Dear Dragon Lady and anyone who can help,
I'm teaching gospel doctrine (next week!) and so the timing of alumni week is perfect to get your thoughts on this: How am I supposed to deal with the genocide in the Old Testament?
I'm teaching the book of Joshua and the only things I really remembered from seminary/institute were "be strong and of a good courage" (at the beginning) and "as for me and my house we will serve the Lord" (at the end). But in between those? Mountains of corpses. I'm not even joking. I'm more than a little upset by this. How did I forget that Jericho, after the walls come down the people "are destroyed" ... by being slaughtered, every man, woman and child except for Rahab and all their gold and silver taken? And the person, Achan, who takes some treasure for himself, Joshua has him and his family stoned to death and their bodies burned? I know the Old Testament was bloody but this feels like several steps too far.
Trying to take good, uplifting messages from this feels all kinds of wrong, as does explaining it away or pretending it's ok because this was a long time ago. What am I supposed to do with this?
Dear Tum Tum Tum Tum Tums,
Dragon Lady has some good specific information below, but I wanted to add my two cents about dealing with the more general problem of grappling with problematic scripture. It helps to understand that the scriptures aren't supposed to be uplifting all the time. More often than not, they're a historical record of nations and people who fall incredibly short of what God wants of them. For me that's useful because it testifies of the power of the Atonement to save all of us in spite of how we fail. So don't feel the need to pretty it up—genocide is bad. We don't have to justify away bad things that people in the scriptures did just because they were chosen by God, just like we don't have to justify bad things that modern people do, even if they are members of the Church or people we admire. Yes, the Israelites lived in a different culture. No, that does not make what they did okay. I think it's good to know that even God's chosen people can make terrible mistakes, just as it is good to know that the work of God continues regardless (see Jacob 5). In the temple endowment ceremony, we start in the world as it is and move forward into greater light until we can handle entering into God's presence. This progression is necessary for us as individuals as well as for the people of God as a whole. We will make mistakes. Sometimes awful mistakes. Isn't it wondrous, then, that grace through the Atonement can still reach us, just as it can still reach the literal perpetrators of genocide? That's the entire point of the Gospel, to my mind.
Also, don't feel guilty about your disillusionment or upset feelings relating to the scriptures or the Church. It's okay to feel that way and still believe in the Gospel (it's also okay to feel that way and not still believe, but I'm coming at this from my own perspective). Let yourself feel what you feel and find a place for yourself. That place doesn't have to be comfortable or have all the answers, but it does have to be your own. Good luck to you.
PS - Remember you can always reach out to the Editors if you want to get hold of one of us to talk outside of Alumni Week.
Dear Upset ~
Would it make you feel any better to know that I, Dragon Lady, who studied the Old Testament in college and love it deeply, and help others learn and understand it, still feel upset and confused when I read many parts of it? It really is a hard book to read. Often people read it and think, "The Old Testament Lord is not my Lord!" I get it. He seems to spite entire peoples without thought, kills righteous people because they slip and touch the Ark of the Covenant, and often describes himself as an angry and jealous god. These all seem to contradict with the New Testament Lord that preaches kindness, tolerance, and love for everyone. I get it. I really do.
Several things get me through it:
- I rarely read the Old Testament straight through. I have before, but not often. I take it in bits and pieces. I study individual stories.
- I firmly believe that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. So if the Old Testament god and the New Testament god seem vastly different, what can we learn from that? The Dragon Lady that my kids see is a very different Dragon Lady than my girl friends see which is different from the Dragon Lady that my bishop sees. We all have facets. Different situations and audiences bring out different sides of us. I believe the Old and New Testaments are just like that—they show us different facets of Heavenly Father. The Old Testament God is more like the father of young children that need rules and punishments spelled out. To me, the New Testament God is more like the father of adult children, who can reason with and trust His children to make mature decisions given proper guidance and information. So when I am baffled, and even upset, by the way God acts in the Old Testament, I try to figure out what I can learn about the nature of God, and how it balances with the God I see elsewhere. (Hint: the God I'm growing to know better is not all puppies and rainbows.)
- I do not understand the culture of the Old Testament. I am looking through the lens of the 21st Century at a culture which is so far removed from me as to be almost completely incomprehensible at times. Sometimes I have to take a story and dig. I read the scriptures, the foot notes, the Topical Guide and Bible Dictionary. I look up talks and lesson manuals. I go down to the Religion Library at BYU (it's in the same room as the Family History Center on the 2nd floor) and study scholarly texts. I try to see the story from different angles, and try to read between the lines. The thing is, the Old Testament was written by Jews for Jews. Things they took for granted were ignored in writing, and the lack of information baffles us. We are to learn things from it, but we have to fill in gaps first. It takes work. It takes study. It takes prayer. It takes pondering. And sometimes, we still can't find all the pieces to put together. It's hard.
- God has to work through humans. Flawed, selfish, imperfect humans. Humans that, while trying to do God's work, are still battling the natural man themselves. Humans that are dealing with societal pressure and culture. Humans that have biases deeply rooted in their upbringing and culture. (Another topic: we humans are still that way, and God is still working through us.) So we shouldn't be surprised when sometimes the prophets of the Old Testament (and other scripture and modern day) do stupid things. I know we idolize them, but they are human, too. They make mistakes. They act through their cultural lenses. Just as we can't see the whole picture as God does, neither could they. So we shouldn't be surprised when things happen in scripture in ways that horrify us. Their culture in general (and not just the Israelites, but all of the people that lived in that age and geographic region) is incredibly different than ours. They handled problems extremely differently than we do. They viewed the world in a very different way. That doesn't mean it was the right way (and later generations will look at ours and be horrified at what we think is the right way to handle things). It just means that's the way it was, and that's what God had to work through.
- Specific to your question about Joshua and the destruction of the gentile society, I want you to remember a gospel doctrine lesson a week or two ago. It was the lesson about Balaam, and how the king of the Moabite wanted him, a prophet of God, to curse the Israelites. God kept telling Balaam no, and to bless them instead. The question was raised, though not discussed much at all, in my Sunday School class, "Was Balaam an Israelite?" That question intrigued me, and I ended up ignoring the teacher for a bit (as he went a different direction) to study it out myself. I can't find anything decisive about Balaam's heritage—all we get is that he was "a prophet from Pethor by the Euphrates." It seems completely reasonable to me, though, to assume that he was not an Israelite, but was a Moabite, responding to the call from his king. This seems reasonable to me.
Let's think for a moment. Remember how above I said the Old Testament was written by Jews for Jews? Of course it's going to be biased to the Jews. Yes, the Jews are the chosen people. But we already have evidence that God has also led other people (like the Brother of Jared's people) that are not part of the Israelites. So we are reading this story from the perspective of an egocentric Israeli conquering army. They have been instructed by God to kill everyone else, basically. They don't get the story as to why, they just trust the Lord and do. (And their culture has already taught them that conquering another nation is completely normal.) God says to conquer them, they must be wicked, the end.
But who is to say that these other nations didn't have prophets? We saw Jonah travel far from Israel to preach repentance. Clearly God cares about the righteousness of all nations. So it makes perfect sense that Moab would have a prophet. One that is telling the king not to kill the Israelites, but instead to bless them. Imagine if Balak, king of Moab, had listened to the prophet instead? If instead of acting through fear with violence towards this new, unknown threat, if he had listened to his prophet and sent peace treaties to the Israelites. What if he had prayed and begged forgiveness from God for wanting to destroy a people that God wanted to bless. Do you think the rest of that story would have ended differently?
And what about all of the nations that Joshua destroyed? Do you think they may have had prophets, too? Do you think God had been trying to send messages of peace and repentance to those people? And what if they had ignored it? What if they put their gods above the true God? What if God had warned them, "Repent or be destroyed?" We can't know any of that for sure. The Israelites who wrote the book of Joshua weren't in those cities. They didn't know the back story of why God ordered them to destroy the nations. They just knew the other nations were wicked and that God had ordered the Israelites to destroy them.
Try reading the stories of the Old Testament, knowing that you are missing other viewpoints. Ask yourself what you could learn if you knew the other side of the coin. What does God know here that the Israelites, and thus you as the reader, did not?
Good luck! You're living my dream calling. (And one I'll probably never get because I'd focus too much on historical and not enough on spiritual. So instead I'll insert my two cents here and there in lessons.)
~ Dragon Lady
When I took HIST 201, Professor Hamblin assigned us to read a book about the history of Jerusalem (I think it was Jerusalem - The Biography by Simon Sebag Montefiore). It had a perspective that was very helpful for me in understanding the Old Testament, and that was that the books of Moses were written well after the fact and were likely embellished a good deal. So while ancient Israelites might have been very proud of their national narrative of bloody conquest (as ancient civilizations usually were), they probably didn't actually wipe out every Canaanite when they moved in. The book notes historical evidence that they did move in, but that they integrated with rather than replaced the locals. I'm sure some slaughter did happen one way or another, but I like to think that it was neither as absolute nor as divinely-sanctioned as the Old Testament reads.