What Do We Mean When We Say that the Scriptures Are True?

The walls of Jericho fall downBible story from the book of Joshua chapter 6 verse 20. From an original woodcut published in 1860 by George Wigland LeipzigArists Julius Schnorr (d. 1872)

I can remember the exact moment that I decided that the Bible was true. It was about ten years ago, while I was reading The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, encountering for the first tie the wealth of archaeological evidence that neither the Exodus from Egypt nor the conquest of Canaan ever occured. Rather, the evidence suggests, the YHWH cult emerged from within the native Canaanite population, grew to dominate the society, and then created a martial history for itself to give significance to the movement.

I cannot express the relief that I felt when I read these arguments. By that time, I had concluded that the Bible could not be true if the stories of conquest and genocide were historically accurate. I could not accept that the god of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges–a god who favors one race of people over another and does not merely tolerate, but affirmatively commands, genocidal slaughter. I simply could not accept such a being as my loving and merciful father.

But if the conquest didn’t really happen–if God did not order the Israelites to kill every Canaanite in order to steal their land and their cities–then it is possible to interpret the text in a way that can be reconciled with a God deserving of worship. If the Israelites were acting like human beings act–if they were sorting themselves into in-groups and out-groups and making up stories to justify their prejudices–then God had nothing to do with it. Rather than commanding the slaughter of women and children, God was simply inspiring the prophets to tell them to stop being uncaring, self-obsessed twits. 

What this experience taught me is that there are several definitions of “true” that we bring to the scriptures. One version of “true” means “historically accurate,” Another means something like “morally valuable.” These are completely different concepts that may or may not be found in the same text. There is nothing inherently morally valuable about historical facts. And there is great moral value to many fictions. Think of Dante, Shakespeare, and the parables of Jesus. In the case of Joshua and Judges, the two definitions, for me at least, are mutually exclusive. The only way that I can see these books as true2 is to acknowledge that they are not true1.

This does not mean that I do not see these biblical texts as historical. It means that I see them as precisely historical. The Books of Joshua and Judges do not present themselves to us as the work of prophets. They are cultural histories written in the sixth century BCE about events that took place hundreds of years earlier. The societies that produced these histories were largely agrarian, oral cultures that did not keep elaborate records. Their history was contained mainly in the stories passed down from one generation to the next. There is no document written anywhere in the world under such circumstances whose historical claims we would accept without deep skepticism. To treat the Deuteronomistic History differently than we would treat, say, the Spring and Autumn Annals or the Histories of Herodotus— we must engage in what can only be described as ahistorical assumptions.

The counterargument, of course, is that these are inspired books written by the hand of God, so of course, they are more true than other books. In one sense, this is an unanswerable argument. If God can do anything, he can certainly cause people to write accurate history. But this assumes that God is as likely to confuse historical accuracy with moral truth as we are. It assumes that there is some inherent oral value in just getting a set of historical facts right. And I simply don’t see any evidence that this is true.  

Take my favorite example: the Book of Job. This portion of the Bible does not present itself to us as a work of history or as a set of historical facts. It is a poem that marks itself self-consciously as a work of literature. Nobody in its original audience felt the need to see it as history, because they understood, as we normally do, that a work of self-conscious literature can teach moral principles that are both valuable and true. However, over the last 2,000 years, Christians have expended an enormous amount of energy trying to reconcile the transactional version of God–who makes bets with Satan and kills people’s children in order to test their loyalty–with their historical understanding of a Heavenly Father.  

I am convinced that, underlying all of the attempts to establish the historical veracity of the scriptures–finding evidence that people can live for three days inside of a whale, or that the sun stood still for three hours during the time of Joshua, or that Mezzoamerican chariots had  I ♥ Zarahemla bumper stickers on the back–is a spiritually dangerous understanding of what “truth” actually means. If we find a moral truth (“God doesn’t want us to commit genocide”) that conflicts with a historical truth (“God commanded the Israelites to commit genocide”), we work very hard to revise the moral truth to support the historical fact claim. We automatically subordinate morality to history.

And here’s the thing: almost everything important about the scriptures makes more sense if we do it the other way around. 

Comments

  1. Wouldn’t it be less dangerous for God to ask us to believe in historically accurate accounts, rather than fictions? Or at least have us understand that fictions are fictions, but still worthwhile instruction material. Because saying “You must believe this fiction is actually history to prove your faith” doesn’t fit well with me.

  2. Jader3rd, interesting question. My initial thought was to ask if it is really God that is asking us to believe…? Or it is ourselves? Our local religious culture / co-religiounists? The organizational church?

  3. There is nothing inherently morally valuable about historical facts. And there is great moral value to many fictions.

    I’ve been wrestling lately with appreciating stories, movies, paintings that are set in a definite historical period with definitely historical personages, events, costumes, music … but which are, strictly speaking, not historically accurate. The new Netflix series “Underground Railroad” is a current example; some LDS efforts could also be cited.

    What you’ve written here is pretty much where I’ve come down on balancing my instincts for historical accuracy with my desire to enjoy artistic productions. Each has its place. Neither should be mistaken for the other.

  4. History is what actually happened, a daunting task under any circumstances. Heritage is what we imagine, d happened. And we have a lot more heritage than history when it comes to religion, unfortunately.

  5. Left Field says:

    Even if we go so far as to take the Eden story as historical, the account loses all credibility as accurate history when we add to the usual cast of characters, a garden filled with New Testament apostles, modern Christian preachers (in some versions), and literally every other human who ever lived, including you and me. The resulting story has moral truth as ritual, but becomes absurd as history.

    Yet many people feel compelled to view this as an historical documentary. What truth they may think is derived from that, is a mystery to me.

  6. rastlefo says:

    I really appreciate this post. This is how I’ve been feeling lately about scripture. I appreciate what scripture teaches me about how to live and treat others, but I don’t think it has to be truly historical to teach me that.

    I still haven’t fully processed what this means for me, though. Does it matter that a Prophet didn’t write scripture? Does/should this view of scripture have a bearing on how I should understand modern scripture or general conference?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Your illustration of the Canaanites is an excellent way to see your point. If we insist they are black Africans, we have no shot at understanding the OT. If we understand the Israelites arising from among them indigenously, all of a sudden the text makes sense. Hebrew is a Canaanite dialect for heaven’s sake!

  8. I have a friend in my ward whose late father was a well-known long-time BYU religion teacher. My friend’s beliefs reflect his father’s and I think they illustrate the large majority of Latter-day Saints and LDS leaders: mankind has been on the earth for 6,000 years give or take, there was a flood, an Exodus, and Moses wrote the Pentateuch. It’s not Genesis that is the foundation of this but the Pearl of Great Price. And there is a whole quasi-academic engine to reinforce it.

  9. Brent P says:

    The concept of true as historically accurate has long appeared to be and continues to appear to be the prevailing preoccupation of believers’ thoughts about the scriptures. I simply can’t imagine going to Sunday school and calling the Bible a work of complete fiction that still has moral truth and not getting tremendous pushback. You can get away with calling a lot of the Bible, such as the Book of Job, fictional, but there obviously is a limit. You certainly couldn’t call Jesus or his divinity fictional and get any validation from church leaders and the believing membership. You would be called an atheist heretic for so doing. And yet many scholars in the vein of Finklestein and Silberman say just that. Popular New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has long argued against evidence of Jesus’s divinity. Jesus not only has to be real, he has to be God in the most real and non-fictional sense possible for Christianity in all its forms to make any sense. The historicity of essential figures and events in not just Mormonism, but many religious traditions, is the most sure foundation for the religion’s existence and is more crucial than a religion’s set of moral truths to its survival. To strip religions of historical truth claims and say that these claims can all be understood as metaphorical is to completely undermine a religion.

  10. WVS raises a sticky issue particular to LDS Christians: the discussion about historical truth relative to moral truth becomes much more difficult when our foundational LDS scriptures specifically authenticate and reify all those Old Testament/ancient figures and stories.

  11. stephenchardy says:

    There are degrees here: we don’t have to see the Bible as a “complete” fiction with the only alternative being a god-inspired history lesson. There are more nuanced positions between.

    If we insist on seeing the Bible as pure fact, then we may miss many significant lessons or truths. If the Garden of Eden story is not a factual account of the first humans on the earth, then what is it? If Eve wasn’t literally made from one of Adam’s ribs, then what are we to learn from the Genesis description of her creation? What is the story meant to teach us? If we insist on pure historical truth as the only way to understand such accounts then we may miss the actual lessons that the prophets and God intended to teach. For some people insisting on the historical perfection of the Bible appears to promote or at least demonstrate faith: “Look how much faith he has! He believes, against all scientific, climatic, geographic, geologic, and biologic evidence and against moralistic reasoning that God wiped out essentially all human and animal life, and saved all land-based species through one large boat. He has so much faith! How we admire him!”

    To understand the Bible in a rigidly historical way is actually an attempt to strip it of some of its meaning; it is anti-God in a sense. If God meant to teach us “B” then why is insisting on “A” desirable? Shall we worry about “pushback” from fellow members, or worry about understanding God’s intent regarding the scriptures? It may be painful for some to let go the historicity of certain stories such as the flood, but it opens a way to understand God’s intent for us all. As Michael Austin so perfectly put it, we are finally able to see the truth in the scriptures. Does God want us to believe things that simply aren’t true?

    If this strips us of some comfort, and introduces lots of gray areas… then so be it. Again, what does God intend?

  12. Scott Abbott says:

    I love the ways this essay opens up possibilities for truth that can remain closed by history. In a different vein, focused on revelation rather than history, see my Sunstone essay on making truth rather than finding it: https://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/23/

  13. Molly Bennion says:

    “moral value to many fictions” Yes, in fact we seem to find it difficult to learn moral truths without stories. Why do these truths resonate more quickly, more deeply wrapped in stories? Does that speak to a human weakness or just a fact of humanity? The stories can bring with them untruth and the potential to doubt the very truths they teach, as you’ve pointed out so well. Like many of your posts, Michael, this should be explored with children before they decide there are no eternal truths.

  14. Brent P says:

    I feel the need to add that I see the idea that anyone sees the Bible as a 100% historical account is a strawman. Even the most orthodox of Mormons and fundamentalist Christians acknowledge that the Biblical text contains metaphors and fictional stories to illustrate a deeper moral truth. Fundamentalist believers acknowledge the Bible to contain both moral and historical truths. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the most atheist and secular of textual critics acknowledges that the Bible contains kernels of historical truth at least about the material and ritual culture of the ancients.

    The OP seems to be a continuation of a common narrative clung to by middle path believers, which is that Bible is more metaphorical than the orthodox think and that we can maintain the integrity of the LDS church, as well as other Christian denominations, with a more metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. This narrative is nothing new. I’ve been hearing it spelled out in a variety of forms for more than two decades. Or course, this narrative seems to have had increasing influence and traction in the LDS church. Popular insistences that certain Bible stories be treated as historical truth have mellowed over time. This is a welcome change, and I thank the purveyors of this metaphorical narrative for that.

    However, this narrative is a also meant as a criticism of non-believers and ex-believers. How so? There seems to be this sentiment that particularly ex-believers are leaving the church because they see things the way the orthodox members do and are easily derailed in their faith because they discover that the orthodox view about historicity is implausible. Middle path believers are in essence saying that the ex-believer sees things very shallowly and is overreacting by throwing out the baby of religion with the bathwater of orthodox belief. The hope seems to be to entice the ex-believer back to belief by offering a metaphorical view of the Bible. The problem is that middle path believers seem to be very shy about outlining what should be seen as historical truth in the scriptures. For it can’t possibly be that the middle pathers see historical truth only to the extent that secular academics, such as the authors of Bible Unearthed, see it. Middle path believers are trying to wear the hat of believer in a believing community, are they not? Sure, they accept as historically true less than the orthodox believer, but clearly they must see more historical truth than the secular non-believer. It would be worthwhile for middle pathers, such as Michael Austin, to explain in more detail what needs to be seen as historically true.

    I should also note that having read ex-believer narratives for years, by and large ex-believers are well acquainted with well-meaning middle pathers trying to bring them back in by providing a metaphorical explanation for the scriptures. The response by the ex-believers overwhelmingly seems to be that the middle pathers aren’t fully acknowledging the full extent of what the LDS church actually teaches and are conveniently ignoring just how much historical truth matters in the average Mormon experience (i.e., serving a mission means preaching everyday the historicity of the Book of Mormon). Commonly heard in the ex-believer community is the term “gaslighting” in reaction to these middle path narratives. Make of it what you will, but it is what I commonly read and hear.

  15. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I love this, Michael. Thank you. I find that a similar approach helps me with the Book of Mormon, which I often characterize as Some Version of a History of Some People Who Lived Somewhere at Some Time. From that starting point I can start to see what is ‘true’ in the text and can begin to learn the valuable lessons the inspired, yet flawed, writers were trying to convey.

    This approach also allows me to believe in the current Church. When I recognize that our leaders are “acting like human beings act…sorting themselves into in-groups and out-groups and making up stories to justify their prejudices” it makes it possible digest what I see and hear and continue on my journey.

  16. Michael Austin says:

    Mack, one of the strangest things that, I think, most Latter-day Saints believe is that, if the Book of Mormon is actually a historical record with an ancient provenance, that automatically means that all of the stuff in it actually happened. It doesn’t take long with actual ancient records with an actual historical provenance to realize that, when ancient historians are talking about things that happened a thousand years earlier, they almost never get anything right. That kind of “history,” in every case that we know of in the ancient world, is nothing more than the setting down of cultural legends.

  17. Val Sederholm says:

    I have a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, and I accept the Hebrew Bible as historical. And I accepted the Hebrew Bible as historical truth long before a received a PhD. I read the Old Testament as a child, and I chose to believe the record, as a record, that spoke with such intelligence and eloquence to my soul. The Bible, as it stands, has its own assumptions about itself. And it speaks for itself. People can make up their own assumptions about Bible, as they please. I would rather accept the Hebrew Bible and its assumptions than what others make out of it based on their own assumptions and perceptions of history, ancient or modern, or their own assumptions about morality, assumptions that are often striking only for their being so utterly simplistic, i.e., “the Bible record can’t be true because Israelites waged a religious war.” Why should I bother with any living person’s viewpoint about an ancient book, when I have the book itself to speak to me, a book replete with numerous sign-posts about its meaning and its message? And when the book is sustained as The Book by modern revelation, why should I bother to take seriously any mere opinion–and especially any learned opinion about either history or morality? I encourage those who believe in God to have more confidence–much more confidence–in the Book shared with the world at such human cost and with such love and devotion. We should ask ourselves: Where would I be without the foundation of faith found in the Bible? And what kind of foundation of faith would that be for me, if I take it as fiction? Again: What thank we, the Gentiles, the Jews for this Bible? Let’s forget our own national, gentilic, superiority for five seconds, that of our one talent-culture (as Moroni states in Ether), and give the Jews, a people of ten talents, a chance to convince us that the Bible shows the hand of God throughout history, as manifest in the dealings of God with His people, Israel. We will never gather Israel, unless we embrace the historicity of God and His people.

  18. Thanks for this thoughtful essay, Michael. And thanks for reminding me about your article, Scott Abbott. A professor I had at BYU pointed me to it, and I have returned to it several times and always find value in it.

  19. Jonathan Cavender says:

    While I agree that just because something is historical doesn’t mean it must be historically accurate (I think that all we really need for the Book of Mormon to be historical is that Moroni existed and was resurrected to deliver the plates — everything else is optional) I see two problems with what you are describing.

    First, there is a benefit of wrestling with the scriptures — including the portions that differ from your current belief. If you think that the scriptures are just a xenophobic aggrandizing narrative then you are not very liable to engage with any teaching or narrative that disagrees with whatever you happen to believe. In essence, you immunize yourself from having an encounter with doctrine that you don’t otherwise accept. It is often by difficult teasing apart what we believe and what the scriptures say that we are able to come to an understanding of some pretty important lessons. That won’t take place if we simply state that “it never really happened.”

    And second, the more I look the more I think that most people taking your approach end up throwing too much out as ahistorical. Even leaving aside Latter-Day scriptures, you have a number of references to figures from the scriptures (including by the Savior) in ways that have you either continually throwing more and more out or accepting that there is more that is history than you might be comfortable with believing.

  20. Michael Austin says:

    “I would rather accept the Hebrew Bible and its assumptions than what others make out of it based on their own assumptions and perceptions of history, ancient or modern, or their own assumptions about morality, assumptions that are often striking only for their being so utterly simplistic,” (Val)

    ” If you think that the scriptures are just a xenophobic aggrandizing narrative then you are not very liable to engage with any teaching or narrative that disagrees with whatever you happen to believe.” (Jonathan)

    What I find most notable about these arguments–other than the fact that they both dismiss being against genocide as a silly modern prejudice–is the strikingly ahistorical nature of their arguments in favor of historicity. They both argue that it is an error to try to hold the people of the Bible to contemporary moral standards while, at the same time, insisting that we completely disregard actual genre conventions of the day and assume that every story in the Bible is written according to the standards of documented history. There is no understanding of, say, ancient genres. Job can’t be a philosophical dialogue (like Plato’s Symposium), Jonah can’t be a satire (like Apuleius’ The Golden Ass), and Joshua can’t be a typically propagandistic court history (like, say, The Aeneid) designed to create a mythical past fo a contemporary ruler–because such assumptions do not conform with treating the entire text as a kind of documented history that is little more than a hundred years old.

    So, rather than acknowledge that the ancient texts of the Hebrews have the sorts of genre conventions, political dimensions, and historical limitations that every other text from the ancient world has, and reading them the way we would read actual texts from the time period, we assume that every word in the Old Testament is a reliable documentary history (something that simply did not exist in the period we are talking about) and if that means we have to find a way to make God OK with genocide, then so be it.

    I simply cannot imagine a more ahistorical and morally relativistic way to make an argument for historicity and moral absolutes,

  21. Jonathan Cavender says:

    @Michael:

    Good point — next thing you know there might be people who believe that “the Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes.” Far be it to engage the text and realize what it might have to communicate about the Atonement. If the Atonement is of such incredible importance that the Lord might command Israel to disagree with our modern sense of morality — and His own desires (He loves Jabin king of Hazor just as much as He loves you and me) — then maybe that communicates something about our priorities when it comes to building the Kingdom of God. If Christ needed to come through Israel, then any sacrifice is worthwhile — and, in the eternities, those ‘victims’ of genocide might likely praise the day when God blessed them by sending the children of Israel against them because it enabled them to be Saved. And, once we understand that, we might perhaps prioritize our acceptance of the Atonement a bit more. We might be a little less fragile in the face of the sacrifices that God requires of us.

    After all, if the Atonement is of such importance that even genocide is acceptable to facilitate it then perhaps it is of such importance that it is more important than the popular political ideas of the month — in fact, worth any person sacrifice (social, political, or personal) to accept it.

    I recognize that there are, likely, ahistorical portions of the scriptures — the writers were, after all, people writing with a purpose. After all, in my post above, I recognize that the only required historical figure in the Book of Mormon is Moroni (though I tend towards a broadly historical view).
    But you make a mistake, in my opinion, beginning with the idea that anything is ahistorical — or even reaching that conclusion too comfortably.

    Now you might disagree with any or all of that, but you don’t even engage with it (the same way you didn’t engage with my argument above) if you hand-waive it away as ahistorical. Historical scriptures have the capacity to change behavior in ways that false narratives do not — it is, in essence, nothing more than putting “God in the Dock” but then acquitting Him because you determine He doesn’t do anything you don’t like.

  22. Michael Austin says:

    “If Christ needed to come through Israel, then any sacrifice is worthwhile — and, in the eternities, those ‘victims’ of genocide might likely praise the day when God blessed them by sending the children of Israel against them because it enabled them to be Saved. And, once we understand that, we might perhaps prioritize our acceptance of the Atonement a bit more. We might be a little less fragile in the face of the sacrifices that God requires of us.

    After all, if the Atonement is of such importance that even genocide is acceptable to facilitate it then perhaps it is of such importance that it is more important than the popular political ideas of the month.”
    —————————————————————————————————————————————
    Jonathan, I don’t even know where to start with this. It is an argument that has produced such an enormous amount of suffering in the world that I am simply not going to engage with it as a morally coherent point of view. It puts you on the side of every slave owner who insisted that they were only following God’s word in enslaving a biblically cursed and inferior race, every Crusader who said that it was better to murder Jews and Muslims than allow them to practice their false religion, every Conquistador who slaughtered natives to save their souls, and every tin-pot dictator in the Christian world who ever launched a genocidal campaign against someone by quoting from the Bible.

    Do you really find it more morally acceptable to put yourself in this company than to simply acknowledge that the ancient records of the Hebrews contained the same kinds of exaggeration, bravado, and propaganda that every other historical record of the time contained? Do you really see “don’t slaughter entire populations of people because they are members of a certain ethnic group?” as “the popular political ideas of the month”? Or are you perhaps engaging in some extreme moral relativism in order to indulge in the sort of historical absolutism that the Bible does not require of us but that contemporary fundamentalist dogma cannot live without?

  23. Wondering says:

    Where to start? I’m curious why Jonathan would think [despite his “if” qualifications] that “Christ needed to come through Israel” or that that couldn’t happen without the OT genocides. Both ideas necessary to the argument seem to me to limit God significantly. If they are based on Christian interpretations of OT prophecies they have a circular flavor in addition to limiting God’s ability to bring about an atonement or to make a covenant with some group other than Abraham, Issac, or Jacob and their descendants and send Christ through that hypothetical other group. Just wondering — probably because I can’t (yet?) see God as so limited.

  24. I’m all for wrestling with the scriptures. Taking them seriously as scripture requires that, regardless of where we come down on their ultimate historicity. But if you find yourself speculating that maybe genocide was actually good, and putting “victims” of genocide in scare quotes, I think you’ve lost the plot. Good grief.

  25. It is one thing, Brother Cavender, to acknowledge that God’s ways are not our ways, and hesitate to presume too much about our ability to assess the moral worthiness or lack thereof of the actions attributed to God in the scriptures. (Nice reference to C.S. Lewis there, by the way.) It is another–and, frankly, I think much stupider–thing entirely to refuse to acknowledge all that we don’t know about the historical veracity, the literary purposes, and the manuscript genealogy, of the scriptures making those attributions. I am perfectly comfortable recognizing that the moral purposes of God, as conveyed through, say, the sacrifice of Isaac, are somewhat inscrutable to the likes of me. I would not be at all comfortable, and neither should you be, with the idea that my reflections upon said inscrutability cannot include the possibility that the story itself, and not just its moral interpretation, might be something entirely different than what the received text tells us it is.

  26. There is another way to read the Canaanite genocide recounted in Joshua: it really did happen but God didn’t command it. The Israelites simply believed he did. It was a post-facto justification for what they did.

    This is consistent with the prevailing tribal culture at the time. One of its defining characteristics was the belief that one or more deities controlled the outcome of virtually every significant event (e.g., the weather, wars, etc.). If you win a battle, then your god beat up the other tribe’s god and is therefore more powerful; or the other tribe was derelict in its to devotion to its god so he threw them under the chariot, so to speak.

    This is one of the reasons polytheism was so prevalent in the ancient world and why the first of the Ten Commandments is, well, first. But when you see a causal link between every major event in your life and the heavens above, then you’re better off worshiping a bevy of gods rather than run the risk of ignoring one who can make your life miserable.

    There is also the possibility that this battle occurred, but the Israelites grossly exaggerated what they did to the Canaanites. In other words, it’s trash talk. The fact that the OT makes subsequent references to the Canaanites suggests they were not exterminated.

    Peter Enns, in his book “The Bible Tells Me So,” makes some of these arguments and does so persuasively. But the points made in “The Bible Unearthed” are also compelling. It’s well worth reading.

  27. Jonathan Cavender says:

    Let’s see if I can address some of these:

    @Michael:
    “It is an argument that has produced such an enormous amount of suffering in the world that I am simply not going to engage with it as a morally coherent point of view.”

    This is an explicitly ad hominem response. So there are people who adopted this argument and did bad things? Well then, I suppose that decides it — you better not engage with any of that argument. Of course if you apply that more universally (rather than just to scriptural historicity) you might find that if you exclude the arguments used to justify evil you are left with nothing else to believe. It essentially gives a heckler’s veto to Satan — if he wants to lead you from any truth all that is required is to get people to do evil under that justification.

    I may well be wrong, but the truth is the truth regardless of who believes it (and what they, cynically or otherwise, might have advocated in the name of that truth).

    “Do you really find it more morally acceptable to put yourself in this company than to simply acknowledge that the ancient records of the Hebrews contained the same kinds of exaggeration, bravado, and propaganda that every other historical record of the time contained? ”

    I will, quite comfortably, put myself on the side of truth as best as I can find at regardless of whomever I find myself sharing company with there. Nor, if you will read now all three posts I have made, do I say that the scriptures are absent exaggeration, bravado, or propaganda — simply that we cut ourselves off from valuable benefit by either beginning with that assumption or arriving at it comfortably without wrestling with the possibility that maybe our understanding is wrong.

    “Do you really see “don’t slaughter entire populations of people because they are members of a certain ethnic group?” as “the popular political ideas of the month”?”

    Nope. If you read the sentence structure you will see a comparison between the extreme on one side and the common on the other. Placing them together in that fashion is a way of noting that as this truth applies in extremity it likely also applies in the commonplace. I expect you realize that but sought rhetorical points by stretching what I was saying beyond its intend scope.

    @Wondering:

    “I’m curious why Jonathan would think [despite his “if” qualifications] that “Christ needed to come through Israel” or that that couldn’t happen without the OT genocides.”

    I tend towards a fairly Panglossian perception of the world. When we talk about a Perfect Plan, I take that fairly literally. God is certainly efficient, and taking my own life as an example He has both given a fair amount of suffering to me and yet all of that has been purposeful. As much as things have been difficult, looking back none of that was wasted in my life (this is consistent with what the Lord told Joseph). If that is true generally, and I think that it is, it leads to some conclusions including that if there is suffering in the world it is because it is necessary to achieve God’s ends. While agency certainly plays a role in the process, I don’t think that the Lord is often surprised by our exercise of that agency and our responses are usually ‘baked into the cake,’ as it were.

    “Both ideas necessary to the argument seem to me to limit God significantly.”

    God has all power that is possible to have, but there is no indication that God can do anything He (or we) can imagine. Otherwise there would be joy absent suffering — without this limitation you run flat smack against the argument from evil.

    @Jared Cook:

    “But if you find yourself speculating that maybe genocide was actually good, and putting “victims” of genocide in scare quotes, I think you’ve lost the plot.

    Victims was in quotes because I was referencing them in the eternities — was Alma the Younger a ‘victim’ of the angel when he was in a coma? Before? After? Maybe I should put this right back on you — would you sign on to be the victim of genocide if you knew it would bring about your salvation eternally? If not, that is one thing. But if so, then you have to deal with that.

    @Russell Arben Fox:

    “It is another–and, frankly, I think much stupider–thing entirely to refuse to acknowledge all that we don’t know about the historical veracity, the literary purposes, and the manuscript genealogy, of the scriptures making those attributions.”

    I agree — and that is not the argument that I am making.

    “I would not be at all comfortable, and neither should you be, with the idea that my reflections upon said inscrutability cannot include the possibility that the story itself, and not just its moral interpretation, might be something entirely different than what the received text tells us it is.”

    No disagreement here, either. Just saying you should neither start there nor ever been particularly comfortable (or conclusive) there.

    In general, I suppose I am old enough that I see some of the same things over and over again. It starts with the argument of historicity. It moves from there into dismissing prophecy (because it was written after the fact, you see, to justify things). Then miracles usually follow — just made up to establish foundation narratives. Before long Christ wasn’t really what He is written as — it is just a narrative established by Peter and others the same way that Joshua is just a narrative established by the post-exilic authors.

    Now any individual person might not wander down that road but enough of them have that it brings up concerns. That’s another reason why I tend towards historicity — truth usually has the effect of leading people towards Christ and the net effect to most people that I have interacted with who adopt an ahistorical worldview is that they tend to fall away from Christ. It is not universal, but it happens enough that it reinforces that it is a framework that has a tendency to lead people away from the Savior.

    You can say a dogmatic historical view leads people away from Christ as well, to which I would respond with ‘fair enough.” I am not arguing that everything is historical — just that much that we might not like is, in fact, historical and the obligation is on us to wrestle with it and just because we don’t like it doesn’t mean that we can easily (or ever, completely) dismiss it. Better to take each event as historical (rather than, say, tossing out the Joshua entirely) and if, after struggling and wrestling to reconcile it, we determine to set it in the ahistorical pile it ought to be tentatively placed there at best.

  28. Jonathan, I do not, in fact, have to “deal with that,” because I reject the idea that there is any spiritual or moral value in trying to defend or justify genocide.

    I don’t think there’s any morally coherent comparison between genocide committed by human beings and an angel delivering a divine rebuke that results in a very temporary partial incapacitation.

    I also reject entirely the idea that the genocide of Canaanite peoples, if it happened, was necessary to the atonement. There’s no scriptural evidence for it, and it certainly does not follow logically from any gospel principal. The only reason for such speculation is in order to shore up a belief in biblical inerrancy that LDS theology explicitly rejects.

    I realize I’m taking a pretty strident tone here. Like Russell says, it’s good to have some humility and to recognize that God’s purposes may be some cases be simply beyond our moral understanding. But using scripture to justify or defend genocide is not just a thought experiment; it’s something that has resulted in many atrocities against Jews, against native peoples, against black people, and others. Willingness to justify these atrocities is a historical and current problem in Christianity in general and specifically in the restoration as well. It’s high time we disavow such ideas.

  29. Pontius Python says:

    @Jonathan Cavender, by all means, let’s put this right back on you:

    “Maybe I should put this right back on you — would you sign on to be the victim of genocide if you knew it would bring about your salvation eternally? If not, that is one thing. But if so, then you have to deal with that.”

    Would you? I bet you wouldn’t. Neither would I.

  30. Michael Austin says:

    @Jonathan,

    OK, let’s assume for the moment that both historical and moral truth are important to the scriptures and that, in an ideal world, we would never have to choose between them. I will give you that much, at least for the sake of argument.

    But the fact is that in order to interpret any scriptural record, we do face instances when we have to decide which definition of truth is more important. And it matters where our default assumption falls. You have made it abundantly clear that you want to subordinate moral truth claims to historical truth claims. When the scriptures present something to us as God’s will that we believe to be morally evil–wiping out a whole race of people because they are occupying the promised land, say, or owning slaves, or sending a bear to kill a bunch of kids because they called a prophet “bald,” or cutting a woman into twelve pieces and sending them out to the tribes of Israel–then you think we should give every possible benefit of the doubt to the historical claim, including actively exploring ways that genocide might be a good thing, before reluctantly concluding, and only tentatively, that the historical claim is possibly exaggerated.

    The term for this position is moral relativism, in that you see moral truth as subordinate to historical truth claims.

    I believe that, when looking at these kinds of scriptures, we should start with the assumption that God is moral–that he does not order genocide, or send bears to kill kids who tease prophets, or consider women to be the mere property of men–and give every possible benefit of the doubt to the moral truth, revising historical truth claims that conflict with moral truth claims whenever it is possible to do so. If I can get there by simply accepting an overwhelming scholarly consensus among those who spend their lives studying such things, then it isn’t even a hard choice.

    That makes me a historical relativist and an anti-genocide absolutist. I am completely comfortable with those labels.

  31. Rob Schweighardt says:

    Well stated…thank you.

  32. It is deeply troubling to me that there are negative or argumentative comments to Michael’s post. For me, OT literalism is an issue that should have been resolved years (decades) ago.

  33. To be deeply troubled by disagreement to this post is itself deeply troubling. Does that deeply trouble some?* I read the post, agreed with some aspects, and felt it was reaching too far in others. Read the comments, and agreed with many on both sides of the issue. Then I see the response of those who respectfully, but directly and emphatically disagreed with some major tenets of the post and some comments. The responses to those disagreements are a joke.

    *If you’re deeply troubled by some rhetoric in a comment box, may I suggest you get off your imaginary moral high horse and go help someone. There are literally millions of people you can help, right now. To profess deep trouble about some words on a screen while literally passing by the wounded Samaritans stranded on roads all over the world you can help right now (you’ve got a paypal and a credit card, n’est pas?) is nonsense.

    The debate is compelling. I find truth in both aspects of it, but the traditional faithful side is more compelling, which I think is what brings such a strong push back. Again, if you want to moralize, go help someone in need. No need to try to claim moral high ground in the comments as it clearly demonstrates where you are lacking, rather than any presumed superiority.

    Engage with the ideas without trying to shame the person articulating their thoughts, however imperfectly.

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