That is, of course, Phyllis Trible’s terms for the many texts in the Hebrew Bible that shock our modern sensibilities as God calls for the desctruction of the Canaanites or…worse. Since 9/11 many Americans have asked and asserted that the Quran itself, with passages such as Sura 47 that begins “O true believers, when you encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads.” My colleague Phillip Jenkins has a piece, “Dark Passages,” in the Boston Globe this morning that addresses not only the Quranic references (and he pointed out in an email that the spelling “Koran” is the Globe’s in-house style) but those in the Bible as well. He does not come to any startling conclusions but reminds Christians and Jews that we cannot simply wag our fingers at Muslims and say “your holy text must go!” Rather we must understand our own sacred Scripture better and the challenges that come with accepting anything as “God’s word.”
In modern times, we would call this genocide. If the forces of Joshua and his successor judges committed their acts in the modern world, then observers would not hesitate to speak of war crimes. They would draw comparisons with the notorious guerrilla armies of Uganda and the Congo, groups like the appalling Lord’s Resistance Army. By comparison, the Koranic rules of war were, by the standards of their time, quite civilized. Mohammed wanted to win over his enemies, not slaughter them.
Not only do the Israelites in the Bible commit repeated acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing, but they do so under direct divine command. According to the first book of Samuel, God orders King Saul to strike at the Amalekite people, killing every man, woman, and child, and even wiping out their livestock (1 Samuel 15:2-3). And it is this final detail that proves Saul’s undoing, as he keeps some of the animals, and thereby earns a scolding from the prophet Samuel. Fortunately, Saul repents, and symbolizes his regrets by dismembering the captured enemy king. Morality triumphs.
And coincidentally this cartoon came out this morning. (NB: This artist has very rude strips, so if you go poking in the archives and are offended, well, I warned you.)