Christianity 201

December 1, 2018

Slaughter in the Name of Holy War

Every once in awhile we discover a blog which is new to us that we really, really liked; only to return six months later and find it has become inactive. So it was with the devotional blog called Comfort and Challenge. I really resonated with the unique format and writing by Joseph Schultz, so in addition to clicking the title below, take a moment to see what God might speak to you through the backlist of some of the older devotions. This particular article deals with an area of the Old Testament which can become a barrier to faith for seekers and skeptics; namely, the violence. Note that the opening link takes you to a medley of four scripture passages.

Alien

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 5; 145, Joshua 2:1-14, Romans 11:1-12, Matthew 25:1-13


The book of Joshua jars modern Christian sensibilities – or at least it should.

Full of slaughter committed in the name of holy war, the Hebrew text frequently refers to kherem, a word meaning “to utterly destroy.” Try as we might, can we imagine Jesus commanding a group of Christians to annihilate not just one town but several down to the last woman, child, goat, and shed? Even for those who believe Jesus will return as a conqueror, that image should be disturbing. However we struggle with and maybe resist such ideas, grappling with them helps us grow in our understanding of human and divine nature.

When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek reruns every Saturday. I especially loved episodes that introduced new alien races. As I grew older, I noticed a disturbing trend. Each race seemed homogenous. They didn’t just have identical uniforms – they had uniform values, opinions, and attitudes. When we did meet aliens who were exceptions, what set them apart was almost always an embrace of familiar human values. Despite the intentional diversity given to the Enterprise crew by its creative team, the human tendency to stereotype the unfamiliar and exalt the familiar emerged.

When Joshua’s spies encounter Rahab in today’s reading, she is the exceptional alien. When she protects them – that is, when she embraces their values – she becomes sympathetic, so she and her family will be spared from the coming destruction. Even though she explicitly tells the spies there are other Canaanites who share her beliefs, those people are not even considered for mercy. If Joshua or his people had come to know other Canaanites as they had Rahab, how eager would they have been to embrace kherem? How does the narrative in Joshua compare with God’s earlier instruction in Exodus 22:21 – “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt?

Clearly genocide is not an acceptable notion for modern Christians or Jews. While it is true God’s justice is beyond our understanding, any comfort – or even eagerness – some of us find in the notion of slaughtering God’s (which usually means our) enemies requires some serious reflection on our own hearts and motives. When reading Joshua, we must account for cultural context and seek out the theological themes underlying the story itself. Our reaction to its violence is an opportunity to reflect on how God wants us to relate to the alien today.

Comfort: No one is an alien to God.

Challenge: Who is your Rahab? On a bookmark-sized piece of paper, make a list of people who have defied your cultural preconceptions. Use it to mark your place as we read through the book of Joshua over the next couple weeks.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unkown, temper my judgments and cultivate my mercy. Amen.

Discussion: Who is your Rahab? Who has defied your cultural preconceptions? Did they influence your view of only themselves, or of many people?

October 18, 2018

A Step Backwards at the End of Esther? Does the Bible Promote Violence and Sexism?

by Clarke Dixon

Are we not supposed to be peacemakers? Yet in the closing chapters of the Book of Esther we find a near gloating over how many people the Jews kill:

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. . . . Now the other Jews who were in the king’s provinces . . . killed seventy-five thousand of those who hated them . . . and on the fourteenth day they rested and made that a day of feasting and gladness. Esther 9:5,16-17

Is the book of Esther not about Esther? Yet we find Mordecai, not Esther, being exalted in the final verses:

All the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the annals of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was next in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was powerful among the Jews and popular with his many kindred, for he sought the good of his people and interceded for the welfare of all his descendants. Esther 10:2-3

Esther is a true heroine in the story and yet she is not even mentioned in the final chapter. Instead Mordecai takes the spotlight. Must a man always have more glory than a woman in the end?

Critics say that the Bible takes us backwards into a more violent and sexist kind of world. Seeing how the Book of Esther ends we may wonder if they are correct. Let us take a look:

On the violence in Esther:

First, the violence is self defence. Only those who attacked would be killed. This is clear in the edict written in the name of the king:

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods . . . Esther 8:11 (emphasis added)

In the days of Esther, it was kill or be killed. There were no Canadian peace-keepers to call upon to be buffers between enemies. We might think there ought to have been some sort of diplomatic solution sought, but we cannot impose our ideals of diplomacy on the past.

One would have hoped the peoples within the Persian empire would have realized the danger of attacking the Jews now that they were allowed to defend themselves. But, as has always been the case, the Jews had their enemies who were not about to let go of an opportunity to attack. Had they not attacked, they would not have been killed.

Second, God’s people in Persia were ethical in their warfare. The original edict called for the genocide of the Jews plus the plundering of all their resources. The second edict allowed the Jews to defend themselves plus plunder the attacking enemies. The Jews did not take advantage of the opportunity to plunder. This fact is repeated three times for emphasis (9:10,15,16). Their warfare was motivated by self defence rather than greed. Just as the plunder was left alone, it is likely the women and children of the enemy were left alone also despite the edict allowing for violence against them.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence. For example, the borders of the ancient world were in constant flux as empires rose and fell with the aspirations of people bent on gaining the resources of other lands and people. Israel was given the land of Canaan, the Promised land, but no more. The aspiration was of a safe home marked by righteousness, not a vast empire marked by constant expansion and plundering.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to violence, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48

On the sexism in Esther:

First, the Book of Esther portrays the reality or the Persian empire, not the ideal of the Kingdom of God. The Persian Empire was sexist and patriarchal as most empires are. Therefore we should not be surprised that Mordecai seems to be more highly honoured than Esther. The queen in such an empire was basically a concubine with perks. Mordecai received greater honour than Esther, not because this is a Biblical ideal, but because that is what happens in an empire like the Persian empire.

Second, the Book of Esther is not called the Book of Mordecai. Mordecai may have been more highly honoured by the Persian empire, but Esther is honoured by Scripture and by the many people of God who have kept the Scriptures safe.

The Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism. Women were to be more highly esteemed. For example, in the Creation story a woman was created from Adam’s rib. In other words, a woman is not different and ‘less than’ like an animal, but the same, on equal footing.

If the Old Testament takes humanity a step forward from the ancient world with regards to sexism, Jesus takes us a leap forward. For example:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:38-42

We have become so used to better societal norms today that we easily miss just how astonishing and liberating the response of Jesus is here. “Mary has chosen the better part”, that is, a part not allowed in that day! Women were not allowed to learn from rabbis. The times they are a changin’!

When it comes to violence and sexism, we want to step forward into the Kingdom of Jesus rather than backwards into old empires. We want to take steps toward peacemaking and reconciliation, rather than toward violence. Jesus himself shows us the way in how he loves us and gives us the opportunity for reconciliation. We want to honour women and recognize equality rather than institute some kind of male superiority. Jesus again shows the way in how he honours women.

The Book of Esther was written in a time of violence and sexism, but it points forward to what we are praying for when we pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.  Let us step forward into Christ’s Kingdom, not backwards into old empires.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario, Canada.

Read Clarke Dixon’s blog, Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon.

 All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

February 13, 2016

The ‘Gratuitous Violence’ of the Old Testament

Judges 4:21 NIV But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.

Click here to read all of chapter four.

Peter Enns is a renown theologian, Biblical scholar, author and teacher at Eastern College. This is his 4th time here at C201, and his style seemed like just the right thing for a weekend study/devotional. For some of you today’s subject may raise more questions than provide answers. You may disagree with one of his conclusions, but I do believe that Peter has great respect for the text. Click the title below, not only to read the post, but see an image based on the verse cited above!

“people are just dying all over the place”—reading the Old Testament historical books

This semester [I’m] teaching a course on the Old Testament “historical books”—Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah. (I cover Chronicles as part of my Biblical Hermeneutics class under “midrash.”)

As I always do for my biblical canon courses, I read through that portion of the Bible during break. And as I’m revisiting these stories, I’ve found myself thinking, “Please, Lord, let these be greatly exaggerated if not largely manufactured stories.”

With hardly a break, I am struck (pun intended) by how casual and heartless the ancient Israelites were about violence and vengeance. The ancient Israelites, by and large, were plain old nasty, mean, and not the kind of people you’d want to cross—or even playfully tease.

. . . Or better: the Israelites we meet in the Old Testament were that way.

Frankly, I have no idea what “ancient Israelites” were actually like—those tending the sheep, growing their grain, telling stories to their children, hiding from invaders. We don’t really know anything about them. We just know of a precious few, and we only know them through what anonymous writers said about them probably many centuries later.

How fair were these writers? Were they even trying? What ax were they grinding? What was their deal?

At any rate, regardless of how they got there, the people we meet in these stories have issues, and you can’t help but wonder what the point of all this is in a holy book. If I were writing the Bible, I’d throw in some more positive stuff—like not glorying in impaling or beheading your enemies or people who want to take your stuff.

Or at least have God step in now and then and say, “Hey, will you people cut. it. out?! Enough of this already! If you only knew the shelf life these stories will get and how people are going to use them. . . . ”

But God seems OK with it. At least that’s what the writers have written.

Yes, reading the stories from conquest to exile can be an eye-opening experience, not for the faint of heart, and probably not without someone to talk it through with. Sometimes I wish the Bible came with a toll-free customer service number. (And no, that’s not what prayer is. Sheesh.)

Even leaving aside the whole conquest of Canaan (aka extermination of Canaanites and any other living thing), people are dropping like flies. It seems like major death is the end result of nearly every story you read. People are just gonna die. Brace yourself. And often those killings are portrayed as good, just, honorable, and normal—like, “What’s your problem? This is just what happens, you know?”

I started going through these books and listing the violence and general vindictive nastiness, but then stopped. I have a busy schedule. Plus it’s getting discouraging.

All of this reminds me of a couple of things I tend to harp on, and I think for good reason.

  1. Knowing something of when and why these stories were written might help us understand something of what the writers are trying to say. Discerning all this isn’t straightforward by any means, but I think it’s worth the effort.
  2. And after you’re done with all that, we readers of the Bible still have to decide what WE  are going to do with all of it, how we are going to process it for our life of faith here and now. And that’s not easy either.

In The Bible Tells Me So, I basically come down on these two things as follows:

  1. I think at that these stories were written in a tribalistic context, and thus reflect that context—this is how stories of gods and nations were told.  Further, the writers exaggerated and/or freely shaped the past for theological and/or propagandistic purposes.
  2. I do not think these stories should be read theologically uncritically, meaning simply accepted as prescribing what God is like. The Bible isn’t a rule book or owner’s manual, and we don’t get off the hook so easily. What God is like transcends the stories written about him.

I’ve said a mouthful here, I know. Agree or disagree, but my thinking comes from reading the Bible respectfully and carefully, not from an antagonistic or dismissive point of view.

The Bible—as it always has—raises plenty of questions on its own. And when we engage those questions, we are joining a long and honored conversation.