Difficult Words in Holy Texts, Part I

Ekev: August 11th
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Thomas Jefferson was one of several founding fathers who were not mainstream Christians. Their approach to religion was called Deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. Though he was accused of being a “howling Atheist” in the 1800 presidential election, Jefferson was in fact a very religious man—a man dedicated to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. His dedication, however, was conditional and based on a discrepancy between what he saw as the true teachings of Jesus and the “corruption of schismatizing followers” which he believed had taken over the Gospels and other parts of the New Testament. His solution was cutting and pasting—excising what he thought were the pure and true teachings of Jesus and pasting them into a new “Bible.” In his words, this new work was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has never been offered to man.”  (Thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012, for this summary of Jefferson’s attitudes and Biblical work.)

In other words, Jefferson found some passages of the Holy Scriptures much more valuable than others, and some he found to be positively problematic. His solution was to choose the good and discard the bad. Though Jefferson’s “Bible” was a novel idea, editing the Scriptures has been a tradition among Biblical commentators for centuries. Why did they mold the Biblical message with their hermeneutic techniques, selective readings, and Midrash? Because, as much as we revere the Holy Scriptures and the Divine Author, there are some passages which contradict other passages or are in direct conflict with values and principles that are themselves Biblical.

The Bible is not a consistent document, and any serious reader must grapple with the varying views and instructions contained therein.

We get a first-hand look at the problem in a recurring theme in Deuteronomy, the commandment to the Israelites to completely obliterate the native Canaanite population. In this week’s portion, the theme is stated no less than four times. The first instance comes in 7.5: “You shall destroy all the peoples that the Lord your God delivers to you, showing them no pity.” The second comes in verse 23: “The Lord your God will deliver them up to you, throwing them into utter panic until they are wiped out. He will deliver their kinds into your hand, and you shall obliterate their name from under the heavens; no man shall stand up to you, until you have wiped them out.” I think you get the idea. It is a brutal instruction that makes one wonder what kind of moral code is being taught—and what kind of Moral Authority is doing the teaching.

The God we know would not and could not have given this command. So, what do we do with it? How can we read our Scripture reverently and devotedly and somehow neutralize or deal with such horrible instructions?

Over the next few weeks, I want to address this problem of Holy Scriptures with unholy commandments and discuss the problems that Judaism and our neighboring religions of Christianity and Islam have with such texts. It is a ubiquitous challenge for religions—and one in need of wisdom, moderation, and holy insight.

This first week, I’ll approach the passages in light of the historical record. Next week, we’ll look at context—both ancient and modern. And, the third week, we’ll look at how the motivation of the interpreter can affect the shape of Heaven’s message.

Though the wholesale slaughter of the Canaanites is ordered—and though the Book of Joshua documents its execution, the historical and archeological record show that such a genocide did not occur. While there are certainly archeological sites of destruction, they do not reveal the total annihilation the Bible both commands and reports. “Obliterating their name from under the heavens” would certainly have left some kind of evidence, but there is none. We do have, interestingly enough, evidence of the destruction of Canaanite gods—their heads cut off and burned, but there is no evidence of a mass destruction of the entire Canaanite population. In fact, the historical record gives ample evidence that these Canaanites were around for centuries—and are still around today! (Modern DNA evidence suggests that the Lebanese—not the “Palestinians”—may be the modern descendants of the ancient Canaanites.) The Bible agrees with this conclusion, describing the continuing snare of Canaanite gods and religious rituals for centuries after the Conquest. Clearly, the Canaanites were conquered by the Israelites, but they were never wiped out.

In other words, we are left with instructions that were never taken literally. And, if our ancient ancestors did not take them literally, we need to understand that such passages are not marching orders or history, but a different kind of literature.

We find a similar disconnect in the anti-Semitic history of Christianity and Islam. Though there are clearly some virulently anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament and the Koran, and though there have definitely been some terrible and murderous campaigns against Jews by both Christians and Muslims, Dr. Ellis Rivkin observes that neither religion has every united its own disparate elements in a common campaign of destruction against Jews and Judaism. This is not to minimize the terror that has been visited upon us many times, but where the ugly head of anti-Jewish Christianity or Islam has reared itself in one location, other elements of these two religions have been relatively welcoming and peaceful. In other words, killing Jews or Judaism is not a faith component of either religion, and the majority of Christians and Muslims through the centuries have known it.

In other words, there is something else operating in re these murderous passages: why they are usually ignored or filtered out, but sometimes seen as marching orders. Could we be seeing a battle between the good and evil inclinations in the hearts of religious leaders? Somewhere, somehow, there is some interpreting going on.

We shall return to this discussion next week.