The One-explanation Syndrome

wisdom traditionIt’s easy and comfortable to live with the “one-explanation syndrome.” Here are some simple illustrations. A broken marriage is explained with the statement: “That happened because the wife had an affair.” A teenager’s jail sentence is explained by: “That happened because the kid got in with the wrong crowd.” A church splits and someone says, “When that church’s pastor resigned, it was all over for that church.”

Such comments are typical, and their language implies that one reason explains what is really a complex event. The marriage failed because of an affair. The church split because the pastor left. The United States went to war in Iraq in 2003 because of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. The great recession of 2007-2008 occurred because of the widespread failures in financial regulation.

Of course we now know that there were many reasons for the great recession and the war about Iraq. And if asked around, you would discover that was true for the church split, the teen’s jail sentence, and the broken marriage. But we like things to be kept simple. We seem to have a natural preference for one explanation. Events, however, are complex. Any one explanation can seem plausible enough, at least for a time, but the wise understand that it takes more than one ingredient to bake a cake or to go to war.

Here, I am trying to get at what we could call “multiple parallel reasons” for an event that are all true. This is a normal way the Bible itself looks at events. So let’s conduct a little thought experiment.

“Why did it take so long for the Israelites to occupy all of the Promised Land?” If you asked that question to most Christians who know the Old Testament, it is quite likely that you would get one, possibly two, scriptural reasons for an answer. Yet the Bible provides no less than five. Four are in Judges; the other in Deuteronomy. Fascinating for their sheer variety, one does wonder how they can all be true at once.

The first reason (Judges 1:19): they did not have sufficient armament. This explanation is very straightforward: although the Lord was with the men of Judah, and although they took possession of the hill country, they were unable to drive the people from the plains because they had iron chariots. This is a technological reason concerning the military and the armament. In the plains, the iron chariots would be free to attack en masse and to maneuver adequately. Israelite infantry might be able to evade them, but it could never keep rank in the face of a chariot attack or mount an effective counterattack afterward.

The chariots were made of iron rather than of wood, which made them formidable armament. The Israelites were late on the scene with iron technology. They had not mastered it even in Samuel’s time, which was one reason why the Philistines were so much trouble to them. Even as late as the time of Elisha, the loss of an ax head was a serious matter. So, although there may have been occasions when God intervened in battle, in terms of military technology alone the Israelites had no chance of competing with the Canaanites. Scripture recognizes this.

The second reason (Judges 1:28–2:3): Israelite treaty arrangements with their enemies. In the remainder of Judges chapter 1, it is clear that the peoples whom Israel did defeat were taken into their social order, albeit as slaves. As a consequence, treaty arrangements were taboo at this time of Israel’s history. Israel had been warned that if it entered into treaties even with its defeated enemies, the gods of those enemies would be a snare to Israel. This is the backdrop to the second reason, which today we might call a sociological one. History is full of examples of how a subject people have eventually radically modified the lifestyle and values of their conquerors, from the Greeks of the Roman Empire to the black slaves in North America.

choicesLike technology, the societal aspect of life is taken seriously by Scripture. The book of Proverbs, for example, concerns itself extensively with societal life. In the New Testament, the same concerns are recognized. “Don’t be misled,” says Paul, “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33; see also 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). First Peter, which seems to be a sort of follow-up letter for new converts, has some fascinating insights into the societal interaction between the Christian and the world outside (2:11-12; 3:3-4; 4:2-11). So in Judges, the judgment pronounced by the Angel of the Lord was not against Israel’s disobedience to some arbitrary divine ruling. It was explicitly stated to be based upon Israel’s failures to follow principles of social interaction that had been set down for it.

The third reason (Judges 2:22–3:5): to teach battle experience. This reason is peculiar on the face of it. It argues that the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanite nations, so the Lord did not drive them out either in order that the Israelites would learn how to fight them. But if the Lord had driven them out, they would not have needed to learn! Of course there is more to it than that. This reason belongs to what we might call educational psychology.

Apparently, Israel’s morale was degenerating into that of the loser, perhaps because the Israelites’ compromises with the indigenous peoples affected their social and religious life, with their will to fight being undermined in the process. The determined attitude needed for struggle and resistance was being lost and had to be relearned. If at that point God had given them the whole land by a succession of miracles, they would not have appreciated it enough to make good use of the resultant peace. Further, for the next three centuries the land was under threat from invasion, and Israel, in a continued state of loss of morale, would have been thoroughly defeated. They could not have survived in such a state except by a succession of miracles, which in the nature of the case would have to be unending. In other words, a serious motivational problem had to be addressed.

This is not an isolated biblical example of this reason. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the desert, not only as a punishment but also to learn obedience through testing, to toughen them up for the rigors of invading Palestine. In the same way, the Exile, centuries later, had an educative significance. In the New Testament, the educative ideas of training and learning become dominant notions in the word “discipleship.” Learning, of whatever kind, has its own principles of operation. One such principle is the necessity of controlled experience: testing. People learn by being exposed to situations in which they may discover the limitations of their skill without the results being too irrevocably disastrous.

The fourth reason (Judges 3:7): the failure of faith. That “the Israelites did not trust the Lord” is of course the most frequently cited explanation Christians give for the Israelites failure to occupy all the Promise Land immediately (see also: Judges 10:10, 13). But it was not a failure of faith in the miraculous. After all, immediately after the Israelites in the desert had accepted the discouraging report of the ten spies, but then realized that they were losing their chance of conquest, they went ahead and attacked the Amalekites and Canaanites anyway. Clearly they were expecting divine help. The unbelief, the lack of faith, went deeper than that. This is a religious reason.

wisdomThere was a shift of religious loyalties, a hankering after other gods. This occurred frequently throughout the history of ancient Israel, and the insidious thing about it was that it was often disguised as a worship of the Lord while having the kind of devotion that was only appropriate for a heathen god. One God for the Temple or synagogue, another for daily life. That shift of religious loyalties resulted in a shift of commitment to a different kind of law, for different gods have different laws.

The Persians, for example, reckoned that their only hope of bringing down Daniel was concerning the law of his God (Daniel 6:5). Other gods, they knew, had other laws. Queen Jezebel also knew this. Her politics, based on the “fear of Baal,” entailed different kinds of property laws than those of Israel, which were based on “the far of the Lord.” This is why Jezebel cannot understand why her husband, the Israelite’s King Ahab, doesn’t just take Naboth’s vineyard for himself after Naboth refuses to sell it to the king (1 Kings 21). Religous loyalties  and their consequences are taken seriously by Scripture.

The fifth reason (Deuteronomy 7:22): to preserve the balance of nature. The overall picture so far is of an initial military failure through lack of heavy armament alongside treaty  arrangements that resulted in integration and intermarriage with consequent loss or weakening of religious loyalty to the Lord and a community at times characterized by a lack of fighting morale.

All of those reason, then, can be more or less harmonized as a pattern of causes and effects in which the operation of some may bring others into play. But this fifth reason (see also: Exodus 23:29–30) is a quite different animal. It is an ecological reason. As such, and this may be its most distinctive feature, it is not concerned just with the specific needs of the Israelites.

If the conquest were too rapidly decisive – if, in fact, the Israelites had been fully obedient to the Lord! – then there would have been more territory under their control than they had manpower to deal with, and the ecological balance of man, plant, and beast would have been upset to the detriment of all the inhabitants. (This is a typical concern of Deuteronomy.)

The writer does not envisage any miracles coming to deal with it. On the face of it, this explanation does not seem to fit in with the others. The chain of causes and effects that the others are working with does not seem to apply here. In fact, this one seems contradictory to them. Nevertheless, it fits with the others within a biblical way of seeing life and interpreting events.

So, why did the Israelites not occupy all the Promised Land immediately? How can all five explanations be true? This is a way in which the Bible thinks about life. It is part of its wisdom. As we get to grips with it, we will gain more wisdom about how the world works and what is behind the events that we so often want to simplify.

©2015 by Charles Strohmer

(An extended treatment of “multiple parallel explanations” can be found in chapters 11-13 of Uncommon Sense: God’s Wisdom for Our Complex and Changing World, by John Peck and Charles Strohmer.)

Center image by Lauren MacDonald (permission via Creative Commons)

3 thoughts on “The One-explanation Syndrome

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s