Between Jericho and Aleppo

Many Christians like myself get introduced to the Conquest story of Joshua innocently enough.  I remember singing “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” with abandon at Vacation Bible School. But at Jericho, not only do the “walls come tumbling down,” but Joshua also leads a massacre of everyone but Rahab the prostitute and her family.

When news of Aleppo fills our newsfeed, Joshua may not seem so innocent. The Jericho massacre may resonate eerily with the real-life massacres of today’s Syrians.

The Israelites, recently freed from slavery, receive a Divine mandate to wipe out the Canaanite population that inhabits “their” Promised Land. The perceived danger is that the Canaanites will corrupt Israelite worship with idolatry. The threat is so severe that when the Israelites fail to annihilate a Canaanite city, God’s punishment follows.

The Conquest narrative is not likely historical. The archaeological record does not confirm the biblical account of a Conquest. And Joshua itself was written much later than the historical period it claims to describe. It’s a literary work rather than a historical one by modern standards. However, whatever the Joshua narrative lacks in historical fact, it compensates for in ideological clout.  Christians have used Joshua to justify genocide and other types of mass murder.

We’ve proffered explanations for why God “had” to order the massacres: The Canaanites were “irredeemable.”  The Israelites were God’s elect.  It was all part of God’s plan.

But the question for Christians is this: Do we worship a God who sanctions and even demands the slaughter of innocent people?

The answer for me is, “No, never.” Whether the massacred victims are in Jericho or Aleppo, the God I love and serve weeps over them. The God I love and serve promises justice.

To respond to crises like the Aleppo killings, we Christians need to take hard look at the ground we stand on.  Because I regard the Bible as the sacred, divinely-inspired human attempt to put Divine revelation into words, that means acknowledging tensions within the Scriptures.  The Bible rarely speaks with just one voice. Most often, I think the biblical writers nailed it. But sometimes, like in the Conquest narratives, I think they got it badly wrong.

But the God I love and serve still speaks from the Bible to moments like the Aleppo crisis.  The God I love and serve says,

Open your mouth for the voiceless,
For justice for all the destitute (Prov. 31:8).

For the God I love and serve, whom the Scriptures reveal time after time, defending the voiceless is not an afterthought. It is the agenda. Yet the slaughter of innocents in Joshua  stands in tension with the revelation of such a God.

I think our skill in pushing the “mute” button on the voices of suffering innocents in Joshua translates into more than problematic theology.  That dexterity may enable us to push the “mute” button on Aleppo, too.

What is Sodomy?

When I teach Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, students are often eager to talk about the Genesis 19 story of God’s destruction of Sodom.  Word on the street has it that God destroyed the city of Sodom because of the men’s “homosexual practices.”   But that’s not an interpretation of the story that holds up under rigorous exegesis.

In Genesis 19, God is on a mission to prove why the city of Sodom is bad enough to warrant its destruction. So God sends two angels to Sodom in the guise of strangers, in need of food and lodging.  Abraham’s nephew Lot graciously hosts these strangers.  But the men of the city soon come and “press upon” (an innuendo for rape) Lot’s door, demanding that Lot send out the guests so that the Sodomites can “know them” (i.e. have sex with them).  Lot refuses, but offers his daughters as sexual bait instead (yeah, he was a great father).  Lot and his daughters barely escape with their lives.

Fair enough, this story strongly suggests sexual acts between men.  But a) these sexual acts involve rape, not mutual relationships between consenting adults, and b) the essence of Sodom’s wickedness seems to lie not in sex, but in the humiliation of needy outsiders.  Sex is involved only as a tool for humiliation, not as a means to relationship or pleasure.

Often the Bible gives us internal clues about how we may interpret it.  Ezekiel 16:49-50 offers an interpretation of what the sin of Sodom actually is:

This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it (NRSV).

According to Ezekiel, sodomy is not sex between two men.  Sodomy is idolatry of our own comfort that leads us to exclude people who are hungry and people who are outsiders to our communities.  The Sodomites in Genesis didn’t threaten to rape the angels because they were gay (who ever heard of a city where all the men were gay, anyway?).  The Sodomites became predators because they were hoping to humiliate the outsiders.  They hoped that the strangers would leave Sodom empty-handed, so that no insider to their city would have to share their hearth and their larder.

The sodomy that Genesis and Ezekiel condemn has nothing to do with rainbow flags and people committed to spending their lives loving each other. On the other hand, sodomy might have a lot to do with contemporary American political rhetoric.

Silence, Shame, and Rape

King David may have been a man “after God’s own heart,” but his family life was dysfunctional at best.  I’ve heard the story of his affair with Bathsheba mentioned in sermons fairly often.  However, the story of his daughter’s rape by one of his sons, and his own complicity in it, rarely gets mentioned.

Princess Tamar appears briefly in the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 13.  The text only tells us that she was beautiful and that her half-brother Amnon was obsessed with her (he claims to “love” her).  Amnon was heir to David’s throne.  Even though Tamar was a princess, her status couldn’t compare with Amnon’s within David’s court.  So Amnon has an easy time engineering a situation in which he can get Tamar alone.  Amnon enlists the help of Jonadab, a courtier, who concocts a scheme in which Tamar must go to Amnon’s room to “care” for him.

desolation_of_tamar_by_j-tissotNo sooner does Amnon get Tamar alone than he “seizes” her.  The Hebrew verb here is hazaq, which is the root that the noun “strength” comes from as well.  He literally overpowers her–both physically and socially through his position as heir to the throne.

Tamar’s protest is one of the most plaintive and evocative passages in the Old Testament.  Tamar knows that what is happening to her is wrong, but she has no power to freeze the action.  Courageously, she protests to Amnon anyway. She cleverly refers to Amnon as “my brother,” appealing to the taboo against incest, and claims that “such a thing is not done in Israel.”  She calls his action a nebalah, which literally means a “senseless thing.”  She accurately describes the rape as a senseless act of violence.

But the most moving point of her appeal is this question:

And I, where will I carry my shame?

Tamar know that the rape, even though it is not her fault, will be a burden that she alone will bear.  She, not Amnon, will pay the price of the violation of her physical and emotional space.

What she says doesn’t matter to Amnon. He rapes her anyway.

Immediately after the rape, Amnon feels only hate for Tamar, whereas before the rape, he claimed that he “loved” her.  Here, the biblical writers perceptively anticipate what modern psychology tells us about rape: Sexual assault is not about sexual desire or love.  It’s about power. And when the rapist has exhausted their thirst for power over the victim, the victim can be discarded.  Accordingly Amnon sends Tamar away screaming.

Tamar takes her lament to the halls of David’s palace. She lets her grief, fear, and maybe even rage be heard.  Absalom, another of her brothers and supposedly her ally, intercepts her and immediately knows what has happened. (We ask ourselves, how did he know? And if Absalom knew that Amnon was a threat, why didn’t he act sooner?)  But instead of helping her, Absalom responds first with these words:

Be silent.

King David is no better. David is angry when he hears that his son has raped his daughter, but he does not punish Amnon because Amnon is his firstborn and his heir.

The rape sets the course of Tamar’s life.  She remains a shomemah, literally a “desolated woman,” all the days of her life. The social stigma of rape buries Tamar in a shame from which, at least according to what the biblical text tells of her, she never escapes.

Tamar’s story is terribly difficult to read, but I’m grateful it’s in the Old Testament.  The story bears witness to the story of a woman whose experience is similar to that of many women even today.  Just as Amnon, Absalom, and David ultimately collude to silence Tamar–even though at least Absalom is ostensibly well-meaning–so many women today find themselves silenced if they dare to speak up about the sexual violence they’ve experienced.

Tamar doesn’t get “justice.” Even the death of Amnon (which, by the way, happens at Absalom’s hands just a bit later in the story) can’t restore her wholeness.  But in telling the story of Tamar today, we can literally begin to re-member her…to return her body to her again.

And if we can re-member Tamar, maybe we can re-member ourselves, too.

Jesus When the Ending Isn’t Happy

I think that a lot of Christians have the misconception that the divide between the Old Testament and the New Testament goes something like this.

Old Testament:

  • God is angry with people most of the time.
  • God is far away.
  • You better follow the law, or else the far away, angry God is suddenly going to get way too close for comfort.
  • Generally, everybody is miserable.

New Testament:

  • God is pleased with people again (because of Jesus).
  • God is close by, and that makes us feel safe.
  • Believe in Jesus, and you’ll be saved.
  • People who are saved are happy.

My portrayal is over-simplified, but it outlines the general trajectory of how many Christians I’ve encountered think about the Bible. From where I’m standing, that characterization isn’t accurate or fair when it comes to either the Old Testament or the New Testament.  While there are many problems with this approach to the Bible, there’s one troublesome aspect that I want to highlight: the idea that Jesus and happiness necessarily go hand-in-hand.

When Christians believe in Jesus, and yet they still experience debilitating grief, depression, or anxiety, their emotions and experiences can quickly become stigmatized.  After all, according to the common view of the New Testament, salvation = happiness, right? Jesus came to make people happy!

Actually, not really.  If we take a look at how the gospels portray Jesus, they draw upon the lament tradition of the Old Testament.  The lament tradition canonizes raw, gritty expressions of grief, depression, and anxiety–the very emotions that are often stigmatized in our culture.  The way the gospel writers shape their depictions of Jesus shows a comfort with the very emotions and experiences our culture finds so uncomfortable.

There are many examples of the lament tradition’s influence on the Gospels, but I just want to consider a couple of examples from Matthew.  Matthew loves to make references to the Old Testament–in fact, he does so more than any other gospel writer.  One of the ways Matthew makes use of Old Testament tradition is by framing Jesus’ natural life using lament.  

Lament first appears in Matthew just after Jesus’ birth.  After Jesus is born, King Herod, trying to exterminate the threat he believes Jesus presents to his throne, conducts a massacre of Bethlehemite children two years old and younger.  To express the tragedy of this massacre, Matthew quotes a lament from the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Mt. 2:28, NRSV)

Giotto’s The Massacre of the Innocents, painted in 1305 for the Arena Chapel

This verse quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which is addressing the pain of the Babylon exile.  The geography here is significant.  Ramah was a place just north of Jerusalem where the Judeans were held on their way into exile.  Jeremiah connects an even older tradition to his portrayal of the exile. In Genesis, the matriarch Rachel dies giving birth to her son Benjamin. According to rabbinic midrash, Rachel was then buried in Ramah on the road which the Judeans traveled into exile. Thus, in Jeremiah, Rachel weeps from the grave as she watches her descendants (“children”) tread the lonely and sad road into exile. The lament’s emotional intensity allows Matthew to repurpose it creatively to tell the story of the massacre of the Bethlehem babies.

When Jesus dies on the cross, marking the end of a normal human life, lament appears again.  Jesus’ last words in Matthew come from Psalm 22, a lament psalm:

“And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (Mt. 27:46, NRSV)

I have a high Christology–I believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human.  It’s amazing to me that Jesus, the son of God, could experience the same sense of divine abandonment that I think everyone feel at one time or another.  But I think that’s exactly what’s happening.  Jesus uses the words of the lament tradition to express the sense of betrayal and loss he experiences in the very last moments of his natural life.

Matthew leaves out parts of both of the laments I’ve discussed. The Jeremiah passage goes on to talk about how Rachel’s children will be restored to her.  Psalm 22 goes on to talk about how God eventually does hear the sufferer’s cry.  But Matthew doesn’t feel the need to quote the restoration sections of the laments.  He’s okay with staying real with the emotion in the situations he’s dealing with: The mothers of Bethlehem don’t get their slaughtered children back in this age, and Jesus is simply abandoned and dying.  I think Matthew knows that skipping over the pain in moments like those always does more harm than good.

In birth and death, lament encircles Jesus’ life.  The language of Old Testament lament helps give voice to the deep pain that is central to Jesus’ own story.  Jesus himself is not always a happy person–he both experiences physical and emotional pain personally and allows himself to respond with genuine emotion to others’ pain.  If Christians are to “let the same mind be in [us] that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5), that means we don’t need to ignore pain.  In fact, Jesus’ example means God calls us to lament the wrongs and brokenness signaling that creation and our own lives fall far short of God’s dreams.