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He Came and Proclaimed Peace

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“He Came and Proclaimed Peace” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Katherine Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is a “sermon from the heart” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

These passages in the Old Testament that depict God as one who is violent, hateful, and vengeful have always greatly disturbed and troubled me. These stories do not seem to be at all consistent with the God who I have experienced in my own life. These violent stories certainly are not at all consistent with the God who we have encountered in the person of Jesus Christ. It would be like seeing my husband Peter, who I know to be a very compassionate and loving person and who has never uttered a hurtful word about another person, it would be like seeing him walk up to a nursing home resident, yelling obscenities at them, then spit in their face, and punch them in the nose. To see Peter do this would leave me dumbfounded, confused, even horrified. It would make no sense, as this is not the type of person who I know my husband to be.

I feel dumbfounded, confused, even horrified when I hear these stories that portray God as the one who commanded the people of Israel to mercilessly slaughter their enemies; it makes no sense. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that Jesus reveals to us the very nature and character of God, then how can this be? How can the same God who tells us to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors also command Israel to kill their enemies and leave not one of their persecutors alive? Did God change? We sing in our hymns, proclaim in our Affirmations of Faith, and teach to our children that God does not change. Yet clearly something has changed in the portrayal of who God is from some of the violent stories of the Old Testament to the encounter of God in the person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. So did God change?

No, God has not changed, but our understanding of God and our experiences of who God is have certainly changed. God is forever the same, but how we experience God depends upon where we are. It is a beautiful thing to know that God has been acting in history since the beginning of time and that people have experienced God in many different ways and interpret God’s movement in many different ways. Do I believe that God provides for God’s people even in the face of overwhelming odds? Absolutely. Do I believe God meets us where we are and enters even into our brokenness and sin? Completely. Do I believe that God commanded the merciless slaughter of Israel’s enemies? Here I certainly struggle. For if the person of Jesus Christ as revealed to us in the gospels shows to us the very nature of our God who does not change, it simply makes no sense to me that God is also a violent, spiteful, and vengeful God. God looks like Jesus; no one knows the Father except through the Son.

And we know that the Son never commanded his disciples to kill those who stood against them, but instead commands his followers to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. We know that the Son would rather die for his enemies than send down legions of angels to destroy them. We know that the Son does not slaughter anyone, but instead prays for the forgiveness of those who slaughtered him with his dying breath. We know that the Son weeps over the people of Jerusalem for they do not know the things that make for peace. I wonder how often God has wept over humanity over the injustice, oppression, and bloodshed that we have committed in God’s name. How often has God wept over humankind

seeking answers in the guns that preach a gospel of hatred rather than seeking answers in the God who died for the gospel of peace. How often has God wept, beseeching us to know the things that make for peace?

We as Mennonites have historically been opposed to war in all forms since the birth of our faith, and yet there are fierce battles that are waging within our own pews. How can we witness to the gospel of peace if we do not always seek reconciliation with each other? Yes, these violent stories from the Old Testament haunt us and trouble us and lead us to condemn the wars of our nation, but when it comes to our own personal wars with each other, perhaps we identify a little too much with this portrayal of God as one who is vengeful and full of hatred. We talk about our neighbors behind their backs instead of loving them as ourselves.

We complain to those who are most like us about those who are not instead of practicing the Rule of Christ. We come to offer our sacrifice of worship without first going and being reconciled to our brother or sister, our mother or father, our pew-mate, our grandparent, our neighbor, our spouse. Though we cringe at this portrayal of God as one that leads us to kill in God’s name, why does this portrayal of God as one who is hateful and vengeful not cause us to cringe when we continue in our loathing, when we continue to seek revenge, when we continue on unchanged or unrepentant of our ill feelings towards those who adhere to the “wrong” political party, the “wrong” theological interpretations, to those who have abused us, to those who have wronged us. These Old Testament stories may be difficult for us to hear when we encounter these perceptions of a God who commanded a merciless slaughtering of Israel’s enemies, so that not even one is left breathing. Yet it is so much easier for us to identify with the portrayal of a God who is vengeful and who smites enemies when it comes to our own broken relationships with those we consider our own enemies, than it is for us to identify with the Christ who calls us to love them and pray for our persecutors.

Do we know the things that make for peace? Do we seek to embody the things that make for peace? It is one thing to reject the image of a violent and vengeful God. It is quite another to refuse to hate and seek revenge in our own lives. What if we sought to embody peace in every aspect of our lives? What would happen if we took Jesus as seriously as we say we do? To believe that Jesus Christ is “the way”1, is to live the way that Christ lived. This is the road not often taken, the straight and narrow path that requires us to lay down our grudges and hatreds and instead take up our cross; it requires us to reject violence and hatred in all forms and instead embody reconciliation, and prayer, and love; it requires sacrifice, just as the one who lovingly and nonviolently sacrificed his own life for a world full of violence and hate. Let us bind our hearts with the Christ who took the way of the cross rather than the way of the sword, the one who died for his enemies rather than sending legions of angels to destroy them, the one who did not kill but instead prayed for forgiveness for his persecutors with his dying breath, the one who came and proclaimed peace.

1 John 14:6

Thinking about War in the Old Testament

September 10th, 2010 No comments

“Thinking about War in the Old Testament” (1 Samuel 15:1-3; Joshua 11:10-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
July 25, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

This sermon is “sermon from the head” as part of a “difficult passages of the Bible” series.

Thank you, XXXXX, for reading the Word of God for us. I’m guessing that those selections are rarely read from the pulpit in most Mennonite pulpits. There are, of course, many such texts of violence that most Christians would rather their children didn’t hear, would it not be in the Bible. For instance, the conquests of Canaan in Joshua, the skirmishes of Judges, the wars of Saul, David, and Solomon, and the graphic language and hatred of Obadiah and Nahum.

So, I was excited when we decided to include violence in the Old Testament as part of our brief series on difficult passages. Katherine and I are switching assignments from last Sunday, and this time I get to do the thinking meditation, which I’m excited about because this is essentially a question of biblical interpretation, and one of my hobbies is something called hermeneutics, which is the study of interpretation. Some of you enjoy boating; I enjoy hermeneutics.

The question, on the surface, is: How does the violence of the Bible (and specifically the OT for this morning) fit in with the peace witness of the Bible, which reaches its climax in the NT?

The Bible and Violence The Bible and Peace
In the cities of the nations the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. (Deut. 20:16) Blessed are the peacemakers. . . Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:9, 44)
They devoted Jericho to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. (Joshua 6:21) Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If your enemy is hungry, feed him. . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17, 20)
“‘Totally destroy everything that belongs to the Amalekites. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3) Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2:21-23)
But all the people they put to the sword until they completely destroyed them, not sparing anyone that breathed. (Joshua 11:11) “All who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare for war! Rouse the warriors! Let all the fighting men draw near and attack. Beat your plowshares into swords. (Joel 3:9-10) They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
(Isaiah 2:4)

From Today’s New International Version

To think about this question, we are going to go on a brief tour of interpretation. Much of our tour comes from a fantastic book from the 1980s that we actually have in our very own library, called Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women: Case Issues in Biblical Interpretation. It’s written by Willard Swartley, a retired Mennonite seminary professor best known for his careful biblical scholarship (especially with regard to the Bible’s peace witness) and for his work with exorcism. Today’s subject, is of course, the former. In the book, Swartley looks at these four issues and analyzes how interpreters who draw vastly different conclusions use and interpret the Bible.

Well, our tour of interpretation of OT violence will begin with two traditional perspectives – what I would call “modernist” interpretations, as I will explain later, and then finish with a pacifist interpretation. And then we will go back and analyze these interpretations. Here we go.

Traditional Interpretation A

  1. God commanded Israel to go to war and to do violence. We just heard a couple such passages read; there are many more.1 Because killing in warfare is different from murder, it does not violate God’s perfect love.2
  2. God commended people who were military leaders (Abraham, Moses, Joshua, David, etc.)
  3. Regarding the apparent conflict with the NT, in John 18, Jesus himself didn’t turn the other cheek when one of the temple police struck him, but rather, Jesus challenged the aggressor, saying “If I have poken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”3 Could he have expected his followers to do different?
  4. Resolving the tension, some interpreters say that the Sermon on the Mount and similar passages are guides for personal, neighbor relationships, but not for official or social relationships.4
  5. A few interpreters who follow this pattern are dispensationalist, where history is divided into various ages, or dispensations, where God relates to humans in different ways. The peace witness and teaching of the NT, then, applies to the final dispensation (the kingdom age), which has not yet begun, whereas OT warfare applied to a previous dispensation.5

Traditional Interpretation B

  1. Scripture should not be used simplistically, but rather in terms of its larger themes and in consultation with more sophisticated theological reflection.6 God as a warrior is foundational to OT theology. The story of the Exodus, celebrated by Moses in Exodus 15, is the epitome (esp. 15:3). The OT describes God as “Lord of Hosts” (lit. Armies) over 200 times.7
  2. The language is part of God’s participation in sinful history. A history of war was necessary because Israel was called to be a nation, and nations survive by war.
  3. There are Kingdom obligations (NT peace witness) and worldly state obligations (including violence), which are different.
  4. “Realism”: Kingdom teachings can’t be absolutes in a fallen world. War is a necessary, lesser evil, while Jesus’ ethic is too perfect to be attainable.8
  5. God uses violence to establish new, just orders.9

Pacifist: A collection of voices, not all of whom agree with each other

  1. Warfare’s roots are in humanity’s fall (Gen. 3-4), when humanity decided to go its own way.
    • Some say that OT warfare was God’s will for the people when the kingdom and state were combined (loosely dispensational).10
    • Others say God “allowed war as a concession to Israel’s sin.” Israel fought wars as a result of not following God’s “perfect will, through which Israel could have taken the land without use of sword and bow.”11 God’s original plan was to drive the enemies out of the land miraculously.12 God’s permissive will included war into Israel’s civil law; God’s perfect will in the moral law forbade killing. The concession is similar to allowing kingship or polygamy; the prophets indicate that the time of warfare is over.
    • Still others say Israel’s military warfare “resulted from its failure to trust God as warrior.”13 Exodus 14:14 is the prototype: Israel didn’t fight or assist God’s victory; justice comes not through the sward but by obedience to God’s Torah.
  2. The OT critiques carnal warfare and prepares for the NT peace witness.14
    • The OT has many examples of nonviolent action (e.g. 2 Kings 6:8-23).
    • The patriarchal/matriarchal narratives are mostly pacifist, perhaps a critique of kingship patterns of the monarchy period.
    • The OT does not glorify death in war or develop war hero stories as other ancient near eastern cultures did.
    • The pervasive criticism of kingship with military power indicates that the OT points another direction (Isa. 2:1-4), toward the suffering servant (Isa 40-55).
    • Yahweh’s warfare called Israel to “defenselessness and faith in Yahweh,” arguing against a military caste, military alliances, and political maneuvering based on military power.
    • The prophetic vision – especially Isaiah – emphasizes a coming reign of peace.
    • Israel’s Holy war tradition culminates in the strategy of the suffering servant of Isaiah 40-44, where victory is won through obedience and suffering for the sake of God.
    • The OT, while affirming a warrior God and including numerous war stories, also contains the roots of the NT peace witness. “Moses takes a shepherd’s staff and burning heart into Egypt and leads out a band of slaves who raised not one sword against the world’s greatest empire.”15
    • The NT transforms the OT holy war tradition, turning “Battle Songs into Hymns of Peace.” Jesus’ ministry is a “massive warfare of teaching, healing, proclamation, suffering, death, and glory.”16 Much of the Holy War language is present in the NT: assurance of God’s presence, God’s deliverance, trusting God to win the victory, and relying on nothing but the power of God (Holy Spirit). Read this way, the gospel of Matthew may be framed by Holy War language (“do not be afraid;” “God is with us;” obedience, “I am with you always”).17
  3. The OT prepares for the NT
    • The Bible is a progressive revelation of the nature and will of God.
    • War/violence is sub-Christian ethic of unredeemed society; while Christians live in a new reality (2 Cor. 5:17).

Hermeneutical Analysis

Well, where does this tour of interpretation leave us? Gordon Clark says, “If the Old Testament is clear on anything, it is clear that God positively commanded war.”18 conversely, Guy Hershberger concludes, “The entire Scriptures correctly interpreted will show the Old and New Testaments to agree that the way of peace is God’s way for His people at all times; that war and bloodshed were never intended to have a place in human conduct.”19 How can two people read the same book and reach such entirely different conclusions?

I believe there are several reasons, but would like to focus in on one: the different ways we understand the nature of the authority of Scripture, especially in light of the apparent diversity of viewpoints represented within the Bible (we saw some such examples earlier).

As I said, from a hermeneutical perspective, both of the traditional interpretations have grown out of Modernity, sometimes also called the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment. Though very different approaches, both traditional perspectives tend to define biblical authority in terms of modern values or notions of truth as logical and rational. That is, something is true if it really, really happened and is consistent in an encyclopedic sense.

Traditional perspective A assumes a priori as a matter of doctrinal ideology and biblical self-reference20 that the Bible is authoritative because it is true in a logical, rational, encyclopedia-sort of way. Any apparent rational or logical inconsistency in the biblical witness, anything that an encyclopedia editor would flag for correction, therefore doctrinally must be harmonized rationally. In the case of warfare, this is achieved by having one ethic for social and one for personal, or assigning various ethics to various dispensations. We might call this a flat Bible approach, where each part of the Bible is equally authoritative (often referred to as fundamentalist in hermeneutics). This view of Biblical authority looks like this:

Flat Bible

Traditional perspective B makes no such claim, but rather looks to larger patterns (noticing the warrior God), and holds those patterns up to the authority of reason and logic. Thus, while acknowledging a strong peace pattern, Traditional perspective B decides that it does not measure up to realistic, rational possibility. The Bible is authoritative in the extent to which it passes logic/rationalism. This view of Biblical authority looks like this, where the Bible is held up to the authority of Modernist ideals:

Bible and Reason

For entirely different reasons, then, this perspective (often referred to as liberalist in hermeneutics) comes to remarkably similar conclusions to perspective A: There are two realms of ethics: one personal or for Kingdom citizenry and one social or for worldly citizenry.

Pacifist interpreters, however, are different still. Some will give higher authority to the New Testament because it talks about Jesus:

Others give higher priority still to the Gospels because they tell the story of Jesus:

Reading the Bible this way, the New Testament is seen as fulfillment to Old Testament promise, and thus has greater authority, and even has authority to critique the OT, just as Jesus did. This sort of understanding of Scripture is becoming more and more common, especially among evangelicals, who, by definition, hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in high regard. And they are coming to similar readings of Scripture to traditional pacifists.

However, pacifists in the Anabaptist tradition reached these conclusions for somewhat different reasons. The Anabaptists were so committed to the Lordship of Christ, so radically determined to follow Jesus Christ that he became the highest authority:

For Anabaptists, Scripture has authority not because it fits nicely into Modern values of truth or reason, but rather because it bears witness to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Word of God become flesh. And it’s Jesus we follow, Jesus we love, Jesus we live and die and rise again for, Jesus who saves us.

Just as Jesus opened the eyes of the travelers on the Emmaus road to the meaning of Scripture, so too Anabaptists sought to read Scripture through Jesus’ eyes; as Jesus is the “exact representation of God’s being,”21 on whose behalf the scriptures testify.22 From this perspective, the apparent diversity of Scripture can be viewed not as a potential doctrinal weakness needing to be harmonized, and not as a this-is-right-this-is-wrong choice, but rather, positively as the unfolding revelation of God in history.

Jesus reveals that God is incarnational, entering the limitations of language, culture, history, economics, and even ideology to meet us where we are and call us forward. Diversity of perspective in the Bible, in this view, is the result of the one true God graciously interacting with humans, which means that scripture is “historically and culturally conditioned.” The variety in the Bible testifies that God, like a missionary, takes history and culture seriously.23 For example, the letter to the Galatians would have made little sense had the Philippians received it. God took each situation seriously and entered it, worked with it, and ultimately transformed it.

Willard Swartley concludes, “The divine is not diminished by the human in Jesus. . . Precisely when Jesus suffers and dies, testifying to his complete humanity, the Gospel of Mark declares that then, in that context, he is truly the Son of God, divine (Mk. 15:37-39). To hold then that Scripture is conditioned by the human element – i.e., the historical and cultural – is a confession of its glory, since it brings the divine presence and Word into the midst of real human situations.”24

Through this process, God has been revealing himself throughout history, and most fully in Jesus Christ, our peace. The story of that revelation is recorded in the Bible. Thanks be to God!

Notes:
1 In Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, Willard Swartly lists the following as used in interpretations: Ex. 17:8-16, Num. 33:50-66; Josh. 1:1-9; 5:13-6:27; Judg. 4:1-23; 6:12; 1 Sam. 15:1-13; 17:1-54; 2 Sam. 5:19-20; Psalms 35:1-2; 68:1-2, 12, 17; 83:2, 17; 108; 124; 136; 144:1; Num. 4:39-45; Josh. 7:1-8:29; 1 Sam. 28:15-19; 2 Chron. 18:1-34. There would be many more.

2 Willard Swartley, Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women, 97-98.

3 John 18:22-23. See also Paul in Acts 23:3.

4 Swartley, 101.

5 Ibid., 101.

6 Ibid., 102.

7 Ibid., 103.

8 Ibid., 105.

9 See Swartley, 106-112, on Liberation Theology.

10 Ibid., 103.

11 Ibid., 113.

12 See Ex. 23:20-23.

13 Swartley, 114.

14 The following are highlighted from Swartley, 115-117.

15 Jacob Enz, quoted in Swartley, 117.

16 Ibid.

17 See Lois Barrett, The Way God Fights for more on this.

18 Quoted in Swartley, 98.

19 Quoted in Swartley, 141.

20 2 Timothy 3:16. The passage does not necessarily support the Modernist priorities, but is often interpreted so.

21 Hebrews 1:3.

22 John 5:39.

23 Swartley, 218.

24 Swartley, 218.