Today’s blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
1 Samuel 4:1-11
Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)
4 So the word of Sh’mu’el came to all Isra’el.
Isra’el went out to fight against the P’lishtim, setting up camp at Even-‘Ezer, while the P’lishtim camped at Afek. 2 The P’lishtim drew up in battle formation against Isra’el. The battle was fierce, and Isra’el was beaten by the P’lishtim — they killed about four thousand soldiers on the battlefield. 3 When the army had returned to camp, the leaders of Isra’el asked, “Why has Adonai defeated us today before the P’lishtim? Let’s bring the ark for the covenant of Adonai from Shiloh to us, so that he will come among us and save us from our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark for the covenant of Adonai-Tzva’ot, who is present above the k’ruvim. The two sons of ‘Eli, Hofni and Pinchas, were there with the ark for the covenant of God.
5 When the ark for the covenant of Adonai entered the camp, all Isra’el gave a mighty shout that resounded through the land. 6 On hearing the shout, the P’lishtim asked, “What does this great shout in the Hebrews’ camp mean?” Then they realized that the ark of Adonai had arrived in the camp, 7 and the P’lishtim became afraid. They said, “God has entered the camp! We’re lost! There was no such thing yesterday or the day before. 8 We’re lost! Who will rescue us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods that completely overthrew the Egyptians in the desert. 9 Be strong; and behave like men, you P’lishtim; so that you won’t become slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Behave like men, and fight!”
10 The P’lishtim fought, Isra’el was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. It was a terrible slaughter — 30,000 of Isra’el’s foot soldiers fell. 11 Moreover, the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of ‘Eli, Hofni and Pinchas, died.
The story shows that God is not all that concerned about his people’s victory in war; but is concerned about their faithfulness to his commandments. They have allowed the sons of Eli to profane the holy ark by their rape of God’s handmaidens, so he neglects to help them on the battlefield.
Moreover it becomes evident that God is not a supernatural weapon who can be used. The Ark of God is in the camp but God is not. The Philistines who decide to fight in their human strength, do so and carry the day. God is not at the disposal of any people; he cannot be co-opted for political or national purposes; he has his own purposes which he will fulfil.
Nations and peoples who like to claim that God is on their side in conflict- the British Empire is its heyday, the USA from time to time, Sunni or Shia Moslems, and many more, have failed to learn the lesson that is set out so clearly in this story: God is not a military commodity. God desires justice; and his spirit strengthens those who seek it; though it’s doubtful, if we take seriously his character revealed in Jesus Messiah, that he ever desires war.
The God who is on our side is always an idol even if we are doing violence for a just cause. It’s better for us to do what we must as human beings, like the Philistines, than to associate God’s name with our armed struggle.
That’s hard. I’m a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause against Israel. I know Palestinians whose houses were stolen and whose parents were made refugees in 1948. I can see through Israeli propaganda to the brutality that underlies it. I detest the way in which many orthodox Jews and many fundamentalist Christians associate God with Israeli injustice. So can we say God is on the side of the Palestinian armed struggle? I don’t think so. The armed struggle is a very understandable human solution. But who knows if God might prefer that developed nations should make special preferential opportunities for Palestinians to settle and prosper on their land, because He doesn’t share the human conviction that it’s worth shedding the blood of your children for a particular piece of land? As I say, it’s hard. All supporters of every just violence want the ark of God in the camp, but even if they are a lot more righteous than the Israelis in this story they may find that the mere assertion of God’s favour cuts no mustard.
God is on the side of justice and those who struggle for it without violence. If we decide that God is daft and that we must use violence, then let’s do so without trying to conscript him; trusting that we may be forgiven the blood that will be on our hands.