Violence in the Old Testament?

Today, our 2nd Reading (2 Timothy 3:14-4:2) told us that “All scripture in inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching..” But we all know that the Bible is often used by people to justify belief in all sorts of things, not least to argue that we Catholics are not Christians! So what should we make of that?  Indeed what should we make of our 1st Reading (Exodus 17:8-13) where God appears to approve, even encourage, the wholesale killing of these Amalekites?

We have a clue to our answer in the Gospel today, (Luke 18:1-8) where Jesus tells the story of an unjust judge. Now if we took that story at face value, we would have to believe that God behaves like that judge, only responding to our prayer if we go on and on at him. But Jesus makes it clear that he is making a contrast between the “unjust judge” in his story, and the God who will always “see justice done.” So he makes clear that stories like this are not to be understood literally. But also, going back to this story of the killing of the Amalekites, we know from other places in the Gospel that Jesus teaches us to “love our enemies”, (Matt 5:44) and so we know that we must read this story about killing in another way. The problem then is – what other way? How do we decide which ways of reading  stories in the Bible are right and which are wrong?

The answer is that as Christians we must only interpret the Bible in ways that are true to Jesus, and to the teaching of the Church that he founded. So if people read the Bible in any other way, to produce ideas that are different from the original teaching of the Church, then they are not using the Bible correctly.  In Church talk the word we use to describe this “teaching of the Church” is Tradition. Sadly, in English, this word is too often used simply to mean something that is old, whereas in Church talk, the Tradition, the Teaching of the Church, is always new ; rooted in the past, in the original teaching of Jesus and the Apostles, yes, but also always new, freshly expressed in modern ways for every new generation of Christians.

So to go back to this story of killing. The first clue to its interpretation is the word “Israel”. For the Church has always seen itself as the new Israel of God. So, we must ask ourselves which enemies must we fight to the point of death in order to defend the Church and remain true to the teaching of Jesus. The answer is obvious. The enemy we have to fight is a spiritual enemy, the power of evil itself. As St Peter says : “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)

But who then is Moses standing up on high and lifting up his arms to support us in this fight? The answer again is right in front of us. Our Moses, the new Moses, is Jesus himself, who goes up on one mountain to teach us, and another mountain called Calvary, not just to pray for us but to have his hands held up by nails to die for us, and so pour out for us the power of God himself. So we do not fight people, we fight evil, and we fight evil not with real swords and shields but as it says in the Letter to the Ephesians (6:16-18).  “Take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”

This takes us neatly back to the Gospel does it not? For now we see from the 1st reading the reason why Jesus wants us to cry to God day and night like that widow did. He knows how difficult it is for us humans to resist evil and always to stand for truth and goodness and justice. Sometimes we humans can come together in a great work of love, as we watched that wonderful story of the miners rescue from Chile this week. But too often the only news we hear is bad news as our human wish to do good, to do God’s will,  is swamped by all sorts of other pressures. We are like Peter who wanted to walk to Jesus over the waves, but then found himself sinking. Then, like Peter, we must remember to call out, as he did “Lord save me” (Matt 14:30) and see Jesus stretching out his arms to us, and take his hand, and believe that his power of love is stronger even than death.

So we are taught today that life is a fight, that there are enemies all around us, and that we must call out regularly so that our hearts and minds will be open to the one power that can take us through all this, the new Moses, Jesus, our Lord and our God. That’s what one of the miners said he did in that underground hell in Chile. Let us do the same.


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