Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins (Review)

laying-down-the-sword-jenkins I checked out Laying Down the Sword from the library because it looked like it was about Christianity and violence and I was getting ready to read Preston Sprinkle’s new book on a similar theme. Philip Jenkins writes from a secular academic perspective that sees Christianity and Islam as religions with equally violent texts that are equally capable of more peaceful interpretations.

Needless to say I disagreed with Jenkins on much of his characterizations of Christianity and the Old Testament passages he repeatedly scathes. It is true that the “utter destruction” of the Canaanites in the book of Joshua seems extremely violent and evil, and that this and other similar passages are often difficult to accept. However, I think Jenkins’ lack of understanding regarding the doctrines of both sin and redemption inhibited his reaction to some of the traditional explanations of such passages. Perhaps it was because Jenkins was focused on the human element involved in carrying out these Biblical killings, but I found it interesting that he completely ignored the story of Noah’s Flood; if we can accept God’s treatment of the sins of an entire planet, surely the sins of a few villages are not difficult in comparison. Nor do I see God’s wrath and love as incompatible qualities, and I find it amusingly arrogant when he talks about man applying his limited reason to try to “improve” on such things.

I must concede that Christians throughout history have misused these Old Testament passages to justify violence on other races; the quotes and examples of the flexible interpretation of “Amalekites” over the centuries are quite damning – even heartbreaking – and it is hard to argue that they behaved any better than today’s radical Muslims. Still, at least from my bias, Jenkins tried too hard to equivocate the two religions to fit his hypothesis;  he bends over backwards to explain creative “escape routes” for some of the violent Qur’an passages while almost flippantly using Jesus’ words about jots or tittles “passing away” to restrict similar treatment of the Old Testament – as if the very text of the Bible doesn’t wrestle with the post-resurrectional meanings of the old Law (see: Acts 15, or the entire book of Hebrews). He also didn’t cover the treatment of women; the allegedly patriarchal Bible verses about submission surely pale in comparison to the Qur’an’s explicit approval of wife-beating. But I digress.

I agree with Jenkins’ conclusion that “the fact that a minority of activists derive harsh and violent ideas from the scriptures of Judaism, or any other faith, has no implications whatever for evaluating that religion, or the texts on which it is based.” Yet I disagree with his belief that these passages still illustrate a problem that need to be allegorized away (a method that Jenkins curiously seems to deride some Christians for using before seeming to arrive at the same conclusion himself).

I like Sprinkle’s position (I haven’t read his book yet, but I heard his talk on it at AudioFeed) that the Bible’s violent passages were no worse and probably even less violent than the cultures of the day, and furthermore that the Bible continually trends toward peace, culminating in the “love your enemies” message of Jesus Christ. Jenkins acknowledges but rejects this view, saying the forward-looking peaceful prophets were written at the same time period as the recording of the violent historical Joshua passages. But of course that’s only a problem if you believe the “higher criticisms”; even if they were later recordings of much earlier events, in my view the trend towards peace remains.

Jenkins also claims that the genocidal quality of Joshua’s destruction was unprecedented even for its time; I don’t know history well enough to say whether or not he’s cherry-picking. I do know he ignored any of the myriad references to God limiting Israel’s military strength – from the general ban on chariots to the reduction of Gideon’s forces to Jehoshaphat’s army that was told not to fight (2 Chronicles 20). This doesn’t make the armies’ violent actions less violent, but it does shed more light on the emphasis throughout.

I also was surprised that Jenkins saw the conquest of Canaan as genocidal in nature; I had always interpreted it as more about stamping out other religions than other races – the evidence being the numerous “exceptions” made to those of other races who honored Yahweh, from the story of Rahab to the verses in the Torah about good treatment of the “aliens” among them.

So I found a lot to disagree with, but it was also good to read things from another perspective, and especially to learn about many of the genocidal tragedies that have been carried out in God’s name over the ages. I agree that more Christians should read and become familiar with these sorts of passages, to wrestle with them and to greater appreciate the overall arching Biblical themes of sin, justice, redemption, and – yes – peace.


2 thoughts on “Laying Down the Sword by Philip Jenkins (Review)”

  1. Genocide was not the object of Israel’s invasion, and there was no Canaanite genocide.

    God said he would send terror upon the Canaanites (Exodus 23:27). How do you send terror? By creating an awesome reputation for God, and an invincible

    one for Israel. The plagues on Egypt, the defeat of the Amorites east of the Jordan, and the crossing of the river were all to convince the Canaanites they were

    not to fight, but run.

    After Jericho and Ai, most Canaanites were too afraid to defend the cities and fled.

    Just put yourself in their position after hearing of the “magic” that Israel wielded at Jericho.

    The evidence can be seen in the following:

    1) The 5 city alliance of the Gibeonites decided on guile rather than risk conflict. They offered to be slaves to Israel as long as they were spared.

    2) The Canaanite kings tried two alliances in open battle rather than depend on their walls.

    3) Israel took some cities in 1 or 2 days (Joshua 10:23, 32, 35). Compare this with 37 men at Harlech Castle holding off the entire Welsh Army in 1294AD. This was only possible if the cities were severely undermanned. No miracles or tactics were recorded.

    4) Isaiah 17:9 tells us many of the cities were deserted as Israel approached.

    5) If genocide was the goal, no Canaanite would dare return to any city after Israel had taken it. And yet, Caleb found some in Hebron to drive out (Joshua 15:14).

    6) Joshua chapters 15 to 22 lists approximately 260 cities allotted to the tribes, all with no record of battles or sieges.

    7) Thutmose III, pharaoh of Egypt circa 1500BC claimed over 350 Canaanite cities paid him tribute. Joshua 12 lists 31 kings and their cities defeated (less than 10%!)

    8) There is no archaeological evidence of massed graves in Canaan for that time period.

    There is no record in the book of Joshua of attacks on people in the countryside, on the roads, hills, forests etc. Compare this with recent history: Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and Nazi Germany, where there were attacks everywhere. Compare Joshua with 15000 people fleeing various cities in India when they received fake text messages of attacks on minorities.

    God built a formidable reputation for Himself in Egypt, and an awesome one for Israel over 40 years in the wilderness, culminating with the destruction of the Canaanites east of the Jordan. An invincible reputation was supposed to be established at Jericho and Ai. This would have forestalled any resistance and saved lives. Too bad one greedy man stole what was reserved for God at Jericho, and Israel suffered an initial defeat at Ai. This encouraged some Canaanites to fight.

    God directed Israel against the strongest and most organized of the Canaanites. Once they were defeated, further killing was minimized. Only those Canaanites most responsible for the evil culture, and those who had the most to lose would have stayed and fought. These were slain to the last man or woman. It was the genocide of a wicked culture, not the genocide of a people. The people who ran away were later driven out.

    Should this be called cultural genocide? Even today, some nations in the world have laws where citizenship can be revoked, and people deported. God has His own thoughts on religion, culture, race, and politics. Leviticus chapters 17 and 18 lists sins that God says “cut off from his people”. Since this applies even to foreigners, it means foreigners are cut off from their own nations, and not just from God or Israel. In other words, people who commit those sins were not considered a religion, culture, race or political group. We can go by what the world says, or we can go by what God says. Incest, child sacrifice, and gang rape are not a culture.

    (Perhaps it should not be even called a culture. This was a culture imposed from the top by cruel kings and sadistic priests. This culture did not arise from the common people, who were poor and uneducated.)


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