Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

When Bible Scholars Dream of Utopia

Posted by NT Wrong on December 2, 2008

“According to Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to exterminate all of the Canaanites and not to leave a soul of them living (Deut 7:1-2; 20:16-17). Such a policy, obliging the extermination of the whole population of the land whether fighting or passive, is utopian and is indeed unheard of in the historical accounts of Israel… the command of Herem of all the Canaanites in Deuteronomy is a utopian program that reflects the ongoing bitter struggle with the Canaanite religion and culture from the time of Elijah until the time of Josiah.”
– Moshe Weinfeld, Deuteronomy 1-11: 52-53

Hmmmmm… surely Moshe Weinfeld must have meant that the idea of killing entire populations in Palestine was utopian to the authors of Deuteronomy. Or could that be his idea of utopia, too? It’s a little bit unclear to me.

But this isn’t just a matter of the absence of qualification (‘to the authors of Deuteronomy this idea of pregnant-mother-slashing, baby-head-smashing, mass carnage must have been a dream come true!’). When Weinfeld does comment on the ‘utopian’ genocide, he seems instead to justify it. This ‘utopian’ genocide is justifiable as some real-life (for Weinfeld) “ongoing bitter struggle” with abominable, non-Yahweh-worshipping Canaanites (53). It’s a good thing, just as the Bible tells me so. Nay, not just ‘good’ — it’s a wet-dream!!

I know there’s a complex interrelationship between utopia and dystopia, and they’re hard to distinguish at the best of times. But I might have thought that a description of the genocide of Palestinian peoples, made in the late twentieth century, might have deserved some further comment in addition to the unqualified “that’s utopia!” Bloody genocide is certainly not what I think of when I get all dreamy and romantic.

But my dreams might be different from most biblical scholars.

5 Responses to “When Bible Scholars Dream of Utopia”

  1. steph said

    I suppose living in bliss is hell because it is boring … no fury or passion or problems to solve. Therefore utopia is dystopia. But hell is not bliss because bliss isn’t slaughtering people. I wonder if Mosse should have redefined utopia. Utopia = hell. Surely neither he nor Mr Deuteronomy thought living surrounded by dead innocent people was bliss. Maybe Mosse is a bit like NT Wright – you know, making it up at he goes along saying rather peculiar things.

    So what makes you all dreamy and romantic? 🙂

  2. rochelle said

    The MT is neither out-of-the-ordinary blood-thirsty nor “utopian” in point of view. Just pragmatism for the time period.

    Obliteration of another tribe/clan was SOP back then. It did make some logic. Leaving anyone alive meant a guaranteed avenger waiting in the wings. It also took care of too many people after the same resources.

    Farming and urbanization led to slavery of captives rather than complete destruction. Of course, if a captive, you got sent to, say, the Macedonian silver mines, you died anyway — just took about a year longer… if you were lucky, that is. Nobody ever escaped from the Syracusan quarries, either — just led horrible, miserable lives for the short length of time they survived. Then there was good old Alexander the Great — great at killing entire populations

    History is very, very bloody.

  3. ntwrong said

    Rochelle – Yes, that’s right — the herem is not ‘utopian’ at all, in actual fact (if we’re using this distinctly modernist term to describe the concept of ancient political idealistic propaganda). Genocide and mass-killing is the rule in history, not something that is exception. Peaceful times were few and far between. (As Nick Cave says, “People just ain’t no good.”) So Moses [Weinfeld] is wrong in fact as well as his (lack of) moral judgment from today’s perspective.

    Steph – Lupins.

  4. rochelle said

    Peace was unusual enough to be noted in Judges (I forget which c & v) that ‘and the land had peace for forty years’. In other words, there was peace for two generations.

    The Greeks felt that there should be at least a small war every generation so that people would not forget what war is.

    (345,000 died in ONE day at the Marne. More than 100,000 on the beach at Normandy. 4,000 in 5 years is a headline?)

    How can we judge Moses, who was acting morally for his time, if we we apply modern standards? If we do so, we will never understand the past. And we really must.

    I don’t believe that all people are “no good.” Most are sheep playing follow the leader — which the ancients knew quite well. Bad seeds, enough of them around, but not the majority.

  5. ntwrong said

    I meant Moses Weinfeld.

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