Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Batman and the Canaanites, Part I

For some kooky reason, I thought it would be a good idea to tackle one of the most disturbing, unusual, and troubling events in the Old Testament, and compare it to a comic book. As a disclaimer, I don't do this to be irreverent, nor do I think the analogy carries completely for several reasons that I'll sidebar, but bear with me.

Most folks of reasonable Bible-literacy are familiar with the conquest of the Canaanites. If not, I'll give you the Cliff's Notes.

The Israelites had been wandering around for umpteen years (the Bible says 40, but a lot of the numbers, especially OT numbers, are symbolic--it was an extraordinarily long time, in any case). This is after the plagues in Egypt, the exodus, the parting of the Red Sea, Moses drawing water from the rock, manna from Heaven, flocks of birds being sent for meat (cuz manna just ain't manna unless you've got some fried chicken in there), the Ten Commandments, all that good Charlton Heston stuff. They tote around the Ark of the Covenant and are in the constant and palpable presence of God. It's basically the kind of stuff that would supposedly convince even the most ardent non-believer of the truth.

Except they aren't always convinced. No sooner does Moses turn his back on them, than the Israelites start worshipping idols and holding toga parties. And not the innocent John Belushi kind. The sort where Romans look up from the vomitorium and go "Wow, those heathens are degenerate."

A certain pattern emerges throughout the travels and travails of the Israelites. When they follow God's will and give proper recognition to him, things go well. When they try to go their own way, not so much. There's breakouts of plague, serpent invasions (as far as I'm concerned, that would be it for any apostasy on my part--Indiana Jones and I feel the same way towards snakes), and all other manner of punishment. Poor Moses is run into the ground trying to keep these people from killing themselves. The level of recalcitrance is astounding--God Himself is as plain as the nose on their collective face. He gave them orders, very explicitly, written on big stone tablets. It could not get any more real, or clear. And yet people still rebelled. There's something very telling about human nature here. Whenever you feel inclined to grumble that God's word is subject to interpretation, or that he isn't sufficiently visible, remember how the Israelites fared under totally different circumstances. His visibility ain't an issue, our rebellion is. Goes all the way back to the Garden. 

So, by this point in their collective lives, it's become pretty clear that God knows what he's doing, and the Israelites do not. The lunatics do not need to be running their asylum.

And that's when the Kill Order comes down.

Now, the Israelites had been doing a pretty fair amount of butt-kicking out there in the desert already. The Amalekites in particular had been a lethal nuisance, and suffice to say that they were generally having a rough go of it. They'd been around the block a few times, and definitely knew which end of the pointy stick went into the other guy.

But now God wanted them to do something that was a shade past the normal. Total warfare. None of this playing at raiding, a couple camels here, a few dead bandits there. This was big league, Sherman-through-Atlanta, professional-grade military action. Their mandate, in no uncertain terms, was to completely eliminate every one of the pagan people groups occupying what was to become Israel (and Judea). Everyone. The men, the women, the kids, the cows. If the crickets chirruped and they had a Hittite accent, you squashed 'em.

So how do we square this sort of mission with a God who is slow to anger, and quick to forgive? One who is not loving or just, but who is Love and Justice? It isn't as though, as some people joke, having a Son chilled God out. His character is eternal--in fact, most orthodox Christology states that Jesus, pre-incarnation, was already part of the Triune God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as the Word. So there's no out here, no way to just up and say "Well, that was before Christ--it's different now."

Nope, there's a paradox here alright, but that ain't the solution.

Firstly, a little primer on Near Eastern heroic narratives, and hyperbole in general. When you read accounts from that area of the world, especially ancient ones, and very especially ones dealing with warfare or other heroic narratives, you sometimes get more heat than light out of the descriptions. If you ever saw 'Borat', you might remember him wishing "May US and A kill every single terrorist. May George Bush drink the blood of every single man, woman, and child in Iraq! May you destroy their country so that for the next thousand years, not even a single lizard will survive in the desert!" 

A lot of the invective is like that. You can hear it today when the Iranian President makes doomsday pronouncements, which leads to some real tensions. He's just making noise with his mouth, but people take it seriously. 

This isn't to say that God wasn't giving a serious order, unlike the aforementioned blunderbusses, but you have to understand that when a narrative says something like "wipe them all out" what is more likely to actually have occurred is that all armed resistance was crushed, and no prisoners were taken. Which generally means mass deportation, not house to house murder. Leave your stuff, grab your kids, and get out. There would be a lot of what we nowadays euphemize as 'collateral' damage. Fires, brutality, intimidation, a lot of nastiness. One may reasonably hope that, because of Israel's divine guidance, they weren't committing rapes or other atrocities. None were recorded, at least, and the Bible frankly doesn't shy away from mentioning incest, infidelity, bestiality, rape, or much of anything else, if it happened, so I'd be hard pressed to believe it went on. That said, it was bad. A whole lot of people were killed on both sides, and the Canaanites were to be expelled, and any vestige of their culture eliminated from the area. Purification by fire, so to speak. This may not rank with Hiroshima, or the firebombing of Dresden, or My Lai, and certainly has nothing on the Soviets or Nazis, but it was not a good time to be a Canaanite.

It was also, as many have noted, probably not easy on the Israelites. More on that in a bit.

The other issue here is what exactly made the Canaanites a target in the first place. This was not arbitrary--there was a whole lot of unoccupied land in the world at the time, certainly God could have sent the Israelites anywhere he pleased without the need for further bloodshed. There was a purpose to the wandering, and a purpose to where they wound up--and how. The Israelites weren't the Chosen People because they were so virtuous. Quite the opposite, as we saw earlier they were the furthest thing from morally impeccable. Moreover, the Canaanites weren't just the unlucky losers who happened to be kicking it on a land of milk and honey.

By all accounts, the Canaanite culture was, frankly, evil. I realize that in our age of pluralism and cultural acceptance, it's definitely not a mark of enlightenment to pass judgement of that sort. However, if you'll look at recent history and current events, it's pretty easy to see evil with a cultural imprimatur upon it. Think of the practice of widow-burning, or female genital mutilation, or foot-binding (or more recently, forced abortion, infanticide, and sterilizations), think of the culture of Manifest Destiny that led Americans to force people onto reservations and hand out smallpox blankets, think of everything that went on in the Belgian Congo (Heart of Darkness, anyone?), or the Weimar Republic's sanction of dehumanization and later extermination of Jews and other 'problem people', think of the Soviet culture and all the ills that it brought. And those, to be frank, are relatively mild compared to what we'd be looking at in Canaan.

You'd be seeing temple prostitution, rampant rape, child abuse (including and especially not only pedophilia, but infant sacrifice), military atrocities, theft, murder, and sure, probably quite a lot of gambling, carousing, drunkenness, and general vice. Small fry, big fry, fish fry, they had it all going on. Every evil in the world, in one place. The brutal, the seductive, and the just plain wrong.

In the tale of Sodom and Gomorrah, we see that the town is so corrupt that you couldn't find ten good men in amongst thousands. When two visitors come to town, the whole neighborhood shows up like it's a block party--only it's meant to be a gang-rape-them (probably-to-death) party. We have no reason to suspect that the Canaanites were any different. The only hitch is that this time, the judgement isn't coming in the form of fire and brimstone. It's on the edge of Israelite swords, carried by Israelite men.

And it's always a mess when men try to carry out the justice of God. Especially when that judgement is on others. Often, it's plagued by false righteousness--we violently attack the mote in our brother's eye, and ignore the log in our own. In this case, we have the opposite danger--failing to have enough zeal to finish the task.

In 'The Boondock Saints' (which I categorically do not recommend for learning what it is to be a good Christian or Catholic, but nonetheless a good point is made when) they ask their father how far they're supposed to go in fighting the mob. He responds that the question is not how far, but whether they are ready to go as far as it takes.

Wherever you draw the line, evil will take one step past it and regroup. Then it comes back, in force.

That's where I'm going to draw the line for today, however, since I've got a real job to attend to.

Oh noes, a cliffhanger ending! Will Bennett get to the point? Are all these loose ends going to tie up? Is he ever going to get around to explaining how Batman factors into all this? Is it the analogy even necessary? Could there be a Julie Newmar cameo? For these answers and more...

Tune in tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

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