MZ for the win: Before taking shots at the Bible, journalists need to do their homework

Every newspaper that I worked for had several shelves of reference books or an entire library of them, often backed with other pre-Internet reference materials.

In each case, there was large and somewhat intimidating Bible, often placed near a library-sized edition of a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The whole idea (especially in a city like Charlotte, N.C.) was that journalists needed to be able to look up "Bible stuff" when religious people dared to mention religion in public.

That was how it was supposed to work. In reality, people used to swing by my desk and ask about "Bible stuff" and other religious questions. This was, at The Rocky Mountain News, the reason that people gave me a nickname that stuck -- "Monsignor Mattingly."

I would say that nine time out of 10, my newsroom colleagues found out that the Bible didn't actually say what people thought it said, or just as common, what newsroom people thought that it said. I also had to tell them that it was rarely enough to quote one Bible verse, often out of context, and then call it a day. I used to say over and over: The Bible is an adult book and it needs to be treated that way.

This brings me to another example of M.Z. "GetReligionista emerita" Hemingway of The Federalist having a bit of a GetReligion flashback when confronted with one or more examples of mainstream journalists tripping over a fact or two when covering a religious issue. It really sets her off when people mess up when talking about the Bible or Christian doctrines that have been around for 2,000 years or so.


Thus, here is a piece of "Classic MZ," offered as this weekend's think piece. The lesson this time around is a familiar one: If journalists are going to take shots at the Bible, or promote the work of people doing so, it really helps to do some homework (or call up scholars who can provide another point of view on the issue being discussed).

Take it away, Mollie. The headline: "Media Falsely Claim DNA Evidence Refutes Scripture." We pick things up a few linex into the piece:

The past few days have seen a flurry of articles claiming that a new archeological find disputes the scriptural account of the Canaanites. Here’s USA Today, for example:
The Bible claimed that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out according to God’s orders, but a new genetic research study reveals a different story.
As it turns out, the Canaanites survived God’s order, and their DNA lives on in Lebanon, where over 90% of Lebanese derive their ancestry from Canaanites, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics.
The Independent‘s headline for this explosive news was, “Bible says Canaanites were wiped out by Israelites but scientists just found their descendants living in Lebanon.”
The Telegraph was blunt: “Study disproves the Bible’s suggestion that the ancient Canaanites were wiped out.” Science magazine went with, “Ancient DNA counters biblical account of the mysterious Canaanites.” And Cosmos Magazine declared, “DNA vs the Bible: Israelites did not wipe out the Canaanites.”

Of course, it's really important when this kind of report hits the pages of the publication that represents our culture's highest level of doctrinal authority. Thus saith The New York Times.

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago.
‘You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,’ God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.’
But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.

The problem, of course, is that the Bible has plenty of other things to say about the annihilation of the Canaanites. This is one of those cases in which it pays to keep reading.

Yes, MZ notes:

There is a call for their annihilation. The book of Joshua is pretty much about this attempt by the Israelites to vanquish their enemies, the Canaanites. Interestingly, some scholars believe that the Canaanites created the Semitic alphabet, which developed into the Hebrew language.
Anyway, by the end of the very exciting book of Joshua, readers are told that the annihilation of the enemy is not complete. And it’s laid out in more detail in the book of Judges. Judges begins with yet more tales of conquests of the Canaanites. But as a section headline in my Bible states, there was a “failure to complete the conquest.”

We are talking about Judges 1: 27-33. Here is the classic Revised Standard Version translation.

This is long and complicated. Adult books are often like that.

However, Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth Shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; for the Canaanites were determined to dwell in that land.
And it came to pass, when Israel was strong, that they put the Canaanites under tribute, but did not completely drive them out.
Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; so the Canaanites dwelt in Gezer among them.
Nor did Zebulun drive out the inhabitants of Kitron or the inhabitants of Nahalol; so the Canaanites dwelt among them, and were put under tribute.
Nor did Asher drive out the inhabitants of Acco or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob.
So the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.
Nor did Naphtali drive out the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh or the inhabitants of Beth Anath; but they dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land. Nevertheless the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath were put under tribute to them.

The bottom line from Hemingway: "It could not be more clear. Over and over and over again, we’re told that the Canaanites survived."

Read it all.

Honestly, newsroom folks. Get yourself a good reference Bible or two. You can also try calling two or three Bible scholars who are familiar with multiple views of complex texts. Call people from different traditions. You'll find that things get complex. That's good.

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