GARCIA-LUENSE: The Biblical meanings of religious pluralism

November 10, 2020

In the United States in the 21st Century, we Christians face the practical question of what sort of relationship we should have with those who belong to different religions.

This is true not only because of the reality of religious pluralism within our own country but also because the increasing pressures toward globalization force us to encounter many different faiths around the world. Are we to seek to destroy anything and anyone different from ourselves?

Are we to isolate ourselves from those who are different, withdrawing into a protective shell? Are we to embrace everyone warmly, believing that we are all really the same despite apparent differences? Is there some other option? The people of Israel faced much the same question as they confronted different religious and ethnic groups both within their borders and hemming them in on all sides. Let us look at what the Old Testament might teach us on this topic.

The Old Testament does not require that we seek to destroy and eliminate everyone that is different from ourselves. Such an attitude is a misinterpretation of the stories in the Old Testament. It is true that in the book of Joshua, we repeatedly read that the Israelites completely annihilated those they encountered, but we must be careful as these stories do not mean we need to destroy everyone different from ourselves. In the Ancient Near East, a conquered people would become the slaves of the ones who had defeated them in battle. Since Israel understood God as a Divine Warrior fighting on their behalf, the conquered people belonged not to Israel but to God.

To take them as slaves would imply that Israel believed they had achieved the victory themselves. The only solution was to offer the conquered people to God by killing them. This attitude is completely consistent with the notion of sacrifice operative at the same time. These stories of bloody annihilation are not really stories about how to deal with outsiders at all as much as they are stories about how God was the driving force behind the great victories.

Even in the midst of such stories, however, we get a glimpse of another theology at work. Not everyone in Jericho was killed, for Rahab the harlot and her family were spared for having helped the Israelite spies (Josh 2:1-11; 6:22-25).

In a similar fashion, an unnamed man of Luz is spared (Judg 1:24-26). David’s attempt to send away Ittai the Gittite stemmed not from hatred or scorn, but out of concern and with a blessing (2 Sam 15:19-20). Ittai’s insistence on remaining is welcomed and accepted by David (vv 21-22). Elijah revives the son of the widow in Zarephath of Sidon (1 Kgs 17:9, 17-24). Elisha cures Naaman the Syrian (2 Kgs 5:1-19). Some individuals and their families can be accommodated as an exceptional circumstance when doing so proves to be helpful or appropriate.

We also see cases when short-term alliances with entire groups of people can be made when they seem to be beneficial. There seems to have been some sort of arrangement between David and King Hiram of Tyre for he sent not only materials but also craftsman for the construction of David’s palace (2 Sam 5:11).

Solomon, at the height of his wisdom, shows no reluctance to meet and trade gifts with the queen of Sheba (1 Kgs 10:1-13). International trade, in general, seems to have flourished under Solomon, for he managed a fleet of ships (1 Kgs 10:22) and traded for horses and chariots with Egypt (1 Kgs 10:28-29). Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kgs 18:3), seems to have been in a military alliance with the Egyptians (2 Kgs 18:24).

Finally, long-term and enduring relationships with foreigners also seem to have been acceptable.

The Gibeonites may have been punished for the trickery with which they enticed the Israelites into making an alliance with them by being relegated to the tasks of “hewing wood and drawing water” (Josh 9), but the fact remains that Israel made the alliance and honored it when Gibeon came under attack (Josh 10:6-8). The text reports their distinct status within Israel “to this day” (Josh 9:27).

This is not to say that the Old Testament does not contain warnings about the shape of interaction between Israel and those outside.

The most common problem seems to have been that intermarriage between Israelites and non-Israelites tempted the people of Israel to forsake their own ways and to follow the foreign ways of their spouses. This is the reason Solomon is indicted for having foreign wives (1 Kgs 11:1-8).

Similarly, Ahab’s mistake in marrying Jezebel is that she led him to worship Baal (1 Kgs 16:31-33). In a certain sense, the same problem befell Samson in that his foreign wife caused him to break his relationship with the LORD by shaving his head (Judg 16:15-20).

The conclusion seems clear that the theology of the Old Testament admits the possibility of useful interaction, either occasional or ongoing, between Israel and foreigners.
In so doing, the foreigners are not threatened with extinction, nor do they cease to retain their identity. For us today, this theology allows for the possibility of cooperation among all people of goodwill, Christian or otherwise, in working in the world. As Christians, we do not need to become isolationist in our perspective, refusing to deal with those who do not share our faith.

However, these interactions, though permissible, do contain a danger. In our dealing with non-Christians, we may be tempted toward syncretism or subjectivism. The theology of the Old Testament stands as a reminder that one must be vigilant in consciously guarding one’s own religious identity when one encounters another.

Brian Garcia-Luense is an associate director with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis.