Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide 4

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

We've been thinking about God's command in 1 Samuel 15 to kill the Amalekites. We've seen that the Amalekites were people who had set themselves in opposition to God's plan to bless the world; we've seen that the command gave plenty of scope for individual Amalekites to change their minds and escape from the attack. Now I want to look at the Amalekite genocide in the light of the cross.

Jesus is the True Israel

The first thing I want to note is that the theme of Israel as God's means of blessing the whole earth finds its fulfilment in Jesus. Jesus is where God reveals himself perfectly; Jesus is the one the nations stream to; he is the one who obeys God perfectly. Again and again, the gospels present Jesus as the True Israel. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:17

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

And as such, Jesus is the one whom God defends, and the one whom he appoints as judge over the nations.

Jesus is made the True Amalek

As the Bible goes on, it becomes clear that the enmity to God and his plans which was so clear in the Amalekites is found in each individual person. We all try to resist God's plan, to reject our part in it and oppose Jesus' lordship. And the Bible calls that sin. But in one of the most shocking verses of the Bible, we read this.

God made him who had no sin [i.e. Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV

Jesus became the personification of all opposition to God. He was made the true Amalek as well as the true Israel. He became the one who had to be killed so that God could bless the whole world. And he did that for us, for those who reject him and oppose him, so that we can know what it means to be part of God's true people.

That is the true and lasting significance of the sentence to destruction in 1 Samuel 15. It is the sentence that God himself in the person of Jesus chose to take on himself for us. Jesus becomes the person whom God destroys so that we can become the people whom God defends.

Christian Contemporary Music

When I was a teenager, I used to listen mainly to Christian Contemporary Music (CCM). That wasn't forced on me - it was my decision. The reason was that I found myself being too easily influenced by some of the lyrics in secular pop music, which I was only just beginning to get into when I gave up listening to it.

If I was now advising someone like I was then, I'd given them a copy of Desiring God by John Piper, a load of Matt Redman CDs and some U2. But I didn't really know about U2 and the cutting edge (pun intentional) of worship music at the time was Martin Smith and songs like "These are the days of Elijah" and "Do you feel the mountains tremble?" And while those songs have some merit (Days of Elijah has a great chorus), the verses are too, well, untrue, for me to get on well with them. So CCM it was, and even then I was pretty picky.

As a result of this, I got to know a lot of CCM before I knew much secular pop. Now that I listen to quite a bit more pop music, one thing has really struck me. An awful lot of the award-winning CCM artists, people I thought were really musically inventive and so on, ripped their best tunes off secular pop music. I don't think DC Talk or the Tribe did, but a lot of others certainly did.

Now, let's view this through the lens of the US Culture Wars. In the US, or so I understand, there are a significant number of people who only listen to Christian music, even to the point of rejecting secular pop. However, many of their heroes in the CCM scene are lifting their tunes from secular pop, which means that they themselves are listening to quite a lot of it. Hmmmmm....

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide 3

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

So far, we have seen that the Amalekites were the nation that always opposed God's plan to bless the world. But even given that, it can still be difficult to see how the same God that loved his enemies so much that he died for them could command that the Amalekites could be wiped out in the way that he does in 1 Samuel 15.

The first place to start looking for an answer is in the passage itself...

In verse 5, Saul reaches the city of the Amalekites. But he doesn't attack immediately. Instead he sends a message to another tribe – the Kenites. According to Judges 4:11, the Kenites were the descendants of Moses' father-in-law, variously called Jethro and Hobab. Now here's an interesting contrast.

The first two groups of people that the Israelites meet after coming out of Egypt are the Amalekites in Exodus 17 and the Kenites (Jethro and his family) in Exodus 18. The Amalekites try to destroy Israel. Jethro and his family help Israel. They want in on God's blessing which is coming to the whole world, and they help Israel and worship the God of Israel.

So when Saul comes to fight against the Amalekites, the first thing he does is that he sends a message to the Kenites.

Then Saul said to the Kenites, "Go, depart; go down from among the Amalekites, lest I destroy you with them. For you showed kindness to all the people of Israel when they came up out of Egypt." So the Kenites departed from among the Amalekites.
1 Samuel 15:6

Now, that makes it look very much as if the Kenites are mingling with the Amalekites fairly freely. Suppose an Amalekite decided that they didn't want to fight against Israel. There doesn't seem to have been anything stopping them from deciding to be a Kenite – dressing themselves up as a Kenite and just slipping off. The Amalekites had a way out, if only they were willing to deny their identity as Amalekites.

You see, the Amalekites' national identity is set up against Israel and against God's plan to bless the world. But there is a way out – they just have to renounce that identity and join in with the people who worshipped and served God. They have to get rid of the thing that means they will be going against God. Maybe some of them did. But many of them didn't.

The second way out is the one given in Deuteronomy 20, which is where the laws for how Israel was meant to fight its battles are set out.

When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. And when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword...
Deuteronomy 20:10-13, ESV

I don't know if Saul followed this rule or not when he attacked the Amalekites, but he should have done. If the Amalekites had surrendered, they would have been spared. But once again, they would have had to renounce their identity as Amalekites and become vassals of Israel. The only way they would have been destroyed is if they refused to surrender to God's plan.

So the Amalekites as a group had the opportunity to surrender to God's plan to bless the world, and the Amalekites as individuals had the opportunity to renounce their group and join in with the people who had sought to be a part of God's plan. It's not exactly genocide, is it?

Paul Copan, in his recent paper Yahweh Wars and the Canaanites points out that the command is to kill whoever is there, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they kill women and children. As Goldingay writes: “When a city is in danger of falling, people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out... Only people who do not get out, such as the city's defenders, get killed.” So the command in 1 Samuel 15:3 looks a lot less like genocide, and a lot more like “If anyone - man, woman, child, whoever - doesn't take the chance to give up their struggle permanently, then kill them. And make sure that you don't profit from doing it.”

This is backed up by the way that Hebrew writers seem to use language when talking about war. Here's an example.

Hadad was from the royal family of Edom, and here is how the LORD made him Solomon's enemy: Some time earlier, when David conquered the nation of Edom, Joab his army commander went there to bury those who had died in battle. Joab and his soldiers stayed in Edom six months, and during that time they killed every man and boy who lived there. Hadad was a boy at the time, but he escaped to Midian with some of his father's officials...
1 Kings 11:14-17, CEV

Killing every man and boy who lives in Edom doesn't mean “killing every man and boy who lived in Edom and making sure that none escape”. It seems that it means “making sure there aren't any men or boys living there any more.” In the same way, killing all the Amalekites seems to mean killing everyone who keep on identifying themselves as Amalekites and who keep setting themselves against God's plan.

This is about breaking and destroying the identity of Amalek as a nation, so that they as a nation cannot continue to oppose God's plan to bless the world. It isn't about hatred of individuals, or about killing those individuals, unless they want to keep on being Amalekites and to keep on fighting against God's plan.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Right Use of the Old Testament

I was reading 1 Timothy 1 this morning, and realised that it could have been written to some modern Biblical scholars.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain persons not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God's work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers. And it is for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:3-11, TNIV

People shouldn't waste their time on myths, endless genealogies, or source criticism of the OT. The purpose of the Law (and Paul's examples all seem to be related to the 10 Commandments here) is not to give us insight into its sources or its relation to other ANE codes of law, but to tell people who are living wrongly how to live rightly.

The Amalekite Genocide 2

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

I've been discussing 1 Samuel 15, and God's command to Saul to exterminate the Amalekites. So far, I've established that the Amalekites were the nation who, more than any other, attacked and tried to destroy the Israelites. They had been attacking the Israelites right from when Israel came out of Egypt, and they would keep on doing so for another 600 years.

But so far, what I've written could be seen as just God taking sides in an old argument between two nations. Or as someone put it "A toddler-God here, kicking over his blue toy soldiers, because today he likes the green ones better."

To understand why that isn't the case, we need to think about the place of this all in the big picture of the Bible.

The Amalekites in Salvation History

Israel was God's chosen people. But they weren't chosen so God could bless them and curse everyone else. They were chosen to be God's conduit of blessing to the whole world (as Chris Wright keeps pointing out). As God's original promise to Abraham says:

all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
Genesis 12:3b, NIV

Israel was God's chosen conduit of blessing to the whole world. Amalek had actually had a chance to be there as well, being descended from Esau. But Esau had renounced his blessing, trading it in for a bowl of soup, and Amalek continued in that. They had decided that they would oppose the very means that God had chosen to bless them and every other nation, and by the time we reach 1 Samuel 15, they have been consistently opposing it for hundreds of years and show no sign of letting up.

In his book Violence, Hospitality and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition, theologian Hans Boersma points out that hospitality requires the potential for violence. Suppose that Britain welcomes a refugee from Burma. In Burma, they are being hunted by the authorities because of their statements about human rights violations, or something like that. If Britain really welcomes them, part of that is being willing to resist the Burmese government sending agents over here to kill them, and resisting in a violent way if necessary. Part of hospitality is willingness to protect the people you are being hospitable towards.

In the same way, God is determined to bless the world, and at the stage of 1 Samuel 15, the way he has decided to bless the world is through Israel shining as a light for him among the nations. As it turns out, they're rubbish at that, but that's a different story. Even so, we still get people like Ruth and like the Gibeonites coming in from outside Israel to experience some of God's blessing to the world through Israel. And so part of what it means for God to bless the world is for God to protect Israel, his pipeline for blessing to the world.

The Amalekites had chosen not to be part of the means by which God blessed the world, and now they chose to oppose the means God was using to bring blessing to the world. If God was going to keep on blessing the world, he needed to stop the Amalekites.

But what about the children?

So far, I think I've established a decent reason for why God should want people to fight against the Amalekites. But we still haven't really dealt with the issue – why does God command a genocide here?

I think there are several reasons. Minor ones include that the Amalekites seem to have been notorious for killing children when they attacked (1 Sam 15:33), so it is repayment in kind. But while there's a kind of grisly poetic justice about that, I don't think it's the main reason, and I don't think it's an adequate answer either.

A better reason is the one given in Exodus 17.

The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.
Exodus 17:16b, ESV

God knew that the Amalekites would always oppose Israel – that the children of the Amalekites would do it when they grew up, and their descendants too – as we see with Haman in the book of Esther.

Time for an analogy. Suppose that you met Stalin, or Harold Shipman, or some notorious evil person, when they were a child. Suppose you somehow knew all the evil they would do, all the lives they would destroy, and that the only way you could stop it was by killing them, and that was within your power. Could it be right to kill them in such a situation?

It isn't an easy question. I think it's probably similar to the one that Bonhoeffer wrestled with. He was a pacifist church leader in Nazi Germany, and was eventually executed for his part in a plot to kill Hitler. He wrestled with it for a long time, and eventually concluded that he had to, not because of what Hitler had done – that's a matter for God's judgement – but because of what Hitler would continue to do if he was not stopped.

My point is this. I think that in a situation like that, God could command the killing of a young Joseph Stalin because he knows the future and knows for certain what would happen if we didn't do it. If we were absolutely 100% certain that we were hearing God correctly, it wouldn't be wrong to obey God on something like that.

And the situation in 1 Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God's plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God's plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren't destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren't destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God's plan, so he was proved right by that.

It's an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God's plan would not be safe.

But this still sounds, well, merciless. We'll see why it wasn't as merciless as it looks in part 3...

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Amalekite Genocide - Part 1

Over at Ship of Fools, there's a discussion going on entitled "Chapter and Worse - because the Good Book could be Better". I'm pretty sure that's not true, so I've been wading in on some of the discussions and trying to show the value of the verses. It seems to me that if all the passages people didn't like were omitted, the Bible would have nothing to say to us except that God loves us because we are wonderful people or something.

Anyway, one of the passages which came up (as I thought it probably would) was the so-called Amalekite genocide in 1 Samuel 15.

And Samuel said to Saul, "The LORD sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts, 'I have noted what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"
1 Samuel 15:1-3, ESV

People argue, with a fair bit of justification, that this looks like God is commanding genocide, and that genocide is a Very Bad Thing, so that creates some problems for our understanding of God's goodness.

I honestly think that's all true. There are various ways people have tried getting out of it, and they don't really work.

  • Some people try saying that the Bible isn't accurate in reporting this event. But that then implies that the Bible isn't an accurate record for knowing God's character, so we can't really know God at all.
  • Some people try saying that this is Samuel's command, not God's, and that Samuel is only saying that it comes from God. However, that runs into problems when you remember that 1 Samuel presents Samuel as an ideal prophet - the prophet like Moses from Deuteronomy 18 who accurately speaks from God.

It also gets worse for people who try to avoid the force of these verses. Saul doesn't obey Samuel's command - he spares the life of King Agag (probably a title for the king of the Amalekites, like Pharaoh is of the king of the Egyptians), and also of some of the animals and so on, as a result of which God gets annoyed with Saul, and rejects him as king (v10-25).

I think we have to take the full force of these verses. God commands a genocide, and yet somehow he is good and loving. What on earth (or in heaven) is going on?

Before we can get to an answer to that, we need to think about several key issues.

Who were the Amalekites?

First up, who were the Amalekites? What made them so bad?

The Amalekites were the descendents and followers of Amalek, grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12,16), brother of Jacob also known as Israel. As such, the Amalekites weren't total foreigners to God. Esau was the one who had sold his birthright and his part in God's promise. He had been part of God's covenant people, but he valued his own apetites more. So the Edomites (Esau's descendents, including the Amalekites) were people who had opted out en masse of the covenant which defined God's people.

They weren't Canaanites. Israel was not a threat to them; Israel was not going to take their land. Their relationship to the Amalekites was like their relationship to the other Edomites when they said "Please let us pass through your country. We will not go through any field or vineyard, or drink water from any well. We will travel along the king's highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory." (Numbers 20:17)

But the Amalekites really really didn't like Israel. At the very birth of the nation of Israel, when they came out of Egypt and were at their most vulnerable, before they even got to Sinai and when they didn't even have any water, the Amalekites came and attacked them (Exodus 17:8). Israel were forced to fight their very first battle, fighting for their lives against the Amalekites, under the leadership of Moses. After God gave Moses an amazing victory, Exodus says this:

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven."

Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. He said, "For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation."

Exodus 17:14-16, NIV

The Amalekites were the people who hated Israel, right from the start. And though Moses said that God would be at war it looks very much as if it's the Amalekites who are at war with him. Israel have a lot of wars between Moses and Saul, but they never once attack the Amalekites.

The Amalekites attack Israel though. In Numbers 14:45, they attack Israel again while they are still in the desert. In Judges 3:13 they join in with the Moabites in attacking Israel. In Judges 6:3, they invade Israel "whenever the Israelites planted their crops", and together with the Midianites "did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys." Later in Judges 6 and 7 they invade again and are fought off by Gideon. The Amalekites show that generation after generation, they are at war with Israel and with God.

Even long after Saul (and Saul's successor David) have fought against and mostly eradicated the Amalekites, we get one more Amalekite coming up. 600 years after them, the Persians are ruling the whole area, and a man called Haman, an Agagite gets a lot of power. "Agagite" probably means that he was descended from the Amalekite kings, known as Agag.

After these events, King Xerxes (of Persia) honored Haman son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king's gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

Then the royal officials at the king's gate asked Mordecai, "Why do you disobey the king's command?" Day after day they spoke to him but he refused to comply. Therefore they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai's behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them he was a Jew.

When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai's people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai's people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.

Esther 3:1-6, NIV

The Amalekites weren't just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.

The Amalekites were vicious as well, and were noted for killing children (1 Sam 15:33).

That explains some of the background to the conflict in 1 Samuel 15. It shows that what is being commanded is an act of war in a conflict which the Israelites didn't start, and which was never going to be resolved by negotiation. But I don't think it fully explains or justifies the command - that needs us to think about the theological context as well, which can wait for another post.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Being True to Yourself

There's something I've noticed where the Church is blindly following society, and getting into all kinds of trouble as a result.

In general, it's more of a problem the more the church understands and identifies with contemporary society. So I'd guess that a clear majority of charismatic evangelical leaders I know believe this in some form, with fewer conservative evangelicals going along with it (but then, I think charismatics are usually better at relating to postmodern society - conservatives are often still relating to modern society, which explains why in university towns people doing artsy subjects tend to be a lot more charismatic than people doing sciencey subjects).

Liberals seem to believe this far more than traditionalists. And I've hardly come across it at all among conservative Anglo-Catholics, but they often seem to relate to modern society by having rituals which contrast dramatically with it.

The belief that I think the Church has absorbed from culture is this:

It is very important to have "personal integrity" - to be true to yourself and to act in a way that fits with who you are.

I want to think about this area briefly. I think it's very important. For example, I think it is one of the key issues underlying the whole gay debate, and unless it is dealt with, could well lead to a big split among evangelicals.

Personal Integrity

Firstly, I'm pretty sure that's not what "personal integrity" means. Personal integrity means keeping your word, even when it hurts (Ps 15:4) and sticking by moral principles rather than by some sense of who I am.

God's Integrity

The closest passage I can think of in the Bible to this common view is 2 Timothy 2:13 - "if we are faithless, God will remain faithful, for he cannot disown himself." But things are different for God, because he's perfect. Compare the following two sentences: "I should not disown God." and "I should not disown myself." Which is more important? Isn't it obvious that the key issue is not disowning God rather than no disowning myself? Why? Because to disown God means acting in a way that doesn't fit with his perfect character. God cannot disown himself, so we should not disown him.

The crunch issue here is the Incarnation and the cross.

Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death —
even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:4-8, NIV

Was Christ true to himself? In the sense of being true to his Father and to his Father's moral character, yes he was. But in today's sense of being true to who he himself was, he most certainly wasn't true to that. He was something and made himself nothing. When the moral and ethical imperatives of being true to God clashed with the ontological imperatives of being "true to himself", Jesus Christ became nothing, and he did it for us.

The Way of the Cross

And actually, that's meant to be a big part of the pattern for our lives.

Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
Mark 8:34-35, NIV

Are we meant to be true to ourselves? No. We're meant to deny ourselves, be true to Jesus and to his Father, and follow in the glorious way of the Cross and Resurrection into new life in him.

The Way of the Cross in Mission

We are called to be Christ in our societies - Christ crucified to our old lives and raised in our new ones. And part of what that means is extreme adaptability in missions, because Christ became human and made himself nothing for us.

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22

Those words grate with contemporary assumptions about being true to yourself. We have got so good at becoming like modern society to win modern society, that we have absorbed far too many of the unhealthy aspects of it. Some of us have often ceased to be merely in the world - too often we are of it as well. And others are not sufficiently in it because we spent so long in a past world that we got wedded to that instead.

Paul was willing to place the issue of who he was up for grabs, because it was far more important that he reach people for Christ than that he be "true to who he was". Paul was true to Jesus - willing to deny himself. Are we?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Monotheism and Monolatrism

In my last post, I wrote quite a bit of dull academic stuff about monotheism in ancient Israel and in modern academic theology. This post should hopefully be more relevant and interesting.

What the Old Testament often teaches isn't monotheism – the belief that only one god actually exists. What the Bible tends to teach instead is monolatrism. A few definitions will help:

Monotheism: - the belief that only one god exists
Henotheism: - worshipping only one god without denying the existence of other gods
Monolatrism: - the belief that there is only one god who is worth worshipping.

I think monolatrism is actually quite a sensible approach. If you're standing next to the temple of Baal, it's quite hard to persuade people that Baal doesn't really exist. Finding proof that something doesn't exist is usually very hard outside mathematics. What the prophets argued was that Baal was useless and wasn't worth worshipping. He couldn't save people, he couldn't call down fire on sacrifices, he wasn't worth worshipping.

Today, the idols are often different. There aren't many people who worship statues of Baal around. But there are plenty of people who worship football teams, or money, or success, or pleasure. And what we are to show them isn't that their gods don't exist, but that they aren't worth worshipping – it isn't worth giving your life to a football team or to money or to pleasure. But it is worth giving your life to God.

It actually makes far more sense to teach monolatrism than monotheism when you're speaking to people who don't agree with you. So it isn't surprising that that's what the prophets did in the Old Testament. And, contrary to a lot of modern theologians, it doesn't show that they're on a journey from polytheism to monotheism.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Monotheism in History

Sorry for not posting much recently - I've been away on a conference. Thoughts from that at some point...

At the moment, I'm reading The Church in an Age of Revolution by Alec Vidler. It's good as a kind of overview of the church in Britain and bits of Europe from 1789 to somewhere in the mid 1900s. One of the big events during that time is the rise of liberal Biblical interpretation and liberal scholarship challenging the authority of Scripture. One of the things that annoys me about the book is Vidler's continuing description of those who keep teaching the same truths and keep on teaching the Bible as reliable as "naive". That in itself could be a very naive description. Just because something is written by a "scholar" doesn't mean it's true, and especially not when the scholarship is done as shoddily as a lot of the stuff which was seen to challenge the Bible.

I don't even think that whole area should be described as "theology". After all, theology is about knowing and studying God ("theos"), just as biology is about knowing about and studying life ("bios"). But we cannot know God without him revealing himself to us, and if he hasn't revealed himself, as many so-called "theologians" claim, then we can't know him or study him. Anyway, enough of the rant. To the point.

One of the big areas in which the Bible is often attacked as unreliable is the way it describes the development of Israelite beliefs about God. Many modern scholars claim that Israel started out polytheistic, and developed via henotheism (believing that one god is much more important than the others) at the time of Hezekiah and Josiah (700s and 600s BC) to monotheism (belief that there's only one God) at the time of the exile (500s BC). They believe this partly because that is how they think religions develop (though without much evidence because they've never watched a religion develop), and partly because the archaeological evidence shows that there were lots of idols of different gods, particularly Asherah and Baal, around for the few hundred years before Hezekiah. And then because they think that the idea of monotheism only comes along in the 500s BC, they say that all the bits of the Bible that teach monotheism must have been written after that, and so you get most of the OT written during the Exile.

The main reason that I think this is bad scholarship is that the archaeological evidence also agrees pretty much perfectly with the Biblical account. After all, the Bible doesn't say that the people of Israel were monotheistic before Hezekiah. In fact, it says they worshipped lots and lots of idols.

Even worse, the Israelites tried to hide their sins from the LORD their God. They built their own local shrines everywhere in Israel - from small towns to large, walled cities. They also built stone images of foreign gods and set up sacred poles for the worship of Asherah on every hill and under every shady tree. They offered sacrifices at the shrines, just as the foreign nations had done before the LORD forced them out of Israel. They did sinful things that made the LORD very angry.

Even though the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to worship idols, they did it anyway. So the LORD made sure that every prophet warned Israel and Judah with these words: "I, the LORD, command you to stop doing sinful things and start obeying my laws and teachings! I gave them to your ancestors, and I told my servants the prophets to repeat them to you."

2 Kings 17:9-13, CEV

The picture the Bible paints isn't one of lots of monotheistic obedient Israelites. It's a picture where there are vast numbers of idols, but God keeps telling them that the idols are a bad idea. What Hezekiah and Josiah do is to try to get rid of the idolatry by returning to monolatry (only worshipping one god, whether or not you believe the others exist).

Hezekiah obeyed the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done. He destroyed the local shrines, then tore down the images of foreign gods and cut down the sacred pole for worshiping the goddess Asherah. He also smashed the bronze snake Moses had made. The people had named it Nehushtan and had been offering sacrifices to it.

2 Kings 18:3-4, CEV

So when people find statues that show people thought that God was married to Asherah, or that they worshipped Baal or whatever, we shouldn't be surprised at all. The archaeological evidence fits the Bible on this one just fine, so we don't need another theory.

Of course, the big difference between the two theories is what happened earlier. The Bible does say that there were a few brief periods much earlier in Israel's history when they only really did worship God and didn't use idols.

Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.
Joshua 24:31, ESV

There's also the time from early in David's reign until when Solomon introduced idol worship to keep his wives happy - that's somewhere around 1200BC with Joshua and around 1000BC with David and Solomon.

And interestingly enough, when we look at the archaeology for those periods, we find far fewer idols. Finkelstein, for example, found a whole series of villages in the hill country from about 1200BC, with virtually no idols or pig bones. Could this possibly suggest that Israel's later idolatry was not a stage in their religious development forwards, but rather them turning away from their earlier monotheism to idolatry, before finally coming back to monotheism during the exile? In other words, exactly what the Bible says happened....

I was going to write about why teaching henotheism and monolatry are possibly better responses to idolatry than teaching monotheism, but I seem to have written quite enough for now already!