This is part 3 of my review of The Skeletons in God’s Closet. For part 2 click here.
Part 3 begins with the story of Rachel, a congregant at Butler’s church who requested prayer one day after a service because she was facing difficult questions about her faith from her dorm-mates in university. Questions like this: “How can you believe in a God who commanded the genocidal slaughter of the Canaanites in the Old Testament?” (207)
God fights for you, you need only to be still
According to Butler, the questions start with another caricature, one that recalls the caricature of hell he critiqued in Part 1. In this case, Butler claims that “many” hold the caricature that Canaan was an idyllic paradise and the Canaanites were peaceably minding their own business when Israel invaded and took the land for themselves. According to the caricature, Israel was clearly the superior force, they had advanced weaponry, and they believed in the greatness of their national identity.
However, Butler believes the portrayal in scripture subverts this popular caricature:
“It was as if someone had taken the mainstream picture of holy war, painted across the historical canvas of our world, and turned it upside down. As if God was turning the unholy wars of our world on their heads and confronting them with a radically different picture.” (211)
In this section Butler attempts to present a case for the subversive — and surprisingly hopeful — picture that results, one that can respond to all the Rachels out there who face the moral indignation of their dorm-mates.
Butler begins by describing Israel as outmatched by Canaan, “an assimilator of nations, a devourer of peoples.” (212) While Canaan has the weapons of a formidable empire, “Israel has whatever they’ve been able to muddle together wandering through the desert for the last forty years.” (212)
According to Butler, Israel (the clear aggressor in the conflict), is really “the weakling who’s been getting her lunch money taken every day by the playground bullies.” (213) Butler summarizes the situation:
“it is almost as if God is intentionally choosing the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable, helpless, and powerless nation he can to demonstrate to the mightiest, wickedest, bloodiest, nastiest powerhouse empires of the day that there is a message he wants to send loud and clear to the ancient world. His message? ‘This is who I am! I am the rightful ruler of the earth, and I stand up for the weak, exploited and oppressed!” (218)
Unfortunately, I don’t buy Butler’s attempt to ameliorate moral objections be recasting the narrative in these terms. I’ll introduce the problems by addressing his discussion of David and Goliath since it parallels his treatment of Israel and Canaan. In his discussion of this familiar story (218-21), Butler adopts the standard reading of a gross mismatch: “David’s sling and stone … are child’s play: a laughable toy against an armored giant….” (219-20) This allows him to conclude that David’s victory provides a sign of God’s favor and identification with the weak and oppressed.
While Butler’s reading is very common, I believe it is deeply misguided. In offering a response I’ll draw upon a couple points from Malcolm Gladwell’s careful deconstruction of that familiar narrative in his book David and Goliath. To begin with, David’s sling was not a “laughable toy”. On the contrary, it was a serious weapon of war. After all, you don’t kill lions and bears with a child’s toy (1 Sam. 17:36). Gladwell sets the scene with context:
“[David] puts a rock into his sling, and whips it around and around, faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectile at Goliath’s forehead—the giant’s only point of vulnerability. Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun.” (Gladwell, David and Goliath, 11, emphasis added)
As for Goliath, was he the fearsome giant that is portrayed? He certainly was if you got close. But David ignored the convention of hand-to-hand combat in favor of his sling. What is more, Gladwell offers a reasonable speculation that Goliath likely suffered from acromegaly. This disorder of the pituitary which leads to great size brings with it a range of medical difficulties including poor vision and double vision (14). Interestingly, several details in the narrative support this conclusion including the fact that Goliath had to be led onto the battlefield by an attendant, his call to David to come close so that he can see him, and his statement that David was coming at him with sticks (plural) when David had but one stick.
So while the narrative does present a significant mismatch, it is not in the way Butler supposes. As historian Robert Dohrenwend observes: “Goliath had as much chance against David as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an [opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol.” (Cited in Gladwell, 12)
Dohrenwend’s point reminds me of this famous scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark:
Butler’s handling of the David and Goliath narrative is reflective of the broader problems with his treatment of Israel’s invasion of Canaan. His strategy begins with the presentation of Israel as the victim and Canaan as the dominant power and aggressor. This certainly rings true of the Israel/Egypt relation, but it is not a plausible reading of Israel’s invasion of Canaan.
To begin with, Canaan wasn’t “an assimilator of nations, a devourer of peoples.” (212) On the contrary, it was a smattering of insignificant petty kingdoms. Nor were the Canaanites the bold military aggressors in this campaign. Instead, Rahab recounts that the residents of Jericho were utterly terrified — their hearts were melting — as the Israelites approached (Josh. 2:10-11). And when the Israelites finally arrived, the Canaanites didn’t march out to meet them. Instead, they locked the gates and remained inside (Josh. 6:1).
What about Butler’s claim that the Israelites were grossly outmatched in terms of weaponry? That also doesn’t ring true. After all, Israel began their journey by plundering the Egyptians (Ex. 12:36), and presumably that would have included their pick of the most advanced weaponry from one of the world powers of the time. So it is no surprise that the Israelites repeatedly wield this weaponry on the way to Canaan (e.g. Ex. 17:13, 32:27; Num. 21:24) and that they did so when they battled Jericho as well (Josh. 6:21).
A divine eviction notice
Let’s get back to the book. Butler’s next task is to defend the text against the genocide reading. His work here draws heavily on scholars like Richard Hess and Paul Copan. (Stay tuned in this blog for my forthcoming review of Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s new book Did God Really Command Genocide?)
First, Butler follows scholars like Copan in reading the references to total massacre (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:16-17 ) as hyperbolic war rhetoric. Thus, phrases like “do not leave alive anything that breathes” are closer to the coach’s directive on the basketball court — “Murder ’em!” — than the genocidaire’s programmatic plan for the eradication of a population.
Second, Butler argues that the text teaches displacement rather than genocide. He does so by pointing to the fact that the language of driving out and expulsing the Canaanites from the land is regularly invoked. (Copan and Flannagan claim that the language of driving out of the land occurs twice as often as the language of massacre.) Butler rightly notes that “Being ‘driven out’ is the language of eviction, not murder.” (232)
Next, Butler notes that God was patient, waiting four hundred years (234) and that Canaan was inexorably wicked (235). (Butler invokes a very helpful analogy on 236-7 set against the geography of California and Texas.)
At this point, Butler explores the theme of Jesus returning to wage war on contemporary Babylon. He makes some powerful points on the problem of social justice and the exploitation of the poor and the world’s resources (e.g. 248-53). Butler opines that we need to reclaim the language of holy war (261) but conceiving of it in God’s terms of a war on injustice and all that runs counter to the kingdom.
I resonate with much of what Butler says when it comes to social justice. But not all of it. In particular, I am deeply disturbed by Butler’s willingness to endorse state-based violence. Consider, for example, the following passage where he contrasts the unjust torture of individual soldiers (e.g. Nazis) with the purported justice of a state using the most extreme measures to defeat a state enemy (e.g. the Third Reich):
“Bombing an empire is done to end a war; burning an individual is done for revenge. Bombing seeks peace, and in the interest of that peace takes up violence against hostile, aggressive, powerful forces; burning seeks violence, and in the interest of that violence inflicts vengeance on defeated, helpless, powerless forces. Bombing is a picture of fire falling from heaven; burning, of flames set up from earth.” (278)
I find this passage chilling for many reasons. Bombs from heaven? I think some background is necessary to illumine the radical incongruity of that image. During World War 2 the Allied Forces firebombed civilian targets like Hamburg in Germany, creating massive firestorms that produced hurricane force winds and ground temperatures exceeding 2000°F. To put that into some kind of perspective, the temperature was hot enough to melt the asphalt streets and granite building blocks (Margaret Goldstein, World War II: Europe, 57). As you can imagine, attacks on this scale resulted in the massacre of tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom were vaporized, baked alive, and reduced to ash.
That still doesn’t give us a sense of the horror. So consider this passage from W.G. Sebald’s 1997 Zurich Lectures which was published in his posthumous On the Natural History of Destruction. In the passage Sebald describes the effect of one of the many Allied instances of firebombing:
“Within a few minutes, huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some twenty square kilometers, and they merged so rapidly that only a quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at one-twenty A.M., a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising two thousand meters into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, resonating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out at once. The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height, the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising billboards through the air, tore trees from the ground, and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades, the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over a hundred and fifty kilometers an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tram car windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt. No one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died.” (On the Natural History of Destruction, 27)
That’s the face of state-based violence. If you’re willing to do that against a foe, are you really better than the people you’re fighting?
I don’t find Butler’s attempt to remove the moral problems of the Canaanite holy war narrative persuasive for many reasons. But ultimately they are summarized by this passage in which historian Howard Zinn recalls his time as a WWII bombardier:
“We had been trained to fly planes, fire guns, operate bombsights, and to take pride in doing the job well. And we had been trained to follow orders, which there was no reason to question, because everyone on our side was good, and on the other side, bad. Besides, we didn’t have to watch a little girl’s legs get blown off by our bombs; we were 30,000 feet high and no human being on the ground was visible, no scream could be heard.” (Passionate Declarations, 42)
There are two points I want to make from this Zinn quote. First, our complicity in violence is tied to our ability to keep our distance from it and dehumanize the victims of it. And that’s what Butler does here. While Butler aims to deconstruct caricatures, it seems to me that his presentation depends on the caricatures of his chosen out-group. For example, he perpetuates a caricature of Goliath as a towering monster when in reality the man was likely exploited by the war machine even as he suffered the debilitating effects of acromegaly. This would be a great moment to consider seriously Eric Seibert’s provocative and destabilizing call to read with the Canaanites. (To learn more, read my print interview with Seibert and listen to my audio interview.)
Let’s grant for the sake of argument Butler’s claim that the Israelites were not committing a genocide and were, in fact, only concerned to dispossess the Canaanites of their land. (I don’t, in fact, grant this, but I don’t need to argue for genocide to make my point.) What Butler does, in effect, is transform the Canaanite occupation from a straightforward genocide into an ethnic cleansing. Some folks might protest that label by pointing out that Rahab was allowed to live (and stay) and she was a Canaanite. The problem with that response is that she was only allowed to stay because she converted to Israel’s religion. Ethnic cleansing just is the enforced religious and/or ethnic homogenization of a geographic region. Thus, Butler is minimally committed to a defense of ethnic cleansing.
Butler’s ethnic cleansing, like the bombing of French villages, is relatively easy to contemplate when you’re thirty thousand feet up. But take a closer look and try to envision how that scenario would have unfolded in real spacetime. Imagine a ninety year old man being woken in the middle of the night. “Father!” he hears his son in the darkness. “The Israelites have taken Jericho. They are advancing! We must flee.” But the old man is lame and he cannot walk any longer. Nor can he imagine leaving the only home he has ever known, a piece of land his forefathers settled centuries ago. “Leave me, my son,” he says. “Father, I cannot leave you!” his son replies, weeping. “I will carry you.” “No,” the old man replies sternly. “You must leave me or you will all die.” Finally, the son agrees. Through tears and much agony, the family departs into the night with a handful of belongings. Minutes later the old man hears an Israelite soldier enter the home. The man walks up to him and looks down at him with a steel gaze. “I found one!” he bellows as he draws his sword.
That’s one, tiny snapshot of what Butler’s ethnic cleansing would look like on the ground.
This brings me to Zinn’s second observation regarding the simplistic binary oppositions one finds in war: “everyone on our side was good, and on the other side, bad.” From one perspective, Butler is keenly aware of the indefensible nature of this binary opposition. After all, he is as keen to point out the sins of the Israelites (and, for that matter, the modern West) as the Canaanites.
At the same time, when it comes to his reading of the biblical narrative, Butler continues to perpetuate those same oppositions. He never stops to question the accuracy of the narrative as it has been presented to him. It is this which leads him to dehumanize Goliath into a bogeyman, and to defend the ethnic cleansing of Canaanites and (so I would argue) to embrace the promise of redemptive violence — bombs from heaven — as a solution for injustice in the world.
There are other ways to read the Bible, ways that uphold the authority and revelatory status of scripture, and many scholars like John Collins, Eric Seibert, Kent Sparks and Peter Enns have explored those ways. If we are going to read the Bible honestly, we need to begin with a hermeneutical consistency that applies to oneself and one’s own belief community the same standards they extend to others. For example if it’s ethnic cleansing when ISIL does it to the Yazidis, then it is ethnic cleansing when Israel does it to the Canaanites.
This hermeneutical consistency offers a refreshingly honest take on familiar texts. For example, in The Bible Tells Me So Peter Enns points out that the Canaanite curse is sourced in the story of Noah cursing his son Ham and his descendants (the Canaanites) for seeing him naked and drunk. Enns candidly observes, “If we read this in another ancient book, we’d call it propaganda….” (34) So the next question is what to do with a text we now recognize to function as propaganda. (As for what to do with David and Goliath, you might start by reading Gladwell’s book.)
On my Twitter account I describe myself as an inactive activist for social justice. Unfortunately, that’s more true than it is false. Butler, by contrast, is an active activist for social justice, and for that I laud him. He is also a thoughtful and provocative writer and I look forward to his next book. At the same time, it seems to me that his heart for compassion and social justice fits poorly with his willingness to bomb at thirty thousand feet. Instead, I would encourage him to land the plane, walk into the village, and see what he finds.
Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book.