In his autobiography, Eric Clapton, the famed rock and blues artist, shares very candidly about his long struggle with an addiction to alcohol. At one point in his life, he admitted his addiction and entered a rehab clinic, but he didn’t take his problem as seriously as was warranted. Returning to England after his stint in the clinic, he decided that he could still drink light spirits, beer and wine, but would give up hard liquor. You can guess the result. Before long he was again enslaved inside his addiction. He returned to the clinic, to appease friends, but convinced that he was still strong enough to handle his problems on his own.
But grace intervened. Just before his second rehab stint ended, he had a powerful experience within which he was shaken to his very soul by the recognition of his own helplessness and the mortal danger he faced from his addiction. On the basis of that grace, he finally gave himself over to the program with his whole heart, accepting that he could never touch alcohol again. He has retained his sobriety since.
His story can be helpful in understanding the meaning of certain texts in Scripture which, when read literally, can give us the impression that God is arbitrary, cruel and murderous.
We see such texts, for example, in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Joshua where, before entering the Promised Land, God instructs Israel to kill all the people and all the animals who at that time inhabit that land. Why such a command to exterminate others simply because they’re living in a certain place?
Obviously we need to ask ourselves: Is this really the word of God? What kind of God would give this kind of command? And what about the people being killed? Aren’t they too God’s people? Does God play favorites? What about the Canaanites, whom Joshua is asked to exterminate — don’t they count? What can be behind this kind of command?
These texts, though divinely inspired and rich in meaning, clearly should not be taken literally. This command, while not exactly metaphorical, is archetypal, meaning that it’s not meant to be taken literally as a command to kill what’s foreign to us, but rather as a counsel teaching that when we’re trying to enter a new way of living we must take all the necessary measures to ensure that we can properly enter that life and sustain it.
Metaphorically, we need to “kill” off every element inside us and around us which, if left unaddressed, might eventually compromise and choke off the new life we’re trying to live. Jesus, in fact, gives us the identical command, except he employs a softer metaphor: Don’t put new wine into old wineskins.
People in recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous tend to more quickly understand what’s asked of us in these texts. Like Eric Clapton they’ve learned from experience that to enter the promised land of sobriety demands that one kill off all of “the Canaanites” — that is, accepting that all half-measures won’t work but that some brute, raw, bitter renunciations have to be made.
This biblical image — the command from God to kill the “Canaanites” — can serve us well, too, in other areas of our lives, particularly, I believe, in our struggles with making commitments and being faithful to them.
For example, consider someone entering a marriage. Like Israel they’re entering the “promised land,” but for them to establish this new life and remain faithful to it, they need to kill off a good number of things, namely, former romances, old relational habits of promiscuity and infidelity, the propensity to flirt with attractive temptations, the belief that one can have one’s cake and eat it too, and the long-standing habit of putting one’s own needs first and worrying mainly about taking care of oneself.
Every choice is a series of renunciations. To have a life-giving marriage means renouncing a lot of old habits, otherwise these old habits will eventually sabotage the marriage. There are things one must do before entering a marriage or any serious commitment.
But what about those “Canaanites” that already inhabit the land we’re entering? Who might they be today?
In terms of threatening to contaminate a marriage, I would submit that what must be killed off today in order to have a lifelong, life-giving marriage is our present cultural ethos about sex, namely, the belief that sex need not be confined to monogamy, permanent commitment and marriage. If we don’t kill off that ethos as we enter a marriage, we will not sustain ourselves lifelong in that Promised Land.
To live lives of sobriety, commitment and fidelity demands more than half-measures. An alcoholic in recovery knows that he or she cannot have it both ways. The same is true in terms of sustaining ourselves in any life-giving commitment. New wine must be put into new wineskins and this demands some bitter renunciations.
God’s commands, properly understood, aren’t harsh and arbitrary. They’re wise and universal.
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology.
His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.