Breaking the weary cycle of violence

Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! Psalm 137:7-9


In Edom (the biblical name for what we call southern Jordan), a Bedouin leads his camels across the desert. Edomites were descendants of Esau, twin brother with whom Jacob feuded bitterly. Generations later, when the Israelites tried to come through Edom on their way from Egypt to Canaan, Edomites rudely turned them away (Numbers 20:14-21). Unless something or someone creative breaks the cycle of fear and mistrust, hatred gets passed on from generation to generation.

Israel’s bitterness against Edom is searing in Psalm 137, written when Israelites were captives in Babylon. Edomites—neighbors and relatives of Israel—had joined the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem in 586 BC.

Other biblical writers savor the thought of revenge against Edom. In Isaiah 63:1-6 a voice asks the divine horseman returning from Edom, “Why are your robes red, and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?” The warrior says, “I trod [the Edomites] in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes.”

This is awful stuff. But it may be necessary for such texts to be in our Bible. CNN daily gives us images as gruesome as Isaiah 63, and countless innocent people suffer. Biblical poetry puts into words the rage of people violated—whether ancient Jews conquered by Babylon, or survivors of genocide, or people pushed off their homeland.

Rage texts in the Bible do not signal that the urge for revenge is desirable; it simply is normal and real. Deeply violated people need to find their experience represented within the scriptures of a faith community. The faith community must not rush wounded people past rage to premature forgiveness. Injustice needs to be acknowledged, lamented, and addressed.

But the faith community also holds within its sacred texts a long-term vision of forgiveness and healing. In the Old Testament we find magnificent stories of reconciliation, such as Joseph forgiving his brothers (Gen 45). The story of Jacob and Esau (father of the Edomites) forgiving each other is compelling (Gen 33). We find prophecies about healing of the nations, and restoration of international justice (Isa 11, Mic 4). Hopes for a peaceable kingdom are what Jesus brought to practical reality with his teaching on the kingdom of God.

Rather than deleting blood-and-guts passages from our Bible, we can follow the whole trajectory of the Bible story and remember that it ends with a healing of the nations. We need to be sure we are moving along God’s shalom arc toward that reconciliation, not back into the weary cycle of violence and recrimination.


© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************

_EPI9254.tifFor upcoming tours, see:
From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014

Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

Gaza, Goliath, and an end to hatred

“The Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath . . .” 1 Samuel 17:3

Like fans at a lethal sporting event, Israelites and Philistines assembled on opposite banks of the Valley of Elah (below) to watch Goliath and shepherd boy David duke it out. Israelites rallied on slopes to the north (left), while Philistines cheered from hills to the south (right).

Elah Valley, looking East

Valley of Elah, looking east. Elah brook is the green line of trees on the left side of the valley along the bottom of the Israelite hill.

All was quiet recently when I walked across this valley to the north side, to Elah brook. Here David “chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine” (1 Sam. 17:40).

Wadi Elah--"five smooth stones"!

Elah brook, where David got five smooth stones.

The duel between David and Goliath was a long time in coming. Two centuries earlier Israelites entered Canaan from the east, and soon controlled the central highlands. Philistines, having left the Aegean region for reasons unknown to us, arrived by sea a short time later. They entered Canaan from the west, and soon controlled the coastal plain:

Philistiine-Israelite conflict

Five Philistine cities cities define the area of Philistine control: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath (Goliath’s hometown). David was from Bethlehem.

During the reign of Saul, the first king of Israel, there were turf battles as Philistines and Israelites vied to control the foothills between them. A circle on the map above shows where the two armies were deployed when Goliath and David met for battle (1 Sam. 17:1; click on map to enlarge).

Warfare then–and now–seems like a catastrophic failure of imagination. Philistines and Israelites could have learned from each other and benefited from trade. Philistines were more advanced in metalworking (1 Sam. 13:19-22); Israelites were superior in writing. There was room for two distinct cultures to live in peace.

But David and Goliath fought a winner-take-all duel: If I win, your people will serve mine (1 Sam. 17:9). Instead of looking for common interests, leaders on both sides thought of domination or annihilation. Animosity degenerated into the kind of taunts that Goliath and David hurled at each other, and the swaggering led to years of bloodshed.

A thousand years after Goliath fell, people hailed Jesus as the “Son of David.” They hoped Jesus would be a king like David, triumphing over enemies. Instead, Jesus triumphed over hatred itself. At a time when Jews and Gentiles had reason to hate one another, Jesus created “one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace . . . through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Eph. 2:15).

Pray that leaders with imagination will step forward from both sides in the current conflict in Israel/Palestine to seek the common good of Jews, Palestinians, and all peoples with historic claim to the Holy Land.


© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************

_EPI9254.tifFor upcoming tours, see:
From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014

Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015

Another King named Jesus

“We have a high priest who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”  Hebrews 8:1


Caesar Augustus wearing the veil of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest). Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome.

What are the limits of patriotism for followers of Jesus? Caesar Augustus (whose given name was Octavian) ruled the Roman Empire from 27 BC to AD 14. He was such an extraordinary general and administrator that people across the ancient world worshipped him.
Subsequent emperors of the New Testament era, including Caligula and Nero, reveled in their supposed divinity. Christians rejected this arrogance as blasphemy. Part of Christian protest was to ascribe to Jesus titles that Caesar claimed, including High PriestSon of God, and Savior of the world.
At Rome today you can still see an ancient statue of Caesar Augustus wearing the veil of Pontifex Maximus (High Priest). The sculpture dates from about the time Jesus was born. A denarius silver coin struck at Rome in 17 BC features Augustus. The reverse portrays Julius Caesar, ruler of Rome assassinated in 44 BC (right). Julius named Octavian in his will as son and heir, opening the way for Octavian to become emperor.
Caesar coin

A denarius coin minted at Rome in 17 BC. Caesar Augustus (left) and Julius Caesar (right). Image courtesy of Classical Numismatic Group (

Soon after public cremation of Julius in 44 BC, a comet appeared in the sky—depicted on this coin above the head of Julius. Poets said the comet was the soul of Julius in the heavens, and the Roman Senate declared him “deified.” This allowed Caesar Augustus to take the title “son of god.”

The inscription DIVI F[ilius] beside Augustus on the coin stands for “Son of the Divine One.” It is important to note that millions of people across the Roman Empire voluntarily promoted such honors for Augustus. They were grateful for the stability and prosperity he brought to the Mediterranean world.

Some governments or rulers in every generation claim divine mandate. Others champion an ideal—such as capitalism, socialism, democracy, or a caliphate—that supposedly merits absolute allegiance. Pressure to act in patriotic ways may come from government or from friends and neighbors.

Christians living in societies that expect or elicit patriotic acts contrary to the gospel might consider the relationship Paul and Silas had with the Roman Empire. Opponents said they had been “turning the world upside down . . . acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus” (Acts 17:6-7).

Christian discipleship is holy subversion: loving enemies, caring for the vulnerable, washing feet, and otherwise giving allegiance to the Christ we worship as savior and king.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************

_EPI9254.tifFor info on upcoming tours, click on these links:
From Nazareth to Rome: Holy Land, Empire and Global Mission, with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 3-15, 2014

Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015