God, Scripture & War

Is God anti-war or pro-war? It depends upon who you ask — those inclined to support whatever state they live in (or its current government) or see some outcomes as more God-ordained than others are more likely to see God as supporting war, while those (like me) less inclined to support the state and its government, or who are much less likely to see the aims of the state as God-ordained, are far less likely to see God as endorsing whatever war the state wants to wage.

Because that’s the question. Not “Does God support war?” but “Does God support this current war we want (or don’t want) to wage?” And that suggests why the question is so difficult — in the Old Testament and the New Testament, God does not generally condemn or endorse abstractions, but rather is present in and deals almost exclusively with concrete and specific situations.

When we engage in ethics, we abstract. We cannot do otherwise. We distill general rules of conduct — “Do not steal” — that we also measure in the real world. Not all stealing is the same, and we also understand this. Most people understand that it is one thing, to use a very bad example, for a poor man to steal a loaf of bread because he’s hungry versus a rich man taking a poorer man’s land or property because the wealthy man wants more. A legal system, or elite opinion, or popular opinion, may or may not reflect that understanding, but human beings take their general principles and ground them in concrete situations. Both are stealing, but I suspect most folks understand that both situations are not morally or ethically equal.

Christian ethics has historically justified war (as I understand it) largely on the ground of defending those who cannot defend themselves. This is either an obligation to sovereigns to defend those who swear allegiance to those sovereigns (Luther’s justification for war), those who the sovereigns are pledged to defend, or for states to defend citizens (a modern updating of this medieval understanding), or for powerful states to defend those outside the state who are victims of violence (humanitarian war). The Roman Catholic Catechism (paragraphs 2307-2330), which I take as something of a gold standard on this subject ethically, talks at length about war, when war is morally acceptable, and how it should be fought. People of good conscience can argue about what constitutes defense — of the state, of its citizens, or of innocent victims (and what constitutes innocence).

[Paragraph] 2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

(And people of bad conscience can take advantage of those conversations, peddling militaristic and imperialist agendas as they use the language of defense.)

And this is fine so far as it goes. There are worse ethical positions to take. But my problem with the endeavor of Christian ethics is that the Bible, as we have it, is a story, not a legal code or philosophical speculation. Stories have narratives, legal codes and philosophies generally do not. And the overall narrative of the Bible as a story is God acting to save God’s people. God is the actor, we as God’s people are acted upon. Scripture is a collection of very subjective accounts of how God has acted and what it means that God has chosen us to be God’s people, told by God’s people over time. In some of these accounts, God is constantly present (the five books of the Torah, the pronouncements of the prophets) and in others God is conspicuously absent (Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, most of the post-exilic writings), leaving many different conversations about what it means to be God’s people in whatever circumstances God’s people find themselves (individually or as a community).

(By God’s people, I mean the people God has called to follow — Israel and the Church. They are one in the same, which is why the Old Testament is our history too. God speaking to Israel in Israel’s mess is God speaking to us in our mess as well.)

Christian ethics on war is completely disconnected from the scriptural experience of war and how God is present in war, largely because ethics must consider human beings as actors (confronting alleged evil and injustice) while scripture deals with human beings largely as being acted upon (if there is an evil God confronts, it is us, God’s people). Again, the idea that war can be waged on in defense of the state, or the defenseless, is a good position, but it is not the scriptural position, neither in the Jewish scripture or the Gospel.

Consider these two instances. First, in the seventh chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, God lays out the rules that Israel is to follow as in conquers Canaan:

When the Lord your God brings you to the land that you are about to enter and possess, and He dislodges many nations before you — the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations much larger than you — and the Lord your God delivers them to you and you defeat them, you must doom them to destruction: grant them them no terms and give them no quarter. You shall not intermarry with them: do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your children away from Me to worship other gods, and the Lord’s anger will blaze forth against you and He will promptly wipe you out. Instead, this is what you shall do to them: you shall tear own their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire. (Deuteronomy 7:1-5, JPS Tanakh)

You must doom them to destruction.” There is nothing defensive about this war, this war of conquest to acquire lands currently occupied by others, land defined in scripture not by boundaries or physical borders, but by the people who currently occupy it. And there is nothing merciful about these commands — God is intolerant, cruel and merciless in his commands to Israel to invade Canaan and conquer its inhabitants. God justifies that intolerance and cruelty by saying these measures are necessary to preserve the covenant that God’s people have with God. If the temptation to worship other gods exist, clearly God’s people will take it.

Yet there is absolutely nothing defensive about this war ethically and God is wholeheartedly commanding it. (I can see an Israeli Defense Forces rabbi preaching this to soldiers.)

Second example. Jeremiah is my favorite prophet — he is cranky, disloyal, unpatriotic, and he refuses to support the troops. In the twenty-first chapter of Jeremiah, Jerusalem is under siege by the armies of Babylon. Jeremiah, who has made a nuisance of himself criticizing the war effort and noting that Israel is paying the price for failing to remain faithful to its covenant with God, is asked by King Zedekiah to “please inquire of the Lord on our behalf, for King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon is is attacking us. Perhaps the Lord will act for our sake in accordance with his wonders.” (Jeremiah 21:2, JPS Tanakh) Even as Jeremiah is constantly in trouble with the king, his ministers, and the temple priests for preaching against the state, they still come to him — recognizing that he speaks the words of God — and ask that he beg God’s help in the current war.

But it is not to be.

Jeremiah answered them: “Thus shall you say to Zedekiah: Thus said the Lord, the God of Israel: I am going to turn around the weapons in your hands with which you are battling outside the wall against those who are besieging you — the King of Babylon and the Chaldeans — and I will take them into the midst of this city [Jerusalem]; and I Myself will battle against you [plural] with an outstretched mighty arm, with anger and rage and great wrath. I will strike the inhabitants of this city, man and beast; they shall die by terrible pestilence. And then — declares the Lord — I will deliver King Zedekiah of Judah and his courtiers and the people — those in the city who survive the pestilence, the sword, and the famine — into the hands of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, into the hands of their enemies, in the hands of those who seek their lives. He will put them to the sword without pity, without compassion, without mercy.

And to this people you shall say: Thus said the Lord: I will set before you the way of life and the way of death. Whoever remains in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence; but whoever leaves and goes over to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live; he shall at least gain his life. For I have have set My face against this city for evil and not for good — declares the Lord. It shall be delivered into the hands of the King of Babylon, who will destroy it with fire. (Jeremiah 21:1-10, JPS Tanakh)

If ever there were a proper, ethical defensive war, one in which the people are fully justified in waging war to defend themselves, the state, and those who cannot defend themselves (women, children, the elderly), then this is it. God’s people are in Jerusalem, besieged by the armies of Babylon, defending their homes, their land, their country, themselves. If there’s something that two milennia of Christian ethics on the subject ought to teach us, it’s that this is a righteous war. One God ought to support.

And yet where is God? “I Myself will battle against you with an outstretched mighty arm, with anger and rage and great wrath. I will strike the inhabitants of this city, man and beast; they shall die by terrible pestilence.” That’s where God is, in the invading army, in those besieging the City of David, in those killing and looting and destroying. The city, the place where God resides in the temple, will be destroyed by fire. God, using the armies of the Babylonians, will put the residents of Jerusalem “to the sword without pity, without compassion, without mercy.” The only survivors will be those who run away, who surrender to the Babylonians, who leave the city.

(I can see an Israel Defense Forces rabbi, without any sense of irony and stripping it completely of any context, quoting this passage to the residents of Gaza or Ramallah as an example of what Israel intends to do to them and the places where they live.)

Of course, for Jeremiah, Babylon — God’s “war club” (Jeremiah 51:20) — will itself not go unpunished for what it has done to Judah. “Thus said the Lord: See, I am rousing a destructive wind against Babylon and the inhabitants of Leb-kamai [Chaldea], I will send strangers [or winnowers] against Babylon, and they shall winnow her. And they shall strip her land bare; they shall beset her on all sides on the day of disaster. Let the archer draw his bow, and let him stand ready in his coat of mail! Show no pity to her young man, wipe out her host! Let them fall slain in the land of Chaldea, pierced through in her streets.” (Jeremiah 51:1-4, JPS Tanakh) Just as Babylon has been God’s vengeance upon Israel, so will Persia be God’s vengeance on Babylon.

The conquest of God’s people and the scattering of its elites in exile is not a permanent condition. Speaking through Jeremiah, God promises:

And I Myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have banished them, and I will bring them back to their pasture, where they shall be fertile and increase. And I will appoint over them shepherds who will tend them; they shall no longer fear or be dismayed, and none of them shall be missing — declares the Lord.

See, a time is coming — declares the Lord — when I will raise up a true branch of David’s line. He shall reign as king as shall prosper and he shall do what is right in the land. In his days Judah shall be delivered and Israel shall dwell secure. And the name by which he shall be called: “The Lord is our Vindicator.” (Jeremiah 23:3-6, JPS Tanakh)

In this instance (or in many), God does not micromanage human history — arrange events so that they make abstract moral sense to us — but rather God promises a future deliverance, a deliverance as unseen by Israelites in Jeremiah’s time as the promise of descendants as numerous as the stars or the sand was unseen to Abraham. Faith is trust that God will fulfill that promise, whatever conditions God’s people find themselves in. The brutality of human history becomes a way for God to make God’s love and mercy for God’s people known.

It is actually the same with the passage from Deuteronomy. We know how hard it is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and you’d think, given the human capacity for evil and destructiveness, that it would be a whole lot easier for human beings to kill their neighbors than to love them. But it turns out, that isn’t true. God instructs Israel to conquer, kill and destroy the Canaanites without pity. Israel proves incapable or unwilling to do this (indeed, something this passage suggests to me is that there may be some commands from God that human beings shouldn’t obey). Israel loots the Canaanites (they are not supposed to) and enslaves some of them, but it quickly becomes clear in the Book of Joshua that Canaanites, for whatever reason, remain in the land. And their gods become an attractive nuisance, something Israel simply cannot ignore or leave well enough alone. So God makes a pronouncement to Israel:

An angel of the Lord came up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you up from Egypt and took you into the land which I had promised on oath to your fathers. And I said, ‘I will never break My covenant with you. And you, for your part, must make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you must tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed Me — look what you have done! Therefore, I have resolved not to drive them out before you; they shall become your oppressors, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” As the angel of the Lord spoke these words to the Israelites, the people broke into weeping. So they named that place Bochim, and they offered sacrifices to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5, JPS Tanakh)

The Lord again repeats this pronouncement later in the same chapter (vv 20-23). And again, this eventually becomes a way for God to show mercy to God’s people, to redeem them from their troubles, to forgive them their sins and renew God’s promises. In fact, my favorite prayer in all of scripture comes in the stories of the Judges (figures analogous to ancient Rome’s dictators, those who temporarily led the city-state during times of war and crisis) in the tenth chapter. Israel has, again, fallen under the oppressive rule of the Philistines and the Ammonites because God was so incensed with Israel’s idolatry.

Then the Israelites cried out to the Lord, “We stand guilty before You, for we have forsaken our God and served the Baalim.” But the Lord said to the Israelites, “[I have rescued you ] from the Egyptians, from the Amorites, from the Ammonites, and from the Philistines. The Sidonians, Amalek, and Maon [Midian in the Septuagint] also oppressed you; and when you cried out to Me, I saved you from them. Yet you have forsaken Me and have served other gods. No, I will not deliver you again. Go cry to the gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress!” But the Israelites implore the Lord: “We stand guilty! Do to us as you see fit; only save us this day!” They removed the alien gods from among them and served the Lord; and He could not bear the miseries of Israel. (Judges 10:10-16, JPS Tanakh)

We stand guilty! Do to us as you see fit; only save us this day!” That’s the prayer of the desperate sinner, someone who has nothing but the grace of God to rely upon. Again, I suspect it makes no rational sense to us because we wonder — if God truly cared for God’s people, how could God allow that kind of misfortune to befall them? But God is not an abstraction to Israel, God is not an idea to be contemplated or considered, God is not a Platonic ideal. God is a reality that is experienced in every bit of human life, bound up as much in sorrow as joy, and enmeshed deeply in the seemingly senseless events of human life and history.

And that includes the brutality and cruelty of war.

Time and again, God uses the wreckage of the human condition to incarnate God’s grace, to be present with and for God’s people. Because it is all there is. Israel is commanded to annihilate the Canaanites, and does not. In disobedience, there are consequences, yet God does not abandon Israel. Israel demands a king, and God sees this as a rejection of God’s rule over God’s people and warns Israel what having a king means (1 Samuel 8), and yet God clearly makes promises to Israel that will be fulfilled through this king (Jeremiah 23, among others). David promises to build God a permanent temple in the city he just conquered (Jerusalem), a house God rejects (2 Samuel 7), and yet that temple gets built (by Solomon) and becomes the presence of God among Israel, so significant that at the end of Chronicles (and the end of the Hebrew Bible), the King of Persia pledges to rebuild that very temple (2 Chronicles 22-23), to restore God’s presence among God’s people.

And God most clearly makes God’s salvation known to the world in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We human beings encounter God’s grace at its most immediate and incarnate — a grace we can touch! — and we reject it. Not the idea of grace and salvation — oh, those are nice ideas — but actual grace and salvation in the flesh. We hand that grace over to our empire and demand the empire kill it. Dead. As dead as possible, so grace incarnate need never disturb our pleasant notions of grace ever again. But God won’t have that. God rises from that, from that encounter with us at our murderous and fearful worst, forgives us and invites us to follow. God shows us that our empire, our power, is meaningless, that it can kill but it cannot destroy. That’s God’s promise is bigger than the empire’s power.

Because Jesus is where the story that begins with God making a promise to Abraham comes to an “end.” Jesus is how all those promises are fulfilled and made true.

Nothing in the New Testament tells me that God empowers those of us who have been called to follow Jesus to use violence to compel or coerce others. Or even to save ourselves or ensure our survival. In this, I think much of Christian ethics (including Martin Luther’s writings on the subject) has gone off the rails. It has us constantly balancing abstractions (and mediated images from far away are abstractions, even as they portray real events) and when we do that, we lose contact with the very real suffering we inflict upon others. Nor does anything I have encountered in scripture empower those called to follow to confront evil, because the greatest evil God confronts is us, God’s people, and God surrenders completely to that evil to show us that our evil in pointless and meaningless. That it has no real power over anything. That what truly matters is God’s love for us.

And yet while nothing in the Gospel prepared the followers of Jesus for inheriting the empire, inherit it we did. Like the monarchy Israel shouldn’t have wanted, the empire we shouldn’t have ever wanted gave us a great deal worth having. As well as much worth rejecting. But it’s the only history we have, and God has been present in all of it, even when the church has been at its worst, forgiving and loving and caring for and redeeming God’s people. Using human means — you and me — to be that love, care and forgiveness, whatever circumstances we are in.

War and empire are human realities, realities we will never be without this side of the eschaton. We can choose not to participate in them — I believe that non-participation in empire, war and violence is what Jesus has called us to do and be — but we cannot say God is not present in them. It is, however, not a self-righteous non-participation, not a demand the world comply or obey with what we believe to be God’s command, not an attempt to rearrange the world to our liking. Rather, it is an understanding that the temporal struggle is not all there is, that God is present in all of history (and not just ours when it goes as we think it ought to, when we win), that winners and losers in temporal struggles don’t matter in terms of God’s saving acts in and for the world. So we must be present in empire and war too, to be God’s means in their midst.

That reality, rather than the abstraction — “Is God for or against war?” — is what matters.

Shamuses & Private Dicks

Detectives, I mean. Gum shoes, the kind Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and hundreds of other writers, second and third-raters unworthy of replacing Chandler and Hammett’s typewriter ribbons, gave us.

My main exposure to the private detective is through the 1940s and 1950s radio show, and I’ve listened to a lot of old radio shows in my life. Given the circumstances Jennifer and I are in right now, radio and the occasional podcast are the only media we have access to. So, what follows is a review of radio private eyes. (I hope to do the same for comedians, cops, and westerns at some point in time).

The plot for a typical half-hour radio private detective show varied little — someone disappeared, something was stolen, someone died — and the gumshoe is hired (usually after some witty reparte) to find/solve “the case.” There’s always a dame or a doll involved (there is a difference, I just can’t put it into words), and sometimes the dame or doll is also the bad guy’s moll. Marlowe was best at rebuffing the advances of the fairer sex, while Johnny Dollar was always falling for someone. It was the 1940s, and this was radio, so no one got much of anywhere… There’s as goon or two or three, the private dick would conked on the head a time or two (Marlowe was always getting beaten into unconsciousness), a fact or clue quickly and conveniently remembered, and a cynical police detective lieutenant with a heart of gold on speed dial (or what passed for speed dial in 1946) and there at the end to make sure the bad guys, nabbed by the 22nd minute, were hauled off to the pokey. Withoutout the benefit of a Miranda warning, of course. It wouldn’t have mattered, as the bad guys were always guilty and they always confessed.

My personal favorite is Philip Marlowe, played on the big screen by Humphrey Bogart, Elliot Gould and Robert Mitchum (Robert Mitchum!!) and on the radio by Gerald Mohr. Mohr may have been one awful actor, but he made a perfectly serviceable radio Marlowe. He does the hard-bitten semi-monotone just right, and he (and the writers) get the character’s cynical nobility right as well. The show is full of dames, thugs, Los Angeles locations, big cars driving noisily down Pacific Coast Highway, and more than its fair share of violence. It may have been a rule for Marlowe to get knocked out once every episode — you’d think, after a while, such a man would suffer some brain damage and be utterly uninsurable. Chandler may have hated the radio show, but I suspect it was because there’s only so much you can do given the constraints of 26 minutes of radio story-telling time, and that every ending has to be a happy one. This is a fun show to listen to.

Jack Webb, on the other hand, makes an awful private detective in Pat Novak for Hire. His monotone, which works for Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet, is overwrought here (it’s hard to imagine that Webb also played a jazz trumpeter who solved crimes in his spare time in Pete Kelly’s Blues). And overwritten. Chandler’s prose tortured, strangled and turned deep purple here, the result of too little oxygen and imagination. The fact he works for a fat man is also a deliberate rip off of the Nero Wolfe concept (with Webb’s Novak being the “Archie” character of the series). Webb became so identified with one character — Joe Friday — it’s hard to imagine him doing anything else. Once, in Saudi Arabia, I caught the last two thirds of an early 1960s film, THE LAST TIME I SAW ARCHIE, about the WWII adventures of Arch Hall, Sr., the man who made all those awful films starring Arch Hall, Jr., with Robert Mitchum (!!!) as Hall and Webb playing his sidekick (!!!!!). It was an odd casting, produced by Webb’s Mark VII production company, but it worked, in a very strange way.

Speaking of Nero Wolfe, Sydney Greenstreet made fantastic Nero Wolfe in “The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe,” accompanied by a series of Archies that included the venerable Gerald Mohr (for as crummy an actor as he was, he never lacked work, a sure sign he filled his niche very well) and Gunsmoke veteran Lawrence Dobkin. I’m not sure the half-hour radio show format did this show and its characters justice (it didn’t do justice to Marlowe). But Greenstreet did cranky, meal and orchid-obsessed well.

Johnny Dollar (sounds like the name of an Arch Hall, Jr., character) wasn’t really a private detective — he was a “fabulous freelance insurance investigator with the action-packed expense account!” It sounds so silly and absurd that the character must have been based on a real person. The show would typically start with Johnny getting a call from some big insurance firm in Hartford, Connecticut, wanting a full report before paying some fantastically large claim — $100,000 say. The show would then follow Johnny Dollar’s narration as he goes through his expense account: “Item 1, $2.50, cab fare to Union Station to board a train to Timbuktu” or whatever. There were three Johnny Dollars: Charles Russell, Bob Bailey and Mandel Kramer. Russell, and the writers for the show at the time, played Dollar much more in the Spade/Marlowe vein. Bailey played the character with a great deal more sentimentality — the fabulous freelance insurance investigator with a heart of gold.” He was always falling for dolls and helping kids and doing jobs for free for those who couldn’t afford to pay (the sure sign of a virtuous thief). Kramer, who was a semi-regular on the 1970s-era CBS Radio Mystery Theater, was much more low-key in his approach to playing Johnny Dollar.

And finally, there’s Candy Madsen, the only gal gumshoe in the bunch. Not as sophisticated a show as any of the above (all of them had “real” music with an orchestra and everything, while Madsen had to do with an organ), it’s still a fun listen. Candy never had a doll problem (and, I’m guessing, neither did her male sidekick Rembrandt, which makes him as fun character on 1940s radio), but she did have a thing for the hard-bitten police detective lieutenant, and they get engaged or married or somesuch at the end of the series.

I’ve not listened enough to the Sam Spade radio shows to get a sense of the show (it sounds and feels like Marlow in San Francisco), and there are a whole host of lesser radio dicks I’ve never found terribly interesting.

Next time: cops.

Classical Hebrew Text Update

An update to this post. It turns out that the quote from the New York Times, Reuters and (as of Wednesday) National Public Radio (which did a piece on this for All Things Considered), “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful,” attributed only to a “classical Hebrew text,” comes from something called the Koholet Rabbah (קהלת רבה), a collection of commentaries on Ecclesiastes (or Qoholeth, “The Teacher”) compiled from various sources and edited sometime between the sixth century A.D. and the eighth century A.D. — roughly the same period as the Qur’an, according to Islamic history.

I have not found the text of the Koholet Rabbah online, but I did find a specific citation — 7,16 — cited by several online sources, beginning with this article about the children of Sderot.

What toasts my Poptarts most about this is how sloppy the reporting has been in attributing the quote:

“He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

solely to a “classic Hebrew text.” This is reporting at its double-double animal style sloppiest (without the delicious burger goodness). I googled the quote and found the source in one search. I go to a decent theological library, I could probably find the book in translation and check the exact quote — what bit of Qoholeth is it referencing, what is the context for the statement, what is the original source.

The Reuters reporter not following this, yeah, that I can get. Wire service work requires more speed than precision. But there’s no excuse for someone at the NY Times or NPR not to follow this up and find out where that quote came from. No end of good Christian and Jewish theological libraries a 30 minute cab ride from midtown Manhattan or NPR’s DC offices.

There Should be Something About That in the Employee Handbook

As Jennifer and I continue our temporary (we do not know how temporary) sojourn on the West Side of Chicago in a majority African-American nieghborhood, we’re having some interesting (and generally pleasant) encounters with the neighbors. Good folks, most of them, who are not quite sure what to make of our living there.

Last week, when the weather was warmer and Jennifer and I were out on our bicycles, as we were returning home, a man shouted to us from across the street. I couldn’t tell what he was saying the first time around, but it turned out, the young man walking the dog across the vacant lot was propositioning us:

“You wanna buy some dope?”

He shouted this several times. We ignored him, but I had this urge to tell the young man with the dog: the white folks on the bicycles, probably not the best customers for your wares. They are not here to acquire illicit substances. You will also have a much a longer, and more successful career, if you do not shout “you wanna buy some dope” across open streets.

A couple of summers ago, I spent some time wandering around the South Side of Chicago on my bicycle, about as far south as 85th st. I saw a lot of nice cars stop at street corners, windows roll down, and people walk off those street corners to talk with the drivers of cars. No, I never actually saw anything change hands (when on a bicycle on a busy, pothole-filled city street, attention is wisely fixed elsewhere). When I stopped at those same corners for red lights, no one ever wanted to talk to me. And I have a very nice, custom-built bike (built it myself!). But nothing about that bike, or me in my cycling gear, screams “narcotics buyer!” If anything, it screams “bike cop.” Which I was mistaken for, once, in DC. Even though I have no cop gear around my waist.

Going Medieval

One of the things the the loudest and most obnoxious supporters of the never-ending “War on Terror” have consistently said since September 11, 2001, is that the United States and Israel (and sometimes Europe, depending on how charitable toward Europeans they feel that day) represent the best and most positive parts of “modern civilization,” a modernity in need of a vigorous and violent defense.

Because of that, the governments of the “West” have an obligation to use as much force as necessary to defeat, subdue and even annihilate the backwards and “medieval” forces of Islam, bent as they are on destroying individualism, freedom, capitalism, the nation state and technological civilization. Or Christianity and Judaism. Or secularism and civilization. Take your pick, the justifications differ. The murderous war and policing of the West, the suffering and deaths — oh, I’m sorry, the “liberation” — of non-Westerners is absolutely necessary to defend against the forces of unreason and barbarism. To remake the world, by force, in the image of the modern, individualized, civilized and reasoned West.

So, what do you suppose would happen if suddenly a core Western state began to use medieval reasoning itself to justify murderous violence? Because that is exactly what appears to have happened in Israel during that nation-state’s war on and in Gaza earlier this year.

According to a Reuters report published on 20 March:

Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January’s Gaza offensive they were fighting a “religious war” against gentiles, according to one army commander’s account published Friday.

“Their message was very clear: we are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land,” he said.

The New York Times took the story up the following day, quoting the same soldier (who spoke using a pseudonym):

Several of the testimonies, published by an institute that runs a premilitary course and is affiliated with the left-leaning secular kibbutz movement, showed a distinct impatience with religious soldiers, portraying them as self-appointed holy warriors.

A soldier, identified by the pseudonym Ram, is quoted as saying that in Gaza, “the rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land. This was the main message, and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war.”

The New York Times continued:

Those who oppose the religious right have been especially concerned about the influence of the military’s chief rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, who is himself a West Bank settler and who was very active during the war, spending most of it in the company of the troops in the field.

He took a quotation from a classical Hebrew text and turned it into a slogan during the war: “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.”

A controversy then arose when a booklet handed out to soldiers was found to contain a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy. The Defense Ministry reprimanded the rabbi.

Neither Reuters nor the New York Times state what that “classical Hebrew text” Rabbi General Rontzki was citing, nor did Ha’aretz when it reviewed literature distributed to Israeli soldiers before and during the Gaza War. Instead, it cited a number of pamphlets spouting religious, militarist and nationalistic ideas with only vague hints at any guiding scriptural or religious principle:

The IDF rabbinate, also quoting Rabbi Aviner, describes the appropriate code of conduct in the field: “When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral. These are not games at the amusement park where sportsmanship teaches one to make concessions. This is a war on murderers. ‘A la guerre comme a la guerre.'”

This view is also echoed in publications signed by Rabbis Chen Halamish and Yuval Freund on Jewish consciousness. Freund argues that “our enemies took advantage of the broad and merciful Israeli heart” and warns that “we will show no mercy on the cruel.”

“A la guerre comme a la guerre.” I suppose that’s in the Torah somewhere, that little bit where God spoke in French to Israel in the wilderness, substituting baguettes for manna that day. Or maybe that’s in some midrash written by Charlemagne or Napoleon.

No, it took the Jerusalem Post to actually say what “classical Hebrew text” was in play, at least from one’s rabbi’s perspective, citing a letter from a former Sephardic army rabbi:

All civilians living in Gaza are collectively guilty for Kassam attacks on Sderot, former Sephardi chief rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has written in a letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Eliyahu ruled that there was absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.

The letter, published in Olam Katan [Small World], a weekly pamphlet to be distributed in synagogues nationwide this Friday, cited the biblical story of the Shechem massacre (Genesis 34) and Maimonides’ commentary (Laws of Kings 9, 14) on the story as proof texts for his legal decision.

According to Jewish war ethics, wrote Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of Kassam rockets.

Maimonides. Moses ben Maimon, a great Torah scholar (among other things), born in Muslim Spain in A.D. 1135 and died in Muslim Egypt in A.D. 1204. Definitely not a modern, and only tangentially a European by today’s definition.

The ruling in question derives from Maimonides’ understanding (writing in his Laws of Kings) of Genesis 34, the story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem and the revenge Jacob’s/Israel’s sons take on Shechem. The story goes like this: Shechem, a non-Israelite, is smitten with Dinah, rapes her, and then tries to convince her to marry him. He asks his father Hamor to speak to her father Jacob and make it happen. “Meanwhile, Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter – a thing not to be done.” (Gen. 34:7, all biblical citations from the JPS Tanakh)

Jacob’s sons, speaking “with guile” (v.13), tell Hamor and Shechem that they cannot “give our sister to a man who is uncircumcised, for that is a disgrace among us. Only on this condition will we agree with you; that you become like us in that every male among you is circumcised. Then we will give our daughters to you and take your daughters to ourselves; and we will dwell among you and become as one kindred. But if you will not listen to us and become circumcised, we will take our daughter and go.” (Gen. 34:14-17)

All of the men of Shechem eagerly agree. Dinah must have been some catch given what the men of an entire tribe were willing to do so that one man among them could marry. Then, as they are recovering from their painful ordeal:

Simeon and Levi, two of Jacob’s sons, brothers of Dinah, took each his sword, came upon the city unmolested, and slew all the males. They put Hamor and his son Shechem to the sword, took Dinah out of Shechem’s house, and went away. The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been defiled. They seized their flocks and herds and asses, all that was inside the town and outside; all their wealth, all their children, and their wives, all that was in the houses, they took as captives and booty. (Gen. 34:25-29)

In his treatise The Laws of Kings, which covers warfare and other matters of state, Maimonides wrote this (if this web site can be trusted) to describe why it was Shechem had been put to the sword – as descendants of Noah (Noahides), they were under the seven laws given to Noah, and had a responsibility to uphold them. Laws of of Kings 9, 14 explains what that means:

In what way must [Noahides] fulfill the commandment to establish courts of justice? They are obligated to set up judges and magistrates in every major city to judge according to the above six laws, to warn the nation [regarding their observance]; A noahide who breaks one of these seven laws – is executed by decapitation. [additional text: for example: an idolater, or blasphemer, or murderer, or someone who has had one of the six illicit relations according to [Noahide law], or robbed even the worth of a peruta, or consumed any amount of “torn limb” or “torn meat”, or witnessed someone breaking one of these laws, and did not judge and sentance him – all these people are executed by decapitation.] For this all the inhabitants of Shechem were liable for capital punishment. This was because Shechem kidnapped [someone] and they witnessed this and knew [what he had done], but did not judge him. A Noahide is [may be] executed [on the basis of the testimony of] one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No prior warning [is required]. Relatives may serve as witnesses. However, a woman may not serve as a witness or a judge [in Noahide law].

No prior warning needed! A woman may not service as a witness or a judge! How progressive and modern, this voice from the 12th century!

So, under this understanding, anyone who witnesses a crime, an outrage, an act of evil or violence, and does nothing about it, is as guilty as the actual perpetrator and is as liable to the same capital punishment God outlines to Noah in Genesis 9:6 — “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man his blood shall be shed; For in His image did God make man.” (Who among us is this innocent?) This is the medieval principle that some in Israel are demanding form the basis of nation-state military actions.

At least Hamas, Al Qaeda (and its affiliates and franchisees) and fine folks of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade grounded their killing of civilians at least in part upon modern political theory, as opposed to entirely in ancients texts, stating that all citizens of a democratic state are morally responsible for the actions taken by that state in their name, and thus there are no “innocents” in a democracy.

Now, far be it from to tell a group of sephardic rabbis (or anyone else, for that matter) how they ought to interpret scripture. They did it long before I came along it will be doing it long after I’m gone. But I have always had a problem with trying to distill law from scripture, to use it as the guide for human ethical action, because it isn’t really about us doing stuff, it’s about God doing stuff to and for us. We human beings are the object of the action, while God is the subject. Scripture is the very human musing on what it means to be acted upon by God – it is revelation of God, not revelation from God (though it contains some of that) – and what does it mean to be God’s people. There aren’t always answers, good bad or otherwise.

But as God’s people, we have experienced God acting (in scripture and our lives), time and again, to save us, to redeem us, to show us that they have not been abandoned to their own devices, left to wallow in our own sinfulness. This is the connection between the so-called “Old” and “New” testaments, it’s what links Israel and the Church (indeed, they are the same), and it’s what makes the two cannons one continuing story. Our story. Of what God has done for us.

So it helps to read and consider the whole story – in this case, all of Genesis 34. And Maimonides’ reading (as endorsed by Rabbi Eliyahu) of Genesis 34 completely ignores the final exchange between Jacob/Israel and his sons:

Jacob said to Simon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites; my men are few in number, so that if they unite against me and attack me, I and my house will be destroyed.” But they answered, “should our sister be treated like a whore?” (Gen. 34:30-31)

It’s left completely up in the air as to whether or not the actions taken by Israel’s sons are proper. Jacob is concerned – now he and his sons are potentially vulnerable. They have shown themselves to be bad neighbors who are willing to misrepresent themselves – to pretend to invite a group of people into the covenant with God as defined by circumcision – in order to kill and plunder. The ruse is clever, and it works in this instance, but it’s also very risky. Who will trust them in the future? Jacob and his sons are strangers in this land, outnumbered and potentially very vulnerable.

And yet the sons are correct – family honor is at stake, and without doing something, it would be clear that the daughters of Israel could be had for nothing. Neither question is answered. So the tension of this very human situation remains morally unresolved. It is unclear what the right or proper course of action is, it is only clear what the story tells us was done.

It’s easy to take scripture and try to turn it into a dry legal code or a how-to-guide for life, a narrative without meaning. It’s also interesting how selective the use of Maimonides’ writings are. Granted, he speaks only of capital punishment, but the passage he cites as his justification speaks also of looting, pillaging and the taking of captives (women and children). Why aren’t the rabbis of the Israel Defense Forces telling the soldiers of Israel that, in addition to killing Palestinian men, it’s also perfectly compatible with the Torah to enslave children and women, to loot and steal? (Maybe they are, and I just haven’t been able to find it.) After all, looting and enslaving happens a great deal in scripture. Most of the time, it’s not punished or even condemned. It just happens.

Is it because killing Palestinians, showing them no mercy, serves the interests of the Israeli state, as seen by some (many, probably) while enslaving them does not? (It’s funny, now that I think about, but why is it perfectly okay for the state to kill people but not enslave them?) But what of Jacob’s question? Is it not still pertinent today, 3,000 years later? Is this not a question supporters of the state of Israel – especially those most intensely committed to existence, survival and even moral superiority – should consider? Jacob himself, the state’s namesake, asked it. Why can’t they?

In fact, isn’t this a question the supporters of every nation-state anywhere should be asking themselves?