Forty some years ago I spent a summer in San Francisco—10 weeks working in the housing projects and on skid row during the “summer of love”, 1969. “The Age of Aquarius” was a popular song on the radio: “When the moon is in the Seventh House, and Jupiter aligns with Mars,/ Then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars./ This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius …/ Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding./ No more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation. …” Well, it wasn’t. Violence and mistrust abound today. It seems that the age of Aquarius was really short.
Another song written that year made the charts the following summer. Lois spent a month that summer in Brooklyn at a Brethren in Christ VS Unit there and recalls hearing it play over and over again: “I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing./ Say it again, war, what is it good for? Absolutely, nothing, listen to me./ War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker, War, friend only to the undertaker …”
Protests against the War in Vietnam were on the rise, and the song resonated with many people around the world. It could almost be a Mennonite anthem.
And then we turn to Deuteronomy, and run into trouble.
The Real War (Herem)
Text (Deut 7: 1-10)
7 When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.
7 The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments. 10 But those who hate him he will repay to their face by destruction; he will not be slow to repay to their face those who hate him.
We struggle with these verses because we hear them as a call to genocide. Placed alongside a passage such as Deuteronomy 3 (the total destruction of Og of Bashan) and 1 Samuel 15 (God’s command through Samuel to Saul to destroy the Amalekites completely, combined with God’s judgment on Saul for not doing so), this language grates harshly in our ears.
We want to sing that song from 1970—war is good for nothing—and embrace the age of peace and harmony that we sang about in the 1960s. Our question this morning is: What’s going on here? Do we do best by not reading Deuteronomy? Is there something here for us? The following comments are my beginning efforts to make sense of the passage and apply it to our lives. So here are some thoughts.
1) The Tension Remains: I do not say that we have no tension with this language. We face clearly the truth that God’s people used violence in the OT. That fact actually gives me hope. It is clear from the NT and from the teachings and example of Jesus that we are to embrace peace, and yet God was willing and able to work with people whose culture was steeped in violence. God moved them gently over centuries of interaction to the point where they (and we) could receive the way of peace as the way for God’s people.
Clues pointing in this direction are present in the OT from the earliest days. Abraham is sent to a far-away land, but not as a soldier. Abraham and Sarah travel in peace and avoid fighting whenever possible; they depend on God’s care. When their descendants do turn to fighting in the Exodus, God fights for them and they do nothing themselves against the Egyptians. In fact, their name (“Children of Israel”) means, “the people for whom God fights”. As Millard Lind says in the title of a book in which he explores the war texts of the OT, “Yahweh is a warrior.” The people’s future depends on God’s providential care, not on their military might. “Some trust in chariots, some trust in horses. We trust in the Lord.”
2) But the passage does not teach genocide: The tension (that they did fight) remains, but the further problem of a call to genocide does not. The verses do not call for genocide. We must take language for what Moses (in this case) intends to say, not for what we think the words must mean. The language of total destruction was part of the way that nations of that time normally spoke to say that they would defeat (or had defeated) the enemy.
Several considerations make it clear that “total destruction” does not mean genocide. In the verses we read, Moses tells the people not to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land who remain. Nor are they to adopt their religious practices. If they are all dead, how could the Children of Israel intermarry with them or worship their gods?
This thought is reinforced by laws in chapter 24 that tell how to make sure that “aliens” [gerim] are cared for through laws of gleaning. In chapter 10 Moses says that they are to care for these same gerim, including the inhabitants whom they have dispossessed, because they themselves had been aliens (gerim) in Egypt. In fact, God say to love them, using the same word we heard in the Shema for “Love God”. How could this mean to love the people you exterminated? Most likely, Moses never meant: Kill them all!
3) Direct and Indirect Communication: What then might he have meant? We need to understand communication among people like Israelites. They had what we call a “high context culture”. That is, the speaker means something slightly different than the words mean on the surface—what we call “indirect communication”. We come from a low context culture, in which people normally say what they mean—what we call direct communication.
An example from Zimbabwe when I was doing research there on the BIC churches in Bulawayo. I wanted to find Mlotshwa, a carpenter who had a shop in the city and was one of the founding members of the BIC in Bulawayo. I went (walking on foot) to the part of town where his shop was and asked someone on the street if he knew where Mlotshwa the carpenter had his shop. He said, “Keep going straight ahead. You will find it.” I walked for about two miles and decided I had missed it. I asked another man I met if he knew where the shop was. He directed me back to where I started and across the street. I was a couple of hundred yards away, and the first man had sent me on a long walk, two miles and back. What happened?
The Canadian in me says, “He lied to me.” But he was an African, using his culture’s way of answering my question. What he meant was something like this (in our low-context way of saying it): “No, I don’t know where his shop is, but if you keep looking I’m sure you will find it.” He intended to encourage me and not to deceive me, but I did not understand his indirect form of communication. Something like that is going on here.
4) So what did he mean? Gerald Gerbrandt suggests that we should read this language as a metaphor, stating strongly the extent to which the Israelites were to reject any other divine authority in their lives. Two chapters earlier, Moses reminds them of the Ten Commandments, in which God begins with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” Yahweh War in Deuteronomy 7, then, spells out the full extent of what it means to say, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The NT uses similar images to indicate that we are in a war with the power of evil. So Paul could say, “Put on the whole armour of God” and then spell out some details of this war (Ephesians 6). We can read this passage in Deuteronomy as a similarly strong statement, emphasizing the danger that the Children of Israel faced as they encountered the worship of Ishtar-Aphrodite-Venus on the on hand and the worship of Baal on the other. The religious practices of the people in Canaan were interwoven into the fabric of daily life so thoroughly that Moses commanded them to put it all to death.
Moses’ words, then, become a call to treat the surrounding cultures as “dead to them”. We also, who have become dead to self (compare the metaphor, “I am crucified with Christ”—Galatians 2:20) now treat the culture around us as “dead to us”. We “devote it to destruction”.
We live in modern Canada. What about our culture poses danger to Christians today, like the Israelites on the border of the Promised Land? I suggest that two particular idols are particularly prevalent and powerful in our culture. One is the idol of sex: We have come to believe that sexual expression is the one true measure of life fully lived. Another is the idol of self: We have come to believe that personal fulfillment is our right, and that lack of personal fulfillment is the greatest tragedy we can experience. Both of these idols exaggerate biblical ideals for the Christian life. Both compete with God to take first place in our lives. Moses would say to us: Destroy your culture totally at precisely these points. Such “herem” requires the church to study our context carefully, in light of our commitment to God, and identify the idols of our lives.
One way that we can follow Christ and deny the idol of self is to commit ourselves to Christ and to community. In a context where we are tempted to be Christians whose spirituality is expressed individually, in isolation from other believers, we commit ourselves to the flawed, hurting, inescapable body of Christ. There we begin to live God’s reign together here on earth.
This brings me to the rocks you are holding. As you came in, you saw the table with rocks on it, and with the instruction to write your name on a rock and bring it with you into the sanctuary. Here is what I want to do with your names on the rocks. We will pass the basket, so to speak, and put our names into the basket. Then, as we leave the sanctuary at the end of the service, I am asking each one to take out a rock from the basket and take the rock home with you. I’m asking you then to pray for the person whose name you draw each day for the next month.
If you prefer not to participate, you can take your rock home with you. I hope you will take part, but I don’t want anyone to pray out of guilt or a sense of being manipulated. Rather, this is our opportunity to put on God’s armour and devote our individualism to complete destruction.
If there’s someone who didn’t get a rock and you would like one, hold up your hand and the ushers will bring you a rock and a Sharpie to write your name on the rock. [Give a moment to be sure everyone has a rock, and then have the ushers “take up the rocks”.] Once you have your rock with someone’s name on it, remember to pray for that person daily. If you like (and feel comfortable doing it), you might ask the person whose rock you draw, “How may I pray for you?” We need each other in this journey through the wilderness into the Promised Land.
This exploration does not solve our problems with the war passages of the OT, but it does suggest a way forward. God calls us to live in the world, using the patterns of the world. We are Canadians, and we live as Canadians. But Canada has its own idols that we must devote to destruction. In the past, when we moved from one country to another, the very fact of being migrants helped us to avoid worshipping the idols of that place. Today we are more at home, and therein lies our danger.
God calls us to live here in Manitoba, but God also calls us to live fully as children of God, praying always, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. … For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
29 January 2017
Steinbach Mennonite Church