Thursday, 27 September 2012

Days 9-11: Something not very nice

Days 9 and 10 were uneventful.

This morning, I said the usual prayer and spent time in thanks.  Then I thought, "Let's read Joshua 8."  Having decided to go along with these thoughts, I went to the bookshelf and picked up the well-thumbed Bible I got as a reward at Sunday School for memorising the order of all the books in the Old Testament.

Given the subject matter of Joshua, I suspected I wouldn't like what I read.  I didn't.

Chapter 8 is about the Hebrews taking the town of Ai.  All credit to Joshua's military acumen, but essentially it's a massacre.  The Hebrews slaughter everyone in Ai and burn the town to the ground.  This is framed as a glorious victory given by God to his people.

My first thought was that this story is vile; my second was that it fits well with my atheism.  If the story were in the annals of any other bronze-age tribe, I suspect most Christians would interpret it as the narrative of a primitive, warlike group attributing its victory to its (non-existent) deity.  That's how Joshua 8 reads to me.

My next thought was that if this was the will of the God I'm praying to in the mornings, then I really don't like him.   I wouldn't want to worship a God who is as hemmed in by us-and-themism as humans and orders the extermination of entire communities.  I would want to follow as God whose "us" is so all-embracing that there is no "them".

In fact, that's the sort of person I'd like to be.  Not that I'm anywhere near it!  The closest I've been to it was when I was regularly practising metta meditation.  And that's a Buddhist practice.

Buddhism is atheistic.  Just don't ask me to believe in reincarnation.


  1. Any idea why "Joshua 8" occurred to you? How familiar were you with the Bible when you were a believer?

    Sorry to hear that you're having a rough week. I enjoy your comments on the APE Facebook page.

    1. Hi Maine, I was familiar with the Bible when I was a believer, but I didn't have anything other than a vague idea of what I'd find when the thought came to me this morning.

      Thanks for the compliment. There are some great people on the FB APE page and, on the whole, the atmosphere is good. I enjoy your comments too.

  2. A few points:

    First point to be noted is that a worldview is not to be judged by a supposed incident/narration (which in fact may not have even happened, as we will see). If you just take a clip/narration of a doctor cutting open a child (say a surgery) and then say the clip is horrible and hence doctor and system of medical profession is vile, and jump into a worldview that is essentially against medical profession, that would be an error. So instead of jumping to any philosophical/worldview conclusions, one has to look at what exactly is done, why is it done, is it really done (or just a narration), who is doing etc. How/what/if of the Joshua narrative is still a moot point (we will see the possibilities) but I am just pointing out the issue in the way you approached the subject. The question that emerges from Joshua is, how does it fit in the worldview of 'God who is Holy, who created human in His Image, loves humans, who is absolutely righteous/just' - because that is the overall theme and worldview that emerges from overall reading of OT/NT. If you disagree with the worldview itself, then there is no point in even going into narration of incident, as you are discarding the whole thing anyway. But if think that the worldview is plausible, then you want to know what happened, why it happened, if it happened etc and whether it is a cause enough to declare that the text is either wrong or inconsistent with the overall worldview that emerges from OT/NT.

    Now, let us look at the possibilities. Many in fact say that the massacre never happened (based on archaeological evidence etc as well). Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff has presented a paper titled "Reading Joshua" where he used intra-textual analysis of the text, and suggested that there was no massacre, and that Joshua narrative is a stylized, hagiographic style of narration, idiomatic to complete victory, theologically oriented narration (signifying Israel should stay as a nation apart and not follow the evil practices seen among the canaanite clans etc) - and actual down-to-earth narration of war is to be found later. Also, remember, this is not a morally neutral one - it says that 400 years were waited and their (Canaanite clans) wickedness had reached the point of intolerability. (pls remember for example, earlier in Genesis, says even if 10 righteous people are there, he wont destroy). Also remember as a general note that the war with canaanite clans was only with respect one piece of land and a group of people (not some kind of a theology of war to be applied all over the world).
    There are also some others, who are not exactly keen on biblical inerrancy, who just say that the events of the conquest never occurred and these are just some legends/folklore of the founding of Israel.

    In any case, the larger point is that before coming to individual/specific incidents, the overall picture has to be seen first. What is possibly the best/likely worldview, has to be assessed first - like assessing the idea of medical profession first, before coming to any specific act or incident that may (or may not have) happened. What if the worldview of 'God who is Holy, who created human in His Image, loves humans, who is absolutely Holy/righteous/just' is true, and may be Christianity is the one that is wrong, or may the some text in OT is wrong, or may be, as I said, it may be a matter of stylized narrative, or something still to be analyzed and further understood.

    Regarding the question of "all-embracing", God is all embracing, all humans are created in the image of God. For the sake of simplicity/clarity, let us for a moment, keep aside everything else and see what Jesus described as summation of all law and greatest commandment. To love your neighbour is part of that. Right way of seeing "all-embracing" is love for all. All-embracing does not mean non-distinction of truth and falsehood, nor is it non-distinction of good and evil.

    1. Hi Vksun,

      I suspect Joshua 8 is hagiography. Nevertheless, my preferred approach to any text is to read it and extrapolate from there. Of course, comprehension necessitates an understnading of context etc, but I feel that reading from a pre-determined starting point such as "God is perfectly just and holy, and this is His Word" leads to shoehorning, if you know what I mean.

      Also, I agree with what you say about all-embracing love.

      Thanks again for your input. I appreciate that you put a lot of thought into your posts.

    2. If you notice, I did not say "God is perfectly just and holy, and this is His Word". I did not say the last part. The idea of 'God who is Holy' is one of the world views (others being Deism, Pantheism, Atheism, Polytheism, Monism etc). One can look at each and dig deeper to see what it entails. In case of 'God who is Holy' world view, there is an expectation that God too may have done something to reveal (apart from nature/creation), hence a survey of possibilities like Bible, Vedas, Quran etc. But yes, we dont have to begin with any fixed assumption about scripture/revelation.

      To add to the point I was making: It will be like concluding that God is vile because there are some hadiths which narrate story of Muhammad asking the execution of some people. That does not show that God is vile, necessarily. It could mean many other things like that the narration itself was not correct or not rightly understood, or that it was a justified death penalty given (as they were also running a state as rulers), or since it was done in distant past need to look for more information to see the overall message/pattern etc from beginning to end and see what message/conclusion emerges, or may be that God did not actually speak to Muhammad (perhaps not a true prophet) etc.

      There are indeed some disturbing passages in Bible like the one you cited, and many are still in process of understanding/analysing etc. While some questions remain, the overall message, especially with Jesus/NT, things get more clear and gives enough reason for many to seek and receive transformation/love/relationship etc promised therein.

  3. Paddy,
    you certainly picked a doozie of a chapter. I'm a new observer of the atheist prayer experiment and before I get into my response to your blog, I'll just say that I commend your courage!

    So, Joshua 8: it IS full of hard stuff, for example the chapter points up a difference between our human notion of love and God's love which is part of His nature along with His Holiness and His justice.

    Yes, we see God directing Joshua to do things we revile and cannot see as loving in any human understanding of human. But God is not human and judging/evaluating Him by our standards is pointless.

    Now, I have no claim to understand God's purposes in His directions to Joshua, but I do know from studying Joshua and other OT books that 1) since Joshua did not obey God's instruction to clear Canaan completely before inhabiting the Promised Land, 2) the ensuing centuries saw the tribe of Israel in regular bloody, conflict with the remaining Canaanites, which 3)lead to the Israelites repeatedly rejecting the God who had led them out of Egypt, turning instead to the gods of the Canaan tribes.

    The story of Joshua points up human nature: despite God's best efforts to guide us, we always take matters into our own hands and when we do that, unintended consequences result.

    I'm not saying I LIKE God's instruction to Joshua....I don't understand it. For some reason, what comes into my mind as a parallel is abortion. How can we condemn God for his instruction to Joshua, when we so blithely encourage a practice that has resulted in the slaughter of 32million + lives in the last 35 years or so. How can we criticize God for being 'bloodthirsty' (not your word) when we are so bloodthirsty ourselves? Isn't that the pot calling the kettle black?

    Grace and Peace to you!

    1. Hi Caroline,

      I'm definitely going for 1 Corinthians 13 next!

      I don't believe that a foetus (particularly in the first months) has the same moral status as a baby. But I'm keen to avoid discussions of abortion.

      Thanks for sharing your understanding of Joshua.

      Best wishes,


  4. Rachel,

    Yup, 'twas just to illustrate a point!

    Might I suggest reading one of the Gospels along with your prayer, rather than extracting single chapters from their context? For simplicity and directness, I'd recommend Luke which was written for people without a prior understanding of Judaism (Luke himself was a Greek), or if you are versed in Judaism, Matthew would be a good choice.

    Just a thought!

    Grace & Peace to you,

  5. Just stopped by to see how things were going. I'm still praying! x

  6. I wouldn't want to worship the God who is portrayed in the OT either. That is why I am so glad that Christ took on flesh to reveal what God is really like. Christ is God and God is Christ.