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Rowing With Michael

Verse 12, Fighters

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?

Answer: The Philistines.

 

For Samson 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.

 

For me 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?

 

Most of 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.

 

It 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?

 

I 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.”

 

What’s 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?

 

Davies 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, the Church.
Can other scriptures play the same role as the Bible?
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 own Bible?
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 of God.

 

David throws the stone, but God wins the fight, Alleluia.

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.

On to Solomon 

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