Monday, January 16, 2012

The Old Testament Roots of Nonviolence Part I

While sipping hot tea during sick day from work and trying to regain my voice (by not using it), I finished another great book, The Old Testament Roots of Nonviolence. It was a fascinating book and worth reading just for the explanation of Hagar and Sarah. As I'm prone to do, I took a collection of quotes from the book so as to be able to share some insights I gained from the book.


Just as scientists must have the proper tools to study genetics, so the Biblical student needs the proper tools of hermeneutical analysis. I follow a praxis-oriented Anabaptist hermeneutic that begins with Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament and seeks to interpret the Old Testament according to what Jesus and his apostles saw there.

The [Genesis 14] story also sets a pattern for Moses and Joshua who sent the Hebrews into battle with nothing but their farm tools, shepherd staffs, and their faith in Yahweh. This proved that, at least, so far as Israel was concerned the snake (Genesis 3) had been wrong about Yahweh’s trustworthiness, and the superior military organization provided under monarchy was not essential for national defense.

One wonders whether the rest of the Pentateuch, beginning with Exodus 21 would ever have been written had the people agreed to be God’s priests and deal directly with him without an intermediary. Later Paul said that the law was added because of transgression. Mt. Sinai is the place where it was added.
There is a somewhat universal understanding that holy men do not fight. Except in the case where the priest assumes the role of monarch, normally the priestly class is exempt from military service. As we look at the Mosaic vision further, we will discover that Moses envisioned a nation without any kind of military defense system, one that came under the protection of Yahweh, and whose God other nations would learn to respect. Even if Moses was not a pacifist as the word is used today, he did oppose living in an armed, military state.

First one needs to recognize that during this early period, Israel typically fought as a band of shepherds and farmers using the tools of their trade against armies better equipped than they were, and room needs to be allowed for some rhetoric of encouragement by those in leadership who sent the peasants into battle. Secondly, these murderous commands were given always after a period of disobedience and unbelief. When hearts are hard in unbelief, then violent structures of coercion come into play, but God still may take an active role in determining the outcomes. Thirdly, there were no documents of human rights, rules of war, and or just war theories at that time. All these should be seen as effects of the gospel yeast at work in the loaf of humanity since Jesus came. What was normative then cannot be used as a model for our behavior now, even if a Divine command was given.
The kernel of a pacifistic idea that we find in the Mosaic tradition appears to be an ethic that says something like this: It’s okay to go to war, but it’s not okay to maintain an army, to stockpile weapons, or to take any kind of threatening posture towards people around you. If you really have to fight, cry out to God and he will send a savior, but you must trust him rather than depend upon the usual, accepted means of self-defense. A nation cannot be an armed camp and at the same time represent God to the other nations.
The effect of Moses’ kingship regulations was to outlaw the regular standing army so that when the need arose, God’s power could be displayed instead.

In Moses’ vision the ultimate realpolitik is the politic that takes God’s promise as a sure thing, and risks everything on the assumption that God is trustworthy, while the accommodating structures are for those without faith in Moses’ God. Both Ahaz and Hezekiah were judged by Isaiah, on the basis of whether they relied on Yahweh, even when obedience defied normal, good, human political judgment.

In the kingdom of heaven, it would be the winners, not the losers, who die in order to bring about the real change of government.

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