Deuteronomy 20

Law about war.

The Israelites aren’t naturally warlike, but they are uniquely chosen in human history and God is promising to be on their side.

There are numerous exemptions from being part of the army, including being “faint hearted”. God likes to win with less rather than more manpower to make his God power clear.  He only wants the motivated true believers who have no distractions.

The rules are relatively merciful (given that it’s war) for towns they need to conquer that aren’t in the promised land. There must always be a peace offer first, the women and children are spared.

But the towns within Canaan are under God’s judgment, the Israelites are mere vehicles of it, and nothing is to be spared. The Israelites did not have the stomach for that and their compromise was the downfall of their society.

The rules for selecting the army show God being supportive and compassionate… If you’ve just married or just built a house, you don’t have to fight.

The rules for standard warfare show God bringing fairness to the affairs of men. If war must be, the standard operation is reasonable, much moreso than the surrounding nations would have been I’m sure.

The rules for taking the land are those of a god who is mighty, has plans beyond our understanding, of our creator and our judge.

It’s all the one God. We can love and find joy in his compassion and fairness, but we also need to fearfully respect his greatness and power over us as his creatures and trust the wisdom of his plans.

It’s who he is, he lets us like him or lump him.

Deuteronomy 7

My God can be terrifying God from the perspective of being one of his people. 

Here Moses describes how will root out the stronger people in the land and put in the weaker Israelites, making them strong. But if they don’t obey him, the same fate awaits them.

God is a gardener. We don’t hesitate to pull out annuals that have done flowering. Some plants we feed, others we prune, some we remove. The gardener knows that is best for the garden. The gardener’s plans are for the garden to thrive and survive and for it to be something the current garden can’t imagine being. 

We didn’t actually make the plants in our garden, or the dirt or the sun or the water. Yet we are the masters of its fate. But God made us and our world. 

Contemplating the idea that you are a creation is a shocking idea if you are used to the idea that you are god of yourself. But God has completly the right to act that way.

The process of taking the holy land is often understandably disparaged as racial cleansing. But God makes it clear here that it is not because of racial superiority that he chose the Israelites. It’s because of his plans, not their worth. 

I’m not a Jew, but I believe Jesus, who was, was also God and died for me. This is part of the story of God’s love for all mankind. It’s not racial.

He knew the number of hairs on the head of every one of the “ites” who were already in Canaan. He formed them, knew them and loved them in the womb.  Like plants in a garden, they will all eventually die, but that does not mean they are not known and loved. We love and enjoy our plants, but we didn’t make them. How much more would we if we had.

The people he desired to make way for the Israelites are in his hands. The God I see here, the one I was inspired by the last chapter to love with all my heart, is an all mighty, all powerful God of love and kindness.

Deuteronomy 5

Obedience. Moses recounts the drama of the fire and darkness out of which God spoke and gave the ten commandments, which he quotes in full.

I was struck by the universal, profound nature of them. Not killing, stealing, taking your neighbours property. I mean the are very very ancient rules, we haven’t progressed beyond acknowledging them as true, and regularly breaking them, in 1000s of years. They are still an accurate mirror of our ideals and weakness.

He recounts how right the reaction of the people was. They were overwhelmed at hearing God’s voice, they were afraid to see him. They backed off and let Moses complete the interaction.

He calls them to have this respect again, to the law, to the words of God. He’s reminding them that the law came from the living God who is awesome and that is why it should be obeyed.

1 Samuel 19

Saul starts to openly chase David to kill him. A thrilling chapter full of incident and close escapes. 

David is true, Saul is jealous and tortured by David’s love of God and success. David runs away to Samuel when it’s clear the palace is no longer safe. 

We know from the Psalms his thought processes. When he is under greatest pressure threat and danger David slows down and gets lost in the presence of God. He is counter intuitive.

So he and Samuel stay “prophesying”, ie: speaking the truth about God, while 3 successive groups of messengers from Saul come to seek him. The messengers all forget Saul’s mission and join in the spiritual experience. 

Finally Saul himself comes personally, and he too is overwhelmed by the spirit, removes the vestments of kingship, and joins in.

Extraordinary. We have Israel’s future king David, his sworn enemy the crazy jealous current king Saul, both full of the Spirit joining in acknowledging the true king, God. Only in Israel.

This morning I feel the need to sever myself emotionally from the result of the US election last night. The best description of it yet I have heard is a whitelash. The white male anger has channelled though a character with a biblical sized ego and insecurity, who is his own God.

In the fear, the disappointment, anticipating all the nastiness this will unleash, I’m given this image of the two earthly kings falling before the one true king. 

God is in charge. Amen.

Joshua 8

This is serious

The Israelite’s sin dealt with, they return to the city of Ai and destroy it. They use strategy this time, not sound as at Jerico, to take the city. But there is no doubt that it is God’s war, his plan. 12000 people die at Joshua’s army’s sword.  All the inhabitants of the city.

Afterwards, the chosen renew their covenant with God, reading the whole law (including “thou shalt not kill” presumably)

They are a people of the law.  They are really listening to God, and that’s what I want to do.

Aghast, I turned to dear Google and read some rationales for the “vindictive ethnic cleansing” as noted atheist, Christopher Hitchens called it.

But this is God, no excuses, he’s telling us what and who he is.   Killing does not mean the same to him as it does to us.  He is the creator, it is his right.  Its the plan for all of us to  die, to move from the temporal to the glorious eternal.  God thinks its better.

“Death, where is thy sting” they say when Jesus rises from the dead.  Death is the focus of so much fear and pain to us, but God says it doesn’t matter.  Or as St Francis of Assisi said in one of my all time fave hymns, addressing death as “kind and gentle”, “thou leadest home the child of God, and Christ himself the way has trod”.

Ethnic cleansing? That’s what its called when we do it to each other, yes. Killing for our own gain, or from fear or hatred.   But God is also the grim reaper, he is “death”.  There is not a race or creed excepted. However the message is its not as grim as you may think.

At Ai, that day, women and children fell with their menfolk. Why did innocent children die? To get to eternity faster.  Are they in hell?  God said he is love, god said he is just. I don’t know where they are, but it will be loving and fair.  So probably not.

Atheism makes sense in its own terms: if there is no God then the belief in God is horrific. But the horror of it falls apart if there actually is a God.  I don’t think atheists and believers can have a sensible discussion, really, as the lack of common ground is unspannable and just leads to endless circular arguments.

We are learning that the plan is very very important. God’s law is. The holiness is. The need for the chosen to stay pure and separate is.  The progressive revelation of God is.  All way more important than our span of years on this planet and the way it ends.

Our grief over death is unbearable.  All those young faces, full of fun and youthful sweetness, staring from the facebook profiles vacated by the killer’s gun in Orlando. God knows its unbearable.

At the risk of trivialising, I remember an old gag on the 80s TV show Mork and Mindy where Mork, the advanced alien played by Robin Williams, encounters nuclear power.  Mindy is nervous about it, but he couldn’t care less. He chuckles and tells her she’s acting like there isn’t an antidote to radiation. She says of course there isn’t.  He freaks… he can’t believe we are messing with that stuff without having the antidote… we are the craziest people in the galaxy.  I think God is saying we should view death as Mork viewed radiation.

With the salvation, the earthly death doesn’t matter.  Without it, we’re totally stuffed, death wins.

On that day in Ai, salvation moved closer.

 

 

Esther 4

Esther’s path to hero.

Her first reaction to her distress at hearing her cousin Mordecai is in sackcloth is to send him some nice clothes. Nice try, he sends them back.

She sends a slave and finds out what’s really going on, and Mordecai sends back a copy of the edict and everything, including telling her the price Haman was willing to pay to destroy the Jews.

Her response to that is to say that she would quite likely get killed for trying to do anything. The protocol is that she waits for the king to call for her. If she initiates face time, he may refuse to offer the gold sceptre, meaning he isn’t interested, and she is put to death.  It’s been a month since he called her, her influence may be on the wane.

The narrative has deftly painted the background for her fears because we know she only got the her position because Queen Vashti got proud and was deposed.

Nice try. He sends a message via her servant. She shouldn’t think that her rank will protect her alone from the wave of anti semitism. He has faith that deliverance for the Jews will come despite her, and she will regret being silent as much as speaking out. And maybe that is why she’s there in the first place? He believes this is her god given moment. Esther has to choose who she will trust, god or king. Who is really in charge here?

It’s the old bible one two three. Peter denied Jesus three times. Gideon and Moses needed three proofs before they had the courage to act, on the third day Jesus rose.

Esther send back instructions: she, her servants and the Jewish people outside the palace will have a three day simultaneous fast. Then she will break the law and go to the king, and perish if she will.

I think her need to fast and take time to summon up courage, and her need to feel the people were behind her shows how extremely hard she found it to do this, to face death in this way.

She has accepted that this is her god given moment, and she is utterly terrified of it. Of course Jesus wept when his came, too.

The conclusion of this chapter makes me shiver, and tear up. When you do something you find literally impossible, your worst nightmare, how profound is that heroism.

 

 

Nehemiah 6

I keep returning to the word “focus” when reading Nehemiah. This chapter is about opposition, and it’s all psychological: intimidation and lies to try and break N’s confidence. The things that opposers suggest appear logical: come and meet with the neighboring countries and discuss your plans, hide in the temple because your life is in danger.

N is wary of the motives of others, fully aware of their interests and connections. But above all his mission is between him and God, and that gives him supreme confidence and focus.

His default position is to reject others taking control of what his mission means or his next step. He cannot be spooked by fear for his own safety or his political survival. He trusts that God wants him to do what he sent him to do, and won’t be distracted. Safety and politics will fall into place.

Focus, from listening to God first.

Nehemiah 4

Opposition to the wall is predictable and dangerous. It starts with ridicule, but driven by greed, fear and vested interests, it rapidly accelerates to plans of genocide.

Nehemiah can respond with confidence because he is confident god wants it to happen. I love the boldness that comes from understanding God’s will for you. The narrative flicks into prayer at the point where the plot is discovered. Then they organise and are ready to successfully deflect the attack.

His word of encouragement to the people is not to fear, to remember the Lord’s greatness and to fight for your family. Always the mix of spiritual and practical. What a leadership model!

They organise and finish the wall in a state of extreme readiness for attack. The beautifully economic and vivid prose adds the detail that Nehemiah doesn’t really change clothes until the wall is done: focus.

Psalm 27

With God on our side vs. being on God’s side

God’s goodness is like a rock to David.  It is the most concrete thing in his life, despite constant and very tangible threats all around.

Uber confident start. The lord is:

  • light (bringing clarity, direction, guidance)
  • salvation (bringing deliverance from enemies and fear as well as forgiveness) and
  • stronghold of life … source, protector of the soul’s existence

So he has nothing to fear and repeats that three times, which makes you think those he was addressing had plenty to fear.  Enemies will fail, stay confident, he says.  It is a psalm of confidence. Its like the St Crispians Day speech in Henry V.. a stirring rally by a leader, except the call is to rely on God’s strength not their own.

Til now it has seemed like a military psalm, but the next section seems to broaden it out because he talks about being in the tent, the tabernacle, in the presence of God and being kept safe there and being raised up above his enemies. He will be exalted above them by sacrificing to God and singing about him.  No doubt singing this very Psalm.  

As a literal military strategy, hiding in a tent and singing is unlikely to work.  He’s pushing this way past a “god is on our side” prayer before a battle in war… locking in God’s support to a human endeavour.  When he speaks of the one thing he wants god to give him: time gazing upon God’s beauty and seeking him, it is more like a love affair with God.  He doesn’t want God to lend support to his fight, he wants God’s will to supplant the fight.

He is following his heart, seeking God above all others, he asks God not to forsake him, confident that even his mum and dad would do that before God did.  The foes are identified as more than military… they are spreaders of malice and false witness.
Strong end focusses in on the theme succinctly: he is confident of the triumph of God’s goodness, so he will wait for him.  How many bad decisions do we make because of impatience with God?

Psalm 23

Legendary psalm of comfort. The comfort flows from the central metaphor of the lord being a shepherd. The beautiful calm of an animal that is safe and has material needs looked after is extended quickly for us to our souls.

That phrase “refreshes my soul” puts words to a feeling that humans crave and means human society can’t seem to leave spirituality alone. That sense of a contented soul is probably one of the most underrated benefits of Christian belief. It’s so naggingly un-concrete it drives atheists mad.

You can trust the lords advice. If he says don’t lie and put others first, you can do it confident that it’s going to work out, even when the reverse seems like the only thing that will fix the situation. No more crooked webs to weave! And we don’t have to fear death.

It’s about the simplicity of being loved and having someone greater than you look after your needs. Our psychological dread and moral complexity comes from feeling like shepherdless sheep, weak and alone, trying to carve safety and order out of chaos. Having god to trust unburdens us of layers of complexity, and makes us OK with our vulnerability and mortality. The psychological and philosophical power of the metaphor is harnessed with such economy.

No wonder this psalm is so powerful. Form follows function. It’s a simple psalm about simplicity. And with each calm pastoral phrase it precisely knocks down our deepest existential fears like nine pins one after another.

I’m not the only one who thinks the feast is a clanger. I don’t feel like food is sweeter if my enemies watch me eat it and go hungry, it sounds just awkward. It sounds like crude triumphalism or schadenfreude and quite out of character with the god who in humble human form on earth told us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek before giving up his life for us.

But the truth is we are chosen for abundant blessing. We’re anointed, which is like a special relaxing welcoming treat for a guest, and a signifier of priesthood and kingship, and our cup overflows. We live our lives with this fact. Despite and during the apparent success of our enemies, a place of honour in God’s kingdom is prepared for us.

Should we punish ourselves with survivor guilt? We certainly should never feel too much like the victim, just as Jesus didn’t. In fact, it’s because of God’s ridiculous grace that we can indeed love our enemies and turn the other cheek. The worst, the very worst they can do to us is make us suffer temporary pain before despatching us to be with our creator. How much worse it is for them, cut off from the author of life. So it’s not triumphalism I suppose, it’s perspective.

The rest of the psalm is like cream in our coffee. Goodness, mercy eternal rest in God’s presence.  Thank you, thank you father for your gift of grace. May I use it wisely.

It do still stand by what I said back in psalm 20. Perhaps these aren’t designed to go together, but they do make a good set: two guidance psalms, one wishing it in advance like a benediction, the other quietly celebrating it as an ever present comfort; sandwiching a victory song and a disaster cry. Next we go to meet him on the holy hill.