July 07, 2004
Good cop, bad cop

Yoder spends the fourth chapter of his book discussing pacifism and the Old Testament. Nowadays, of course, the creepy resemblance between much of it and the modern rhetoric of holy war tends to leap out at us. But, Yoder argues, we have to look at it from the point of view of the readers of the time.

Back then, the idea that a god was a tribal war leader wasn't any more remarkable than the idea that the President is commander-in-chief. It was, in part, what gods were for. What would have struck readers then, Yoder says, is how often Yahweh achieves his ends without the people going to war at all. The most famous example is Exodus, where the Hebrews simply wait while God takes care of the Pharaoh (and the rest of Egypt). Other such cases occur in Chronicles, where enemy armies are destroyed by infighting or "an angel of the Lord" without the Israelites having to throw a single spear. Yoder also see several examples of battles where the Hebrews were vastly outnumbered, yet won, as illustrations of the principle that faithfulness, rather than military might, determines the victor in conflicts.

So, he concludes, what Jesus preached was not a radical break from what Jews had heard before: "be still, and wait for the Lord." They would get rid of the Romans the same way they got rid of their earlier enemies: by trusting in God.

This is an interesting way of looking at it, and kind of follows an Old Testament theme that I'd started to notice myself: how Yahweh fulfills what would have been people's expectations of a god in those days, but subtly messes with them. He demands a human sacrifice from Abraham, but takes it back; he threatens to destroy various people but lets himself be talked out of it; he rewards and punishes Israel based on its fealty to him, but he also makes a covenant that he won't abandon no matter what they do. Given the violent tribal society he was starting with, one can make a case for Yahweh laying the groundwork for Jesus while still playing the sort of god that the ancient Middle East could have believed in.

So it is the Old Testament and not Jesus that Paul quotes in Romans 12: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all ... Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, 'if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.'"

There is, however, a dissonance here that Yoder never brings up. Compare the above quote with Jesus making the same point in Matthew 5: "But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."

They seem to be arguing for pacifism from opposite directions. Paul is saying, don't crush your enemies because God will crush them for you. Jesus seems to be saying, God doesn't crush your enemies, therefore you shouldn't either. Paul's reasoning is more in line with the Old Testament theme that Yoder points out, though Jesus' point is not without foundation. Particularly apposite is the book of Jonah, where the hero explains why he wouldn't preach to the evil Ninevites: "I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity." (The fact that Jesus refers to his three-day entombment as "the sign of Jonah" may be for more reason than the fish episode.)

But still, there are basic unresolved questions here. Do we love our enemies to heap coals on their heads, or because they are actually as deserving (or undeserving) of love as we are? Is God a radically different being who plays by different rules than we do, or is he an example for us to imitate? The Bible at certain points supports all of these notions, but they defy easy synthesis. Perhaps this didn't serve Yoder's purpose, but I wish he'd analyzed it a little more.

Posted by Camassia at July 07, 2004 05:37 PM | TrackBack

Scripture was written by human beings for human beings. Would we not expect to find in such a work evidence of a process of perfection in understanding of God and in charity toward others? If the Bible presented an unchanging view of God and others -- that, to my mind, would be a puzzle demanding an explanation.

What we should do with these changes, I suppose, is try to effect them in our own lives.

Posted by: Tom on July 8, 2004 06:32 AM

I once heard a minister interpret the "heaping coals" verse as referring to a blessing. If I recall correctly, the reference is to villagers giving burning coals to each other as a way to help their neighbors keep their fires going for warmth. Thus, to "heap coals" on another was to be neighborly. I have no idea if this is accurate or where the minister got this information. But, it did add a very different spin on things.

As to the God of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible: one idea I've run across is that the impression of who God was changes over the course of the Testament. It starts off with a tribal "head of state", akin to what Yoder refers to. It is in this context that God is portrayed as sometimes commanding genocide or doing the slaying himself. However, once the children of Israel experience long period of hardship, disbursement, and oppression, their view of God shifts. Now he is a God that admonishes them for not being kind, neighborly, or compassionate to the vulnerable in their communities. Has anyone else read/heard of this kind of interpretation of God's action in the OT/Hebrew Bible?

Posted by: Joe Guada on July 8, 2004 09:08 AM

I don't necessarily see the dissonance between Jesus and Paul here. I don't view Paul's affirmation as saying God WILL punish your enemies... Merely that IF the enemy is to be punished, that is God's work and not your own. Your work is to express God's love, which will in turn heap the burning coals of guilt upon your enemy's conscience and lead to repentance and reconciliation.

Regarding the Hebrew Scriptures, I am more comfortable with an idea of "unfolding revelation": that over the course of the Scriptures, from the oldest texts to the newest ones, we see a picture of God that is becoming increasingly well-developed, accurate and Christ-like. The earliest texts very much portray God as a violent tribal deity, possibly supreme amongst many, developed clear through to John's cosmic Christ (which is why I think it a pity that we closed the canon... I would have waited until at least the end of the Middle Ages to edge in works like Julian of Norwich's "Revelations of Divine Love").

Posted by: Cory on July 8, 2004 01:54 PM

Yay Revelations of Divine Love. I'm reading that at the moment and it's giving me such a buzz.

Posted by: Nate on July 13, 2004 05:27 AM
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