One of the Ten Commandments God gave us is to not commit murder. Yet God seems to command people throughout the Old Testament to take over other peoples' land, sometimes killing the inhabitants and sometimes enslaving them. This does not make sense to me.
To help us work with something specific I have chosen for us two readings. The first is from Exodus, the text of the Ten Commandments that are referred to in the question. The second is a small portion of the myriad rules that Moses also delivers to the Hebrew people on God’s behalf, particularly in this passage, instructions for how the Hebrews are supposed to enter the land of Israel from which they have been absent for several hundred years.
Listen now for what the Spirit is saying to the church:
As we talked about last week, we Presbyterians bring a few different principles of interpretation when we come to the Bible, especially when we find ourselves facing difficult texts in difficult times or texts that contradict each other. As we try to find our way forward and discern how to follow God’s will faithfully, we ask questions like:
1. What reason does it seem God would have behind this command or action or story?
2. How does the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God in flesh, inform our understanding of God’s will and activity in this passage?
3. What does the broader witness of all of Scripture tell us about God’s leading?
4. What is the history and culture that originally influences the words we are reading?
In a sense the very question that came to us today is about the broader witness of Scripture in this matter of what should people of faith do about confronting enemies. It comes to us because we find it really uncomfortable and at odds with our understanding of who God is to hear God seem to endorse killing rather than prohibit it.
We can go further down this road. What do other parts Scripture say about violence how we treat our enemies? A thorough investigation of these questions would take much more time than we have this morning, but a quick overview of some passages give us a sense of the whole. There are in the Old Testament several passages like the one we have heard this morning, passages that call for the people of God to make sure they are the only people in the land, and even to kill to make that happen. It happens when the Hebrew people are first coming back to the land of Israel after they have been in Egypt for hundreds of years. It happens again when the Jewish people come back from exile in Babylon. The people of God are warned about anything – any person or culture – that might tempt them from following the way of God and are given permission if not a mandate to remove anything that might be a temptation pulling them away from right worship of God.
But the Old Testament doesn’t speak only of squashing diversity and killing those who are different. For example in another book of the law, Leviticus, the command is also given, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (19:33-34) Likewise in Exodus, just after delivering the Ten Commandments, Moses also delivers this word from God to the Hebrew people, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (23:9). And also that “Golden Rule” that we find on the lips of Jesus and often attribute to him, as its own roots in Leviticus 19:18 which says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Yes, there are passages that talk about killing in an effort to avoid being led away from right worship and faithfulness before God, but there are even more passages, even in the Old Testament, that call for God’s people to care for those who are different, to offer the same gift of Sabbath to the strangers in their midst, to be sure that the vulnerable are cared for in society. The over-arching vision of the prophets is for a world where swords are beaten into plowshares, where war is not learned, where food and water and resources are shared freely with all. Even the words around this passage in Deuteronomy where the Hebrew people are called do away with certain tribe, insist that they ask first for peace and there is a hint at the desire for life and the well-being of others in the commands to leave alive the trees, the trees that will bear fruit and provide a livelihood for those who remain.
We are more familiar with passages in the New Testament that lead us toward an ethic of life preservation over an impulse to kill, especially when we apply another of the principles of interpretation - - appealing to the witness of Jesus. Throughout the gospels, Jesus offers the same healing, the same good word, the same salvation to those who are Jewish and those who aren’t. To the Samaritan woman at the well he promises living water that will gush up to eternal life. To the daughter of a Syrophoenician woman he brings deliverance from an unclean spirit. To the Roman soldiers who carried out his own crucifixion he offered forgiveness. Drawing on his own Jewish faith and understanding of the same laws of God in what we call the Old Testament he speaks of, no, he commands us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute us, offer mercy, and make peace.
And even the writings of Paul that expand on and interpret the witness of Jesus contain a strong message of leaving judgment up to God and extending goodness, peace, and life in the face of evil. In Romans 12:17 he writes, “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Time and time again in Scripture the purpose and movement of God's teaching and spirit is toward creating shalom, wholeness, holistic peace and well=being in creation. Human beings are cautioned against taking judgment into our own hands, against any action that will cause harm.
With these appeals to the broader witness of Scripture and the person of Jesus that overwhelmingly call us to peace over violence, acceptance over extermination, to take all of Scripture, even the difficult parts seriously, we have to ask why it is God may have commanded people to be killed. How did Moses hear that message in what God was telling him? Is there any coherent, good sense behind this passage, or any historical and cultural context that can shed some light on this difficult contradiction?
I believe there is. This passage from Deuteronomy contains the instructions to the Hebrew people who have been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years and wandering in the desert for more than a generation. They have been influenced by foreign cultures, exposed more often to the religious practices of their oppressors than their own faith traditions. They have found faithfulness to God under the pressure of the exodus, a miracle, mind you, that was provided BY God, to be difficult at best. In my search for a coherent, good sense reason behind the command that strips away an ancient cultural acquiescence of violence and war, what I hear God asking the people to do is to remove any barrier they may find that would prevent them from keeping focused on living in right relationship with God. I hear God asking God’s people to take away any temptation to turn to foreign and false gods. I hear God asking for their singular focus, their full attention, their complete devotion to the covenant that promises “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
So, yes, this passage and others that might be similar to it have the finger prints of human beings who have a propensity for solving problems with violence, but, at least in my reading, the Bible’s witness to peace, and life, and justice far outweighs directions toward violence and death. And at the same time there are reasons behind this instruction that still speak to holy and righteous living, that can still guide us in faithfully following God who has called us into covenant living. In it we hear a command to follow God with unparalleled devotion and singular focus on God’s way of life and worship.
It’s impossible to talk about this passage and this topic without the state of affairs in the Middle East, especially Israel and Palestine coming to mind. At the same time it’s impossible to do anything more than just briefly touch on these affairs with the time constraints we face in a service of worship. There is more history than we can cover. There are more dynamics than we can come to understand. There are more opinions and nuances and theories of foreign affairs than we can even begin to delve into with our varying levels of knowledge about the whole situation. But I believe the overarching witness of Scripture, even in light of passages like the one we have shared in Deuteronomy, speak to a singular ethic of peace and life for all people that God cries out for throughout Scripture and history.
Patricia Raube, the pastor of Union Presbyterian Church, in Endicott, New York, wrote these words this week with which I will close:
I have decided that I don't know.
I don't know enough to decide who is right and who is wrong in global conflicts.
I don't know enough to join in outrage- though, when I read of children, or young men, or old women, or really anyone dying by bombs and guns, I am outraged.
I don't know enough to weigh suffering against suffering, fear against fear, death against death.
I only know that I want peace.
Peace in every heart.
Peace in every home.
Peace in every land.
And I know that peace has its birth in justice.