Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Guest post by Mark Sandlin.

Thanksgiving—it’s a day where we celebrate how a bunch of illegal immigrants invaded the native lands of an indigenous people and how those indigenous people ultimately met them with a kindness that they may not have deserved (sometimes known as grace). This Thanksgiving let’s be inspired to share that same kindness and grace with others. Continue Reading..

Why NOT to Celebrate Columbus Day

Columbus quote

It is increasingly common to hear people question whether we should celebrate Columbus Day. My take is that it isn’t even a question. We should not celebrate this day. Unless we take a page from Seattle’s book and rename it: “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Shane Claiborne shares the following reasoning on why not to celebrate this day, and I wholeheartedly concur: Continue Reading..

Columbus Day: A Day to Remember Genocide?

Is Columbus Day one to celebrate? Commemorate perhaps. Soberly reflect on, yes.

But celebrate? I’m not so sure.

That has been highlighted memorably by the Oatmeal in a cartoon that has gone viral on Social Media. If you read only one thing today, make sure it’s that one.


The question, though, remains: even though some awful things happened in the Americas, at the hands of Columbus and many others, can it justifiably be labeled genocide?

Some say: NO. Germs were at fault. Disease killed major portions of the native population. This is a valid point, and one that is highlighted in depth in Jared Diamond’s classic: Guns, Germs and Steel. Yet even Diamond is not afraid to use the word ‘genocide’ in his description of what transpired in the Americas.

      RELATED: Huffington Post: For Love of God and Country

Yet saying disease was involved doesn’t get anyone off the hook, according to James Loewen: “Most diseases, for instance, came from animals that were domesticated by Europeans. Cowpox from cows led to smallpox, which was later “spread through gifts of blankets by infected Europeans.”

And Loewen notes we ought to remember this, as well as the responses to it, theologically and ideologically motivated as they were:

“Why is it important to mention the plague? Quite simply, it reinforced European ethnocentrism and hardly produced a “friendly” relationship between the Natives and Europeans. To most of the Pilgrims and Europeans, the Natives were heathens, savages, and demonic. Upon seeing thousands of dead Natives, the Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, called the plague “miraculous.” In 1634, he wrote to a friend in England: ‘But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by the small pox which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place.'”

Those saying no will also note that there were many complex factors in play, and there was no large, overarching plan for systematic destruction of any people group. True. I’ve spent part of the day reading: Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide by George Tinker, an American Indian theologian and scholar. He notes “that the conscious intent to destroy a people is not necessary for an act to be genocidal or for it to succeed in destroying. What I call cultural genocide functions at times as conscious intent, but at other times as such a systemic level that it may be largely subliminal, In such cases, the good intent of some may be so mired in unrecognized systemic structures that they even remain unaware of the destruction that results from those good intentions.”

Tinker uses the term ‘cultural genocide’: “the effective destruction of a people by systematically or systemically (intentionally or unintentionally in order to achieve other goals) destroying, eroding, or undermining the integrity of the culture and system of values that defines a people and gives them life.”

He notes that cultural genocide is more subtle than overt military extermination, yet it is no less devastating to a people.


Tinker notes that this involves several factors:

“First of all, it involves the destruction of those cultural structures of existence that give a people a sense of holistic and communal integrity. It does this by limiting a people’s freedom to practice their culture and to live out their lives in culturally appropriate pattersn. It effectively destroys a people by eroding both their self-esteem and the interrelationships that bind them together as a community. In North American mission history, cultural genoicde almost always involved an attack on the spiritual foundations of a people’s unity by denying the existing ceremonial and mythological sense of a community in relationship to the Sacred Other. Finally, it erodes a people’s self-image as a whole by attacking or belittling every aspect of native culture.”

This cultural genocide includes political, economic, religious, and social aspects.

He notes that the treaties signed by the United States with Indian nations were indeed a form of political genocide. They were invariably forced on Indian peoples who were offered little choice or alternative. And to make matters (much) worse, there was a consistent failure of the United States to even keep those (already one-sided) treaties. Sadly, often church and denominational leaders and missionaries were enlisted to help enforce such policies.

Economic aspects of genocide, according to Tinker, involve using or allowing the economic systems, always with political and even military support, to manipulate and exploit another culturally discrete entity that is both politically and economically weaker. The results can range from enslavement and the direct exploitation of labor to the pillaging of natural economic resources that leaves a people unable to sustain themselves. There are numerous examples.

Religious aspects of genocide involve the overt attempt to destroy the spiritual solidarity of a people. This can be done by outlawing ceremonial forms, such as the 1890 legislation that outlawed several traditional dances, and making them punishable crimes. Further, many missionaries, emboldened by their sense of political and economic superiority, used preaching the the promised bliss of conversion to denounce or belittle native forms of prayer and argue their own spiritual superiority. Moreover, writers Tinker, they used their influence to promote the 1890 legislation limiting freedom of religion for Indian peoples and “establishing” Christianity.

In the end, Tinker notes “that Native American peoples were also subjected to genocide should be self-evident, although it was rarely articulated as policy.”

History is complex, and there are no easy answers, but how we tell history matters, as I wrote in an earlier piece for the Huffington Post.

I especially appreciate Howard Zinn’s approach in A People’s History of the United States:

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)–the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole.

My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interest (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

In 1948, coming out of the second World War, the United Nations Genocide Convention began the process of broadening our understanding of genocide as including “any of several kinds of acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.”

What do you think? Can we use this term when speaking of the Western settlement of the Americas?

The Wars of the Lord 5

This is the fifth in a series of posts about the wars God commanded the Israelites to fight against the Canaanites, guided by some excerpts from Thom Stark’s excellent book, The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It) (2011, Wipf and Stock).

Some great responses to my earlier posts – I appreciate some of the pushback as well as some of the alternate possible understandings.  The issue no doubt merits further review, and I should clarify that I’m not sure where I fall on this whole discussion, as I’ve been by and large presenting the views in Thom Stark’s book.  I think he raises some very valid questions, and isn’t willing to settle for the usual answers or simple solutions.  That said, I may not agree with him everywhere, and some of you have noted excellent other possible approaches as voiced by Greg Boyd and Walter Brueggemann among others.

One respondent to the first post noted the following possibilities:

— Maybe the [Israelites] (or their power-hungry leaders) made up the stuff about how God told us to do x, y, and z to get the people to do things they would ordinarily find repellent.

— Or, this is the usual revisionist history to boost morale, legitimize past war crimes and maintain the new dominance.

— Or, more specifically, as one of my Calvin profs barely hinted at, maybe all this stuff about violently defeating their enemies was an attempt to glorify (in a war-glorifying world) what was actually a gradual immigration involving a somewhat boring and dishonorable out-reproducing of the natives, cultural and genetic assimilation and religious syncretism.

In this post I want to focus on the third possibility that he raises, and we’ll find that we may wind up looking at the first two as well.

The question is: did these brutalizing campaigns and slaughter of the people of Canaan and elsewhere actually happen?

I suppose many of us would initially respond to that question with, “Of course it happened – it’s in the Bible.”  But I wonder if it’s that simple.

Thom Stark notes that “the conquest narratives face serious problems with regard to historicity.”

In other words, did they really happen?  Or at least happen as depicted in the text?

Inventing Genocide?

It appears that “many of the conquest accounts depicted in the biblical narratives are in fact contradicted both by archaeological and internal textual evidence.”

For example:

In Numbers 20:14-21, the Israelites head east across the Negev and arrive at Edom, where, according to the text, they are refused passage by the king of Edom.  Yet the archaeological record indicates that at this period, there were only a meager number of nomadic tribes in the region of Edom.  Israel could not have been denied access by the king of Edom, since Edom did not attain statehood until the seventh century BCE, approximately 600 years after the events depicted in Numbers.  There was no king to deny them access!

Further, Num 21:1-3 narrates that Israel destroyed all the cities of the northern Negev, in the region of Arad.  One of the cities they subsequently renamed “Hormah” (meaning ‘destruction’).  Contrary to this, excavations in the 1970s found that no Late Bronze Age occupational levels exist in this entire region.  In other words, at the time of the supposed Israelite attacks, nobody was home.  With regard to the city of Arad in particular, it was not founded until the tenth century BCE, about 300 years after the events described in Numbers.  Furthermore, the tenth century city of Arad was built upon the ruins of an Early Bronze Age settlement, which was abandoned at around 2600 BCE.  Thus, at the time the Israelites are said to have destroyed it, Arad had already been a ruin for over 1,300 years.

But how accurate is the archaeology, you may ask.  Or do the archaeologists have an agenda to disprove the biblical account?

From 1968-1976, the site of ancient Heshbon was excavated by a group of archaelogists who also happened to be confessing Seventh-day Adventists.  They had set out to prove the accuracy of the Bible.  What they found instead was no evidence of any Late Bronze Age settlements.  In fact, according to their results, the city of Heshbon was not founded until the Iron II period – at the earliest, 250 years after the events depicted in Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Apparently not an isolated incident.  The Moabite city of Dibon was excavated by a group of Southern Baptist scholars in the 1950’s, a city which according to Num 21:30 (and 32:3) was besieged and subdued by the Israelites.  They were expecting the biblical claims to be validated by the archaeological record.  Their excavation resulted in the discovery of the sparse remains of a city from the ninth century BCE, some 400 years after the time of the conquest, and no Late Bronze Age residues.  Once again, Israel had sieged a city that wasn’t there.

There are more examples.  One archaeologist, Joseph Callaway, a conservative Christian and a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary set out to reexamine several biblical sites, hoping to vindicate the biblical record against earlier findings.  Instead, he too confirmed the earlier findings and conceded the historical inaccuracy of accounts like Joshua 7-8.  Callaway wrote, “For many years, the primary source for the understanding of the settlement of the first Israelites was the Hebrew Bible, but every reconstruction based upon the biblical traditions has foundered on the evidence from archaeological remains.”  After this, Callaway took an early retirement from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Stark notes that some of these facts actually seem to be reflected in the biblical accounts themselves.  For example, the city of Ai mentioned in Joshua 7-8 literally means “ruin.”  Most scholars believe that the account of the destruction of Ai was an etiological narrative, explaining how the ruin came to be such.  That it is known in the Bible by no other name than “ruin” suggests that it was already a ruin by the time the Israelites arrived.  Interesting, isn’t it?  This is in fact what the archaeological record shows, a fact that is quiet problematic for inerrantists, who concede that a solution to the ‘Ai problem’ continues to be elusive.

One of the few sites at which excavations have shown evidence to corroborate a biblical conquest account is Hazor, which was excavated by Yigael Yadin from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  They have found destruction levels dating to the thirteenth century – the period of the conquest.  This means that the account of the destruction of Hazor is most likely based on a tradition with a historical kernel.

Stark concludes, “In light of this overwhelming evidence against the historicity of the biblical conquest account, some conservative biblical apologists have begun to attempt to use this to their advantage.  For instance, Paul Copan argues from the archaeological evidence that the Canaanite conquest did not occur, thereby exonerating Yahweh an the Israelites from charges of genocide.”

I wouldn’t mind this conclusion.

Yet Stark notes that for inerrantists, this is hardly a defensible strategy: “Apart from conceding the loss of biblical inerrancy, it continues to ignore two facts.  First, such annihilations most likely did occur, as the archaeological record at Hazor and some other sites seem to confirm.  There is no reason to doubt that early Israelites did engage in such warfare.  Although Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred, it is not likely that such stories were invented whole cloth.  They would have been rooted in the historical memory of similar battles, although probably much fewer in number than the account in Joshua claims.  Second, even if the genocides never took place historically, that does not remove the problem that they are presented as Yahweh’s ideal in the scriptures.  Even if it is merely rhetoric, it is evil rhetoric.”

Stark goes on, “Apologists taking this tack have unwittingly conceded to my own position: that a loving God could not have commanded genocide, and our scriptures are therefore deeply problematic.”

There are later textual discrepancies that note the Israelites wiped out the Midianites (in Deut and again in Joshua 13:21), yet Judges 6 tells us that a few generations later, the Midianites are not only alive but are powerful and numerous enough to have been Israel’s oppressors!  Stark asks, “How did this occur?  Did the surviving virgins who were assimilated into Israel’s ranks conceive from their Israelite husbands and secretly raise a Midianite army?”

Inerrantist biblical scholars acknowledge these discrepancies, but dispense with them by claiming that descriptions of slaughter of “everything that lives and breathes” were “not necessarily intended literally.”  Stark notes that “this is a classic example of the unwritten inerrantist hermeneutical principle that historical texts must be interpreted literally unless or until a literal interpretation creates a factual discrepancy, in which case it obviously must be taken metaphorically.”

So we’re still stuck – the biblical stories seem exaggerated beyond what plausibly took place historically, yet they do in fact represent some historical events, even if not to the same scale.  So where does that leave us?

The Empire Strikes Back

Here’s where we get into the first two points raised earlier.

Lawson Younger, an evangelical scholar, has done work on ancient conquest myths and has compared the accounts in Joshua to Hittite, Egyptian, and Assyrian conquest literature.  He concludes that “the historical narrative in which Joshua 9-12 is cast utilizes a common transmission code observable in numerous ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, employing the same ideology.”

He goes on: “The ideology which lies behind the text of Joshua is one like that underlying other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts – namely, imperialistic.”

In other words, Stark summarizes, “The literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystallize their present-day claims to power.  These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by the deity whose strength far outstrips that of other tribal deities.  The myths serve to crystallize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.”

Aren’t we jumping the gun here though?  Can we just automatically make the leap that because we have comparable literature from other nations, it means Israel was doing the same thing?  Good question.

I think we need to again consider the timing of when these accounts were written.  It is important to note that the conquest accounts in the Bible reflect almost no knowledge of thirteenth-century geography; instead the geography reflects the vantage point of a writer from about the seventh century BCE.  A large number of critical scholars believe it is likely that many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah, whose unprecedented (and extremely violent) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem.  Stark notes that “Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah.”

He goes on to note that the narrative functions as a type of propaganda, helping legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh.  Historian Eric Hobsbawm notes that “traditions which appear or claim to be old are often quite recent in origin and sometimes invented.”

Legitimating Empire

Such invented or partly-invented origin myths are not anything new to us, notes Stark.  For example, he notes, search any Texas high school history textbook, in which we learn about the “hostile Indians” and the “brave Americans” who made the land secure for peace and prosperity.

“The ‘othering’ of national enemies is a ubiquitous feature in these national origin myths.  This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions.”

So is it possible that some of the history in our own Scriptures fall under this category as well?  We may not like to think so, but I think, given the historical record and the textual evidence, we have to grant that it is at least a possibility.

Stay tuned for perhaps one more post on the subject…

The Wars of the Lord 2

In my last post we wrestled with difficult texts in the Bible, particularly ones in which God commands the Israelites to annihilate certain people groups, which today we would label as genocide.  How are we to understand these texts?  Is it possible to square these texts with other biblical presentations of God as a God of love, mercy, and compassion?

Possibly, but it isn’t easy.

One possibility raised to my last post was that God was showing people, in a warring culture, how to act in war.
1.  Offer terms of peace.
2.  Spare the women and children and cattle (who doesn’t love being lumped in a group?)

And all of this was part of a plan:
3. God was giving the Israelite people a new identity and land.

I like this approach.  I really like it.  This was a different era in history, a different time and culture and context in which warring between nations was a common reality.  Perhaps God was merely working within that culture, and even presenting some improvements on how things might normally be done.

These are some good thoughts.

The trouble is that the first two points above didn’t apply in every case for Israel.

When we look at Deut 20:10-18 as we did in the last post, we find that that “a distinction is made between the way Israel is to treat those within ‘their’ land and the way Israel is to treat those outside those borders.  Those inside the borders are to be utterly annihilated with no exceptions.  No peace treaties are to be made with them.  Every last living thing that has breath is to be extinguished.  On the other hand, those outside the demarcated borders are to be offered terms of peace.  Israelite men may take women from outside the borders as wives and concubines, if they so desire.”  So notes Thom Stark in The Human Faces of God.

Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho...

So they weren’t always to offer terms of peace.

[And in fact, when you read the stories of when Israel did offer terms of peace, the text generally notes that God inclined the other nations to not accept the terms of peace but rather be provoked to fight, so in some ways, the offer of peace was a bit of a sham. See Deut 2:24-34 or Joshua 11:18-20, where it says, “In the end not even one city made peace with Israel… because Yahweh hardened their hearts so that they could not do otherwise than to meet Israel in battle.  This way they would all be utterly destroyed and none of them would get any mercy.  They were to be exterminated, just as Yahweh ordered Moses to do.”  Exterminated?]

Why the differentiation of those inside and outside the borders?

Some say that perhaps it was due to the sinfulness of the various nations, and that they were getting the punishment they deserved.

Stark continues: “Did it just so happen that only the tribes living inside Israel’s borders happened to be sufficiently wicked to annihilate, whereas it also just so happened that everybody outside those borders were only slightly wicked, but not enough to merit annihilation?”

Hmmm…  As the church lady would put it, “Isn’t that convenient?

So Stark: “The convenience of this picture exposes once again that the appeal to “divine punishment” in order to justify the Canaanite genocides is another attempt to conceal the real motivation: the acquisition of land and consolidation of power.  If Yahweh wanted to use Israel to punish wicked nations, why did such a crusade conveniently terminate precisely at Israel’s borders?”

Really good questions.  Tough questions.

The third point above was that God is giving Israel a new identity and a new land.  It seems he was, but man, it certainly wasn’t an easy step, and you wonder if the opposing nations deserved what they got or if they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But perhaps we need to understand it another way, within the broader framework of God’s overarching plan for Israel, expressed in the form of his promise to Abraham – that through his seed all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

One theologian, Christopher Wright, puts it this way: “the overall thrust of the Old Testament is not Israel against the nations, but Israel for the sake of the nations.”

I certainly prefer this approach, and we’ll explore it more in the next post.

The Wars of the Lord

The Wars of the Lord

What do we do with the hard texts of the Bible, like the ones where God tells the Israelites to kill everyone in a certain town, or of a certain people group, including women and children?  The biblical record denotes that the Israelites were to wipe out the Canaanites as they entered the Promised Land, and do it in obedience to God.

We could ignore them, or pretend they aren’t in there…  Or focus on other texts.  But eventually, we come across them.

For example:

When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace.  If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you.  If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.  When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the man in it.  As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.  And you may use the plunder Yahweh your God gives you from your enemies.  This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

However, in the cities of the nations that Yahweh your God is giving you for your inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive.  You shall devote them to utter destruction… just as Yahweh your God has commanded.  You must kill them all, or else they may teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, causing you to sin against Yahweh your God.

–      Deut 20:10-18

is this obedience?

Let’s get this straight.  They had to wipe out entire peoples because otherwise they would  ‘do the abhorrent things they do for their gods’?  Like kill an entire town, including the men, women and children?  Like ‘use the plunder’ including women and children, which in the ancient world meant forced marriage, rape, and slavery?

Is there actually anything worse the other gods could ask their people to do?

How do we deal with texts like this that portray God as commanding atrocities that today we immediately denounce anyone doing?  Is it OK because it was a long time ago?  Is it OK because Israel was special?

Spiritual Wars
The church father Origen approached it this way:
“As for the command given to the Jews to slay their enemies, it may be answered that anyone who looks carefully into the meaning of the passage will find that it is impossible to interpret it literally.”

It’s impossible to take it literally, he says.  So then what do we do with it?

Origen chooses the path of allegory:

“In his Homily on Joshua, Origen reiterates this position. Referring to the genocidal narratives in the book of Joshua, he stipulates that “unless those carnal wars were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Hom. Ios. 15.1).” (quoted from The Human Faces of God).

So it’s really not about actual historical wars, but about the spiritual battles we all face in removing evil from our own lives.  It’s an interesting approach, but probably one that will not satisfy most biblical readers.

Surgerical Procedure
Some, defending a position of inerrancy – that the Bible always communicates history, theology, science and culture 100% accurately – take this approach:

“Just as the wise surgeon removes dangerous cancer from his patient’s body by use of the scalpel, so God employed the Israelites to remove such dangerous malignancies from human society.”  So says Gleason Archer, apologist and biblical inerrantist.

In other words, the women and even children (and infants!) were not fit to live.  They embodied some sort of evil.  Perhaps allowing these children to live would have resulted in the Israelites following other gods, even if the children were raised in Israelite households.  To me that might say more about the Israelite parenting than anything else.

But if these people were so evil, why did God not give them a chance to repent, ala Jonah and the Ninevites?  They were also enemies of Israel.  So certainly God elsewhere allows people the chance to repent of their ways without immediate retribution.

Shortcut to Heaven?
William Lane Craig notes that it’s actually better for the children to die than be raised in these pagan households, because children who die ‘automatically go to heaven’.  So the Israelites were doing these children a favor by running them through with the sword.    Seriously?  If that were his actual position, why would Craig not be behind a wholesale implementation of abortion?  Why let any child live and take the chance it might not go to heaven?  Abortion should be the first option, not the last.  Yet no doubt Craig is a strong pro-life advocate, who in actuality doesn’t really believe what he is saying, but is grasping – like all of us – to understand these difficult texts.

The reality is that if a text like the above was in the Koran, we would immediately denounce it as evil and unjustifiable.  When such things happen today, we are horrified and speak out against it, even if the person was doing it as a Christian ‘in the name of God’.  We would say they were misled.   Yet when it is in our own Scriptures, we hesitate to denounce it as such.  A quandary indeed.

I will raise some other possibilities in my next post, but for now am wondering your thoughts:

Are you satisfied with any of these approaches?  Do you have another suggestion?

Post your thoughts below.