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Conquest, Empire, and Irony in the Biblical Text

2011 February 21

So this past weekend at the Central Texas Colloquium on Religion I presented a paper titled “Conquest, Empire, and Irony in the Biblical Text.” The paper is an exploration of how our understanding of the narrative of the conquest of Canaan changes if we read it through an ironic lens. A number of people expressed interest in the topic, so I’ve posted the paper as a Google doc – it can be found here.

The common interpretation of the conquest, especially the book of Joshua has always troubled me. In the way it is commonly interpreted and taught in Sunday schools it portrays God as an oppressive and violent God commanding genocide. It is a text that has been used to justify acts of colonization and violence done by supposed Christians for centuries. It was used to justify the colonization and enslavement of Africans, the genocide of the First Nations peoples in the Americas, and as the picture here shows (thanks Brandon Frick for sending me this) the ongoing violence in the Middle East. As I see it biblical interpretation and theology must always be practical. If those interpretations lead to practice that undermines other aspects of the texts, there the most obvious conclusion is that the interpretation must be wrong. Yet Joshua is always a difficult text. In a heated discussion about the conquest narrative at the 2010 Emergent Theological Conversation as the evil ways the texts has been used were offered by some as reason to be suspicious of scripture, Colin Greene asked as an aside “what if the text is read ironically?” The question wasn’t explored there, but it captured by attention and led to this paper. I in no way claim to have resolved the issues in the text, but merely am proposing an alternative way of reading the text that helps resolve some of its inconsistencies and problems.

So if anyone is interested in reading something a lot longer than a typical blogpost, feel free to read the paper and contribute to the discussion.


11 Responses leave one →
  1. February 22, 2011

    Thank you so much for writing and posting this! Although I don’t have time to read it right now, I will do so as soon as I have an opportunity. This topic is very important, as I also have heard this text (and Judges as well) used to justify all kinds of belligerent behavior. Furthermore, in our adult classes last fall, we studied a series based on the stories in the Bible. When we came to Joshua and Judges, we discussed these issues. None of us knew of any alternative interpretations, including the seminarian who taught the class.

  2. February 22, 2011

    Two thoughts: the first is that the entire Joshua story was not God’s Plan A. Had the nation of Israel followed God’s intentions, the promised land would have been theirs 40 years earlier — presumably with a whole lot less bloodshed.

    The other is that it is really hard for us to read and interpret OT scriptures from our vantage point — with thousands of years of redemptive history in between. The world back then was evil and brutal. They had a religion which was based on ritual sex and saw the burning sacrifice of babies as “normal”. Baal worship was ubiquitous throughout the Mediterranean area (remember Hannibal and his elephants? His name means “gift of Baal”). YHWH worship? Not so much. Nearly everyone was oppressed and for all we know, the crown creation of God, humankind, was destined to come to an end. Nearly every book of the Bible mentions or alludes to the dangers of idolatry, Baal-worship, and the evil influences of their society, of empire. The seeds of Abraham were intended to influence the nations, not the other way around. And yet, time after time, they (and we) fail to get the “bless the nations” part.

    Yes, read it as irony. But also read it without our redeemed lenses. In the Joshua story, the entire nation of Israel was only one generation from slavery, after 10 generations of being told what to do and having no minds of their own. God wanted them to obey His voice, and His voice alone, and they didn’t “get it”. Do we?

    And not very long after David, God’s chosen people were reduced to a hut in a melon patch — a few thousand fighting-aged men inside Jerusalem surrounded by a hundred times that many Assyrians. And in the only story told three times in the OT, what would have surely been the end of Israel, and perhaps the end of us, did not end as expected. God’s chosen people were saved without an arrow or sword or a single drop of blood, and THAT story hardly ever gets any attention.

  3. Autumnal Harvest permalink
    February 23, 2011

    As an atheist I tend to avoid commenting on your theological posts (i.e. most of them), but this fascinating article brings up a number of interesting issues. On one hand, as a non-Christian, I feel completely unqualified to say what Christians “should” believe about anything, but on the other hand, your article is about the likely intent of the authors as discernable from the text, and that seems to be an analysis that should be accessible to all. The interpretation that the authors of Joshua intended the divine commands to be taken as ironic strikes me as highly unlikely, for reasons set out below, but I’m perhaps more interested in a broader question than the intent of the authors of Joshua. The primary problem that I have with the arguments in your paper is that it seems that they could be equally well used to reverse the meaning of virtually any text. So my perhaps broader question is what safeguards you have in your interpretive methods to make sure that you’re determining the authorial intent, rather than reading your own preferences into the text. This could be asked virtually any time someone intereprets a text, but seems like a particularly relevant question when the interpreted meaning is the exact opposite of the face-value meaning, and the text is presumably supposed to be highly authoratative.

    There appear to be three primary reasons that you give in your paper for hypothesizing an ironic intent:

    1) The message of divinely-sanctioned genocide is inconsistent with the messages of these authors elsewhere.
    2) The messages in Joshua itself are ambiguous.
    3) In other books of the Bible, the people of Israel are routinely criticized.

    1) You state that the message of divinely-sanctioned conquest in Joshua is inconsistent with the message of justice, caring for the poor, and being a light to nations, made by the major prophets. Some smaller objections are that it’s not clear that that these messages come from the same authors, and it’s not clear that conquest is inconsistent with, for example, caring for the poor. But the more important objection is that you can’t identify irony by showing that the speaker has made statements that you believe to be inconsistent or false — if that was the case, I’d believe that virtually everyone I disagreed with was being ironic. To find signs of irony you usually want to show that the speaker is intentionally making statements that they believe to be false and/or inconsistent, and you don’t appear to have found any such signs. Analogously to the purported Isaiah+Joshua inconsistency, American neoconservatives over the last decade have repeatedly boasted that what sets American apart from other nations, making us a “light on the hill,” is our respect for freedom and human rights, and yet have simultaneously arguing for pre-emptive strikes, indefinite imprisonment without trial, and torture. Those messages appear highly inconsistent to me (and presumably to you) — and more directly inconsistent than the combination of Isaiah and Joshua — but that’s not a sign that American neoconservatives intend to be ironic, since there’s no sign that the neoconservatives find those messages inconsistent.

    2) Your argument that the messages in Joshua are ambiguous appears to be that God does not explicitly sanction conquest at every possible opportunity. For example, you have a fairly extensive discussion of the fact that in Joshua 5:13-15, there’s no explicit divine endorsement of conquest. The problem with this is that speakers/writers rarely repeat their message in every single passage. If the absence of a message in a single passage, even when the message is repeated in numerous other passages, is taken as a sign that the writer is being intentionally inconsistent, then this technique can be used to negate any message from the author, no matter how strongly and repeatedly it’s stated. While Joshua 5:13-15 may not contain a clear divine endorsement of conquest and genocide, there are, as you recognize in your introduction, other apparent divine endorsements in Joshua, too numerous to list here. In fact, only two verses after Joshua 5:13-15, we have this:

    “Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. 3 March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days.’ (Joshua 6:2-3, NIV)”

    If the explicit divine endorsement in Joshua 6:2-3 is interpreted as possibly ironic simply because that endorsement is not explicitly echoed in the five verses beforehand, then it’s difficult to imagine what statements could not be interpreted as ironic. Analogously, one might argue that Dumbledore does not approve of fighting Voldemort simply by finding passages in which Dumbledore fails to explicitly endorse fighting Voldemort.

    3) Finally, you point out that the people of Israel are routinely criticized by the major prophets, and take this as a sign that perhaps their conquests were not approved of. The problem with this is that the criticisms are made for explicit specific reasons, rather than for the reasons that you suggest. They’re criticized for not helping the poor and the widow, for taking up foreign gods, and a variety of other things, but not for conquest and genocide. Surely if the intent was to criticize the people of Israel for conquest and genocide, the prophets would have been able to voice that criticism explicitly. In fact, the numerous explicit and strong criticisms for these other failures make it very difficult to understand why the criticisms of conquest and genocide would only appear in a very unclear and subtly ironic fashion.

    I hesitate to post this comment, because it looks very much like it’s intended as part of a tedious atheist-Christian debate about whether the Bible is full of bad stuff or not, and I’m not interested in that, and don’t think that you or your other readers are either. Still, I enjoyed your paper, and think the broader question of at what point your interpretation of the text starts to ignore the text and replace it with your own values is an interesting one, so I guess I’ll hit “send.”

  4. February 24, 2011

    I read your essay last evening and, while I certainly applaud the effort to find a way around a God who orders genocide, I still found it rather unconvincing. “Autumnal Harvest” above details some of the concerns I had; in addition I have some others. For example, how can one read the story of Achan (Joshua 7) ironically? And how does the comment in Genesis 15 fit in, where Abraham is told that his descendents will serve another nation, but that the fourth generation will return to Canaan “because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.” That passage reads like God had a plan to exterminate the Canaanites as far back as the days before Abram became Abraham. And that passage is not part of the Deutoronomic history.

    I think a lot more work would have to be done to establish this interpretation. Evidence of deliberate irony throughout the Deutoronomic history might be hard to establish. I appreciate the effort, however, as I said in my original post.

    Keep working at it! It’s still worth a shot, I think.


    • March 11, 2011

      Don, I wonder if you’d agree that Luther basically read Romans 2 (it is the doers of the law who will be justified in His sight) ironically? Indeed Luther denies this claim and says not human deeds of law but human faith justifies. But what Paul actually says is, in effect, neither human deeds nor human faith but God’s deed and God’s faithfulness in Jesus justifies all men. So evangelicals readily read Paul as being ironic but hesitate to read other passages. The reason: Tradition.

  5. a sojourner permalink
    March 3, 2011

    Your post (and correlating paper) struck a chord for me. Just as Christians’ hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness was the reason I left the church, the God-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament and the doctrine of hell was the reason I altogether lost my faith in a loving God.

    I have found my faith again, but at the expense of any parts of the Bible that don’t match up with Jesus’s practice and teachings. For about a year now, my stock answer to the problem of genocide in the OT has been simply this: if Joshua wrote that God told him to commit mass murder, then either (1) Joshua misunderstood what God was saying, or (2) he just made it up altogether. It bothers the academic side of me — just a little — to be a “buffet Christian” (as in, “I’ll take Jesus, some of Paul,a large helping of Psalms, hold the violence”), but overall, I’m a much happier person now that I’ve found an interpretation that doesn’t require me to loathe God.

    But granted, my method is an intellectual cop-out, so I’m intrigued by your proposed interpretation, which maintains the validity and authority of the Bible as a whole. Not entirely convinced, but intrigued.

    • a sojourner permalink
      March 3, 2011

      P.S. I’m anxiously awaiting Greg Boyd’s upcoming book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, which promises to provide yet another lens for interpreting the OT violence in a way that’s consistent with Jesus’s doctrine of peace.

    • March 11, 2011

      Amen! I can really relate to what you’ve written sojourner. May I recommend McLaren’s book “A New Kind of Christianity” as well as Thom Stark’s “The Human Faces of God”.

  6. March 11, 2011

    If those interpretations lead to practice that undermines other aspects of the texts, there the most obvious conclusion is that the interpretation must be wrong.

    I would go a step further and say that the text itself is wrong if its natural and historical meaning leads or led to violent and/or oppressive actions. In the case in question the answer is obviously Yes! as the text itself unabashedly confirms.

    The question is not “Can we find a meaning which is ethically right?” (apologetic) but “What is the natural meaning and is it ethically right?” (critical exegesis). Remember, Jesus awards no points for being biblically sound and some of his quotes actually subvert inerrancy.

    One question: Can you cite historical examples and texts which show how would-be Christians used Joshua or Deuteronomy to support conquest?

  7. April 7, 2011

    Where’d your intriguing-sounding paper go???

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