NB Members of our congregations were invited to suggest themes for our sermons during Lent. They rose to the occasion admirably and posed some excellent questions; this sermon is in response to the question 'What are we to make of the passages of the Bible in which God instructs people to kill?'
'Rise up, warriors, take your stand at one another's sides, our feet set wide and rooted like oaks in the ground.'
Does anyone know which book of the Old Testament these words are from? No? Well, sorry, but that as a trick question – they’re not from the Old Testament at all, they’re the words of the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus. You might know that the Spartans were famously warlike; when asked 'how far Sparta's boundaries stretched?', King Agesilaus brandished his spear and replied ‘as far as this can reach.’ The Spartans were a warmongering people in a warmongering world. War is one of the most important subjects in ancient history; Greek, Roman, and Jewish ancient historians, as well as Spartan poets, talk of war in shaping their world. So does the Bible, especially the Old Testament. Let's face it, you thought for a moment there, didn't you, and if I'd told you that Tyrtaeus' words were from one of the minor prophets, you'd have believed me, because those words so easily could come straight out of the pages of the Old Testament. So why is it a particular problem that the Bible does something that most, if not all, ancient civilisations do?
The answer, surely, is that no other ancient books hold such a high place of authority in the world today. Spartan and Roman accounts of war might be every bit as poetic as those in the Bible, but they do not determine how we live today. It would be unthinkable for a world leader to be inspired by the words of Tyrtaeus to go to war – yet, infamously, George W. Bush claimed that ‘God said to me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ In short, this is a problem because the Bible is, as we say every time it is read in church, the word of God. How can the words of the Prince of Peace be words of war?
Let’s be clear, this is a real problem. It’s not something that has only recently become a problem; it’s been a problem for Christian going right back to the earliest centuries of Christian faith. The theologian Origen, living in Egypt in the third century, suggested that the narratives of war in the Old Testament, especially the story of Joshua and the conquest of Israel, are to be read allegorically, to instruct the Christian believer in what it means to overcome decisively all sin and selfishness within one’s own soul – as St Paul says, to put to death the deeds of the sinful nature. In his Homily on Joshua, Origen says this: ‘Unless those physical wars bore the figure of spiritual wars, I do not think the books of Jewish history would ever have been handed down by the apostles to the disciple of Christ, who came to teach peace.’
This is one way of answering the problem of war in the Bible, and it’s still used much today. In fact I remember saying the same sort of thing myself to something of a sceptic, who replied archly, ‘Yes, it’s all very well to make it all about you and the state of your soul. But they were real people who died there, real women and men and children. Does the state your soul really justify all that killing?’
That conversation happened before I went off to study theology, and when I did, I grabbed the opportunity to grapple with some of the Bible’s thornier problems. My sceptical friend’s critique of Joshua stayed with me. As I got to know the Bible much better, and the world out of which the Bible emerged, a couple of things started to dawn on me. The first one was that I had previously thought of the Bible as one voice, which must not be inconsistent or contradictory. The more I studied it, the more I started to see the Bible more as a noisy, large family gathering of lots and lots of wonderfully passionate, human, faithful, opinionated relatives – if I were to be fanciful I might imagine a big Jewish family all around a dinner table, eating together, agreeing and arguing and interrupting, correcting and contradicting, nodding and shaking and laughing and crying, remembering and hoping and forth-telling. This Bible, as I got to know it, this slightly shambolic and unlikely collation of an unruly rabble of writings improbably but passionately guarded and handed down within the family of God, was much more inviting and attractive to me than the Bible I had previously thought of, the one single voice that must not be inconsistent or contradictory. This was because the noisy family gathering reached out to me, set a seat for me, poured me a drink and turning on its elbow, asked ‘So what do you think?’ whereas the single voice could only be silently heard, the only apt response unquestioning acceptance.
So as I sat at the dinner table of the family gathering and listened to the family stories, I started to realise that his family of God – the people of Israel into which I, as a believer in Jesus have been adopted – has a backstory not of victory in war but of failure. First the Egyptians, then the Philistines, then the Assyrians, not to mention all those other tribes, so much bigger and better organised than we were – then the terrible trauma of exile in Babylon, then the Persians, then the Greeks, Alexander with his army – then the Romans…A truly objective history of the ancient world, if such a thing were possible to write, would not portray the Israelites as a heavy hitter in war, rather as the rather pitiful victim of war after battle after conquest. The saying has it that history is written by the victors, but in the case of the Bible, that’s just not true. The Old Testament is a history written by the oppressed. One man of war, Winston Churchill, speaking very much as a man of his times, asserted that “Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world.” Formidable and remarkable not because of their prowess on the battlefield like the ancient Spartans, or the sheer impressive force of their presence like the Persians, but simply because of their will to survive and to remain faithful to God through failure, defeat and oppression.
So what do we do with those Bible passages in which God is described as a warrior, or in which God instructs his people to go into battle? Well, a few thoughts, which might hopefully spark off a few of your own. Firstly, we humans can only think of God in terms of the language we have available to us at any given time. As what might sound like a silly example, there’s a Psalm in which the Psalmist says this: ‘Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and as the eyes of a maiden to the hand of her mistress; so our eyes wait on the LORD our God, until that he have mercy on us.’ When I’m working in my study, and glance down at my lovely Cocker Spaniel, and see the way he looks at me – so deeply attentive and hopeful, I can’t help thinking that the eyes of a spaniel would make a much better simile in that Psalm. But of course the Psalmist didn’t have a loyal spaniel sitting at his feet. So when the poets of the Bible, and much of it is poetry, say that God is a warrior who fights for his people and leads them into war, maybe that is saying something profound about God’s presence with his people and his leading of his people – but equally, if we wanted to say the same thing today, we probably would find different language in which to say it. The people of the Hebrew Bible knew God as a warrior because they were people compelled to fight for their existence, and they knew that God was with them in the midst of their many battles for survival.
Secondly, yes, there are passages in the Bible in which war seems to be glorified, and we find that difficult. One thing to bear in mind, though, is that the Bible is not written in anything like chronological order, nor were the narratives written at the same times as they events they describe. Their writers may be distanced from those events either by space, or by time. When you get a quiet evening sometime, read through the histories of the books of Kings and of Chronicles, and ask yourself how different these are. Chronicles was written long after Kings, so it’s understandable that its perspective on the events narrated are very different. Also, keep the image of the noisy family gathering around a dinner table in your mind – it’s understandable that within such a family gathering, different personalities will speak, some more bloodthirsty than others. There are other voices too, though, most obviously the Ten Commendments: ‘thou shalt not kill’, and also the battle scenes in which God’s people pitch up, ready to trounce the enemy, and are told that they need only stand still, the Lord will fight for them.
Most profoundly though, the Bible’s own answer to this question of killing is the one we look in the face today, and that is the cross of Christ. Jesus did not fight back. He did not mass his army of followers or of angels. He did not use is influence to start a bloodthirsty revolution. He allowed himself to suffer great pain and to die the death of a criminal, events unthought of for the long-awaited Messiah who would set this oppressed people free of her captors. And yet as Christians are here this morning to celebrate that death, and to remember it in the Eucharist, because we believe that through his death, Jesus’ power was shown to the uttermost, to the entire cosmos as the true nature of the Messiah was revealed not in war or in shows of physical or political strength, but in love and in the sacrifice of God himself. The power of the cross blows apart any militaristic notion of strength this word can imagine. The true answer to this oppressed people was that true freedom doesn’t come through fighting back, but by the laying down of God’s own life, in Jesus, and in his command to us, his people, to go and do likewise. Amen.