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Putting Old-Testament Passages into Proper Context

I read a tough passage from Psalms recently, at least for those of us who believe that faith calls us to nonviolence, love, reconciliation and unity.

Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters
and their nobles with chains of iron,
to execute on them the judgment decreed.
This is glory for all his faithful ones.
Praise the LORD!

(Psalm 149:6-9)

 

Yikes. If one didn’t know the context, you’d assume this came from the Koran.

 

I led a “Bible and the Newspaper” class recently. We discussed the eight-year war in Afghanistan and President Obama’s soon-to-be-announced decision regarding next steps. We read verses about beating swords into plowshares and loving enemies. We read Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and about putting away the sword.

 

Then, as if on cue, someone brought up the Hebrew Scriptures where God sends the Israelites into battle against enemies.

 

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Someone else pointed out that Jesus didn’t preside over a nation but a band of followers; perhaps his words weren’t designed to inform national policies.

 

But then we remembered Jesus’ last parable in Matthew, about dividing sheep and goats, and recalled it begins by saying this is how He will judge the nations: Did you feed, clothe, visit, take me in? This and other passages from Jesus remind us that his way is not relegated to personal practices, but are to be the way advocated by disciples for our common life together as nations.

 

As a Jesus-follower, the words of Jesus trump or at least interpret the understanding of God in Hebrew Scripture. His words and way, in turn, invite me to return to the “Old Testament” and discern its teachings more deeply. God hasn’t changed, but our understanding of God grows and deepens. Most rabbis I know would say the same thing (the growing understanding part, not the Jesus part!).

 

For example, Psalm 149. To portray the faithful with a two-edged sword in our hands is not a call to wield a literal sword (haven’t seen many sword stores lately!). It is, rather, to celebrate the ability of faithful ones to cut through the layers of bull – the rhetoric, excuses, justifications and smoke-screens – that systems of control always create to maintain power. “Vengeance, punishment, fetters, chains of iron” describe in human terms the ways that truth wins out over deception and lies.

 

In the end, truth wins. God’s way – the way of unity, healing, peace – has more resilience than God’s enemies. Besting an enemy (vengeance, punishment, chains) is an ancient near-East writer’s attempt to convey vividly the mystery that love is stronger than hate and that God is not done.

 

Immature reading of a sacred text, whether it’s the Bible or the Koran, creates havoc, bastardizes intent, turns truth on its head and perpetuates the polarization that the Holy One seeks to redeem.

 

Maybe sacred texts should come with a warning label: “Danger: Handle with care.”

 

Joe Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.