Category Archives: Looking at the Bible

Sola Scriptura Problems

Awhile back, a friend directed me to an essay by J.I. Packer titled “Sola Scriptura” in History and Today after I asked around for a good defense of Sola Scriptura. The essay gave me lots of food for thought and I decided to write out a short critique of some of the problems I had with the essay. Obviously, the essay is a bit lengthy and there is no way I can get to everything Packer talks about, though I might do that in a future post if the mood strikes me. If you’re curious, then you can find the essay here.

First, small nitpick. Given the title to Packer’s essay, I expected a historical overview of the doctrine of Sola Scriptura and how it was viewed throughout history. Packer doesn’t do this and spends the whole essay discussing the Protestant Reformers’ beliefs about Sola Scriptura. I wonder why this is the case, given that by the time of the Protestant Reformation, Christianity was already more than a thousand years old. Does Packer really believe that all of Christendom got Sola Scriptura wrong for more than a thousand years until Luther and Co. set everything right again?

Now, according to Packer,the reformers believed that

Scripture can and does interpret itself to the faithful from within — Scripture is its own interpreter — so that it does not need popes or councils to tell us, as from God, what it atually means; it can actually challenge Papal and Counciliar pronouncements, convince them of being ungodly and untrue and requrie the faithful to part company with them

Packer writes that it was this belief that set the reformers on a collision course with the Catholic Church. However, such a belief requires that the Bible be clear enough in its meaning that the average person can interpret it. In essence, Sola Scriptura requires the Perspicuity of Scripture. Without this charity of scripture, the entire doctrine of Sola Scriptura falls apart. None of this should be controversial.

Of course, the crux of the matter is whether the Bible has this sort of clarity required for Sola Scriptura. The Catholic and the Orthodox both challenge this by pointing to the different Protestant denominations. If Scripture is clear as the Protestant says, then we wouldn’t have different denominations arguing that they are right and the other denominations are wrong. J.I. Packer’s answer to this is that “The matters on which adherents of this [Sola Scriptura] have differed have been secondary”. In other words, while Protestants may have different beliefs, they have and still do agree on the essentials of Christianity. Packer writes as much when he states that

Those who have historically held to Sola Scriptura, recognizing no magisterium save that of the Bible itself, have been at one on all essentials and on most details too, in a very striking way.

I think Packer’s statements here are hugely misleading and he glosses over some deep divisions among the original Reformers. Let’s look at one example, the Eucharist. Regarding the Eucharist, Packer writes that the

debate [on the Eucharist] seems to have arisen because there were exegetical questions about our Lord’s words of institution at the Last Supper which the Swiss Reformers raised and Luther would not face.”

This is an understatement at best and highly misleading at worst. Let’s see what the historian, James MacCaffrey has to say. He writes

Zwingli realized that the Real Presence was not in harmony with his theory of justification, and hence he was inclined to hold that the Eucharist was a mere sign instituted as a reminder of Christ’s death… Luther resented bitterly such a theory as an attack upon his authority, particularly after Zwingli refused [to retract his doctrine]… The Zwinglian theories spread rapidly in Switzerland, whence they were carried into Germany much to the annoyance of Luther… He denounced the Zwinglians in the most violent terms, as servant of the devil, liares, and heretics for whose salvation no man should pray.

-History of the Catholic Church from the Renaissance to the French Revolution, 122-123

Luther’s reaction toward Zwingli, the primary Swiss reformer, displays a belief that the Eucharist was an essential of Christianity; he wouldn’t have condemned Zwingli as a heretic otherwise. If one reformer believes the other is a heretic due to different interpretations regarding the Eucharist, then the issue cannot possibly “secondary” or non-essential. People do not condemn each other over non-essentials. Packer glosses right over this and simply characterizes this controversy as simple “exegetical questions”. When one party condemns another as a heretic, this goes beyond mere “exegetical questions”.

There were, of course, other issues that were just as contentious between various Reformation groups (just look at the treatment of the Anabaptists). These were not mere “exegetical questions” as Packer likes to put it. These were deep divisions that various parties persecuted each other for, went to war over and condemned each other as heretics for. If the Scriptures really are so clear as to allow the average person to come to a correct understanding of the basis essentials of Christianity, why the huge controversies between the Reformers?

This brings me to the bigger problem. How exactly do we, as Protestants, decide which beliefs are essential to Christianity and which lead to heresy? Who exactly decides this? If Martin Luther had his way, any Protestant who did not accept the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist would be beyond the pale of Christianity. The Bible itself doesn’t give a list of which beliefs are essential to Christianity and which are not.

Questions for Protestants

Protestants believe in sola scriptura. This doctrine states that the Bible is the sole, infallible guide for the Christian faith. All else is secondary to scripture and  is also judged by scripture. As a result, Christian tradition and the teachings of the early Church Fathers is kosher so long as it conforms to scripture; otherwise, they should be discarded. I grew up Protestant and still consider myself Protestant… so I would like to believe that I have fairly characterized what sola scriptura is. That said, I have two related questions. Now, I’m not trying to be a condescending smartass; these are honest questions that I am genuinely curious about.

First, where in the Bible do we find this doctrine of sola scriptura? As far as I know, there isn’t any place in the Bible that specifically teaches this. If the Bible is the sole touchstone for all that Christians believe, then where exactly is this belief taught in the Bible? The only real answer I’ve seen is an appeal to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 which states that:

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I see a few problems with this. First,  we must remember that  Paul wrote this in a time where the Bible as we know it didn’t exist. The Biblical canon wasn’t set in stone yet and wouldn’t be for a few hundred years. In addition, many books such as John and Revelation were likely not even written at the time 2 Timothy was written. Therefore, using this as a proof text would disqualify these later books as scripture.

In addition,  the context of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 highly suggests that Paul was using “scriptures” as a reference to the Old Testament. So if this verse is teaching the doctine of sola scriptura, then it would only be referring to the Old Testment. This proves too much as the entire New Testament would have to be discarded. I doubt Protestants desire that.

My second question is related to the first. If we are to rely on the Bible alone, then we’re still left with the problem of canon. How exactly are we to decide decide what is inspired and therefore, part of the canon and what is not? There is no passage in the Bible that gives us the correct list of inspired books. In order to accept and follow the teachings of the Bible alone, you would need an accepted canon telling you what texts are inspired and which are not. Because there is no such list within the Bible, you are forced to rely on something outside the Bible…  something like Christian tradition.

Furthermore, whatever you rely on to determine the canon would also have to be infallible. After all, how exactly can we say that the Bible is infallible when we aren’t even sure of the canon itself?

Again, I’m not trying to be smug or smart or anything about this. These are legitimate questions that I would like answers for and if you have an answer for me, feel free to comment.

Adam and Eve, Myth and Modernism

In a post written awhile back, Free Northerner wrote the following about creationism and the book of Genesis:

Creationists have lost completely their conception of primal/mythic truth. They can not conceive of Truth apart from fact, so their faith rests on a literal interpretation of what is fairly obviously poetical and has a high chance of not being meant to be understood literally. They believe that if creation as written isn’t fact then it can’t be true and therefore the Bible is false and the faith is false…

…As I said recently, “Modernism, in its essence, is the destruction of myth in the human experience and its replacement by fact, often false. Modernism is the entirety of truth being conquered by fact. Buying into the naturalist, materialist world-view is to swallow modernity whole.” To debate creationism as a science is to accept the modern frame.

I think he makes a good point. Our modern culture views truth and fact as if they are one and the same without realizing that literature and “myths” can communicate truths as well, regardless of whether they are fiction or not. Something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Homer’s The Iliad is able to communicate truths about humanity even if they are fiction or didn’t really happen.

I have recently finished John Walton’s  book, The Lost World of Adam and Eve. The book is a game-changer and I highly recommend it to any who are interested. After reading this book, I believe Free Northerner is more accurate that even he might realize. In short, Walton argues that we are forcing our modern, anachronistic mindsets and motivations onto the Genesis account if we are expecting the bible to “do science”. Walton writes:

In our culture, we think “scientifically.” We are primarily concerned with causation, composition and systematization. In the ancient world they are more likely to think of the world in terms of symbols and to express their understanding by means of imagery. We are primarily interested in events and material realia whereas they are more interested in ideas and their representation (p. 136).

Walton goes on to describe what this means for the book of Genesis using a very interesting analogy. He compares two images of the night sky: a picture taken by the Hubble Space telescope and Van Gogh’s The Starry Night


Walton writes:

People would never consider doing astronomy from the van Gogh and could not do so even if they wanted to; the image contains nothing of the composition or position of stars. At the same time, we would not say that it is a false depiction of the night sky. Visual artists depict the world imagistically, and we recognize that [van Gogh’s] depiction is independent of science but not independent of truth… Imagistic history, like that preserved in Genesis, is to history as The Starry Night is to a Hubble photograph.

If this is the case, how exactly do we look at the creation story? We come from a scientific culture that is concerned with fact; therefore we are inclined to think about material origins and the mechanisms that were used to create this world. We then read Genesis as describing just that, the material origins and mechanisms that created the world. However, is that what the Genesis story is really claiming? Walton argues that no, the Genesis account is not a scientific treatise on the material origins of the planet. Therefore we shouldn’t treat the account as such.

Well, then what is the Genesis account trying to do? Walton argues that the first chapter of genesis is an account of the functional origins of the universe, rather than the material origin. To borrow one of Walton’s illustrations, let’s imagine a house. A house is not a home. You can have a house completely built with it’s walls, carpeting and flooring already in place; however, it is not the same thing as a home. When does a house become a home? When the residents move in and begin to live there. Walton argues that Genesis is not telling us how the house was constructed, rather, it is telling us how the house became a home. There is much more to this than I can write here, so I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Walton’s book if your interest is piqued.

Regarding the account of Adam and Eve, Walton affirms that they are indeed historical figures, however,  Genesis isn’t really interested in them as historical figures. In other words, Genesis is not a biography of Adam and Eve. According to Walton, Genesis treats Adam and Eve as archetypal figures and uses them to illustrate truths about humanity. Thus, what was true for Adam is also true for us. Let’s use Genesis 2:7 to help illustrate Walton’s argument:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Now the question we must ask ourselves is whether this verse is actually referring to the literal, material creation of a single man from literal dust. Walton highlights a few problems with this interpretation:

The most basic way to think about dust would be to view it as part of the chemical composition of the human body. That approach immediately has several drawbacks. First, the Israelites would not be inclined to thinking in terms of chemistry. They would have no means to do that, and therefore they had something else in mind as they considered this detail. Second, we would have to consider it flawed chemistry from our vantage point, in that dust could hardly be considered the primary ingredient of the human body.

A common alternative to thinking in terms of chemistry is to understand the statement in the text as referring to craftsmanship. In this way of thinking, the imagery is of a “hands-on” God who has fashioned his creature with loving care and then bestowed on him the breath of life. The major problem with this is that the ingredient chosen would not make sense if the main idea were craftsmanship. One shapes clay, not dust. The latter is impervious to being shaped by its very nature. (p. 72-73)

An alternative interpretation would be that the dust here refers to mortality. What the text is doing here is highlighting Adam’s mortality in order to illuminate the truth about our own mortality. In other word, just as Adam was mortal, so too are we. We see this emphasized later when God tells Adam that he is dust and that to dust Adam shall return (Genesis 3:19). Now, I know that many reading that will immediately chafe at such a statement. How could Adam be mortal before the fall? After all, death came into the world because of sin, that’s what Paul says. This contradicts what Paul is says in the New Testament. Now, I have no intention of defending Walton’s theory against every objection that could come up. I’ll simply direct those interested to pick up a copy of Walton’s book and read it thoroughly before objecting. That said, I will provide an answer to this specific objection.

Walton provides some persuasive textual evidence for Adam being created mortal. For example, the text mentions that the tree of life was in the garden. The fact that God provided one suggests mortality because immortal people have no need for a tree of life. What about Paul? Walton has this to say:

Now, lest we think that Paul’s statement (Romans 5:12) might be out of sync with Genesis, we out to look more carefully at what [Paul] is affirming. In Genesis, we find that people are cast from God’s presence when they sin and that a cherub is posted by the entry to the garden to prevent access to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). If people were created mortal, the tree of life would have provided a remedy, an antidote to their mortality. When they sinned, they lost access to the antidote and therefore were left with no remedy and were doomed to die (i.e., subject to their natural mortality). In this case, Paul is saying only that all of us are subject to death because of sin: sin cost us the solution to mortality, and so we are trapped in our mortality. He is therefore not affirming that people were created immortal and is precisely in line with the information from Genesis (p.73-74)

Of course other objections are also brought up. How can creation be good if death existed before the fall?  Again, if you really are interested in understanding Walton’s interpretation of Genesis, I highly recommend you read Walton’s book. Walton deals with this objection and many others while also shedding some much needed light on the more confusing passages. I bring this book to your attention for two reasons. First, I think it is a fascinating book that offers and intriguing interpretation of Genesis, original sin and how that fits in with what Paul teaches in the New Testament. The author of Genesis is much more interested in showing us who we are as humans and our relationship to God rather than offering a scientific explanation of the origins of the world. Now, before anyone gets ahead of themselves, I’m not saying I completely agree with Walton on this; I simply think this is an interesting interpretation that Christians should think about.

Second, I think Free Northerner makes a very good point. We’ve lost our sense of “mythic/primal” truth and have become obsessed with facts and science; they are the only things that matter now. The fact that we are looking for science in a text that arguable has none says more about our modern obsessions than anything else. We’ve, in essence, ingested the poison of modernity which tells us that scientific fact is all that matters. As a result, we’ve lost our sense of the divine, of beauty, of mythic truth and much more. There is so much more that can be said on this subject but we’ll end with Free Northerner’s powerful thought:

Science discovers fact, mundane truth, but it doesn’t discover Truth and it cannot create Truth, it cannot even create truth. To elevate science above its place is to destroy reason and Truth.

God Ordering Genocide

I noticemany skeptics and atheists whining about God supposedly ordering genocide in the Old Testament. This episode is used by many as proof of a wicked and evil God. Take a look at what Richard Dawkins has to say:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

I don’t have the time to respond to all of Dawkins’ stupidity, but this should suffice for now:


Look at me, I’m Richard Dawkins, I can use big boy words

I’ve decided to write a bit about this episode because I see it repeated everywhere with so many people completely ignorant of both ancient history and culture. I’ll be honest, the passages in question used to bother me quite a bit as well; however, learning historical, textual and cultural context of the passages sheds light on many things. I hope that any other Christians who are bothered by the passages or have no idea how to talk about them find some answers here. Be warned though, because this will be a much longer post than usual. Furthermore, I will only be concentrating on the destruction of the Canaanites. There are many other episodes skeptics and atheists will point to to demonstrate the wickedness of God but I don’t have the space to address those concerns as well. I might do so in a future post. Finally, note that I will be using Glenn Miller’s fantastic essay on the subject as a template in addition to writing my own thoughts. I highly recommend Glenn Miller’s essay to any who want more details.

I.  The Commands Function as Judgments.

Let us begin with God’s actual commands:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you, and when the Lordyour God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son. For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly. But thus you shall deal with them: you shall destroy their altars, and break down their sacred pillars, and cut down their wooden images,[a] and burn their carved images with fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5)

16 “But of the cities of these peoples which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance, you shall let nothing that breathes remain alive, 17 but you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite, just as the Lord your God has commanded you, 18 lest they teach you to do according to all their abominations which they have done for their gods, and you sin against the Lord your God. (Deuteronomy 20:16-17)

I have to hand it to the skeptics and atheists, when reading these verses out of context, it really does sound like God is ordering genocide. Apparently the Israelites are to utterly destroy these nations. However, even here, we see a hint of something larger at play. Verse 18 shows that God is giving these commands to destroy because “otherwise [the Canaanites] will teach you the evils of their religion”. Interesting, I wonder what those evils might be… we’ll come back to this later.

In his essay, Glenn Miller highlights other events that function as quasi-precedents. He points to the Flood, Sodom & Gomorrah, the Amalekites and Ninevah. Let’s look, for example, at Sodom and Gomorrah. Here’s what God says when he tells Abraham of his intentions to destroy the cities:

20 And the Lord said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.’ (Genesis 18:20-21)

Here, there is mention of an “outcry” against the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah suggesting that whatever crimes both cities were guilty of, they were international in scope. Furthermore, Abraham actually saved the city earlier and he, along with his nephew Lot, attempted to ‘preach’ to the cities (Genesis 14). With both Abraham and Lot living in the area, the cities had access to ‘truth’ for about 25 years before their destruction.Glen Miller puts it in these terms:

It is important to note that (1) they had plenty of access to ‘truth’ (at LEAST 25 years); (2) their crimes were perverse, public, and the cause of international protest/outcry to God(!); (3) the annihilation was a judgment; (4) God was willing to spare the innocent people–if any could be found; (5) children living in the households of their evil parents apparently died swiftly in the one-day event (instead of being killed–as homeless orphans–by a combination of starvation, wild beasts, exposure, and disease; or instead of being captured and sold as slaves by neighboring tribes, for the older ones perhaps?); (6) the one innocent man and woman are delivered (along with their children of the household).

Like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Miller notes that the other events follow a similar pattern:

    1. The annihilations are judgments.
    2. These judgments are for publicly-recognized (indeed, international and cross-cultural in scope!) cruelty and violence of an EXTREME and WIDESPREAD nature.
    3. These judgments are preceded by LONG PERIODS of warning/exposure to truth (and therefore, opportunity to “change outcomes”).
    4. Innocent adults are given a ‘way out’
    5. Household members share in the fortunes of the parents (for good or ill).
    6. Somebody ALWAYS escapes (Lot, Noah, Kenites)
    7. These are exceptional cases–there are VERY, VERY few of these.

The example of Nineveh is an interesting one. Nineveh was the capital the Assyrian empire, a nation known for its brutality and cruelty. God commands Jonah to preach to the them and get them to repent, otherwise the whole city would be destroyed. Much to the surprise of Jonah, the people of the city actually repent and, true to his promise, God spares them. This infuriates Jonah who wanted them destroyed. If God chose to spare Ninevah because they repented, then could not the same be said of the Canaanites? Obviously we must ask whether the Canaanites fit into this pattern. Were they guilty of any evils and, if so, did they refuse to repent. Let’s see if the biblical text gives us anything.

“Do not think in your heart, after the Lord your God has cast them out before you, saying, ‘Because of my righteousness the Lord has brought me in to possess this land’; but it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is driving them out from before you. (Deuteronomy 9:4)

24 ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you. 25 For the land is defiled; therefore I visit the punishment of its iniquity upon it, and the land vomits out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25)

12 For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord; and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you. (Deuteronomy 18:12)

From these verses we can see quite clearly that the Canaanites were guilty of “detestable things”. Furthermore, it is for these things that they are being destroyed/driven out. From this we can safely assume that the destruction of the Canaanites was intended as a judgement for their wickedness. Furthermore, not only where the Canaanites committing great evil, they had a heavy corrupting influence on those around them as the above passage from Deuteronomy 7 makes clear. Thus, the Canaanites were being destroyed for two reasons. First, they guilty of evil deeds and, second, they influenced those around them to commit the same evil deeds. Obviously this brings us to the next big question. Who exactly were these people and what were they doing that was so detestable to God?

II. A Snapshot of Canaanite Culture

We again begin with the Biblical text. In Leviticus 18, God gives the Israelites a list of practices, mostly sexual in nature, that are forbidden to them. Notice, however, that this entire list is prefaced with a general warning:

“Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘I am the Lord your God. You shall not do what is done in the land of Egypt where you lived, nor are you to do what is done in the land of Canaan where I am bringing you; you shall not walk in their statutes. (Leviticus 18:2-3)

We see that God is telling the Israelites to not follow in the footsteps of the Canaanites and commit similar kinds of acts. What follows is a list of Canaanite practices which the Israelites were forbidden from copying.  Here are a few of the practices:

No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:6)

Do not dishonor your father by having sexual relations with your mother.She is your mother; do not have relations with her. (Leviticus 18:7)

Do not have sexual relations with your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born in the same home or elsewhere. (Leviticus 18:9)

Do not have sexual relations with your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter; that would dishonor you. (Leviticus 18:10)

Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister; she is your father’s close relative. (Leviticus 18:12)

Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, because she is your mother’s close relative. (Leviticus 18:13)

Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed to Molech, for you must not profane the name of your God. I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:21)

Do not have sexual relations with an animal and defile yourself with it. A woman must not present herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it; that is a perversion. (Leviticus 18:23)

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. (Leviticus 18:24)

…and if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you. (Leviticus 18:28)

From this list alone, a picture of Canaanite culture begins to emerge. They practiced incest, child sacrifice, bestiality and cultic prostitution. We also see God holding the Israelites to the same standard as he holds the Canaanites: if they followed these forbidden practices, they too would be driven out from the land in the same manner. Miller offers evidence from archaeology and extra-biblical literature confirming this image of the Canaanites. In other words, the biblical authors aren’t just making this up.

Here is one scholarly description:

Its origin (human sacrifice) must be sought, evidently, in Canaanite culture (in the broad sense). archaeologists have discovered urns containing burnt bones of lambs and goats, and, more often, of children (at Tanit, Carthage). There is, too, a famous text of Diodorus Siculus: in 310 B.C., when a disaster was threatening Carthage, the inhabitants of the town decided it was due to the anger of Kronos, to whom they had formerly sacrificed their finest children: instead, they had begun to offer sickly children, or children they had bought. Thereupon, they sacrificed two hundred children from the noblest families. There was a bronze statue of Kronos with outstretched arms, and the child was placed on its hands and rolled into the furnace. Whether the details be true or false, the story is evidence of a custom to which other classical authors also allude…

The sacrifice of children, then, by burning them to death probably made its way into Israel from Phoenicia (note: the main transmitter of Canaanite culture) during a period of religious syncretism. The Bible mentions only two specific instances, and they are motivated by the same exceptional circumstances as the Phoenician sacrifices… Yet the custom must have been fairly wide- spread to have deserved the condemnations uttered by Deuteronomy, Leviticus and the Prophets. Though Phoenician texts properly so called do not mention the word, it is possible (we say no more) that the sacrifice was called molk in Phoenicia, as in Carthage, and that it came into Israel under this name.” (Ancient Israel: 445-446).

In fact, child sacrifice burial grounds have been found throughout Palestine and the Phoenician Empire. Glen Miller notes that this was not something that was commonly practiced by other Ancient Near Eastern Cultures. It was “specifically Canaanite”.

Similarly, both incest and bestiality were forbidden in other ancient law codes and is likely unique to Canaanite culture. Most of the data supporting this comes from Canaanite religious mythology. Miller tells us that:

The only external data about Canaanite practice we have here (you can imagine how difficult it would be to leave archaeological traces of this around) comes from the religious myths and ‘role models’ of their gods. It must be remembered that the religious rituals of ancient cultures were generally ‘reenactments’ of divine activities. For example, when a religious myth would have one god impregnating another–producing “spring”–the humans would “re-enact” this with the cultic prostitutes.

So when you read Canaanite mythology describing a god having sex with his daughters or a deity having sex with a cow, remember that these acts were supposed to be reenacted during religious ceremonies. When the Bible shows God commanding the destruction of the Canaanites, these are the being being destroyed. They sacrificed infants and children, they practiced ritual incest and bestality. Lovely people, indeed. This sexual degeneracy would also lead to other problems as noted here:

By 1400 B.C., the Canaanite civilization and religion had become one of the weakest, most decadent, and most immoral cultures of the civilized world. Many of its repulsive practices were prohibited to Israel in Leviticus 18. In view of the sexual perversions listed, it is more than likely that venereal diseases ravaged a large part of the population. Hence stern measures were required to prevent decimation of the Israelites by the spread of these and other diseases such as malaria and smallpox. Contagion would be possible by sudden fraternization before immunity could develop. (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, 707).

In addition to these problems, the Canaanites were “a distinctly war-culture” who brought about wholesale destruction of cities and people. They also fought with each other constantly. The point of all this is to show that the Canaanites weren’t just a harmless, innocent group of people people minding their own business until God decided to wipe them out just because. The evidence shows that the Canaanites were a decadent, destructive civilization that caused much misery to those around them. In addition, they had plenty of access to the truth and influences to moderation, they just ignored it. Here are a few more points Miller makes

  • During the 400 years, the Canaanites would have still been surrounded by offspring of Abraham–through Ishmael and Esau, not to mention that of Lot. The nations of Moab, Ammon, Edom would have preserved early traditions about Elohim for ‘exchange’ with the nations.
  • Immediately after the Exodus, word ‘got out’ about the Hebrews, and made its way into Canaan. By the time Israel made it to Jericho, a common prostitute in the city knew of the Israelites, their battles, God, his drying of the Red Sea, and could say that “When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below”.
  • Rahab had heard about the Exodus (some 40+ years earlier), the conquest of the Amorite Kings Sihon and Og (a few months earlier), and the land-grant promise by YHWH(!)–given 400 years earlier. News traveled fast back in those days, so they probably had at least 40 years notice of Israel’s coming.
  • There was an abundance of information for these people–perhaps even MORE THAN the other nations around them had!–but they did not respond appropriately. (The other nations in the ANE seemed to respond to ‘available’ truth with a degree of moderation and correspondingly did not develop the ruthless, cruel, and degenerate practices of their Canaanite neighbors.)

In order words:

These nations show up in archaeology and literature as a uniquely evil and destructive civilization, whose culpability is increased due to the abundance of truth and religious warnings which they were confronted with, and had access to. In contrast to the vast majority of surrounding nations, the Canaanite/Amorite cultures would not act responsibly and prudently, in matters of foreign relations and domestic practice. The result was a destructive and malignant force, in an already difficult ANE historical setting. If the nations of that day could have had a vote on who to ‘destroy’, they all would have voted for the Canaanite/Amorite culture.

In summary, we have an extremely vile culture, worse than ISIS, that had a corrupting influence on those around them. They were cruel, aggressive and decadent. They practiced wanton destruction and cruelty, bestality, incest, child sacrifice and cultic prostitution. Furthermore, Miller notes that even the “Canaanite” appears in ancient sources as an insult; Canaanites were likely seen as evil even by the neighboring nations. This is the nation/culture that the Israelites were commanded to destroy. Personally, I see the Canaanites as an ancient parallel to modern-day ISIS. You see Americans on both sides of the political spectrum as well as people from other countries all calling for its destruction. My guess is that the destruction of the Canaanites would have been similar in some ways to the destruction of ISIS.

III. God’s Commands

Now that we know what kind of people the Canaanites were, what exactly did God tell them to do? Miller lists the commands in bullet-point form. See his essay for more details.

  • Unlike the early Amorites, Israel was NOT supposed to destroy the cities and buildings. The main exception was Hazor–the ‘nerve center’ of Canaanite culture and trade (Deuteronomy 6:10)
  • Unlike the Egyptians they were NOT supposed to destroy the vegetation and the trees. (Deuteronomy 20:19)
  • They were restricted from attacking Esau’s land (Deuteronomy 2:4)
  • They were restricted from attacking Moab (Lot’s descendants) (Deuteronomy 2:9)
  • They were restricted from attacking Ammon (Lot’s descendants) (Deuteronomy 2:19)
  • They were NEVER allowed to take the cultic objects–with the precious metals and stones (Deuteronomy 7:25)
  • They were REQUIRED to offer peace to nations at a distance (Deuteronomy 20:10-16)
  • There were restrictions on how Israelite men treated female war captives. Scholars have noted that this was an unparalleled benevolence toward women, in Ancient Near Eastern warfare. (Deuteronomy 12:10)
  • This obviously was NOT a war of unrestrained lust, greed for expensive goods, or even “empire-building”–God did NOT tolerate those attitudes. For example, in Joshua 7, an Israelite DID take some of the expense idol pieces, and God held the entire community responsible for this breach.

Furthermore, Miller notes that the commands differ in their actual content as well. Take this list for example:

As Miller notes, there is a huge difference between destruction and dispossession. According to Miller, dispossession words are used three times as often as destruction words suggesting that the overall intended effect was for the people to migrate elsewhere. Dispossession would refer to those who ran away before the Israelites got there while destruction would refer to the fate of those who stubbornly stayed behind. Accordingly, the plan was to destroy the nations and drive out the individuals. Again, Miller states that

With the national and cultic centers destroyed (along with the staunchest, die-hard defenders of that culture inside those cities), the culture would simply dissipate and evaporate in the land. As other cultures absorbed individual Canaanite families and groups, the Canaanite cultural depravity would not have had the critical mass to perpetuate itself… the culture would have simply “died from starvation”

This fits in very well with the social values of the ancient world I’ve described elsewhere. In short, the ancients were group-minded; they placed high priority on the survival of the group rather than the individual. Therefore, values such as conformity and “going along with the group” was of extreme importance. A depraved culture like that of the Canaanites needed to be destroyed in order stop its corrupting influence. Simply trying to change the culture by converting a few people wouldn’t work so well when conformity was considered a virtue. In addition, it was intended that those who chose to leave would migrate elsewhere and be absorbed into less depraved cultures.  In essence, my extremely limited knowledge of ancient cultural attitudes confirms Miller’s point.

We also cannot forget that, in the ancient world,  most groups were nomadic and migrated a lot. Therefore, migration wouldn’t have been as difficult a thing to imagine for them. Again, Miller writes:

Migration was a fact and a way of life and not that big of a deal in that time period…  With very little notice, whole tribes could migrate in days… In nearby Greece, during the Archaic period, entire cities migrated to avoid conquest… The Canaanites had decades of notice–authenticated by the miracles of the Exodus–and any sane ones probably did leave before Israel got there. Abandoned city structures are common all over the Ancient Near East and Ancient Middle East from that period.

Those who stubbornly remained in the cities and faced the Israelites would have been the “carriers” of the diseased culture and had to be wiped out to ensure its extinction. Miller writes that:

A dispossession of Canaanite population appears to be a more ‘humane’ way of reducing the international impact of an already internationally-despised culture, without having to kill the majority of the carriers of that culture.

Therefore we can conclude that this annihilation language really refers to the Canaanite nation and culture as a whole. It is the nations and culture that are to be utterly destroyed. Those that migrated out of the city when given the chance were spared and only the stubborn “carriers” of the Canaanite culture  who stayed behind would have been killed. That way, the decadent and corrupt culture would lose its influence and be destroyed. Those that stayed behind would end up dooming themselves and their families.

Of course, skeptics are likely to bring up the fate of the children of the parents who stayed behind. These would have been killed for something that was the fault of the parents. This is true, but there are also some points to think about. We must remember that children always share in the fortune of their parents whether for good or ill. We see this happening today as well. The parents lose their jobs and become homeless, their children share in that misfortune. A pregnant mother abuses drugs and alcohol which leads to her baby’s birth defects. A father kills his wife and goes to prison while the children are sent into foster care and neglected. In short, the actions of the parents always affect their children for better or worse; it’s a fact of life.

What about the Israelites? Couldn’t they simply spare the children or “adopt” them into their nation, so to speak? Such a question betrays an extreme ignorance of the type of lives that ancient people lived. Let me highlight a few bits of information that will hopefully put things into a better context. Ancient life was a daily struggle for survival. A majority of people almost never had enough food to eat and were usually malnourished. Resources were extremely scarce… to the point that the Israelites couldn’t even take on these children even if they wanted to. If you barely had enough to support your family, how could you take on more dependents? Lifeboat ethics really comes into play here.

Then why not just let the children go? They obviously didn’t do anything wrong. Why kill them. Again, this question also doesn’t take into account the historical context. Let’s suppose you have two siblings, a boy and a girl. Their parents were killed in battle and they were left alone. The Israelite soldiers leave the siblings alone and leave. What now? The boy and girl are scampering alone in the ruins of the only home they knew. Where will they get food and water? Who will protect them from roving bands of marauders and slave-traders? These slave-traders and bandits would have kept the girl as a sex-slave after gang-raping her and killed the boy if they did not do the same to him.This is what the children faced if they were left alone. Now you tell me, would you rather perish quickly at the hands of the Israelite soldiers or face a slow death from starvation, dehydration or bandit cruelty?

Suppose you walk through the desert and find someone in the process of a slow and miserable death. There is nothing you can do to save him. You’re both far away from any kind of help. Furthermore, any attempts to move the man would only prolong his eventual death and agony. You take out your gun and shoot the person in the head. Is it violent? Yes. Is it brutal? Absolutely. However, it’s also the most humane thing to do in light of the circumstances. Most of us live in comparative luxury and have never had to make these sorts of decisions and can’t possibly understand what it must have been like for the ancient people.

IV. Conclusion

Our very brief survey of these “genocide” passages should, hopefully, paint a different picture. This was not simply God commanding genocide on a bunch of people because he felt like it. Furthermore, it was not motivated by any sort of imperialistic ambitions as some believe. Miller concludes with the following:

What started out as the “Unfair genocide of the Canaanites” ended up as the “Less-than-they-deserved punitive deportation from the land”–filled with patience and mercy and ‘second chances’. It was nonetheless a judgment, and nonetheless involved death–as it later would be repeated to His people.

It is crucial that we remember how big a difference our lives are now from those of the ancients. An average Joe lives in more luxury than the kings of the past. So before we are tempted to whine about perceived injustices, we must remember just how different ancient life was. Furthermore, skeptics and atheists who complain about these so-called horrors in the Old Testament would do well to to learn a bit about ancient history and culture before they open their mouths. Many of them know very little about historical and cultural context of the Bible and believe that just pointing to a verse that looks bad out-of-context is enough to completely disprove Christianity.

I hope that those genuinely curious about this event in the Old Testament come away with a deeper understanding of what really went on. Furthermore, when confronted with claims of “divinely-sanctioned genocide” that many ignorant skeptics and atheists make, you’ll have an answer for them.

What is Faith?

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” – Mark Twain

I remember completely butchering a lesson at a youth group meeting once. The teacher was talking about “having faith in God” and called me up to illustrate what he meant. He had me stand on a chair and told me to pretend that I was on the roof of a burning, 10-story building. He told me that I had to jump and to trust that he would catch me. I was a kid and completely misunderstood the lesson he was trying to teach. For some reason, I thought I was supposed to stand firm and not fall for his lies. So every time he told me to jump, I simply shook my head. The teacher kept trying to get me to jump to no avail and finally gave up saying that if I did jump it was supposed to illustrate what faith was as opposed to mere belief. I laugh about it now but the question remains. What exactly is faith and is it really different from mere belief?

Many of those who grew up Christian know or at least were taught that there is a huge difference between faith and belief. Belief is something of the mind; it is simply assenting to a certain fact. However, belief by itself doesn’t save you; it isn’t enough. Faith, on the other hand, is a lot more than that. Faith is active trust in something or someone. You may believe that the chair in front of you will support your weight; however, you aren’t placing your trust in the chair until you actually sit on it. I’m sure many reading this right now will be very familiar with this explanation of faith.

Those of you who listen to me rant will know that I am a huge fan of seeing how the ancients looked at the world and using that to interpret the Bible. You’ll also know how wary I am of imposing our modern, western mindset on an ancient document that was complied almost 2000 years ago. When I did a little research into the subject, what I found surprised me quite a bit. It seems that modern Christians HAVE been reading modern notions into the Bible when it comes to faith.

In the Handbook of Biblical Social Values, Bruce Malina writes that faith refers to:

the value of reliability… Relative to persons, faith is reliability in interpersonal relations; it thus takes on the value of enduring personal loyalty, of personal faithfulness. The nouns ‘faith, ‘belief’,’ ‘fidelity’, ‘faithfulness,’ as well as the verbs ‘to have faith’ and ‘to believe,’ refer to the social glue that binds one person to another. This bond is the social, externally manifested, emotional rooted behavior of loyalty, commitment and solidarity.

Reading this for the first time was revolutionary. Faith is not so much belief/trust as it is a personal loyalty. This makes a lot of sense as in the ancient world, loyalty was of paramount importance. The ancients did not have indoor plumbing, power grids, the internet or other modern luxuries. As such, they had to work together to survive. This dependence on the group for survival elevated loyalty to a primary value. Self-reliance or “doing your own thing” was practically impossible and even looked down upon as it endangered the entire group. .

When the ancients spoke of faith, especially of faith in God, they were not talking about any sort of mental exercise much less mere belief in the existence of God. God’s existence was assumed and not a question they wrestled with. The question was whether one was loyal to God. I actually touched upon this in a previous post:

Biblical scholar Larry Hurtado writes that the issue for the ancient Israelities was who they worshiped and were loyal to, not strictly belief in the existence of one god. Peter Haymon states that the thing that mattered for the ancient Jew was that God be the sole object of worship, not the sole divine being in existence

You see the issue of loyalty come up multiple times in Jesus’ teachings. For example, Jesus states that:

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Some will chafe when I say that this is clearly poetic hyperbole, but that’s the simple fact. Jesus isn’t telling his followers they have to hate their own families. Jesus was using hyperbole to make the point that he wanted his followers to be loyal to him above everything else. If the ancient world placed a huge emphasis on loyalty, i.e. faithfulness, then you would expect it to come up often in the Bible. We don’t see it as much because we substitute our modern notions into the word faith. But remember that faith is much more than any kind of trust or belief in the existence of God, it is a personal loyalty to God. In addition, faith presupposes belief in the existence of God, after all, you wouldn’t pledge your loyalty to someone you know doesn’t exist. In this way, we can see someone’s conversion to Christianity as a change in allegiance. No longer are they loyal to themselves, Allah or the teachings of Buddha.

Such a definition of faith is superior, in my opinion, because it emphasizes both action and a sense of duty to God that our modern definition lacks.

The “Rape” of Bathseba

Here’s a link to a blog post written by a feminist who believes that that David raped Bathsheba. While reading it, the first thing I thought was “this author is probably a feminist”; lo and behold, when I read the mini biography she provided, she stated that she is interested in “queer, feminist/womanist, and liberation theologies”. Ok then.

In a completely unscientific analysis, I googled “the rape of Bathsheba” and found a good number of articles and material arguing that Bathsheba was indeed the victim of rape. Funny thing was that a good amount of these articles were written by feminists. Interesting. The two articles I read on the subject provided next to no analysis on the subject and simply conclude that Bathsheba was raped because David was all powerful and would kill her if she refused. Or they point to the difference between two different commentaries and pick the one most fitting for their point as the correct interpretation. Hmmm… OK. I’ve written way too much about reading the Bible in the proper cultural and historical in order to really understand what is going on. So I won’t repeat that here. For now, let’s just see what happens when we read this story with knowledge of the proper context.

“In the spring of the year, at the time when kings  normally conduct wars, David sent out Joab with his officers 3  and the entire Israelite army. They defeated the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed behind in Jerusalem. One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of his palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. Now this woman was very attractive.” – 2 Samuel 11:1-2 (NET Bible)

There is so much going on in this passage alone, but we’ll zero in on the second verse. It starts with “one evening David got up from his bed”. Notice that David had just gotten up from his bed, heavily implying that he had just been sleeping or at least trying sleep and failing. When do people go to sleep? At night… when it’s dark. Keep this in mind as it will be very important for our analysis

The next sentence states that David saw a woman bathing from where he was standing. Now, woman don’t bathe in places where they could be seen publicly. This is true now as it was in the ancient world. Furthermore, we have to remember that it was dark. People did not use electricity nor did the streets have lights… that is if there even were streets. That said, it would have been impossible for David to see Bathsheba bathing unless she had provided sufficient light to be seen from the roof of David’s palace. Hmm… curiouser and curiouser.

Now, we might posit that Bathsheba simply wasn’t aware that she could be seen from the palace. Scholars Randolph Richards and Brandon O’Brien beg to differ:

“In antiquity, people were cognizant of their proximity to the seat of power. Even today ,White House offices are ranked by their distance from the Oval Office. We would be unlikely to believe a White House aid who said, “I just stepped out in the hallway to talk. I didn’t realize the president of the United States walked down this hallway every day at this time!” Likewise, we would be skeptical if Bathseba asserted, “Oh, I didn’t realize that was the king’s balcony.” We think the story is told in a way to imply that she intended to be seen by the king. Her plan works”. p. 122 “Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes

So, now we get to the root of the matter. Bathsheba intended to be seen by David. But she was already married to Uriah, why would she cheat on him. Well, that isn’t as hard a question to answer as you might think. I’ll just let Rollo Tomassi answer that question for you:

Hypergamy is a woman’s natural (which is to say, genetically wired) preference for a higher status male–that is, higher status than herself and also higher status than the other men in her field of vision and also perhaps higher status than men she has known in the past.

I’ll make it easy for the reader to understand. King David was a high-status man. He was king of Israel and had the reputation of a warrior; he did kill the giant Goliath after all. What is interesting is that verse four tells us that at the time Bathseba “was in the process of purifying herself from her menstrual uncleanness”. In other words, she was ripe for conception. What higher-status male could Bathsheba get to impregnate her other than King David?

While this might sound like I am reading far too much into the text, keep in mind that the author of the text would have assumed that his audience would know all this. I’ve written before about the way the Bible was written and it is extremely important that we do not lose sight of that.

Despite what feminist bloggers might think, there was no rape. The text drops some pretty big hints that Bathsheba intended to be seen by David and planned the ordeal to some extent and though there is more that is going on in the story, I’ll stop here for now. I only wanted to set the record straight and show what is really going on in the “rape” of Bathsheba. The rest of the story can wait for another time.

I find it hilarious that anytime a woman might be culpable for some crime or wrong; feminists are so quick to blame everyone other than the woman herself. What will they do next, abolish prison for women? Oh wait, they are actually trying… thank you, Dalrock for the pointer.

The Great Boss

Here is a literal back-translation of Psalm 23 as the Khmus tribe of Laos understands it:

The Great Boss is the one who takes care of my sheep;

I don’t want to own anything

The Great Boss wants me to lie down in the field.

He wants me to go to the lake.

He makes my good spirit come back.

Even though I walk through something the missionary calls the valley of the shadow of death.

I do not care. You are with me.

You use a stick and a club to make me comfortable.

You manufacture a piece of furniture right in front of my eyes while my enemies watch.

You pour car grease on my head.

My cup has too much water in it and therefore overflows.

Goodness and kindness will walk single file behind me all my life.

And I will live in the hut of the Great Boss until I die and am forgotten by my tribe

-taken from the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien

There is a lot that can be said about this translation, but I want focus on just one thing. In English translations, the last line reads something like  “and I will live in the Lord’s house for the rest of my life.” This last line is a source of great comfort for many American Christians. Charlies Spurgeon wrote that this is the “crown of all our hopes for the future.” The idea that we will one day leave this world of woe and join God in heaven comforts many American Christians. Many Christians view this as the ultimate destination, one big worship fest where we will be connected to and intimate with Jesus for all eternity. I’ll save my thoughts on this particular idea for another time. For now I’m just painting a picture of what most American Christians think about the after-life. Basically, we individually leave this earth and go to God. We leave our families and everyone behind to go to God to be with God. This is the great comfort and hope many Christians have.

But I wonder how much of this is the product of our culture. To the average Khmus individual, this idea of going to God and leaving everything behind is a terrifying thought. Richards and O’brien write that “for Khmus people, and many others in the world, their first reaction to the idea of spending eternity in heaven is, ‘What? And leave my family?'”. The thought that so comforts American Christians brings terror to the Khmus. They gravitate to what Revelation 21:3 says about God bringing his kingdom to earth. To them, it’s all about God bringing his kingdom to earth.

Let’s not forget a part of the excerpt I previously quoted from The Samurai:

The Japanese said, “I believe the Christian teachings are good. But I would be betraying my ancestors if I went to a Paradise where they cannot dwell.

Shusaku Endo writes about how the Japanese may have believed accepted Christian teachings, but did not convert because they would be betraying their ancestors. A thought that brings comfort and joy to the American is dismissed by the collectivist person or downright terrifies the collectivist person.

Why does it terrify the collectivist person? Well, as I said in “Hive Mind”, the collectivist person is tightly bound to the group. What the group thinks of the person is critical to any person within that group; so important, in fact, that the person rejects Paradise because they are betraying the group. Many collectivist cultures actually consider banishment or exile from the group to be a far worse fate than death. Faced with the option of death or exile, the majority of collectivist people would choose death. This is neither wrong nor right, just he way the collectivist person sees the world. Hmmm… that might explain why the rebellious son would have likely chosen death/execution over exile.

So what is the correct interpretation? Do we go to God as Western Christians believe or does God’s kingdom come to us as many collectivist Christians believe? Well, that’s a topic for another time. Here, I just want to show how much our culture can influence  the way we feel and respond to the Bible as well as how we interpret the Bible. Examining how our cultural assumptions affect the way we read the Bible can help reduce the risk of misinterpretation. Hopefully, more Christians start taking their Christianity seriously enough to really study the Bible and not view God as some divine therapist.