Thursday, April 16, 2009

Reading the Bible in 20 months: OT peace, part 3

For all the Old Testament violence, a strong strand of peace testimony threads through the Bible. The Garden of Eden is a peaceful place. Samuel, dismayed that the Israelites want a military, warrior king like the other nations, is inspired by God to tell them in some detail of the woes that will fall on them when they appoint a military king. And God seems to be willing to let the Israelites discover for themselves the evils of over-reliance on force and violence. Here is 1st Samuel 8:5 (I use the New English Bible translation because it has a paragraph structure): "the elders of Israel.. said '... appoint us a king to govern us, like other nations.'" God tells Samuel in verse 8/9: "They are now doing to you what just what they have done to me since I brought them up from Egypt: They have forsaken me and worshipped other gods." He instructs Samuel to warn the people about military kings: " yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out against the king you have chosen, but it will be too late; the Lord will not answer you." (v.18/19). I think it's notable that, at least in this translation and the NIV, following a military leader is seen by God as idol-worship.

Abigail offers us an alternative to violence. When her husband Nabal (which apparently means "churl") rejects David's polite request for food after David has protected his flocks, David vows to destroy Nabal and his household. Nabal, from his perspective, sees himself as being blackmailed by David and digs his heels in. Abigail, "beautiful and intelligent," decides to load asses with food as a gift for David. She does it, at what we must assume is risk to herself, and humbly begs David to reconsider his attack. He blesses her for turning him from violence: "A blessing on your good sense, a blessing on you because you have saved me today from the guilt of bloodshed and from giving way to my anger." (1 Samuel 25:34). A little later, when Nabal dies of a seizure, David says: "Blessed be the Lord, who has himself punished Nabal for his insult and kept me his servant from doing wrong." (1 Samuel: 25:39) Much could be said about this story but three things stand out: David understands that killing Nabal and his people would have been wrong, Abigail is not a coward, but brave and wise, and both Nabal and David both have "sides" to their stories.

I don't want to go on too long, but certainly the prophecies of Isaiah speak compellingly to us of a peaceable kingdom, and the psalms refer often of a God of mercy and lovingkindness. Even stories that horrify modern sensibilites, such as Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, point to a more loving, peaceful God than the false tribal gods surrounding the Israelites. As we find out in Chronicles, as Israel is spiraling out of control and adopting foreign religions, child sacrifice was a regular part of other faith group's strategy of appeasing angry gods. That the Jehovah God should so early and forcefully reject child sacrifice is a significant rejection of violence. And even the Elijah story, at least to me, seems to question Elijah's violence. He gets very frightened after the murders, which he apparently committed in a frenzy. He hides under a broom tree and, once Jezebel puts a price on his head for killing her priests, hides in the cave. He reminds me of Adam in the garden, hiding from God. When he does hear the voice of God, asking him what he's doing, he doesn't answer the question (perhaps knowing God won't be happy), instead calling himself God's zealous servant. What I take from the story is less tacit approval of the murders than a vivid portrait of the terror and dissonance Elijah experiences once he enters the world of violence.

And overall, doesn't much of the Biblical bloodbath critique itself? All of Israel's military conquests and adventures seem to get it nowhere in the end. It's vanquished by the Babylonians. It lives in almost perpetual fear of its neighbors. At the end of the OT, Israel appears to be at an impasse. What it's tried hasn't worked in terms of building a secure, independent nation state with Jehovah at the center. Conventional warfare, even under a king like David, doesn't seem to have built the Kingdom of God. Hhhhmmm ....

Soon I will blog about a pamplet I read recently on the Bible and peace, written in the 1940s, that makes a case much stronger than any I am making. In the meantime, I am interested in other peace stories in the Old Testament that might pop into people's minds.

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