Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Military history and the Bible

Last night I watched a show on the History Channel called "Bible Battles." The show is worth watching, but it has its limitations.

Bible Battles was released in 2007 and presents the theories of Dr. Richard A. Gabriel, who wrote The Military History of Ancient Israel. The show starts with Abraham's liberation of Lot from an alliance of Canaanite kings who had captured him along with many others who had lived in Sodom. It ends with Israel's struggles with the Philistines during the era of David.

Now I love history and the Bible, so I was hooked while they were talking about ancient Israelite approaches to warfare. And it's interesting to think of Abraham, Moses, and Saul as effective military leaders. Also, in the last major segment of the show when they were talking about the Philistines, I learned a lot about the Jezreel Valley and why both the Philistines and the Israelites wanted control of it. It makes me want to go back and reread the stories of the Bible that have to do with the conflicts between Israel and Philistia.

Unfortunately, despite its value in educating us about the military history of the Bible, the show ends up being another attempt in the long line of naturalistic readings of the Bible. Dr. Gabriel seems to interpret pretty much all biblical events in human terms. When Moses and the people of Israel cross the Red Sea, it is because Moses is a brilliant tactician and has intimate knowledge of the area, not because God performs a miracle. (Or maybe God's part is to give Moses great tactical acumen and then send the wind that accelerates the drying of the ground so the Israelites can walk across. But that's about it, as far as I could tell.)

I can recommend watching the show, because it will help you look at the Bible through a different lens -- the lens of military history. This is worth doing, because there is a lot of militaristic content in the Old Testament. It's there, and a military historian can help us see things we otherwise wouldn't see. However, in order to digest the show the best way, we have to exercise some critical thinking. That starts with asking, "I know he says this, but what does the Bible say?" (For instance, Gabriel thinks many of the Hebrews were mercenaries while they lived in Egypt. What does the Bible say?)

4 comments:

  1. I've been thinking lately about the idea of nature vs miracle and if maybe, in some way, creating a false dichotomy when we look at God's "obvious" interactions as miracle (maybe sometimes as magic) and natural occurrences as God's inaction.

    I've seen a lot of naturalistic interpretations for stories in the Bible -- such as natural 'causes' of the 10 plagues or the destruction of Sodom. But why can't it be both nature and God -- not nature or God? So for example, what if it was meteors or asteroids that destroyed Sodom. Does that exclude God's action or will?

    Perhaps what we (or others) perceive as miracle is actually natural -- but we're blinded to it.

    I've heard someone speak of the division between heaven and earth as a thin veil... perhaps when Jesus walked on water we were simply getting a clearer picture of heaven -- not a magic trick. And that it was defying God's natural order, but revealing a part of God's natural order that we don't normally see so clearly.

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  2. Sounds cool. I am going to try to and find it on Direct TV and record it. Is it kid friendly?

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  3. I think you're on the right track, Kenny. The Bible teaches that God is involved everywhere, at all times. On the other hand, the Bible also talks about things God does that are out of the ordinary (that is, our perception of what is ordinary), and Scripture uses words like "signs" or "wonders" for those events. So a designation like "miracle" is scripturally warranted, and it is also helpful to specify a certain type of divine activity.

    The problem with naturalistic readings of the Bible is that they rule out miracles before the text is read. The Bible ends up reflecting the reader's naturalistic assumptions rather than standing on its own two feet. It doesn't appear that Dr. Gabriel believes in miracles, and his interpretation of biblical events ends up looking exactly like his assumptions. To me, you don't have to choose between miracles and military history in talking about ancient Israel. That's the weakness of Gabriel's project.

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  4. Steve, the show is somewhat kid friendly. The violence is pretty graphic in places. Also, you have to explain to your child that the program just presents one man's interpretation of what the Bible says. But it's interesting to a kid who is, say 8 or 9 or older.

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