JUDGES And So It Begins

A reading from Judges, the third chapter.

7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)

And here is Israel’s condition. Our condition. Israel has turned away from serving/worshiping עָבַד God, and has embraced the false gods of Canaan. Of its neighbors. Idolatry, serving and trusting and sacrificing to and telling stories about gods who have not saved Israel and cannot save Israel. This is Israel’s chief sin, its primary sin, the one for which the people of God will suffer conquest and exile — will be subjugated for time — time and again.

Othniel is of good character. He is an upstanding citizen, with a good pedigree. Caleb was one of the twelve scouts send to examine the promised land, and alone with Joshua, he was confident Israel could take the Canaanites. It makes sense someone like him would be the first “judge” שָׁפַּט (judge, lead, govern), the first one to redeem and deliver Israel, to defeat its enemies.

This establishes a pattern. Israel sins, and forgets God. Israel succumbs to sin — God gives Israel over not just to its sin but to foreigners, who conquer and rule it. They become the visible, tangible consequence of idolatry. Israel cries to God, God listens, and raises up a savior, who then fights for Israel, defeats its enemies, and there is “rest” for a time.

For a time. Until Israel forgets, and gives itself over to sin — again.

And God raises up a savior, to fight for Israel — again.

This is who Christ is. A redeemer, raised up not only to redeem the people from their sin, but also defeat their enemies. However, Jesus is no temporary savior. The rest he gives us is permanent. We do not need earthly champions anymore, our redemption is real and right now. Even if we do not see it, it is real. We live it. Right now. Even when we fail to trust God, when we turn for protection to those things which cannot save us, we are redeemed.

We cry out, and God hears our cries. But we are already saved.

JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

JUDGES Our Condition

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:16–19 ESV)

This is our essential condition, as the people of God, as the church. In our faithlessness, in our inability and unwillingness to follow the teaching of God, we are given over — we give ourselves over — to those who would plunder us.

And plunder us they do.

God has pity on us, and saves us from our conquerors, from the consequences of our sin, of our faithlessness. We are not unfortunate people. We are sinners. We are cot redeemed from mere circumstances, we are redeemed from our sin.

And while we can be rallied to righteousness and faithfulness every now and again, idolatry is our fundamental sin. The worship of that which cannot save us is our fundamental sin. We cannot help ourselves.

This short narrative is the explanation. It is truth, and it is all we need to know about ourselves.

But it is also the narrative into which Christ comes. He is our judge, and he redeems us in our sin. He is faithful when we are faithless. He does not die, and therefore, we have no reason to turn away from God, to seek salvation in that which cannot truly help us — money, power, privilege, position, might. And yet we do.

And when we do, we are eventually given over to those who will plunder us.

But Christ, the righteous judge, is still with us. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful. He is our faithfulness, showing us that even when we forget, and walk away, we are never wholly and completely given over. We are afflicted and oppressed, but never abandoned.

We have a righteous judge, who is with us, until the end of the age.

JUDGES We Forget

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

7 And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:7–11 ESV)

“And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

So it is that we do not know. I am reminded of another place in scripture where someone does know, where things that were done become mere stories we may or may not tell, and because of that, where the reality we face suddenly becomes mysterious and undecipherable, something we are no longer capable of understanding:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.” (Exodus 1:8–9 ESV)

We forget so easily what God has done for us. A new Pharaoh forgets what Israel did, what Joseph did, to save Egypt, and sees not allies and friends but a threat so large it must be dealt with. Israel has forgotten its redemption from Egypt, God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the guidance of the pillar of cloud and fire. Israel has forgotten that the walls of Jericho fell without effort, how the sun stood still over Gibeon and how the birds came and dropped stones on the army of Adoni-Zedek, and how God gave Canaan into the hands of Israel.

Israel has forgotten. Because it has all faded into memory. It has all become stories.

We forget. We come to not know. We live in the midst of circumstances we have inherited and we do not entirely understand how. We do not remember the gifts our ancestors and forebears received from God, the gifts that got us here.

And so we abandon God.

We do not know the work because it is undone in our midst. Maybe we tell stories, but likely, we do not really believe them. God didn’t actually do any of that, we say.

We forget. We become those who did know. We worship what we find around us — the idols of the people we are conquering, who land and places we are inheriting.

It is easy, this forgetting. Israel forgets even when the acts of God are fresh in its memory and experience — why else worship a golden calf a Sinai when only recently our God drowned the oppressor’s army in sea? It’s a lot to expect that we will remember a generation or two removed from the saving.

We forget. Even when we tell stories. We forget and we abandon God. That’s just our nature.

But there is good news. As we shall see, this forgetting gives God a chance to intervene in our lives, again and again, to redeem us. So that we can become people who know the Lord, and the works he does for us.

JUDGES Life Amidst Thorns and Snares

A reading from Judges, the first and second chapters.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 1:27–28, 2:1–5 ESV)

Israel put its faith in its own strength. In its own means. As it faced its enemies, the Israelites no longer believed in the command of God — “I will drive them out before you” — and instead looked its arms and its numbers and its power and said, “we can control you, and we can oppress you, and we can deal with you.”

“We can deal with your gods.”

Again and again, Israel is told — make no covenant with the people of the land, make no deals, do net let their altars and their objects of worship stand, lest they “become a snare in your midst.” (Exodus 34:12) We are not told why their gods will be so attractive, why dealing with them and eating with them and making love to their daughters is so dangerous, except that their worship will be so much more attractive than that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called us and saved us and redeemed us.

We aren’t told why. Maybe the false idols of the Canaanites demand so little of us, demand only what we are happily willing to give. Maybe the worship of the Canaanites is so sensual, the food of the Canaanites is so delicious, the company of the Canaanites so pleasurable, that we cannot help ourselves.

And maybe we are so enamored of our power that we think, “We have the swords, we make the laws, we are in control, our God is powerful and has given them into our hands. Their labor makes our lives easier. We can bear their company.”

So now, God tells us we have to live with these people, in our unhappy relationship. In the kind of terrible closeness conqueror and oppressor have with those have they dispossesed and enslaved. That relationship changes us, turns us into a callous and brutal people, people who have little problem with the daily cruelties needed to keep others subordinate, to compel their labor, to deny them their humanity.

This will make us people who cannot love our neighbors. Who cannot love God. Who cannot love ourselves.

So we live with the smoldering resentments of those we have conquered and enslaved. We live with their desire for vengeance. It will overtake us a time or two.

We have to live with the consequences of what we have done, and failed to do, and who we have become. A people who trust our means, our abilities, our strength, to protect and save ourselves. And not God. This is our faithlessness, and our sin. Our doom has been set into motion. We have set it into motion. God has told us more than once what the consequences will be.

And so we weep.

JUDGES Scraps Under the Table

I have decided my Monday Devotionals will take us through Judges just as they took us through Joshua. So, without further ado, a reading from the Book of Judges, the first chapter.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” 3 And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. 4 Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. 5 They found Adoni-bezek at Bezek and fought against him and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 Adoni-bezek fled, but they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and his big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table. As I have done, so God has repaid me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

8 And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire. 9 And afterward the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland. 10 And Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai. (Judges 1:1-10 ESV)

So, Joshua is dead, and Israel is leaderless. There is no successor to Joshua. Not now. Not yet.

Instead, God picks the tribe of Judah, along with Simeon (because Simeon’s land is smack in the middle of Judah, and Simeon will disappear into Judah) to resume fighting, to continue to conquest.

But note here, even as God picks Judah and Simeon to lead the fighting (a collective leadership akin to the post-Stalin or post-Tito arrangements made in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively, and it will face a similar end), the Lord is still doing the real fighting, is still achieving the real victories here, still delivering the Canaanites into Israel’s hands. These are not Israel’s victories. They never were, and they never will be. Nothing fundamental has changed.

Not yet.

Long-time reads of this blog (assuming there are any) will know I am not a believer in what comes around goes around, so I find the fate of Adoni-Bezek — אֲדֹֽנִי־בֶזֶק The Lord of Bezeq — intriguing. At the hands of the Israelites, he suffers the same fate he used to inflict upon those he conquered. I’m not inclined to call this justice poetic or otherwise, but he does confess — “So God has repaid me.”

But I cannot read this without also thinking of Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman in Mark 7 (where she is described as Syropheonician) and Matthew 15 (where she is described as a Canaanite). “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) He fed those he conquered with scraps, scraps they would have a hard time picking up because he deprived them of their thumbs. And now how is conquered, thumbless, trying to pick up scraps from under the table of Israel.

I’m not sure what this allusion — if Jesus is even drawing from this image of the conquered and humiliated foreigner (being a syrophoenician in Mark makes her an outsider; being a Canaanite in Matthew makes her a subject person) scrounging under Israel’s table — does. The story we have in both Mark and Matthew tell us that while Jesus sees his ministry entirely to the “Lost sheep of Israel,” and he basically calls the woman a “dog” in both passages, the story also gives us a Jesus surprised by her faith, and in both stories, her faith in Jesus heals the woman’s daughter.

By contrast, Adoni-Bezeq seems only to grasp that “God” (אֱלֹהִים, and not The Lord יְהוָ֖ה, which is how non-Israelites tend to meet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has paid him back. In the form of Israel’s conquest. Even this is faith, understanding that God is the author of one’s misfortune and poetic vengeance.

Perhaps we should be surprised by his faith, and never has there been such faith in Israel, to understand that God has repaid one’s own evil and oppression for evil and oppression. (This is a self-realization, not a self-righteous third person accusation. Remember that.) To have been the doer of evil who, now thumbless and toeless, gets what has really just happened to him. Because sometimes that happens.

It will happen later in this story, as faithless Israel is itself conquered and carried into exile. Recompense for its own sin. Faith in the righteous judgment of God is still faith. Even when there is no escape past “today you will be with me in paradise.”

It’s also interesting that Judah and Simon bring this conquered king of the Negev to Jerusalem, which is still at this point a Canaanite city that Israel is still making war against. The men of Judah manage to sack and burn the city here, but they don’t secure it. It is still full of foreigners.

Vote Against Jesus

For those of you who have complained in the past about the quality of my faith (you know who you are), and that I don’t love Jesus enough, don’t blame me for my headline — blame Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas:

“You know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR, and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’” Jeffress said. “I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.”

Because what matters, apparently, is power and order.

“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek,” Jeffress said.

The conservative pastor said earlier this week that police officers are “ministers of God sent by God to punish evil doers” — which is what he said the Bible calls for in a president.

“Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”

This is, actually, solid and fairly straightforward Protestant theology, and dovetails well with the historic teaching of the church. Martin Luther said very similar things about the state and its rulers, whether they faced domestic rebellion or external threat.

But like a good Protestant, he mistakes church teaching for biblical teaching. The Bible is much more mixed and nuanced on the moral nature of government — our teaching is distilled from scripture and the need of Christians through history to be morally right, to be sinless, to be justified, in their thoughts and deeds. Government appears, biblically, to be little more than an inescapable necessity, and is not dealt with in the Bible in any systematic fashion. There is no recipe for government in scripture (just as there isn’t in the Qur’an, despite the belief on many Muslims to the contrary), just a set of rules on how a community people should live and the story of that people’s failure to live by those rules.

Some have taken Samuel’s description of a king in 1 Samuel 8 to be a recipe for government — Martin Luther did, as did James VI/II — but that appears to be a warning to Israel of what they are bringing upon themselves by failing to trust God and demanding regular government rather than a recipe for how a king should act.

What scripture doesn’t appear to believe in is democracy. Or representative government. Certainly not popular sovereignty. If anything, scripture tells the story of a people who are frequently subject to government that is not their own, in which they have no say, far more than they govern themselves. That’s the forgotten context of Jeremiah 29 (“seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile”), the restoration at the end of Chronicles (“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth…”), and Romans 13 (“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”) — a community of people conquered, occupied, scattered, and ruled not just by foreigners but by enemies.

The Sermon on the Mount which Jeffress says has no governing value (and to be fair, Martin Luther said it had no governing value either), is actually a set of instructions on how to trust God, have hope, and live under brutal exile — to know that your enemies have not won even as they appear to have all the power in the world — and not merely a guide to good behavior. Whether government should forgive or not is only important when Christians govern, and that does not appear to be a New Testament expectation.

Christians are expected to love and forgive their enemies. Because there is no New Testament expectation (or even an Old Testament one, for that matter) that Christians will defeat, conquer, and kill those enemies. They are God’s alone to deal with.

We do know that, in the Old Testament, when faced with a rapacious enemy (Syria), the Prophet Elisha not only forgave, blessed, and healed that enemy — again and again — he also once sent their army home unharmed after giving them a meal. An army that would, in a later vision given to Elijah, do much evil to the people of Israel:

You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women. (2 Kings 8:12b)

Israel is governed. But God does the governing, through agents God chooses in God’s way. Time and again, God tells Israel “I am your king,” and appoints vice-regents in the form of Moses and Joshua and the Judges and even Cyrus, the king of Persia. But God does the appointing, and not the people. The Judges are emergency rulers, raised to redeem Israel from Canaanite and Philistine occupation — occupation and rule Israel has come to deserve because of its idolatry, its faith in the false gods of its neighbors.

I could see some Christians, like Jeffress, seeing Trump in this way, as a Judge raised up to redeem Christian America. I have a theological problem with this — the work of redeeming God’s people has already been done by the final king and judge, Jesus, on the Cross and from that empty tomb — but it could work as metaphor. However, even that metaphor also misses that this kind of salvation and redemption is always temporary because of Israel’s own inclination toward idolatry:

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. (Judges 2:16–17 ESV)

Some of the judges were of sparkling character and solid pedigree, like Othniel (nephew of Caleb, the fearless Israelite spy), and some were not (like Jephthah, a protitute’s son banished from his family). Trump could be a Samson-type, skilled at waging war — killing Philistines with the jawbone of an ass — but easily beguiled by pretty girls of all kinds, including Philistine prostitutes.

And Samson said, [w]ith the jawbone of a donkey, heaps upon heaps, with the jawbone of a donkey, have I struck down a thousand men. (Judges 15:16)

Samson was a mighty warrior, and he judged Israel for 20 years. No mean feat for a people surrounded and tempted and oppressed by enemies on all sides. Yeah, maybe not a bad way to think of Donal J. Trump, if you are a Christian inclined to yearn for such things.

I think it should be remembered, however, that Samson came to a very bad end. At the hands of the Philistines, yes, but one he clearly brought down upon himself. Because even God-given government is tragic by its very nature.

Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and War

President Barack Obama has made the first official visit by a US President to the Japanese city of Hiroshima, to lay a wreath at a memorial to those killed in the US nuclear attack of August 6, 1945, and to call for a world free of nuclear weapons.

It is the old liberal dream — that diplomacy and negotiation should replace war forever.

We must change our mind-set about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy and strive to end conflicts after they’ve begun. To see our growing interdependence as a cause for peaceful cooperation and not violent competition. To define our nations not by our capacity to destroy but by what we build. And perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race.

Perhaps diplomats can gather around a great big table somewhere and outlaw war itself. Perhaps that will make this kind of change possible, allow for the realization of dreams so long dreamt.

Oh, wait, it was tried once. How’d that go again?

Lots of passive voice in Obama’s speech, as if some unnamed generic group of human beings, with no real purpose in mind, concocted the atomic bomb, and then it just happened to fall from the skies over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in early August 1945. He wasn’t going to apologize — the belief that somehow Obama has been wandering the world apologizing for the United States has always been pure crap — but he wasn’t going to take any direct credit for the attacks either.

“The world war that reached its brutal end in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fought among the wealthiest and most powerful of nations,” unnamed of course until the war is rhetorically over in Obama’s speech, until the United States and Japan are allies, united in purpose and outlook.

It’s an anodyne way of talking about war, careful and, I suppose, thoughtful. Except that it isn’t.

Because it’s hard to talk about war. Hard, in a society like ours where we are constantly morally judging and justifying, reviewing and condemning, acts of the past, to say much sensible about something as horrific as the American decision to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki with these newly made instruments of terror and death.

But I’m going to try.

One of the terrible truths of war is that when you begin, when you unleash it, you take a terrible risk, make a terrible gamble — that you will unleash events over which you will no longer have any meaningful control.

And that you could lose. And lose very badly.

The Japanese took that risk as they attacked the United States in Hawaii and the Philippines, took that risk when it set war with the United States into motion. Americans committed to war with Japan, and waged that war methodically, systematically, and very, very brutally. No one envisioned a working atomic bomb on December 7, 1941, but the governments of every major belligerent in the Second World War had some idea of what split atoms could do, and were working to one extent or another on a just such a bomb.

Someone would have built it. And someone would have used it.

1000

True enough, Japan was incapable of laying waste to American cities — something the United States was proving exceptionally skilled at by mid–1944. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese died in those air raids, and many more from starvation because of the slow collapse of the country’s infrastructure in the last year of the war.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not irrelevant. These were new kinds of weapons that inflicted a never-before-seen kind of suffering and death. They may or may not have been needed to end the war, depending upon who you believe about the state of mind of Japan’s rulers (or the need to impress Stalin, or simply the desire to see how they worked) in early August, 1945. But they are a piece with the whole war.

Japan dropped the first bomb in anger against the United States. Hoping to win, of course, and defeat the United States. But when the Japanese dropped that first bomb, Japan took the risk that from that point, nothing would go as planned.

I’m not saying Japan deserved to be attacked with atomic bombs. Only that, once the shooting started, each side was going to whatever it took to defeat the other. The first side with these new and terrifying weapons was going to use them. Because they were built to be used. To destroy the enemy, to end resistance, and to secure victory.

I think about the terrible episode of Judges 19–21, Israel’s brutal and most pointless war against Benjamin. I’ve dealt with it in detail elsewhere, so I won’t even rehash it here.

What has always struck me is how this war — and all war, really — is simply reported in scripture. It is not condemned, and not even really praised either. This terrible war against Benjamin is a war instigated to achieve both vengeance and justice (for they are the same thing), but it spirals wildly out of control into genocide and regret and more mass murder, kidnapping, and rape in an attempt to fix the original genocide. It is us at our human worst — lying, self-righteous, violent, faithless, sentimental, regretful, convinced of our own wisdom and our own abilities.

In scripture, war appears to exist simply as an inescapable part of the human condition. What matters is not are we right or are we wrong, are we justified or condemned for waging war — but where is God, and is this war a judgment upon us as the people of God? Because the categories we contrive to morally justify ourselves and our violence — primarily defense, especially of those who cannot defend themselves — don’t fly in scripture. The conquest of Canaan is as aggressive and brutal a war as we can envision (“…[A]nd when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them.” Deuteronomy 7:2) and it is perfectly moral, set into motion by God. (Israel is also incapable of waging that war for any sustained period of time.) And during the most defensive and morally justifiable of wars, the siege of Jerusalem, the Prophet Jeremiah encourages the people of Judah to surrender, to defect, to flee to the enemy, because the war is lost.

4 Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I will turn back the weapons of war that are in your hands and with which you are fighting against the king of Babylon and against the Chaldeans who are besieging you outside the walls. And I will bring them together into the midst of this city. 5 I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and strong arm, in anger and in fury and in great wrath. 6 And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both man and beast. (Jeremiah 21:4–6 ESV)

God, “incarnate” in the army of Babylon, at war with Israel.

I’m not saying that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were God’s judgement upon Japan, anymore than the attacks of September 11, 2001, were God’s judgement upon the United States of America. I do not believe, on this side of the Cross, that a meaningful or purposeful presence of God is to be found in the violence we inflict upon each other. God is no longer present in the enemy army, or marching with ours. God no longer judges his people, or the nations, this way.

Violent judgement came to end on the Cross, when we judged and tortured and then murdered our God. When God surrendered to us.

At the Cross, our violence ceases to have meaning. It ceases to judge. We still do it, but now … it really, truly means nothing.

Oh, God is present in war. But as those who suffer. As those who cower in terror, run for cover. As those who perish. As those who struggle to make sense of the horror they find themselves dealing with, living in, surviving, and inflicting. Obama, in his own way, understood this in his speech:

We stand here in the middle of this city and force ourselves to imagine the moment the bomb fell. We force ourselves to feel the dread of children confused by what they see. We listen to a silent cry. We remember all the innocents killed across the arc of that terrible war and the wars that came before and the wars that would follow.

We can apologize, or not, for an act that possesses its own horrific logic. The 20th century was a horrible century, in which we fed ourselves fed into Moloch’s fiery hot furnace, shoveled ourselves like so much human coal — and not just in the trenches of France, or the death camps of Poland, or the grassy steppes of Western Russia, or an ancient port city in Japan, or the muddily fields and dusty cities of China, but all across Asia and Africa and Latin America, wherever the Gatling gun and finance capital (or national pride, or revolutionary ideology) imposed an order that saw people as things to be consumed, as mere resources to be dominated and exploited. I’m not even sure we are capable of apologizing for what we’ve done, or how we’d even start.

I do know this — there will be more violence, more horrors, more death, and more destruction. I hope not on the scale and magnitude of the Second World War, but we’ve shown just what kind of devastation we are capable of inflicting when we really set our minds to it, so that is always a possibility. Bombs far worse than those dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki sit, silently waiting, built to be used.

There will be more violence and more war because we are still human. Because we still want justice. Because we still want vengeance. Because we still believe in the work of our own minds and our own hands to make the world right. Because we are frightened it will never be right.

Because we still believe we can silence death … with death.

When God Tells You to Kill Your Neighbor

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Torah — the five books of Moses — and the early history of Joshua through 2 Kings these last few weeks working on a lengthy piece on biblical sexual ethics. No need to thank me… 😉

Honestly, I love the Hebrew Bible. From top to bottom. It is a bloody, gory, incredibly grace-filled and very human story of a people’s encounter with God, their inability to be faithful to the God that calls them, the consequences they face in their faithlessness, and God’s never-ending pursuit of those same people — to rescue and redeem them in and (sometimes) from their faithlessness. It’s a staggering story, and it has formed me, really reached into my soul and rewritten the entire way I think about my life. Continue reading

How God Saves (And What God Saves Us From)

I have a confession to make: I love the Book of Judges.

Judges is a tough book to love, I know. It’s violent. Life is messy. There’s little “softly and tenderly” in this book, from the winnowing down of Gideon’s army to fight the Midianites to the primal urges of Samson, who fought and fucked the Philistines with equal fervor. It is human life at its ungoverned rawest. It is Israel, the people of God, at its idolatrous worst. (I’ve been threatening to send my editor at Wipf & Stock a proposal for book that looks at war, and all other human activity, through the lens of the last three chapters of Judges.) I don’t even think any of our liturgy comes from Judges — at least Numbers contributes the benediction!

And yet, I don’t think you can understand scripture — can truly appreciate who Jesus really is and what Jesus really redeems us from — without understanding and appreciating Judges. Continue reading