The religious differences which underpin so much modern conflict – not least that currently prevailing in the troubled Middle East – are based on ancient texts upon which time has bestowed the epithet “scripture”. The implication of this is that such texts proffer those who believe in their allegedly divine origin and adhere to their instructions some kind of God-given right to seek to implement their teachings. The section from the Five Books of Moses which will be read in synagogues all over the world this Saturday brings the wandering Israelites to the end of their 40-year journey in the wilderness. Moses speaks to the Israelites on the plains of Moab and passes on to them what are described as divine instructions regarding what they should do once they enter the land: “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you … Take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” (Numbers 33:51-53)
Justification enough, it would seem, for many a West Bank settler. The Israelites are assured that letting the Canaanites remain in the land will bring trouble upon them: “But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will give you trouble in the land where you will live.” (Numbers 33:55)
Biblical texts such as this are written from a much later historical perspective, at a time when the consequences predicted in them reflect the prevailing situation “on the ground” as we might say in modern parlance. The authors of such texts are reporting what is actually happening in their time – Israelites mixing with, and sharing the customs and practices of, the indigenous Canaanites. This was a source of outrage to the prophets who were the authors of the scripture now referred to as the Torah. They railed against the failure of their people to drive out those who would not accept the Israelite God and placed the following warning into that God’s mouth: “I will do to you what I plan to do to them.” (Numbers 33:56)
That 3,000-year-old piece of biblical rhetoric is echoed in the taunts being hurled across those same borders, suggesting that relationships in this area have developed little over the course of almost three millennia. Deadly missiles – modern-day barbs – rain down upon modern Israel from beyond the borders across which it has driven its enemies and Israel responds with biblical ferocity.
The allegedly divine requirement to drive out the inhabitants of the land, promising dire consequences if they remain, has been proved wrong. There can only be peace if the people learn to live together in this land, this world, no matter what ancient religious texts say.
It is time to acknowledge that the ancient books that various religions regard as their source texts are the product of human societies seeking to define and establish themselves in a barbaric and troubled world. As such, they often contain violent, xenophobic statements – often presented as being the divine will. The source of statements such as “I will do to you what I plan to do to them” and demands to drive out or destroy other people is clearly human, not divine. And, like so much of the posturing couched in the repetition of such statements by so-called religious leaders, such messages are neither accurate nor religious.
What is noble about such texts is that their authors also had a vision of a more humane, peaceful and harmonious world, and their writings sought also to define and implement this.
The task of religion in our modern, troubled age is to seek to uncover the common religious vision which lies at the heart of all such ancient ventures. This will only be achieved once all who look to ancient texts for their inspiration and guidance are honest enough to recognise – and reject – those sections which are little more than ancient expressions of xenophobia and seek out the common elements which represent the true vision of the Divine.