Philip Jenkins. Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. New York: HarperOne, 2011.
Overall, Philip Jenkins’ new book is well put together and an insightful discussion of violence in sacred text and religious communities. The strengths are most obviously Professor Jenkins’ knowledge of history. Where I feel that the book is weak is in the theology of the book and what seems to be an apparent oversight in regards to the amount of violence in the Psalms and the Prophets.
Professor Jenkins covers the “texts of terror” in the Qur’an and the Bible – or, as it turns out, the lack of violent texts in the Qur’an and the warrants for genocide in Deuteronomy (7:1-2; 25:19) and the enactment of that genocide in Joshua (broadly, ch. 6-11). Jenkins divides texts into three categories: extreme (explicit calls for war from God, genocide), alarming (call for Holy War, justification of genocide), and disturbing (threats of violence in supernatural realm like afterlife). Although I’m not sure the concept of hell is “disturbing,” the categories are helpful for quantifying the amount of violence in any given text. I would not use such quantifying for much more than trolling Christian Right bloggers, but it is interesting nonetheless.
The history of Israel (and the lack of archeological and extrabiblical evidence for the conquest narrative) is very good and I learned a lot from it. In the same vein, the discussion of early Islam and the cultural context of Muhammad is extremely helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about the religion and the people. Of course, Professor Jenkins, as he admits in the beginning of the book, is not a Muslim and does not claim to be a scholar of the religion; this is seen at times in his discussion of Islam and what constitutes a religious conflict. Overall, the historical analysis and the discussion of present day politics is interesting and helpful (modern day Israeli political stances are disturbing, of course, but interesting nonetheless).
Among the things that I had to look up, Professor Jenkins comments that in the Revised Common Lectionary and similar lectionaries, less than half of the Bible is read in liturgical meetings of most Christian denominations. I had previously heard a much different report and I had to do some digging to confirm his comments. (An insightful look at the use of the Bible in the Catholic liturgical calendar can be found here). Professor Jenkins’ discussion of the liturgical use of the Bible and the spiritualizing or allegorizing of the violence in the Bible is helpful at times and he shows a vast knowledge of the historical developments of biblical interpretation.
Professor Jenkins spends much of the book creating a dichotomy between the Deuteronomistic history (Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings) and the Prophets. Although it is clear that the compilers of the historical books of the OT were more explicit in their call for religious and cultic purity, the prophets are not all Universalists as Jenkins seems to imply. The role of the Lord as a warrior and storm god is anything but unclear in the prophetic works of the Bible. Jeremiah and the other prophets at times give very (sometimes sexually) violent descriptions how God will treat Israel for their iniquity or how God will help Israel defeat her enemies. God is more than just commanding war; God is actively involved in the violent acts in the Prophets. This is the biggest problem I have with this book since it overstates the portions of the Prophets that are less violent while understating the violent aspects of prophecy and worship of the God of Israel, the Lord of Host.
Despite my problems with Professor Jenkins’ oversight in discussing the Prophets and his misinterpretation of 1 Samuel 15 (Saul did not spare anyone’s life, he took plunder; that was his sin), I felt that Laying Down the Sword is a decent discussion of history and the role of violence in religions around the world. Even though he sometimes does not seem to represent Islam correctly, Professor Jenkins gives a fair history of the Middle East and offers an insightful look into the modern politics of the region. Although I’m not sure I’d use this book for a class on violence in the Old Testament, I feel that some chapters are very helpful for such a discussion with other supplaments.