First post: Nonresistance: A Personal Background Previous post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 1)
In the last post, we began our survey of the Bible’s teachings on violence in Genesis, starting with God’s interactions with Adam and Noah and finishing out with a survey of the life of Abraham. In this post, we’ll pick up a few generations later with his descendants, who are now living in Egypt.
Israel in Egypt
The Israelites were originally under the protection of their kinsman Joseph, the Pharaoh’s prime minister, but after his death their relationship with the ruling family degraded rapidly. A Pharaoh came into power who felt no responsibility towards Joseph’s relations; threatened by their blooming prosperity, he resolved to control the Israelites by rounding them up for slave labor.
But God had other plans for the Israelites. He set about doing the impossible - taking a populace, completely broken and spiritless from years of slavery, and leading them to rebel against their taskmasters and march out of Egypt to freedom. But more than that, He was about to create a new nation from these pitiful refugees, a nation like no other.
The Israelites were in no shape to mount a rebellion on their own. They were doing their best to just survive and avoid the attention of their oppressors. When Moses appeared to lead them to freedom, the Israelites went along with it until Pharaoh increased their quotas in retaliation. Then the leaders turned on Moses. The Egyptians had broken their will to escape.
God’s plan was not so easily thwarted. He brought a series of plagues down on Egypt, the punishment getting worse and worse until the Egyptians begged the Israelites to leave. They gave them silver, gold, even their clothes - anything to get them out of the land before the plagues destroyed Egypt completely. When Pharaoh abruptly changed his mind and pursued the Israelites with his army, God wiped them off the map. It was an unprecedented victory.
But the people were still in no shape for war; years of oppression were not so easily wiped away. For the first part of their journey, God led them around via the wilderness, avoiding the land of the Philistines where they might be deterred by the threat of warfare. In the wilderness, He begins to unfold His plans to them.
The Chosen People
God revealed His Covenant and laws for the Israelites on Mount Sinai. He was creating a nation, complete with its own government and laws. Israel would be a paragon of justice, a model that all the nations in the world could look to (see Deuteronomy 4:6–8).
These laws included several that were punishable by death - murder (with exceptions for involuntary manslaughter or self-defense), kidnapping, abuse of parents, reckless endangerment resulting in death, and so forth. There were many punishments less than death - the so-called “lex talionis”, or “an eye for an eye,” required a punishment equal to the injury inflicted by the aggressor. Other crimes were punishable by a fine, or restoration of goods.
But the laws that God laid down weren’t just concerned with social justice. In fact, Jesus later summarized them like this:
”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
This will be crucial to the discussion later on. Some proponents of nonresistance portray the Mosaic Law as a harsh, unfeeling “law of justice,” as opposed to the gentler, kinder “law of love” that Christ introduces in the New Testament. This is, I think, a simple misunderstanding of the Mosaic Law. We’ll get into more details on the way Christ dealt with the Mosaic Law, and the distinctions within the Law itself, but for now, it will suffice to say this - the Mosaic Law shows us how we ought to love God, and how we ought to love our neighbor as ourself.
In addition to the laws of self-governance that God established, He also gave them strict guidelines for warfare - both when invading and conquering the Promised Land, and when dealing with other enemies afterwards. Sometimes referred to as “holy war,” the conquest of the Promised Land was a unique instance in the history of warfare, when God commanded a particular people group to invade and utterly destroy the nations in a particular area. No mercy was to be given; everyone, from the men and women down to the flocks and herds, were to be summarily executed. There was to be no remnant of the idol-worshipping nations left to tempt the nation into disobedience.
God promised that, as long as the Israelites obeyed His commands, He would bless them and drive their enemies out before them. Not only would He give the Israelites great strength and prowess in battle, but He would turn the land itself against the Canaanites, using wild beasts and hornets to drive them out ahead of the invading Israelites. But they had to destroy every remnant of their idol worship.
As we know from the history recorded for us in Scripture, Israel was more or less faithful about this. Sometimes, in fits of jealousy for God’s holiness, they would destroy all idol-worshippers as He commanded, even those Israelites who had fallen prey to the charms of their enemies; other times, they were lax in their obedience, and allowed the temptation to persist - always to their downfall. But little by little, they began to conquer the Promised Land that God was giving them.
As they settled in, new temptations arose, and old ones returned. The gods that their fathers failed to completely destroy became the downfall of their children, and generations would arise that would follow the gods of the land instead of the true God. As He had sworn, God punished them by delivering them into the hands of their enemies. But they were still His chosen people, and he wouldn’t leave them to their fate. He raised up judges to lead them out from the rule of their enemies and from their idolatry.
But that’s a story for the next post.
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