Tag Archives: Genocide

Deuteronomy 25: Punishment, Justice, and the Enemy

Deuteronomy 25: 1-3 The Limit of Punishment

1 Suppose two persons have a dispute and enter into litigation, and the judges decide between them, declaring one to be in the right and the other to be in the wrong. 2 If the one in the wrong deserves to be flogged, the judge shall make that person lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of lashes proportionate to the offense. 3 Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.

Deuteronomy believes in a harsh justice but it also sets limits on the execution of justice or revenge. This is one of those places where the dignity and reputation of the neighbor limit the maximum punishment of lashes the neighbor can receive as forty. The action takes place in the sight of the judge who orders the proportionate punishment so that the dignity of the offender is preserved. Although we may live in a society that has trouble with this type of corporal punishment, this is a relatively new thing in our society. The idea of submitting oneself to the measured discipline of the community seems to be an expectation for being a part of the society of Israel. The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:24 can claim that five times he received the punishment of forty lashes minus one in addition to the other punishment he lists, and this is one of the many indications that Paul saw himself remaining as a part of the Jewish community since he submitted to the discipline.

In our own society we have become very litigious and often use fines or imprisonment as a means of discipline. Yet, when it comes to these fines and imprisonments which can often be excessive for certain crimes (particularly drug related offenses with harsh minimum sentences) in addition to the shame that comes with a criminal record we may want to relook at the idea of punishment that does not permanently diminish our neighbor in our eyes. Are judges enabled to give punishments that are proportional to the offense or are they bound by laws that are harsh allowing the guilty not chance at a non-degraded standing within society. These are difficult issues, but they are the type of big questions of a society that the book of Deuteronomy deals with.

Deuteronomy 25: 4 Care for the Working Animals

4 You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.

This is an acknowledgment that the working animals are not machines to be driven mercilessly, but even in small ways the lost grain that an ox eats while treading the grain is a part of its due. It is one of the windows into a worldview where animals and plants (see Deuteronomy 20 on trees in war for example) are given some protection as well. They all are a part of the creation of the LORD and are entitled to the benefits of striving with humanity to carve a living from the earth. Paul references this section in 1 Corinthians 9:9 in his discussion of his authority and that he could ask for a material benefit for his work among the Corinthians even though he states he made no use of those rights. 1 Timothy 5: 17-18 also uses this line of argument for the supporting of elders.

Deuteronomy 25: 5-10 Levirate Marriage

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

Francesco Hayez, A Portrait of a Woman as Ruth (1853)

 5 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6 and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” 8 Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” 10 Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”

 This passage enters into the narrative of Israel in both the story of Tamar in Genesis 38 as well as the book of Ruth. Deuteronomy is written in an intensely patriarchal world where barrenness is a crisis because it threatens the perpetuation of the family’s name. Women were honored in their role as bearers of children and in their role in allowing for the continuance of the line. The idea of Levirate marriage is foreign to our time, where the idea of marrying the wife of a deceased brother seems out of place. Yet, in the world of Deuteronomy it is an expectation and an obligation. The brother is to ensure that there is an heir to inherit the deceased’s land and title. This also provided protection for the widow for she both has a family she is brought into and with the birth of an heir there is the promise that she will be provided for once her son inherits. In the ancient world, where no government safety net exists, children were the security of their parents in their old age. Even in the ten commandments this concern is addressed in the command to honor the father and the mother (Deuteronomy 5: 16).

In the story of Tamar, who gets herself pregnant by Judah when he denies her his youngest son, is a fascinating short story of a woman who boldly claims her rights to protection and inheritance however she needs to. As Judah can acknowledge at the end of the story, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” (Genesis 38: 26) In the book of Ruth this passage serves as the law behind the meeting of Boaz and the unnamed next-of-kin where the issues of inheritance and marriage are tied together. The kinsman acknowledges that he cannot redeem the property, and marry Ruth with the property passing to her children, and so the ‘right’ passes to Boaz. It is uncertain how deep of a shaming was associated with the unwillingness or inability to care for the needs of a widow, as Deanna Thompson states, “This public shaming would give this family the reputation of not providing for its widows, thus making it more difficult for the family to contract marriages for their sons.” (Thompson, 2014, p. 183)

Deuteronomy 25:11 An Unfair Fight

  11 If men get into a fight with one another, and the wife of one intervenes to rescue her husband from the grip of his opponent by reaching out and seizing his genitals, 12 you shall cut off her hand; show no pity.

Deuteronomy is written from a male dominant perspective and to the author of Deuteronomy the idea of a woman ‘sexually shaming’ a man in public (Thompson, 2014, p. 184). The genitals of another man which are exposed and could potentially put the man and the woman on an equal footing are to be off limits in a fight. As we saw in Deuteronomy 23: 1-8 the damaging of the testicles or penis is enough to make a man no longer a man in the eyes of the assembly. For men sexual generativity is on par with sight and limbs and the punishment listed of mutilation is only prescribed for one other event (in Exodus 21: 22-25) where a man injures a woman and causes her to miscarry. The husband may demand whatever punishment he sees fit in that case. Martin Luther addresses this broadly with the maxim, “Evil should not be done that good may come of it.” (Luther, 1960 (1525), p. 9:249) where he talks about the woman wanting to do good on behalf of her husband and yet doing it in a ‘cowardly’ way.

Again this brings up issues centered around women’s rights compared to men’s rights and the rights of self-defense. There are times I am convinced we are more concerned with protecting men than women, and while we might want to protect the vulnerable areas of both men and women how do we also ensure that women are given the ability and permission to protect themselves in an unfair fight and do we accuse that woman of sexually shaming the man or simply attempting to protect herself or her family?

 Deuteronomy 25: 13-16 Fair and Just Weights and Measures

 13 You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. 15 You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the LORD your God.

Justice is a critical part of the people’s life within the land. There will always be the temptation to make a business deal work to one’s advantage and if one can skew measurements and weights in one’s favor one can cheat one’s neighbor out of their fair share. This type of injustice is another of the things that obtain the stronger disapproval of being abhorrent to the LORD. Economic injustices would be a common cry of the prophets for example in Amos 8: 5-6: saying, “When will the new moon be over so we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.

In a barter economy where grain and oil are traded it is easy to think of concrete ways where this type of imbalance could be used to create economic advantages and disadvantages. Yet, in our world sometimes the examples are a little harder to see. When a company uses an inferior material that produces an item that wears out quickly, or a corporation delays in repairing a safety concern because it is cheaper to allow the improper item to remain in use, or when practices are used that harm the land and environment and then others have to bear the cost of cleaning up the land. In our days, as in the ancient times, acting dishonestly and can affect how long our days are in our own land. With the crisis with the water supply in Flint, Michigan we can see the cost when individuals and a government are not honest in their measurements and allow things to become unsafe for their society.

Deuteronomy 25: 17-19 The Amalekites

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

John Everett Millais (1829-1896), Victory O Lord!

 17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey out of Egypt, 18 how he attacked you on the way, when you were faint and weary, and struck down all who lagged behind you; he did not fear God. 19 Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies on every hand, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; do not forget.

The warrior God re-emerges here at the end of chapter 25 and demands revenge upon the Amalekites. In Exodus 17: 8-16 we hear the story of the conflict between the people of Israel, shortly after their emergence from Egypt, and Amalek. In the story Moses holds up his staff and the people prevail, but as Moses’ arms become tired the people falter, so Aaron and Hur hold up his hands and the battle is won. As Exodus states:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a reminder in a book and recite it in the hearing of Joshua: I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.” And Moses built an altar and called it, the LORD is my banner, He said, “A hand upon the banner of the LORD! The LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation.” Exodus 17: 14-16

The Amalekites become the enemy memorialized in a slogan, much as ‘Remember the Alamo’ or ‘Remember Pearl Harbor’ allowed for Texans or Americans to call to mind an earlier attack of an enemy. The people are to never forget this action and to never again allow it to happen. This memory sets the stage for a contentious history between the peoples and the people of Amalek enter the story of Israel again in the curses of Balaam in Numbers 24: 20, “First among the nations was Amalek, but its end is to perish forever,” in 1 Samuel 15 where King Saul defeats the Amalekites but leaves King Agag alive (disobeying the LORD) and probably in Esther 3:1 where Haman the Agagite is thought to be a descendent of Agag and the hatred between the remnant of Israel and the remnant of Amalek continues to burn.

We have seen many instances in history where ancient feuds emerge in surprising ways leading to acts of extreme violence and genocide. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu can state, “there is no future without forgiveness.” I talk more about this in the related passage of Deuteronomy 20 (or in the passages at the end of Esther, Esther 9:1-10 and 11-19). I spend more addressing the way passages like this would have been heard in the ancient world and how we talk about them today and don’t need to rearticulate them at this point. Deuteronomy is not a text that is always comfortable for us and passages like this where the people are commanded to blot out another people are passages we will have to struggle against if we are to embrace Christ’s call to love our enemies. In a time where many people want to use ‘Never forget’ in relation to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, we may also be condemning ourselves to a long history of warfare and hatred unless we can learn to remember rightly where the past violence does not define the totality of our future. I speak more about this idea of remembering rightly, influenced heavily by Miroslav Volf’s book The End of Memory here.

Deuteronomy 7 A People Set Apart

Gustave Dore, The Midianites Are Routed (1866)

Gustave Dore, The Midianites Are Routed (1866)

Deuteronomy 7: 1-6: The Command to Destroy

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you– the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations mightier and more numerous than you– 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you and you defeat them, then you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But this is how you must deal with them: break down their altars, smash their pillars, hew down their sacred poles, and burn their idols with fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

In Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods, there is a scene where the main character, Shadow, enters an endless room of forgotten gods. This uncountable number of gods’ followers have vanished from the earth and they have vanished as well, passed away from the memory of time or history. The desire of this and other passages in Deuteronomy desire that the gods of these other nations would also be destroyed and wiped away from the memory of the peoples and the remembrances of time. This is a difficult passage for it calls for a divinely authorized extermination of other peoples and cultures. The word behind you must utterly destroy is the Hebrew word herem and sensitive interpreters should feel uncomfortable with this commands for the genocide of these other nations. It stands in contrast even within Deuteronomy for the mercy they are to show to the alien in their midst with the contrast that they are to show no mercy. This is a part of our scriptures and it, like many other passages, are something we should engage and wrestle with as we come to determine how we will use this and other passages in Deuteronomy and throughout the bible.

As a Lutheran pastor I try to follow a hermeneutic that is similar to Luther’s in what I do. Luther’s hermeneutic views the bible through the lens of Was Christum treibut (what pushes Christ) (Wengert, 2013, p. 5) and while I will use many lenses when trying to interpret scripture when it comes to authority, as a Christian and particularly as a Lutheran Christian, it is this coherence to the revelation of God in Jesus that forms the canon within the canon for my interpretation. So the command in Deuteronomy to utterly destroy cannot command a greater authority for me to ‘love my enemies and to pray for those who persecute me.’ (Matthew 5.43 paraphrased) Yet, too frequently Christians have been all too willing to enter into wars or campaigns to wipe out other religions, in particular our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters, as well as other groups of Christians.

Another point in this passage is it demonstrates two among the possible responses of a group of people encountering a religiously pluralistic world. One response it to eliminate that religious pluralism by force, to wipe out the other peoples and gods to provide a place where everybody can believe and practice in the same manner. This has been a response at innumerable places and times throughout history.  In our world it may be difficult for modern people to understand when we see the world very differently than those who viewed the outsider as a contamination of the purity of their worship and group and therefore a threat to their holiness. However, we still see religiously and secularly motivated attempts at genocide happen in our time as well. The second option is to pull away from the surrounding society, and that option is also demonstrated in this passage when they are commanded not to intermarry. This is still an option that many religious groups undertake in our society today. Yet for most people of faith destruction or isolation are not options in their pluralistic world and so they have to find a way to live distinctively in the midst of the surrounding culture.

Deuteronomy 7: 7-11: The Divine Choice

7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the LORD set his heart on you and chose you– for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 It was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who maintains covenant loyalty with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and who repays in their own person those who reject him. He does not delay but repays in their own person those who reject him. 11 Therefore, observe diligently the commandment– the statutes, and the ordinances– that I am commanding you today.

The God of the Bible is an active, passionate, and uncontrollable God. In contrast to many modern conception of God where the divine is passive and uninvolved in the lives and concerns of the world, the biblical picture of God is of one who takes sides, chooses one people over another, involves Godself in the movement of empires and the lives of individual people. This God has chosen the people of Israel and they now live in the gift and challenge of that choice. God saw their oppression and their weakness and chose to act on their behalf and because of God’s hearing and acting they are now constituted as God’s people. This love of God is something that God refuses to give up on. For example the prophet Hosea can record:

How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am a God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. Hosea 11.8f.

Those who have read my work on Jeremiah know that I approach the book of Jeremiah from the perspective of a wounded God who is mourning the broken relationship between God and God’s people. Perhaps a disengaged god is easier to manage, or a god who dispassionately answers prayers but this is not the God of Israel, the LORD presented in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. This choice of God also involves commitment from Israel, to be chosen is to be held to a different standard, to be called to be a distinctive gift to the rest of the world. The people of Israel and the people of the Church will both fail in this calling, and yet the persistent calling of God remains.

Deuteronomy 7: 12-16: No Need for the Fertility Gods of the Surrounding Lands

                12 If you heed these ordinances, by diligently observing them, the LORD your God will maintain with you the covenant loyalty that he swore to your ancestors; 13 he will love you, bless you, and multiply you; he will bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock, in the land that he swore to your ancestors to give you. 14 You shall be the most blessed of peoples, with neither sterility nor barrenness among you or your livestock. 15 The LORD will turn away from you every illness; all the dread diseases of Egypt that you experienced, he will not inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. 16 You shall devour all the peoples that the LORD your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

In the worldview of the Deuteronomist where obedience to the LORD of Israel and blessings are directly correlated there is no need for any other gods. The LORD is promising to provide for the people fertility in their homes, flocks and fields, freedom from illness and all the blessings they need to be an abundant people. This is an exclusive covenant that the people have been offered and the continual fear of the Deuteronomist is that the people will be led astray by the people of the land to follow these other gods. On the positive side this is concerned with passing on the faith and the story of the way their LORD has been active on their behalf from generation to generation. Yet in the midst of the continual return to this theme there seems to be an underlying fear of the loss of their children or their children’s children to these other seductive faiths.

The loss of the children to the faith is a fear that is present in most religious bodies, certainly in the United States with the changes in the broader culture there has been a lot of concern about the decline of Christianity in the United States. Recently the Pew Research Center released a study where the number of people who are unaffiliated is now larger than both Catholics and mainline Protestants and the number of unaffiliated is growing rapidly while all major groups of Christians show decline (report at: http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/). I know a lot of congregations are dealing with the anxiety that their children or their grandchildren are no longer active parts of their congregation or any congregation. Perhaps in our own time and situation of digital pluralism the biggest concern of the faithful is no longer other religions but rather other competing ideals. In a world of almost infinite options for how time can be utilized and the expectation that people of all ages will be involved in a wide array of activities from sports to work to politics to entertainment or shopping. Although the struggle of the people of Israel entering into the promised land and encountering other people with new sets of beliefs and practices was challenging and different than our time, there is always the allure of these alternative images which are seen in the street, schools and marketplace. In every generation the congregation of the faithful has to wrestle with how they will remain faithful in their time and pass on the faith to the next generation to enable them for their own journey in their own time.

Deuteronomy 7: 17-26: Do Not Fear and Do Not Covet

 17 If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” 18 do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the LORD your God brought you out. The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. 20 Moreover, the LORD your God will send the pestilence against them, until even the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed. 21 Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. 22 The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. 23 But the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. 24 He will hand their kings over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. 25 The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God. 26 Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction.

As the narrative continues to prepare the people for their entry into the promised land and the beginning of the leadership of Joshua where the people will enter the promised land. These words above resonate with one of the recurring themes of Joshua that can be seen, among many other places in Joshua, in Joshua 1: 9

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD God is with you wherever you go.

Through Moses the people are reminded of the way God has acted for them in the past: that they were a people who were rescued from the superpower of their day and who the LORD has sustained throughout their journey. If the LORD can handle Egypt, the LORD can handle these nations that are before them. They are not to fear these nations for they will be slowly driven out before the Israelites but they are also not to covet what they have. The lure of the silver and gold the nations have committed is to be dedicated to destruction. They are not to take an idol and value it for its components, instead they are to destroy it rather than risk the wrath of their LORD. They are not to try to secure their own wealth and prosperity in the land but rather their relationship is one where they are dependent on their LORD to provide their prosperity and blessing. They are to resist the materialistic urge to procure their own security through the captured wealth of these nations but rather they are to rely upon the abundance of the blessings the will receive in this land flowing with milk and honey from their LORD who brought them into the land.

Deuteronomy 2: The Warrior God

 Deuteronomy 2: 1-25 ‘Here There Once Were Giants’

(After you has stayed at Kadesh as many days as you did) we journeyed back into the wilderness, in the direction of the Red Sea, as the LORD had told me and skirted Mount Seir for many days. 2 Then the LORD said to me: 3 “You have been skirting this hill country long enough. Head north, 4 and charge the people as follows: You are about to pass through the territory of your kindred, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, so, be very careful 5 not to engage in battle with them, for I will not give you even so much as a foot’s length of their land, since I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6 You shall purchase food from them for money, so that you may eat; and you shall also buy water from them for money, so that you may drink. 7 Surely the LORD your God has blessed you in all your undertakings; he knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the LORD your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing.” 8 So we passed by our kin, the descendants of Esau who live in Seir, leaving behind the route of the Arabah, and leaving behind Elath and Ezion-geber.

When we had headed out along the route of the wilderness of Moab, 9 the LORD said to me: “Do not harass Moab or engage them in battle, for I will not give you any of its land as a possession, since I have given Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot.” 10 (The Emim– a large and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim– had formerly inhabited it. 11 Like the Anakim, they are usually reckoned as Rephaim, though the Moabites call them Emim. 12 Moreover, the Horim had formerly inhabited Seir, but the descendants of Esau dispossessed them, destroying them and settling in their place, as Israel has done in the land that the LORD gave them as a possession.) 13 “Now then, proceed to cross over the Wadi Zered.”

So we crossed over the Wadi Zered. 14 And the length of time we had traveled from Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the Wadi Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation of warriors had perished from the camp, as the LORD had sworn concerning them. 15 Indeed, the LORD’s own hand was against them, to root them out from the camp, until all had perished.

16 Just as soon as all the warriors had died off from among the people, 17 the LORD spoke to me, saying, 18 “Today you are going to cross the boundary of Moab at Ar. 19 When you approach the frontier of the Ammonites, do not harass them or engage them in battle, for I will not give the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession, because I have given it to the descendants of Lot.” 20 (It also is usually reckoned as a land of Rephaim. Rephaim formerly inhabited it, though the Ammonites call them Zamzummim, 21 a strong and numerous people, as tall as the Anakim. But the LORD destroyed them from before the Ammonites so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place. 22 He did the same for the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir, by destroying the Horim before them so that they could dispossess them and settle in their place even to this day.23 As for the Avvim, who had lived in settlements in the vicinity of Gaza, the Caphtorim, who came from Caphtor, destroyed them and settled in their place.) 24 “Proceed on your journey and cross the Wadi Arnon. See, I have handed over to you King Sihon the Amorite of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to take possession by engaging him in battle. 25 This day I will begin to put the dread and fear of you upon the peoples everywhere under heaven; when they hear report of you, they will tremble and be in anguish because of you.”

Sometimes when people ask me, “What does the bible say about this?” they assume that the Bible only speaks with one voice or has one answer and as a pastor I have to be sensitive to the situation the person is asking from how I answer the question. If the person is at a safe place where they can deal with the dialogue and variety of perspectives that emerge from the sixty six books collected together to form the Bible that many Christians use (Catholics and Orthodox would also include some additional books like Baruch, Wisdom of Solomon, 1&2 Maccabees and others as a part of their cannon) and I typically can do this in a way that allows the person to enter the questions of the people of God and their interaction with God. There are times of trauma and crisis where a person needs an immediate and certain answer to hold on to. Whether Deuteronomy emerges from its narrative context, where Moses is addressing the people of Israel prior to entering Israel, or as many scholars believe the trauma of the Babylonian exile, where all the things that once defined them have been taken away, it speaks from this need of an immediate and certain answer. For the author of Deuteronomy there are some bedrock truths that they want their readers in a situation of crisis to understand: God has been faithful, God is powerful and will act on their behalf and their previous defeats prior to entering the promised land were due to the unfaithfulness of their ancestors. There is strength and there is danger to this level of certainty and I will deal with the danger and the need for the broader perspective of scripture in the second half of this chapter.

Map Showing the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 9th Century BCE

Map Showing the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 9th Century BCE

The narrative that Deuteronomy leads us into has the people journeying peacefully through the lands of Seir, Moab and the Ammonites. Rather than approaching from the south as was done in chapter one the people move through these lands peacefully to approach from the east. There are a few really interesting things that the narrative highlights and the first is that there are other people who have land that has been given to them by the LORD. The descendants of Lot, who are distant kin according to Genesis; Esau, who are closer kin according to Genesis, both have land that has been entrusted to their heirs and even though these descendants of Lot and Esau presumably do not know the LORD, the LORD has enabled them to overcome whatever prevented them from coming into possession of the land. A new player is also introduced into the narrative, the Caphtorim who come from Caphtor, who are not mentioned in Genesis as having any link with the Hebrew people, instead they will become the Philistines who will factor into the later story of Israel, but as the prophet Amos will later state they too have a place given by the LORD:

                Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? Says the LORD.
                Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor
                And the Arameans from Kir? Amos 9:7

And in the midst of the fear the people on this journey must be facing, Moses in the narrative reassures them over and over again that the LORD is not merely their tribal God but something much more. The LORD was able to bring them out of Egypt and settle all of these people because their LORD is a God above all gods.

The other side of this is that the narrative also lets us know that Israel is not the only people that the LORD is concerned with. As Walter Brueggemann says, “there are other communities on the horizon of YHWH’s specific beneficence. Israel’s entitlement gives it no permit to disrupt the entitlement of another people by YHWH.” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 35f) This beneficence may or may not have been well received, but in the narrative the people journey onward peacefully through these lands. For the time being the most important thing is not their approval or disapproval but their obedience.

In the midst of this journey they have been provided with everything they have needed. They have the resources to pay for food and water for this part of their journey. They were able to barter for what they would need because, as throughout their sojourn in the wilderness, the LORD had provided for them. Another aspect of the LORD’s control in this narrative is the disposition of the people towards Israel. They are afraid and it is the LORD that has made them afraid but it is a fear that allows them to pass through the land without resistance rather than a fear that resorts to fighting and conflict. They walk through the lands of these former giant slayers and the giant slayers are afraid of them.

In Deuteronomy 1 their ancestor’s confidence failed when there were rumors of giants in the land.

The people are stronger and taller than we; the cities are large and fortified up to heaven! We actually saw there the offspring of the Anakim!” Deuteronomy 1. 28

The route prior to entering the conflict in the land leads them through the lands that were once possessed by related groups of giant people who were numerous but are no more. There were once giants here but the LORD worked with these other peoples to drive them out and if the LORD protected them, how much more will he protect the people who have this specific covenant with the God who took them out of Egypt, through the wilderness and now again to the precipice of the promised land. The narrative has done everything it can to build confidence and trust among the people as they prepare for the conflict ahead.

 

Deuteronomy 2: 26-37 The Defeat Of King Sihon And The Slaughter Of The People Of The Land

26 So I sent messengers from the wilderness of Kedemoth to King Sihon of Heshbon with the following terms of peace: 27 “If you let me pass through your land, I will travel only along the road; I will turn aside neither to the right nor to the left. 28 You shall sell me food for money, so that I may eat, and supply me water for money, so that I may drink. Only allow me to pass through on foot– 29 just as the descendants of Esau who live in Seir have done for me and likewise the Moabites who live in Ar– until I cross the Jordan into the land that the LORD our God is giving us.” 30 But King Sihon of Heshbon was not willing to let us pass through, for the LORD your God had hardened his spirit and made his heart defiant in order to hand him over to you, as he has now done.

31 The LORD said to me, “See, I have begun to give Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to take possession of his land.” 32 So when Sihon came out against us, he and all his people for battle at Jahaz, 33 the LORD our God gave him over to us; and we struck him down, along with his offspring and all his people. 34 At that time we captured all his towns, and in each town we utterly destroyed men, women, and children. We left not a single survivor. 35 Only the livestock we kept as spoil for ourselves, as well as the plunder of the towns that we had captured. 36 From Aroer on the edge of the Wadi Arnon (including the town that is in the wadi itself) as far as Gilead, there was no citadel too high for us. The LORD our God gave everything to us. 37 You did not encroach, however, on the land of the Ammonites, avoiding the whole upper region of the Wadi Jabbok as well as the towns of the hill country, just as the LORD our God had charged.

One of the earliest heresies the early Christian church has to deal with was the followers of Marcion (more on Marcion and some of the early heresies of the church here) who could not reconcile the warrior God presented here and in many other places throughout the scriptures with the God he had come to know in Jesus Christ. Marcion approached the scriptures from a Greek perspective and wanted everything to line up systematically and give us easy answers. There can be great strength in a unified vision and a common cause but we also know all too well the dangers of such absolutism. This is a passage that will offend and I think should offend us and make us ask questions and go back to the scriptures and the dialogue they present and many other passages as we discern what God’s calling is for us at any given time. There are many places in the Old Testament where God seems to call for genocide and this is one. There are also many times where Christians have felt justified in their attempts to wipe out another people or persecute them because of a different religion or a different culture. I wrestled with this question much earlier when I was going through the book of Esther here.

We have the scriptures we have and as uncomfortable as this passage may be it is a part of our scriptures and our stories. I would rather wrestle with what is uncomfortable than ignore it. The image of the warrior God can be a great source of strength for people who are oppressed. Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress’ comes out of this picture of God and it is not a coincidence that the narrative that many of the preachers of the civil rights movement went back to was the people of Israel being led by the warrior God out of Egypt and to the promised land. I served for five years as a soldier prior to beginning my training for ministry and we live in a different time but the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan opened our eyes again to the challenge of close warfare. In contrast with the conflict in 1991 where it was a maneuver war fought primarily with airpower and artillery and armored vehicles firing at long range, in both Iraq and Afghanistan this long term conflict involved infantry and non-uniformed combatants in close quarters with urban populations. This is a type of conflict that quickly becomes ugly and distasteful, there is no glory in this type of war and many of the technological advantages become neutralized. I think if nothing else these conflicts have reminded us that war is an ugly, brutal and costly thing in lives and longer term psychological damage. The experiences of the Holocaust, Bosnia, and Rwanda have reminded us of what genocide looks like. We come to passages like this where the people strike down men, women and children leaving no survivors and it makes us wonder why, and that is a question we cannot answer satisfactorily.

I also worry about inscribing our values on the lives and times of ancient peoples. As I have told my congregation many times, “we are offended by the violence of ISIS when they behead people, but we need to understand that in the ancient world beheading was an honorable death. We should be horrified by it now, but it also reflects where our world has come.” The ancient world was a brutal place and the scriptures are a part of that world and will reflect that world. The God of Israel is a loving God but not a controllable one. Perhaps a line from the chronicles of Narnia fits here, when Lucy is wondering about Aslan she asks if he is safe, and the response is ‘Safe! He is a lion, of course he is not safe, but he is good.’ And perhaps that may be all the resolution we can come to as we approach the LORD as presented throughout the Exodus narrative. The LORD is good and passionate and hears the people but they never mistake the LORD is safe and perhaps as we go through the narrative we need this side of the LORD’s presence which complements our too easy accommodation to a God who is safe and doesn’t intervene in our world.

Approaching the scriptures is not easy. To hold together the God who hardened the heart of King Sihon , like Pharoah, and prevented peace here with what St. Paul labels God as the God of peace (Romans 15.33) is challenging and some would say impossible. Others will need to come up with systems to contain what God is like, but the God of scriptures always challenges any easy answers. This is a part of the mystery of faith and the journey of faith that we make with God. There will be times where we understand and times where we don’t but as a part of the people of this story and the story of the cross I pray for the wisdom to pray for both the people of Israel and the people of Sihon, to love my neighbor and my enemy. This is one of the many images of God that I have come to know, but for me it is not the dominant one.

Forgiveness in a Graceless World-A Sermon

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot's Church Melbourne

Depiction of the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Scot’s Church Melbourne

Ernest Hemmingway tells in one of his short stories called “The Capital of the World” an episode about forgiveness which goes like this:

Madrid is full of boys named Paco, which is the diminutive form of Francisco, and there is a Madrid joke about a father who came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: PACO MEET ME AT HOTEL MONTANA NOON TUESDAY ALL IS FORGIVEN PAPA and how a squadron of Guardia Civil had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.

Now the joke is all about the ubiquity of the name Paco in Spain, but it also expresses a deep seeded truth that I think many of us can relate to about our desire for forgiveness to be received. For I think we all have those times where we wish we could change an action that hurt someone in the past, or to be able to take back the words that we said. We wish those words could be like the cartoon bubbles that we could pull back into our mouth to where they were never uttered in the first place. SFC Rubley who was my platoon sergeant while I was a platoon leader in the army used to talk about wanting to be able to lasso the words and say come back. But there is no bringing them back, there is no undoing the past, there is no way to go back and take back the words that were said or put in words that needed to be said. And the reality is that there is truly no future without forgiveness, there is no way forward without a new start. In fact, while forgiveness is one of the hardest things we are called upon as followers of Christ to do it is also at the very heart of our faith. It is right up there with loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and loving your neighbor as yourself, in fact it is necessary for both of these for there is no way to love one’s neighbor without forgiveness. We might think that the world of the bible it might be easier to live into forgiveness, but that would be mistaken for you see the bible is written in the same world that we live in. The Old and New Testaments are full of stories of brokenness, unreconciled differences, and woundedness. Even very early in Genesis (Genesis 4) we encounter the story of Lamech which is the opposite of forgiveness, “I have killed a man who attacked me, a young man who wounded me. If someone who kills Cain is punished seven times, then the one who kills me will be punished seventy-seven times!” Or the very first family we follow for a long journey in Genesis, Abraham and Sarah or Abram and Sarai as they start out, is a story of brokenness-yet we don’t often think of it that way. God’s promised child had been a long time in coming and Sarai says to Abram ‘we’re not getting any younger, why don’t you sleep with my servant Hagar and have a child through her and that can be the child we have been waiting for.’ And so Abram does and Ishmael is born, and yet later-after God has changed their names to Abraham and Sarah and the promised child Isaac is born there is no longer, at least in Sarah’s view, anyplace in the household for Ishmael and Hagar and the image is from a sculpture of Abraham saying goodbye to Ishmael, Hagar is facing away and Sarah is watching from behind the rock to ensure this son of Abraham from Hagar will be sent away. Ishmael will never return until both Sarah and Abraham are dead and only then will Isaac and Ishmael be reunited to mourn the death of their common father. But just because the people that God works through in the bible don’t live out God’s vision of forgiveness-that doesn’t mean that is who God is.

Abraham_thumb

As Psalm 103 says:

6 The LORD gives righteousness and justice to all who are treated unfairly.

 7 He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.

 8 The LORD is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love.

 9 He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.

 10 He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.

 11 For his unfailing love toward those who fear him is as great as the height of the heavens above the earth.

 12 He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

 13 The LORD is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him.

 14 For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.

The God who removes our sins as far as the east is from the west, who doesn’t remember them anymore and who is tender and compassionate as a father is to his children. This is the God that the bible points to again and again and again and yet it is so easy to try to transform God into something different, something less gracious and more judgmental. One of the things I find interesting is that there are a number of Christian theologies out there that try to understand God as somehow bound to a system of rules and laws that God must act in accordance with- and if anything the bible contrast God against the rulers of the nations around them that are like that.

Unlike King Xerxes in the book of Esther, who while he is drunk summons his wife Vashti to appear before him, a summons which Vasti refuses, and so he passes an edict that she shall never again appear before him. Then he wakes up the next day realizing what he has done, but it is now a law and he cannot break it-God is not like that. Unlike King Darius in the book of Daniel who loves Daniel and yet is tricked by his advisors to pass an edict where everyone is to pray to King Darius and when Daniel is caught praying to God, Darius has no choice-he is bound by the law to throw Daniel into the lion’s den. But God is not like that, no God is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and then when one is missing leaves the 99 in the wilderness in search of the one, or like a woman who has 10 coins and losing one searches the house until the one is found and then calls all her neighbors to rejoice. Or like a father who has two sons, and one of the sons, the younger one, says to his father in effect, ‘dad I wish you were dead, give me what is mine after you will be gone so that I may go away from you, away from my family, and away from all that has defined me.’ And the father grants him his request and when the younger son finds himself in a foreign land starving, feeding pigs (doing that which is completely against what he was before) and wishing for what the pigs eat and no one gives him anything and he says to himself, ‘you know my father’s servants are better off than I am’ and so he goes back home and he is expecting to be a servant-but the father seeing the son rushes out to meet him, wraps his arms around him, puts a robe on him and a ring on his finger, slaughters the fattened calf and throws a party to reestablish this son with the community. And welcomes him home not as a servant, but as a son-against every rule of the way things should be. Yet there is another son in the story, the older son, who knows the way things should be, the way the rules say they should be and so he stands on the outside of the party refusing to go in and enter the celebration. So the father goes out to this son who says in effect, ‘father, I wish you were dead, for welcoming back in this younger brother who brought so much dishonor, who broke all the rules, who did everything I haven’t done” and yet the father loves both sons. The son who has gone away, who was lost-who went away and who came home again and the son who never left but now stands on the outside of the party unwilling to go in, dealing with his own anger and unwillingness to forgive and his own woundedness.

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

Pompeo Batoni, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1773)

We serve a God who relationships are always more important than rules and people are more important than ideas. Unfortunately, sometimes the very people who should be most receptive to this are the ones who understand this the least. Take for example the story of Jonah, Jonah is sent by God to go to Nineveh-but Jonah hates the Ninevites and doesn’t want them to turn but wants them to receive God’s wrath and so Jonah goes on a ship in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. But Jonah cannot escape the God who won’t give up and so in the midst of the storm Jonah asks the sailors to give him death, to throw him into the sea because Jonah would rather die than see mercy given to the Ninevites, and yet God refuses to allow that to happen and so God sends the fish and then places him back on land and Jonah goes to Nineveh and the people turn and Jonah pouts.

In the story of les Mis, whether you’ve read it in the novel or seen it as a musical or on the big screen there are two major characters throughout the story. There is Jauvert, the lawman whose life is bound to his dependence on the law for order. The main character though is Jean val Jean who begins the story in a prison camp having served twenty years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon Jean val Jean’s release from prison he is defined by the reality that he has been a prisoner and that there is no one who will hire him, he is a thief-and to everyone it seems he will always be a thief until when he actually does steal from a bishop and after being captured the bishop says, ‘but you left the best’ and gives him the golden candlesticks as a part of the gift. A gift which allows him to start a new life with a new identity as Misseur le Mer, and yet in the eyes of Jauvert who continues to track him throughout the story he is always the thief, and even at the end of the story when Jean val Jean spares Jauvert’s life-Jauvert cannot live this new story, he would rather die than to forgive and live in a world where the law fails him and so he does die, he commits suicide rather than forgive.

There are many people who would rather die than forgive, who would rather carry their enmity to their grave rather than let go of it, rather than let something that they have that they can hold over someone else be given up. For that is what forgiveness is, forgiveness states that I refuse to let the actions which caused me harm in the past to define our relationship going forward. Forgiveness gives us freedom from having to seek a better past. It allows us not to be defined by the things that we have done, but rather to be defined by the relationships that have been opened to us. That’s what God does, God comes and brings that forgiveness that we need even before we are ready to accept it, in the hope that we will begin to live into it. But forgiveness is not easy for us, I know a person who is a Lutheran pastor now but she didn’t grow up in the Lutheran church and going for the first time to a Lutheran church she heard at the end of the brief order of confession and forgiveness, “as a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins,” and she turned to the person next to her and said, ‘that’s it!’ For God indeed, yes that is it, God has already made the journey of forgiveness, but for us many times the journey still lies ahead.

In our gospel today we hear Peter wrestling with this forgiveness that Jesus is talking about:

 Matthew 18 21 Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?” 22 “No, not seven times,” Jesus replied, “but seventy times seven!

At seven times Peter probably thinks he is being generous, but Jesus’ response of seventy times seven takes the world of power and revenge and retribution and turns it on its head. The world of Lamech is reversed. And it is not a point of counting up to 490, the calling is to forgive.

and then Jesus also answers with this parable (Matt 18: 23-30)

23 “Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24 In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars.

Now the millions of dollars is actually downplaying the size of the debt owed, in modern conversion we are probably talking billions, it was as one scholar put it the amount of money a worker could expect to make in 150,000,000 days-and if you want to figure out how many years that is-it is far more than you will ever live. It is a debt that is so large it could never be paid and this man find himself in a crisis. The story continues on:

 25 He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold– along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned– to pay the debt. 26 “But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27 Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

He didn’t do what the man asked for, the man asked for more time ‘give me more time and I’ll pay it back’ but the master released him from this debt and gave him a chance to start over

 28 “But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29 “His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30 But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

So many times I believe that is the way we may want to react, what’s in my best interest. It allows me to be the insider and the other person to be the outsider. Frequently the biggest critique of Christians is that they act, not like God, not like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, but rather like the older brother or the forgiven slave. Forgiveness is good for me but these other people are still sinners, they still owe me, the things they have done still define them as people who need to be punished, shunned, set aside. I’ve got to be honest that in a lot of my conversations with people outside the church the most common reason they are no longer a part of the church has nothing to do with any philosophy, or anything on TV, radio or the internet and everything to do with how they were not met with forgiveness by others within the church. Somehow they were marked as the sinner, the outcast, the untouchable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising that the story continues with Matt 18:31-33 and the horror of the other slaves seeing how this forgiven slave acted in light of the incredible forgiveness he received.

 

31 “When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. 32 Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’

You see God wants to meet us in grace, God wants to meet us in justice and it goes back to us not living out the love and grace we have been given. And I think it wounds God when we abuse the gifts that have been given to us, when we set ourselves up as better than everyone else. When we receive grace and turn to the rest of the world in judgment. And I think God wants to meet us in grace, but I also have come to believe that if the only place we can meet God is in law, justice and judgment, then God will meet us there as well. The parable concludes:

 34 Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. 35 “That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

I’ve got to be honest, I don’t like the end of this, it makes me uncomfortable. Yet, I know that there are times where God has to come to me and remind me, ‘Neil this is not the life you are called to.’ ‘This is not who you are called to be, you are called to be on the journey of forgiveness.’ And it is a journey, and there are times where you may say ‘I forgive something’ and then something comes up and you realize you are still viewing your neighbor in terms of things they have done in the past. I had to learn this in my own life and journey, and I still bear scars from where I have been wounded. The reality is that there is a risk that comes with forgiveness, that you are opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt again. And what happens if the other person doesn’t accept the forgiveness you offer. That doesn’t exempt you from the calling to be forgiving, and to be on that journey yourself. Forgiveness opens the possibility of reconciliation happening. And I know that there are wounds that may be too deep to forgive at that moment, but we are called to be on that journey. A person who I’ve learned a lot from is a man who grew up in the former Yugoslavia and is Croatian in background, a man named Miroslav Volf, and those who know a little of the history of Europe in the 1990s, this was the area of Bosnia and Kosovo where the Serbians and Croatians were in a conflict, an ancient conflict that had its roots hundreds of years earlier that was brought to the forefront in the 1990s when the Serbians were in power and began to move towards wiping out the Croatians, destroying entire villages, committing incredible atrocities and killing thousands while displacing tens of thousands. Sometime shortly after the events in Bosnia, Miroslav was working on his PhD in Germany working through the idea of forgiveness and embracing the enemy when another well known scholar, Jürgen Moltmann, said to him Miroslav could you embrace a chětnik, the very soldiers who had done all this to your people? And Miroslav’s answer was I believe an honest one, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” Even genocide requires forgiveness. Doesn’t mean it is an easy journey and there may be something that is so horrible where our answer is also, “No, but I don’t believe that is where God calls me to be.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu could say in the midst of the Truth and Reconciliation committees after Apartheid in South Africa, ‘There is no future without forgiveness’.

Forgiveness is the one thing we are called upon to do in the midst of the Lord’s prayer: to forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, or forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Or as one of my friends who is a pastor in Washington State related a story to me of a young girl learning the Lord’s prayer, and not knowing what trespassing was she said, “Forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash-pass against us.” The wisdom of children, so forgive us our trash-passing as we forgive those who trash pass against us.

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Horror or Celebration in Susa:Esther 9: 1-10

Alfred P Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995

Alfred P Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed in Oklahoma City April 19, 1995

Esther 9: 1-10

Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day, when the king’s command and edict were about to be executed, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain power over them, but which had been changed to a day when the Jews would gain power over their foes, 2 the Jews gathered in their cities throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus to lay hands on those who had sought their ruin; and no one could withstand them, because the fear of them had fallen upon all peoples. 3 All the officials of the provinces, the satraps and the governors, and the royal officials were supporting the Jews, because the fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them. 4 For Mordecai was powerful in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces as the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful. 5 So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. 6 In the citadel of Susa the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred people. 7 They killed Parshandatha, Dalphon, Aspatha, 8 Poratha, Adalia, Aridatha,9 Parmashta, Arisai, Aridai, Vaizatha,10 the ten sons of Haman son of Hammedatha, the enemy of the Jews; but they did not touch the plunder.

We are at the part of Esther where one has to make a choice on how they will hear this. Many Christians throughout history have come upon this section with distaste, this is certainly one of the reasons Martin Luther didn’t like the book. The slaughter of over five hundred people, an event that would dwarf events like the Oklahoma City Bombing, Sandy Hook Elementary, or Columbine, in fact by percentage of population it would probably rival the loss of life on the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center. If you take the numbers as literal, this is a horrific event (at least if you are not a Jew). In my opinion the numbers are probably hyperbolic, but in either case this is another of those events of violence in the Old Testament that can be difficult to stomach. This is definitely a mindset of retributive justice (you threatened me, so I will do violence to you) that still plays out in wars and genocides even in recent history.

On the other hand, this does reflect a world where anti-Semitism continues to be a real and present force in the lives of Jewish people. This was probably one memory where, instead of being victim, the Jewish people were feared because they actually had power through Mordecai and Esther. Much like Ahasuerus becomes a foil for whatever king they find themselves under and Haman becomes the oppressors they have, this victory probably becomes a counter story in the midst of their lives. When they are weak and powerless they can look back to a time when they were strong.

It is so easy for the oppressed, when given power, to become the oppressor-and even many Christians, who should take Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and non-violence seriously, have become the worst offenders. One doesn’t need to know much history to pull up events like the Holocaust (a “Christian” nation attempting to wipe out the Jews), Bosnia/Kosovo (Serbs, who are predominantly Christian attempting to wipe our Croats who were predominantly Muslim), or Rwanda (predominantly Christian), or Sudan (Muslim north vs. a Christian south) and the list could go on and on. Violence and death are here to stay with us, and in America we are very sheltered from the horror, we in the past year grieved the events in Sandy Hook and that was a major domestic event for us.

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