The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique
Prior, Michael. The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique. The Biblical Seminar, 48. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. $24.95. 342 pp. ISBN 1-85075-815-8.
This is a book written with conviction and passion. What the author, Head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Mary’s University College, University of Surrey (Great Britain), tries to expose is what he considers to be the problematic moral character of the biblical narratives of the Conquest and Settlement in the Old Testament. He develops three case studies to support his aims and then closes with an appeal to reorient biblical studies.
Prior’s work is divided into three sections. The first (chapter 1) reiterates the biblical story line of the promise and acquisition of the Promised Land from Genesis through Joshua and Judges. It closes, however, with the mention of what will occupy the rest of the volume: the use of the Bible for violent, colonial imperialism. One of his fundamental contentions is that the problem does not ultimately lie with misdirected interpretative methods (although this is an issue to be dealt with). The text itself is what needs to be questioned: "It will be seen that several traditions within the Bible lend themselves to oppressive interpretations and applications precisely because of their inherently oppressive nature" (p. 46).
The second section (chapters 2-5) details the use of these narratives in various colonizing projects. He begins with the conquests of the Spanish in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in what is now Latin America (chapter 2) and then addresses the establishment of the apartheid state in South Africa by the Afrikaners (chapter 3). Prior’s most extensive critique is aimed at the founding of the modern state of Israel. This historical case is particularly poignant in light of the fact that this is the premier example of the Jews claiming the land traditions for themselves (with the assertion of continuity with the biblical Israel and its unique rights and privileges). Zionism has been able to garner wide support because of the horrors of the Holocaust of the Second World War and because of the literalistic way the biblical materials have been read by Christians and Jews around the globe. Nevertheless, as in Latin America and South Africa, the imperialistic enterprise required (and in the case of modern Israel continues to require) the forced removal, exploitation, and even extermination of a weaker people. Israel is built upon the suffering of the Palestinians (chapter 4). Each example of imperialism, Prior says, though unique in time and place, displays common elements - i.e., fabricates similar colonial myths - with the other two. These originary myths include, for example, the notion that the land to be taken was uninhabited or sparsely inhabited; that the peoples already there were racially inferior; and that the occupation is part of a divine calling to civilize and/or evangelize these inferior people. The author spends the greater portion of this discussion revealing what he views as the falsehoods and motivations for the various myths that legitimate the state of Israel (chapter 5).
The third section of the book (chapters 6-7) tries to move to a solution to the inappropriate use of these, what he considers, violent, ethnocentric and xenophobic texts. First, Prior appeals to a recent stream of Old Testament scholarship that tries to identify the socio-political and racial ideologies lying behind this biblical material (chapter 6). These texts, it is claimed, are actually post-Exilic and were written by those who had returned to Palestine in order to create a history for themselves. The narratives, accordingly, have very little relationship to what actually happened in the time period which they purport to describe. This unmasking of the Bible’s ideology should preclude the use of the narratives in any imperialistic manner. To read them at face value and then appropriate them as such is self-deluding and finally destructive to others.
The author is aware that this way of approaching the text raises questions of the inspiration and theological worth of the Bible (chapter 7). He refuses, however, to skirt facing the harsh implications of the ideological reality he believes he discerns behind the text by spiritualizing or allegorizing the problem passages or by ignoring them in the liturgy through a selective lectionary. Prior tries to push the reader to the conclusion that these narratives have been superseded by the New Testament, which no longer fixes its hope on a particular land and that universalizes the boundaries of the people of God.
The Bible and Colonialism deserves a careful reading. To begin with, it underscores the crucial need for interpreters and believing communities to be aware of any kind of agenda that might influence the reading and application of the biblical text. This awareness is greatly enlightened by his historical perspective. The three test cases that Prior explores are very real, and it is impossible to deny (and it is even worse to ignore) the tragic ways that the Bible has been utilized to sanctify imperialistic projects. No interpretation is value-neutral. Sadly, the three cases that the author cites could be multiplied several-fold if one were to examine the last two thousand years.
This book raises another important issue: the use of scholarship for a particular socio-political stance. Because of this reviewer’s manyyears in Central America, he was struck by Prior’s assessment of the Exodus motif in Liberation Theology. Prior states, correctly, that liberationists have been quick to embrace the part of the narrative that describes the response of God to an oppressed people (the Jews in Egypt), while ironically not noting that Exodus leads to Conquest; liberation for some led to annihilation of others (pp. 278-84). Elsewhere I have summarized the use of certain critical methodologies by liberationist scholars to support their theology and praxis (see M. Daniel Carroll R., Contexts for Amos: Prophetic Poetics in Latin American Perspective [JSOTSup, 132; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992], pp. 46-47, 312-19). Proir’s concern is well-taken, but one can also raise questions about his own choice of critical approaches. The one author most cited by Prior is T. Thompson, one of a group of ‘minimalists’ who have been most disparaging of the biblical presentation of history (others include scholars such as Garbini, Davies, and Whitelam). This choice leaves him open to the charge that he has aligned himself with only a certain kind of scholarship (howbeit prominent), which itself is being heavily criticized for its ideological commitments and quality of scholarship.
Having said this, one is still left with the central issue of the nature of the Old Testament text and its value today for theological reflection. Prior is right to see that challenges to belief in inspiration are unavoidable. His solution is to expose and reject these texts and then opt for the attitudes and perspectives of Jesus and other New Testament authors; for those, however, with a different view of the Bible, such an option is less than desirable. Still, the hard questions must be asked: how does one evaluate and appropriate difficult passages as Scripture? What are the ramifications for bibliology? The same issue also has been raised, for example, by certain feminists. This is not the place to begin to detail a careful response, though others have begun to do so in well thought out and nuanced manners (e.g., A.C. Thistleton, F. Watson, and K. Vanhoozer). Prior forces his readers to wrestle with the history of the reception of the text and to explore the very nature of the Bible itself. Though one might not be convinced of his analysis of the text nor of his final solution, one should at least walk away from this book with the deep conviction that biblical interpretation is not an innocent and interesting exercise reserved for the academic ivory tower. Interpretation matters.