In a previous post I wrote about the story of Noah and the Curse of Ham (which has nothing to do with the Old Testament prohibition against eating pork!). That a curse could determine a people’s fate for generations is part of the biblical notion that God shapes history. In fact, history shaped God to reflect the fears and political realities of ancient Israel. The result is the Bible’s “jealous” God… an idea that influences history to this day.
Noah’s curse fell on Ham’s son, Canaan, whose descendants had the misfortune of occupying the Promised Land without being God’s Chosen People, and were therefore slaughtered. It doesn’t change anything that this is mostly nationalistic fiction written centuries later. Simply read as a story, the tales of the conquest of Canaan are part of a sensibility that shapes the entire Old Testament and its portrayal of God. A few highlights show what I mean:
- God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanite peoples because they worshipped other gods and tended to influence the Israelites to do the same. (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)
- The golden calf incident that angered Moses was a case of the Israelites adopting Canaanite-style religion. God slaughtered a bunch of Israelites to punish the insult. (Exodus 32)
- While God generously allowed Canaanite girls (namely, virgins) to be carried off as wives for Israelite men, Canaanite women “who have known man by lying with him” were to be murdered along with the men and boys—specifically because they might influence their new Israelite husbands to adopt Canaanite religion. (Numbers 31:15-18)
- Many of the laws of Moses were apparently designed to make the Israelites distinctive from the Canaanites or to avoid their religious practices. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandment forbid other gods and “graven images.” (Exodus 20:3-4)
- And of course the prophets throughout the Old Testament (OT) rail incessantly against idolatry and foreign religion. (Just pick a page at random; you’re likely to hit one within a few tries.)
There are many, many more, but you get the idea. The OT’s main narratives (the Exodus, the conquest, the kingdom and the ongoing struggles against powerful foreign nations, Israel’s eventual captivity, exile, and return from exile) are all the story of a small, inconsequential people struggling to maintain their culture and identity in a world in which they’re surrounded by outside influences and hostile nations.
Read the OT with that in mind and the arcane laws and prophetic denunciations make sense. There’s a persistent, overwhelming fear running throughout the OT, and it isn’t just fear of foreign conquest. It’s the fear of assimilation and loss of identity as a people. The Israelites are sort of like the Federation facing the Borg. (Sorry—couldn’t help it. Resistance was futile.)
And so the god they conjured up in their stories and traditions was a jealous god, a god who gave them an identity that could survive conquest and exile, an identity that included a promise of a homeland, but which wasn’t tied exclusively to the land. This identity, they were told, could survive slavery in Egypt and captivity in Babylon. But it required religious exclusivity—one god, no more, no less.
This raises an interesting question. Had Christianity and Judaism (and Islam, which borrows from them both) been rooted in other political circumstances, if Israel had been a larger and more stable nation, how would today’s religion be different? Would we see the emphasis on exclusivity that we see in the purer forms of the three desert religions? Would they have created a different kind of god?