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.