What Not to Do with Stranger Texts
Updated: Oct 24, 2019
"Well, that certainly was eye-opening."
I was hoping for something more, but that was the only response I received on the heels of my sermon from Deuteronomy 20. The only other response I received was from my wife who said, "You pushed your glasses up 68 times during your sermon." That's not much to write on, other than my wife needs to pay attention in church, so I've opted to open with the latter statement.
I've mulled it over a lot since then and I'm not sure what was meant by it. I assume it was the polite way of saying, "Your sermon was disturbing and upsetting. Thank you for making us think about God's role in violence on such a beautiful fall day. I will now go home, sit on the couch, and stare at the wall. Lunch? No thanks. I think I've lost my appetite for the day."
She wasn't wrong to feel that way. Like all the stranger texts so far, Deuteronomy 20 is shocking to read, perhaps even more so. Out of all the texts we've explored so far, I have been most anxious to arrive at this one. Unlike all the other texts, this one focuses primarily not on human violence, but on divine sanctioned violence.
This past January I texted a friend about this ambitious series idea I had. "What if preached over violent texts of terror from the Old Testament for the month of October?" He had only one question, "How do you think the church will respond?" I thought about it and replied, "I'm not sure..." Now, on the other side of three sermons, I am sure. The one line analysis from Sunday told me everything I needed to know. They have been "eye-opening."
At the time I may not have known how they would respond, but I did know what I wanted them to take from it. "I'm not sure," I said, "but I think it will help them unpack some of our own violent tendencies in viewing and supporting the United States as the new Israel. There exists a dangerous theology that some pastors and churches (Robert Jeffress at FBC Dallas or John Hagee at Cornerstone in San Antonio come to mind) espouse that stem from misinterpretation and misapplication of Old Testament texts of terror."
In my own definition, that theology asserts: Any action the United States engages in - war, genocide, tax-sanctions, placing kids in holding cells away from their parents on the border, wholesale abortion, damage to the environment for the sake of money, colonialism disguised as business/capitalistic endeavor, etc. - is justifiable, because we are a "Christian nation," "God's chosen people," "the new Israel." Surely, the promise that God made to Abraham and Israel remains true for the United States too: "I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse (Gen. 12:3a, NIV 2011)." Right?
That's what Rome thought as well. In the year 410 C.E., Rome was sacked by the the Visigoths. It was a complete shock to the city and it's residents for several reasons. First, they were Rome. If Beyoncé existed at this time, her song Run the World would have been about Rome. They ruled everything. The city's walls had not been breached in over 800 years. Second, they were Christians. They literally thought of themselves as the new Israel; the new people of God. When the city was sacked, therefore, despair and confusion gripped the nation. "Is tragedy befalling us because we abandoned the old religion of gods and goddesses? Have we angered God in some way? Are we not his people anymore? How could God allow this to happen to us?"
In response, theologian Augustine of Hippo writes one of his most important works - City of God. In it Augustine argues: There are two cities. The city of man and the city of God. The two are not the same. One is eternal and will reign forever. One is temporary and will eventually disappear. Guess which one Rome was. Guess which one we are. Ultimately, Augustine's work was an exploration of kingdom theology. The kingdom of God, which cannot be made synonymous with any earthly kingdom, is the only kingdom that will last forever. Rome had made a fatal mistake - equating their kingdom with God's kingdom.
And when we equate our earthly kingdoms with God's kingdom, we are bound to do more harm than good.
What I fear we are in danger of, when it comes to interpreting passages of divine violence in the Old Testament, is a reductionist reading of the text, which in turn leads to a shallow and misleading interpretation and application for us. Here's how this misinterpretation and misapplication works:
God loves Israel over every other nation in the world.
That means Israel are the "good guys." They are God's chosen people.
The other nations in the promised land - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites - are enemies of Israel. They are the "bad guys."
Because Israel are God's chosen people, any enemy of Israel is an enemy of God.
Therefore, it's okay to "utterly destroy" our enemies, because they are God's enemies too.
Simple, right? Straight forward. It seems to come directly from a text like Deuteronomy 20. But what if we replaced Israel with the United States? Does it work the same?
God loves the United States over every other nation in the world.
That means the United States are the "good guys." They are God's chosen people.
The other nation of the world, or at least anyone who opposes the United States, - the Mexicans, Syrians, Turks, Afghans, Russians, Chinese, and Palestinians - are enemies. They are the "bad guys."
Because the United States are God's chosen people, any enemy of the United States is an enemy of God.
Therefore, it's okay to wage war against our enemies, because they are God's enemies too.
It sounds ridiculous when it's put that way, doesn't it? And yet, that's exactly how many of the stranger texts from the Old Testament have been exploited, especially the ones containing divine sanctioned violence. There are many Conservative Evangelicals who absolutely believe this is a legitimate interpretation and application of scripture.
I was once in a frustrating conversation with a Christian who supported this line of thinking. I asked them, "Is the United States justified in bombing Palestinians to defend and support Israel?" And they answered, "Yes, absolutely." I then asked them how that belief fit into their understanding of Jesus. They didn't have an answer to the question and I think I know why - it doesn't.
Violence, even to someone we deem a legitimate enemy of God, is not a part of the Jesus Way.
Theologian Greg Boyd makes this case in his book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. He points out that the only blood Jesus shed to establish his kingdom was his own. His followers embraced the same ideal and many of them met a similar fate. He opens his book by stating, "...Jesus revealed an agape-centered, other-oriented, self-sacrificial God who opposes violence and who commands his people to refrain from violence." And since Jesus is the full revelation of God (Col. 1:19), then he is the lens through which we must interpret these stranger texts.
Why, then, does God engage, condone, and commend acts of violence that support Israel in the Old Testament? For the answer to that, you are invited to view my sermon. In that sermon I make room for the possibility that some acts of violence may be necessary in a world determined to be violent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's involvement in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler could be an illustration of this point. However, my concern here is to address the misinterpretation and misapplication of these violent texts for the Christian person and the Church. I think it's fairly obvious that human governments exist to maintain justice and order. I will even concede that maintaining justice and order occasionally require some sort of necessary violence.
However, there are limitations to the degree at which the Church and the individual Christian is allowed to participate in that violence. I have great sympathy for Christian soldiers, police officers, and governmental officials who daily face the pressure to participate in acts that go against their Christian conscious. We should pray for these people and seek to support them in whatever ways that we can. But that does not mean we have to justify and bless the violence they commit. Again, this is a matter of kingdom theology: to lop Church and the United States into the same hat and assume that the goals of each are one and the same is dangerous.
Why? Because in another set of stranger texts, more strange than the Old Testament ones even because they espouse peace in the face violence, Jesus says, "Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44)." Jesus says, "If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also (Matt. 5:39b)." Jesus says, "Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man (Luke 6:22)." When James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven on a village that had rejected them, Jesus rebuked his followers (Luke 9:51-56). That was and is the Way of Jesus. That is the lens through which we must view violent texts from the Old Testment, through which we must view God and divine violence, through which we must view ourselves.
The most "eye-opening" part of the Old Testament texts of terror is how they have been misused, exploited, misinterpreted, and misapplied for the support of an earthly kingdom.
My cautionary note to anyone who would attempt to read and apply them would be to run them through the gamut of Jesus' life and death. You cannot understand them any other way.
But there is one more lens I would advise you to consider - the universal scope of Israel. When God created Israel, he did not create them in a vacuum. That is, he did not create them as if no one else, no other nation or people group, existed. God created the nation of Israel for a universal purpose and mission. When extending the call to Abraham, God said, "I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Gen. 12:2-3, italics mine)."
When God created Israel, his intentions were universal. And if God's scope is universal, then that means all the people on earth are God's children.
I ran across this story in a sermon by Fred Craddock called Two Hearts in One Faith. "The Rabbis used to tell a story of the exodus. At the time of the exodus God was very busy and so appointed a committee of angels to take care of the Red Sea. And so, the angels looking over the banister of heaven, when the Israelites arrived at the sea, used the power of God, parted the waters. The Israelites went through. Here came the Egyptians, horses and chariots. So, the angels waited and when they got out in the middle of the sea, they released the water and the Egyptians went tumbling and drowning. The angels were clapping and singing and clapping and singing and God came by and said, 'What's all the celebration?' They said, 'We got 'em, we got 'em, we got 'em!' And God looked over the banister of heaven and said, 'You are no longer in my service.' 'But, we got 'em.' And God said, 'Don't you know? The Egyptians are also my children.'”
Could the same message could apply to Deuteronomy 20? "Don't you know? The Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites are also my children." Could the same message apply to us today? "Don't you know? The Mexicans, Syrians, Turks, Afghans, Russians, Chinese, and Palestinians are also my children."
The bottom line is this: Be careful who you call an enemy of God. Be careful how you define God's kingdom. If you are going into the military or governmental work, think carefully about your role there and how you will conduct yourself. Be careful how you read these stranger texts. Don't make the same mistakes others have, and are making, with them. Remember to allow Jesus to be the interpretive key to all of the Bible and consequently your life. And remember God's universal intentions, expressed so beautifully in a familiar but powerful verse:
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (Jn. 3:16, italics mine)."