"The Bible is not God": Postcolonial Views of Joshua
What if we took the Canaanites' humanity seriously?
Today I want to talk about readings of Joshua by postcolonial scholars. These readings are characterized by the attention they pay the human side of scripture: Whose voices are elevated and whose are not? Who benefits and who is harmed from the power relations in the text? Who gets to decide what a text means? How can we use this text to produce a genuinely just community?1
In the context of Joshua, this means taking the Canaanites and the harm that’s done to them seriously. When the writer believes God has given this land to Joshua, what does that mean for the people who already lived there? Who today might identify with the Canaanites, and how have so-called traditional readings of the text affected them? What do we make of Rahab’s decision to betray her city, condemning almost everybody she knows to a horrible death?
These questions can be — especially if you were raised in an Evangelical context — uncomfortable. The Christian call to follow God as best you can given all the information you have (including the bible, tradition, conscience, etc.) is sometimes replaced by a subtly different command: to submit to every single passage in the bible (except the ones your faith tradition has already decided don’t count.)
(Aside: this really saddens me because it flattens the way the bible actually works (as a diverse mosaic of encounters with God) and replaces it with a fragile modernistic structure threatening to collapse if you can’t cobble together enough “explanations” of the contradictions, but that’s a thread to pull another time.)
Postcolonial readings of the bible are valuable and insightful and really do provide genuine depth and conviction to Christian life. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that they can be uncomfortable and hard and may require a bit of a paradigm shift. This shift for me was the result of years of real work and prayer and study and I don’t want to pretend that I expect anyone to do all that or end up in the same place I’m at in the course of reading a single blog post.
The best I can think to do is this: to give some indication of where I’m coming from, I will give two examples of faithful readers who pushed back against the meaning of certain biblical passages as fundamentally against God’s character (as revealed in the broader biblical witness) and were right to do so: the American abolitionists, and the author of the book of Job. If you are already convinced of this, feel free to skip ahead to “Two Postcolonial Readings of Joshua,” which will give some glimpses of postcolonial readings of Joshua by looking at pieces by Dora Mbuwayesango and Bruce N. Fisk. As they are experts and I am not, I will do my best to let them speak in their own words.
“Reading Against the Grain” as a Faithful Tradition
If you asked me for the most godly movement in American history — that is, the movement I think was most clearly led by the Holy Spirit and most virulently opposed by Satan, it would have to be the abolitionist movement of the mid-nineteenth century.
I don’t need to tell you how bad early American slavery was. It is among the worst things a group of people has ever done to another group of people and wouldn’t come to an end until a blood Civil War had killed more than 1 in 50 Americans.
Alongside the physical war, a fierce spiritual war tore churches apart into abolitionist and pro-slavery factions, with both sides doing their best to justify their positions from the bible.
In some sense, the pro-slavery side had the easier job, given that both the Mosaic Law and Paul’s letters contain specific instructions regarding the institution of slavery, without any clear condemnations of its existence. Since the word of God allows Christians to own slaves, they argued, the abolitionists were setting themselves up as higher moral authorities than God himself.
Especially among white moderates, this argument was extremely successful. To give up on slavery, its promoters argued, meant we’d be getting rid of serious biblical interpretation altogether, to the point that even (white) people uncomfortable with slavery found themselves forced to agree that the South had “the Christian position.”
The anti-slavery side had, to oversimplify, two major camps. The first focused on the fact that while the bible didn’t necessarily condemn slavery on its own, it certainly condemned specific aspects of the American slavery system. Thus they pointed out that Abraham circumcised his slaves (hence fully including them in religious life), that the bible recognizes the fully humanity of slaves in a way the American system did not, and that specific rules against “man-stealing” would prohibit selling and buying slaves.
The second camp, typified by writers like William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe, went further and argued that while a few biblical passages seemed to be okay with the ownership of slaves, the overarching “spirit” of the bible undeniably condemned slavery as a sin, and that we should appeal to that spirit over a handful of proof-texts. One of Stowe’s characters, for example, responds to a typical biblical argument about the curse of Canaan on his own (and Jesus’s) terms:
“‘All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.’ I suppose,” he added, “that is scripture, as much as ‘Cursed be Canaan’”
I of course support to effort to find new ways to interpret troublesome passages (that is, after all, the whole point of this series), and the work of the first camp deeply enriched the theological landscape for we who came after.
But among those for whom the text “just meant what it meant”, who didn’t have the time or interest to spend teasing out every possible nuance of the pro-slavery passages, who do you think was closer to God? The ones who knew that slavery was against his character regardless of what a few biblical texts might say, or the ones who used the text to shield themselves from the work of the holy spirit?
The Book of Job
The book of Job is easily one of the most confusing stories in the entire bible. As part of a wager between God and Satan, a righteous man named Job is suddenly hit with miseries including the loss of his property, the death his children, and extremely painful diseases.
Job initially resolves to worship God anyways, but soon becomes miserable and begins to beg for death. Three friends appear to “comfort” him, telling him that because God is a God of justice, Job’s misfortune must be the result of some sin he’s been hiding. Job becomes angry and starts to blame God for his undeserved suffering.
After a brief interlude with a fourth friend, God appears in the form of a storm. Rather than giving Job an explanation of his unhappiness, he questions Job directly:
Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
The speech continues for pages and pages of gorgeous poetry, but the point remains the same: who is Job to claim to understand how the world should work, or to question the wisdom of God’s plans? How can such a small and finite man claim God’s treatment of him is unjust?
Job agrees, and once he repents, God turns to the three friends with even more anger, accusing them of misrepresenting His character. Job is immediately forgiven, but the three friends are only forgiven once Job intercedes on their behalf. Job gets new land and a new family, and the book ends.
On a first reading, this might appear contrary to the position I’m laying out — perhaps God would lecture our discomfort with Joshua by appealing to his greatness and our smallness. And there’s some truth to that we shouldn’t ignore.
But there’s something more going on the text, something that runs up against a fully fundamentalist view of what the bible’s doing.
Pay close attention to what Job’s friends say: that if something horrible happened to Job, he must be being punished for some sin, because God repays good for good and evil for evil. The writer of Job didn’t just come up with this view out of thin air. This is in fact precisely the theology of the writers of the Deuteronomistic History (DH), including the book of Joshua! And just in case you thought that might be a mistake, the book repeatedly quotes and alludes the DH itself as its author satires and ultimately rejects it.
Why does the bible contain a series of books, and then contain a book whose main premise is that God is angry about the perspective that series of books offers? An obvious answer is that God values a diverse set of perspectives about himself. Perhaps the DH view was useful in the decades before Judah went into exile because it underscored God’s willingness to stop the coming horror if they repented. But once Judah had been crushed and exiled, Judahite children who grew up knowing only captivity found themselves in need of a fuller picture of God’s character, and so Job pushes back hard against the excesses of the Deuteronomists.
There’s a lot to think about here regarding the bible. It’s not merely God’s word in the sense of a collection of universal, context-free truths. rather, it captures the experience of the people of God in his presence and we need to think seriously about how and when our experiences might be different.
Two Postcolonial Readings of Joshua
The fundamental question of all Protestant Christianity is “How do we read the bible in the modern world?” The evangelical approach tends to be characterized by an extreme literalism, with a tower of mental scaffolding built up to deal with “problem texts” like those supporting various kinds of slavery.
The approach of many postcolonialists, on the other hand, is much simpler, taking into account both divine and human contributions to the bible and seeking to (as best as possible in a given context) separate the helpful from the unhelpful.
Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan3 asks the question (of difficult biblical passages) starkly, wondering aloud what to do with passages depicting a God who dehumanizes foreigners and sees women as the literal property of men. He concludes:
Ultimately, we must say no to such constructions of the divine even if it means that we are forced to confront our own notions of what we mean by sacred text. If we take ourselves seriously as readers, we will find ourselves in situations where we must speak and preach against the text.
In other words, if the bible incorrectly portrays God, then the bible is wrong and it should be a sign to us that the human authors mixed their own sinful ideas in with the spirit’s inspiration. Rejecting the practice of reinterpreting (e.g. pro-slavery) texts to mean what we’d now like them to mean, Kuan continues:
Biblical interpretation is not about saving the text or saving God, for that matter! It is coming to grips with the text, both its benefits and flaws, its blessings and curses. We need to remember that the text—the Bible—is not God. We need even to be careful about equating the Scriptures with the “Word of God.” In our struggle with the text, we may yet find the Word of God to prosper God’s creative and redemptive work in the world. This word can come even in the midst of our speaking and preaching against the text.
If the goal of reading scripture is to learn “objective facts” that the bible “teaches”, then this a clearly unsustainable interpretation. But if the goal is (as the bible says) to “equip [ourselves] to do every kind of good work”, then it’s obvious how we’d benefit from seriously listening to scholars of this approach as they show us new ways to follow Jesus in loving and empowering the world’s marginalized.
Let’s look very quickly at two scholars doing wonderful work.
The Global Bible Commentary contains an entry on Joshua written by Dora Mbuwayesango. She opens with an immediate contextualization of the conquest narrative, which she says “appears to be a blueprint for the colonization of southern Africa.” Much like Joshua’s Israelites, European colonizers saw their work as divinely ordained, justifying arbitrarily horrific treatment of the indigenous people as long as they simultaneously planted churches. Given this, she asks, “what can the book of Joshua say to the Canaanites, the dispossessed, and the exterminated?”
Over the next few pages she works chapter by chapter through the text itself, summarizing the story as it exists in the context of Israel’s exile while critiquing many of its assumptions. Midway through the article, at the end of Joshua’s conquest plotline, she states her thesis explicitly4:
In order to have a moral voice and to speak against present-day injustice, the church needs to voice its objections to the Christian use of the Bible to justify or ignore injustices. Does not the book of Joshua fuel such misuses of the Bible?
How a people constructs its identity reflects how they relate to those who live among them and those who are different. The ideology of divine entitlement is a dangerous one. Yet, the book of Joshua can help the people of God to construct its identity in a sound way, namely by acknowledging and making explicit the revulsion we have for its narratives.
Precisely because these stories of relentless massacres shock us, they warn us that the construction of identities that are exclusive and religiously sanctioned — however overt or covert this religious exclusivism might be — leads to genocide and extermination of entire ethnic groups.
In other words, we can see in the book of Joshua a form of religion that’s gone wrong. What led the Israelites to commit genocide? Why were they so certain their God willed it? And most importantly, how can we avoid these mistakes today?
What I really appreciate about this perspective is that it raises more questions than answers. Mbuwayesango does not attempt to tell us exactly what the book of Joshua should lead us to believe — rather, she gives a framework we can use to approach the text and a series of questions we can prayerfully meditate on to hear how God might be speaking to our particular contexts.
Another point of view is given by Bruce N. Fisk, whose article “Canaanite Genocide and Palestinian Nakba in Conversation” compares the Joshua conquest accounts with 1948 destruction and mass eviction of the Palestinian people from their land.
In particular, Fisk builds to build on a reading of Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in which the conquest and the formation of the modern Israeli state were “mutually illuminating.” In contrast to Ben-Gurion’s readings “from above" (that is, from a position of power), Fisk looks to read both texts “from below”, comparing the perspectives of the Canaanites and modern Palestinians.
To keep this short, let’s look merely at the story of Rahab, the Canaanite woman who betrays Jericho in return for the safety of her family. The dominant narrative, and the one the New Testament picks up on, sees Rahab as a hero — despite being starting out “in sin” as a Canaanite and a prostitute, she keeps the Israelite spies safe and expresses her faith in Israel’s god while doing.
Fisk, on the other hand, notes that Rahab’s “speech is noteworthy for more than theological orthodoxy; the terror in her voice is palpable as she contemplates displacement, expulsion, and slaughter.”
This is certainly visible in the text:
I know that the Lord has given you this land and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you.
We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.
When we heard of it, our hearts melted in fear and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.
This is not just an expression of faith: this is somebody who sees a powerful invading army coming to kill her family and is completely terrified. It’s no wonder then, Fisk writes, that Rahab chose to become a collaborator to protect her family, just as many Palestinians did in the twentieth century. Fisk continues:
For us to heed the triumphant voice in Joshua is to count Rahab a hero, commend her allegiance, and celebrate her family’s survival in a community where, Joshua says, they live “to this day”.
But those who read Joshua from below groan under the burden of Rahab’s terror, for she resorted to treachery only because she foresaw Israel’s inevitable victory, precisely like many 20th century Palestinian collaborators who foresaw the assured victory of Zionism.
To read of Jericho’s destruction in light of the Nakba is not to deny Rahab’s status as a collaborator, but it is to sympathise with her desperation, acknowledge the primacy of family ties, and to appreciate her trauma.
Jericho’s shepherds would no longer follow herds to greener grass. Jericho’s women would no longer shelter under the palms to knead their dough. Jericho’s children would no more splash in Auja spring. All were struck by the edge of the sword.
Fisk’s readings, like the best biblical readings, underscores a tension: Rahab’s motivations are complex, and the celebration of her faith shouldn’t extinguish our discomfort at the position she’s been put in.
Tensions like this are not as stable as simple “meanings”: they can push you and pull you in different directions based on the day, and rather than an “answer to a question” they provide fruit for faithful meditation long after the fact.
This brings my series on Joshua to a close. I sincerely hope it’s been helpful for at least somebody — I have certainly learned a lot reading up on it and in further conversations this has sparked. I’d like to close with a quote from C.S. Cowles, who didn’t quite fit any of the “three categories” but whose voice has stuck with me nevertheless5:
Where was God in Israel’s genocidal conquest of Canaan? In the lost hopes, the charred past, the extinguished future of the babies, the infants, the little children— all the Julieks of Canaan. It was in those like Melchizedek [...] and Rahab, who might have glorified God had they been given the chance.
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See the introduction to Carolyn Sharp’s Are you for us, or for our Adversaries?
This section is based on Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis and Bowens’ African American Readings of Paul
Quotes from Kuan’s Reading with New Eyes, pages 5-6.
Global Bible Commentary, p. 69. I added extra line breaks to make it more screen-readable.
Show Them no Mercy, p. 44. I removed a bunch of quotation marks to make it more screen-readable.