Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Islamic Violence, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Old Testament

Recently, I was asked on FaceBook to respond to a blog post by Benjamin L. Corey, entitled, Why Standing Against Islamic Violence Forces You To Rethink Biblical Inerrancy. I have chosen to respond here because I am certain that the length of my reply would test the limits of one's patience when reading it on FaceBook, if not an actual word limitation itself! The plan is to write it here, and post a link to it there.  In part, Father Deacon James Ferrenberg has given a response much as I have intended to write; I will be expanding upon his comments here.  (I also reserve the right to edit and amend my comments should I find myself having misstated the teachings of the Orthodox Church out of my ignorance and misunderstanding, which I freely acknowledge.)

First, a preliminary comment.  "Inerrancy" isn't really a term used, to the best of my knowledge, in the Orthodox Church. If saying that the Bible is, "inerrant," what is meant is that the Bible is without error in what it teaches, then I don't think an Orthodox Christian would disagree.  However, we must then establish what the Bible is meant to teach.  For the Orthodox Church, the Bible is not a science textbook, although it contains scientific truths; nor is it a "history" textbook as we understand "history" today, although it contains historical truths.  Rather, the Bible is a record of God's revelation of Himself, as well as a revelation of truths about of ourselves, and of the relationships established between God, His creation, and human beings, the pinnacle or "crown" of creation.  The Bible - which is the Church's Book, and which cannot be properly understood nor correctly interpreted outside the Church, which, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gave it to us - contains all that we need to know in order to be saved, and to be transformed from who we are into the fullness of the image of God, and unto the likeness of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is our Savior and Redeemer.

Like Mr. Corey, I abhor the violence being practiced by the Islamic extremists of ISIS; and, like Mr. Corey, I am uncomfortable with the similar instances of violence found in the accounts of the Old Testament, in which the people of God are commanded to slaughter the populations of entire cities, men, women, children, and even cattle.  Perhaps Mr. Corey also abhors the notion which he raises in his blog: not only did God command these things; He "approved of them."  Unless I've missed something, this is why he has chosen to reject the inerrancy of the Bible.  That would be where he and I would part company.  Instead, I would cite what we called in seminary (based on a very popular commercial at the time) the "Prego Spaghetti Sauce Theory of Scripture": it's in there.  In other words, we may not always like what we read, but that doesn't mean we are free to dismiss it.  Instead, we have to dig deeper, and seek to understand the lesson we are to learn from what we have read - and accept that what has been recorded in the accounts of Scripture is part of God's revelation of Himself to us, given for a specific and definite purpose. We are free to accept or reject what God has revealed, but not to dismiss it, unless, of course, we elect to practice a sort of "cafeteria style" approach to the Bible, in which we pick and choose which parts of the Bible we will accept and follow, and which parts we want nothing to do with, and so we don't bother to put on our tray.

Mr. Corey's examples are drawn from the giving of the Law of God by Moses prior to the entry of the people of Israel into the land which God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; what we would come to know as the "land of Israel."  The instructions given in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy would include a great many elements pertaining to the necessity for maintaining holiness, and avoiding what was unclean, so that the people with whom God had made a covenant to accept them as His own would not break that covenant, and so remove themselves from the blessed relationship God desired to share with them.  After this, led now by Joshua, the people of God entered into the Holy Land, which was not vacant: it was inhabited by many different peoples, many of whom, if not most (or all) the people of God were commanded to destroy, in what Mr. Corey has labeled a "jihad," or a holy war. From the little I know of Islam, that is not, in fact, what "jihad" actually means; but it has come to have that meaning in the larger context, and so we will use it in that way here.

In addition to jihad, Mr. Corey cites instances of burning people alive (as ISIS did to a Jordanian pilot they had captured), putting people to death by stoning (as a crowd did to St. Stephen the first martyr, presumably for blasphemy, while a young man named Saul stood by and held the coats of those who did the stoning), and even sexual slavery and trafficking: 
Sex slaves? Yup. The Bible says that after they conquer a city they can take the women, force them to come home and live as their wives. Straight up an endorsement of sex trafficking.
Here I'll take issue with Mr. Corey.  Although there are some who interpret passages such as Deuteronomy 21:10-14 and Numbers 31:18 as God condoning, or even commanding, sexual slavery and rape, Mr. Corey is not among them; at least, not as far as the post in question is concerned. But does God command, or even approve of, sexual slavery or rape? Not so!  In fact, a rapist was to be executed (by stoning). Now, I will certainly concede that, from our understanding today, the passage from Deuteronomy 21, in which combatants are allowed to take women they find appealing with them and make them their wives, does not describe acceptable behavior, and that the women who experienced this type of treatment might well have described it as rape; but there are differences, and those differences make a difference.  Let me try to explain.  A woman taken after a battle was not at all an unusual practice in those days - or in this day, as women around the world in war zones without number could recount, and as is happening now at the hands of entities such as ISIS and their ally, Boku Haram.  What is unusual is how such captives were to be treated by the Israelites. They were not put up on the auction block, nor were they given as trophies to be used for the pleasure of the troops.  Rather, they were given a month to mourn: presumably, for their fathers, brothers, and husbands; and then they became the wives of the men who had taken them.  If the man found no pleasure, she was set free; it was forbidden for them to be sold.  This by itself is a major departure from every other nation and people who practiced what we might call "captive slavery." But it should also be noted that, in becoming a wife, the woman gained all the rights, privileges, and protections of being a wife, on the same basis as if she had been born an Israelite.  There is a reason for this, and it is related to the larger question of the "barbaric practices" we find during the time of the conquest of Canaan, and authorized in the Law God gave through Moses.

But let's back up for a moment; in fact, let's go to the beginning of the story.  God, having brought all of creation into existence, decides to complete His work by creating a creature made in His image, and after His likeness.  Unlike everything else, which came into being through the power of His Word - God said, "Let there be..." and there was... - when it comes to creating human being, we are told that God formed him from the dust of the earth, and then breathed into his nostrils, and man became a living soul.  Adam - whose name comes from the earth, adamah - and Eve, whom God fashions from a rib taken from Adam's side, live in the presence of God in the Paradise God has established, the Garden of Eden. The Genesis narrative suggests that Adam and Eve walked and talked with God; we are told that Adam named all the animals, and was given dominion over all the earth.  Everything was permitted to them, except for the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That was forbidden to them; and God told them that, on the day they ate of it, they would surely die. This, in turn, suggests that Adam and Eve were, by nature, good, and that their will, while free to choose, was, perhaps inherently, in alignment with God's.  That would be put to the test when the serpent tempted Eve, and she ate the forbidden fruit; and then took the fruit to Adam, who ate it, as well.  At this, God cast them out of the Garden, for they had sinned; and, from that time forward, God sought to establish a way back for us from our state of sin and death, while we found ourselves having to struggle to bring our will back into alignment with God's.  Among other things, we lost the state of righteousness in which we had been living; and it was, and remains, necessary for that righteousness to be restored in order for us to once more live in harmony with God.

Things didn't go well.  The sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, soon came into conflict, which came about as the result of God's rejection of a sacrifice offered by Cain, while favoring a sacrifice offered by Abel. Cain murdered Abel, and became an outcast. Ultimately, humanity became so corrupt, so unrighteous, that God determined to destroy all life on the earth, except for one man and his family, whom He commanded to build an ark to hold two animals of every kind from the face of the earth and the birds of the air.  When this was completed, God closed Noah, his family, and the animals in the ark, and caused a great flood, which drowned all those who had given themselves over to wickedness, rather than righteousness.  When the floodwaters receded, Noah and his family set out to repopulate the world.  Now, you would think that the descendants of Noah would have remembered what had happened when people gave themselves over to their animal desires and became wicked; but, once again, sin increased, and righteousness decreased.  God, having promised that He would never again destroy all the world with a flood, set to work to bring about the salvation of the human race, making a covenant with Abraham, a righteous man who was obedient to God. The land to which Moses brought the people of Israel (a term we need to clarify) after their time of purification in the desert following the Exodus from Egypt and the renewal of the covenant with God at Mount Sinai, from which Moses descended with the tablets containing the Ten Commandments, was the land God had promised to Abraham, to his son, Isaac, and to his son, Jacob: the "Holy Land"; another term fraught with great significance.  This was the land Moses beheld but did not enter; this was the land into which Joshua led God's people; and this was the land where Mr. Corey's "jihad" took place.

Today, I think, when we hear the term, "the people of Israel," we think of a place: as in the "state" or "nation" or "country" of Israel.  But that is not its original meaning. Let's remember that "Israel" is the name the angel of the Lord gave to Jacob after the two spent the night engaged in wrestling at the ford of Jabbok, in which neither could prevail, until the "man" touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh, putting it out of joint. Jacob would not relinquish his hold on the man until he had been blessed, and, when the man asked him his name, he replied, "Jacob." In reply, he was told, "Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have fought with God, and with men, and have prevailed." (Gen. 32:8)  As such, the "people of Israel" are not the people of a place, but the descendants of the heir to the covenant with Abraham.  As such, the land into which Joshua is leading them is theirs, because it is the land given to them by the promise of God.  This is the source of the phrase for the region being the "Promised Land."

The terms of the covenant required the people to adhere to the holy way of life set out for them in the "Holiness Code" contained in the books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; essentially, to remove any uncleanness from their midst.  As distasteful as it may be to us today, this included the removal - the extermination - of those peoples whose practices were an abomination to the Lord. Now, we might ask, was this right? Should they have been given the opportunity first to repent, and submit themselves to the terms of the covenant, and so become part of the people of God, and participants with the house (another term for "descendants") of Israel? The only answer we can give to these questions is that we do not, and cannot, in this life, know.  Moreover, who are we to question God?  Do we know better than He Who is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent?  Can we possibly know what is better for another person than the One Who knows the very depths of our hearts?

Now, it has to be said that the perpetrators of the current acts of violence in the name of the god whom the people making up the Islamic State follow would undoubtedly give similar answers to the same questions, and justify the violence in much the same way.  They would say that they have a divine mandate to cleanse the unclean and pagan practices from the land, and put to death the unbelievers.  All we can offer in response is that, while the requirement to be holy that God gave to humanity remains unchanged, what has been revealed since the time when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into this world, and since the time when the world was cleansed by God by means of the Great Flood, and since the time God commanded the extermination of the unclean nations in the Promised Land at the time His people entered it is that the "holy war" moved from being one fought against external enemies to being one fought internally: from cleansing the land of its uncleanness to cleansing one's heart from what is unclean.  The battle remains the same: but the battlefield and the weapons are different; and in that difference, which the Jews understand in the Law, and Christians understand in the life of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, risen from the dead and given to us in baptism, we find ourselves with a different understanding than that of the butchers of ISIS.  We do not, and cannot, deny our inheritance, found in the pages of the history of the people of God recorded, accurately - inerrantly, if you will - in the Old Testament. Rather, we accept it, learn from it, and, even if we do not embrace it, we recognize that, above all, it calls us to understand we must strive to be a holy nation, so that we can fulfill our calling to be as well a royal priesthood, fit to be empowered to proclaim the good news of our salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.