I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a particular episode of VeggieTales.
For those who aren’t familiar, VeggieTales is a computer-animated children’s video series that originally ran from 1993-2000 (it’s gone through a number of iterations since). The premise is simple, if a bit bizarre to think about if one didn’t grow up with it: anthropomorphic vegetables and fruits get together to retell Bible stories to a young audience, with various skits and songs throughout. Lessons are learned, laughs are had. Fin. The series was something of a staple for a certain generation of us who grew up evangelical, and it’s actually not at all bad. It’s often quite funny, and unlike a lot of lesser religious children’s media it’s genuinely concerned with storytelling in addition to didacticism. And while it is overtly religious, many of the moral lessons it imparts are universal enough that kids growing up secular can learn a thing or two from it as well.
But then there’s “Josh and the Big Wall.”
This particular episode is, as the title implies, the vegetables’ retelling of the story of Joshua and the Israelites at Jericho. The Israelites are played by most of the main vegetable characters (Joshua himself by Larry the Cucumber); the citizens of Jericho by the villainous, eminently mockable French Peas. When the Israelites attempt to enter the city—they explain to the Peas that God has given them the land, so there’s really no other option—they are rebuffed by a torrent of hurled slushies. Several minutes of further slapstick and such ensue before, inevitably, the troops rally around Jericho and the walls are brought down by a divine force. The Peas—no worse for wear after the collapse of their city besides a little bit of dust peppering their faces—turn and run. The Israelites have won their first victory in the conquest of Canaan. The End.
All in all a fairly innocuous, fairly amusing retelling of the Biblical story. Right?
That’s what my memories of it were for the last decade or so, anyway. It’s been about that long since I’ve actively watched a VeggieTales episode, so my recollections of it aren’t exactly sharp. It’s all sort of faded away into a vaguely pleasant melange of scenes and gags in the back of my mind, my fondness for it remaining despite my departure from the church.
But recently, for no particular reason that I can figure out, I started turning over “Josh and the Big Wall” in my mind again. And to my dismay, I realized:
This is an absolutely horrific way to tell a Bible story. To anyone, but especially to children.
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In order for this essay to continue, there are a couple of basic premises we’re going to have to agree on.
1.) The Israelite conquest of Canaan as described in the later books of the Pentateuch and the book of Joshua is an attempted genocide against the inhabitants of that land in order to make way for God’s chosen people.
2.) This genocide mandated the killing not just of fighting men, but of women, children, and infants. Virgin women were spared to be raped.
Note that I’m not passing any moral judgment on the conquest of Canaan in stating these two premises. I’m not interested in writing a post about whether or not the acts described in these books are unconscionable atrocities—full disclosure, that is what I think (divine command morality can quite frankly go fuck itself), but there’s a whole literature devoted to just that point and I don’t think I’m capable of adding anything new there. So, Christian readers of this essay, I’m not asking you to accept my opinion that the Old Testament describes immoral, unforgivable acts of genocide mandated by God. But if this essay is going to be of any value to you, you’re going to have to accept that the premises above are both true.
It shouldn’t be hard, honestly. Those premises are pretty literal, neutral interpretations of what the Old Testament has to say on the matter. I’ll restrict my citations here to two, one for each premise:
But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded. that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.
They warred against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every male. [. . .] And the people of Israel took captive the women of Midian and their little ones, and they took as plunder all their cattle, their flocks, and all their goods. [. . .] And Moses was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, “Have you let all the women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.”
—Numbers 31:7, 9, 14-18 (ESV)
There isn’t really any getting around these passages. Not that evangelicals necessarily feel the need to! A good portion of the apologetics field is devoted to explaining how these acts are perfectly morally justified because of x reasons.
Again, I want to reiterate: I’m not here to combat those apologetics. But I do find it interesting that many evangelicals, though they’re perfectly happy to explain why these killings and rapes weren’t really wrong, are probably made profoundly uncomfortable by referring to them as a genocide. I’m sure a fair number of my Christian readers felt an initial urge to disagree with the two premises I listed above specifically because of that word.
Why is that?
* * * * *
Christian media really likes to erase certain terrible Biblical things from its consciousness.
It’s right there in that VeggieTales episode, where the complete slaughter of Jericho is turned into a food fight that ends with the losers simply running off into the distance. It’s there in innumerable retellings of Noah’s Ark, which are full of smiling animals and lovely talk of God’s promise with the rainbow and show no pictures of floating corpses. It’s there in the ways Christians love to tell their kids these Bible stories and mine them for examples of positive lessons—look how good God is, look at what can happen if we obey him, etc.—without ever dwelling on the darker side that’s plainly there in the actual Biblical text.
And I think that as Christians, parents should stop and think about the consequences of doing this.
I do not think that these are stories that should be told to children. And I think that when they are told to believers for the first time, it needs to be in a way that respects the full weight and consequence of the Biblical texts themselves. If that doesn’t happen, the cycle of erasure of troubling things from our perception of the Bible repeats itself.
One Bible story that definitely isn’t told to children is that of Jephthah and his daughter in the book of Judges. I’ll quote the relevant portion in full here:
Then the Spirit of the Lord was upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord‘s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.” So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the Lord gave them into his hand. And he struck them from Aroer to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a great blow. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.” And she said to him, “My father, you have opened your mouth to the Lord; do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.” So she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me: leave me alone two months, that I may go up and down on the mountains and weep for my virginity, I and my companions.” So he said, “Go.” Then he sent her away for two months, and she departed, she and her companions, and wept for her virginity on the mountains. And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow that he had made. She had never known a man, and it became a custom in Israel that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.
—Judges 11:29-40 (ESV)
The first thing that needs to be accepted about this story is that God lets it happen. One could argue that His hands were tied in this situation because Jephthah had already made a binding oath, but that’s a flimsy reading for a number of reasons. First of all, God is conceived of as absolutely sovereign; if He does not wish something to happen, that something cannot happen. Second, God is conceived of as absolutely just; in this situation, it doesn’t take an ethical genius to work out that, if someone must die in this instance, it would be more just for the father to be wiped out for making a flippant oath than his innocent daughter to be wiped out for no wrong of her own. Third, and most obvious, we already know of at least one previous time in which God explicitly prevented the killing of an innocent child despite a divine command: the story of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. If God had truly wished for Jephthah’s daughter to be spared, He would have made it so. He did not. This is not an instance of a hand-wringing God; the burnt offering of the girl is endorsed by Him.
The above, rather laboriously made point is simply a necessary prologue to my real point, which is this: the text does not gloss over the horror of this situation. That’s the key to its power. The story of Jephthah and his daughter is pretty remarkably similar to a Greek tragedy; an inevitable doom awaits one of its key players, and she willingly embraces it knowing that there is no other option. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s beautiful precisely because of its willingness to recognize its own consequences. This nameless girl will never share her bed with a man, a man she may very well have loved when he came into her life. She will never bear children. She will never comfort her father in his old age, or be comforted by her own daughter in turn. She is a candle snuffed out, and she embraces this dying of the light because she knows there is no other choice.
These are the implications, fully present in the text, of a single death ordained by God. Now think back to the Canaanite genocide.
An invading force has been ravaging the surrounding land, killing left and right. The inhabitants of the city are terrified. They have heard that a supernatural force impossible to beat lends this invader strength, and now that supernatural force has commanded that this city’s people are next.
This is their home. It has been since before they can remember. And so, the men go out and fight. They tremble with fear, they shake as they move into battle position, but they have to give their families a chance. They are brave for their wives, for their children, and they all bleed out on the sand, throats torn out, limbs removed, heads severed.
The mothers do their best to crawl into the corners of their homes, to squeeze into shadows with their babies in their arms so that these terrifying strangers will pass over them. It does no good. Infants are torn from blankets and smashed against stones, their blood so inconceivably great a torrent from such small bodies. Little children, wailing, with no comprehension of what has swooped down upon them, are stabbed and strangled and torn to pieces. Young girls, no more than twelve, are led away by men two times their age to strange tents where unspeakable things will happen to them.
The invaders move on to the next city.
I hate to repeat myself again, but I want to emphasize: I am not passing moral judgment here. This is simply, if you believe the story, what would have happened.
This is what happened at Jericho. It’s what happened at dozens of other cities throughout the region. It’s what happened to the Amalekites centuries later when they had committed no crime except to descend from a city that had refused to let the Israelites through generations before. And all this pales in comparison to the watery deluge that sent everyone on earth to a screaming, choking grave, from infants to the oldest of men and women.
This is what God commanded.
And if you choose to look away from these implications—to simply brush past all of the human pain, terror, and anguish that are the direct results of stories whose main theme is usually distilled to a variant on “Trust in God to achieve great victory”—you are robbing the Biblical story of something that’s inextricably a part of it.
Now, the stories as I’ve summarized them in the above paragraphs can’t be told to children, I’m sure many of you are thinking. I agree. They can’t. But I also maintain that to teach children the sanitized versions that evangelicals have all grown up with—the smiling animals, the rousing songs of victory at Jericho, the amusing vegetables launching frozen drinks at each other—is an obscenity.
Whether or not you believe that what happened to the Canaanites was morally justified, there’s no denying that it was a terrible thing. Terrible in its classical sense: Awesome. Fearful. Horrifying to behold. Someone may believe that dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was necessary; they will probably also readily admit that the scale and horror of the destruction were sobering and unfathomable. They’d have to be a completely emotionless shell not to. They’d also have to be a complete nut to show their child a picture of a smiling atomic bomb as it merrily laid waste to thousands of invisible, unnamed Japanese citizens, or to act as though the explosion was nothing more than a scary noise that caused the residents of Hiroshima to flee to the next town with no harm done.
* * * * *
When the movie Noah was released, one of the chief criticisms directed at it by evangelicals was an objection to what was perceived as a certain sordid quality. People in the film are shown clambering over each other to reach high ground, clinging to rocks in piles to avoid succumbing to the watery depths. Noah himself almost kills an innocent baby. This is immoral, was the cry. There is no excuse for this darkness.
Now, those objectors are in a sense right. These events are lurid and sordid and tragic and horrifying. And they’re the exact kind of thing that would have happened on an immense scale during the stories of the Old Testament, over and over and over again. But because our culture has been fed the sanitized versions of these stories since childhood, a good portion of us are unable to emotionally come to terms with the fact that these terrors are part and parcel of what God commands to his people.
It’s impossible to obtain the Bible’s full beauty without the horrific, the tragic, the awesome, the terrible. God is a fearful combination of love and wrath. “He sends flies to wounds that he should heal,” as Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life puts it; that sentence itself is a microcosm of the Book of Job, probably the most stunning poem ever written. The power of the Bible, the Old Testament especially, is found in its paradoxes. A constant concern for the vulnerable juxtaposed with the divine order of the slaughter of infants. The tenderness of God’s still, small voice paired with with the desolation of the Ten Plagues. The healing power of the prophets alongside a massacre of young men by bears who tear them to pieces. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Whether or not we think these latter events were morally justified, they give us pause. They trouble us. They are the parts of the Bible that are ultimately the most moving, even as they disturb their readers.
Christians need to recognize the power of this paradox. They need to embrace it, and respect it. And part of doing so is realizing when the time is right to expose the next generation to the full weight of that power. Showing them only one side will not do. Infantilizing what the Bible itself is careful to depict as fearful won’t either.
If we’re going to be faithful to the Bible—atheists and believers both—we need to accept it for what it is, and to pass it on as such. And only when those it’s passed on to are ready to accept it in their turn.