Over the last several years I have wrestled extensively with what Phyllis Trible memorably called the “texts of terror” in the Bible. Texts that narrate slavery, genocide, assassination, beheading, cannibalism, rape, and many other heinous acts. Some of these texts depict Yahweh commanding, commending, or himself committing violent acts. In other texts the actions are of humans alone but the narrator develops an infuriating neutrality in his narration of them. (Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter is perhaps the paradigm case of problematic narratival neutrality.)
This wrestling with the texts has caused me to wonder about how I handled these same texts twenty years ago. Since my memory of such matters is sketchy at best, I turn to a historical document: the NIV Student Bible edited by Philip Yancey and Tim Stafford that was my go-to Bible in high school and for the first few years of my undergraduate degree. The covers fell off years ago, the binding was reinforced with scotch tape (c. 1992), and the book is full of highlighting, underlying, and revealing marginalia. Since I never kept a spiritual diary, if I am to find a snapshot of how I engaged these texts twenty years ago it will be here.
I turn to Deuteronomy 7 (page 178), a passage that outlines a plan for holy war. Part of verse 2 is underlined, “then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” But no commentary is provided. Disappointing.
Then I turn to Deuteronomy 20 … and I strike the mother lode of psychological insights into my late teen-early twenties Bible-reading-brain. The text is underlined as follows:
10When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11If they accept and open their gates, al the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 11If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in abattle, lay siege to that city. 13When the LORD your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves.
I then comment in the marginalia: “Mercy to surrounding cities even after judgment.” See below:
Let’s shine a bright light on the reasoning of my (approximately) twenty year old brain. Imagine that a top-secret Israeli document is leaked to the press which outlines “Operation 20:10-14”. According to this top secret operation, the Israelis are planning to invade Gaza and slaughter all the adult male Palestinians living there. The document then goes on to outline how all the women and children living in Gaza will be taken as plunder for the invading Israeli army. Do you think anybody would suggest that Operation 20:10-14 was an illustration of mercy? Yet that is precisely the reasoning I applied in defense of the policy outlined in Deuteronomy 20:10-14. The fact that women and children are treated as “shalal” (war booty or plunder) is taken to be an act of mercy.
I then turn the page and discover something even more extraordinary. The rest of the chapter outlines the plan to eradicate completely the seven tribal peoples living in the nearby cities of Israel’s possession. These “God is giving you as an inheritance” and so God commands of them “do not leave alive anything that breathes.” (20:16) So how does twenty year old Randal handle that one? Well I didn’t underline verse 16. But I did underline two other verses.
To begin with, I underline verse 18:
18Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the LORD your God.
This is complemented by a marginal note above that reads: “although seemingly bloodthirsty, beseiged lands were given a chance at redemption, also idea of corporate sin.”
Even more striking is the second verse I choose to underline. Verses 19-20 close off the chapter by providing instructions that the Israelites ought to spare the trees because “Are the trees of the field people, that you should beseige them?”
Did the twenty year old Randal not wonder at the grotesque irony here? After all, are infants combatants that you should slaughter them? But no, there is no sense of irony in the preferential treatment that trees are given over living human beings as I write a complementary marginal note that focuses on the environmental fruit (forgive the pun please) of the passage:
“* v. 19-20 encapsulates the edict to subdue the earth. Leave trees to grow but still use for fruit (remembering their place).”
Yes, incredibly enough I gloss the genocidal slaughter of an entire people. I ignore the mass human sacrifice of infants, children, the elderly, women and men to Yahweh, and instead focus on the fact that the trees were spared. See below:
Such tortured reasoning is familiar to psychologists and it is manifested in two traits: the confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. The confirmation bias (which I talk about at length in You’re not as Crazy as I Think) is the tendency to select evidence that supports your beliefs and disregard evidence that doesn’t. Given that I had been exposed growing up only to one basic way to read the text of the Bible, i.e. as fully in accord with the human author’s intentions as best I understood them, I had no other option but to screen out all the evidence that contradicted my moral knowledge at the most basic level. Never did I consider that this most basic moral knowledge might suggest that I am not simply to read everything in the Bible shoulder to shoulder in fully sympathy with the original author.
The confirmation bias is complemented by motivated reasoning, our active engagement in searching out evidence and developing theories and rationalizations to support our beliefs.
Finally, I turn to 1 Samuel 15 to read of Yahweh’s command to slaughter the Amalekites. This is an interesting passage since God is described as commanding Saul to massacre an ethnic group due to the actions of their ancestors hundreds of years earlier. Imagine, for point of analogy, if a group of Mennonite families today were slaughtered because they were the descendents of the radical Anabaptists that killed Lutherans and Catholics at Munster in 1533. Would anybody think it is morally justifiable to slaughter Mennonite infants now because they were decendents of these Anabaptists of hundreds of years ago? Of course not.
So how did I respond to the command to “attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them, Do not spare them”? I underlined the rest of the verse: “put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
And then, as if the first rays of ethical dawn were breaking through the reading biases which had been instilled in me since my youth, I wrote this in the margin:
“Why even infants? What am I to think?”