by Philip Jenkins
HarperOne. 310 pages
Reviewed by Ronald P. Byars
Everybody knows that Islam is basically a religion of violence, right? And if we search the Qur’an that we will find verses that explicitly exhort Muslims to violent actions against unbelievers?
Indeed, there are such verses, but must they be understood as divine justification for suicide bombers and attacks such as the one on the World Trade Center? Actually, this book informs us, Muslims, like Christians, “have a long history of accommodating texts that have become troublesome or inconvenient.”
Philip Jenkins, who is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, draws the attention of Christians and Jews to their own texts of terror embedded in the biblical canon, particularly in the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Deuteronomy, exemplified by the verse in which God says, “I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh — with the blood of the slain and the captives … ” (Deut. 32:32)
In 1 Samuel, God commanded Saul to attack the Amalekites and destroy every man, woman, child and animal, as well as every bit of property. However, the Israelite king spared the king of the Amalekites and many of the livestock and valuables. The prophet Samuel accused Saul of having done evil by not obeying the divine commandment to destroy utterly and absolutely, and so Samuel personally slaughtered and dismembered the Amalekite king, and Saul lost his kingdom. (1 Sam. 15)
These are a few of many such passages in the Old Testament. Jenkins notes that most Jews and Christians read these passages without believing that they require us to commit genocide. However, he documents the fact that some Christians and some Jews have read and still do read them that way, with devastating results.
Of course, one can “spiritualize” such texts and read them as allegories, or hypothesize that everybody behaved that way in that era, or one can treat them as left over from a primitive period before Hebrew religion became more sophisticated. However, Jenkins shows that other cultures in the same period were not genocidal even when engaged in all-out warfare. And, in fact, these texts do not derive from a primitive period, but came into being in the 8th through the 6th centuries BCE, at the same time that the prophets were proclaiming their universal vision, much later than the period they presume to represent.
As for the conquest of Canaan, there is no archaeological or historical evidence that it occurred as described in Scripture. These all-or-nothing texts are literary creations intended to address an issue contemporary to the prophets, when the growth of the Assyrian Empire exposed Israel to formerly distant cultures and religions. They served to urge Israel to preserve its faith in an era when it was at risk.
This is a valuable book worthy of attention and discussion in the churches. Jenkins provides a deep and intriguing look at texts that, read in the larger context of Scripture, serve a purpose, though not the ugly purpose they have too often served.
RONALD P. BYARS is professor emeritus of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va.