Tag Archives: Violence

Psalm 52 The Wicked Will Not Prosper Forever

Ancient Olive Tree in Pelion, Greece

Psalm 52

To the leader. A Maskil of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”
1 Why do you boast, O mighty one,[1] of mischief done against the godly? All day long
2 you are plotting destruction. Your tongue is like a sharp razor, you worker of treachery.
3 You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. Selah
4 You love all words that devour, O deceitful tongue.
5 But God will break you down forever; he will snatch and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
6 The righteous will see, and fear, and will laugh at the evildoer, saying,
7 “See the one who would not take refuge in God, but trusted in abundant riches, and sought refuge in wealth!”
8 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God. I trust in the steadfast love of God forever and ever.
9 I will thank you forever, because of what you have done. In the presence of the faithful I will proclaim your name, for it is good.
The basic question of the injustice that is present in the world when the boastful, deceptive, and wicked prosper while the righteous are persecuted informs the narrative of Psalm 52. This short poem or song which contrasts the wicked ‘mighty one’ and the righteous compares two opposing views of life and the poem pivots on God’s judgment of the mighty one in verse five. Although the superscription of this Psalm refers to a specific incident in the life of David, the big shot boaster who the first four verses describe can be found in any context. The way of the wicked may often appear to provide security in the moment, but the way of righteousness sinks deep roots of trust into the steadfast love of God.

The superscription of Psalm 52 places the words in the context of David’s flight from King Saul and the punishment of Ahimelech and the rest of the priests of the LORD. David, now fully convinced of Saul’s murderous intentions towards him, is fleeing Israel and arrives at Nob, a short journey away, where the tabernacle is. David seeks both food and a weapon from the priest Ahimelech, who is unaware of Saul’s intentions toward David, and after receiving these departs. Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s shepherds,[2] was also at the tabernacle and reports on these actions to Saul. Saul then gathers Ahimelech and the priests, accuses them of treachery, and then orders his guards to kill the priests. When the guards refuse this order from King Saul, Doeg the Edomite carries it out killing eighty-five priests and then putting the city of Nob, the city of priests, to the sword.

The psalm makes sense within the context of the narrative of 1 Samuel 21-22, as David can see the damage a violent and deceptive one has done to the righteous ones. Doeg could be viewed as one who does violence against the righteous, who plots destruction, whose words are sharp and who loves evil more than good. Doeg’s words and his sword have caused many deaths for those who offered David kindness and served the LORD as priests. In this moment, the suspicion of Saul and the deceptive words of Doeg are creating a world of injustice and violence.

Reading the Psalm in a more universal context, we can find many contemporary examples that fit the description of this ‘mighty one’ who ironically becomes the villain in this story. This ‘big man’ is one prospers at the expense of those attempting to live according to God’s will. They are schemers whose actions undercut the security of others and whose words are weapons that often cut deeper than a blade might. I’ve often parodied the old saying about ‘sticks and stones’ changing it to: ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will send me to therapy.’ When a person desires economic gain or power above the good of the community, deceitful words are often used and may do more damage to the life of the community than any action could. These devouring words once unleashed can seem to take up a life of their own, and the deceitful tongue that bears the sharp lie may produce great evil as it cuts into the trust which is the lifeblood of the communal life. As Beth Tanner can state:

We all know the damage of words. In a media-saturated world, lying words still cut like a razor. Indeed, we are surrounded by a culture that encourages us to be out only for ourselves and believes that our only protection is the wealth and possessions we amass behind gates that lock out the rest of the world. Words of advertisers and terrorists reduce our lives and diminish our delight. Abusive words by one we love and trust can do as much damage as a fist of knife. We know just as these ancient ones do that this way leads only to alienation and death. Any sane person would not choose this way to live, but instead grow slowly and surely as a great tree that flourishes in the house of God. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 462-463)

Yet, in our media saturated culture which amplifies the boast of the mighty one and seems to thrive on the blood spilt by razor sharp words there are a plethora of instances where words demonized a group, split a community, and often destroy lives. Yet, the Psalmist states that this way will not stand, that God will not allow the mighty one who speaks evil and plots destruction to escape destruction forever. God will be the one who intervenes and balances the scales by removing the mighty one’s house from the people, who breaks down their defenses and walls, and who uproots them from the ground where the righteous remain planted.

Once God has acted to restore justice by uprooting the wicked, the psalm turns to the response of the righteous ones. Psalm 52 carries similar themes and imagery to Psalm 1 and in both psalms “the way of the wicked will perish.” (1:6) Yet, Psalm 52, instead of ending on the theme of the wicked perishing, now turns to the reaction of the righteous. The righteous see, and fear, and laugh. The righteous ones see and understand that the actions that uprooted the unrighteous one come from God. Fear in this context is the proper response to God, it is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 110:11, Proverbs 1:7) and fear of God is understood throughout the Hebrew Scriptures mainly as reverence and awe. But the reaction to the ‘mighty one’ who has now fallen is laughter. The mighty one who trusted in the power and wealth gained through their deceitful ways and lying words has now become the fool who illustrates that wickedness and foolishness are ultimately the same thing. The way of the foolish may prove successful in the short term but in a world where God’s justice eventually levels the scales they find themselves uprooted while the wise/righteous endure like a green olive tree in the house of God. The wise know that the violence and deception of those who aggregate wealth and power will not endure, instead it is the steadfast love (hesed) of God which proves trustworthy and enduring. The injustices of this world and those who profit from them are real but they are not permanent.

[1] The Hebrew gibborim typically denotes a mighty warrior or hero. Here the context makes clear the ‘mighty one’ may be a big shot at the moment but is not in the Psalmist’s view heroic.

[2] Shepherds in the scriptures may be literally those who watch sheep, but the term is often used metaphorically to refer to a leader.

Deuteronomy 20: The Conduct of War

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

James Tissot, The Taking of Jericho (1896-1902)

Deuteronomy 20

1 When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots, an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them; for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. 2 Before you engage in battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the troops, 3 and shall say to them: “Hear, O Israel! Today you are drawing near to do battle against your enemies. Do not lose heart, or be afraid, or panic, or be in dread of them; 4 for it is the LORD your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to give you victory.” 5 Then the officials shall address the troops, saying, “Has anyone built a new house but not dedicated it? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another dedicate it. 6 Has anyone planted a vineyard but not yet enjoyed its fruit? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another be first to enjoy its fruit. 7 Has anyone become engaged to a woman but not yet married her? He should go back to his house, or he might die in the battle and another marry her.” 8 The officials shall continue to address the troops, saying, “Is anyone afraid or disheartened? He should go back to his house, or he might cause the heart of his comrades to melt like his own.” 9 When the officials have finished addressing the troops, then the commanders shall take charge of them.

 10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. 12 If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13 and when the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14 You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the LORD your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16 But as for the towns of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them– the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites– just as the LORD your God has commanded, 18 so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the LORD your God.

 19 If you besiege a town for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you must not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them. Although you may take food from them, you must not cut them down. Are trees in the field human beings that they should come under siege from you? 20 You may destroy only the trees that you know do not produce food; you may cut them down for use in building siegeworks against the town that makes war with you, until it falls.


I would love to be able to say that the remarks made by Jerry Falwell, Jr., the President of Liberty University that his students should arm themselves so that they could ‘end Muslims before they come in’ has no scriptural place to justify it, but that would mean looking aside from passages like Deuteronomy 20. Ultimately, from the way I read scriptures his remarks were not only wrong but inflammatory and yet passages like this probably feel like home for some conservative evangelical Christians who seem to feel the right to bear arms is more important than anyone else’s right freedom of religion. Yet, passages like this are in need of discussion and the warrior image of the God of Israel is a potent image which can be used for both good and ill.  As I discuss when talking about the second half of Deuteronomy 2 the warrior image of God which is used throughout the scriptures can be used in both powerful ways for good and evil. We have uncomfortable, well at least uncomfortable for a Christian who tries to take the witness of Jesus seriously, passages like this as a part of our scriptures. What I will attempt to do below is first talk about this text within the context of war in the ancient world and what it meant then, discuss some of how this powerful language can be used appropriately in our day as well as the challenges of this text in our secular and polarized age.

The Passage in the Ancient World

War is an assumed reality for the people of Israel, especially being at the crossroads for trade and movement of troops in the ancient world. In a world where empires would rise and fall around them the land of ancient Palestine would (and still does) find itself pulled between competing kings and empires. Ancient Israel, with the exception of a brief period under David and Solomon, is never a major military power in comparison to the other ancient empires (and in Deuteronomy 17 we see how Solomon is the opposite of the model king Deuteronomy envisions). And if the people of Israel are not to be a society whose strength relies upon its military might and muscle they probably felt the need for a way to demonstrate their reliance upon God in this reality. If Deuteronomy is finalized within the context of the Babylonian exile it may also be reflecting back upon the ways the focus on their own military solutions failed them in their conflict with Babylon.

The practice of a priest coming forward and blessing the troops for combat would not have been unusual in the ancient world. The soldiers of Israel, especially if they were fighting a larger opponent with better equipment, would want to believe that the fighting they were engaged in was a part of a holy war. Perhaps Psalms like 144 would become individual prayers for the soldiers after the priest gave their blessing:

1Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; 2 my rock and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield, in whom I take refuge, who subdues the peoples under me. Psalm 144: 1-2

These words and the sense that the endeavor that they are taking part in is the LORD of Israel’s battle and war may also serve to provide a sense of justification for the horrors of war they are to endure. The charge given by the mustering officer which gives an opportunity for those who have not yet been able to enjoy the fruits of a good life (house, fruit of the harvest and family) to return from battle so that they would not be deprived of these things. These three things the mustering officer allows people to return to also are lifted up as a part of the curse of disobedience:

You shall become engaged to a woman, but another man shall lie with her. You shall build a house, but not live in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but not enjoy its fruits. Deuteronomy 28:30

Also the charge for anyone who is disheartened to return home does point to the reality that fear in combat is contagious, and yet for Deuteronomy this fear is also the result of a lack of trust in the God of Israel. While there is no stigma attached to the previous reasons for release from service in an honor based society there would be for this last one. Military duty was expected of the males of ancient Israel, they were to fight for their God and for their king (or judge or leader).

This passage addresses two types of conflicts, the conflict of occupying the promised land (which is covered second although in the narrative of Deuteronomy its time is near at hand) and the invasion of future enemies.  For the enemies of the future where the people of Israel come to take a city they are to offer terms of peace, the word behind this is shalom, but it is a brutal peace. The only way a city would probably accept these terms was if they saw no possibility of resistance for it ensured forced labor of all the people. In many respects this envisions a society, like Egypt, that is based upon conquest and slavery. Unlike our current world where war is an endeavor which societies go into debt for, war was a profitable endeavor in the ancient world. If a city resists their invasion there is the spoil of the city which goes to the conquerors once the men defending the city are slain. The booty is not just wealth, but also the women and children and livestock which may all serve to enhance the wealth of the invader. War in the ancient world, and in modern society as well, is not kind to women. Even for the Israelites, who have a little more protection for the conquered than some societies, the women are viewed as spoil. Even though we may interpret the commandment on adultery prohibiting the rape of women from a conquered village ancient Israel probably did not, they still viewed women as a commodity and adultery was primarily an offence against the male.  The ancient world was a violent world and war in any time in hellish.  For the list of enemies of the towns they will be occupying there is to be no accommodation, they are to be completely wiped out. There is to be no spoil but they are to be dedicated for destruction, they are herem (those to be destroyed, annihilated). In modern times we would consider this genocide.

A final note is on the environment which is also a victim in times of war. Siege warfare, which is the type of warfare represented in this section of Deuteronomy, involves cutting a city or refuge off from the surrounding resources of food and water and waiting for the supplies within the city to become desperate. Part of siege warfare against a walled city (which is the first line of defense for a city in the ancient world) is constructing siege engines which are designed to either breach or to go over a city wall. Siege engines and the practice of war in the ancient world would often consume the trees for use in these engines or burn them so that they couldn’t be used by an enemy. While crops can grow back in the next growing season the loss of trees involves a long term loss of production. The limit of cutting down only the trees that do not produce fruit to limit the environmental destruction of the siege is unusual, as well as the way the Deuteronomist frames it, “Are the trees human being that they should come under siege from you?” For the author of Deuteronomy, the conflict is with the people and not with the environment.

Militaristic Language and Its Positive and Negative Usage

You do not have to look far for examples of how religion has been used to justify any number of horrors. This is not exclusive to any faith and occurs even in non-religious governments. As Miroslav Volf states memorably:

The majority of the world’s populations is religious, and when they are at war, their gods are invariably at war too. It would seem that if we reconciled the gods we would come closer to reconciling the peoples. The question is, however, who is fighting whose battles in those wars? Are the people fighting the battles of the power-hungry gods or are the gods fighting the battles of their bellicose peoples? The two are not mutually exclusive, of course. My suspicion is, however, that the gods mostly get the short end of it: they end up doing more of the dirty work for their presumed earthly servants than their servants do for them. And when the gods refuse to do the dirty work most people involved in conflicts either discard them in favor of more compliant gods or seek to reeducate them, which amounts to the same thing. The poor gods! What they have to endure at the hands of their humble devotees! (Volf, 1996, p. 284)

And it is not hard to see how passages like Psalm 149 “Praise the Lord!…Let the high praise of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands” (verses 1, 6) can quickly evolve into “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition. There is great damage that has been done when people are absolutely convinced that the LORD or another god is on their side and that they are involved in a struggle against an unredeemable opponent. Whether it is groups like ISIS/ISIL, or Christian groups calling for the elimination of Muslims, or even the inter-ethnic atrocities like Rwanda and Bosnia that are justified under the belief that they are the righteous ones of a god purging the earth of the infidel. These actions seem to come first from the desire to do violence or oppress another group and then the religious militaristic language is brought in as justification of the work. The poor gods, what they must suffer from the hands of their devotees.

Yet, for all of its danger and the way that militaristic language has been utilized to sanctify violence, oppression, enslavement, rape, environmental destruction and even genocide, I still think there is a place for this language. Psalm 46, which was Luther’s inspiration for “A Mighty Fortress”, is full of militaristic images as the song itself is and yet it also speaks to the conflict that the faithful feel in the world. In the hands of the oppressed it has often been utilized to point to the God of liberation that cares for and lifts up the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten and the least. It has certainly been misused by the powerful as well as the disenfranchised to authorize their violence. Yet, it also has spoken to people in their lives. We may not be able to redeem texts like Deuteronomy 20, or at least not all of it, but it speaks to a people whose lives did involve conflict. We may not share the Deuteronomist’s certainty that God is on our side, and when we are too certain we probably have crafted a god in our own image, but we do need to wrestle with, in a world that is still full of conflict, war and oppression, where our God is in the midst of these struggles.

War, God and our Secular Age

The enlightenment arose out of the ashes of conflicts over religion in Europe and now we live in an age where, in the United States and much of Europe, spirituality has been consigned to the realm of private choice. When pastors and priests blessed the soldiers of the various armies going off to war in World War I, the war to end all wars as it was known then, they believed that their causes were linked directly to God’s cause and that nation and God were closely joined together. After two world wars and countless other wars of the twentieth and twenty first century for most people in the United States our current wars may have religious undertones but they are not authorized by God. There are exceptions to this, but the wars of state are no longer uniformly blessed by the churches, mosques, and temples of the land. In the United States the war on terror has at times moved towards being portrayed as a between Christianity and Islam, yet within many religious circles there has been a continual lament and protest against this conflict as well.

As people of faith how do we engage warfare and conflict? What are the central beliefs that shape our interpretation of the world around us? If faith in merely a private spirituality we never have to engage questions like this but if it is a public faith, then we have to engage our faith in the messiness and the conflicts of the real world. As a Christian and as a Lutheran I do go back to the life and witness of Jesus which continually calls us to love even my enemy and to pray for them, to turn the other cheek in response to being struck and to learn how to forgive. Christians have long struggled with theologically making a case for various wars or military service and I won’t even attempt to answer those questions here. I am a military veteran and that is a part of my own history and the things God used to shape me for my life and thankfully I never had to endure the hell that is war, training for war is hellish enough. And yet, I can hope, with Isaiah, for the time when nations no longer train for war, when swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

Let us Beat Swords Into Plowshares, a sculpture by Evgeniy Vuchetich, given by the Soviet Union to the United Nations in 1959

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.

The Horror Conclude: Esther 9: 11-19

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Pablo Picasso, Guernica

Esther 9:11-19

                11 That very day the number of those killed in the citadel of Susa was reported to the king. 12 The king said to Queen Esther, “In the citadel of Susa the Jews have killed five hundred people and also the ten sons of Haman. What have they done in the rest of the king’s provinces? Now what is your petition? It shall be granted you. And what further is your request? It shall be fulfilled.” 13 Esther said, “If it pleases the king, let the Jews who are in Susa be allowed tomorrow also to do according to this day’s edict, and let the ten sons of Haman be hanged on the gallows.” 14 So the king commanded this to be done; a decree was issued in Susa, and the ten sons of Haman were hanged. 15 The Jews who were in Susa gathered also on the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and they killed three hundred persons in Susa; but they did not touch the plunder.

 16 Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces also gathered to defend their lives, and gained relief from their enemies, and killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them; but they laid no hands on the plunder. 17 This was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. 18 But the Jews who were in Susa gathered on the thirteenth day and on the fourteenth, and rested on the fifteenth day, making that a day of feasting and gladness. 19 Therefore the Jews of the villages, who live in the open towns, hold the fourteenth day of the month of Adar as a day for gladness and feasting, a holiday on which they send gifts of food to one another.

The bloodthirsty tone continues, and again this is probably (hopefully) hyperbole, for if it is not then we have an event of horrific proportions-over seventy five thousand dead and the Emperor merely shrugs his shoulders and allows it to continue. Even though the population of the United States is many times the population of the Persian empire at its height, imagine if in one day even a thousand people lost their lives, or by way of comparison-the bloodiest days on American soil were the days where the Union and Confederate army battled at Gettysburg (over 3 days 46,286 people died). This hopefully puts some scale to the type of numbers that are thrown into the story here. Some scholars suggest the last couple chapters are additions to the book of Esther.  Regardless of how and when they become a part of the book, they become a part of the community’s memory. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, this probably gave hope to a people who were often the victims of oppression and hatred-it gives them a place where they can vent their frustrations at their powerlessness. A desired striking back, long suppressed may indeed give voice to horrific fantasies of violence. In the presence of their own people they can through stories give vent to the desire for revenge that in public society they could never do without severe reprisal. (Scott 1990, 37-44)

Esther again enters the story, the king continues to give the authority to someone else to make the decisions. Esther’s request for one more day in the city of Susa sounds cold and heartless, and the additional three hundred that die as a result may seem tiny in comparison to the seventy five thousand, but they continue to send a message along with the hanging or impaling of Haman’s sons. They are public demonstrations of power, meant to send a message to anyone who may still harbor the desire to wipe out the Jewish people. Impaling or hanging, like crucifixion in later times, makes a public spectacle of the one’s being executed in this manner and it is also a statement of shame. It dishonors the family, it denies the individual an honorable death-it is a striking statement that Haman and his sons are impaled because of their standing and wealth, it indicates a different culture than the Roman empire when crucifixion was reserved for those who were without status.

The purge comes to an end, and then comes celebration. The story is winding down, the victory is won. The remainder of the story will be codifying the celebration of Purim and lifting up the status of Mordecai and Esther. It has been a long journey through this close of the book, but we are almost there.

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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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Violence and the Bible

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

Battle of Gilboa by Jean Forquet (1420-1480)

If you spend much time with scripture you have to come to some sense of resolution about how you will approach the question of violence within the Bible. If you are following what I am writing about Esther, we are entering a portion where when you take seriously the violence that is being talked about, which I will do, it should force you to ask some really difficult questions.

Probably the simplest answer that many people come to is to simply ignore it.  The bible like so much of the media we consume simply assumes violence is a part of life. In the book of Esther the violence is never ascribed to God or God’s will, it is simply a result of the way things are and the characters in the book work and live out of the societies assumption towards violence and revenge.  At other times the violence is directly attributed to God’s will, for example this is the prophet Samuel speaking to King Saul to get him to go and wipe out the Amalekites:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. 1 Samuel 15: 2-3

I choose this one because it may have some relevance to the story of Esther since the villan in the story is an Agagite (King Agag is the one Saul did not kill, but Samuel the prophet did and perhaps some think this is the cause of the animosity). But this is one of many throughout the Old Testament where God seems to tell the people in effect ‘wipe them out, all of them.’ At other times God is behind the violent action, whether in the plagues in Egypt or even God being behind the armies of Assyria and Babylon taking the people into exile. Yet on the other hand Jesus effectively argues for non-violent lifestyle, and throughout much of the Old Testament, particularly in the prophets, we see a hope for a vision of peace and harmony where swords are turned into plowshears and nations no longer train for war. The contrast was such that one of the earliest heresies in the church, Marcionism, argued that there were two gods, the New Testament God of Jesus and the Old Testament demiurge who was the violent and evil creator (more about Marcion in the Place of Authority 2-3: The Early Church’s Identity Problem).

At some level, I have had to reconcile how I approach this issue because within it rests a broader question on how we approach and value scripture:

An approach, but not one I advocate, followed by many conservative Christians is to fully embrace the picture of the violent God, hence God’s wrath and holiness become central parts of their theology. Within this approach violence may have a divine sanction, especially towards the other. This was the way of thinking that was operative during the crusades or the colonization of the Americas where the options presented were convert or die. This is in my opinion a very dangerous ideology and ripe for abuse in many ways, where the other is de-humanized and can be eliminated as offensive to God. Within this theology the spokesman (and it typically is a man-although not always) gets to determine what is holy and what is profane and as a mouthpiece of their god. Much violence, abuse, and destruction has been sanctioned by advocates of this theology and while one can make a biblical justification for it-it goes completely against the vision of Christianity I practice.

Another approach which tries to engage the question faithfully, is represented by the Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who states God is in recovery from violence. Brueggemann attempts to take the Old Testament witness very seriously as a whole and is a phenomenal interpreter of texts and theologian, yet this is still not the approach I would advocate. You can see Brueggemann talk about this way of thinking here.

As a Lutheran pastor there are several pieces of my tradition that form my approach to this question:

  1. Ultimately as a Lutheran I am focused on God’s action of coming down in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Christ, as the lens through which the rest of scripture is viewed. Jesus words and ministry interpret and critique the rest of scripture, and so it is here that I look to find what God is like.
  2. Lutheran interpretation of scripture has always advocated for ‘a cannon within the cannon’ which is a fancy way of saying not all scripture has equal weight or value. As I mentioned a couple times going through Esther, Martin Luther didn’t like Esther (or James or Revelation for that matter) because what was important was what reveals Christ.
  3. Finally from a Lutheran perspective God is ultimately a gracious God and so while I would not go the direction of Marcion and eliminate the Old Testament, rather I read the bible back and forth, and even in the times of darkness and violence to ask the question of ‘where is the God of love in the midst of this’ and there may be parts where we say ‘the God of love does not seem to be in this’ at least at this point as we read, but sometime later we may see something different.

The scriptures are in dialogue with each other and are not one unified voice, but rather a chorus of different voice trying to point to God. I attempt to take scripture very seriously, but there will be times when I struggle against a certain piece (as I will with the ninth chapter of Esther) because it seems to go against the grain of the ultimate direction of where scripture is hearing, it may be out of tune with the rest of the chorus. Yet my own voice is just one voice within the larger chorus of voices trying to wrestle with the God scripture tries to point us to. The Old Testament in particular deals with the parts of life that we may not think God has much part of, yet it puts the place of God right in the middle of the messiness of life (violence, broken families, living in exile and many other situations). I think Ellen Davis does a very nice job talking about this here and I would like to think my way is similar to hers. Sometimes it means we will wrestle with scriptures and the pictures of God  it paints, but to me that is a part of our vocation as the people of God.

The perfectionist part of me struggles with putting out such a rough reflection, and I may come back and do some more work on this at another point, but I am also trying to put limits to how long I spend on any one project.

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