A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Joshua in 3-D: Biblical Conquest and Manifest Destiny #1

For the next five Tuesdays (including this one), one of my colleagues from Ashland Theological Seminary will be a guest blogger here. Dr. L. Daniel Hawk is Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew. Among his publications he has written a commentary on the Book of Joshua for the Berit Olam series. He is an excellent OT scholar and is quite conversant in postmodernism. When I have a perplexing question in Old Testament, he is the first person I seek out for his opinion.
Dan and I have participated together in mission in Cuba. He is a man of deep faith in Jesus Christ and his scholarship proceeds from his profound faith convictions. A new book of his, Joshua in 3-D, has just been published. Dan has spent much time over the years looking at the conquest narratives in the OT book of Joshua, not only in reference to what they meant, but what they mean for us in the twenty-first century West, and how they have been used and abused. Dan takes an honest look at these complex texts and draws honest implications on the relationship between biblical conquest and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. Dan is not afraid of asking the difficult and uncomfortable questions that the conquest narratives raise for believers at the dawn of the twenty-first century. His is truly a 3-D approach. Here is the publisher's excellent summary of the book:
This unique commentary generates a conversation between the biblical narrative of conquest, related biblical themes, and the American master narrative of Manifest Destiny. Writing in an accessible style and format, Hawk offers an exegesis of the biblical text with special emphasis on the ways the narrative of conquest shaped ancient Israel's identity as a people. A second level of commentary lifts key themes from the text (e.g., the land as divine gift and promise, mass killing, Israel's distinctive attributes, the construction of the Indigenous Other) and sets them within their broader biblical context. A third dimension reflects on corresponding elements in America's narrative of "westward expansion" (e.g. the conviction of America's unique character and destiny, total war and ethnic cleansing, the dehumanization of Native peoples, patriotism and homeland, the idea of the American Dream). As a whole, this book offers Joshua as a biblical resource for reading the American experience, challenging readers to reflect on how conquest shaped America's identity and how it continues to influence American attitudes and actions.
I invite you to read his posts over these next few Tuesdays and post your own comments. Dan will be monitoring the discussion and will be happy to respond to any questions and concerns you may have.
In addition, the publisher of Dan's new book, Wipf and Stock, is offering all readers of this blog a 40% discount on Joshua in 3-D for those who order a copy by May 16th. You must order from their website and you must insert the coupon code "HAWK40."
Dan's book is well worth the price even without the discount.
Here is Dan's first post. Read, reflect, ponder, and join the discussion.
+ + + + + + +
Avatar, Manifest Destiny, and the Conquest of Canaan
L. Daniel Hawk
I thank Allan for the invitation to post on this blog. Allan has been a valued conversation partner on matters biblical and technological. I particularly appreciate his energy and vision in utilizing the internet to stimulate important discussions and am grateful for the privilege of participating in this forum. Thanks Allan!
The stories we tell, and the stories we embrace, reveal much about how we look at ourselves, our world, and our place in the world. Narratives encode our convictions, validate our beliefs, voice our anxieties, and assemble the events of our lives and memory into a meaningful coherence. They define us more clearly than textbooks or mission statements. It is no coincidence that the Bible, the book that for Christians explains God, humanity, and the world, is a grand narrative that begins with creation in Genesis and ends with new creation in the Revelation.
One of the stories at the center of today’s cultural radar is the one told by James Cameron’s Avatar. Like all narratives, this one draws on building blocks that have shaped previous versions of a basic, deeply-embedded cultural story. One of the fascinating aspects of Avatar is the way it retells the story of Western colonialism and turns it on its head. Avatar is the American master narrative of Manifest Destiny, projected safely into a fantasy world. There is the Invader, armed with superior military technology and intent on plundering a lush new world. There are the Indigenes, tied deeply to the land and determined to resist conquest and the exploitation of their world. There is Miles Quaritch, the military leader in the employ of the economic power (RDA), who wants only to drive out “the savages.” There is Jake Sully, the conflicted Invader turned renegade, who embodies the Invader’s ambivalence about conquest. There is Neytiri, the Indigenous woman who helps the Invader and becomes the bridge to her people. And there is her counterpart, Dr. Grace Augustine, whose attempt to start a school for the Na’vi recalls American attempts to “civilize the Indian” by establishing boarding schools.
Manifest Destiny was itself constructed from the building blocks of a more primal narrative – the story of the conquest of Canaan in the book of Joshua. Although Manifest Destiny incorporates other building blocks (such as the claim that the conquest was divinely commanded), the three narratives follow many of the same themes. At the heart of all is the story of the conquest of indigenous peoples and the appropriation of the land’s bounty, with fear and mass killing of the indigenes as a prominent thread.
Yet there is also ambivalence. Neytiri has a biblical counterpart in Rahab, an indigenous woman who helps the invaders. The Na’vi resemble the Gibeonites, who embody the characteristics admired by the Israelites. In Joshua’s farewell address (Josh 23), we detect the anxiety of a community working hard to keep its distance from the indigenous peoples, reflecting the bifurcated identities of earthlings and their avatars.
Many early Christian teachers viewed the Bible as a mirror, a gift from God that shows us our nobility and dignity, as well as our sins and ugliness. Taking up the Bible as a mirror, how might Joshua illumine the stories we tell, and have told, and what they say about us and our culture? How might this scripture enable American Christians to “read” our cultural stories and our sense of how the God of Peace might be at work in our world?
Next Tuesday-- Part Two-- "Indigenous Women"


PamBG said...

Saying "hello" just to show that I'm reading, as instructed. :D A good introduction which has left me wanting to read more.

It will be interesting to see what you have to say, Daniel, not only about American Manifest Destiny but about those who use these texts to defend the idea that God "takes sides" against people due to their ethnic, cultural or national identities.

PamBG said...

A separate question to Allen which is possibly off-topic, but possibly not.

Is "Manifest Destiny" the kind of thing you mean when you talk about "American utopianism"? Is it a manifestation of that "utopianism"?

I just had this flicker of possibly understanding. It might not be your theology I'm misunderstanding but rather your cultural perceptions. (Probably due to my relative lack of understanding of American culture.)

Michael Kruse said...

What I fascinating topic! I'm looking forward to the coming posts.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Pam,

Yes, this topic is related to what I have been trying to do in reference to the politics of witness, but it could take too far afield, so I will only briefly comment.

Where it relates for me is the hermeneutical move of intepreting biblical texts, which are meant for the people of God Israel or the church, and applying them primarily to the state. My argument has been that both the Christian political right and the left do this, only that the left is much more subtle about it.

So the political right wants to apply 2 Chronicles 7:14 primarily to the USA, when I would apply it to the church (since in its context it refers to Israel. The left applies the "social justice" admonitions of the prophets as justification for mandating that the state feed the poor. I view those passages in the prophets as referring again, first and foremost, to the people of God, who must live them out in ecclesially, and in so doing they bear witness to the state that it would be a better empire of it would feed its poor.

I am going to do a post in my series on hermeneutical matters, so stay tuned.

By the way, I will be very intested in your take on Dan's post next week on indigenous women. I have read it. I am sure you will have some thoughts.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Dan, I have a question for you. I know it will come up sooner or later, so I will ask it now.

How do you respond to the person who says that the problem they have with these narratives is that it is God who commands the extermination of everyone, including women, children, and animals? Years ago, a parishioner said to me that it would have been one thing for the biblical writers to have "simply reported" what happened; it was quite another to attribute it to the command of God.

This is, of course, important because behind the doctrine of Manifest Destiny is the idea that it is divinely sanctioned.

What do you think?

PamBG said...

Excellent question, Allen.

I'll stay tuned for your separate series. I think we are actually in disagreement here. I'm fairly certain I'm a "leftie" although hopefully not a knee-jerk one. :D (My uncertainty is not about what I believe but about how these categories are defined by others!)

John Meunier said...

I'm interested in Dan's answer to Allan's question. I'm also wondering how a Jewish reading of Joshua would differ from the sketch offered here.

For instance, I'm not sure the traditional Jewish reading would be that Joshua was displacing indigenous peoples so much as reclaiming something that was lost. The Canaanites are certainly not in a technological deficit compared to the Israelites. If anything, the Israelites are the more rag-tag of the two forces - unless you count the Ark of God as a form of technology.

I understand that the comments about Manifest Destiny are a critique of the use of Joshua. Even that was a bit of an education for me. I never knew the Joshua narrative was part of the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.

As for the questions raised at the end of the post, I do not have good answers for those. I trust some will be suggested as we go.

I look forward to future posts.

Dan Hawk said...

Allan, your question requires a series of its own in response! There are many ways into the issue, all of which would take us far afield. At the risk of oversimplifying, here are a few thoughts: 1) The conquest narratives must be taken within the entire canonical narrative. That is, they are part of the grand story of God's active involvement to redeem a world gone bad and must be interpreted in light of it. 2) Joshua portrays what it costs God to identify with humanity - in this case, with a nation in the midst of a violent world. God is unavoidably caught up in the violence. 3)Joshua is a testimony to a unique event in Israel's history, not a template to be replicated. Israel regarded the story in that way, but other nations that have identified with Israel have read it as a template for how God works through "chosen" nations.

My focus in this series is not so much the theological questions but how Joshua's story is replicated in the stories America tells about conquests past and future. It's a different way to read scripture; one that prods us to ask how this book might illumine how conquest and imperialism has shaped American identity and practices.

Robert Cornwall said...


I'm fascinated with your look at Joshua through the lens of MD, as well as the reverse. Americans like to think of themselves as God's chosen people, but our advance across the continent and beyond has left the deaths of many in its wake.

As Allan knows, I'm to his left both theologically and politically. So, I would give greater credence to the prophets, but we need to deal with Joshua and its influences.

Looking forward to more -- and will need to check out the commentary!

Ted M. Gossard said...

Yes, Dan and everyone. I do look forward to this series. I really don't see any easy answers for the conquests and commands in Joshua.
But how they have been and continue to be misapplied is fascinating and troubling. And this goes to show how we live, for better or for worse from and in stories. I do look forward to this series and definitely intend to read the book.

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Dan and Allan,

Thanks so much for your thoughts. I will be following this series and intently and will link to it on my blog.



Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your succinct and helpful response to my question. And since it would take us too far afield to discuss the matter more fully, perhaps, if you are interested, I will have you back for a series on that sometime in the future.