Mighty Sampson had lots of hair, Alleluia.
Until Delilah shaved him bare. Alleluia.
When that hair grew back again, Alleluia.
What a ruckus he raised then! Alleluia.
Goliath was lookin’ for a fight. Alleluia.
Finally young David said, “Well, alright.” Alleluia.
Five smooth stones but just one single shot. Alleluia.
Scared of that giant……Not! Alleluia.
Who were the
enemy in these stories about Samson and David?
raising a ruckus was a way of life:
- He murders 30
Philistines to get their suits to pay off a bet that he lost because he
couldn’t keep his mouth shut in front of his Philistine bride.
- He burns up the
Philistines’ grain fields by setting 300 foxes loose in the fields tied
together by their tails with a burning torch between each pair. That was
because his father-in-law married his bride off to somebody else after
Samson stomped off in a huff.
- He allows himself to be
tied up and delivered to the enemy by fellow Israelites, who are afraid of
war with their Philistine overlords. He's just angling for a
chance to kill a thousand more.
Over and over he gets into trouble because of his weakness
for Philistine women. The one that finally does him in is Delilah. Three nights
in a row she begs him to tell her the secret of his strength. Three times he
tells her what to do to render him “as weak as any other man.” Three times her
relatives who are lying in wait to capture him find that Samson lied. When on
the fourth night Delilah cries and accuses him of not loving her, Samson
finally breaks down and tells her the real story. So the Philistines finally
have their man and gouge his eyes out for good measure. It’s
Samson who has the last laugh, however. Bound and blind, but with his hair and
strength grown back, standing between two supporting pillars of the temple to
the Philistines’ god, Dagon, Samson brings down the temple upon himself and a
throng of worshipers.
This is mostly legend, but Samson
could easily have been a real person, a battle hero of some renown. The Bible
says he judged Israel for
20 years, but it seems he didn’t accomplish much. The Philistines were as much
in control at the end of this period as ever.
David’s story is entirely different. David knows what he
wants—to be king of a strong, independent, prosperous nation—and systematically
goes about getting it. No doubt he was a hero in wars with the Philistines, but
his real accomplishment was to unite the 12 tribes of Israel with
him as the leader. This took personal bravery and skill, but also
conniving and ruthlessness as required. History, written by the winning side,
chose to remember a man entirely devoted to doing God’s will—except when he,
too, fell prey to lust.
as a follower of a Biblical faith, there’s a troublesome question behind these
stories of revenge and conquest. How does the Bible’s morality relate to the
God I believe in? Some of the morality exhibited in the Bible is just
wrong: Slavery and polygamy are accepted institutions; rebellious
sons are to be stoned and prostitutes burned or stoned; worshiping the wrong
god is a capital crime punishable by God himself. But the stories of the wars
the Israelites fought are where I have the biggest problem. Did God really direct
these battles, as the Bible says?
the really horrifying stories are in the Book of Joshua, Chapters 6-11. Over
and over the Israelites engage in what can only be called ethnic cleansing. And
God commands them to do it! Here are some of the chilling details:
After capturing the city of Jericho,
the Israelites “utterly destroyed all in the city [except Rahab's family], both
men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the
sword.” But all the silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron were to be
saved for “the treasury of the Lord.” (Joshua 6:19-21)
Then they marched against the city of Ai.
They rounded up and killed all its soldiers who had run away and then returned
to the city, which they “smote with the edge of the sword. And all who fell
that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai.”
(Joshua 8:24-25) They did the same to Libnah, Lachish, Eglon, Hebron,
Debir, and Hazor. (Joshua 10:29 - 11:11.
Some people say God needed to preserve the new monotheistic
faith from contamination by Israel’s
idol-worshiping neighbors, and the only way was to destroy the neighbors. Using
that logic religious people have justified all sorts of atrocious means in
pursuit of supposedly noble ends. If that logic is God’s, then we ought to take
sides with the devil instead of the Lord, as the lesser of two evils.
helps a little that modern archaeology shows most of the battles never took
place. Specifically, the cities mentioned in Joshua 6-11 didn’t even exist at
the time that the events supposedly happened. That lets God off the hook. God
couldn’t possibly have commanded the destruction of a non-existent city. Still,
why are these stories in the Bible? And what are we to make of a book that
contains such things?
searched and found a long article on this issue. (Eryl W. Davies, “The Morally
Dubious Passages of the Hebrew Bible: An Examination of Some Proposed
Solutions,” Currents in Biblical Research 2005; 3; 197) The
author mentions six ways of thinking about the bad stuff in the Bible and
rejects five of them, including two of my past guesses. I always thought it was
enough to understand that the Bible expresses God’s word in the words of human
beings, and as such it is conditioned by the culture in which it developed.
Davies calls this the “cultural relativist’s approach.” I also thought
different parts of the Bible naturally would exhibit different moralities
because people’s moral awareness develops over time. If God has anything to do
with it, this development should go in the direction of God’s own moral
standards. This is the “evolutionary approach.”
wrong with these approaches? First, the evolutionary approach: It assumes that
the earlier portions of the Bible would be more morally “primitive” than the
later, but that is not exactly the case. Besides, think about how we judge
moral progress. It has to be by our present-day standards. So progress is
movement toward the place where we are now. That’s perfectly reasonable, but you
have to wonder then why we need a Bible. Second, the cultural relativist’s
approach: It helps us see that we can’t just lift ideas out of the Bible along
with its culture and drop them into our very different culture and expect them
to fit. So do we separate what is merely cultural in the Bible from what is
universally valid? But we ourselves are culturally conditioned. What we find in
the Bible to be "universally valid" will be only what is approved by
our culture. Again, why do we need a Bible?
prefers what he calls the “reader response” approach. It’s not just a new way
of interpreting the Bible. It’s a new way of understanding what revelation is.
He says the Bible is something we have to wrestle with. Revelation does not
reside in the mere words of the Bible or even the thoughts and history
behind the words. Revelation only happens when people interact with these
words, thoughts, and history. Revelation is a “dialogue” between reader and
Bible. Sometimes that dialogue concludes with a resounding “No!” Davies
explains that we no longer expect the Bible to be scientifically or
historically without mistakes. This “No” shouldn’t disturb us either when
addressed to some of the Bible’s moral attitudes. I’m tentatively going along
with this “reader response” view of revelation. There are some obvious
questions, to which I propose answers here:
Is any reader’s response just as revelatory
as anybody else’s?
No. Obviously bible scholars have a role. I
think that the most important control over the process happens when the
reading is done in the context of the community formed by the book, that is,
Can other scriptures play the same role as
Yes, for their communities. No, for the
Christian. However, openness to ideas from other places, even ideas about
God, is very Christian and has been since the early Christians started
wrestling with Greek philosophy.
Do Christians very often say NO to their
Yes, among us ordinary pew warmers as well
as either conservative or liberal scholars--maybe more often than we should.
Nobody just accepts everything the bible says..
What’s another time when Christians should
say NO, besides the war stories?
Some biblical passages literally say that
baptism and faith in Jesus are necessary for salvation. Scholars look for
interpretations that leave heaven’s door open to sincere non-believers, but
it’s hard to do. Perhaps here it’s better to just say NO. God’s love applies
to everyone, as other parts of the Bible plainly indicate.
Do you ever have to say YES, and do
we all have to agree when and where, or is just wrestling with the Bible
enough to make one a Christian?
The YES’es and NO’s do matter. At some
point a NO puts one outside the Christian community; and, with the stories in
Joshua in mind, so might a YES.
What if you just say NO to the dialogue
with such an old text from a foreign culture?
To ignore the Bible or to treat it as just
another text is to be something other than Christian or Jew. This is the
first mandatory YES for a believer.
One final question: Is there anything
about the war stories that we can say YES to? This gets at the reason why these
stories are in the Bible--a real puzzle, but here's my attempt at a possible
answer. The Hebrew Bible relativizes the idea of power, along with other things
we put a lot of stock in. In the war stories it's never human power that
conquers. God weilds all the power in the Bible stories. Still humans cling to
their foolish ideas about their own power. War is the ultimate refusal on the
part of human beings to recognize the truth about power, and biblical wars are
no different, except for one thing: The Bible writers may not all have been
clear about the moral use of power, but they were sure about the moral status
of human pride and self-sufficiency. They taught their country to attribute
both their victories and their defeats to God. If the Bible insists on God’s
power just where we imagine ourselves at our most powerful, then the real
meaning must be that God is always acting. I think the correct response to the
war stories is to say NO to the violence but YES to the ever-present activity
David throws the stone, but God wins the
Holy, holy Lord of power and might. Alleluia.
A last problem that will go unresolved here. In
the Hebrew Bible God doesn't always win. He has an especially difficult time
getting his way with his own people. Just where it counts most God seems
weakest. We need to rethink the entire idea of power, and the war stories in
the Bible don't give us much help; but the Bible as a whole, I think, does.