While in the local public library recently I noticed a book on display entitled Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent Verses by Philip Jenkins. I didn't immediately check out the book. In fact I put it back on the shelf, left the library and only returned to check it out the next day after a night of thinking about what the book might have to say. I will not argue that the book is profound, but it is thought-provoking and worth consideration by anyone who ascribes some type of authority to the Bible.
Jenkins starts with the fact that the Bible contains verses that describe actions which to our modern sensibilities are reprehensible and unacceptable. In fact, were we to encounter a description of such actions today we would likely refer to them as genocide. He has in mind particularly the stories of the Israelite conquest of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua, though he does make reference and consider other troublesome passages as well. He acknowledges that much of our modern sensibilities, the very ones that should trouble us when we read passages such as those in the book of Joshua, have in fact grown out of a Judeo-Christian tradition and asks how it is possible that we are able to tolerate the existence of such stories in the Bible.
He points to a few primary means of dealing with this disturbing texts. Historically they have often been allegorized, meaning that they have been read not essentially as factual historical documents but as stories that depict in human activities the spiritual realities that humans confront. For example, the battle to drive out the Canaanites might be read as the story of each believer needing to drive out sinful characteristics in his or her own life. These types of readings occurred more frequently early in church history and often seem quaint and unrealistic to modern readers.
Another response has been to project contemporary believers into the place of the Israelites and assigning whatever enemy they faced to the role of the Canaanites. In this way people could justify the fight against and even the annihilation of other ethnic groups. This response should rightfully trouble us, but continues to hold merit in certain circles even today. Jenkins shows how this type of reading has led to very “unchristian” behaviors, including massacres and genocides, perpetuated because of a particular biblical hermeneutic. Corollary to this, the violent acts are justified by arguing that the victims were particularly evil, unholy and a threat to the survival of righteous people and even of humanity in general. Such a viewpoint may also emphasize the sovereignty of God, arguing that anything God commands cannot be wrong, therefore the annihilation of a nation or city cannot be considered morally reprehensible when God himself has commanded it. God must have his reasons and even when we don't fully understand them, we must accept them.
Yet another response has been to effectively expunge these texts, not removing them from the canon by deletion but by neglect. This, Jenkins argues, has occurred in most Christian churches today. He gives the example of the Revised Common Lectionary and shows how a reader following the readings of this lectionary would never have to deal with the most violent passages of the Bible. A corollary to this approach has been to pass lightly over such passages. In this way one might continue to present the story of Joshua taking Jericho but not really consider the full implications of the story in terms of the eradication of an entire city or race.
Many Christians will have difficulty accepting Jenkin's arguments because he makes clear at the beginning of his book that he does not accept as factually historical the stories in which the most violent texts are found. He presents evidence for his position, evidence that will carry weight with some and which others will reject out of hand. However, regardless of how one views the authority and factual historicity of the Bible, Jenkin's book raises questions that Christians should address. Whether one accepts the story of Joshua's conquests as factual history or not, the Christian church has included them in its canon from the earliest years of church history and they have formed a part of Christian theology and worldview. If one rejects them as historical, one must still take into account their presence within the canon and the effect they have had through the centuries. If one accepts them as historical, then one must wrestle with the implications for our understanding of God and his interaction with humanity. The issues are not easily resolved and therefore are generally avoided.
Jenkins raises these questions at this time in part, I believe, because of the number of voices, Christian and non-Christian, that argue that Islam is an inherently violent religion, as demonstrated by its holy book the Quran. Jenkins counters that the Bible in fact contains more passages that clearly advocate and condone violence than anything found in the Quran. Whether one accepts or rejects this, Jenkins presents evidence and arguments that must be taken into consideration. Jenkins also claims that, just as Christianity and Judaism have outgrown their more violent tendencies by and large (allowing for certain fringe groups that would continue to use such passages as grounds for ethnic or religious violence), so there is hope that the voices in Islam that advocate a broader, more tolerant approach to those of different faiths, will gain the ascendancy in Islamic interpretation. Ultimately, Jenkins says, we must remember the context in which any holy text is written and in which it is currently being interpreted and applied.
Jenkins presents some suggestions for how one might read these violent passages. He advocates, like Martin Luther, that the reader “read cleanly,” meaning that he or she must consider whether a given passage applies to the reader today or not. If it does, then the reader must seek to understand how. This approach recognizes what most believers actually practice even if they affirm the inspiration of every word of the Bible: that some verses are applicable to the modern reader and others are not. Jenkins quotes the medieval scholastics, who had a rule: “Quidquid reciptur ad modum recipientis recipitur,” which he translates into English as roughly: “What people hear depends on who is doing the hearing.” Jenkins also advocates reading any text within the larger context both of the particular book and the Bible as a whole. This requires an awareness of the context in which a particular book or story was originally written as well as the overall purposes of the Bible. Finally, Jenkins recommends that readers “read from below,” that is, that we consider each story not only from the perspective of the protagonists, the victors and the heroes, but also from the perspective of the vanquished, the oppressed and the powerless. This requires listening to interpretations coming from voices of those who have been or are marginalized and not simply to those who continue to write from positions of power, privilege and influence.
This book troubled me. It also challenged me to think about and read the Bible differently. I recommend it to others who want to engage with the biblical text that is, not the one we like to think of existing: the one that contains passages that are disturbing, even reprehensible. If we cannot do this honestly then we cannot deal truthfully with those who question the meaning and authority of the Bible.