The Taser's Edge

Move Over, Prayer of Jabez

This morning, I was reading in Numbers and I was struck by this:

Numbers 10:35-36–“And whenever the ark set out, Moses said, ‘Arise, O Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.’  And when it rested, he said, ‘Return, O Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.'”

The setting is the long march through the wilderness from Egypt to Israel.  So apparently, each moving day, the ark followed the pillar-shaped manifestation of God, and the people followed the ark, and Moses prayed for God to clear the roadway ahead.

As I have experienced exegesis of passages such as this, in churches and at Duke Divinity, we are presented with two options:

  1. Go deep into the history and grow to see how our Biblical narratives underwrite the atrocities of colonialism, racism, ethnic cleansing, etc.  “Redeem” the passage by ignoring it.
  2. Read it metaphorically.  “Redeem” the passage by cleaning off all that messy physicality and history.  (We wouldn’t want murdered innocent body and blood involved in the church’s life.)

I’ve already made it clear from those definitions that I find them both lacking.  And that’s because I wonder if there’s a third option, which is the both/and option.  I wonder if that both/and might be the gift of postmodern exegesis.

It makes my post-colonial ears simultaneously shudder, curdle, and shrivel (something I would have bet wasn’t fully possible) to read such a passage.  God chose a particular people (Israel), gave them a bunch of other particular peoples’ land (Canaan) through taking a side in an armed conflict which was fought against against not only armed soldiers, but civilians down to children, and even animals.  That’s the claim the Bible makes.

How postmodern of me to be offended by the Bible!

From R. Crumb's "The Book of Genesis"

But that’s not postmodern.  Post-colonialism isn’t postmodern.  It’s entirely modern.  Conceptions of human dignity and freedom which drive contemporary theory are straight-up Enlightenment, and post-colonial theory (alongside plenty of other post- theories) is the blossoming of a very much modern flower.

Strange, then, that both post-liberals and fundamentalists would want to read this Numbers prayer as a narrative detached from real history.  The first group wouldn’t necessarily care about the history, as the story is what matters, and history gets in the way of a good, clean narrative.  The second group wouldn’t care about the history, because any reading of the story as grotesque would be a ‘liberal’ reading rather than a faithful reading of the good teaching of God.

So, why not do both options named above?  Why not be deeply offended by the historical claims of the Bible, that God ordered and was the power behind ethnic cleansing?  And why not, at the same time, be taught to pray by the very horror?  Why isn’t that the post-modern way forward?  Why isn’t that the faithful way forward?