First, a quick note. This morning’s sermon is about war stories and the stories of violence that are found in the Bible. This is an important topic, because whether we like it or not these stories make up a lot of the Bible. As Christians, we need to figure out what that means for us today. If the topics of violence, genocide, or war are triggering for you, you may want to skip this one. Know that your mental and emotional well-being are very important and our church encourages you to make them a priority.
5 On the seventh day they rose early, at dawn, and marched around the city in the same manner seven times. It was only on that day that they marched around the city seven times. 16 And at the seventh time, when the priests had blown the trumpets, Joshua said to the people, “Shout! For the LORD has given you the city. 17 The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the LORD for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live because she hid the messengers we sent. 18 As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet[a] and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. 19 But all silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are sacred to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.” 20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpets, they raised a great shout, and the wall fell down flat; so the people charged straight ahead into the city and captured it. 21 Then they devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.
22 Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, “Go into the prostitute’s house, and bring the woman out of it and all who belong to her, as you swore to her.” 23 So the young men who had been spies went in and brought Rahab out, along with her father, her mother, her brothers, and all who belonged to her—they brought all her kindred out—and set them outside the camp of Israel. 24 They burned down the city, and everything in it; only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the LORD. 25 But Rahab the prostitute, with her family and all who belonged to her, Joshua spared. Her family[b] has lived in Israel ever since. For she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho.
26 Joshua then pronounced this oath, saying,
“Cursed before the LORD be anyone who tries
to build this city—this Jericho!
At the cost of his firstborn he shall lay its foundation,
and at the cost of his youngest he shall set up its gates!”
27 So the LORD was with Joshua; and his fame was in all the land.
This morning, we are talking about War Stories. The stories in the Bible that condone murder, genocide, and other forms of violence. This is the third type of Bible story that Rachel Held Evans’ talks about in her book, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. If you missed my previous sermons about Origin Stories or Deliverance Stories, I invite you to find the text on our church website.
Before we get too deep into this morning’s sermon, I want to recognize that this is either a case of Divine Timing or a really strange coincidence because when I bumped this sermon back a week because of Pentecost, I didn’t realize that it would then fall on Memorial Day Weekend. I’m still not sure where the month of May has gone!
So, I want to take a moment to recognize that Memorial Day Weekend is an important time where we honor the brave soldiers who have fought and died for our country. Most of us are connected with someone who has served in the military or maybe even someone who died in the service of our country. Personally, my grandfather served in World War 2 and my uncle served in Vietnam. I honor their service and the service of all of those who have fought for our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I also want to recognize that there is a difference between remembering and honoring our soldiers and celebrating war and violence. War is not something that any of us wants. We do not want our friends and relatives to be in danger. We do not want loss of lives, or children being made into orphans, or people becoming refugees because of the impact of war on their countries. We do not want our loved ones to come back home after serving with a disability, or health problems, or mental health issues like PTSD. We do not want 22 veterans a day or 25 out of every 100,000 active service members to die by suicide. War and the consequences of war are harmful for our society, it is harmful for our soldiers, and it is harmful for the world.
Sometimes though, war is justified, even necessary. It is good that we have days like Memorial Day to remind us of the people who have sacrificed their lives for our country and our freedom. War is a part of our lives and it was a part of the lives of our spiritual ancestors as well.
Rachel Held Evans described her struggle with these war stories this way:
“…The question of God’s character haunted every scene and every act and every drama of the Bible. It wasn’t just the story of Noah’s flood or Joshua’s conquests that unsettled me. The book of Judges recounts several horrific war stories in which women’s bodies are used as weapons, barter, or plunder, without so much as a peep of objection from the God in whose name these atrocities are committed.
One woman, a concubine of a Levite man, is thrown to a mob, gang-raped, and dismembered as part of an intertribal dispute (Judges 19). Another young girl is ceremonially sacrificed to God after God grants a military victory to her father, Jephthah, who promised to offer as a burnt offering “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites” (Judges 11:31).
Earlier, in the book of Numbers, God assists the Israelites in an attack against the Midianites, and tells the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child from the community. They kill all except the young virgin girls whom the soldiers divide up as spoils of war.
Feminist scholar Phyllis Trible aptly named these narratives “texts of terror.” “If art imitates life,” she wrote, “scripture likewise reflects it in both holiness and horror.”
So, when we read stories like these, what are we to do with them? Do we take them word for word as gospel, believing that God showed favoritism and had no remorse for killing people who weren’t followers of Yahweh? Or do we question, wrestle with, and try to understand the context that these stories were written in?
For me, I think it’s important to do the latter. There are a couple of factors that I think are really important to this conversation:
First, in ancient times, each tribe or society had their own God or Gods. These Gods were their protectors, and were not considered the God of any other people. These Gods showed favoritism, these Gods were believed to be champions for their people. So, it makes sense that the ancient Israelites would view and describe Yahweh through this lens.
Second, we also know that when war stories are told they are often embellished. The winning side becomes conquering heroes and the losing side loses completely. As the stories get passed down from generation to generation they also get grander and more compelling. Evans describes it this way:
“By the time many of the Bible’s war stories were written down, several generations had passed, and Israel had evolved from a scrappy band of nomads living in the shadows of Babylon, Egypt, and Assyria to a nation that could hold its own, complete with a monarchy. Scripture embraces that underdog status in order to credit God with Israel’s success… The writers of Joshua and Judges describe forces of hundreds defeating armies of thousands with epic totality. These numbers are likely exaggerated and, in keeping literary conventions of the day, rely more on drama and bravado than the straightforward recitation of fact.”
Rachel goes on to say that it was common to describe a success in battle as the “total destruction” of an entire people group, even when their enemies lived to fight another day. Not only that, but Jericho and many of the other cities described in these war stories were actually small military outposts that were unlikely to hold many civilians. So, Israel, like many cultures before and after them, told its war stories with bravado and embellishment and language that advanced their agendas.
Third, and most importantly for me, is that as a Christian all of my knowledge about the nature of who God is filtered through the person of Jesus. Yes, the people who wrote and told the stories of their ancestors described Yahweh through their own cultural understanding and biases. But, as Rachel writes,
“If the God of the Bible is true, and if God became flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ is…the revelation that culminates and supersedes all others, then God would rather die by violence than commit it. The cross makes this plain. On the cross, Christ not only bore the brunt of human cruelty and bloodlust and fear, he remained faithful to the nonviolence he taught and modeled throughout his ministry.”
Jesus came to teach us how to value peace over violence. He came to change humanity’s story and to help us create a new one. As followers of Jesus, we are called to work towards creating God’s beloved community here on Earth. We are called to work for peace and for justice and for love. We are called to work for transformation and resurrection. To allow the old things to fall away and to work with God to make all things new.
UCC Minister Rev. Kim Wells described the work for peace this way in her Memorial Day sermon from 2017:
“To create a culture of peace, to transform the myths that define human society, takes effort, commitment, resources, training, advertising, technology, social media, and everything else we can muster. If Pentagon funding is matched with funding for a “Peacagon” a lot of progress could be made toward redirecting our culture and the world, honoring the past, and creating a new future of peace. New songs, new stories, new symbolism, and new art are needed. Peace needs to be taught, cultivated, and celebrated. As Martin Luther King, Jr. advised, “Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.””
This Memorial Day, we are aware that war is still very much a part of our human experience. We can and should be thankful for those who have served in the military, and honor the sacrifices of those who have died in service to our country. But let us also use this day as a time to rededicate ourselves as people following in the footsteps of Jesus, working towards a more peaceful world.