OT Bible Study #27: The Problem of Herem I – the victories in the Transjordan
Make the pure light of Your divine knowledge shine in our hearts, Loving Master, and open the eyes of our minds that we may understand the message of Your Gospel. Instill also in us reverence for Your blessed commandments, so that overcoming all worldly desires, we may pursue a spiritual life, both thinking and doing all things pleasing to You. For You, Christ our God, are the Light of our souls and bodies, and to You we give the glory, together with Your Father, without beginning, and Your All Holy, Good, and Life- Creating Spirit, now and ever and to the ages of ages. Amen. (2 Corinthians 6:6; Ephesians 1:18; 2 Peter 2:11)
Warm up: The celebration of Theophany is so much cooler when you are familiar with the Old Testament and the supernatural/sacramental worldview.
General Question over the next three weeks: what are we to make of the commands of God and the actions of the Jews regarding the cleansing and taking of the Promised Land?
This is difficult because:
We KNOW that God is always good. So we can’t square the circle by pretending that He wasn’t good in the Old Testament.
We KNOW that the Bible is authoritative. It is true and we are to learn from it. So we can’t square the circle by pretending that God didn’t tell the Israelites to cleanse the Holy Land or that morality changes over time.
But here is some good news. The next three weeks will be hard (and we’ll probably have to work on understanding this as long as we live) BUT when the Bible gives us something that just doesn’t make sense, we can be sure that we can learn something useful if we take the time to understand it in an Orthodox manner.
Some ways of dealing with the problem:
Allegorize the difficult parts. This means using things that we know about God, sin, salvation, etc. and using Old Testament stories as symbolic of those things. This is fine for pastoral use (as long as we really DO know about God, sin, salvation, etc.), but in this case the stories we are using from Old Testament are not teaching us anything new. Again, this is a safe approach as it 1) keeps us from turning God into a monster or 2) using the Old Testament to justify evil (such as holocausts). This is the main approach that the Church Fathers use. So, for example, the Holy Land is symbolic of our hearts and we need to empty it of everything (kenosis) so that God can dwell there and we can have peaceful lives. Again, this is fairly easy and safe (i.e. provides the best bang for the buck) so it is the most common Orthodox method.
Rework the words. Words don’t always mean what we think they mean. A key theme to this series has been that we really do have to understand the text within its local context (i.e. the culture of authors and local audience). This is part of the solution, but it doesn’t take care of the whole thing. Neither can we pretend the difficult parts don’t exist.
Demonize the Canaanites. This is very logical: the horror of the cleansing was justified because what the Canaanites were doing was even worse. While it is true that they were worshipping demons and doing some terrible things, this approach has to be read into the text. It protects the goodness of God and the authority of the Bible, but it does so by adding information. Is this how we study the Bible, by changing things to assuage our consciences? What if we were supposed to solve the problem in a different way? What if the problem we are trying to solve doesn’t exist (at least in the form we think it does)? Moreover, if we see ethnic cleansing as being moral when our opponent really is terrible (i.e. the moral math works out), then we will be tempted to fudge the math to justify our ambitions.
Progress. The idea here is that God works with people and peoples where they are and that humans are better now than they used to be. The Israelites were primitive compared to us so He could not expect them to behave like good civilized people. We have the benefit of time and the Gospel, therefor He expects more from us. This can carry some water, but it still doesn’t explain why we need an Old Testament (except, perhaps, to remind us why we are so good and how wonderful it is to live in the modern world with Christ, democracy, human rights, and flush toilets). Is the Old Testament just a description of things that happened before Christ (and real morality) came? This maintains the goodness of God, but suffers from a severe modern (and prideful) bias. Our mindset ASSUMES progress to be the real and natural flow of things. Is that true? What does the salvation of the world look like? The OT Hebrew mindset didn’t see inevitable progress; quite the opposite. It is certainly true that it is better to live in Christ than not… but is that because it allows us to be more moral? This approach is useful for some purposes, but allows us to smuggle in a lot of modernist baggage that 1) hurts our understanding of the Biblical text and 2) gives us an incomplete and warped sense of what God is doing in the world. To quote Walton; “although we should understand God’s actions as purposeful (that is, working toward a goal), we should not imagine that God is constantly shaping humanity to ever higher levels of goodness or morality that will eventually achieve that ideal” (p. 25).
Relativism. What was good then is not good now. So the Israelites had their conception of morality and we have ours. Theirs was different and shouldn’t be applied now. This doesn’t work because it doesn’t take the God or the Bible seriously. What if the Bible wasn’t designed to tell us HOW God is good? What if it is more the story of what The Good God has done to bring about His (still unrealized) goal for humanity and the world? Job. The answer. The cake.
This is huge and I don’t expect us to get it all at once. We are going to circle around and add layers. We are so used to seeing the Bible (and everything else) through our own expectations that it can be discomforting to try to see it any other way. Trust me: we aren’t going to end up with anything other than your grandmother’s Orthodoxy. I am just providing you with the opportunity for a “deeper” understanding. Salvation is simple. Trust God, not just with your life, but with what He has done in the past.
Some Actual Bible for our Bible Study!
Numbers 27:12-23. Joshua is blessed as Moses’ successor.
St. Gregory the Great. But when the land of promise had at length been reached, [Moses] was called into the mountain and heard of the fault which he had committed eight and thirty years before, as I have said, in that he had doubted about drawing water from the rock. And for this reason he was told that he might not enter the land of promise. Herein it is for us to consider how formidable is the judgment of the almighty God, who did so many signs through that servant of his whose fault he still bore in remembrance for so long a time.
Numbers 31. The War against the Midianites (remember Balaam?!)
St. Ambrose. But a deeper vengeance is taken on fiercer foes and on those that are false as well as on those who have done greater wrongs, as was the case with the Midianites. For they had made many of the Jewish people to sin through their women. For this reason the anger of the Lord was poured out upon the people of our fathers. Thus it came about that Moses when victorious allowed none of them to live.
Numbers 33. A review. Notice in particular verses 4b and 50-56.
Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (Eds.). (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. InterVarsity Press.
John H. Walton. (2017) The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest. InterVarsity Press.
From Youngstown, OH (without notes-sorry). This was the Sunday after Theophany, Zacchaeus Sunday, and the day after Volodymyr and Gennie Esther’s wedding. This homily claims they are all connected. Enjoy the show!