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Michael Prior, Colonialism, and Liberation Theology

March 5, 2018

“Reading the Bible with the Eyes of the Canaanites”; from Nur Masalha:  “[T]he first person to develop this new perspective was the North American native scholar Robert Allen Warrior who speaks of how strongly he was compelled by Martin Luther King’s Exodus imagery of going to the mountaintop, seeing the Promised Land, and crossing the River Jordan. He writes of being stunned at the realization that native Americans were in fact the Canaanites of the American colonial experience.”

[The following is excerpted from Nur Masalha’s The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel–Palestine (Zed Books, 2007), Chapter 8.]

Professor Michael Prior (1942-2004) was an outstanding biblical scholar, a Corkman, a Vincentian priest, a peace activist, a radical liberation theologian, an activist for the human rights of [Roma] in London and an activist for Palestinian rights. . . .

Prior early on realized that the liberation theology perspective developed in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s had an obvious relevance to the Israel-Palestine question; during his regular visits to the Holy Land he befriended many Palestinian Church leaders and liberation theologians, including Dr Naim Ateek, Director of Sabeel, an ecumenical Centre for Palestinian Liberation Theology in Jerusalem. Sabeel embodies a grassroots liberation movement among Palestinian Christians and seeks to make the Gospel contextually relevant to Palestine-Israel. In Arabic, sabeel means “the way” and a “spring of water.” The organization strives to develop a Palestinian theology based on justice, peace, nonviolence, liberation and reconciliation for the different ethnic and faith communities in the Holy Land. It is also highly critical of Christian Zionism, which has been “successful in providing not only theologian justification for Palestinian displacement, forced exile and continued oppression, but also is directly responsible for marshalling material resources” in support of Israeli settler colonialism. In 1999 Prior co-edited with Canon Ateek the collection Holy Land – Hollow Jubilee: God, Justice and the Palestinians, based on a major international conference organized by Sabeel in 1998, at which the keynote speaker was Edward Said. . . .

Reading the Bible with the Eyes of the Canaanites

“Reading the Bible with the Eyes of the Canaanites: In homage to Professor Edward Said,” was the title of a paper presented by Prior to a three-day conference (1–3 April 2004) organized by the Centre for Contemporary Approaches to the Bible, University of Wales at Lampeter, and the Catholic Biblical Association of Great Britain. Greatly influenced by Said’s writings and the idea that our understanding of a text should always be underpinned by our own worldliness, Prior’s critique of Western biblical scholarship echoes Said’s devastating attack on orientalism. Prior first came across the idea of reading the Bible “with the eyes of the Canaanites” in an article written by Said in 1996 – although Prior was critical of Said for not pursuing his “Canaanite Reading” of the biblical narrative.

Yet the first person to develop this new perspective was the North American native scholar Robert Allen Warrior who speaks of how strongly he was compelled by Martin Luther King’s Exodus imagery of going to the mountaintop, seeing the Promised Land, and crossing the River Jordan. He writes of being stunned at the realization that native Americans were in fact the Canaanites of the American colonial experience. He writes:

“The obvious characters in the story for Native Americans to identify with are the Canaanites, the people who already lived in the promised land. As a member of the Osage Nation of American Indians who stands in solidarity with other tribal people around the world, I read the Exodus story with Canaanite eyes. And, it is the Canaanite side of the story that has been overlooked by those seeking to articulate theories of liberation. Especially ignored are those parts of the story that describe Yahweh’s command to mercilessly annihilate the indigenous population.”

Warrior observes that the land traditions of the Bible, conveniently ignored by most theologies of liberation, provide a model of conquest oppression and genocide for native Americans, Palestinians and other indigenous peoples. Yahweh the conqueror, who delivers the Israelites from their oppression in Egypt, leads them in their conquest of the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites.

“With what voice will we, the Canaanites of the world, say, ‘Let my people go and leave my people alone’? And, with what ears will followers of alien gods who have wooed us (Christians, Jews, Marxists, capitalists), listen to us? The indigenous people of this hemisphere have endured a subjugation now a hundred years longer than the sojourn of Israel in Egypt. Is there a god, a spirit, who will hear us and stand with us in the Amazon, Osage County, and Wounded Knee? Is there a god, a spirit, able to move among the pain and anger of the Nablus, Gaza, and Soweto of 1989? Perhaps. But we, the wretched of the earth, may be well advised this time not to listen to outsiders with their promises of liberation and deliverance. We will perhaps do better to look elsewhere for our vision of justice, peace and political sanity – a vision through which we escape not only our oppressors, but our oppression as well. Maybe, for once, we will just have to listen to ourselves, leaving the gods of this continent’s real strangers to do battle among themselves.”

Inspired by Warrior’s radical critique of mainstream liberation theology and Said’s critique of orientalism, Prior sought to radicalize liberation theology in general and Palestinian liberation theology in particular. He also benefited from the emergence of a post-colonial critical biblical scholarship in the last two decades. Biblical “minimalism” (discussed in Chapter 7), whose key contributors include Philip Davies, Thomas L. Thompson, Niels Peter Lemche and Keith W. Whitelam, has emerged as an identifiable method of scholarship within biblical studies, and argues that the Bible’s language is not a historical language. Minimalism has presented some serious challenges to biblical scholars, Prior included. It was Prior’s personal experiences and study of the Bible in the “land of the Bible” which helped him to see “with the eyes of the Canaanites.” Prior continued to wrestle with the idea that biblical “mega narratives” and key biblical traditions were politically oppression and morally reprehensible. Was Yahweh (Jehovah) the great “ethnic cleanser”? Did Yahweh not instruct the biblical Israelites to rid their “promised land” of its indigenous inhabitants, the Canaanites? Few biblical scholars are prepared to confront these questions.

Prior argued that the land traditions of the Bible, which inspired modern political Zionism, appeared to mandate the genocide of the indigenes of Canaan. While it was possible to develop a Jewish theology of liberation with strong dependence on the Hebrew prophets, it would be no more difficult to construct a theology of oppression on the basis of other Old Testament traditions, especially those dealing with (the mythologized) Israelite origins that demanded the destruction of other peoples. According to the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Israelite shared the believe that Yahweh was a warrior directly involved in earthly battles; at least some ancient Israelites believed that Yahweh demanded the complete extermination of the enemy people. Prior concluded that the metanarratives of the Hebrew Bible present “ethnic cleansing” as not only legitimate, but as required by the deity; that, according to modern standards of international law and human rights, what these biblical narratives mandate are “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” Prior believed that mainstream liberation theology was not radical enough in eliminating oppression for indigenous peoples, especially the Palestinians. To illustrate his thesis Prior cited the following metanarratives:

“(a) Although the reading of Exodus 3, both in the Christian liturgy and in the classical texts of liberation theologies, halts abruptly in the middle of verse 8 at the description of the land as one ‘flowing with milk and honey,’ the biblical text itself continues, ‘to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.’ Manifestly, the promised land, flowing with milk and honey, had no lack of indigenous peoples, and, according to the narrative, would soon flow with blood. As the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, Yahweh promises Moses and the people: “‘When my angel goes in front of you, and brings you to the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, and Canaanites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and I blot them out, you shall not bow down to their gods, or worship them, or follow their practices, but you shall utterly demolish them and break their pillars in pieces’ (Exodus, 23/23–4).

“(b) Matters get worse in the narrative of the Book of Deuteronomy which is canonized as Sacred Scripture. In fact it contains menacing ideologies and racist, xenophobic and militaristic tendencies: after the King of Heshbon refused passage to the Israelites, Yahweh gave him over to the Israelites who captured and utterly destroyed all the cities, killing all the men, women, and children (Deuteronomy 2. 33–4). The fate of the King of Bashan was no better (3.3).

“(c) Yahweh’s role was central to the destruction of other peoples: ‘When Yahweh your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you – the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites … and when Yahweh your God gives them over to you … you must utterly destroy them … Show them no mercy … For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God; Yahweh your God has chosen you our of all the peoples of early to be his people, his treasured possession’ (Deuteronomy 7.1–11; see also 9.1–5; 11.8–9, 23, 31–2).

“(d) The Book of Deuteronomy tells the Israelites that when they approach towns along the way, they are to offer terms of peace to the inhabitants. If the people accept the peace terms, they are to be reduced to serving Israelites as forced labour; if they refuse, all adult males are to be killed and the women, children, and animals are to be taken as spoils of war (Deuteronomy 20.10–15). When, however, the Israelites reach the lands where they are to dwell, they are to annihilate the inhabitants entirely so that they cannot tempt the Israelites to worship their gods (Deuteronomy 20.16–18). ‘But as for the towns of these peoples that Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them – the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites – just as Yahweh your God has commanded, so that they may not reach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against Yahweh your God’ (Deuteronomy 20.16–18).

“(e) The first part of the Book of Joshua (chapters 2–12) describes the conquest of key cities, and their fate in accordance with the laws of the Holy War. Even when the Gibeonites were to be spared, the Israelite elders complained at the lapse in fidelity to the mandate to destroy all the inhabitants of the land (9.21–27). Joshua took Makkedah, utterly destroying every person it (10.28). A similar fate befell other cities (10.29–39); everything that breathed was destroyed, as Yahweh commanded (10.4–43). Joshua utterly destroyed the inhabitants of the cities of the north as well (11.1–23). Yahweh gave to Israel all the land that he swore to their ancestors he would give them (21.43–45). The legendary achievement of Yahweh through the agencies of Moses, Aaron, and Joshua are kept before the Israelites ever in their prayers: ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it (Psalm 80.8; see also Psalms 78.54–55; 105.44).

“(f) This is sometimes justified because the other peoples worship alien gods and thus do not deserve to live. There are similar commands in the Book of Numbers (chapter 31). Later in the biblical narrative, when the Israelites reach Jericho, Joshua orders that the entire city be devoted to the Lord for destruction, exception for Rahab the prostitute and those in her house. All other inhabitants, as well as the oxen, sheep and donkeys are to be killed in the name of God (Joshua 6:21). In the First Book of Samuel, Samuel prophesies in the name of the Lord to Saul: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have, do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey’” (1 Samuel 15: 2–3).

In the Spanish-language edition of The Bible and Colonialism (2003), Prior revisits the old ground, in his original and deliberately combative style. First, the biblical narrative, with its “divine promise” was inherently linked with the mandate to ethnically cleanse or exterminate the indigenous peoples; these “war crimes” are legitimized by the divinity. Second, the Exodus narrative portrays Yahweh as a tribal, ethnocentric God, with compassion only for the misery of his “own people” (Exodus 3.7–8). Third, in the narrative of the Book of Deuteronomy the divine command to commit “genocide” is explicit. Fourth, genocide and mass slaughter follow in the Book of Joshua. These highly dubious traditions of the Bible have been kept before subsequent generations of Jews and Christians in their prayers. Christians still pray, in Psalm 80 on Thursday mornings, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.”

The historical evidence, however, strongly suggests that such genocidal massacres never actually took place, although these racist, xenophobic and militaristic narratives remained for later generations as powerful examples of divine aid in battle and of a divine command for widespread slaughter of an enemy. Regarding the divine demand in the Hebrew Bible to kill entire tribes, the later rabbinical tradition of post-biblical Judaism would view the wars of conquest of Canaan as a unique situation that offered no precedent for later wars. Some later Jewish commentators would interpret the struggle against the Amalekites as a symbolic metaphor for fighting genocidal evil.

. . .

Prior, of course, would concede that he was also influenced by Enlightenment and secular humanist ideas originating outside the Scriptures, especially universal principles of human rights and international law: although he was a theologian by training, his methodological approach was multidisciplinary, grounded in the social sciences and benefiting from a range of secular and religious ideas and sources. When challenged at public meetings, Prior typically would respond to his critics by saying that the search for a hermeunetics of the Bible that is sound theologically will be found in the person of Jesus the Liberator (Prior 1995). Also, crucially, he would argue that the question of Palestine was not just a theological issue; it was essentially a moral and ethical one.


[Excerpted from The Bible and Zionism: Invented Traditions, Archaeology and Post-Colonialism in Israel–Palestine (Zed Books, 2007). Nur Masalha is a Professor at SOAS, University of London, and former Director of the Centre for Religion and History at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham.]

JGML 2023

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