“Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Beware of Him and obey His voice: do not provoke Him, for He will not pardon your transgressions for My name is in Him. But if you indeed obey His voice and do all that I speak, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. For My Angel will go before you and bring you in to the Amorites and the Hittites and the Perrizites and the Canaanites and the Hivites and the Jebusites; and I will cut them off. You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do according to their works; but you shall utterly overthrow them and completely break down their sacred pillars. So you shall serve the LORD your God and He will bless your bread and your water. And I will take sickness away from the midst of you. No one shall suffer miscarriage or be barren in your land; I will fulfill the number of your days. I will send My fear before you. I will cause confusion among all the people to whom you come, and will make all your enemies turn their backs to you. And I will send hornets before you, which shall drive out the Hivite, the Canaanite, and the Hittite from before you. I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the beast of the field become too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out from before you, until you have increased, and you inherit the land. And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River. For I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
– Exodus 23: 20-33
When Hernan Cortes first arrived in the Americas, the Aztecs he met with thought he was a long-awaited god, whom their prophets had said would come in that very year. They thought he was Quetzalcoatl, the son of god, and honored him in a manner befitting a god. He was received with great pomp and ceremony by Monteczuma II, king of the Aztecs. What happened afterwards is, of course, a matter of dispute, but both sides agree is reeks of opprobium. The European conquistadors and colonialists in the 16th through the 19th centuries claimed they were planting flags in foreign countries for “Gold, God and Glory“. From the accounts of Las Casas, a Spanish priest who was horrified that Spanish soldiers were raping native women and spearing their babies on sticks, and decided to write his harrowing account of the genocide that was occurring, since he believed that Spain would be damned if it continued sponsoring these men, “Gold” and “Glory” seem to leave “God” a far-distant third in their motivations. Though of course there were also people like Las Casas, who had the conscience to be horrified.
The Aztecs believed that they were being attacked by invisible arrows that pierced them and made them ill – not too bad a visualization of the works of virulent diseases. By way of explanation for the rape and pillage and inexplicable interest in the fictional “El Dorado”, they came to tell a story that the white man suffered from a sickness that only gold could cure – that in the absence of gold, they went mad.
The Igbo people of what is now Nigeria (or so I am told) believed that the white men who came to their shores were dead ancestors come to visit, because their own skins turned pale when they died. The cowrie shells traded for slaves represented the bodies of their ancestral dead drowned at sea – they believed they were redeeming their ancestors, which they bought in exchange for the enemies, who were shipped off to the Americas – an efficient, not to mention profitable way of ridding the land of one’s enemies.
All this is painful history, and doubly painful for those who call themselves Christians – because it’s pretty good ammunition for the argument that Christians are no better than non-Christians; that sometimes pagans treat Christians better than vice versa. And to people who whip out this argument, I guess there’s only one thing to say: it’s true. Nominal or practicing, those who have flown the banner of Christ have behaved no better and no worse at their best and worst at various times in history.
So, all this begs the question: Where was God in all this?
Where was God in the former Yugoslavia, when people (professedly Christian) with extremely minor differences started killing, raping, pillaging neighbouring villages? Where was God when Rwanda descended into chaos? Where was God when the Serbians assassinated the Archbishop Ferdinand of Bavaria, setting off the chain of events that we retrospectively called, first the Great War, and then (because it had a sequel) World War I? Why did God ask the Israelis to commit, in the Promised Land, what sounds like genocide? Why does Steven Pinker have the ammunition to point out that what he considers “Old Testament Morality” frequently involves condemning interracial marriages, slaughtering children, killing livestock, a scorched-earth policy and taking no prisoners?
These are not easy questions to answer. But I will attempt a preliminary answer. You see, arguably, all this was Plan B – the 40 year wander, rather than the straightforward 4-day trip out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Not that the straight-forward trip is easy – it probably involved as much patience, if not more. In the passage from Exodus, it is “fear”, “hornets” and poorer health that are the chosen agents of God’s judgment on a sinful people – not military victory. (And if we look at the military victories actually in Plan B, we’ll realize that a lot of them don’t even involve fighting, and certainly not greater military might or cunning, but that’s another article). I’m not saying that fear, confusion, hornets, starvation and disease are pleasant things, but they are NOT genocide.
So, let’s look at God’s Plan A: His idea of divinely-sanctioned colonialism:
1) You will eat good food.
2) You will not fall ill, and live as long as your body was made for living.
3) All your procreation will be successful.
4) People will get scared of you (people are usually scared of people who eat good food despite not having a whole lot of resources, don’t fall ill, and multiply quickly – sound familiar?)
5) People will start leaving the lands (usually because they’ve exhausted them – remember, we are in a mix of hunter-gatherer/nomadic/agricultural society, and over-farming is a recurring issue in agricultural societies)
7) People will be very fed up with hornets, and slowly let the land (which they probably have overworked – remember only Israel was told to keep the Sabbath) lie fallow. When the land has lied fallow, nature will take over and re-grow and re-fertilize and re-irrigate the land (see the World Without Us)
8) Generally, remember that this will take a long, long, long, long time. Don’t be impatient.
9) I have set apart a limited amount of land for you. I’ve told you where the boundaries are. Keep your sights on that land only and don’t be greedy.
10) Do NOT worship any of the gods of the other peoples around you. Keep yourselves separate spiritually (and since it helps – physically – and only in the portion of the land I’ve designated). Do NOT make compromises with the other peoples (because it will lead you to compromise My law) **
What can I say? History tells us we are not very good at following Plan A (cf. The Garden of Eden). Well, if only God explained himself better – we might protest – but history’s track record of that isn’t too good either. God is kind to us, and sometimes He gives an explanation, but even then we’re not very good at understanding the explanation. Mostly, we are impatient. When God has promised us something, we want it NOW. We’d prefer to speed things up. We don’t like the long-term stuff. We are hardwired to be demanding and mopey and annoying, like small children when they are hungry. The trouble with being God’s child, though, is that he’s a good Father. And good fathers usually demand that their children grow up.
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
– St Paul, to the Corinthians, Letter #1: Chapter 13, verse 11
Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.
– St Paul to the Corinthians, Letter #1: Chapter 14, verse 20
**In the original version of this article, this paragraph read
“10)DO NOT try to speed up the process by intermarrying, because that means your wives will convince you to worship their gods. Also, since women had rarely any choice in the matter, “intermarrying” probably meant rape, abduction, forced marriage to form alliances, polygamy (especially harems for kings and patriarchs), etc.”
but I thought better of it since it was not a helpful embellishment of the passage. I apologize if it was not a helpful speculation.