By The Rev. Deacon Joe Dzugan
March 19th, 2023
Lectio Divina – Divine or Sacred Reading-(Download)
For the gift of life, of our life, and each life, thanks be to you, O God.
Open our hearts to gratitude. Free our minds from greed. Heal our lives with grace.
And awaken our souls again to generosity.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 80.
Part III - “War Stories” (cont’d)
[“Inspired – Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again” by Rachel Held Evans.]
In other words, the authors of Scripture, like the authors of any other work, wrote with agendas. They wrote for a specific audience from a specific religious, social, and political context, and thus made creative decisions based on that audience and context.
Of course, this raises some important questions, like: Can war stories be inspired? Can political propaganda be God-breathed? To what degree did the Spirit guide the preservation of these narratives, and is there something sacred to be uncovered beneath all these human fingerprints?
I don’t know the answers to all these questions, but I do know a few things.
The first is that not every character in these violent stories stuck with the script. After Jephthah sacrificed his daughter as a burnt offering in exchange for God’s aid in battle, the young women of Israel engaged in a public act of grief marking the injustice. The text reports, “From this comes the Israelite tradition that each year the young women of Israel go out for four days to commemorate the daughter of Jephthah” (Judges 11:39-40). While the men moved on to fight another battle, the women stopped to acknowledge that something terrible had happened here, and with what little social and political power they had, they protested – every year for four days. They refused to let the nation forget what it had done in God’s name.
In another story, a woman named Rizpah, one of King Saul’s concubines, suffered the full force of the monarchy’s cruelty when King David agreed to hand over two of her sons to be hanged by the Gibeonites in an effort to settle a long, bloody dispute between the factions believed to be the cause of widespread famine across the land. Rizpah guarded her sons’ bodies from birds and wild beasts for weeks, until at last the rain came and they could be buried. Word of her tragic stand spread across the kingdom and inspired David to pause to grieve the violence his house had wrought (2 Samuel 21).
Even the prophetess Deborah, herself a legendary warrior, included in her victory song an acknowledgment of the defeated general’s mother, whom Deborah imagined peering form the lattice of her window as she awaited her son’s return, wondering, “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why is the clatter of his chariots delayed?” (Judges 5:28). Deborah’s portrait of the enemy is far from sympathetic – it reads more like a taunt, really – but it nevertheless broadens the narrative scope of the typical biblical war story to include the experiences of women.
The point is, if you pay attention to the women, a more complex history of Israel’s conquest emerges. Their stories invite the reader to consider the human cost of violence and patriarchy, and in that sense prove instructive to all who wish to work for a better world.
The second thing I know is that we are not different from the ancient Israelites as we would like to believe. “It was a violent and tribal culture,” people like to say of ancient Israel to explain away the actions of Canaan. But as Joshua Ryan Butler astutely observed, when it comes to civilian casualties, “we tend to hold the ancients to a much higher standard than we hold ourselves.”
Finally, the last thing I know is this: If the God of the Bible is true, and if God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is – as theologian Greg Boyd put it -
“the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others,” then God would rather die by violence than commit it. The cross makes this plain. On the cross, Christ not only bore the brunt of human cruelty and bloodlust and fear, he remained faithful to the nonviolence he taught and modeled throughout his ministry. Boyd called it “the Crucifixion of the Warrior God,” and in a two-volume work by that name asserted that “on the cross, the diabolic violent warrior god we have all-too-frequently pledged allegiance to has been forever repudiated.” On the cross, Jesus chose to align himself with the victims of suffering rather than the inflictors of it.
Jesus turned the war story on its head. Instead of being born to nobility, he was born in a manger, to an oppressed people in occupied territory. Instead of charging into Jerusalem on a warhorse, he arrived on a lumbering donkey. Instead of rallying troops for battle, he washed his disciples’ feet.
Of course, this still leaves us to grapple with the competing biblical portraits of God as the instigator of violence, and God as the repudiator of violence.
War is a dreadful and storied part of the human experience, and Scripture captures many shades of it – from the chest-thumping of the victors to the anguished cries of victims. There is ammunition there for those seeking religious justification for violence, and solidarity for all the mothers like Rizpah who just want an end to it. For those of us who prefer to keep the realities of war at a safe, sanitized distance, and who enjoy the luxury of that choice, the Bible’s war stories force a confrontation with the darkness.
Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
For this week with the “ear of your heart”: Read Philippians 2:5-11 and practice Lectio Divina.
“Thought for Extending the Practice”: The oldest hymn of the church puts a new spin on the traditional war ballad. Citing this hymn, the apostle Paul instructed Christians to “adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” (2:5). In what way or ways do you see this putting a new spin on the “traditional war ballad”?
Source for “Thought for Extending the Practice”: “The CEB Lectio Divina Prayer Bible”
An invitation to our virtual participants: Discussion and comments are very much encouraged and welcomed. Online discussions can be held in the comments section in the upcoming post on Facebook for this week’s Deacon’s Reflection which is part of adult formation at St. Francis Episcopal Church.
The blessings of heaven, the blessings of earth, the blessings of sea and sky.
On those we love this day and on every human family the gifts of heaven, the gifts of earth,
the gifts of sea and sky.
May the light of God illumine the heart of my soul. May the flame of Christ kindle me to love.
May the fire of the Spirit free me to live this day, tonight, and forever. Amen.
- J. Philip Newell, Celtic Treasure – Daily Scriptures and Prayer, p. 81.
“Inspired”, Deacon Joe Dzugan, St. Francis Episcopal Church, 2023.