Faith & Reason: How Joshua claimed a 20th-century victim

Is the Bible merely an instrument of oppression in the wrong hands - or is there something fundamentally dodgy about bits of it? Paul Vallely reflects.

General Lin, who founded the Chinese Kingdom 3,000 years ago, went to war with his army to conquer a land. They came to some great cities with high walls and strong fortresses. The Chinese War-God appeared to General Lin in his dream and promised him victory, ordering him to kill all living souls in the cities because those people belonged to other religions. General Lin and his soldiers took the towns and utterly destroyed all that was in therein, both man and woman, young and old, and ox and sheep and ass, with the edge of the sword.

Do you think General Lin and his soldiers acted rightly or not. Explain why?

The question cost Professor George Tamarin his chair, and made him the last victim of Joshua's conquest of Jericho. For he asked it as part of a sociological survey of Israeli schoolchildren. He then gave them an account of Joshua's campaign to claim the Promised Land from its existing inhabitants.

The two stories are, of course, almost identical. Some 60 per cent of the Jewish students insisted Joshua was quite right, but 75 per cent thought General Lin was wrong. The outcome, Tamarin contended, showed that chauvinism influences moral judgment and that uncritical teaching of the Bible forms prejudices.

Tel Aviv university sacked him. The story is told in Michael Prior's book The Bible and Colonialism published by Sheffield Academic Press this week. Its essential point is that the Jewish scriptures make clear that the Promised Land was stolen from someone else. God announces in Exodus that he has come down to deliver the Israelites "to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites".

The paradigm, Prior argues, has been used to justify conquest down the ages from the expeditions of the conquistadores in Latin America and European colonial adventures throughout Africa and Asia. The Prussians used it in Poland. Puritan preachers in North America referred to native Indians as Amalekites and Canaanites, who, if they refused to be converted, were worthy of annihilation. More recently the notion has been used by the Dutch Reform Church to justify apartheid in South Africa, by the Jews to oppress the Palestinians in their homeland and by Serbs bent on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. A sense of "superiority over the natives" moves from a sacred text to become part of national mythology and therefore a "fact" of history.

Even liberation theologians, when they began in Gustavo Gutierrez's words "doing theology from the underside of history", used the Exodus as their prime metaphor for God's being on the side of the poor in their struggle gainst colonialism, dictatorship and economic domination. Is the Bible misinterpreted, asks Prior, or is it intrinsically oppressive?

Desmond Tutu is fond of saying: "When the whites arrived in Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said: `Close your eyes and let us pray.' And when we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land . . . But I think we got the better deal." Not everyone agrees. Many young South African blacks consider the Bible an oppressive document and the Old Testament is seen as a Zionist text to such an extent that it has become almost repugnant to many Palestinian Christians. Like the American Indians, the Aborigines in Australia, and many others see the story through the eyes of the Canaanites and other peoples who already lived in the Promised Land.

Prior's solution is that of classic liberalism. The biblical narrative is not simple history but a series of legends, epics and myths reconstructed from the past by authors to express their own religious and political ideologies. Archaeological studies of Iron Age settlements in the area indicate continuity between the Canaanite and Israel settlements, with no ethnic distinction between them, and no evidence of invasion from outside or revolution from within. Historically a multiplicity of ethnic identities coalesced into the People of Israel only under the threat of Assyrian invasion.

But myths can be more useful than facts. "The Promised Land was not given to the Israelites - they had to fight for it," I was once told by a theologian involved in struggle for land among the poor in Brazil. "To them the city states of the Canaanites were symbols of feudal exploitation." It was about class struggle.

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism, said the Marxist Walter Benjamin. Perhaps more hope lies with the words of Gutierrez: "The Promised Land," he said, "is not simply a new country; it is also the gift of a radically different situation."

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