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Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't…

Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can't Ignore the Bible's Violent…

by Philip Jenkins

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This book is a careful and measured interpretation of some of the most violent texts in the Old Testament, particularly in the Books of Deuteronomy and of Joshua where God is said to instruct his people to eradicate the Amalekites: it is an examination of what it can possibly mean for God to have ordered this; it explores they way in which these texts have been used down the ages by people of faith to justify not only violence and war, but also (and most devastatingly) genocide; and it compares these texts with the Qur'an, which we all know to have been used by extremists in our own generation to justify jihad and terror, but which is in fact more moderate than the Bible. If you want to make sense of these texts, this book may be for you: but do not expect an easy (or comfortable) read. It is demanding stuff - and it requires of us our most patient, moral and thoughtful reading.
There are several basic questions here. Is violence the real point of what God is trying to say in these texts? How 'symbolic' are they? Should they be interpreted literally or as a kind of allegory? The violent texts are a very big problem if you think that Scripture must be read literally; but if you have always assumed the Word of God to incorporate allegory and symbolism, they become part of a pattern which is much more easy to interpret. Or is the whole point that they are meant to shock us, as a reminder of just how shocking violence really is? These are important questions which require us to examine our own motives and methods as interpreters of the Bible. How careful an interpreter are you? Or do you think the words simply speak for themselves?
The book is in three sections: the first describes some of the most violent of the Biblical texts; the second looks at the ways in which they have fuelled violence through the ages, usually as a result of overly literal and often careless reading; and the third proposes a way in which we might look at them honestly and directly, without explaining them away, rather in the manner of a process of 'truth and reconciliation' (think of South Africa, coming to terms with its violent history and conflicts). Keep that, especially, in your mind: allowing violence to speak for itself as the most effective way of removing its sting. This may be the spirit in which these texts were written - but it will require a real maturity and moral stature from us.
The final section of the book suggests ways to read these texts today. Philip Jenkins makes an interesting comparison with criminals, who tend to dehumanise their victims and to misrepresent the consequences if they are faced with their actions. Simplistic readings of the Scriptures do the same. Jenkins exhorts us, instead, always to ask why these texts were written in the first place: what is the core meaning of the books of which they are a part? What is the point they are trying to make? Do they apply to us (not all Scriptures do: he gives the example of specifically Davidic texts), and if so, in what ways? And we should always face the text honestly, reading particular sections in the light of the whole; allowing ourselves to be shocked by what is shocking; and in our revulsion at violence, allowing ourselves to become ever more humanised - not only by the Scriptures, but by our careful and more complete reading of them.
It is not an easy book; but for some of us it is a very helpful one. ( )
  readawayjay | Jun 5, 2012 |
Most devout Christian and Jewish readers should appreciate Jenkins' tone. He writes as a concerned insider who truly wants the Bible and all its parts to be better understood and appreciated.
added by Christa_Josh | editBooklist, Wade Osburn (Oct 15, 2011)
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Philip Jenkins identifies the "holy amnesia" that, while allowing scriptural religions to grow and adapt, has demanded a nearly wholesale suppression of the Bible's most aggressive passages, leaving them dangerously dormant for extremists to revive in times of conflict. Jenkins lays bare the whole Bible, without compromise or apology, and equips us with tools for reading even the most unsettling texts, from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the alarming rhetoric of the book of Revelation.… (more)

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