On Laments, and the Bashing of Infants on Rocks

The folks over at the blog P.OST: AN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY FOR THE AGE TO COME (it’s a fascinating blog I read frequently, and it’s sharpened my understanding of how I read scripture) have an interesting take on Psalm 137, which begins as a lament in exile and ends as, well, as a wish for mass murder…

(1) By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
(2) On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(3) For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
(4) How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
(5) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!
(6) Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
(7) Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to its foundations!”
(8) O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!
(9) Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!

That last line is troublesome to many. What to make of such an aspiration, such a desire? (I wrote a song based on this psalm, and wanted very much to incorporate that last line, but the song wouldn’t let me, as much as I tried.) For the folks at P.OST, while the psalm is part of “our story” as Israel/church, we don’t “have the right” to misinterpret this verse by somehow assuming it belongs specifically to us, or speaks to our time and our circumstances:

We don’t have to suppose that these are our sacred texts. There is nothing wrong with rejecting the psalm as a “lament belonging exclusively to the piety of ancient Israel”. The Bible means what it meant and speaks to us on that basis. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.

Fine. I guess I can agree with this, so far as it goes. This particular psalm is the product of a time and place, and speaks to a circumstance — life in exile along to Euphrates River, serving the very people who drug you into exile — that is not ours. So, the sentiment at the end doesn’t have to be ours either.

Except… There have been times in my life, like the circumstances surrounding the end of my first internship while at seminary, that left my feeling very angry, very alone, very abandoned. It was that very experience that gave me the ability to see in scripture something of the story of my life, and the story of the church (I have sketched an outline for a book that compares the fate of the church today in the face of modernity and enlightenment to conquest by Assyrians and Babylonians, and that we face another exile, on the banks of rivers of Babylon, serving and entertaining cruel masters who have destroyed our cities and carried us off). How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land, especially to people who demand we sing for their amusement?

These are human feelings, feelings that are no strangers to us even as God’s people. As is the desire for vengeance, to see the pain and suffering of those who have inflicted such on us. And it’s okay to have them. To speak them. To even give them up to God in prayer. Anger as well as sadness and despair is one of the marks of lament.

Note, however, what the psalm does not say or do. It proclaims a judgment upon Babylon, and calls down blessing upon those who will destroy it. Who will murder its children. It is confident in that judgement. The one making the lament does not seek God’s approval to go and himself (I’m assuming here) inflict vengeance upon the Babylonians, and their descendants. It does not agitate, or organize, or demand. It does not call for war or liberation. It’s not the call of the powerful with a state, an army, and an arsenal. It’s not Genesis 34. This is the cry of the powerless, the conquered, the scattered, and it is assumed in the passage that the vengeance coming upon doomed Babylon and its daughters will be done by someone else.

It will be God’s vengeance. Not Israel’s. Not ours.

The vengeance of God, in this instance, is a thing to be trusted in and waited upon. It invokes the primal saving act of God, the rescue of God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, from that horrible moment when Israel believed itself done, ready to be overrun, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s rapidly advancing army:

Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.  The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.

This may not be pleasant thing to hear, and it may shock our modern (or post-axial) sensibilities to hear one of God’s people invoking God’s blessing upon horrific violence. But Psalm 137 gives us space, not just to lament in sorrow, but also in rage, and even to express our desire for murderous retribution. It is okay to want these things.

At the same time, the passage is coherent with the rest of God’s saving action for Israel, and Israel’s understanding of the ways its God has redeemed it time and again — through miraculous acts that demand Israel’s patience and it’s inaction. This is still true, and because of that, we can read this psalm without simply or solely discarding it. However, it’s not okay to do violence because our vindication, our vengeance, our redemption belongs to God and to God alone. Who will fight for us. We have only to be silent, and to wait.

God is Not With You This Day

For some reason, I cannot help but remember this Bible passage from the 35th chapter of 2 Chronicles when I think of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and reports that he is pressing for some kind of unilateral Israeli military attack on Iran, possibly to influence the U.S. election:

(20) After all this, when Josiah had prepared the temple, Neco king of Egypt went up to fight at Carchemish on the Euphrates and Josiah went out to meet him. (21) But he sent envoys to him, saying, “What have we to do with each other, king of Judah? I am not coming against you this day, but against the house with which I am at war. And God has commanded me to hurry. Cease opposing God, who is with me, lest he destroy you.” (22) Nevertheless, Josiah did not turn away from him, but disguised himself in order to fight with him. He did not listen to the words of Neco from the mouth of God, but came to fight in the plain of Megiddo. (23) And the archers shot King Josiah. And the king said to his servants, “Take me away, for I am badly wounded.” (24) So his servants took him out of the chariot and carried him in his second chariot and brought him to Jerusalem. And he died and was buried in the tombs of his fathers. All Judah and Jerusalem mourned for Josiah. (25) Jeremiah also uttered a lament for Josiah; and all the singing men and singing women have spoken of Josiah in their laments to this day. They made these a rule in Israel; behold, they are written in the Laments. (2 Chronicles 35:2-25, ESV)

There is no obvious analogy to draw — Egypt was not at war or even actively hostile to Judah in the Bible account, while Iran is actively hostile to Israel, and Iran’s resources and reach were nothing compared to that of Egypt’s at the time. 
Except that what strikes me here is the portrayal of King Josiah of Judah’s absolute recklessness. He need not have picked a fight with Pharaoh Neco (who ended up choosing several of his successors, according to the Chronicles account). In many ways, this is a stunning account. (The version in 2 Kings lacks the detail, merely saying that Josiah joined battle with Neco at Megiddo as the Egyptian army was on its way to do battle with Assyria.) Josiah was the good king — the priest Hilkiah finds and reads the 
Book of Moses, and Josiah leads the people of Judah in repenting, celebrating the passover in a way it had not been kept

… in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a passover as was kept by Josiah… (2 Chronicles 35:18, ESV)

So, far all his adherence to the covenant (something I don’t credit Netanyahu with either), the account that Josiah rode out at the head of his army to fight Egypt when no fight was needed, when the Pharaoh of Egypt wondered what was itching Josiah’s so that he had to wage war, and that the voice of Pharaoh  was the voice of God telling him to go home — those are big deals in this account. Josiah was so itching to fight Egypt that he “disguised himself” (“donned [his armor] to fight him” in the JPS Tanakh) to lead his army out to fight. That’s strange behavior for a good king, one who understood the importance of the teaching of Moses and the right worship of God.
That’s what makes me think of Benjamin Netanyahu right now. I’ve never liked the man, not since he was Israel’s spokesman in the United States in the early 1990s. I’ve never met him. But he seems to me like the kind of man who would pick a fight, a senseless and stupid fight, without any appreciation of the consequences. And he’d even work hard at picking that fight. Simply to fight. 
Big difference, though. If he picks a fight, he won’t die on that battlefield.

On Gifts, Sacrifice and Relationship

Sometime ago — April 2009, to be exact — I wrote a post on Cain, Abel, sacrifice and exile:

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. … [Farming is] hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

Not good enough. Our capricious God liked Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s through no stated fault of Cain’s. I’ve had time of late to consider this lately (some of you know why, and the rest of you will just have to ponder) , and something else about this passage early in Genesis struck me.

The entire story of Cain and Abel prefigures the history of Israel from Sinai onward — sacrifice and offer, follow the law and be blessed, or fail to offer proper sacrifices, to follow the law and Israel shall be cursed. It is almost the entire Hebrew Bible writ small.

It occurred to me today that Cain has something Abel does not — a real relationship with God. Abel just gave, and God received. (That’s fine, you may say, but we cannot know much about Abel’s relationship with God because he is dead. True enough. But work with me in regards to what we actually have in Genesis 4.) Abel’s relationship with God is a very passive relationship, perhaps even a very pagan or idolatrous relationship. Abel gives, God takes. God may be pleased, but God is not giving anything to Abel.

But Cain’s failure — which I state above is God’s doing, and not Cain’s — to deliver a sacrifice that God will accept begins a different kind of relationship, in which God gives to Cain. And receives nothing from Cain. First God gives advice (“If you do well, will you not be accepted?”, implying Cain was at fault for the failure of his offering to please God), then accusation and curse (“When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.”) and finally a promise of some kind of protection or vengeance (“If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.”). It may stink as a relationship — who wouldn’t want to be happy and content giving to God and knowing that God had accepted all they’d given? Because I’d really like to be there right now… — but it is far more than what Abel had. In sinning, and in fear, Cain lived in a relationship with God that the sinless, approved and accepted Abel did not.

It prefigures Israel’s tempestuous relationship with God, in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the take-over of Canaan, in conquest, exile and regathering. It says that in sin, and the consequences of sin (wandering in the land of exile), we have a relationship with God that cannot be matched by those who are “sinless” and whose offerings are accepted. (The story itself may imply that such people don’t really exist, since Abel is killed and therefore nothing can be said of his relationship to God.) That in sinning, space for relationship with God is opened that cannot otherwise be opened — God is transformed from a mere receiver of sacrifices, a kind of fat and happy God who smiles on the one making the offering (suddenly, a bronze Buddha statue surrounded by clouds of incense and rotting oranges comes to mind), to an actual being interacting with the creation. To a God who has something meaningful to say to the creation.

Interacting with the created, who need God’s gift because our gift to God is unacceptable. Sometimes, it’s not much of gift — a mere mark to state whoever kills me gets it back seven times! — but it’s more than first fruits. Perhaps a true relationship with God can only begin in our sinfulness, because only then are we open to receiving what God has to give us, rather than lining up and dumping our offerings into the mouth of Vaal.

* * *

NOTE: The Cain and Abel story is, however, something of a sideshow. Abel dies before having progeny (an assumption based on the fact that none are listed), and all of the featured characters of Israelite history trace their lineage to Seth, Adam and Eve’s third son.

King David as Sacrifice

And now for a change of pace. It’s been a while since I’ve blogged biblically. So here goes.

At the church where I am currently interning, St. John’s Lutheran in Somonauk, Illinois, the pastor and I have split up Lenten preaching buy focusing on the Gospel during the midweek services and the other scripture readings on the weekend.

I’m preaching this Saturday and Sunday, and so it gives me a chance to do something I truly love — preach from the Deuteronomistic History. In this instance, the reading is 1 Samuel 16:1-13, where the Lord commands the prophet and judge Samuel to anoint David as king to replace Saul, who has lost his legitimacy in the eyes of the Lord.

It’s a fascinating story [as always, all quotes come from the English Standard Version]:

[16:1] The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” [2] And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ [3] And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” [4] Samuel did what the LORD commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” [5] And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

[6] When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before him.” [7] But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” [8] Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [9] Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” [10] And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen these.” [11] Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” [12] And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” [13] Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.

Samuel is grieving Saul’s lack of faithfulness, but the Lord tells him there’s no time for grieving. He must find another king. Under cover is going to sacrifice with a cow (more on that later). It’s strange that Samuel’s appearance with the cow causes more than a little fear in Bethlehem, but he invites the town elders to sacrifice.

What happens next is strange. He looks over the sons of Jesse almost as if this was a casting call (I can almost here him say, “Lemme see yer teeth” to Abinadab and Shammah and the others), as if it were one of the sons of Jesse, and not the cow, he had come to sacrifice. First, Samuel gazes on the oldest son, Eliab, and is convinced he’s found the new king of Israel. But God tells him:

Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.

It’s an odd thing for God to say in this passage, because no sooner is the youngest son David brought forth than the narrator describes him as “ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” So, the Lord does see as men see, apparently.

But consider how David is described — ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes. My Grandfather Marsh was a very handsome young man, and according to what I’ve been told, people often said he was too pretty to be a boy. But ruddy and beautiful eyes are words we don’t often use to describe men. Particularly beautiful eyes. in Semitic poetry, this description of the eyes is most frequently reserved for girls, cattle and gazelles (and often interchangeably).

So, back to the cow. The Hebrew word used here is בקר (bqr) a good semitic word meaning cow. Heifer is more specific, a cow that has not yet calved (and thus does not produce milk). We don’t know why Samuel is bringing this cow — under what sacrificial pretenses — but we do have two examples (and only two) from the Hebrew Bible of times that heifers are specifically to be sacrificed.

First, in Deuteronomy 21, we find the following method of antoning for unsolved murders:

[21:1] “If in the land that the LORD your God is giving you to possess someone is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, [2] then your elders and your judges shall come out, and they shall measure the distance to the surrounding cities. [3] And the elders of the city that is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer that has never been worked and that has not pulled in a yoke. [4] And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer’s neck there in the valley. [5] Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled. [6] And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, [7] and they shall testify, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it shed. [8] Accept atonement, O LORD, for your people Israel, whom you have redeemed, and do not set the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel, so that their blood guilt be atoned for.’ [9] So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the LORD.

The word here for heifer is the same בקר as used in the Samuel passage. The heifer in question atones for shed blood when no one can specifically be made accountable for that shed bled. It is an act of communal repentance while at the same time denying responsibility. It’s also an act in which people can be reconciled. Interestingly, it involves a symbolic washing of hands.

The second time God instructs Israel to sacrifice a heifer is in Numbers 19, as part of a communal purification ritual:

[19:1] Now the LORD spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, [2] “This is the statute of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the people of Israel to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and on which a yoke has never come. [3] And you shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered before him. [4] And Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the front of the tent of meeting seven times. [5] And the heifer shall be burned in his sight. Its skin, its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall be burned. [6] And the priest shall take cedarwood and hyssop and scarlet yarn, and throw them into the fire burning the heifer. [7] Then the priest shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward he may come into the camp. But the priest shall be unclean until evening. [8] The one who burns the heifer shall wash his clothes in water and bathe his body in water and shall be unclean until evening. [9] And a man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place. And they shall be kept for the water for impurity for the congregation of the people of Israel; it is a sin offering. [10] And the one who gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. And this shall be a perpetual statute for the people of Israel, and for the stranger who sojourns among them. 

A red heifer — פרה אדמה (parah adomah). The word פרה for heifer here is a synonym for בקר. But the interesting word here is אדמה. David is described as “ruddy,” אדמוני (JPS Tanakh notes the meaning of this is uncertain), but the Hebrew word אדמוני clearly is related to אדמה in much the same way red is to ruddy in English. In any event, the sacrifice of the red cow that has never worked the soil — outside the camp by the high priest, and devoting the entire animal to destruction so that’s its ashes may be used to ritually purify those who have come into contact with the dead — is what is important here.

When the narrator describes David as ruddy with beautiful eyes, I don’t think he’s describing a young man so much as he is describing a sacrificial animal. David, in becoming king, is being sacrificed, to purify his people and to atone for shed blood. Granted, Saul was anointed to (and even kissed by Samuel), but there’s something about David’s anointing that strikes me as so similar to the woman who pours the jar of ointment over Jesus. Saul’s anointing doesn’t do that for me. Don’t know why.

But it isn’t that David himself, David as David, is the sacrifice — it’s that David’s kingship, David’s monarchy, David’s calling to be king, is the sacrifice itself. A living sacrifice. To atone for the sins of his people and to keep his people in ritual purity. His rule is a sacrifice to God and for God on behalf of God’s people.

There are two directions I want to go with this. First, there’s the idea that calling or vocation is a living sacrifice to God. Christians have all been anointed in baptism to be what God has called us to be. I hope to develop that idea a little bit more.

But more importantly, David’s is a sacrifice that prefigures Christ. David’s sacrifice is completed by Christ, who makes perfect this atonement for shed blood (and Pilate, in that most Jewish of gospels, Matthew, even washes his hands of the whole thing) and to make his people ritually pure. Being sacrificed outside the city. Jesus is the sacrifice. I tend not to like sacrificial theology, especially Anselmian (is that a word?) reasoning which states Jesus had to die in order for salvation to happen (because then atonement becomes a game God plays with God’s-self, rather than anything involving human beings). But I think the symbolism here is too constant and too clear to conclude otherwise. I don’t know what it means, and I don’t intend to draw logical conclusions from all of this. But I will, as always, preach a message of Grace — in Christ’s death and resurrection, we are atoned for, the blood we have shed made good, and we are made right (ritually pure) with God.

I haven’t finished this, obviously, and these are just musings on the scripture reading. But this is more or less what I’m going to preach.

The 23rd Psalm as Lament

From a class exercise last year. Reposted from Facebook.

The Lord is not my shepherd; I am always in want.

He makes me to fall down in arid deserts, and he misleads me to bitter and unpalatable waters.

He drains my soul, and he leads me in the paths of evil of for its own sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I am constantly terrified, for God has abandoned me and is of no comfort to me whatsoever.

He prepares a table for my enemies in my presence. He anoints my head with acid, and my cup has been stolen from me.

Surely despair and cruelty shall follow me all the days of my miserable life, and I will wander aimlessly outside the house of the Lord forever.

Fighting in God’s Cause & Being Ritually Unclean

One of the features of war and the modern nation-state is the moral legitimacy of killing for one’s country and the fact that killing does not morally taint the killer. In fact, the man (or woman) who kills for king and/or country is heroic, virtuous and not unclean (I hate not un- constructions, but it works here). Any hint that a soldier fighting the good fight for a good cause has somehow been tainted in any way by that fighting is disloyal, unpatriotic and immoral.

However, I recently found something interesting in the Hebrew scriptures. In Numbers 31 (Numbers is that long somewhat, at least to begin with, tedious book of the Torah the begins with an interminable census of Israel in the wilderness and ends with some instructions on how Israel will parcel out the land of Canaan and live in that land; in between, there’s some gory and fascinating stuff), YHWH (The Lord; this little Asus Eee PC I’m writing on doesn’t allow me to write in Hebrew or Arabic) commands Moses to avenge Israel on Midian. About ten chapters previously, Balak the king of Moab told the elders of Midian that something needed to be done about Israel because “this hoarde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Num 22:4, JPS Tanakh) This kicks off the entire Balak/Balaam episode, of which I may write more later. In chapter 25, it is a Midianite woman that Phineas, the grandson of Aaron, stabs in the gut in order to stem a plague God inflicted on Israel because the Israelites fooled around with non-Israelite women.

This is, apparently, enough for God to demand vengeance upon Midian. God calls upo0n Moses to draft (or accept volunteers, as the text in English is not clear and I don’t have my Hebrew dictionary handy) 1,000 volunteers from each of the 12 tribes of Israel — 12,000 men under the command of Moses and the aforementioned Phineas. They “slew every male” including Balaam and:

The Israelites took the women and children of the Midianites captive, as seized as booty all their beasts, all their herds, and all their wealth. And they destroyed by fire all the towns in which they were settled, and their encampments. (Numbers 31:9-10)

(Except that they didn’t, because Midian shows up again in Judges 6, oppressing Israel as if they’d never, ever been exterminated. The Amelekites appear to pose a similar difficulty, they just refuse to stay dead, and it’s amazing just how many times Israel annihilates them.)

Moses and Eldeazar are angry — the male children and all women who have “known a man carnally” (31:17) are to be killed as well. The only Midianites left standing are “every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man.” (31:18)

(So, I’m guessing those Midianites in Judges just sprouted out of the ground or something…)

Now remember, this is the Lord’s work, an act of vengeance ordained by God upon Israel and led by Moses, the leader of God’s people Israel, and Eleazar, the son of Aaron and the high priest of Israel. It is as close to holy war as I think we can get. So, the soldiers doing this work are noble heroes who should be greeted with maidens and parades, right?

[Moses said] “You [plural] shall then stay outside the camp seven days; every one among you or among your captives who has slain a person or touched a corpse shall cleanse himself on the third and seventh day. You shall also cleanse every cloth, every article of skin, everything made of goats’ hair, and every object of wood.”

Eleazar the priest said to the troops who had taken part in the fighting, “This is the ritual law that the Lord has enjoined upon Moses: Gold and silver, copper, iron, tin and lead — any article that can withstand fire — these you shall pass through fire and they shall be clean, except that they must be cleansed with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through water. On the seventh day you shall wash your clothes and be clean, and after that you may enter the camp.” (Numbers 31:19-24)

One of the reasons Numbers is such tedious and eye-watering reading is that in addition to counting the tribes, detailing which Levites will put up and tear down and then carry tabernacle poles, or how many animals will be offered as sacrifices on what days, there’s also a whole lot about ritual cleanliness. Chapter 19 deals specifically the ritual cleansing needed by Israelites (and strangers living among Israel) who come into contact with dead bodies.

He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. He shall cleanse himself with it [the ashes from a burnt pure red heffer] on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. Whoever touches a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiled the Lord’s Tabernacle; that person shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration [water made from the ashes of the burnt red heffer], he remains unclean; his uncleanness is still upon him. (Number 19:11-13)

There’s more, but this is what’s important in Chapter 19. And what’s important about putting this in context of Numbers 31 is that ritual impurity applies not only to those who touch or deal with the corpses of Israelites, but also those people Israel kills in war. Even when the soldiers of Israel wage war at God’s command, when they massacre non-combatants at God’s command, they are considered ritually unclean. And not just their bodies, but their instruments of war. They are not allowed in the camp, these 12,000 volunteers, for seven days.

What is someone suggested that American soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan were ritually unclean for having killed? (Or, heaven forbid, IDF soldiers needed to go cool their heels someplace to take a couple of baths before coming home?)

I remember reading someplace, and I wish I could remember where, that a following one of the Crusades, a bishop or somesuch made returning soldiers do penance — sackcloth and ashes — because even though the war was a noble one, called by the church, individual fighters still did damage to conscience that demanded repentance and penance. Whether that’s true, this passage from Numbers is “true” in so far as it is on the page. It is a reminder that one’s enemies are, however justified one may be in fighting them, human beings, and killing them on some level injures — even if for only seven days — the one who kills.

But in our era of the always-virtuous nation-state, our warriors are never wrong, never tainted, never in need of acknowledging that on some level, even as they may fight for good, noble (and even divinely sanctioned) causes, the killing they do still injures them and, on some level, separates them from the community and requires some acknowledgment and even reconciliation.

This would require we live in a more contemplative era. And in a more contemplative society.

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.

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.