My spanish language science feed, which I use to improve my Spanish rather than my science, gave me this week the intriguing headline, “DNA Sequencing contradicts God.” When I investigated, I found that archeologists who had managed to sequence the full genome of Canaanite bodies from Sidon around 1500 BCE, showed that they were the direct ancestors of the present day population of Lebanon. Which makes good sense, except the bible tells us that Joshua, acting on the explicit instructions of God, exterminated the “Canaanites” completely around maybe 1400BCE.
Now good Biblical scholars had already noted their suspicion that the Joshua story is a load of unhistorical mince provided by much later writers for propaganda reasons. On the other hand Richard Dawkins -whom God preserve- had quite correctly seen the story as evidence that the God of this part of the bible, was a prejudiced thug and ethnic cleanser, no better than Hitler or Ratco Mladic.
The reaction of church authorities to the new discovery is instructive. Catholic commentators have noted that it confirms the suspicions of their scholars, proving that the holy scriptures are best left in the hands of experts. Orthodox commentators have said nothing since their support of Orthodox Serbians makes ethnic cleansing a tricky topic; while fundamentalist sources in the USA have hailed the discovery as proof that atheist accusations from such as Dawkins are now disproved and the reputation of God restored. Of course, they don’t deny that God issued the instruction to smite the evil Canaanites, but he was using the language of vivid exaggeration characteristic of the semitic people, which Joshua naturally understood, so he was pretty relaxed about leaving the odd pregant woman or child alive, as he brought shock and awe to Canaan.
It’s hard not to feel that the scientific community comes out of this a lot better than the defenders of the faith. They have come up with useful evidence, while church representatives have responded with flapdoodle and bunkum, which only adds to the prevailing conviction in many countries that faith rots your brains and is harmful to your children even if they escape some of the nastier predilections of the clergy.
The issue is not trivial: the books of Joshua and Deuteronomy announce a divine sentence of death on a whole population. Can anyone who supports the doctrine that this same bible is the word of God, be accepted as a decent citizen of any modern society? Should anyone who believes such things ever be employed in positions of responsibility for others? Or should they rather, be offered to the kind of aversion therapy which they have in the past offered to LGBTTrans persons?
The issue of the accepting the Hebrew Bible as Holy Scripture goes back to the early church, which naturally enough wanted to maintain continuity with its Jewish origins, more particularly with its origin in Jesus of Nazareth, whose life, death and resurrection they saw prophesied in these same scriptures. In the third century, one Marcion described the God of the Hebrew Bible as an inferior deity to the God of Jesus and recommended getting rid of it and any other writings that didn’t match his view of true spirituality. The church, spotting Marcion’s dislike for all things material, rejected his teaching, but as time went on emphasised to the faithful the doctrines of the church rather than the contents of the Bible.
When Martin Luther, however wanted to challenge the certainty of the church’s teaching, he did so in the name of a superior certainty, the written word of the scripture, which could now, with translations into vernacular languages and the new invention of printing, be made available to all believers. The believer’s assuarnce of salvation, formerly offered by the authority of the church could now be found in the preaching of the true gospel authenticated by scripture.
Except of course that in a short time it became evident that different preachers offered a different gospel because they interpreted the scriptures in different ways. That dilemma has remained for mainstream reformed churches ever since, who have tended to say, “Scripture is completely authoritative, but the church tells you how to interpret it.” This also, in effect, the modern position of the Roman Catholic Church. On the one hand fundamentalists have objected to this by holding every word of scripture ( in English!) to be spoken by God, and on the other, radicals and Quakers have rejected the whole idea of scripture as fettering the free movement of the divine spirit.
For myself, I treat the Bible as a unique source for understanding the life, ministry, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus, subordinating the Old Testament to the New, so that the former is only interpreted in the light of the latter. It is a human book with human authors and human all too human faults and errors, but when it is read in the community of believers with the inspiration of God’s spirit, it can provide genuine illumination. So with regard to the ethnic cleansing in Joshua and Deuteronomy I am happy to say, in Christ, “This is mince; it is wrong and evil.”
But if the scriptures contain evil, and are often defended by flapdoodle and bunkum, would it not be better to follow then Quakers and reject Scripture altogether. For if the Scripture does not give certainty, what use is it? My answer is that we have to abandon the demand for certainty: no certainty is available to human beings, only greater of lesser degrees of probability, established by looking at all the evidence. My own daily encounters with Scripture, many of which are recorded in my blog http://emmock.com express my sense of how I can understand and be true to the Christian tradition of divine love, revealed by Jesus, but I know that my understanding and practice are both provisional. They await challenge and correction. Nevertheless, I have benefitted hugely from my reading of Scripture; my life would be the poorer without it. The nourishment I have received from them is better than certainty.
By banishing these two imposters, Messrs Flapdoodle and Bunkum and all their disabling certainties, I can welcome the DNA analysis of the Canaanite genome as a contribution to the understanding of Scripture.
* mince, noun, Scottish vernacular; nonsense, possibly related to the insult, “thick as mince,” = lacking in intellectual acuity