I was at a christening two years ago when a priest in an Anglican church read a passage from the Old Testament. It was the story of how God’s annointed people, the Israelites, totally destroyed a rival tribe taking no prisoners and laying their villages waste. “It’s an allegorical story of course,” he lisped while I tried to suppress my laughter.
In the crusader era, nobody thought the bloodier passages of the Old Testament were allegorical. On the contrary, they were an object lesson on how to deal with the wicked enemies of Christianity – ie, the Saracens. For Saracens, read Canaanites and every other tribe that opposed the children of Israel.
However, there have been tender souls throughout the Christian era who have found the violence in the Bible a little hard to handle. And different solutions to the conundrum have been offered. In the earliest years of Christianity, there were conflicts between two groups called the Ebionites and the Marcionites. The former believed Jesus was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and was essentially a Jewish figure. The followers of the thinker Marcion of Sinope decided that the Old Testament was such a ghastly, blood drenched text that the Christian god could not possibly have inspired it. The solution: lose the Old Testament entirely.
In the second century AD, this was fiercely opposed by Origen – who is not a saint because he thought Jesus was inferior to God the father (tut tut in later Catholic eyes). Along with the fifth century theologian Augustine, he argued that these were illustrative stories. Sure the Israelites went off and smote people in foul ways that would have landed them in a tribunal at the Hague in our own time….but these tales are simply pointing us towards better behaviour. So – for example – the Israelites finding and killing five kings in a cave – it’s not what it looks like. No, the five kings (Origen tortuously explains) are the five human senses which dwell in the cave of our mind.
That didn’t wash with the Enlightenment thinkers of the eighteenth century – including a couple of the Founding Fathers of the United States. The writer and fervent supporter of the American revolution, Thomas Paine, even said that the god of the Old Testament was so abhorrent that he had little by way of moral virtue. He should be completely discarded.
In a book out last year called ‘Laying Down the Sword: Why we can’t ignore the bible’s violent verses‘ – Philip Jenkins says it’s pointless trying to ignore the insanely vicious nature of some of the bible. He argues that the bible is actually more violent than the Koran, it’s just that Christians have gradually eased away from the tribal conflicts that obviously fired up some of the book’s many authors. Parts of the Old Testament are borderline genocidal and Jenkins asks us to try and look at the Israelites through the eyes of the Canaanites – and imagine how scary they would have seemed.
Several blogs give almost amusing examples of the psychotic behaviour of God. For example – he leads his people out of captivity in Egypt. A joyous occasion for the world to be sure. Unless you happen to be King Og of Bashan and his people whom God took a dislike to and ordered the Israelites to slay en masse not leaving a single person standing. Expanding in to Palestine, God ordered his people at various times to wipe out entire populations including the citizens of Jericho. The prophet Samuel instructed Saul to kill all the Amelakites….and he meant all of them. Men, women, children, babies in arms, herds, flocks, camels, asses, etc Quite how a camel had offended God is anybody’s guess.
Or how about Isaiah on what should happen to the good folk of Babylon: “All who are found will be stabbed, all who are taken will fall by the sword, their infants will be dashed to the ground before their eyes…”