Making Sense of a Confusing Narrative

Jesus brought a climax to Israel’s narrative–a beautiful crescendo to the music played before him.  We may puzzle over who Jesus was, what exactly he came to do, but one thing is a consensus among us. Jesus embodied non-violent peace making.  If Jesus is the denouement for the great literary work that came before him, that we call the Bible, how do we explain the peaceful message of Jesus with the violent messages of the First Covenant?  Many seek to rid ourselves from what appear to be embarrassingly violent, even barbaric looking passages, by distancing both covenants.  “Jesus brought a new law, the old one is done away,” the Christian quickly retorts.  However, this solution does alleviate the “problem,” even though the answer is partially right.    For one, Jesus explicitly states that he did not come to destroy the Torah and Prophets but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). The antithetic dyadic interpretation of the sermon on the mount runs against the grain of Jesus own faithfulness to scripture. It is better to read the Sermon on the Mount as triadic teachings rather than dyadic ones. Jesus introduces traditional righteousness “you have heard it said,” then he introduces a vicious cycle “but I say” and then gives transforming initiatives “do X.”[1]

YHWH is a Warrior

It is much easier to say “Jesus overrules what God did in the OT” and end it at that, but that still doesn’t get us out of a sticky situation.  I am not claiming to completely solve this “problem” perhaps the problem originates from I misunderstanding of ancient thought. I think the best way to understand the wars of the OT is by viewing those wars within their own Ancient Near Eastern context. For the ancient their god was over their particular nation. When a war was fought or won it was viewed as the god overcoming the other god. In that sense, those accounts should not be read to determine whether war is morally good or bad, they would not have read them that way. For Israel a theme streams through OT war “I will fight for you.” In the song of Moses, it was declared “YHWH is a warrior” one of the early song we have, affirms God’s role in victory:

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.  The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14)

Israel was not delivered from Egypt through their own might, they did not lift up a single sword, but through God’s power, all the way to Canaan. While battling against Amalek, although physical warfare was used, the Israelites only prevailed as long as Moses kept the rod of God lifted in the air.

The Torah remarks, if Israel will trust and obey God, the inhabitants of Canaan will be driven out, little by little, (Exodus 23:29-30), by “the angel,” by hornets, by terrors, and by God (23:23, 27, 28), and Even in Canaan, marching and blowing trumpets causes the walls to fall, not Israel’s power. Joshua makes it clear that more were killed in war from God’s fire than from Israel’s strength. Gideon won battle not by a large army but by sending many away, and overcame through the an unconventional combat–circling the enemy with lamps lit. David, refused armor, but remembered that God delivered him from the lion and the bear, and he would deliver Goliath. Jehoshaphat also had a miraculous victory.  This should not be surprising, if we trace Israel’s understanding of warfare back to the Moses song.

The narrative of the OT attributes multiplying horses (military technology) and money, and colluding with other powers in a negative light–that lead the way to their exile.  More examples could be multiplied from the united kingdom and the divided kingdom, but this brief sketch should suffice.  Those battles were won through the power of God, God miraculously fought for them. The Jews saw themselves as a part of this story, of God acting in history, thus Jesus mighty signs, healing, teaching, death and resurrection, should be viewed in that same tradition–God fighting for Israel in non-orthodox ways. This is especially true when reading the pacifist vision of the prophets. Isaiah envisions a people who no longer fight war in the Messianic age (Isaiah 2:1-6) and that deliverance would come through the suffering one (Isaiah 53) and Jeremiah warns Israel not to fight Assyria. The kingdom of God as foretold in the prophets came not through military power, but through the cross of Jesus, and in that action God overthrew the powers once and for all.  Jesus ushered in the age of peace where “they will not longer train for war” (Isaiah 2:4).

Jesus and Justice

Above I said those who distance the covenants are “slightly right”, because I believe in some ways Jesus did deepen the way the torah was interpreted. He like the other prophets focused much more on the intent of Torah than the actual ritual. In fact, there is only one recorded time when Jesus affirms the purity laws of Moses and that is when he tells the Leper to go “back” to the priests in Mark 1 and offer a sacrifice as a testimony to them. But two things should be noticed (1) the man had probably been to the priests already and was not helped, and (2) Jesus action is a testimony of a new thing taking place in Israel that is redefining Mosaic purity. I also believe that Jesus altered the meaning or better yet brought these texts to their rich fullness.  I refer to two texts in the Torah.

The first was Lamech’s vengeful proverb, “If Cain is to be avenged seven times (ἑπτάκις) over, then for Lamech it will be seventy-seven times (ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά)!” (Genesis 4:24) The second, the maxim  Whoever sheds human blood,  by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God” (Genesis 9). The first reversal is spotted in Matthew 18. When Jesus breaks up the argument among the disciples, Peter asks how many times do I forgive my brother, “seven times? (ἑπτάκις)” Jesus says, forgiven him “seventy-seven times (ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά)”  Thus vengeance is transformed into forgiveness. Jesus fulfilled even that smallest portions in the Genesis story.

The second reverse is in the garden. After Peter slices the ear of the priests servant (probably aiming for his head!), he commands Peter to put his sword away, “because those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” If Genesis 9 is a maxim about blood shed being atoned by blood shed (interestingly some OT scholars view Genesis 9 as a proverb, not a command to kill killers), then Jesus’ reversed this by declaring the fate of those who use violence to overcome violence. (or depending on how you understand God’s word in Genesis 9, if it is seen as a warning that violence will only beget more violence, then Jesus is repeating it).

Ultimately, if Jesus’ sacrifice has paid for the sins of the world, and if he bore our wrong doings, then it seems to me that any other blood sacrifice, whether in war for the country, or death penalty for retribution, would actually be idolatrous. Jesus died to show us the way of the cross, and the way of forgiveness, and to end all of those sorts of sacrifices. No other human sacrifice is needed.

To sum up our little foray on violence.  Those battles with the nations were also ceremonial. The defeating of every living person was a sacrifice to God, they were not to keep anything . All of it was to be devoted. With these reasons in mind: God was the warrior and the battles were miraculous, many of which did not require any weapons,  the battles were sacrificial, the prophets had a pacifist vision and Jesus brought that to fruition in the reign of God, Jesus’ sacrifice is the last sacrifice.  We should be more cautious of be a pro-war disciple of Jesus considering the nature of war then, and the nature of war now.

Romans 13 and “Ordained Powers”

Zealous Christians resort to Romans 13 to defend the idea that Christian’s have a duty to support killing, or even to kill themselves.  Chapter divisions do us a serious injustice here.  The careful study will read Romans 13 in light of Romans 12:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord.  On the contrary:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;  if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good

Then he begins to discuss civil authorities.  What Paul specifically says Christian cannot do “act as instruments of God’s wrath.” God has ordered the government to function in certain capacities as a fallen power in a world which awaits the dawning of the fullness of the peaceable kingdom.  Make no mistakes, Rome is but a ordered fallen power of the cosmos just as Assyria and Babylon were.  That,

“the text says is that God orders them, brings them into line, providentially and permissively lines them up with divine purposes. This is true of all governments. It is a statement both de facto and de jure. It applies to the government of dictators and tyrants as well as constitutional democracies. It would in fact apply just as well to the government of a bandit or warlord, to the extent to which such would exercise real sovereign control.  That God orders and uses the powers does not reveal anything new about what government should be or how we should respond to government. A given government is not mandated or saved or made a channel of the will of God; it is simply lined up, used by God in the ordering of the cosmos…The immediate concrete meaning for this text for the Christian Jews in Rome, in the face of official anti-Semitism and the rising arbitrariness of the Imperial regime, is to call them away from any notion of revolution or insubordination.

The call is to a non-resistant attitude toward any tyrannical government. This is the immediate concrete meaning of the text; how strange then to make it the classic proof for the duty of Christians to kill…” (pp. 202- 203)[2]

is a astute observation from Yoder.  As Lee Camp, critiquing the idea that the church mimics the state says:

Romans 12 and 13 illustrate this point—twelve describes the church; thirteen describes God sovereignly using even emperors who have not accepted his lordship, just as he once used Assyria and Babylon. But just because Babylon was used by God to punish his people, God did not expect Israelites to adopt the ethic of the Babylonians. Instead, Israel was called again to do what God always called them to do—to live in trusting, covenant faithfulness.[3]

There is no private “spiritual ethic” and public “social ethic” Jesus’s message is both social and political, and governs the life of the disciples.

Jewish Non Violence and Christian Violence

Interestingly, when Israel got back from exile Ezra refused to war, but saw God as their deliver, this was not new, but something that was at the heart of the ancient faith and was probably re-realized in captivity (Ezra 8:21-23), after this there was the Maccabean revolt, the sicarii assissinations, messianic leaders, revolts here and there, a few pacifist movements (perhaps originating from Jesus), and the zealots. The temple was utterly desolated in the Jewish war. The final grand stand was Bar Kochba’s uprising and more Jewish massacuring (130-135 CE).

From this point the Jews have been pacifists, throughout history, surprisingly the Christians have been doing most of the war. The Jews seemed to have understood the reign of God, and his way of salvation. Some Rabbi’s even said that since the Messiah would bring a peaceful reign we will practice peace now. They understand their narrative but they don’t realize how Jesus has brought the narrative into a new chapter in the death and resurrection.  Unfortunately it has been Christians who have collude with civil power, that were responsible for murdering and killing countless people.  Whether, in crusades or in endorsing American nationalism and militarism.


[1] For further study read Glen Stassen’s brilliant symmetric analysis of the Sermon on the Mount. “Fourteen Triads”

[2] Yoder, John “Politics of Jesus”

[3] Camp, Lee “New Wine Skins” (Jan-Feb 2002)