Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Beloved Spear Bible Puzzler: Mclean Bible Church Edition

One last interesting takeaway from my megachurch experience:

That I wasn't particularly impressed with the scholarship evident at Mclean Bible Church message this last Sunday didn't mean it didn't serve it's purpose. The sermon wasn't intended to go deep into the intricacies of the text, or to introduce you to the nuances of Bible scholarship. It was meant to reinforce your New Year's Resolution to Go To Church, and to sound both warm and authoritative. It was not intended to speak to an audience that knows much about the Bible. Those sermons tend to drive off the noobs, or, rather, drive off people who don't like realizing how complex the Bible actually is. That glossy simplicity is why I found myself, on several occasions, going...HWaat?? like Dave Chapelle's Lil' Jon.

Yeah, I know, it's a dated reference. But I'm gettin' old. I can't help myself.

One of my more significant HWaats came as the sermon introduced us to the villain of the Esther story, Haman. Now, I know Haman well. He's a major character in the life of Jews, and being the proud papa of a couple of Jews, I hear about him annually at synagogue. Every year during Purim, my kids spin their groggers to drown out his name with loud clackings. He's the arrogant official in King Ahasuerus's court before whom Esther's uncle Mordecai refuses to bow, the story goes...faithful Mordecai only bows before God. Haman then seeks to avenge that slight by not just seeking the death of Mordecai, but by plotting the slaughter of every Jew in Persia. His come-uppance by Esther is the great victory in this tale, as the cruel, proud and powerful antagonist is routed by the beautiful, brave orphan girl.

That's the story that's retold every year in the synagogue and the story we get in Veggie Tales, anyhoo.

But what I heard at Mclean Bible on Sunday was different. From the pulpit came the assertion that Haman hated Mordecai not because he was a nasty piece of work whose ego had been pricked, but because Haman was an Agagite, a people who traditionally despised the Jews. And the moment I heard that, I said...Hwaat? Agagite? I'd never noticed that detail before, as it seemed essentially irrelevant to the thrust of the story.

Now, I know my "-ites" from the Deuteronomic histories. You say "Jebusite," and I'll have some clue what you're talking about. And no, it has nothing to do with Homer Simpson. But Agagite? No such people is mentioned elsewhere in the Torah, the Prophets, or the Writings. But it seemed familiar somehow.

As the sermon went on, my mind churned. Agag? Where had I heard that name? Then, it clicked. Agag, King of the Amalekites. That must be the reference, and it's one I know well. We hear about Agag in 1 Samuel 15. I know this story well, because this is one of the favorite passages of the neoatheist movement. It describes the genocidal massacre of the Amalekites at the purported command of God. The command in that story is to slaughter all of them, down to the infants and livestock...and Saul does. All the Amalekites are utterly destroyed with the sword, all save Agag, who gets executed later. But when Saul fails to kill some of the sheep, he forfeits the right to rule Israel. It's an nasty little tale, one that a Spirit-filled heart knows is utterly at odds with both the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the nature of the loving God he proclaimed.

At first, I thought the pastor must have just randomly googled this bizarre factoid. I was all prepared to get huffy and judgmental about the unscholarly nature of his message. is so often the case...I was wrong. Upon returning to my study, I discovered that the "Haman-hated-Mordecai-because-he-was-an-Agagite-racist" is a common theme in many commentaries. The pastor had done his homework.

Up to a point. Because making that claim opens up an interesting can of worms for those of us who like to actually think about the implications of what we say.

It establishes a rather interesting tension between texts. On the one hand, the Bible clearly states that all of the people of Agag were butchered, every last one of them, completely, in an ugly genocide. Then again, Haman is, as a descendant of Agag, supposed to be an Amalekite. And not just Haman. Digging into it further, it appears that after this total "genocide," there were still plenty of Amalekites kicking around. David fights 'em agin in 1 Samuel 30. I tend not to buy the argument some conservative scholars make that he's fighting a zombie Amalekite army. I like zombie exegesis as much as the next guy, but this one seems a bit of a stretch. An Amalekite also shows up at the story of the death of Saul. He appears not to be undead, either, as no mention is made of David's soldier needing to double-tap him to be sure he's finished off.

This poses a problem for both neoatheists and biblical literalists. For the neoatheists, it means that the total genocide they eagerly point to as evidence of the monstrous evilosity of our bloodthirsty Sky-Daddy probably wasn't quite the event that's described. The text is still hardly the ethical highlight of the Bible, but looking at it from a broader historical-critical biblical perspective, it also doesn't seem to be quite the thing it says it is.

Which is, of course, the problem for literal inerrancy. These texts are clearly and in their plain meaning in tension with one another. Does "completely" not mean "completely?"

Fascinating. Learn somethin' new every day!


  1. Interesting post, but -- heh -- it's not a "problem" for atheists that scriptural claims that God ordered his people to commit genocide and that they successfully did so are contradicted elsewhere in scripture. It's kind of a win-win for us. It shows both that (a) the "facts" reported in Bible are frequently inconsistent and/or highly unlikely (b) the God they describe is frequently evil.

    You seem to be saying that (a) the Bible must be false on this issue, and (b) that's good because if it were true, then the God depicted would be evil. Yes, and yes. That's my position as an atheist as well. No problem for me.

  2. I enjoy your posts, the scholarship frequently makes me want to read (sometimes re-read) the bible. BUT, I have to agree with Browning on this one.

  3. @ Browning: Yes and Yes, eh? Nice that we can agree on something other than the good Mr. Waits.

    Where I've seen this passage presented in atheistic polemic, the point that is typically made is related to your point (b): "Look at the horrible and monstrous things faith makes people do." What does not get said subsequently is your point (a): "And by the way, this event isn't what it seems to be, even within the historical accounts as they stand within the Bible." Saying both requires nuance, and nuance tends to dilute polemic, so that little detail gets dropped or ignored.

    That's not to say that I feel this passage should be excused on those grounds. Rather, it needs to be viewed as what it is: 1) evidence of violence driven by ethnic hatred and territorialism, 2) an effort on the part of the Deuteronomic Historian to theologically justify the downfall of Saul and the ascension of David with a historically questionable tale, and 3) utterly antithetical to the central spiritual and ethical truths articulated in the Bible. Measured against the 10 Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 12, this passage just doesn't stand. Obviously, I lose you on number 3 (more inconsistency, you say), but so it goes.

    Honestly, what bugs me more than calling this passage out for what it is is those on my side of the fence who WON'T call it out. I had a lovely back and forth with a hard core fundamentalist a few years back who was completely convinced that the slaughter of the Amalekite infants was an act of love. Most amazing.

  4. So let me get this straight. You think the story of the massacre of the Amalekites is an ugly, evil legend, probably based on a real event in which people went to war with their enemies because of territorialism and ethnic hatred based on religious differences, an act they tried to justify by falsely claiming that it was God's will. It was put in the Bible by the Deuteronomist, a guy clearly not under the influence of any divine inspiration, to fill a hole in his dubious theological plot. And what really chaps your posterior is that your co-religionists not only believe this stuff, but actually try to claim that it is morally justified, which is just sinister and absurd. To which I (and Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens) say, "Testify, brother!"

    I think my only real argument with you on this issue is that you seem think I have an argument with you. I must humbly disagree. Atheists like to point out that story because we already believe all that stuff you just said, and we hope that theists might be persuaded to agree.

  5. @ Browning: Well, not quite. The conflict between Amalek and Israel is almost exclusively about territory. I would never typify the Deuteronomic Historian as "clearly not under the influence of any divine inspiration." I don't see this particular portion of the history as anything other than graceless, but I frankly find the Deuteronomist to be a far more meaty, subtle, and honest storyteller than, for instance, the scribe responsible for Chronicles, who tends towards fawning hagiography.

    You have, however, accurately described my posterior-chapping. I can't tell you how much that kind of reflexive and..frankly...insane defense of the text bugs the crap out of me.

    Those areas aren't a point of significant contention between us. Where you, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris would disagree with moi is on my third point...the one that you skip over in your summary. My motivation for resisting this passage comes from the self-evident core of my faith. From prior conversations with you and others who share your perspective, that's not something y'all tend to cede.

    Ah well. We're up to 73% agreement. A Gentleman's "C!" Could do worse.

  6. So you don't think the ethnic hatred between the Israelites and the Amalekites was based on religious differences, huh? Maybe I'm just assuming too much because the apologists for the slaughter usually say the Amalekites had it coming because of their religion. And the OT is just chock full of episodes where God orders the slaughter, displacement, subjugation of people who worship the memetic competition. Anyway, that point is not essential to my position.

    But what I really don't get is how the Deuteronomist can be divinely inspired and so clearly wrong about God. He's meaty, subtle, honest, (like a good cabarnet) and occasionally desperately, catastrophically, insanely wrong? And not just about the details, but about the very nature of God? What, the reception on his divine inspiration kind of goes in and out like an old radio? He's going great, until his brain drives under a overpass, and then all of a sudden he's talking about a God who ordered a spare-no-baby killing spree? Why doesn't God inspire him to go back and fix that part? Seems kind of important -- more important than his subtle, meaty style. Or is that just "one of the mysteries of faith"?

    When you say, "Obviously, I lose you on number 3..." I'm not so sure that is obvious. Or, at the very least, it could use a dash of that delicious nuance. (I skipped over it because I mainly just wanted to make the point that the implausibility of a morally execrable story in the Bible is not a problem for me, but, you're right. It's worth looking at.) You reject the story because it doesn't fit the larger narrative, and you recognize and accept the larger narrative because you are moved to do so by the Holy Spirit, and the larger narrative is (in part, more or less) all of that which fits with a modern, liberal, ethical world view. To me that just looks like a complicated way of saying you reject it for the same reason I do: it doesn't make sense and it's clearly evil. I am beginning to think that what you call "the Holy Spirit" is very similar to a mixture of ethical intuition and rationality (and, in some cases, a capacity for awe) that you and I and Dawkins, et al, share. In other words, we are less different than you make us out to be.

  7. @Browning: If you're looking for conflict based on religious practice, then this one ain't it. It's given that gloss, sure. But the meat of the conflict is really no different than any other territorial squabble. There are, as you note, other conflicts/smitings/slaughters that seem more about ritual or cultic practice.

    That the Deuteronomist can be both aware of God and occasionally get it totally wrong is hardly a "mystery of faith." You are familiar with homo sapiens sapiens, yes? We're remarkably good at maintaining internal complexities and dissonances, of being admirable and reprehensible at the same time. Dang, frater. I thought *you* were the humanist. ;-)

    Let me also note that he was, likely, both a scribe and a historian. Yes, "history" in the ancient world involved a wee bit o' embellishment on occasion. It also often involved a healthy dose of racial or cultural triumphalism. But what makes the Deuteronomic Historian so meaty is his willingness to recount things that show flaws...even in the "heroes" of his story. Like, say, his account of King David, who is presented as gifted, charismatic, and also capable of some real screwups. Like I said. In context, he is impressively honest.

    And you are right about the similarities in our moral frameworks. You are dead on that the overarching metanarrative that I argue should define the text is in keeping with a modern, liberal, and ethical worldview. I resist the flaws and evils within my own tradition because they are antithetical to it's obvious purpose. That governing element of the tradition is also something that appears self-evidently good to reasonable folk, whose ethical intuition is leavened with a healthy chunk of awe at the mere fact of our being.

    What that self-evidently good thing is, though, is most strongly articulated in the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth, and the intuitive awareness of ontological participation in the ethos he describes.

    I'm not quite sure Chris Hitchens would be willing to say that following the teachings of Jesus is a self-evidently good thing to do, even after a half-liter of 20 year old single malt scotch. Dawkins might, though he'd probably pass out first.

    Whichever way, we are, as you say, not quite so far apart.

  8. Of course, I think D was a flawed human being. I actually think he was more flawed than most. I find him -- and anyone else who tries to justify genocide -- to be more than a little despicable. Apparently he was dangerously oblivious to what is "obvious" and "self-evident" to you and me. But then I make no claims for his divine inspiration. I think he was just another schmuck with a scroll and a story to tell.

    I think you are using the concept of divine inspiration in a very strange way. If God can help you be (sort of) honest about a folk hero's exploits, but he can't help you be truthful about Himself -- in fact he can't even prevent you from slandering him in the worst possible way -- then inspiration seems like a faint trickle of pretty weak tea to me. Omnipotent? More like impotent. Is divine inspiration then a passive thing that the willful human author can choose to use or ignore as he wishes? Or does God withhold it sporadically, even from his scribes, for his own inscrutable reasons?

    And of course we are not so much alike that Hitchens and I would agree with you about Jesus. Not trying to claim that we all think exactly alike. I find that there are -- as you say -- "self-evident" flaws in his purported life and teachings. Or do you as well? Do you mentally edit the Gospels the way you do the OT? "This, this, this, not this, definitely not this..." For example, do you think Jesus ought to have said that it was good that people try to cast out demons in his name? Or do you ever wonder why he was not at least as explicitly opposed to slavery as he was to divorce?