Barbs in Your Eyes
There are many “texts of terror” in the Bible, mostly in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) but you can find some challenges in the New Testament, too. The biggest challenge often comes when noticing that God apparently orchestrates genocide against the Canaanite people at the hands of the Israelites. One of these texts appear in Numbers 33:55-56, including the rationale for the extinction (NIV)
55 “‘But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live. 56 And then I will do to you what I plan to do to them.’”
Christians in the modern Western world tend to read this prescriptively: God is ordering genocide because God is afraid that these other people will corrupt Israel. I’ve discussed elsewhere how we can talk about whether or not God actually did command this and why if so, but I want to step past that for a different aspect of the text this time.
What if it’s a descriptive statement rather than prescriptive? What if it’s simply an acknowledgement of reality? If so, there’s actually something powerful here: a recognition that ruling over others through force doesn’t “work” forever.
It’s an if-then statement, and I think on its own it is a true statement. As long as there are some left that you are ruling over, treating as inferior to yourself, they’re not going to be happy about it and they will probably do some things you don’t like. That may be ultimately nonviolent actions against you, a la Martin Luther King Jr., or in most cases, they may utilize violence back against you. Either way, your oppression won’t go unchallenged forever. You might think conquest is the key to peace – the Pax Romana to apply later Roman language – but it’s a lie.
Where does this leave us then? God in this story seems to tell Israel to kill everybody, just to be safe. If we keep reading the story of Israel, we know it fails spectacularly. They still constantly stray from God’s plan for them, so they can’t really scapegoat their neighbours who they conquered. They still regularly continue to be fighting their neighbours, and then are ultimately conquered by several other Empires in a row. The short-sighted could point out they did successfully conquer the land, but the Pax Romana strategy didn’t work for long.
On the other end, we have Jesus’ words to love our enemies. If we love our enemies, it takes away their motivations to be barbs in our eyes. If we treat them as equal to ourselves, they have nothing left to risk their lives trying to gain. Peace through love works, unlike peace through victory.
My hypothesis then, is that while God submitted to the Israelites’ determination to slaughter Canaanites and conquer the land – whether God commanded it or not is a secondary question – God adds little warnings like this. It’s like God is saying, “Fine, try it your way, but it’s not going to work” the same way God later responds to their demands for a king. Guess what? God was right. Instead of looking at this like God is giving an absolute command, we should be realizing that God was trying to move them past that attitude, a progression that continues through the prophets and culminates with the love ethic of Jesus.