How to Read Violent Texts

Deuteronomy 7:1-11

Friends, we have only a few weeks left before Advent. So far we have read stories of creation, crisis, calling, and captivity. The descendants of Israel have followed their God, out of bondage and into freedom. Sort of. Because they aren’t ready to trust God to be with them on the next phase of their life together, they wind up in an extended waiting period. 40 years of wandering in the desert. Finally, it’s time to be done with the in-between time and move forward to the place God has promised. It’s actually the place their ancestors came from 400 years before when the sons and daughters of Jacob-slash-Israel went to Egypt to escape a famine. In some sense they are now going home. Except that it’s already home to other people. They had neighbors 400 years before. And even though they left, lots of other people stayed and made their home, and although it’s not populated like it is today, it’s not like there was just a big section that nobody used for anything and was just waiting to be inhabited. It wasn’t blank land. There were already people there. So now what? Let us listen now in the reading of scripture for the word and wisdom of God. This is the book of Deuteronomy chapter 7, verses 1 through 11.  

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy and he clears away many nations before you—the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you— and when the Lord your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

“It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. Therefore, observe diligently the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that I am commanding you today.

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

Really? THAT’S the word of God for all people? Thanks be to God for that?!

So what do we do with this? How do we handle this? 

If you want a short answer, there are two.

The first is the bumper sticker: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The Bible means what it means in my language to me right now. However I understand it is what it is. That’s one short answer.

The other short answer is, “I don’t believe it.” Either because it’s so old as to be unprovable or I just think the whole Bible is a lie or not useful, or whatever. Those are the only two short answers: uncritical acceptance or critical rejection. 

In my opinion there are problems with both of those answers. The first answer, if you accept it exactly the way it’s written and you assume that it applies to you, you get colonialism and genocide. You get what is happening and has been happening in Israel Palestine for at least 100 years at this point. You also get our own country’s history. In the US this is Native American Heritage Month, and we sit here on land that for thousands of years was stewarded by Native people, who were either forcibly removed or coerced to drastically change their way of life. Does anyone know the the names of any of the territories we are sitting on today? I didn’t until this week. Kaskaskia (Kahs-KAHS-kee-ah). Myaamia (me-AH-me-ah). Hopewell Nation. The problem with the first answer of uncritical acceptance of these verses is that colonization and genocide are wrong. 

The problem with the second answer, that I simply don’t believe it, is that I am not an infallible source of what is correct and true. I’m wrong, a lot. About people. About what to do in a particular situation. I don’t know everything. The problem with the second answer of critical rejection is it’s not wise to trust only myself as the final authority on everything in the world. 

So, the real question is, how do we interpret the Bible? What is this book and what does it mean for us? I’ve thought a lot about how to talk about this and I think the best thing to do is to tell you how I interpret the Bible and what it means to be. Because honestly, I can’t tell you what it means to you and how you should interpret it. You and the Holy Spirit have to work that out for yourself. But here’s what I do.

First, I believe that the Bible is a faithful record of what the people believed at the time. I think these are accurate accounts of what people thought they heard God saying and what they did in response. Is what’s recorded exactly what God actually meant? Impossible to know. We talked about this a couple weeks ago in the story of the binding of Isaac. Was it what God wanted? I don’t know. But it’s faithful account of what people believed about God at the time and what they did because of it and what they learned from it. 

Second, I believe that there are different and even contradictory perspectives and opinions in the Bible. For me this shows that the book is trustworthy and honest because we all have different perspectives and opinions. It doesn’t make the book inaccurate or wrong. It makes it real and provides space for lots of people to fit in.

Third, I believe that the Ancient Hebrew people’s understanding of God changes, dare I even say “evolves” throughout the Bible. Which is why we find at the beginning of the Old Testament in Exodus a verse that says: “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but bringing the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” And at the end of the Old Testament in the book of Jonah the prophet says, “You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” By the end of the Old Testament, the fundamental description of God says that God does NOT punish! Over the course of a thousand years of experiences, people understand God differently. And then in the New Testament it changes even more through the person of Jesus Christ. We have to keep reading. 

Fourth, I take the Bible seriously, but I don’t always take it literally. Literally isn’t always the best way. A word-by-word translation of the Bible from the original languages isn’t always the clearest and most accurate. Sometimes you need the idea more than the words. Who in here has ever studied or speaks another language? I studied French in high school and college. In French, if I’m getting frustrated or angry about something, I would say “La moutarde me monte au nez.” Literal translation: “The mustard is climbing up my nose.” Is that literal translation helpful? No! The same is true for stories in the Bible and not just for words. Nobody takes it all literally. I know people who claim to take the Bible literally and have shirts made from a poly-cotton blend even though Leviticus 19:19 clearly says “do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Nobody takes it all literally. Everyone picks and chooses between literal and not so literal. We can take it incredibly seriously without having to take it literally.

Lastly, the way I interpret this book and what it means to me is that it is the book of my people. I am a Christian and this is our book. Whether we like it all, whether we understand it all, this is what we have. These are the stories that have shaped our people for thousands of years, and they are the stories that continue to shape us. The stories make us as individuals and a community. We find ourselves in these stories. That’s what it means for them to have authority for us. It doesn’t mean that they always tell us what to do. It means that in some very important ways these stories author us. The stories write us.

So, what does all that mean for this particular story, which records God directing the Ancient Hebrews to wipe out the people in the land they hoped to live in? First, we can say, it’s a hard story to read. We can say we don’t like it. And we can affirm that it’s not a story we should be quick to emulate. Many stories in the Bible are about what NOT to do and this is one of those stories. Colonization and genocide are wrong. Using force to take what someone else has because you want it is wrong. Always. Even if you think God told you to do it, you should question that revelation, because sometimes you are wrong.  

We can also ask, “What’s this story really about?” We can look for the intent underneath the action. Fundamentally, this is not a race problem but a values problem. The problem was not that the Cannanite peoples existed, or even really that there was not enough land for everyone, because there was plenty of space. The problem was that they worshipped different gods. They didn’t worship the same god differently — there’s no problem with that; they worshipped different gods with different values. Some of those nations practiced human sacrifice. The warning there is, “Don’t mix, or your values will be corrupted.” The problem is that God’s people are going to wind up breaking the first commandment. They will have other gods and the values of those gods will come before the values of the God known as I AM. 

So, the only way to avoid being corrupted by these values is to totally destroy the people. That’s their solution. That’s what they said God said to them. But as we keep reading, we see that it doesn’t work in this story or any other time in history. It’s very hard to totally wipe people out. A remnant almost always remains and often what happens is that the violence strengthens the victim’s desire to maintain their identity. Maybe fewer people, but very passionate. Human beings are incredibly resilient. 

This story opens the question of how can we live with people who are different and even be a blessing to them and still maintain our identity as followers of Jesus. Utterly destroying other people is wrong and doesn’t work. And it’s very easy for our devotion to God to be corrupted, either diluted by other loves or focused on other hatreds. If you are tempted to say, “Oh no, Pastor Beth, I don’t have a problem with that,” then all I can is that you are a better Christian than I am. Because I constantly wrestle with valuing and trusting other things more than I value and trust God. Not with my words of course, but with my actions. 

We are called to live differently. Not to be superior but because the values of the dominant culture are crap sometimes. Sorry, I don’t know of a more polite way to say that. Chasing wealth and power and fame and youth and other people’s opinion of you. Living for yourself and who cares what happens to your next door neighbor. Getting instead of giving. That’s what we are surrounded by; that’s very often what we do, even when we have good intentions. There’s a better way to live, a Kingdom way to live, but it’s hard to find it when we live surrounded by the dominant culture. We have to find ways to opt out, to do things counterculturally. That’s what this story is ultimately about. How do we hold on to who we are and what we know God calls us to do when everyone else is doing is following the dominant culture? One solution is to try to get rid of everyone else. But that’s immature and unrealistic, as we see throughout the rest of the Old Testament. As we begin to look forward to the season of Advent and the coming of Jesus, we will see that God gives us a better answer than utterly destroying the cultures around us. We need a better solution. We need someone to lead us away from destruction and show us the way to transformation. Thanks be to God, Deuteronomy 7 is not the end of the story. We have to keep reading. Advent is coming. Amen.

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