as insulting as you. Learn some manners, and perhaps I’ll talk to you some more. Till then, have a nice day!

  23. What are you talking about? Your post is all over the place. 
    1) I’m not a christian but I am aware of its history. I’m not sure why you are bringing up Constantine. 2) In your first post you stated that Jews were intellectually superior to Christians. That is the point I take issue with. I made no claim that atheists were superior to anyone.  

    3) I realize you never said that Christians were not intelligent. However, you said they were intellectually inferior to Jews without any attempt at justification. That is an outrageous statement. 

    Perhaps you have not reread your posts or are unaware of how they read to others. It very clearly reads as if you say that Jews (presumably you are Jewish) are intellectually superior to Christians. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a terrible thing to say. 

  24. Surely “religios” are only simpletons insofar as they are religious? Is Francis Collins a simpleton? Sure he’s mistaken about the existence of a Christian deity, but he’s still managed to achieve some pretty impressive stuff – more impressive if he’s a simpleton, you’d have to say!

  25. annececilia’s comments about Jews being more intelligent than Christians are extraordinary.Most of us would agree,I think,that Christianity and Judaism are equally absurd doctrines,but this supercilious air of Jewish superiority is partly the reason why there has been so much anti-semtism through the ages.It is not surprising they feel this way of course ,as Judaism teaches that Jews are the “chosen people” of God.It has always puzzled me why God should have chosen an,at the time,obscure tribe of Bronze Age goat-herders in the Middle East when there were much more sophisticated nations around.

  26. As an ethnic Jew and atheist who has spend a lot of time in Israel, loves Israel and the Jewish people and who has lots of friends and close family who are Orthodox Christians, Baptists and Catholics, I can tell you annececilia that there is no difference, zero, nada, at the intelectual level. By the way, any global jugement on Christians assumes that you know quite a few of them and of many denominations, not just two individuals.

  27. Do you think a homeopath is intellectually inferior to, say, an anti-vaccer? These are all belief systems, just like Judaism and Christianity. I fail to see how a person’s particular flavour of belief makes them intellectually superior or inferior in any way.  

  28. The central question for Enns is theology, strictly speaking: what sort of a Person is God?

    Answer: fictional. Next question.

    I’m amazed how human and petty the God of the Old Testament is. For example “…for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…” Oh great, that’s just what we need, an omnipotent supernatural creator who is envious of his creations. Maybe if we all get down on our knees and praise him, he’ll stop sulking.

    I’m reminded of this rather funny sketch by Mitchell and Webb:

  29. Wriggle, distort, evade, ‘interpret’, bowdlerise as you please: if your god was real he’d be a monster, a mass-murderer, an inciter to genocide, beneath contempt. You won’t really be a proper adult until you admit this.

  30.  you don’t understand. Judaism can be an extremely intellectually rigorous study. As i had said before, they encourage inquisitiveness, Christianity relies on blind faith and don’t ask any questions. You don’t understand because you’ve clearly never studied it. It is alot more than a particular flavour. And i don’t know why any person here would assume i am religious just because i know about that which i have rejected, i.e., religion. Unlike some people.

  31. May we ask users to focus on the issues and avoid making personal remarks about other users or getting drawn into personal spats, please. Thank you!

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  32. Hemidemisemigod, you are misreading the word “jealous”. Like so many people, you think it means envious, but in the Biblical sense it doesn’t. Think of a man who is a jealous husband – it doesn’t mean he envies his wife.

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