Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hérem: God’s Holy War

As I walked into the Bible study classroom on a recent Sunday one of the members had a question for me.  He opened his Bible to Joshua 6:15-21 and stabbed his finger at the text and said "this bothers me greatly." I could see the pain in his face.  "I was hoping you would have an answer," he added.  The story that bothered him was the destruction of Jericho by the Israelites in which Joshua tells them "The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord" (6:17), meaning that every person and thing in the city shall be destroyed. The only exceptions were "all silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron" were to go into the treasury of the Lord (6:19) and Rahab and her house were to be preserved (6:17). When the Israelites took the city, they followed Joshua's orders and "utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword" (6:21).
            Such cruelty and utter disregard for life characterizes the nature of Hérem, the Holy War.  The bloody inhuman rules of engagement are laid down in Deut 20:10-20.  The Conquest of the "Promised Land" by the Israelites was Holy War.  A particular egregious Holy War story is the annihilation of the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15) in which God (so said Samuel, his prophet, 1 Sam 15:1-3) took revenge on the Amalekites for their opposition to Israel during the Exodus from Egypt (Deut 25:17-19; Exod 17:8-13; Judges 6:3-5).  God told the Israelites to destroy everything down to the last nursing baby (1 Sam 15:3).
            My friend struggled with what these stories implied to him about the character of God; they implied something foreign to everything he had been taught about God, which was that God is a God of Love.  Two principal ideas that Baptists affirm (the Bible constitutes the revelation of God, and the Bible is true—i.e., revealed truth) are largely responsible for his dilemma:  If God is a God of love and compassion, then it could not be true that God is responsible for the unconscionable actions of Israel at Jericho and later against the Amalekites, but if the Bible is revealed truth, then what it says about God must be true—a kind of "catch 22," as it were!  This is a difficult position for a Baptist to be in since both ideas are prime "truths" in Baptist faith, and he had inadvertently stumbled into, and what is more recognized, the clash producing his dilemma.  It is a terrible thing to discover that God has a mean streak.   
For a rational person the dilemma is an existential turning point; for both postulates cannot be correct!  Hence, one must change one's view of God to match these biblical stories, or one must change how one views the Bible—although deeply held religious beliefs, which support a religious view of reality, generally find illogical ways to prevail over logic and reason.  Changing your understanding of God is not something like changing your socks, however, and would be more difficult to do, in my opinion, than changing how one understands the Bible.  In spite of what we are told, no one has ever had first-hand experience with God, since there is nothing substantive there to get your hands on (so to speak)—God being invisible spirit (John 4:24; but cf. Exod 33:20-23), and not speaking audibly as he once did, make it rather difficult to "examine" God.  Most of us don't hear God's audible voice, or see God's back as Moses did (Exod 33:23), although we might claim experiences with burning bushes (Exod 3:1-6).  What we believe about God is due to what we have learned from others, had taught to us from the Bible, and worked out in our heads—probably from our youngest years.  Truth be told, one's "personal experience with God" is all in the mind (the still small voice as it were, 1 Kings 19:11-13), if anything.
It would seem far easier to change one's view of the Bible, since it is tangible, has a history, and can be examined directly more easily than one can examine God.  A large body of helpful literature exists evaluating the Bible as literature and history.  The way out of the dilemma is by examining the story about the Bible.  The Bible is historical literature recording an ancient quest for understanding God from the flawed human perspectives represented in its individual texts.  If the Bible is revelation, it is revelation mediated through the imperfections, flawed perspectives, and social conditioning of its human authors.  Its theologies and its ethical images of God are determined by the cultures and social environments in which they were written.  The Bible has not one view of God, but many views of God are represented among its various authors.  There is not one system of ethical values, but many conflicting systems of ethical values are reflected in its pages.  In short, the (Protestant) Bible reflects what people thought and believed at various times over the some 750 years of its inscription (beginning around 600 B.C., ending about 150 A.D.).
Christians tend to demand too much from the Bible.  Whatever more the Bible may be to true believers, it is first an ancient record of humanity's search for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Let the Bible be what it is.  Truth is not helped by denying the obvious.
Charles W. Hedrick     
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

God’s View of Marriage?

A shorter version of this essay appeared in The Springfield News-Leader on July 11, 2013
I am always astonished when anyone claims to know what God thinks!  It is a rash claim, at best.  A case in point is the recent editorial by Professor James D. Hernando (Professor of New Testament, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, MO).  Dr. Hernando says "Marriage is God's idea.  He created us as sexual beings and His loving plan for the fulfillment of our sexuality is a monogamous heterosexual union in marriage" (News-Leader 4/9/13: 3B).  Actually Hernando is reciting his own ideal of marriage based on the Bible (Genesis).  The Bible, however, is inconsistent on the subject of marriage.  For example, polygamy was practiced among the ancient Hebrews (Gen 4:19, 16:1-4, 25:6, 26:34; Deut 21:15; Judges 8:30; 1 Samuel 1:1-2; 1 Kings 11:1-10; 1 Chronicles, 4:5; 2 Chron 11:21, 24:3).  Particularly relevant is Deut 21:15, which shows God condoning polygamy.  1 Kings 11:1-10 portrays God as opposed to Solomon's marriage to foreign women because it would lead to the worship of foreign Gods rather than because God placed a high view on monogamous marriage—one man and one woman.  In 2 Chron 24:1-3 Joash is extolled as "doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the days Jehoiada," while he was married to two wives.  So God apparently did not always, if ever, hold to the idea of marriage that Hernando attributes to him.
            Even in the New Testament the ideas about marriage do not measure up to Hernando's ideal view of marriage that he attributes to God.  Paul, for example, preferred that men and women should remain single (1 Cor 7:6-9), but he granted marriage as a concession to human weakness ("better to marry than burn with [sexual] passion," 1 Cor 7:9).  His rationale for his views lies in his mistaken idea that the end of the world was imminent (1 Cor 7:25-31).  He sets out his reasons for singularity (not monogamy) in 1 Cor 7:32-35: marriage distracts from undivided devotion to God.  His view of a kind of sexless or spiritual "marriage" is odd, to say the least. Apparently at Corinth unmarried men and women were living together without being married or engaging in sexual intercourse.  Paul reassured them that if a couple decided to marry "it was not a sin" (1 Cor 7:36—it reflects a rather low view of marriage to refer to it as "not a sin"). Thus, the man who marries his virgin does well, but the man who refrains from marriage does better (1 Cor 7:38). With this statement Paul seems to put his stamp of approval on a kind of continent spiritual living together.  And Paul argued, this kind of "union" (being accompanied by a sister as wife) was his "right," a right he shared with "the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas" (i.e., Peter: 1 Cor 9:5).  Later writings after Paul do reflect Hernando's idea of "one man and one woman" (viz., 1 Tim 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6).  In Paul's earliest letter a passage, usually considered to be about marriage, is unclear for a reader of the Greek text (1 Thess 4:4-8). Tertullian (2nd/3rd century), a presbyter and regarded as the founder of Latin Christianity, in trying to deal with the large number of virgins in the church (those having taken a vow of chastity) recommended that widowers take a virgin as a kind of spiritual wife into their homes.  Indeed, "a plurality of such wives is pleasing to God" (Exhortation to Chastity 12).
           Cyprian (Bishop of Carthage, middle third century) dealt with a similar situation differently than did Paul and Tertullian (Epistle 4). He stopped the practice of a man and a virgin living together, excommunicated the men who had been involved, but permitted the virgins who remained virgins and were resolved to continue as virgins to remain in the church.  What today we see as radical actions, in antiquity was an attempt to deal with the large number of women who had taken vows of chastity.  Celibacy was a religious ideal that was honored by the Christian church and thought to be approved by God—as Paul said, however, we don't all have the same gift.  And a similar statement is attributed to Jesus about male castration: "whoever is able to receive it let him receive it" (Matt 19:12).    
Knowing the mind of God is not information to which human beings are privy.  No less a prophet than Isaiah said: "Who has known the mind of the Lord and been his counselor so as to instruct him" (Isa 40:13 Septuagint; quoted by Paul in 1 Cor 2:16).  Paul wanted all his saints to have the "mind of Christ" (Phil 2:5), but not even Paul claimed to know the mind of God (1 Cor 2:11), even though he claimed to have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16), which likely refers to Christ's self-giving attitude in life (Phil 2:2-10).  The Bible, neither as a collection nor in its individual essays, embodies the mind of God, but represents one record of the human quest for God in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The best practice is steer clear of anyone who claims to have God's ear or know God's mind.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Thursday, April 11, 2013

New Look, Same Wry Thoughts

Wry Thoughts has a new do, thanks to my web wizard!  She has put the blog in syndication, which means you can now keep up with my blog using your favorite RSS feed reader.  By clicking the link on the top right you may choose to follow my new posts and comments so that your reader is updated every time there's activity here at the Wry Thoughts About Religion blog site.
Need more information about feeds/readers and RSS ("Really Simple Syndication") and what it can do for you?  Learn more by following this link to feed burner.
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Your comments are published immediately at this new location, which I think is great.  Another feature that I am especially happy with is the ability to translate the blog into numerous languages.  I hope you'll try it out.
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I'm looking forward to hearing from you!
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University