Friday, July 18, 2008

Pastor Boyd rocks the house!

Below is Greg's drum solo from a few weeks ago at the NDY fundraiser on behalf of Providence Ministries. Tonight, NDY will be performing in Jackson, MN at Rhythm of the River, a two-day music festival.

Thanks Greg for using your talents to better the lives of kids in Haiti!!

posted by yours truly~marcia

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Little Whining and a Book Review (Overcoming Evil God's Way)

Yo folks,

Hope you’re all enjoying a grand summer (or, for those in the Southern Hemisphere, a nice winter). I’m having a great time, but I’m also feeling a bit scattered. It's requiring more effort than usual to stay centered and aware of God's presence. Not sure how it happened, but I’ve just had way too many “pots on the burner.” Mind if I whine for a moment?

Here's a snippet of my life (beyond the ordinary chores, relationships, etc.). I have my weekly sermons and other church duties, of course. And, as part of my daily routine, I have about 50 e-mails (on average) that ask for a response (taking roughly an hour a day). Beyond this, I just finished and sent off a manuscript for publication entitled (tentatively) This Sacred Moment: Reflections on Practicing the Presence of God. I’m now editing the page proofs of Revolting Beauty and refining for publication The Cosmic Dance (our funky illustrated book on science and theology). I'm speaking eight times at a week-long conference in Hungary in a couple weeks that I need to prepare for. I have two academic dictionary entries, an academic journal article and three revised chapters for the new edition of Across the Spectrum due by September. Plus I'm supposed to complete two chapters in a forthcoming anthology by this spring.

But these aren't what's occupying most of my time. The project that presently occupies most of my time, thought and passion these days is The Myth of the Blueprint (my eight-year project showing the influence of pagan philosophy on the early church's view of God, free will, providence and evil). I just finished a section on the first two heirs of Plato in the "Old Academy," Seusippus and Xenocrates. This stuff seriously lights my fire!

See, I've got lots of pots on the fire. I don't want or expect anyone to feel sorry for me, because I love every bit of this! (Well, e-mails not so much, but everything else for sure). But that's my problem. I'm interested in and passionate about way too many things! (My ADHD tendencies are getting the better of me, I suppose).

But I’m not quite done whining yet. I also have to read -- a lot. I have to read! It’s a sort of addiction. Last week I finished J. R. Boys-Stones’ Post-Hellenistic Philosophy: A Study of its Development from the Stoics to Origen. (This is a great work detailing the shift from independent reasoning to authority that occurred in Stoicism and Middle Platonism and that strongly influenced early Christianity). Then two days ago I finished John Dillon's The Heirs of Plato: A Study of the Old Academy (347-274). (Dillon is the best authority on ancient Platonism, in my opinion). I’m now reading a book that a publisher sent to me, written by Stephen Russell, entitled Overcoming Evil God’s Way (Faith Builders Resource Group, 2008).

And with this I (finally!) transition from my whining to the point of this post. (Oh yes, I forgot to mention in my whining that I try to post two or three times a week. Nuts, isn't it?).

Overcoming Evil is intended to be a comprehensive overview of the biblical and historical case for “nonresistance” (returning force with force). I’m only a hundred pages into this book (it's about 300 pages long), but so far it’s very good. Already I'd recommend it. Russell's material on the Old Testament is a nice, clear and comprehensive introduction to the issue of peace and violence in the Old Testament, though it doesn't add much to what we’ve already covered the last couple of months. My review will thus be brief.

His main point is that, when you read the Old Testament in the light of Jesus Christ (as we must) it becomes evident that, while all Scripture is inspired, not all Scripture reveals God’s character with equal clarity. It's true God reluctantly participates in the bloody barbarism of the cultures he’s trying to slowly win over, but God's true character is revealed when (for example) he mercifully protects Cain, the murderer, from being murdered and when he puts strong constraints around ancient, unbridled, retaliation practices. So too, in contrast to the barbaric Conquest narratives, we see God’s true heart in Old Testament characters who display Christ-like characteristics. For example, we find Elisha doing warfare God’s way when Elisha leads a supernaturally blinded Syrian army with whom Israel was at war (and that had been dispatched specifically to kill Elisha! See 2 Kg 6:12-14) into the court of the Samaritan King. When all expected Elisha to give the order to slaughter the captives, he instead told the king to throw them a banquet (2 Kg 6:22-23). That’s doing battle God’s way. And in contrast to the use of violence which always -- always! -- leads to more violence, this act of mercy brought an end to the fighting between Syria and Israel (2 Kg 6:23). God's ideal will is for his people to fight like Elisha, not Joshua.

Three other points of emphasis in Russell's material on Old Testament violence are worth mentioning. First, Russell rightly points out that, while Yahweh knew his people would have to be defended against hostile nations (recall Ellul's point that nationalism and violence are two sides of the same coin), God didn’t originally intend to have his people fight. He repeatedly promised his people that if they would trust him, he would do all their fighting for them. Moreover, as we've seen, many passages suggest that God originally intended to fight Israel's enemies with non-lethal means, e.g. driving them out with hornets. So, when God later commands his people to kill (unless Creach is right and this is to be interpreted allegorically), this too must be understood to be a matter of God sadly accommodating his will to meet his untrusting, violence prone people where they're at.

Second, Russell has an excellent section on God as the Lord of history. He notes how God was willing to use the violent tendencies and arrogance of one nation (e.g. Assyria) to punish the sinfulness of another nation (e.g. Israel), only to turn around and allow yet a different arrogant and violence-prone nation (e.g. Babylon) to punish that nation (Assyria). In doing this God was exposing the sinfulness of all nations as well as exposing the futility of using violence as a source of security. (This is similar to what Craigie argued in The Problem of War in the Old Testament). The only true security is trust in God. Yet, in the midst of all these judgments, Russel points out, there was always uttered a word of mercy and hope. Even Assyria and Egypt, Israel's arch-enemies, would eventually become part of God’s people (e.g. Isa. 19:25).

Third, in the course of fleshing out all this, Russell offers some wise and pointed words to America. He notes that empires rise and fall with remarkable speed, even those such as Assyria and Babylon who, at the height of their power, seemed utterly invincible. Babylon’s mighty reign lasted less than a century, as did the empire of modern day communist Russia. We Americans are now the reigning empire, and, as with all previous empires, we trust in our power and wealth to keep us secure. (In fact, as with all previous empires, we interpret our power and wealth as a blessing from God/the gods). We must remember that this has been the arrogant mindset of all empires just prior to their falls from power.

In this light, Russell concludes, “Who imagined the fall of the Soviet Union would come a short seven decades after its founding and rapid rise in power? And who among us knows what God has in store for our nation or any other? But His purpose is good, and if we choose to become part of His plan, even our deaths will be victorious” (72-73).

Wise words. I encourage you to put no trust in the power and wealth of America (or whatever country you happen to live in). The only real security is in Yaweh and living his way, as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Even if it means you die.

Stay centered in his love and peace.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Creach and the Command to "Utterly Destroy"

Hello Bloggers,

Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was waiting until my new site was ready to launch before writing another post. Unfortunately, it seems something new pops up every day to delay the launch, so I finally decided to post regardless of when the new site will be ready. (Do you have any idea how much work it takes to get a new website ready? For cry'n out loud!)

We’ve been discussing (among other things) the problem of Old Testament violence on this blog the last couple months. Without question the most offensive aspect of Old Testament violence concerns God’s command to “destroy them [the Canaanites] totally” and “show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). This is the concept of herem (“ban”) which most scholars interpret to mean something like “devote to destruction.” It's close to the concept of offering something up as a sacrifice to Yahweh. But could anything be more contrary to the teachings of Jesus than the idea of sacrificing men, women and children (to say nothing of the animals) to God as a sacred offering?

But what if the concept of herem was not meant to be taken literally? This was the view of the second century theologian Origen (found in his Homilies on Joshua). He argued that anything in the Old Testament that wasn’t consistent with the moral and theological truth revealed in Christ must be interpreted in a non-literal way. He thus interpreted herem as an allegory for spiritual warfare. The Canaanites thus represent everything inside of us or in the world that keeps us from being fully devoted to God. These things, he argued, must be completely destroyed.

Now, the practice of allegorizing Scripture (on the part of Jews and Christians) or other ancient literature (like Homer on the part of pagans) in order to make it more consistent with the beliefs and practices of the exegete was a widespread practice in the ancient world, especially in Alexandria where Origen was located. But, as a general approach to Scripture, it is uniformly rejected by scholars today. Not surprising, until recently I knew of no scholar who took Origen’s attempt to allegorize herem seriously. Then I happened to stumble onto the work of Dr. Jerome Creach, Professor of Old Testament at Pittsburg Theological Seminary. Dr. Creach was kind enough to send me the rough draft of a chapter he’s working on in which he fleshes out his view that herem was not meant to be taken literally. (It will be part of a larger book he’s writing that addresses the issue of faith and violence).

I can summarize the heart of Creach’s argument by making seven points. Taken together, they suggest that herem in Deut. 7:2 was meant as a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh, not as a command to literally annihilate people.

1) There are a number of passages in Deuteronomy that reflect a much more humane treatment of foreigners than a literally reading of herem would suggest. For example, Deuteronomy 15 instructs the Israelites to be generous and merciful to foreigners, and 21:10-14 gives instruction to Israelite men requiring them to treat with decency Canaanite women they want to marry. Verses 24:17-18 instruct the Israelites to be kind to foreigners in need, and so on. How are these instructions consistent with the command to completely slaughter all Canaanites?

2) Joshua 11:19 presents the Israelites as trying to make peace with various Canaanite cities, though only the Gibeonites accept their offer. Only when cities rejected peace did war ensue. Other passages treat Israelite warfare as a defensive response to Canaanite aggression as well. Creach argues that this theme is interwoven throughout the Conquest narrative (reflecting concerns by those who redacted the final version of this book). This motif hardly seems consistent with the understanding that the Israelites were to slaughter them carte blanch.

3) The fact that Rahab (Joshua 2) and the Gibeonites are spared -- and even held up as models of faith -- is hard to reconcile with a literal interpretation of herem.

4) Engaging in redaction arguments that are too complex to go into here, Creach argues that Joshua 1-12 presents an idealized account of the Conquest. There is some evidence for this in the text itself. For example, Joshua 11:23 says Joshua “took the entire land” and that there was a rest from war. But 13:1 depicts "large areas of land" that had not yet been taken over when Joshua was an old man. Moreover, the beginning of Judges describes how various tribes worked to secure their territories (Judg. 1:1-3, 6). On top of this, Creach argues that archeology supports the gradual conquest model much more than the idealized model of chapters 1-12 of Joshua. This also suggest that the “conquest” was not as militant and annihilationist as a literal reading of herem (and a straight forward reading of Josh. 1-12) would suggest.

5) Creach argues that Numbers 21:1-3 suggests that herem was originally something Israelites offered to God; it wasn’t something God himself ordered. To acknowledge that their military victories were acts of God the Israelites vowed to not benefit from it, but to offer up everything as a sacrifice to God. Creach then notes how Deut. 7:1-5 differs from this, for here God himself orders herem and it has a moral dimension to it. The concern in Deuteronomy (but not Numbers) is that Israel will be seduced by Canaanite practices.

6) Creach argues that Deuteronomy 7:1-5 is patterned after Ex. 23:20-33. In this latter passage the Lord told the Israelites he himself would “wipe out” the Canaanites (vs. 23). But he clearly doesn’t mean by this that he would completely destroy them, for he says he’ll make them “turn their backs and run” (vs. 27). He also says he’ll use hornets to drive them out little by little (vs. 28) because if he did this all at once the land would become destitute and overrun with wild animals (vs. 29). For the Israelites’ part, they weren’t to make any covenants with the residents of the land or with their gods (vs. 32) and were not to let them live in their land because of the possibility that the Israelites would be seduced by their foreign gods (vs. 33). This clearly is not consistent with the idea that God’s intent from the start was to have the Israelites slaughter the Canaanites completely.

7) Finally, utilizing the work of R. W. L. Moberly (“Toward an Interpretation of the Shema”), Creach notes that Deut. 7:1-5 is part of an explanation and extension of the Shema (“Here O Israel…” Deut. 6:4-9). It stipulates what it looks like for the people of God to be faithful to Yahweh, and it involves not following “the gods of the peoples around you” (Deut 6:14) and remembering that Yahweh delivered Israel out of Egypt and drove out their enemies before them (vs. 19). Chapter 7 then adds the command to "utterly destroy" their enemies (vs. 2) with the stipulations that they are not to intermarry with them (vs. 3) and are to break down all their sacred places and idols (vs. 3). Yet, it's hard to reconcile the stipulation to not follow the gods of the people around you, to remember that the Lord “drove out” the enemies before you and to not intermarry with the indigenous residents with the understanding that the Israelites were to completely annihilate the Canaanites.

Put all this together, and you arrive at Creach’s conclusion that the command to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites had become a metaphor for complete devotion to Yahweh by the time Deuteronomy was written. The practice of herem perhaps began in Israel as a practice that was close to “ethnic cleansing,” which is perhaps what we find reflected in Number 21:1-3. But it evolved over time to become a metaphor for something that was not violent. To this extent, Creach argues, Origen was right. Herem is a metaphor for being completely devoted to Yahweh and that “points aways from violence and bloodshed.”

Think about it.