Perhaps before moving into this second question, it would be helpful to re-read my previous posts entitled “Yad Vashem and the Jewish Paradigm” and “Story Start Points: The Root of Societal PTSD”. Both will give context to the work that we’re going to do below.
My first encounters with Israel occurred hours before my airplane touched down in Tel Aviv. As I waited for my delayed plane to begin boarding, I was captivated by the pious activities of the very large number of Orthodox Jews who waited with me.
At our gate, a window gave view to the massive light-blue nose of the jumbo jet that we were waiting to board. This particular window faced East (it faced Jerusalem), so to this window, the Orthodox Jewish men, dressed in black suits with long coats and black full-brim hats, gathered to begin their full-body rhythmic prayers. I watched with rapt curiosity as nearly fifty men rocked back and forth and sounded their prayers toward Jerusalem.
Once on board and, having been in the air for seven hours, I awoke from a restless sleep to see the man sitting next to me no longer sitting. Rather, he was standing, shrouded in his white and black prayer shawl, arm wrapped with leather strap, and rocking to the same rhythm as were the men at the window in New York.
“Israeli Jews are extremely religious people!” I thought to myself. I began to wonder if all of Israeli Jews were as religious…as pious…as the man now standing and rocking next to me.
It didn’t take long to recognize that the nation of Israel is not nearly as religious as the man who shared my cramped airborne quarters. While Orthodox Jews have a growing presence in the land, I would suggest that, rather than Israel’s faith experience being Judaism, it is, in fact, atheism. In dialogue with a Rabbi, I also discovered that contemporary Judaism is 10% informed by the Hebrew Scriptures and 90% informed by what the Rabbis have said over the years. Thus, the Judaism of today is far different from the experience of the Israelites of old.
In light of the predominance of atheism and the evolution of Judaism, I was stunned to hear Israeli Jews, atheistic, pious, and cultural, repeatedly justify both their rights to the land and the unjust ways in which they are repossessing it in the name of YHWH, the Conquering God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“In our Scriptures, our God justified violence in order that we might take the Promised Land.”
This created a crisis for me. It is true. The image of the Conquering God does seem to be prevalent, especially as Israel crossed through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land. What do I do with that? How might we understand Joshua and the conquest narratives within? What do we do with the Conquering God of the Hebrew Scriptures especially when this imagery is being used to initiate an ethnic cleansing today?
Let me highlight two alternative readings of the Conquering God imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures.
First, if taken literally, we can understand the time and place of the conquest of the Promise Land as a time and place far different than today. This was a time and place, void of foreign diplomacy and the United Nations, where disputes were settled by war and conquest. The rules of the day were conquer or be conquered; to be served by or to serve another. Simultaneously, this was a world rich in mythology where it was believed that the gods fought on the behalf of their people. Thus, the conquest of one nation by another pronounced the supremacy of not only that people but also of that people’s deity.
Consider Israel. They had just spent generations (430 years) in chains under the rule of the extremely spiritual Egyptians. The Egyptians had no chief god; rather, they had deities over specific spheres: the earth, the sky, the Nile River, the fields, the livestock, etc. Their polytheism created an incredibly complicated experience of life: constant blessing of the gods was necessary in order to be blessed. Constant blessing required constant reminders: thus the creation of massive statues and monuments. The idea was, if the Egyptians made big, elaborate enough statues and monuments of their gods, then the people would constantly see, be reminded, and bless the gods and, therefore, the gods would be pleased. In slavery, the Israelites were the primary workforce behind the creation of the statues and monuments of the Egyptian gods.
In chains, Israel built the monuments to the gods of the most powerful, influential, affluent, seemingly blessed people in the world. A generations-long experience of this does something to a people’s perspective of their God, themselves, others, and other’s gods. For years, they had cried out for YHWH to deliver them and for years YHWH had seemingly remained silent. I imagine that, after years of feeling ignored, the appeal of Egypt’s pantheon of gods and goddesses increased.
Into the complexity of this, YHWH entered the created order in the form of fire: he was eternal combustion without consumption and He got Moses’ attention. He had heard the cries of His people and was going to do something about it. Because Moses’ heart broke for the same thing (reference his two failed rescue attempts in Exodus 2), God invited him to participate in being a part of the solution. Eventually, Moses agreed and God demonstrated that was not “one of” the gods but was, in fact “THE One”: as Egypt (and their pantheon of gods) licked their wounds, the people went free.
However, freedom was a dynamic experience for Israel. They stumbled into the wilderness like a new-born fawn: they had no idea how to survive as a people. Watching from within the community, God said, “I need to teach my people how to live!”
“Hear O Israel, the LORD your God. The LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your strength.”
Their wilderness wander was an experience through which God taught them who He was, who they were, and what it meant for them to live as participants in His unfolding Story. They were to be the light to the nations. Dancing in the rhythms of the Creator, their vocation was to become an accurate demonstration of who God is; their destiny was to bless the whole world.
After a forty-year wander, they crossed through the Jordan River and into the Promised Land as a new generation. Far different from a democracy, they existed in a theocracy where YHWH was their God, their King, their Mighty Warrior, and their Provider. In the Promised Land, God’s formation of Israel shifted from the learning-lab of wilderness wander to the learning-lab of disproportionate war.
With God, Israel would enter in to each battle as the underdog and, if they were faithful, they would come out victorious. Complete victory, an ancient common-place practice of warfare where no one was left living, was to give evidence to the might of a people’s god. Complete victory is what YHWH desired as, through complete victory, YHWH would be seen by the watching world as THE God. Simultaneously, complete victory would enable a new generation of previously oppressed people to establish life in the way of the Creator in a specific place.
If taken literally both the Conquering God and the conquest was real and happened in a time and place where this kind of foreign policy was the standard. However, to justify a contemporary ethnic cleansing and formation of an ethnic state in the name of the Conquering God found in Joshua is unreasonable, unjust, and internationally illegal.
There is a second way to consider the image of the Conquering God in the Hebrew Scriptures.
A common understanding of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) suggests that Moses wrote these five books. If that is the case, then it stands to reason that God whispered not only the words of the Law (10 Commandments, etc.) but also the two Genesis accounts of creation, the Garden of Eden, Noah and his ark, etc.
Internal evidence suggests a different possibility. For example, if one were to place the first Genesis account of creation (Genesis 1) next to the earlier Babylonian account of creation, one would find remarkable similarities.
Enuma Elish is the name of the Babylonian account that predates the Genesis account by several hundred years and tells the story of the gods, how the universe was created, and why human beings were introduced into the story. In short, the universe occurred as a result of a god’s death and human beings were created to work for the gods by doing the things that the gods despised.
The author of Genesis tells an oddly similar story. It’s a story about God, how the universe was created, and why human beings were introduced into the story. However, rather than the story being about the gods, it is about The God who, rather than creation occurring as an accident, very intentionally and lovingly spoke existence into being. Most importantly, the Genesis story exposes humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation: unlike any other creation, human beings were created in the very image of God.
The question is, if the Genesis accounts were influenced by the Babylonian account, how did this happen and why?
Let me suggest a possible answer.
First, we’d need to consider the fact that Israel’s form of storytelling was not written…it was oral. The story of the ancients were augmented, enhanced, changed, and passed down from generation to generation. This is the nature of the oral tradition. It is not likely, therefore, that Moses had, or would even have needed, to write down the stories of the past. Eventually, however, it became became important for the stories to be decided upon and locked into a new medium: the written word.
As to when this actually occurred, no one is certain. However, there exits a fair amount of internal evidence from within the pages of the early Scriptures that it may have occurred while Israel was in captivity in Babylon.
If this is the case, then two primary (among others) questions likely informed the ways in which the stories were recorded: “Who is our God?” and “How did we get here?” That is, in drafting the stories, Israel sought to make sense of who God was, who they were, and how they had arrived in captivity (again).
Within this theory, the story-forming began by answering the question about God, the universe, and the existence of humanity by borrowing from the myth of their captors. However, while they borrowed the Babylonian myth, they took creative liberty with it so to identify the supremacy of YHWH. That is, in captivity they needed to believe that YHWH was stronger than the gods of their captors. Next, they reminded themselves of a former captivity (Egypt) in which YHWH had proved Himself as the One who heard and responded to His people: they reminded themselves of YHWH who proved Himself mightier than the gods of Egypt. The story continued with the YHWH’s promise to Abraham coming true in the conquest of the Promised Land. YHWH was their God, their King, their Mighty Warrior, their Provider!
The problem was, they were in captivity again. How had they gotten here? Something had gone wrong such that they found themselves in chains again.
The primary answer, found in the voices of the pre-exile prophets, is Israel’s idolatry. They had allowed the pagan practices and cultural gods and goddesses of their context to become marbled into their experience of worship. They had failed to worship YHWH exclusively and, therefore, found themselves in chains.
But there had to be an explanation for the idolatry, right? There had to be someone else to blame for the suffering of Israel in Babylon. Someone, somewhere, once upon a time, had certainly done something wrong…right?
Enter the created imagery of a Conquering God who sought complete victory. Enter the imagery of the Conquering God who is for us and against the nations. Enter the Conquering God who validated ethnic cleansing in order that the land could be inhabited by Israel. Simultaneously, enter the imagery of a former generation (not us!) who didn’t do what they were told and gave entrance to idolatry.
“They (the former generation) are the reason we are captives in Babylon.”
If taken retrospectively, the imagery of the Conquering God was developed to explain a current experience of suffering and to generate hope that He was capable of their release as He had been once before. Thus, to justify a contemporary ethnic cleansing and formation of an ethnic state in the name of the Conquering God found in Joshua is unreasonable, unjust, and internationally illegal.
Therefore, regardless of which of the two alternative readings one prefers, neither of the two justify what is currently taking place in Israel.
Let me conclude with a couple of additional thoughts from within the pages of both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament:
First, the prophets give voice to a God who is for Israel, is for justice, and is for the nations.
Second, the prophets give voice to a God who consistently implores Israel to be the light to the nations by humanizing them, moving toward them, and practicing justice on their behalf.
Third, the prophets give voice to a God who says, “I am for the oppressed, the persecuted, the marginalized, and the occupied even if they are not you, Israel.”
Fourth, as followers of Jesus, we are to read the Hebrew Scriptures through the lenses of Jesus. While Jesus references the Exodus, he never references nor validates a conquest of the Promise Land. If there is a conquering that Jesus exposes, it is God’s complete victory over the power of sin.
Fifth, Jesus said things like, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Matthew 5:9) and “When power is abused and you’re the victim, don’t get even, get creative in love.” (Matthew 5:38-42). Jesus taught and then embodied these teachings and it cost Him His life. The greatest news, though, is that He didn’t stay dead: Jesus, the living, resurrected reality invites and empowers us, by His Spirit, to live likewise.