On picking and choosing in the Bible: marginalisation of women and enemy genocide

Fundamentalists and conservative Christians often accuse moderates (and liberals) of ‘picking and choosing’ certain biblical texts over others to suit their agendas – like a cafeteria, they say. The truth is we all do this, whether consciously or not; the question is whether one person’s ‘picking and choosing’ is more justified than another person’s. Jesus and Paul ‘picked and chose’ verses to suit their eschatological agenda that the kingdom of God, and hence the end of the world as they knew it, would come very soon (in their generation, they believed).[1] They read their Bible very differently to how we moderns do — they presupposed that the past texts must be talking about the present generation, whereas, apart from the fundamentalist Zionist types, we generally are taught to draw the meaning out of the text (technical term is exegesis), not read meanings into it (in contrast called eisegesis). Early church fathers in the first five centuries such as Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassian, even the celebrated Augustine, departed from the “literal sense” and read parts of Exodus and Deuteronomy allegorically when, e.g., they couldn’t stomach Yahweh commanding Israel to engage in the wholesale slaughter of the inhabitants of the land of Canaan: they transformed dead Canaanite children into conquered vices such as lust and greed.[2] Thom Stark, in a book I’m currently reading of his called The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals when it gets God wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide it), calls these instances hermeneutics of convenience. Such hermeneutics of convenience abound even today as much in nominal Christians as in serious-minded conservative Christians – both assume a priori that the Bible is a rulebook or inerrant, or at least contains truth in some timeless sense, and so when data contradicts that overriding presupposition they conveniently marginalise it to conform to their dogma (or at least unquestioned presuppositions).

Through honestly wrestling with the texts and their issues of interpretation, I have increasingly developed a view, in opposition to the a priori view, that may well be seen as ‘convenient’ in some ways too. I call it the experiential or existential view which says that the Bible is authoritative only in those parts that are existentially engaging and compelling – that give grounding and meaning to existence. This avowal can be made only after and in the light of one’s own interpretation, which, as a history student, I ground in the historical-critical method first and foremost, although the Christian tradition and community play an important part in my interpretation too. The role of experience – or, as I like to call it, where we are, when we are and who we are – in determining interpretation seems obvious, but it is frequently downplayed by many conservative Christians in service of a dogmatic and static, rather than dynamic, interpretation of what is deemed to be literally the unchanging words of an unchanging God. I am not necessarily denying that God is unchanging, nor am I saying that the biblical texts can mean whatever the heck we want them to mean – I do not believe, as do some postmodernists, that a text has an infinite number of valid interpretations; to the contrary, I believe there is a limited number of valid interpretations bound by historical-critical, literary and theological methodologies.

In his cogently argued book The Human Faces of God, Thom Stark focuses on eight issues that are only a sampling of the problems that exist within the Judeo-Christian scriptures: what he calls biblical bickering (e.g. nationalism vs universalism); how, in light of earlier ancient Jewish, patristic and medieval interpretations, inerrantists inconsistently apply their method of the “historical-grammatical” sense; how inerrancy stunts your growth and other fundamentalist health hazards; how prior to the exile the earlier Israelites were probably polytheists rather than, after that time, monotheists; Yahweh’s genocides and their justifications (by both the biblical authors and contemporary apologists); government propaganda, e.g. the famous fairy-tale-like story of the shepherd-boy David taking on the giant Goliath [1 Samuel 17]; and, lastly, how Jesus expected the parousia (Greek for “appearance” or “coming” to denote his Second Coming) within their lifetimes – and was wrong.

In this post I will focus on some points from the first, second and fifth of Stark’s issues (keyed by his eight chapters) in order to briefly examine two broader issues that make the Bible in our contemporary society look morally dubious at best and immorally atrocious at worst: the marginalization of women and Yahweh’s call for Canaanite genocide.

For conservative Christians who tout the “biblical values” of “biblical manhood and womanhood”, among others, the marginalization of women makes many queasy when discussing with those who have done this most basic research about ancient near eastern and Greco-Roman society: that women in the ancient world were seen as property – valuable property, but property nonetheless. In fact, when biblical scholar Christopher Rollston wrote a Huffington Post article on this very topic – a very evenhanded summary of key biblical texts, mind you – it grated such Christians’ sensibilities so much that he got fired from Emmanuel Christian Seminary! (How’s that for academic freedom (what’s more at a Christian academic institution)?!) The following points are a summary of his article[3]:

  • In Ben Sira (a now deuterocanonical text that was nonetheless viewed as Scripture by the early Christians), the author writes, revealing his misogyny and his patriarchal society, that “the birth of a daughter is a loss” (22:3) and “better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (42:14)
  • The Decalogue says “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his donkey or anything which belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:21). Because the Ten Commandments are so well-known, it’s quite easy to miss the assumptions in them about gender. But the marginalization of women is clear. The wife is classified as her husband’s property, and so she’s listed with the slaves and work-animals.
  • The readership of the book of Proverbs is warned to beware of the evil seductress (e.g., Proverbs 5), but the reverse doesn’t occur: never does the book warn women to beware of a male seducer.
  • True, there’s the famous “noble wife” (Proverbs 31:10-31), who is wise, benevolent, hard-working, an entrepreneur, and loved by her sons and husband (daughters are not mentioned). Readers are encouraged to find such a wife. But there is a subtle problem: there is no counterpart to the “noble wife” text, nothing in the book that encourages young women to find a noble husband. After all, men were the intended readers
  • Perhaps the harshest of texts is 1 Timothy 2. The author is discussing worship and begins by stating that “men should pray” and then says “women should dress themselves modestly and decently,” which is quite a contrast in itself. But there’s more: “Let a woman learn in silence and full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to be silent.” The author’s rationale: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor” (1 Timothy 2:8-14). So, according to this text, women were to be silent in worship because they were created second and sinned first. And the final blow is this: a woman “will be saved through childbirth, if she remains in faith and love and sanctification with modesty” (1 Timothy 2:15). Similar to with a saying from the later apocryphal Gospel of Thomas (114) that says women can be saved once they become males, for the author of 1 Timothy eternal salvation comes obstetrically.
  • There are other examples of men willing to surrender women to horrendous violence in Genesis (Lot’s delivery of his daughters [Genesis 19:7-8]) and Judges (the Levite’s surrender of his concubine to a gang of rapists [Judges 19:10-30]). Also, the law in Deuteronomy 22:28-29 commands an unmarried women to marry her rapist. (Even the patriarch Jacob [Genesis 34], even before this law came to be, was comfortable giving his daughter to her rapist in matrimony.)
  • Polygyny (a man having multiple wives) was morally acceptable [Genesis 4:19-24; Deuteronomy 21:15; 2 Samuel 3:2-5] (and, conversely, polyandry unheard of)
  • To be sure, there are Job’s three daughters, who, unlike his seven sons, are named – a reversal of standard practice – and “received an inheritance along with their brothers” – furthermore, subverting the standard legal practice of not giving daughters a share of the family land (Job 42) – as well as the prophets Deborah (Judges 4-5) and Huldah (2 Kings 22:14-20), the fidelity and love between Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, and, in the New Testament, Paul’s view of Phoebe (a “deacon”) and Junia (“preeminent among the apostles”) which was quite progressive for his time. But, as Rollston rightly notes, “these voices were the exception, not the rule.”

As Rollston ended with the following provocative line – “So, the next time someone refers to “biblical values,” it’s worth mentioning to them that the Bible often marginalized women and that’s not something anyone should value” – I began to see what probably riled up “the authorities” to, without explanation, dismiss this brilliant ancient near east scholar (who was even a Christian): undermining “traditional biblical values and authority.”

At the same time, however, I couldn’t help make a comparison to one of the heroes of such conservative evangelicals whose character has been whitewashed too many times and for far too long by particularly Calvinists: the sixteenth-century reformer John Calvin (1509-64). It is not just modern scholars but, in fact, a close friend of Calvin’s – Sebastian Castellio (1513-63) – who during his lifetime described his actions in Geneva as despotic: “Can we imagine Christ ordering a man to be burned alive for advocating adult baptism? The Mosaic laws calling for the death of a heretic were superceded by the law of Christ, which is one of mercy not of despotism and terror.” Urging him to repent of his intolerance, Castellio continued: “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.” Calvin has been most infamous for the fact that he was not only responsible for but also relished in the execution of Michael Servetus, a Christian theologian who did not accept the doctrine of the Trinity and who taught against the baptism of infants. But although seen as an extreme response by Calvinists, this is really nothing new: the mainstream of church history believed it was appropriate to punish or even to execute those with dissenting views.

The relevance of mentioning Calvin to the modern instantiation of the firing of Rollston is that Calvin did a similar thing to Castellio earlier in his life. In the 1540s, Castellio claimed that clergy should stop persecuting those who disagree with them on matters of biblical interpretation; in response, charging Castellio with the offense of “undermining the prestige of the clergy”, Calvin forced him to not only resign from his position of Rector but to also to be dismissed from being a preacher in Vandoeuvre (in Geneva, Switzerland). We see a similar phenomena of intolerance and restriction of freedom of thought today in conservative seminaries on account of the controlling dogma of biblical inerrancy, even if no murder takes place: Peter Enns is another modern example, who upon publishing his Incarnation and Inspiration: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament was dismissed from Westminster Theological seminary in Pennsylvania.[4] This is why I now believe that the assumption of biblical inerrancy does far more harm than good – spiritually, morally, and intellectually – and wish that Christian scholars abandoned it pronto: inerrancy, however defined,[5] does not describe what the Bible does. The same dogmatic mindset of inerrancy also, I believe, contributed to the savagery of the presentation of Israel’s god Yahweh commanding the complete extermination of the Canaanite peoples in Joshua and Deuteronomy.

Here’s a consideration often lost in the discussions of Yahweh’s call for Canaanite genocide (and the call itself is fairly unequivocal; see, e.g., Deuteronomy 20:16-18): God never told the Israelites to kill the Canaanites; the Israelites believed that God told them to kill the Canaanites.[6] The view that “the Canaanites got exactly what they deserved because they were utterly morally corrupt” is common among some Christians, but once you start picking at it, it comes apart pretty quickly.

For one thing, giving Canaanites first prize in the “worst sinners ever” contest is a caricature, and a bit of propaganda. Were they really so bad that they and they alone deserved to be annihilated – old to young, male and female, even animals? Take one of the Canaanites’ gross sins, child sacrifice. The Canaanites hadn’t cornered the market on the idea. Child sacrifice was common. A prominent example comes from the Bible, in 2 Kings 3:4-27, where King Mesha of Moab, right across the Jordan River, is losing a battle against a coalition of forces led by Israelites. Backed into his own end zone, he calls an audible and throws a desperation pass the length of the field – he sacrifices his own son on the city walls to appease his god Kemosh in order to gain victory. (It worked, by the way. The forces had to withdraw and Mesha was saved.) So other people back then sacrificed children, not just Canaanites, and they weren’t wiped off the face of the earth.

We even have some rather disturbing examples from the Bible where child sacrifice seems to be something God is perfectly fine with. God himself tells Abraham to kill his son Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22). At the last second God puts a stop to it, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t serious. God was testing Abraham, as the story tells us, to see how obedient he was – and it wouldn’t have been a real test if there wasn’t a real chance that Abraham could have gone through with it. Then we have Jephthah, one of Israel’s last judges, who pledges to sacrifice to God whatever walked out of the door of his house if God gave him victory in battle (Judges 11). Sure enough, out comes his daughter (was he expecting a cow or something?) and after a mourning period God gets his sacrifice.

Eventually we must confront the truth. However immoral the Canaanites were, the real problem isn’t what they did, but where they did it. They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them. The Canaanites’ main sin was their street address. That is why they had to be eliminated.[7]

How does this ethnically exclusive, xenophobic attitude fit with the rest of the biblical materials? Not very well at all. Compare Deuteronomy 20:16-19, the earlier mentioned text, which mentions slaughtering all the Canaanites but preserving the trees – to the humorous and revealing conclusion to the fictional short story of Jonah – where Yahweh chastises Jonah for being so concerned about the life of a bush and yet so indifferent to the lives of more than 120,000 human beings and the countless animals in the great city of Nineveh (Jonah 4:10-11). The contrast in perspective is clear: Yahweh according to the Deuteronomist cares more about trees than he does about human beings; whereas Yahweh according to the author of Jonah cares more about human beings than he does about trees.

If this self-assured nationalism contradicts more universalist authors within the Old Testament such as the author of Jonah (Amos is another example), how much more does it seemingly go against Jesus’s own words in Matthew’s gospel on his “Sermon on the Mount.” Here, the author of Matthew, writing to a Jewish Christian community, emphasizes Jesus’ ethnic inclusiveness and nonviolence. I have summarized in a few bullet points below how biblical scholar Kenton Sparks summarises the way this theme plays out throughout his gospel:[8]

  • Rather than beginning with Adam as in Luke, Matthew begins with Abraham – who was to be a blessing to “all nations” (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18) – and then mentions 5 women – Bathsheba, Tamar, Ruth and Rahab, then lastly Mary – the first four of Gentile or dubious origin, while Mary suspiciously conceived out of wedlock;
  • The mention of the (non-Jewish) magi in the infancy narrative and the contrast in their response to that of the Jewish nation’s;
  • The faith of the Gentile centurion (8:5-13; cf. Luke 7:4-5) as contrasted with the unbelief of the Jews;
  • The faithful “Canaanite” woman (15:21-28), whom Jesus eventually healed after calling her a “dog”;
  • In the so-called Great Commission, “all the nations” (panta ta ethne) (28:19) which Jesus commands his disciples to preach to refers to the Gentiles. There are two clear phases of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew: first for the Jews (but also for the Gentiles), and then for the Gentiles (but also for the Jews);
  • Just as Jesus used his “authority” (exousia) in his first mountain sermon (7:29) to supersede the commands of Moses, so did he, as the new Moses who possessed “all authority” (pasa exousia), supersede the command to kill “all the nations” (panta ta ethne; see LXX Deut 11:23; Josh 23:4; 24:18) by instead charging his disciples to make disciples of “all the nations” (panta ta ethne).

The story of the faithful “Canaanite” woman is particularly noteworthy in Matthew’s gospel because, on the surface it appears and it has traditionally been seen as another example of Jewish exclusivism; but it may not be in the context of Matthew’s purpose. According to Matthew’s Marcan source (cf. Mark 7:24-30), and even according to his own narrative context (in Tyre and Sidon), the woman in this story should be of Syrophoenician descent. Yet Matthew describes her as “Canaanite” rather than “Syrophoenician,” this being the only use of “Canaanite” in the entire New Testament. I highly doubt this change in wording from Mark’s gospel was accidental; it would have served only one purpose: to show that Jesus embraced the faith not only of foreigners but even of Israel’s traditional hated enemies.

If it is another example of Matthew’s ethnic inclusiveness (as I believe it is), I believe I have exegetical, theological and moral warrant[9] to ‘pick and choose’ this text as more existentially engaging and compelling than the earlier ones in Joshua and Deuteronomy, both of which say unequivocally: “As for the cities 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” (Deuteronomy 20:16–17). Apologists such as Christopher Wright and Paul Copan have gone to great lengths arguing that the command to kill “all that breathes” is a mere rhetorical exaggeration, and that we should not therefore take the text to indicate that the Israelite warriors slaughtered noncombatants, women, or children.[10] This tack is a pure red herring, however. Even if we were to concede that the Conquest narratives are to be read hyperbolically, this argument cannot exonerate Yahweh from the charge of child-killing or lady-killing, since Numbers 31:17 gives explicit instructions to kill every male child of the Midianites, and all of their non-virgin females, instructions which can in nowise be taken hyperbolically.

Christopher Wright may be partly right in one sense though: the conquest narratives do reflect broader “literary conventions of writing about warfare.” Beyond mere literary conventions, in fact, the biblical conquest narratives fit within a genre of ancient Near Eastern literature that may be identified as national origin myth. As Stark explains, this “literature reflects the attempt of rising empires to express their hegemony through origin stories that crystalize their present-day claims to power. These origin myths present the young nation as an unstoppable force, specially empowered by their deity whose strength far outstrips that of the other tribal deities. The myths serve to crystalize and legitimize the nation’s rise to power.” Stark continues: “a large number of critical scholars believe it is likely many of these accounts were written during the reign of King Josiah [7th century BCE], whose unprecedented (and extremely violent[11]) reforms consolidated religious and political power within Jerusalem. Joshua, the ideal leader, would thus have been read as a type of Josiah. The narrative functions as propaganda, helping to legitimize Josiah’s consolidation of power in the name of national unity and faithfulness to Yahweh” (emphasis is mine).

The key point for now is that this “othering” of national enemies is such a ubiquitous feature in national origin myths, and that neither is a text that purports to be the “word of God” by the Christian church (and Jewish synagogue) exempt from these imperialistic pretensions. As Stark concludes, “This kind of history-making is found wherever there is power, and especially where there is militaristic power with imperialistic pretensions. The evidence suggests that much of the history writing in our scriptures falls under this category of ideologically-motivated invented tradition as well.” For those anxiously wondering how much I agree with Stark’s assessment – how much of the Bible I think is fictional or semi-fictional – in an upcoming post I shall begin to slowly reveal my research by starting to talk about the more obviously mythological[12] parts of the Bible: the two creation accounts in Genesis.

[1] Stark discusses Jesus and the early Christians’ belief in the Parousia in his final chapter (ch 8), provocatively titled “Jesus was wrong or, It’s the End of the World as We Know It and I Feel Fine.” I will discuss this issue in a later blog post.

[2] I even recall a contemporary sermon in Wellington that did this with a section from the book of Joshua (conveniently, before the first attack on the Canaanite cities): specifically 5:13-15, when the commander of the army of Yahweh tells Joshua to remove his sandals from his feet, deliberately recalling Moses’ similar experience during his call at the burning bush (Exod ch 3).

[3] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-rollston/the-marginalization-of-women-biblical-value-we-dont-like-to-talk-about_b_1833648.html

[4] Christian New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado laments on this “scandal of the evangelical mind” (a phrase from Mark Noll’s eponymous book) here: https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2012/04/27/academic-injustice-and-shameful-cowardice/

[5] Even with all the qualifications of a Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy…

[6] Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, p. 54.

[7] Ibid., pp. 50-51.

[8] Kenton Sparks, “Gospel as Conquest: Mosaic Typology in Matthew 28:16–20,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68 (2006): 651-63.

[9] In fact, even archaeological warrant too, which indicates Ai, Jericho, and other genocidal battles probably never occurred in the period described – 13th century BCE. (Hazor may be an exception).

[10] Wright, The God I Don’t Understand, 88. Paul Copan also makes the “rhetorical exaggeration” argument in Copan, “Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites,” 3.

[11] See for example 2 Kgs 23:30: “He [Josiah] slaughtered on the altars all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them.”

[12] As I will show, by “mythology” I don’t mean “a false story/account”; it’s a technical term to denote a particular form of ancient near eastern literature that focused more on self-identity than history.

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