Our foes are monsters!

“The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size.” Num. 13:32

Ellen Kraybill examines a large vase from about 650 BC that depicts Odysseus blinding the Cyclops. Archeological Museum of Eleusis, Greece.

Look closely at the grisly scene on the great amphora vase in this photo. The center figure—Odysseus, hero of Homer’s epic poem—thrusts a pointed and heated pole into the eye of a Cyclops named Polyphemus. The eyeball “hissed around the spike,” Homer says.

The one-eyed giant—now blinded—had trapped Odysseus and companions in his cave. The monster already had devoured several of them, “gaping and crunching like a mountain lion.” So the captives got their tormenter drunk, gouged his eye, and contrived escape.

Recently I thrilled to stories of The Odyssey as my wife Ellen and I visited biblical sites across Greece. Homer’s 700 BC poem is magnificent, with derring-do on the high seas, scenes of lavish hospitality, and wit on every page.

But brutality frames and pervades the epic. Odysseus is on a ten-year voyage back from ferocious war against Troy (a battle described in The Iliad). When Odysseus finally makes it home to Ithaca, he splatters the brains and guts of every single suitor who tried to woo his wife Penelope while he was gone. Thus ends the saga.

Museum Collection: Archaeological Museum of Eleusis, Eleusis, Greece Catalogue Number: TBA Beazley Archive Number: -- Ware: Proto-Attic Black Figure Shape: Amphora Painter: -- Date: ca 650 BC Period: Archaic SUMMARY Odysseus and his men blind the Kyklops Polyphemos with a stake.

Biblical Philistines—especially the giant Goliath—come to mind when I read The Odyssey. Though Homer probably drafted his epic poem about 700 BC, his tales about Troy and Odysseus likely go back in oral tradition to about 1200 BC—exactly when Israelites were entering Canaan several hundred miles to the east.

The political chaos in Greece and Turkey that Homer describes in The Iliad and The Odyssey could be the same upheaval that pushed Philistines and other “Sea Peoples” of the Aegean region toward Canaan. Philistines settled in Canaan just as Israelites entered from Egypt—and the two peoples came into conflict (see more on Philistines at https://peace-pilgrim.com/2014/07/07/gaza-goliath-and-overcoming-hatred/).

Ever notice how nations and peoples in conflict are tempted to make their foes either subhuman or superhuman? The Cyclopes, as Homer portrays them, are a boorish tribe of one-eyed, anti-social, lumbering cannibals—both subhuman and superhuman.

When Israelites, after wandering in the wilderness, sent scouts into Canaan, the spies reported that the land was inhabited by giants who made the Israelites feel “like grasshoppers” (Num. 13:33). Philistines—who in many ways had more advanced culture than the Israelites—got personified in Israelite memory with the nine-foot giant, Goliath. His spear shaft was “like a weaver’s beam,” and he promised to feed shepherd boy David to the birds (1 Sam. 17).

More recent conflicts have generated talk of giants. American propaganda during World War II, for example, sometimes portrayed Germans and Japanese—now our friends—as subhuman monsters.

Popular media today sometimes portrays Islam, with its magnificent heritage of culture and faith, as pure menace and terror. The reality is that all peoples and nations bring a mixture of noble generosity and selfish violence.

Within the Old Testament there is hope that “all families of the earth” someday will be blessed by the faithfulness of Abraham, Sara and their descendants (Gen. 12:3). Hebrew prophets foresaw a time when nations will cease learning war (Isa. 2:4).

It is right for Christians to read blood-and-guts portions in the Bible, because these still are realities of human experience that we cannot ignore. But we also can rejoice that the trajectory of history ends with a Lamb who brings a “healing of the nations” (Rev. 22:2).


© 2015 J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************************

Want to see Jordan, Israel, and Palestine? To join a Peace-Pilgrim Bible study tour in 2016, see https://tourmagination.com/tours/by-date/2016-tours/498-jordan-palestine-israel-a-journey-of-hope

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A robe dipped in blood

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True . . . He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron . . . Revelation 19:11–15


Today a life-size statue of Archbishop Romero stands at the spot where he delivered his last homily in the chapel of Divina Providencia hospital. When he finished speaking, he stepped to the altar in the background and died from a bullet fired from the rear of the building.

This week an unscheduled airline layover in Central America gave me a day to explore sites related to the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero. I saw a robe dipped in blood—vestments worn by Romero when he was assassinated in 1980 for daring to confront abuses of a right-wing dictatorship in El Salvador.

The nation was in civil war, its military government aligned with the rich. Romero used sermons and radio messages to denounce death squads and other means of intimidating the poor. On March 24, 1980 he said this at the Divina Providencia hospital chapel in San Salvador:

“I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. . . In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.”

As Romero stepped to the altar to celebrate Eucharist, an assassin’s bullet cut him down. When I visited Romero’s nearby humble house this week, a nun showed me his vestments still stained with blood. Romero confronted powers of oppression and violence with nothing but the “sword” of the Word of God. He charged into spiritual and political battle with inspired words and changed the course of Salvadoran history, helping end dictatorship and war.


Alexander the Great charges into battle against King Darius of Persia in the fourth century BC. This mosaic found at Pompeii is at the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

A mosaic from Pompeii (ca. 100 BC) shows Alexander the Great also charging into battle—in this case against the Persians. But Alexander has a literal sword in hand, and he intends to kill. Roman emperors in the first century routinely put similar images of themselves on coins.

Such Greek and Roman military propaganda–and Old Testament precedents–stand behind Revelation 19. But John of Patmos completely transforms the imagery! An equestrian Christ in John’s vision wears garments splattered with blood—his own blood shed at Calvary. Like Romero two millennia later, Jesus confronted powers of death and violence with the Word of God—not physical violence—and laid down his life in love.

Never underestimate the power of the spoken Word of God to bring down oppressive powers and point the way to healing of the nations.

© 2014 J. Nelson Kraybill *******************************************    IMG_0417

For more on themes of peacemaking and allegiance, see my book Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics and Devotion in the book of Revelation (Brazos, 2010) at: 
Join me on a visit to the Holy Land! See: Holy Land (Jordan, Israel & Palestine) with Pastor Nelson Kraybill – November 5-16, 2015
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