Of the questions I field as a pastor, those concerning divine-sanctioned violence in the bible are the most difficult for me. Many vexing questions can be addressed with an appeal in one form or fashion to our limited human perspective and mystery about the workings of God. For some, this approach is sufficient for living with God’s instructions concerning the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua, for example. But for others, the commands to violence expose fault lines in the concept of God they derive from other portions of Scripture.
In Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses (HarperOne, 2011), Philip Jenkins tackles these issues, even pressing the question further by comparing violent texts across religions and examples of religiously motivated violence across history and in the present day.
THE BIG IDEA
“We can argue what the passages in question mean, and certainly whether they should have any relevance for later ages. But the words are there, and their inclusion in the scripture means that they are, literally, canonized…” (p. 71)
Jenkins’ solution to the bible’s violence comes down to two principle factors. The first is his assessment of the date and purpose of composition of the original (offending) books: mainly Deuteronomy, Joshua, and 1 Samuel 15 (condemnation of Saul for sparing King Agag of the Amalekites). The second is his assessment of whether the conquest narrative of Joshua and the commands and stories of total extermination in Samuel and Kings are historically accurate or not.
To consider them in reverse, Jenkins does not take the texts in question as accurately relating events that occurred when they purport to have done so (for the conquest narrative, for example, sometime around the 12th century BC). His assessment of scholarly opinion concerning history, textual development, and (most of all) archaeology leads him to deny that the conquest ever happened, and if so, certainly not in any way like that described in the book of Joshua.
Jenkins’ next move is to acknowledge that taking the texts to report events that did not occur does not solve the problem of how to handle scriptural narratives enshrining the divine commands and accounts of extreme and merciless violence, and why they are included in sacred scripture. He makes a good point.
The solution he proposes appeals to the date of writing that he accepts (along with most mainstream, liberal, and secular scholars, as well as some evangelicals), which is around the 6th century BC. This is in the exilic to post-exilic period, beginning in 586 BC, the date for the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians and the fall of Judah.
Paired tightly with the later date of composition is Jenkins’ proposed purpose for these narratives’ construction. That purpose would be the critical project during the post-exilic years of establishing and strengthening monotheism and a strict and total devotion to one God, Yahweh. He proposes that the texts were written in the form of historical narratives, but were deliberately intended to be read metaphorically, referring to a “conquest of the soul,” battling and subjugating the “inner Canaanite” or “inner Amalekite.” Parallels with a Muslim “jihad of the soul” are obvious, and Jenkins spends time throughout the book engaging modern understandings and misunderstandings of Islam. This is, in fact, how some of the early Church Fathers interpreted these violent texts, taking them to be less about historical happenings and more about an inner struggle for total devotion to God (see chapter 8, beginning on p. 183).
“PREACHING THE UNPREACHABLE”
A late chapter in Laying Down the Sword urges Christian preachers to engage the texts containing the most brutal and troubling violence in the worship service. Jenkins includes words of wisdom for what not to do as well as for what to do. He advises that three approaches be off-limits: “Don’t lightly invoke an incomprehensible higher wisdom,” “Never suggest that a people deserves ruin,” and “Don’t invalidate the text as part of a savage antiquity.” As a foundation for his positive suggestions for preaching, he quotes Martin Luther on the subject: “It is not enough simply to look and see whether this is God’s word, whether God has said it; rather we must look and see to whom it has been spoken, whether it fits us” (p. 234). Assuming we heed Luther’s advice, Jenkins urges dealing with these texts in public worship.
“The existence of a scripture in its own right inspires neither good nor evil among its followers.” (p. 243)
Jenkins’ argument is a cogent one. That said, it rests upon certain pillars I find myself needing to consider further (dating of authorship, hermeneutics, etc). Accepting his hermeneutics opens one to a well-developed proposal for how to handle such a difficult and troubling aspect of the biblical witness, and the issue of religious violence today. Rejecting Jenkins’ hermeneutics may help one adhere to other principles of biblical interpretation for some readers. But the potential result of doing so is a return to square one in working out the issue of violence in Scripture. As for me, I am still considering Jenkins’ proposal, unsure of where I will land.
Readers who are willing to have their thinking challenged, or who find themselves open to alternative ways of dealing with the presence of incredible violence in the bible, will welcome this book. Whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with Jenkins’ position, Laying Down the Sword is an excellent contribution to the conversation around a most difficult issue.