Book Reviews

Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword; Why We Can't Ignore The Bible's Violent Verses (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 310pp.Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword; Why We Can't Ignore The Bible's Violent Verses (New York: HarperCollins, 2011), 310pp.

           In 1984 Phyllis Trible published a book called Texts of Terror that explored the Bible's cruel treatment of women. Since then her book title has served as a proxy for all sorts of violence that the Bible seems to justify. Philip Jenkins, professor at Penn State University, tackles the most terrifying texts of all, those in which God commands his people to exterminate their enemies without mercy. A table of nineteen passages lists "the most disturbing conquest texts." There's Deuteronomy 7:1-2: "Thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them." In 1 Samuel 15 God even killed king Saul precisely because he spared the Amalekite king Agag. Samuel then "hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal." Today we would call these two incidents war crimes or crimes against humanity.

           Believers have developed numerous interpretive strategies to read these texts. Practically-speaking, most believers ignore them. Others dismiss them as crude stories of a "savage antiquity." Others appeal to a divine wisdom that's incomprehensible to mere mortals. Still others argue that enemies like the Canaanites were evil and deserved their fate. Many people observe that texts of terror are a problem for most all religions, and that, on par, no one religion is worse than another when it comes to sacred violence. Other interpreters read these texts with a greater or lesser degree of historical scepticism and not as eyewitness reportage. Early Christian exegetes like Origen employed allegorical interpretations. It's also true that a religion is more than its texts, that a minority of extremists don't represent the mainstream majority, and that the causes of modern violence can't be reduced to religion alone. The evolution of religion across millennia suggests progress from the savage to the enlightened (cf. Robert Wright). Finally, the Bible's historical descriptions of genocide don't necessarily imply theological prescription for us today. Still, at the end of the day, these texts of terror were canonized as sacred literature.

           Jenkins' conclusion comes as a welcome surprise. All these strategies of selective editing aren't helpful or even necessary. Rather, we should read, absorb, comprehend, and even preach these texts of terror. Since these texts were written about five hundred years after the purported events, and since they enjoy little to no archaeological support, Jenkins says we should "treat these stories with real [historical] scepticism." He urges us to dig deeper for a core message: "The imagined war against outside peoples and customs symbolized a rejection of any and all things that distract or separate a people or an individual from God" (224). In other words, the core truth of radical monotheism is that the absolute God deserves unconditional obedience from his chosen people. In a line of argument that he mentions but doesn't develop, he quotes Rene Girard of Stanford who argued that the Bible is the first text to present sacred violence from the perspective of the victim, and thus, paradoxically,"it is for biblical reasons that we criticize the Bible" (7, 240). That might be about as good as it gets when it comes to texts of terror.