Amorites, Hittites and Jebusites! Oh my! It seems like there are a million tribes in the Old Testament, and all of them are at war. I wonder if they ever got confused. Like maybe one side yelled "Death to the Kenites!" And the other side replied. "Wait. We're Amelikites. Are you looking for the Kenites? Or the Canaanites?"
Maybe it doesn't matter. Every group in the region was scorched by the flames of war. In those days, the fighting was brutal. Vanquished cities were reduced to rubble. Religious artifacts were defiled. Crops and livestock were destroyed. Isaiah gives us this chilling vision of a nation in ruins: "Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls."
In the Old Testament, war is pervasive. If we are going to talk about a Biblical call to peacemaking, then we must start here. What are we to make of all this bloodshed?
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LetŐs begin with the famous battle between David and Goliath.
We're told that Goliath was nearly ten feet tall. He was covered in armor from head to toe. Goliath's spear was like a telephone pole. He was an avalanche of iron and bronze and bad attitude.
Every day, Goliath taunted the Israelites: "Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I kill your girly-man champion, then you will become our subjects and serve us."
For 40 days, the Israelites endured this taunting. When they heard Goliath, all of them were dismayed and terrified. No one on their side of the battlefield could hope to stand against this armored giant.
Then David arrives. Instead of armor, he comes with bread. Instead of a spear, he comes with roasted grain for his brothers. This is no warrior. He is only a boy, a shepherd from Bethlehem. Even so, when David hears Goliath mocking the Israelites, he decides to take action. David comes before King Saul, and says, "Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him."
King Saul says, "Okay kid. You can borrow my armor. Because what kind of idiot would battle a giant without armor?"
So, for the first time in his life, David gets a bronze helmet on his head. He dons a coat of armor. He buckles a sword to his waist. David waddles around for a bit. And then he takes the armor off. He removes it. He says, "This helmet is terrible. I feel like my head is in a bucket. And the armor is too heavy. I can't use any of this stuff."
Because David has a shepherd's staff in one hand, Goliath calls out, "Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks? Come here, and I will give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!"
David launches a stone from his sling, and Goliath falls dead to the ground. His armor clatters around him.
The Israelites are victorious! But this victory is not based on superior firepower or tactics. The Israelites do not win because they have the largest army or the best military technology. They win because God is full of surprises.
This is how they always win.
When the Israelites trust in God, they win despite themselves. Conversely, when they trust in their own strength, the Israelites fail. Biblical peacemaking begins with this insight: our strength is not the issue. Our strength is not the issue. The strength of God is made perfect in our weakness.
In Deuteronomy, the matter is made plain (Deuteronomy 20:1-9):
When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: "Hear, Israel: Today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not panic or be terrified by them. For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory."
The officers shall say to the army: "Has anyone built a new house and not yet begun to live in it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else may begin to live in it. Has anyone planted a vineyard and not begun to enjoy it? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else enjoy it. Has anyone become pledged to a woman and not married her? Let him go home, or he may die in battle and someone else marry her." Then the officers shall add, "Is anyone afraid or fainthearted? Let him go home so that his fellow soldiers will not become disheartened too." When the officers have finished speaking to the army, they shall appoint commanders over it.
Our strength is not the issue.
This is not the sort of thing that you would read in Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. This is not the sort of strategy they teach at West Point. It's crazy. You can leave the army if you have a new house. You can leave the army if you just started a book and want to know how it ends. You can leave the army if you ordered something on eBay, and want to be there when the package comes in the mail. You can leave the army if you are afraid.
But God says, Go ahead and leave, because your strength is not the issue.
In the Old Testament, war is pervasive. Genocide is commonplace. It is an extremely dangerous time and place. And in this war-ravaged context, the Israelites are asked to to place their trust in God. They are asked to trust in God as their refuge and strength. The Israelites are asked to trust in God, and not in the security of bronze armor. They are asked to trust in God and not in the threat of great armies. It is a difficult request.
It is hard for us to trust in a strength that we do not control.
The foundation of Biblical peacemaking is to trust that God is in control. "Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging." God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.
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Defending yourself is expensive. In ancient times, a suit of armor was very expensive. Even today, we spend a fortune on defense. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost nearly $10 billion per month. When you're talking billions of dollars, maybe you shouldn't round things off to the nearest billion. So let me be more precise. According to Star and Stripes, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq cost US taxpayers an average $9.7 billion per month.
By trusting in God, we become free to invest in something besides defense.
In what ways do you defend yourself? What is the armor you put on every morning before you walk out the door? It's probably not made of bronze (or even kevlar). What is the strength that shields you against the sharp edges of this world? Is it sarcasm, perhaps? Or maybe it is the confidence of knowing you are right. Do you cross your arms and wear an expression that says, "Don't mess with me?" What is the cost you pay for maintaining this strength?
What might it mean for you to trust in a strength you cannot control? In your life, how might trusting in God open doors to peace?