Jenkins, Philip. Laying down the sword: Why we can’t ignore the Bible’s violent verses. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011. 310pp. $26.99, ISBN 978-0-06-199071-7.

Reviewed by Karl J. Franklin, Senior Anthropology Consultant, SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International.

Philip Jenkins has a joint appointment in history and religious studies at Penn State University and as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.

Jenkins states that his goal in writing the book “is to suggest specific ways of reading and hearing the texts—even the most difficult passages, such as Phinehas and the Canaanite massacres—and to show how they can be absorbed, comprehended, and freely discussed” (p.23).

Part I (Scripture as Problem) reviews and discusses the annihilation of the native people of Canaan and other destructive wars—events that are applauded in accounts of the Bible, chiefly in Numbers, Deuteronomy and Joshua. Under the leadership of Phinehas, the Hebrew armies killed every man, woman and child in Canaan. Another passage cited by Jenkins is the Israelites’ interaction with the Amalekites, who had ambushed the children of Israel. God commands Moses to completely wipe them out.

Jenkins provides “the most disturbing conquest texts” (36), as given in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua and I Samuel, showing that the Israelites were to commit herem (utter destruction) with “divinely ordained warfare” (40) amongst their neighboring tribes.

However, Jenkins asks, “Did all this happen as described?” (49). In other words, are the biblical reports literal and accurate history? Deuteronomy and Joshua have content dating from the eighth century BCE, or even later, some 16 generations after the actual conquests. He feels that in the case of Deuteronomy and Joshua “later hands are very much in evidence” (53). Joshua, for example, tells of the annihilation of various tribes and cities that are reported in Judges as in existence decades later and that were still a threat to Israel. In fact Canaanite cities fought each other and “The closer we examine the early Hebrews, the more they look like Canaanites” (57). Although the two speak very closely related languages, the biblical account of the relationship between the two is as if the Canaanites seem to have “come from another planet” (60).

Jenkins proposes that the tales of genocide and savagery are a part of a myth perpetuated by the Israelites.  In so doing, at many points the stories “recall the most confrontational words of the Qur’an, and on occasion, they go far beyond them” (67).

Jenkins turns to the Qur’an in chapter three, “Words of the Sword”, to show that it teaches that warfare must be practiced in quite different terms than those of Joshua (77). It appeared in times of war and Jenkins states that the ancient wars helped to shape the texts. But the texts do not promote terrorism, and some, in fact, suggest that peace be made with enemies. Hellfire is the condemnation of sinners and unbelievers to eternal punishment and in this sense the Qur’an is comparable to the Bible (79). The question arises as to whether the bloody passages refer only to the time they were written or if they have present and lasting applications. Commentators suggest both approaches, so that present day anti-Jewish sentiment is the natural outcome of Qur’an passages. Jenkins, however, believes that “Muhammad was acutely sensitive in his religious conflicts with Jews” and saw himself as the successor to the Jewish prophets (86). The curse is not directed toward the Jews per se but “on those who resisted Moses, the disobedient ones” (89). Jenkins concludes that the Bible evolved from a long history of dialogue and the Qur’an, in contrast, was strictly a work of its time (94).

Part II of the book is called “The Inheritance” and discusses the sons of Joshua (chapter 4), the warrant for genocide (chapter 5), and Amalekite nightmares (chapter 6). The sons of Joshua refers to the damned or evil races of the Bible, which some Protestant preachers have compared to cancer or a tumor that had to be removed so that the organism could remain healthy. The “extermination of the Canaanite children” was therefore considered to be an act of “love and mercy” (116). Genocide was defended on the grounds that “human reason must bow to the divine and recognize that his ways are truly not ours and his thoughts are truly above our own” (quoting Daniel L. Gard, in Show Them No Mercy). From such discussions we find arguments of “Holy Wars” and “Just “Wars”, as necessary concepts in the Crusades and other violent episodes. In fact the concepts were also important in colonial expansions and imperial battles where the leaders saw themselves as defeating the Midianites or Amalekites. The militant metaphors were used in America as well where John Winthrop, for example, discussed the new colony’s relationship with the “pagan natives of the land” (133). Americans, of course, were not the sole perpetrators of such ideas: the British imperials confronted the Australian Aborigines in such terms; the Afrikaaners compared the black Africans to the Amalekites; the Germans advanced the notion to the Jews; the Tutsis were compared to them in the Ugandan genocide; and now Arabs are in the same camp. It follows that once the Amalekites become symbols for our enemies, “there is little need to treat them humanely” (151).

Part III is called “Truth and Reconciliation” in which Jenkins attempts to provide some answers to “the lethal commands that God reportedly issued to the time of Moses and Joshua” (165). The extermination of Canaan by the Israelites provides fuel for groups as diverse as the New Atheists and religious commentators. Many “who claim to follow Jesus have rebelled against those scriptures claiming an inspiration higher than the written word itself” (174). This followed the conquest of “natural reason” and “natural law theory”, a belief that experience and reason were to be trusted more, or at least were the primary agencies in interpreting scripture.

Jenkins recounts how we have tried to come to terms (his title of chapter 8) with “sanctified military heroism” (183) and justified evil by means of “cognitive dissonance”, that is, managing facts that contradict each other. He outlines five main lines of defense: Denial of responsibility; Denial of injury; Denial of the victim; Condemnation of the condemners; and The appeal to higher loyalties (186). Some stories have been edited, some interpreters spiritualize the tales, but some, such as Origen, are sensitive to the literal meaning of the texts. Often these interpretations can be found in our hymns, where Cannan, Amalek, Midian, and others are smitten.

Jenkins demonstrates how OT passages are carefully selected in the Revised Common Lectionary to omit the gory passages. He outlines the stories given in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Nehemiah and Esther and claims that “the process of cherry-picking is even more drastic than this table would suggest” (205). Absent are the tale of Phinehas, Moses’s massacre of the Midianites. the struggle with Amalek, and so on.

In chapter 9, “Historians and Prophets,” Jenkins reminds us that the stories have to be read in context, as narrative, rather than as observed instances. The stories have a theme and are directed towards particular audiences. The Hebrews pioneered what we have come to call history with some “wonderful ancient writing that offers superb and highly literary accounts of people and places” (211), so much so that “later generations run the risk of taking every word literally, as documented fact” (ibid). Jenkins does not believe, however, in dispensations that are not bound by the rules and principles of earlier eras (212). In fact, the Hebrew prophets, as well as the historians, have “to be understood against this backdrop of crisis and imminent calamity. If the nation made a misstep, there could be twelve lost tribes, not just ten” (216).

“Preaching the Unpreachable” is the title of chapter ten, which begins with a quote from Martin Luther: “One must deal cleanly with the Scriptures” (227). Jenkins describes how he wants us to read them: clean, whole, from below, and from under the table. We should not “lightly invoke an incomprehensible higher wisdom” (229), “suggest that a people deserves ruin” (231), or “invalidate the text as a part of a savage antiquity” (232). Some passages are ugly but we need to understand the notion of harem and its implications, which were standard in ancient warfare. Reading below is from the stance of outsiders, what some linguists and anthropologists might call an etic view. Under the table is reading from the inside, or emic view, in which it is necessary to interpret one text from others.

Chapter 11, “Scripture Alone?” concludes the book. Jenkins reminds us that “The existence of a scripture in its own right inspires neither good nor evil among its followers” (243). We can live with outrageous scriptures without following through on the explicit directions. Martin Luther did not believe that every part or word of the Bible carried equal weight (244). In each period of history rival groups of mainstream believers have viewed violent scriptures as un-Christian or anti-Christian (246). Once a group or person decides to grab a scripture verse or story and devote it to violence “it scarcely matters what the text actually says” (247). Jenkins applies this to both Christians and Islam in terms of violence, as well as to the militantly antireligious governments in many parts of the world.

In conclusion, Jenkins says that “Some of what we call ‘religious violence’ may well be authentically religious in character, but we must find its origins in places other than the basic texts of the faith” (252).

I found Jenkins book well documented, with scores of footnotes for each chapter, and convincing. I would not now regard myself as an evangelical peace-loving Protestant and Muslims as potential terrorists. It is not that simple, and such stereotypes are not borne out in the scriptures.