This week NPR aired a segment meant to compare the levels of violence advocated by the Bible and the Quaran. Click here to read and listen. In it, a Penn State professor named Philip Jenkins focuses on the Old Testament practice of herem, the practice of total destruction of people groups as Israel enters the land or faces an enemy people. Professor Jenkins refers to it as genocide and makes the case on these grounds that the violence of the Bible is of a wholly different nature - genocide rather than self-defense - and degree than the violence of the Quaran - jihad in particular.
Interesting. Frankly, I think he is wrong on many levels and agree with Andrew Bostom who takes him to task in the NPR segment. I was struck though by a particular point of difference I would have with Professor Jenkins' contention. And it is about how the Bible is meant to be read and understood.
I read the Bible - and train the people who worship at Christ Covenant to read the Bible - with "Gospel eyes." I have written more about this, but it is essentially a Christ-centered hermeneutic that I believe is taught throughout the Bible and even demonstrated by Jesus Himself in Luke 24:44. Briefly, the Bible as a whole is a "big story" (meta-narrative for those with a philosophical bent) about God rescuing His creation from the consequences of sin. All the "little stories" along the way need to be told and heard in light of that overarching focus.
Professor Jenkins on the other hand, reads the Bible as a flat collection of statements that are both normative and proscriptive, with no larger theme. All that is said is normative, meaning each story tells us what is meant to be done at all times, and it is proscriptive in that we are meant to actively do what we are told. In his reading, the Bible says and means "Do continue to practice herem," and "Do not commit adultery." His conclusions make that clear.
He is not alone in this perspective. People - they are very few and out of the mainstream - who advocate capital punishment for homosexuals on the grounds of the Old Testament are one example. Though most are far less objectionable, anyone who sees the Bible as no more than a collection of instructions for behavior - a rule book for godly living - has this same perspective. Some focus on normative proscriptions for our sex life. Some on normative proscriptions for our financial life. The perspective is the same, and it is abundant throughout the land.
I believe that the Bible is authoritative in all it's parts, but not necessarily normative or proscriptive in everything it relates. This is the step that most Christians make when they worship on Sunday rather than Saturday and choose not to eat Kosher. In like manner, I would contend that herem was indeed practiced at a particular time and place for a particular reason and is authoritatively related to us in the Bible, but given the bigger story, it was never intended to be normative or proscriptive for all times and circumstances.
What reason could there ever be for herem? That is a tough and honest question. I don't believe that the reason is because they were primitive and we are civilized. The Nazis, Taliban and others make that clear to me. I don't believe the reason is because the Old Testament is a book of law and judgment and the New Testament is a book of love. I do believe it has to do with the Big Story of God rescuing His world from the consequences of sin, and that I never began to see it until I read with "Gospel eyes."
This deserves more than a paragraph - but for simplicity's sake, here goes:
God initiated a covenant of grace with Abraham that was meant from the very beginning to "be a blessing to all nations." (Genesis 12:3) That blessing was to involve children for Abraham, who at that point was without child. For Christians, that blessing came to pass - I will make several thousand years of history and the 39 books of the Old Testament short - in the sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through Christ, salvation would be offered to all nations and God's promise to all people made through Abraham would be fulfilled. Much of the "cultural distinctiveness" of the Old Testament people and law was to serve this purity of the bloodline of Abraham until the birth of Jesus. Outsiders could join - Rahab and Ruth come to mind - but they joined the line of Abraham. There was no "intermixing" of two cultures or people.
Herem is a full-bore, brutal and hard-for-me-to-understand keeping of that bloodline. We can't loose sight of the larger purpose. In Jesus Christ, I see that all nations - including I trust those that were herem-ed out of existence - are brought back to God and eventually gathered around the throne of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9 for example) I'll grant that herem offends our current Western sensibilities. Professor Jenkins alling it genocide may be intended as inflammatory, but it is not an unreasonable characterization of the term.
Still, when I read with "Gospel eyes." I see a different point to herem. Indeed, I see that it should stop and can never again be justified. I notice that folks who miss that point, have also usually missed the Gospel of grace as well. Israel's unique historical role in bringing the Messiah to birth has been completed by One who now establishes a new community in which there is "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female." (Galatians 3:28)
Even more, when I look at the cross, I see Jesus Himself as the ultimate object of herem. He is completely cut off from the land of the living and from God. He takes suffering upon Himself, in order to ransom from the consequences of sin everyone who looks to the LORD.
Though I cannot arrange all the pieces of the puzzle of life, I have seen the picture on the box. God Himself does what we could never do: He pays the price for sin and all its consequences, so that He can wipe away every tear, establish a new Heaven and Earth, and pour His love and blessing on every tribe and tongue and nation.