“You shall completely destroy all the places there, where the nations that you’re dispossessing worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills and under every lush tree. And you shall demolish their altars and shatter their pillars and burn their Asherot in fire and cut down the statues of their gods and destroy their name from that place.”
While I can appreciate the historical context of this commandment—to take possession of the land by abolishing the pagan cults of its indigenous people—reading this text makes me uncomfortable. The sounds of destruction resonate as I chant the Hebrew words aloud: demolish them, shatter them, burn them, cut them down and destroy them. At first I thought it was the rampant destruction of the environment along with man-made structures that offended my modern, ecological sensibilities. After rereading this section of the Torah, however, I find myself deeply disturbed by a realization: This is not merely an historical account. In modern struggles over physical space and sacred space, we continue to completely destroy places and utterly dispossess people in order to exert ownership. And then—after we take possession—what do we have?
I share Tziporah’s discomfort with this text if it is treated as a contemporary commandment. But I understand the Deuteronomist’s words as an attempt by a devout man, writing thousands of years ago in a very different culture, to imagine how the God he knew and worshiped might speak to a monotheistic people. As we read and interpret Holy Scriptures today, I think most of us are genuinely striving to listen to God and to heed God’s commands. However, just as we have come to understand the ungodliness of slavery, despite justifications our ancestors quoted from the words of sacred texts, we might do well to realize that we are equally prone to misrepresent in our own time the One who continually reshapes us. When trying to make sense of difficult texts, I find it helpful to recall the words of Jesus: “As you would that others do to you, do you even so to them.” (The Gospel of Matthew 7:12)
I totally agree that this text ought to be interpreted in light of the time and place it was written, and we need to consider for whom it was intended. I, too, share your discomfort when sacred text is used to justify any wrongdoing, whether it is expropriation, destruction or abuse. In our days, individuals around the globe misquote sacred texts to purposely spread fear and mistrust in people’s minds. I am deeply concerned when I hear about acts of injustice which violate people and their property, regardless of whether these abuses are physical or emotional. This can make me feel helpless, because it deeply affects our personal states of being, and can lead to despair. However, in response to this state of being, I am empowered by what fills my own heart: a renewed sense of submission to the will of God, because He is the Best Disposer of all affairs.