The following is taken from a sermon series preached at The Southeast Project. You can listen to the audio of this teaching on our sermon audio page at www.wearesoutheast.org
On May 26, 1637, as the sun rose in what is now Connecticut, Captain John Mason and an army of English settlers attacked a Pequot village, and with the help of warring tribes, set fire to the village and killed those trying to escape. The event became known as the Mystic Massacre, and it took the lives of every person living in the village, including hundreds of innocent women and children.
A man named John Underhill recounted his involvement in the massacre and had this to say, “Down fell men, women, and children…Should not Christians have more mercy and compassion?… Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We had sufficient light from the word of God for our proceedings.”
In other words, while Underhill might have been uncomfortable with what was happening, and admitted it didn’t seem a lot like Jesus, he found that he could justify it with the Bible.
That sounds crazy, right? How could anyone justify genocide? How could they possibly use the Bible to do it? As crazy as it sounds, their justification did come from the Bible, just as John Underhill claimed. And, if you turn to the first few books in the Old Testament, you will find it.
The books of Deuteronomy and Joshua tell the story that after the death of Moses, a man named Joshua assumed control of the Israelite people as they gathered on the border of this new land they would soon populate. Now, the problem was that the land they were going into was already populated with tribes of people collectively known as the Canaanites.
Now, perhaps the Israelites could live peacefully with their neighbors. That seems incredibly reasonable to us today. However, in the ancient near east of violent tribalism, war and genocide was the cultural reality. This cultural context reveals itself in the Bible as the Israelite community moves from deliverance from Egypt to conquest of the promised land. These conquest stories are at the center of the book of Joshua.
One of those stories found in the Bible is about a fortified city known as Jericho. Jericho was controlled by the local tribes called Canaanites and was one of the first cities Joshua and his army attacked. I remember singing a song about it when I was a kid growing up in church. It’s a weird story because rather than straight up attacking the city, they march around it seven times, blow horns, and the walls of the city come crashing down.
It wasn’t until I was in college that the words at the end of the story became incredibly uncomfortable to read as, for the first time, I let it sink it what was really being said. I don’t remember reading these words as a child, but as an adult, they’ve become impossible to ignore. It’s like when you read about the trail of tears for the first time. You don’t look at Thanksgiving the same way. The same is true of the Bible and these war stories.
20 When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
The description of what’s happening in these verses couldn’t be any clearer. It’s called genocide. And if this was found anywhere but the Bible, Christians would rightly condemn it. If you were told, based on these verses, to destroy everyone who doesn’t pray like you, you would probably reconsider what you were reading and the faith you were following. You might also begin to understand why these verses, and verses like this, make some people very uncomfortable and unsure about the Bible. They naturally lead to tension.
Here’s how the tension from verses like this normally plays out. Some people just accept that God ordered genocide and that this is one of those areas where we aren’t supposed to question things. For other people, the tension is so unmanageable that it breaks our ability reconcile a God of love with the rest of Scripture and we lose our faith in God, or we don’t accept faith at all. Finally, others ignore these passages and pretend they don’t exist at all and just try to manage.
I’ve never been afraid to be transparent with you, and I will tell you that I have found myself solving this tension in all three ways throughout my life. Then I discovered something that I’ve been trying to teach over and over again throughout this series. That is that when you find yourself reading a passage of scripture and you experience tension, whether it’s because it defies reason, doesn’t gel with your own personal experience, seems entirely out of touch, or is a passage on genocide, you don’t read past it, ignore it, or shrug it off, you lean into the tension and find out what other questions come to mind. It’s in those questions that your faith has the potential to grow.
Now, I realize this seems impossible with a passage like this. It would be easier to ignore it. However, I’ve been specifically researching and leaning into these passages for a significant period of time and here is what I’ve discovered. I don’t have easy answers. What I have are some very good questions, and those questions lead me straight into the arms of Jesus.
The first question I have to ask anytime I look at scripture is why are these verses here? Why did these stories get written down? And finally, what can we learn from them as we take them into consideration with the rest of scripture? I didn’t say this would be easy, but faith isn’t easy. Grace is easy, faith is hard.
Now, the question about why these verses are here should remind us of something about the Bible that we have learned throughout this series. The Bible isn’t simply an instruction manual. If that were the case, this passage would exist to tell me how and when to commit genocide. We all found it abhorrent that these passages were used to commit genocide against Native Americans. We don’t want to be on that side of history. So let’s look at their context.
21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
The thing about a passage like this is that it isn’t unique. Let me explain that in a couple of ways.
The first way is in a very general way because in many ways it’s the story of human history. We can replace the horns that are told to have brought down walls of Jericho to the threat of bombs that are capable of wiping out entire cities today. While we may be disturbed by it, we only have to look to places like Syria, Rwanda, and our own history to see it.
The people who wrote down these stories were surrounded by this type of war and destruction. When these stories were being transferred from oral tradition to written form, the people were in exile in Babylon. After all this conquest and war the people were in the same situation as they were when this all started, a people with no country and little hope. Stories of conquest remind them of times where they weren’t oppressed and when their national heroes claimed victory.
At the same time, the stories also served as a reminder of the futility of war and conquest that ended with exile and defeat. It immediately would have caused people to ask if there was a better way to live. Through the stories of their history, the Jewish people are left to ask to ask what kind of people they want to be. They are given an alternative in the book of Jonah.
If we flip forward a few books in the Old Testament, we will find ourselves in this book. The book of Jonah is all about a prophet named Jonah. His story is the one about the whale. Jonah is called by God to travel to a city called Nineveh. It’s at Nineveh, he is supposed to preach to the people about God and instruct to repent. Instead of doing that he gets on a boat in the opposite direction. This is where the whale shows up. Jonah’s thrown into the ocean, swallowed by the whale, asks for forgiveness for his disobedience, and finally travels to Nineveh.
Now, I won’t get too far into this, but I’ll just say that the story isn’t really about the whale at all. If we only focus on the whale, we miss the punch line of the book. It’s found in the final verses of the book of Jonah.
You see, Nineveh was an enemy to the people of Israel. After preaching, Jonah climbs a hill and waits for God to destroy the city. God doesn’t do anything, and it infuriates Jonah. These are the enemies of Israel, what is God waiting for? God replies to Jonah and sets the record straight.
11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
It’s almost a direct comparison to the book of Joshua where all of the people and all of the animals are slaughtered on the spot without question. But in Jonah, God does ask a question. What about the animals, what about the people, don’t their lives matter?
And we’re left with this tension in the Bible. On the one hand, you have the story of Joshua where the enemies of the people of God are destroyed. On the other hand, you have the story of Jonah where Jonah’s strict tribalism appears to be condemned.
This tension exists throughout the entire Old Testament. In some places, the people of God enter war in God’s name. In other places, they describe God as grieving at the violence committed in his name. It’s almost as if in the scriptures we have people debating, discussing, and arguing about who God is as they wrestle with God in their own experience. But perhaps the better question isn’t who is God, as much as it is who we are?
What I discovered as I leaned into the tension of these texts is that the tension between Joshua and Jonah exists inside of me. There is a tribal part in all of us. It leads to division, distrust, and anger. That sin is what is at the root of hatred, racism, and violence in our world. And, while I may condemn it, that shared history and humanity is alive in all of us to this day.
At the same time, the scriptures paint a picture of a better way to live. It’s a way that invites us to see the image of God in all people, to celebrate our common humanity, and to share the love of God with the world. There is a part of me that is drawn to this way of living.
Inside of me and inside all of us is this tension. And it is that tension that is spilled all over the pages of scripture as people searched for an answer to the brokenness of the world. When I came to this understanding, a new love for the scripture emerged as I recognized that sin wasn’t my own to carry and that this world has always been searching for a savior.
The tension of the Old Testament points us to Jesus where his teaching, death on the cross, and resurrection reveals the sufficient light we should be looking for. In Matthew 15, we find part of that light being revealed.
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
With a little imagination, you can hear the disciples cheering Jesus on as he puts this Canaanite woman in her place. It’s what their ancestors did in a much worse way. And then Jesus says something completely unexpected.
28…“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
Jesus grew up with the stories from the Old Testament. He knew the tension that existed in all of us. And at this moment, he sets the record straight.
It would have been easy for the early church to have to hatred and distrust for everyone else. They were persecuted, and they could have fought back. Instead, as they told these stories of Jesus, their churches became filled with the very people who persecuted them as instead of fighting other, they fought back their prejudice with the love and the example of Jesus. That example of love over violence, couldn’t have been more clear than at the cross.
You see, rather than perpetuate violence, Jesus accepted it. At the cross, the incredible happened. Jesus took the violence of the world upon himself. And at that moment, he condemned it, peacefully. As a result, the death of Jesus, became for the disciples a clear new way to live in the world and Jesus’s resurrection became its vindication.
This lesson became so powerful that the early church took this message from their homes to their neighbors, to their enemies, to everyone around the world. And the question for us is if we will be tempted by the sin of tribalism and focus in on ourselves and our own prejudices or be changed by turning our eyes upon Jesus.