Thom Stark versus Matt Flannagan: The Aesthetics of Willed Confusion

Matthew Flannagan
Matthew Flannagan

Thom Stark makes an excellent reply to some more apologetic vacuities pedelled by Matthew Flannagan concerning the biblical conquest in the book of Joshua. The background to Stark’s reply is a series of recent attempts by various conservative evangelical Christians to argue that the genocidal conquest of “Canaan” ordered by the Israelite god Yahweh was in some way a good thing. Some of these attempts, such as those by Matthew Flannagan and Nicholas Wolterstorff, are by people who are not even biblical scholars, and whose attempts to grapple with the texts expose their lack of expertise, sometimes to the point of being simply embarassing to read.

The point which Stark makes very well in his reply to Flannagan is that the latter’s argument presupposes a rigid, modern, and thoroughly unrealistic view of the manner in which ancient authors or redactors composed or compiled their texts. In critical scholarship, the two halves of the book of Joshua have long been understood as containing  quite opposing viewpoints. The first half claims that the whole land was conquered (Josh 11.23); the second half begins by denying this was the case (Josh 13.1-6). The first half claims that Joshua killed some Giants called Anakim (Josh 10.36-37); the second half claims that Caleb killed the Giants (Josh 15.13-14). Flannagan attempts to harmonize the two contradictory halves by aguing – rather abstractly – that no redactor would be so “stupid” as to join such contradictory sources together.

Stark’s reply to this argument is right on the mark, and is worth quoting:

Thom Stark
Thom Stark

What source critics understand is that (1) ancient redactors weren’t as bothered by these sorts of contradictions as we moderns are, and (2) for the most part their M.O. was to faithfully preserve their source material, allowing contradictions to stand. (They hadn’t heard about the doctrine of inerrancy yet.) So a few tiqqune sopherim (pious scribal alterations of the text) notwithstanding, scribes were interested in preserving their source material intact. Redactors compiled source materials not as a modern would, in order to weave a seamless, consistent narrative, but rather to bring together various traditions into one body… The redactor’s purpose was not to combine the sources into a coherent, internally consistent narrative, but rather to combine the narratives in a way that allows them to maintain their distinctiveness while at the same time uniting them. Redactors cared about their source material, not because they thought it was “inerrant,” but because the source material reflected the traditions of the peoples.

That is, Flannagan’s apologetic argument rides roughshod over the particular aesthetic sensibilities of ancient Jewish redactors or authors. The reason that Flannagan is convinced by his argument is probably because he has created the ancient redactor in his own image: as a modern, conservative evangelical inerrantist!

Perhaps the best discussion of the aesthetic sensibilities of the ancient redactor is from 30 years ago, in a 1981 article by Jack Miles, “Radical Editing: Redaktionsgeschichte and the Aesthetics of Willed Confusion”. In that article, Jack Miles questions whether the mixture in many biblical texts of evident attempts at partial harmonization with an apparent tolerance for the residual disunity demonstrates that these authors was operating under quite a different aesthetic from our own. For Miles, the ancient editor’s “proto-logical” aesthetic did not merely involve the application of a looser standard of logical consistency, but instead was one of positively “willed confusion”. The ancient editor may not have gone so far as to seek out deliberately jarring and contradictory effects, but on the other hand, “it didn’t bother him enough for him to eliminate” the inconsistent results, which “must mean that to some extent, he simply liked it.” The ancient biblical redactor evidently had quite different priorities from those of the modern fundamentalist.

Miles’ solution for modern misreaders of the Bible, such as Matthew Flannagan, is that they foster an increased appreciation of, and sympathy with, this ancient aesthetic:

It is the [modern] critics’ inability to imagine an aesthetic of disorder, or of deliberately mingled order and disorder, that may separate them most sharply from the ancient writers and editors they study. As they acquire this ability, perhaps by relinquishing what in modern times has been their quasi-religious vocation, they may find that they have less taste for the harmony and smoothness that historical scholarship would impose on the text.

And that’s fine advice for all readers of the Hebrew Bible, not only the ones motivated to defend genocide.


18 thoughts on “Thom Stark versus Matt Flannagan: The Aesthetics of Willed Confusion

  1. “And that’s fine advice for all readers of the Hebrew Bible, not only the ones motivated to defend genocide.”

    And that’s really all that needs to be said!

    I wonder what would happen if someone used “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians” by Robert Allen Warrior to debunk the apologists.



  2. Since we’re talking about profile type pics etc., what’s with the clock growing out of Matt’s head?! Of all the photos you could’ve chosen Tyrone …


    • It goes back to an unfortunate incident when Matt was in the front row of a Public Enemy reunion concert earlier this year, and one of the links in Favor Flav’s necklace came loose. You can guess the rest of the story.


  3. I think that apologists like Matt have a different motivation to that of biblical scholars. Whereas the latter’s question might be to understand what the original writers/editors were saying and how the readers would have interpreted it (bla bla bla “implied author” etc :) ) – the apologist is concerned with how the modern Christian is reading the text and whether it is detrimental or useful to their faith journey. As such Matt has a strong motivation to not see genocide in the passage – or so he thinks. I think that your last comment about ” the ones motivated to defend genocide” is therefore a little off the mark. More accurate would be ” the ones motivated to DENY genocide.” This is not to defend the apologists stance – the holocaust/genocide denier is perhaps not quite as bad as the boot wearer who gleefully rejoices at the echoes of the screams of the dead which can still be heard in dark corners , but they are not much better.


    • I wish that were true, Max. Unfortunately, while apologists like Flannagan and Copan expend a lot of energy arguing that the genocides weren’t genocides, they then go on to argue that even if women and children were killed, their killing was morally justified. They usually say that the women deserved it because they were idolaters, and the children’s death didn’t matter because they got a free ticket to eternal bliss in heaven. So, they’re both genocide-deniers and genocide defenders all at once.


    • … yeah, what Thom said. You’re right, Max, that in respect of the specific aspect that we’re discussing in the post, Matt is denying that any genocide takes place, though. But, as Thom said, his wider argument actually defends the morality of Yahweh’s possible command to genocide. This inconsistency is typical of those whose primary goal is harmonization rather than reading; conservative faith journey rather than meaning.


  4. Well that is the oddest thing of all. Because as you say he tries to use this “only hyperbole” argument… saying things like “it is like the boast of a high school student who describes winning a football game in terms of totally slaughtering the opposition” but admits at the same time that actual slaughter was going on.

    Matt cannot understand the difference between a metaphor (ie. we slaughtered them in the football game) and an exaggeration (“we killed them all (when they only actually killed most of them)).

    A god slaughtering 100 people or 10,000 seems to leave you with the same moral problem – if you are committed to the idea of an all good god rather than a darker sort of god.


      • Indeed… and you could get into the same debate with God that Abraham did. I don’t think Abe would have been too happy with the whole genocide thing either…


      • I saw your response to Matt on his blog.

        Another problem with his comment there is he’s calling the redactor an “author.” He thinks the redactor is trying to construct a consistent narrative with a single message like an author would, rather than to combine parallel or connected traditions.

        What was the compiler of the flood narratives trying to “teach” by putting the two traditions together? That the flood lasted 40 days figuratively and 150 days literally?


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