The Reading and the News

There was a disturbing juxtaposition last week between the Old Testament reading set for Morning Prayer on Tuesday and what was being reported on the news.

The news last week was full of expressions of outrage against the actions of the Sunni militants belonging to the Islamic State in Iraq who have been busily engaged in killing Yazidis, Christians, Shiite Muslims and anyone else whom they do not like. There were innumerable Christian voices in the press and on social media sites saying that what these militants were doing was simply wrong and that action needed to be taken to stop it.

In the light of this last Tuesday’s Old Testament reading was particularly uncomfortable because it was 1 Samuel 15:1-23, which is the story of how God deposed Saul from being king over Israel because he was insufficiently thorough in his slaughter of the Amalekites.

At the start of this reading God gives Saul a direct and unequivocal command through the prophet Samuel: ‘Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.’ (1 Samuel 15:3)

The reason Saul proves himself to be unworthy to be King of Israel is because he and the people with him do not fully obey this command. In 1 Samuel 15:9 we are told:

‘Saul and the people spared Agag, and the best of the sheep and of the oxen and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was good, and would not utterly destroy them; all that was despised and worthless they utterly destroyed.’

When Samuel finds out about this failure of obedience he declares in verses 22-23:

‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.’

These verses are quite frequently quoted as proof text to show the superiority of moral obedience over cultic ritual, but in their original context what they are saying is that when God says ‘kill them all’ he really means it and expects to be obeyed.

The reason that this reading is disturbing when read alongside last week’s news about what was going on Iraq, is that it seems to suggest that the Old Testament supports the kind of violence being meted out by the fighters of the Islamic State. There are two issues here: (1) Why does God command the complete destruction of the Amalekites and their livestock? (2) Doesn’t this story give sanction to people engaging in this sort of slaughter today?

To begin to address the first issue we have to understand who the Amalekites were. Amalek was the grandson of Esau (Genesis 36:12 & 16) and the Amalekites were his descendants. In spite of this kinship with the people of Israel, the Amalekites continually attack the people of Israel and try to destroy them. This happens for the first time just after the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 17:-16), happens again at the time of Israel’s first abortive attempt to enter the Promised Land (Numbers 14:45) and happens twice more during the period of the Judges (Judges 3:13 and Judges 6-7). Centuries later, it was also a descendent of the Amalekites, Haman the Agagite, who made one last attempt to wipe out the people of Israel during the period of the Persian Empire (Esther 3:1-6).

This means that as far as Israel was concerned the Amalekites were extremely bad news. As the Australian writer John Allister puts it:

‘The Amalekites weren’t just any old people. They were the nation who more than any other tried to destroy Israel. They had been trying to eradicate and plunder Israel from the very birth of Israel, 200-400 years before the command in in 1 Samuel 15, and they would continue for another 600 years.’

Furthermore, by trying to eradicate Israel to Amalekites were seeking to derail God’s cosmic plan.

As Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God himself is three Persons who are united with each other in love and he desires to share that loving unity first of all with his Church (John 17:20-23) and then ultimately, through Christ, with the whole of the creation. As Kallistos Ware puts it in his book The Orthodox Way

‘To love means to share, as the doctrine of the Trinity has so clearly shown us: God is not just one but one-in-three, because he is a communion of persons who share in love with one another. The circle of divine love, however, has not remained closed. God’s love is, in the literal sense of the word, ‘ecstatic’ – a love that causes God to go out from himself and to create things other than himself. By voluntary choice God created the world in ‘ecstatic’ love, so that there might be besides himself other beings to participate in the life and the love that are his.’

God’s purpose in creation is thus that of love. God wills to share with his creation that eternal relationship of love in which He Himself exists by uniting all things in heaven and on earth to himself through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10). However we should not be misled by sentimental human ideas of love into thinking that because God’s purpose is one of love this means that God will not insist on having things his way and will allow his purpose to be frustrated.

On the contrary, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, God: ‘accomplishes all things according to the council of his will’. God’s love is the ultimate ‘tough love’. It is a love that will brook no obstacle in achieving the goal which it intends. And, indeed, as the 19th century Scottish theologian George MacDonald maintains, it is in the very nature of love, properly understood, that it has this inexorable quality.

‘Nothing is inexorable but love. Love which will yield to prayer is imperfect and poor. Nor is it then the love that yields, but its alloy…For love loves unto purity. Love has ever in view the absolute loveliness of that which it beholds. Where loveliness is incomplete, and love cannot love its fill of loving, it spends itself to make more lovely, that it may love more; it strives for perfection, even that itself may be perfected – not in itself, but in the object…Therefore all that is not beautiful in the beloved, all that comes between and is not of love’s kind, must be destroyed. And our God is a consuming fire.’

The existence of the people of Israel was an integral part of the achievement of God’s loving purposes. It was through Israel that ‘all the nations of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3) because it was through Israel that the knowledge of the true God would be maintained in a fallen world and because it was as an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, that Jesus would be born as a human baby to be the promised saviour of the world.

What follows from all this is that the destruction of the Amalekites was a necessary part of God’s inexorable loving purposes. To quote John Allister again:

‘The situation in I Samuel 15 is that God knew the Amalekites. He knew they were a nation that had rejected a part in God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that their actions for hundreds of years had been set on destroying and stopping God’s plan to bless the world. He knew that if they weren’t destroyed, they would continue to try to stop his plan. And in fact, they weren’t destroyed and they did continue to try to thwart God’s plan, so he was proved right by that.

It’s an issue of protection. If the Amalekite army had been defeated once in battle and left to retreat, they would have come back eventually. It would have been limited protection for a limited time. But what God wants is total protection for his plan to bless the world, forever. Without total destruction of the Amalekites, they were going to keep on coming back, and God’s plan would not be safe.’

It also needs to be noted that, like Rahab and her family at the time of the fall of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21 and 6:22-25), individual Amalekites had the opportunity to renounce their Amalekite identity and align themselves with God’s purposes. They had the opportunity to save themselves and their families if they chose to do. In addition the destruction of Amalekite livestock was to make it clear that the destruction of the Amalekites was a holy action designed to protect Israel and not an opportunity for the Israelites to enrich themselves by getting hold of other people’s possessions.

As John Goldingay writes, God’s command to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 is therefore precise and limited: ‘If anyone – man, woman, child or whoever – doesn’t take the chance to give up their identity as Amalekites and therefore also their opposition to Israel, then kill them. And make sure that you don’t profit from doing it.’

Paradoxical though it may seem, God’s command to destroy the Amalekites is thus an act of merciful love designed to further God’s saving purposes, purposes with which individual Amalekites were free to align themselves. God commands the destruction of the Amalekites not because he is not loving, but precisely because he is. The story in I Samuel 15 is thus one more biblical witness to the love of God and also an awful warning to those who choose to reject God’s love of the destruction that they are bringing upon themselves both in this world and the world to come. Like Agag they should not kid themselves that they can escape God’s judgment (1 Samuel 15:32-33).

An objection might be made at this point that the Amalekites are being used by God as the means to an end. God sacrifices the Amalekites in order to achieve his loving purposes for the world as a whole. However, this objection does not take into account the fact that God’s purposes are to make eternal salvation possible through the death of Christ for every human being that there has ever been or ever will be, ‘One has died for all’ (2 Cor 5:14). This means that the destruction of the Amalekites was for the benefit of the Amalekites themselves because it made eternal salvation possible for any of them who were saveable.  The Amalekites were therefore the end as well as the means. They too were part of the world that God loved and Christ dies to save.

Because this is the theological meaning of the story of the destruction of the Amalekites it follows that it does not provide a warrant for acts of killing today.  This is because the group that did the killing would have to have the same place in God’s purposes of salvation as the people of Israel in the Old Testament and would also need a direct command from God that authorized them to take such action and there is no contemporary situation where both these conditions can be met. There is nothing in the New Testament that authorizes God’s people to exercise God’s on any group of people the same sort of judgment that Saul was called to exercise on the Amalekites.

In the case of the killings currently being undertaken by Islamic State there is a further issue. The goal for which these killings are being undertaken, the creation of renewed Islamic Caliphate, is itself contrary to God’s purposes because it is rooted in desire to propagate a theology which explicitly rejects belief in Jesus Christ as the saviour of the world. Islamic State’s activities are thus doubly wrong. They not only lack a mandate from God, but they are actually fundamentally opposed to God’s loving purposes.

Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com

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Some Christian thoughts on Isis

There was a time when Isis was the name of an Egyptian goddess or the posh Oxford name for the river Thames. However over the past few weeks the word has come into general usage as an acronym for the body which was formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and now calls itself the Islamic State.

This body is a strict Sunni Muslim organisation that emerged out of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and which aims to use the territory it now controls in Iraq and Syria as the basis for a development of an Islamic Caliphate stretching across the Middle East and North Africa. It regards the national boundaries that exist in these areas as artificial and wants to replace the various nations that currently exist with a single purified Islamic state.

In pursuit of these aims ISIS fighters have attacked government forces in both Iraq and Syria and have used horrific amounts of violence, deliberately publicised via social media, to persuade enemy troops to flee rather than resist. For example, a recently released Isis video has shown captured Iraqi soldiers being executed one by one, with their bodies being thrown into a river.

Isis is very hostile to Shiite Muslims, whom it regards as heretics, and it has offered Christians and Jews the choice between converting to Islam, accepting subservient ‘dhimmi’ status and paying a special tax, or being put to death.

What are we to make of all this from a Christian perspective?

The first thing we need to accept is that Isis is a body that is driven by theology. It does what it does because it believes that its version of Islam is one that is faithful to the teaching of the Quran and to the example of Mohammed as recorded in the Hadith, the authoritative traditions about his life and teaching. In its view what it is doing is being faithful to God by seeking to establish a unified Islamic state where people will lead their lives in accordance with God’s revealed will. Its military activities, the violence it engages in and the choices it offers to Christians and Jews are, in its view, all divinely sanctioned by the Quran or the Hadith.

Other Muslims, not only Shiites, but more moderate Sunnis, question Isis’ interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith, but from a Christian point of view the whole Isis project is necessarily theologically flawed precisely because it is an example of Islamic theology. This is because all forms of Islamic theology, from the most radical to the most moderate, involve a rejection of the truth about God and how he wants us to live that have been made known to us through Jesus Christ.

The core belief of Islam is that ‘there no God but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet.’ The one creator God has revealed his will finally and perfectly, primarily through the divinely inspired words of the Quran given to Mohammed and secondly through Mohammed’s own life and teaching. To live as God wants is to live in accordance with this revelation and Islamic teaching and Islamic law are attempts to codify and apply it. For Islam Jesus was one of a line of prophets leading up to Mohammed, but he was not the Son of God, since for Islam the idea that God has a son would compromise his oneness.

For Christian theology, by contrast, God is not only one, but also three. As Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles puts it:

‘There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.’

Furthermore, God the Son is not only God, but also Man, since he has taken human nature upon himself as Jesus Christ for the sake of out salvation. To quote Article II:

‘The Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect natures, that is to say, the Godhead and manhood, were joined together in one person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile His Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.’

Jesus is therefore more than a prophet leading up to Mohammed. He is God incarnate and as such he is the one through whom we can know God and relate to him as our Father through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus himself said ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.’ (John 14:6)

The written witness to Jesus can be found in the divinely inspired words of the Bible which promise in the Old Testament that Jesus will come and testify in the New Testament that he has come. To live as God wants us to live is to live in line with this twofold biblical witness within the community of the Church.

What all this means is that Islamic and Christian theology are in complete disagreement about who God is, how he has made himself known, and what it means to live rightly before him.

From a Christian perspective therefore, regardless of whether Isis’ version of Islam is more or less faithful to the Quran and the Hadith than other versions, because it is a form of Islamic theology it is fundamentally flawed from the outset. What it says about God and his will is quite simply misleading.

This would be true even if Isis was not a militant military organisation that practices horrific violence in an attempt to overthrow the existing governments of the countries in which it operates. However, this is, of course, what Isis is and that is something which from a Christian viewpoint makes it even less acceptable. The Christian faith teaches that governing authorities should be respected rather than rebelled against (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-14) and that the way people are to be brought into subjection to God’s will is not through violent coercion, but through the peaceful witness of God’s people in word and deed, as can be seen throughout the Book of Acts. Isis is therefore clearly acting in an ungodly manner.

Finally, the choice that Isis offers Christians of apostasy, servitude, or death is clear proof that it is an organisation which, even if unknowingly, is fighting against God. He who persecutes God’s people persecutes God himself (Acts 9:5) and this is what Isis is doing.

How, then, should Christians respond to Isis?

First of all, they need to respond with steadfast witness to Christ and the truth of the Gospel. The Book of Revelation is concerned with how the powers of evil that assault God’s people are defeated and what it tells us is that this is achieved through Christians remaining faithful to Christ to the point of death. ‘And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death’’ (Revelation 12:10-11).

Secondly, they need to pray. As Revelation also makes clear, it is ultimately God who sustains his Church and defeats its persecutors and so Christians need to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to ‘ask, seek and knock’ (Matthew 7:7-8) and pray hard for those who are suffering because of the activities of Isis. The charity Open Doors, for example, has asked for prayers:

  • for God to change the hearts of those who are persecuting Christians;
  • for God to uphold Christian refugees who are weary and exhausted through the support of the body of Christ;
  • for God to give wisdom and strength to the government in Baghdad to resolve this crisis.

Thirdly, they need to give to support those in need because of Isis’ activity, such as the Christians who have been forced to flee their homes in Mosul. ‘But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth’ (1 John 3:17-18). Donations can be made, for example, through the Barnabas Fund website at www.barnabasfund.org or throught the website of Iraqi Christians in Need at www.icin.org.uk.

Fourthly, they need to speak up for Christians and others in Iraq and Syria who are suffering because of Isis. It is the responsibility of those in authority to act on behalf of those who are needy and vulnerable and they must be urged to do so in this case. For starters there are various petitions that can be signed and social media campaigns that can be supported.

Finally, in line with the clear teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48), as private individuals Christians are called to practice love and non-retaliation in their relations with members of Isis. However, it is also legitimate for those who have been given governmental authority to exercise the power of the sword (Romans 13:4) by using force, including military force, against those such as Isis who are attacking the lives and property of innocent individuals and proper for Christians to take part in this kind of military activity if they are called to do so.

Isis will not succeed in its mission of creating a pure Islamic state and it will not succeed in doing permanent or terminal damage to the Church. Christ has built his Church on the rock and nothing, not even the gates of death, can overthrow it (Matthew 16:18). However, Isis can still do an appalling amount of damage on its path to inevitable failure and our duty as Christians is to work with God to limit this damage as much as possible.

 

Martin Davie’s commentary on the Thirty Nine Articles, Our Inheritance of Faith, is available from Gilead Books at www.gileadbookspublishing.com