In some respects this is the simplest aspect of the show to criticize and come to a clear understanding about. In others it is the most difficult.
The simple side of things is this: this is a show that is being aired on The History Channel and for which advertisers are paying big money to sell their products. What that means is that the bigger the audience they can get, the more “successful” the show is. Violence sells. This show is full of violence. Everyone in the TV and advertising world wins. Unfortunately, in this arrangement the Bible itself becomes a caricature of itself. For every Biblical story of a battle (like the one in which Abram rescues Lot, which we saw takes a big chunk of time in episode one), there are a number of other stories about the follies of prideful people, the troubles that emerge in family life, the struggle to obey or believe what God says. It’s not all “blood and guts.” But “The Bible” makes it easy to think the opposite. Violence sells.
The more difficult side is another story: the Old Testament is an account of a people with a violent history. Much of this violence comes at God’s command. The violence that doesn’t come at God’s command still seems to be accepted as just the way things are. When we turn to the New Testament, by contrast, there is a pretty uniform call to non-violence, even in a book like Revelation, often interpreted as a violent book. If God is constant, and the one “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17), and if Jesus Christ, who eternally shows us exactly what God is like, “is the same yesterday, today, and forever,” we have a real dilemma. It looks like God is a split-personality. The popular conception of the Old Testament “harsh” God and the New Testament “kind” God seen in Jesus is understandable.
A few brief comments:
1) Pay attention to the battles in the Old Testament and ask yourself, “Did God command or approve this, or is it simply reported to us as something that happened?” We don’t need to borrow trouble when we interpret the Bible. Sometimes people in the Bible do things that are wrong. We are a sinful people, remember. We may assume, even if we’re not told it every time, that certain of this behaviour was regarded by God as wrong.
2) Let’s face it: The story of the conquest in Joshua is hard for us to swallow, and hard to square with Jesus’ revelation of God’s character. This account sounds like crusading. It sounds like cruelty. It sounds like excessive bloodthirst. We might as well admit that.
There are probably many roads we could take with this. I will mention two.
a) Within the Eastern Orthodox Church (followed by some significant voices in the western church today), there is a tradition of interpreting these passages allegorically. These are stories about keeping completely free from the harmful influence and ways of the pagan culture around us. As allegories, these would be powerful lessons about complete devotion to God and his ways, and a fierce desire to root out sinful powers from our personal and church life. However, for most evangelicals this is a stretch as a way of reading Scripture. It seems to dodge the issue. I’m not absolutely certain it’s wrong, but there are big flags here.
b) What I find helpful to remember is that we all affirm that God is the one who judges justly. God sees the big picture that we don’t see. God is the only one who holds the right and power to give or take life. God also had a special purpose for his people Israel, and through them a purpose for the whole world (more on this in tomorrow’s post). With all of this in mind, we can affirm that God saw fit to call the Israelites to conquer the other nations as the entered the land in the way that he called them to do it. However difficult it is for us to wrap our minds around this, it must be true that anything he did and commanded was somehow consistent with his character of love and justice. Along with this we need to keep in mind that these passages can never be used as backing for any nation’s decision to go and conquer other nations or peoples today, or to carry out a sinful, crusading action. Why? Because our leaders are not God, and we are not the people of Israel entering into the Promised Land in the second millennium BC.
3) Finally, God consistently undermines human power in all the battles in which he summons his people to partake. He is always telling them that they need to be a smaller number, or do things like walk around a city seven times and blow trumpets. Why? Because the point was that this was God’s action, not the people’s action. “Some trust in horses, some trust in chariots, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7).
By contrast, “The Bible” mini-series (at least the first couple of hours) felt like the story of powerful warrior-heroes conquering their enemies (in sometimes brutal and cruel ways) and yelling God’s name over it. This just gives us the wrong impression of the Bible itself.
Tomorrow: the portrayal of the people of Israel.