On Prophets and the Mess of the World

Eugene Peterson has this truly insightful thing to say about prophets in the Bible in his introduction to the prophetic works of Jewish scripture from The Message: Remix:

Basically, the prophets did two things: They worked to get people to accept the worst as God’s judgment — not a religious catastrophe or a political disaster, but judgment. If what seems like the worst turns out to be God’s judgment, it can be embraced, not denied or avoided, for God is good and intends our salvation. So judgment, while certainly not what we human beings anticipate in our planned future, can never be the worst that can happen. It is the best, for it is the work of God to set the world, and us, right.  

And the prophets worked to get people who were beaten down to open themselves up to hope in God’s future. In the wreckage of exile and death and humiliation and sin, the prophet ignited hope, opening lives to the new work of salvation that God is about at all times and everywhere.

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.

Songs & Theology

I’m in the middle of writing a series of songs for the junior high school confirmation class where I am currently interning. It’s a fascinating project, and I’m quite grateful I have our Bible year (as opposed to our Luther’s catechism year, though that will be my next challenge) to draw from. Basically, I am writing one song a week on each of the Bible lessons, beginning with Genesis (the one song no one in the class has heard) through Revelation, according to the ELCA’s “Here We Stand” confirmation curriculum. It’s turned out to be a fantastic challenge, and not only have I managed to write the one song a week, two weeks I wrote two songs!
(We did David and the kings of Israel and Judah in one week, so David got a song and then I wrote a nifty little bit of blues naming all the kings of Israel and Judah in order, as well as good Deuteronomist reasons why both kingdoms fell and the hope that remains for Judah in the line of Jesse; and then I felt the need to separate prophetic condemnation from prophetic hope.)
In the process, I have had to teach myself to write simple story songs. Not what I have tended to write in the past. Most of what I wrote, from the age of 16 onward, were songs that communicated — obliquely and obscurely, and mostly only to myself — what I felt about things. My goal, I suppose, was not so much communication but self-expression. Scott Miller, of Game Theory and The Loud Family, once described many of his songs as “in-jokes for one person.” Which is true of much of my stuff too.
Tough to build an audience that way, though. I’ve come to the conclusion that a song is, or should be, a story that a listener can emotionally connect to. We do that with songs either by understanding the story or apprehending some kind of shared emotion present in the song. I think the former is a great deal easier than the later. 
When I wrote and recorded The Lamentations Of in late 2009, the songs worked for some people I know because they understood and appreciated the experience I had gone through (and one person even shared a very similar experience). I’m still guilty of some obscurity in the words, and I’m not apologizing for that. I like language and I write primarily for myself. And sometimes, for me, the words don’t tell a story but attempt solely to convey an emotion, what I have long called “word pictures” (“Learning Contract,” for example). But some of those words were much more obvious than other things I had previously written. I love Scott Miller’s music, and have since I discovered his stuff in late 1985 in Monterey, California. It spoke to me in some deep pain I was feeling at the time and I could feel the emotional connection — this was an angst or suffering that I understood and that understood me. But, to be blunt, I’m not sure I can tell you three-quarters of the time what Scott is actually singing about. Miller’s songs may be stories, but his language is too personal for them to make all that much sense (even as it is sometimes very, very clever) as stories. 
In these Bible story songs, I can’t do that. I’m having to tell very clear and very simple stories. I’m also having to keep the theology concise, and do nuance in ways that have nothing to do with clever language or lots of words. Many of the lyrics I’m cribbing from scripture itself, and in the process discovering just how poetic scripture really is. (I use the English Standard Version, which is a much more poetic text than the NRSV, which has a flat and passionless feel to it.) Especially the prophets, and in both my prophetic condemnation and hope songs, I was shocked at just how little work I had to do get rhymes out of the text. It’s funny, but I’ve found significantly more artistic freedom in the limits the Biblical text (and the ELCA’s understanding of what that text means for us as God’s people) impose upon me than I might with a blank sheet of paper and utterly no guidance. For example, my Joseph song is a libertarian warning against the excesses of power sung from the standpoint of Pharaoh (a legitimate reading given Exodus 1). And my Moses song is also sung from Pharaoh’s view as well. (Which begs a question I cannot answer: why did I find Pharaoh’s view so interesting?)
I think the exercise has already yielded a result in “Joyless (Because You Left Me),” a song I wrote for a friend and certainly the most accessible words I’ve ever written. By that, you can grasp the story the song tells without knowing any of the details of the real story. (The song will show up on a collection of pop songs from the teens, 20s and 30s that Angel Holland and I are ever-so-slowly working on. It’s the first song I wrote on the ukulele, and it kinda sounds like a 20s pop song.)
So, right now, I’ve got 13 songs, all of which I think are very usable. Some are better than others, but that’s always the case. I’ll probably have another 10 or 12 by the time we’re done. And the Bible collection already has a title: Red Letter Songs. And I’ve given myself some additional challenges. For example, when we get to Paul’s letters, I am going to make at least one Paul song a cute little ukulele tune. Right now, I have two partial recordings, and I hope to record fairly good demos of all the songs by August. And then who knows. 

The Irony of “The Law”

I have recently finished Dutch academic Benjamin Kaplan’s Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, and it gives me a way to introduce a subject I’ve wanted to write about since sometime in late March.


In describing how tolerance as an ideal evolved in Europe, Kaplan writes a length about how Christian Europeans, particularly in Germany (where the Reformation hit first, though not quite hardest), lived, both before and after the events of the first half of the 16th century. Something essential to Christian European life was the mixing of polity and confessional community:

The uses of church bells [to mark civic events] reveal something else of prime importance too, the lack of separation between the secular and sacred. In towns and villages across Europe, “the body social, the body politic, and the body of Christ were so closely intertwined as to be inseparable.” A heritage of the Middle Ages, the equation of civic and sacral community survived the Protestant and Catholic Reformations as an ideal, even where it was no longer a reality. (p. 50)

While the church and the state were, mostly, separate entities, the congregation and the polity were not. Church and civil community, even before the Protestant Reformation, were contiguous; membership in one assumed membership in another. This is important because as Christians struggled with what it meant to live godly lives, they expressed those lives not just individually, but communally as well.

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints. (p. 60)

Sanctification, a word important to Calvinists, Lutherans and Catholics, became the aim of community life. With the Law of God, as given in the Torah and most manifest in the Ten Commandments, as the guide for sanctified behavior (both individually and communally), laws were written, imposed and enforced. Violence was done. To this day, many Christians (many American Christians) assume that these laws should be the laws of the community, and that the failure of the community to uphold these laws is the cause of misfortune (such as hurricanes and terror attacks).

But is that the way to read the law — the Torah תורה, literally “the teaching?” Because I don’t think so.

Let’s consider the marriage laws of Leviticus 18, which specify who may not marry whom, so that Israel “shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I [the Lord] am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws.” (Lev. 18:3, JPS Tanakh) In verse 12, יהוה tell Moses the following:

Do not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s flesh.

עֶרְוַת אֲחֹות־אָבִיךָ לֹא תְגַלֵּה שְׁאֵר אָבִיךָ הִֽוא׃

Okay, so who’d want to marry their aunt anyway? Yet, in Exodus 6, as the genealogy of Moses is outlined, we read:

Amram [a grandson of Levi] took to wife his father’s sister Jochabed, and she bore him Aaron and Moses. (Ex. 6:20, JPS Tanakh)

Moses’ father married his aunt (who was probably younger than he was).

Getting back Leviticus, a few verses later, יהוה tells Moses:

Do not marry a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.

וְאִשָּׁה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ לֹא תִקָּח לִצְרֹר לְגַלֹּות עֶרְוָתָהּ עָלֶיהָ בְּחַיֶּֽיהָ׃

To find an example of this, we need to go back to Genesis 29, where we find Jacob sojourning in “the land of the Easterners” (v. 1). He meets Rachel at the well, is clearly smitten with her (she is the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban), and agrees to work for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel. On the night the marriage is consummated, Laban gives Jacob the older sister Leah instead, claiming “[i]t is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years” (v. 26-27). Eventually, Jacob gets both sisters as wives, and they become the mothers of the 12 sons who will give their names to the tribes of Israel.

Okay, a point can be made here — these relationships were made before יהוה gives the teaching to Israel in the wilderness, and thus they were not really against the law. I suppose that argument will work — I don’t buy it, and I will explain later why I don’t — but then consider David and Bathsheba.

The commandment has been given and written — twice, in Exodus and Deuteronomy — “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” along with “you shall not commit adultery.” In 2 Samuel 16, we read the story of Kind David, spying a beautiful woman taking a bath. He “sent messengers to fetch her; she came to him and he lay with her,” (v. 4) which sounds like a rape to me. She becomes pregnant, and David then tries to trick her husband, the loyal soldier Uriah, into sleeping with her so that everyone would think the child is his. No dice, it doesn’t work. So David then orders to put Uriah in the front of the formation and during the battle to withdraw so that Uriah can get killed. This happens, and Bathsheba comes to live in the palace with David. Rumors must have flown, because Nathan the prophet condemns David for what he did:

David said to Nathan, “I stand guilty before the Lord!” And Nathan replied to David, “The Lord has remitted your sin; you shall not die. However, since you have spurned the enemies of the Lord by this deed, even the child about to be born shall die.” (v. 13-14)

A harsh consequence, the innocent paying the price. David later “consoled his wife Bathsheba; he went into her and lay with her. She bore a son and she named him Solomon.” (v. 24)

David should have known the law. And yet the eventual result of his coveting and adultery is Solomon, the greatest and wisest king Israel would know, the one who built the temple and extended its frontiers out as far as they would go.

Yes, a case can be made that the characters in the story, especially Jacob and Moses’ father, did not know the law, because it had not yet been revealed in the narrative, but the readers would know the law. Hearing that Jacob married sisters, that Moses and aaron were the fruits of a Levitically forbidden marriage, that David coveted and arranged to have killed and from that came Solomon, this says something about the relationship God’s people Israel have with God’s teaching. They would have been taught the law, reminded of who could not be married, but also reminded in the stories that the best of us violated that teaching. Or were the results of the violation. Without Jacob marrying Leah and Rachel, there would have been no tribes of Israel. Without Amram taking his aunt as wife, Moses and Aaron could not have responded to God’s call to lead Israel out of Egypt. Without David spying (and likely raping) Bathsheba, and getting her husband killed, there would have been no Solomon, and no temple in Jerusalem.

Israel owes its very existence, its covenant with God, to the violation of the teaching.

There are very few examples of human beings deliberately and purposefully punishing other human beings for violations of the teaching. In Exodus 32, after the episode with the golden calf, Moses commissions some Levites to take up their swords and “go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin.” (v. 27) In Numbers 25, God commands Moses to “publicly impale” (v. 4) Israelites cavorting with Moabite women (and worshiping their god). Phinehas the priest follows the command with vigor, stabbing an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the belly after following them into their tent.

But the example that comes to mind is Numbers 15:32-36 (Numbers is something of a gruesome, no-holds barred book, almost as violent as Judges). Israelite come upon a man gathering wood in the wilderness on the sabbath.

Those who found him as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been specified what should be done with him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death–as the Lord had commanded Moses. (v. 33-36)

What strikes me about this passage, and the punishment it mandates for violating the sabbath, is that Jesus spends a lot of time deliberately breaking the sabbath. He violates the law, as it is understood, and tempts readers and listeners who might know that the punishment for sabbath breaking is death to appreciate the situation.

(Jesus doesn’t cavort with non-Israelite women, but he does encounter them, and he is present for them as he is for Israelites.)

This is why I find the law ironic. It is a guide to sanctified behavior, promising salvation if followed and exile, slavery and death if not. But God doesn’t abandon God’s people merely because they have abandoned God and God’s teaching (though God does come close in Judges 10). God continues to reach out, to forgive, to redeem, to make real God’s promises as God’s people struggle with the teaching we cannot follow and the law we cannot obey. It must be remembered that the history of God’s people is salvation in the midst of exile, slavery and death, God present with us in our suffering and amidst the consequences of our inability to follow God’s teaching. In the end, it isn’t the law that saves us, not our keeping ourselves sanctified as individuals or a community, but rather God’s unremitting faithfulness to us.

God, Hating and Loving

As I pondered my previous blog post about Cain and Abel, I recalled these words from Malachi:

“I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” If Edom says, “We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins,” the Lord of hosts says, “They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’ ” Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, “Great is the Lord beyond the borders of Israel.” (Malachi 1:2-5, English Standard Version — I’m using the ESV today because I don’t have my Tanakh handy.)

(Paul echoes these words in Romans 9:13 when he speaks of God’s choosing God’s people.)

Our ideas about God are only partly derived from scripture — the Church owes a great deal intellectually to Greek philosophy and reasoning (as does Islam, even as that reasoning articulates itself very differently among Muslims), perhaps more to Greek thought when it comes to ethics and theology than it does scripture. Scripture is harnessed to support and even recast the ideas put forward by the Greeks, but for much of Christendom, the Greeks come first. This may or may not be intellectually defensible — the followers of Jesus did not witness to his death and resurrection, did not create his church, in an intellectual or cultural vacuum.

But many of the ideas are troublesome, especially when we are forced to fit them in scripture. The God of the “omnis” — omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent — as well as an “all good” God provides a serious problem for scripture. (Even in the Qur’an, which is a much better fit for the “omni-God” than is the Bible.)

The problem I have with theology is that it makes God an object, an idea, to be manipulated by human beings. We cannot help doing this. But the God of scripture is not an object or an idea. That God is encountered, viscerally and intensely, and scripture is the witness to that encounter. God is the subject as we, God’s people, are the objects. Much happens in scripture that makes little or no moral sense, and we are foolish to try and make those things make sense.

“Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated.” The ESV online study notes to these three verses speak of the distinction between “the Good and the Arrogantly Wicked.” But was Esau wicked? Does Esau suffer for wickedness? No to both. He was merely cheated out of his inheritence — his blessing — by a far more obnoxious brother, Jacob, who then lives in fear of Esau. The two have a reconciliation of sorts in Genesis 33, and they bury their father Isaac together. In Malachi, God clearly has it in for Esau’s descendants Edom, but Malachi speaks a great many more words of rebuke toward the priests of Israel.

Our idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God makes Malachi’s words — makes God’s rejection of Cain — make no sense. God couldn’t reject them, not the God of the Omnis, not our idea of God. So it was Cain’s fault that God rejected his sacrifice, and Esau’s fault that God hated him, that God spoke those words through Malachi the prophet. If only they had worked harder.

But again, the God of the Omnis doesn’t exist in scripture. The subjective experience of God is a God who chooses, capriciously, in a way that makes no sense. Esau did nothing except not be his brother Jacob, just as Cain did nothing except farm. Israel’s experience was of a profound and lasting encounter with God, a God who chose them and no one else as God’s people. A God who made that choice for no reason apparent to God’s people, whose choice was not a matter of privilege, power and glory, but for the salvation of the world.

The essence of faith — in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek — is trust. Not assent to a set of ideas or principles, but trust in God. That a promise made by God, a promise that will never be seen by the one to whom the promise is made (Abraham and his many descendants), is as good as kept. Assent to a set of propositions — the Lutheran confessions, for example — is an intellectual exercise. One confesses, but does not have faith in the confessions themselves, as they are not promises.

To trust God is to trust in something we may not be able to see or understand. God loves God’s people, but that does not stop God from visiting destruction upon God’s people. It is to encounter and experience God and often times have no idea what to make of that encounter. It can be aided by reason and by the intellect, by ideas and concepts and theories and notions, but at its core, that experience is not itself an idea, not something that humans grasp, but it is about being grasped by God and God not letting go.

We can only struggle to make sense of that encounter. Which is why “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” doesn’t bother me.

In The Land of Wandering & Exile

For some reason, I found myself pondering Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel — yesterday. Not sure why, maybe my current circumstances, but I think a lot about exile, and what that means. The world has never felt much like my home to begin with, not a place where I’ve been much wanted. Rather, it’s felt like a wilderness, a place of exile, a largely inhospitable place I’m just traveling through on the way to someplace else. Not sure where that is. I only know I don’t much belong here.

Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged “mark”), but I’m interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (4:2, JPS Tanakh — again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn’t let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” a settled farmer who doesn’t wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel’s life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it’s on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain’s home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them — he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.

The story continues:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)

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. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel’s slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation — the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.

But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur’an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel’s blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba’aretz).” (Gen. 4:12)

Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in “the land of Nod” — eretz nod — the land of wandering/exile, “banished from the soil” (Cain’s own words, 4:14) and away from the “presence of the Lord.” What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It’s 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.

That’s a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?

And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence.” It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, “marks” Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.

Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.

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.