Can Poetry Help You Understand the Bible?



In 2010, I attended a writer’s retreat at Laity Lodge in the Hill Country of Texas. I was part of the poetry seminar, led by poet and professor Scott Cairns. Our overnight assignment was to write a poem about a Bible passage we found troublesome.


I chose Joshua 5-12.


One of the main themes in that section is herem, a Hebrew word meaning destruction of essentially everything. In that section, before a number of battles, God tells Joshua and the Israelites to commit herem when they defeat the foe. That means killing every living thing – men, women, children, domestic animals and livestock. 


The command is given several times, and the Israelites obey (one tries to hold on to some treasure and gets death for him and his family as a result). At Jericho, only the prostitute Rahab and her family are spared, because she had protected the spies. Every other living thing in the city is put to the sword.


The passage is clear. God told the Israelites to do it. 


Today we use words like genocide or “ethnic cleansing.” 


No matter what it’s called, the idea of herem is unsettling. In most of the conflicts, God tells his people to undertake mass killings of those they conquer.


Theoretically, I can understand what was happening. God was cleansing the land. What I didn’t know was that God was also judging the Canaanites (referred to as the Amorites in Genesis), the people living in the land promised to the Israelites.


The sins of the Amorites were grievous and offensive to God (things like child sacrifice); that they had been given ample time to repent and change (several hundred years, in fact); that they had heard what was coming with the Israelites (Rahab clearly knew the whole story of the Exodus). So, it wasn’t only about the Hebrews taking the promised land; it was also about the Canaanites being judged for their sins.


My modern sensibilities still recoil. It doesn’t seem harsh; it was harsh. It’s tempting to compare these examples of herem our own more contemporary examples of genocide, but it’s not the same thing.


What I did need to understand was that God is both terrifying and loving. The terrifying part is, well, terrifying.


This is the poem I wrote.


As for me and my house

A meditation on Joshua 5-12

Would I have been cleansed  in the wilderness, or buried in the sand as a submission  to the cleansing?

That man wielding the  great sword, that man  commanding the Lord’s host, that man who makes ground  holy, would I have obeyed, even unto death?

Could I have stood in that  Jericho doorway, and plunged the sword into the mother and then the child? Or the child  first and then the mother? And plunged that sword again at Ai and Makeddeh, Libnah and Lachish, Eglon and Hebron, Hazor and Anab, Jarmuth and Gexer and Bethel and Aphek and Tirzah and Megiddo and…

When the man who makes ground holy turned over the tables of shekels and talents and doves, shouting at thieves and robbers, would I have conspired to kill him, becoming yet another submission to the  cleansing?  Or would he have cleansed me?


Using poetry to clarify and understand difficult Bible passages was something new for me. But it worked.


Photograph by Watari by Unsplash. Used with permission.

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