When your children ask you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the LORD our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your children, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. The LORD displayed before our eyes great and awesome signs and wonders against Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his household. He brought us out from there in order to bring us in, to give us the land that he promised on oath to our ancestors. Then the LORD commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our lasting good, so as to keep us alive, as is now the case. If we diligently observe this entire commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, we will be in the right.”
Reflection: While we emphasize the witness of Jesus in this resource for discernment, a fuller discussion would compare his teaching with the broad range of approaches to violence in the Old Testament. During the reigns of kings, for example, we see leaders who exercise power and sovereignty over their own people and wage offensive and defensive war. The prophets (the closest models for Jesus) hold the royal figures to moral accounting based on law and teaching received from God in the earliest period of liberation and community formation. There are stories of victory and defeat in warfare, descriptions of captivity and exile, and accounts of battle and its aftermath. In the earlier periods, the people do not have power and face disordered violence, as in the book of Judges; later books describe internal divisions within a Hebrew kingdom and rebellions by vassal states against oppressive empires.
Some scholars have seen the biblical books unfolding a progressive revelation leading from the initial wars in Canaan toward more profound models of faithfulness, such as that of the “suffering servant.” Others spiritualize the narratives of all-out wars of conquest or deemphasize the commands to kill women and children as well as male fighters, a style of war sometimes called “holy war” or later in history, “crusade,” although some crusading campaigns followed rules of chivalry. Whichever approach to the holy war and sacrificial passages one uses, the Reformed tradition takes the Hebrew Bible very seriously, and we are reluctant to impose one schema upon it.
Question for discernment: How do you understand the current just war tradition of the church? Do you agree with an expectation, or even acceptance, of some amount of war? Why or why not?
Prayer: God of justice and liberation, we struggle with the violence in the Bible and how to interpret it. We rejoice that you brought the Hebrew people out of Egypt, releasing them from the bonds of slavery. But then we wonder where we fall in the story. As people who live in the richest, most powerful country in the world, are we more like the Hebrews in the story or are we more like the Egyptians? Give us eyes to see and ears to hear what you are saying to us today.