The pacifist reading of the Old Testament I am articulating in this book seeks to see the Old Testament story (and, truly, the biblical story as a whole) in terms of the development of the plot. One issue that vexes many people of faith (not only pacifists) has been the preponderance of violence in the Old Testament. I am suggesting that one crucial part of coming to terms with that violence is to see the story as a whole conveying the message that much of the violence we see in the Old Testament happened in service of what proves in the end to be a failed vision for the sustenance of the community of the promise.
That is, in the end, the ancient Israelite project of seeking to order their lives as a conventional nation-state, reliant upon the sword for security, even survival, ended in failure. Crucially, though, the story then makes clear that this failure of Israel’s existence as a nation-state did not mean the failure of the community as the conduit for the promise to Abraham of healing for all the families of the earth.
Key materials for this transformation from being centered on the nation-state to a different, non-nationalistic approach are found in the transitional writings in the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah (particularly Isaiah 40–55).
Jeremiah covers the time from the last days of the Judean monarchy and Judah as a nation-state through the Babylonian conquest and the ensuing time of exile. Isaiah 40–55 proclaims an ending of the time of exile and provides a vision of suffering servanthood as the model for the community’s on-going existence.
A key element of Jeremiah’s message, ultimately offered as a resource for the continuing of the community of the promise, may be seen in his embrace of grief as a crucial indication of Yahweh’s continuing commitment to the community and as a model for the spirituality of the people of the promise. As I understand the Jeremiah, grieving is a significant part of God’s healing strategy. Grieving is something God does, and something God’s servants also do. Grieving can be part of living creatively in the real world, the world of brokenness and loss, the world in which we live, the world within which we are called to show God’s ways.
This sense of loss comes from a sense of caring, a sense of love. We may lose even that which we love. Truly to care is to become truly vulnerable. And when the one you care about hurts, or is lost, your grief, your pain can nearly overwhelm.
This is the kind of pain the prophet Jeremiah expresses: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick….For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:18,21-22).
With Jeremiah we come to the end of the history of ancient Israel as a nation state. We come to the fulfillment of centuries of warnings – if you turn from God’s ways of justice and peace, if you trust in increasing wealth, if you trust in horses and chariots, if you trust in the sword – then you will suffer the consequences. During Jeremiah’s time, the Babylonian empire conquers Judah. Judah lay in ruins.
In the story Jeremiah tells, we see the folly of trusting in military power, in political schemes and in all-too-easily corrupted politicians. Even the great King David, chosen of God and renowned for his faithfulness, fell prey to the arrogance of power. And the later kings mostly were worse. We also see the folly of trusting in religious practices that seek to contain God and to reduce God to being, in effect, an errand boy on behalf of the king’s policies. We see the folly of religion as escape. We see the folly of religion that proclaims that all is well and thereby desensitizes people to the will of the true God. This God cares not so much for order and harmony on behalf of the status quo, but wants justice and righteousness. This God cares for the needy and for destroying weapons of war.
However, Jeremiah does more than express anger. Jeremiah gets down to grief: “Thus says the Lord of hosts; Consider and call for the grieving women to come; send for the skilled women to come; let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water. For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion: ‘How we are ruined! We are utterly shamed, because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings’” (Jer 9:17-19).
For Jeremiah, there is no dancing on the grave of those he prophesied against. Jeremiah does not rejoice in others’ misfortune. Jeremiah does not gloat – even though he had been right in warning of coming judgment. Jeremiah deeply identified with the people even as they reaped the fruit of their false trust. He grieves at what is lost. He grieves at the hurt and destruction. His concern is ultimately with the people. He’s not self-righteous at being vindicated. He’s not proud that his principles proved valid. He’s in deep pain. He’s inconsolable.
In his grief, Jeremiah represents God. Jeremiah’s God is not a distant God. God is not most centrally concerned with purity and having rules followed and just waiting to vent anger and vengeance. No, Jeremiah’s God is one who grieves at ancient Israel’s fall. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (Jer 8:18).
It is precisely in this grief that we find hope for healing. It is in this grief that we find a profound basis for peacemaking. We find hope more so in God’s grief than in principles of justice or in rules outlawing violence or in promises to snap in two weapons of war. God’s grief is crucial because here we see the depth of God’s caring for human beings. God’s grief is crucial because here we see the point of any command or law that comes from God, the reason God tells people the way to go. The reason is solely because God cares for people. The commandments are for the sake of life. When these laws are violated, suffering and brokenness result, as God promised they would. But when God’s ways are rejected, God does not gain pleasure seeing rebels get their just desserts. No, God suffers too.
The Old Testament story does not leave us with grief as the final word. We see in Second Isaiah (chapters 40–55) a vision of hope beyond grief. But this hope, this vision, makes sense ultimately only in the context of God’s grief – that is, only in the context of God’s deep, deep caring and love.
Jeremiah continues no matter what to identify deeply with the people he is prophesying to. Even as the people reject Jeremiah’s words, even as they continue to put their trust in the politics of death, he does not distance himself from them emotionally. His grief is certainly mixed with anger, but this all stems from a profound sense of caring, a profound sense of love.
Jeremiah represents God’s concern with people above all else. The problem is not so much that Israel violated principles and ideologies of justice. The problem is that in Israel people are suffering. The poor people who are being victimized suffer and the rich people who are also dehumanized by developing cold hearts and hatred toward those they exploit also suffer. These acts of dehumanization create a rotten culture that can’t help but collapse. And when it does, all people suffer. And Jeremiah grieves, because he cares for all people.
Jeremiah gave his entire life to trying to stem the storm about to fall on ancient Israel. However, he comes to a point of simply grieving: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (8:18). All I can do is feel it. All I can do is let the walls of self-protection open up a bit. All I can do is cry – with God.
For Jeremiah, hope for healing comes after deep grief. Healing comes after death is accepted, after brokenness is experienced. The brokenness had to be accepted, the grief had to be genuine. And the healing that then came, came from God, and God alone. Through deep grief, experienced by Israel, especially by the prophets, through connecting with God’s grief, somehow a sense of hope emerges, a sense that God’s presence wasn’t really removed, that life continues.
The openness to grief leads to an awareness that healing ultimately is God’s gift, not a human achievement. Jeremiah feels the failure of Israel’s striving to make it as God’s people. Israel couldn’t achieve that. But Jeremiah also hears from God words of hope, incredible words of hope.
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke. I will put my law within them, and I will write it one their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (31:31-34). God will do it.
This renewed covenant will find expression not in a reconstituted nation-state, but in communities scattered around the world, living as witnessing communities within the various nation-states. The exilic experience will contain within it the seeds of a renewed healing strategy wherein people of the promise seek genuine peace throughout the world, presenting alternatives to power politics through their counter-cultural alternative communities.
Jeremiah expresses this hope when he speaks to the exiles: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). This command points ahead, to spreading the vision of wholeness contained in the promise to Abraham and in Torah to the ends of the earth. This vision, following the failures of the nation-state strategy, is a vision for wholeness not established through coercion and the sword, but through faithful witness. Such witness requires self-consciousness of the people’s distinct identity as people of the promise – Jeremiah is not envisioning simply conformity to the ways of the nations. But it is a reminder that this identity needs to be sustained through pray, through worship, through study of Torah, not through domination and top-down political control.
It remained the case, though, that, as Jeremiah shows us, in his day things looked pretty grim for the community. The Israelite nation-state was wiped out. The center of the religious life, the Temple, was destroyed. The center of their political life, the king’s palace, was destroyed. Many of the people were killed and many others were shipped away to Babylon to live in exile.
The future of God’s people hung in the balance. A key element of Israel’s survival as a community of faith had to do with hope. Only with hope would the people remember God’s healing strategy. Only with hope would the people realize that amidst the rubble, nonetheless, God remains God. God still wants them to live out his will, serving as a light to the nations. Only with hope would the people realize that God doesn’t need a state, a political institution, God doesn’t need a temple, in order to bring about healing in the world. All God needs is a people still willing to turn to God and to seek to follow God’s ways. Israel needed words of hope to rekindle their awareness of God, to rekindle their awareness that their calling from God was not ended.
Words of hope were precisely what the prophecies gathered in the latter part of the book of Isaiah set in the generation following Jeremiah’s ministry offer. The message begins in chapter forty: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
Isaiah 43 contains more powerful words from God: You have been suffering, you exiles, “but now thus says the Lord, he who created you…, do not fear for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1). But now, things have changed. Through the brokenness comes hope for wholeness and healing, through the confusion comes clarity as to God’s love. The promised chaos did come, as Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah and other prophets had warned. But after that – God’s mercy endures. Hope for healing follows chaos.
The prophet brings amazing words from God. In the barrenness and despair of exile come words of astonishing hope. God has not abandoned you. God does not hate you. God lives. God still loves you. God has not abandoned you. God does not hate you. God lives. God still loves you. Words of astonishing hope.
One of ancient Israel’s biggest problems was its difficulty in remembering who they truly were. One of ancient Israel’s biggest problems was genuinely understanding and resting secure in its identity as God’s people. Israel all too often lived in defiance of that identity.
The Book of Judges tells us that the people all too often did that which was right in their own eyes. The chaos that resulted, then led Israel to take on a human king, like the other nations. The great Judge, Samuel warned that that wouldn’t work, but the people insisted. And, indeed, Samuel was right. The people, generally led by the kings, did go the way of the nations, forgetting their calling as God’s people. They built large standing armies and relied too much on horses and chariots, the weapons of war, for their security.
Kings such as King Ahab led the way in overturning Israel’s economic practices which had been geared toward each family having its own vine and fig tree – that is, each family having the means to gain their livelihood from their own farms and orchards. Ahab led the dispossessing of the many for the sake of concentrated wealth and power in the hands of the few. The people also tended to practice a religion that gave them comfort and a false sense of security as their society became increasingly unjust.
Israel simply forgot who they were. In Isaiah 43, the prophet reminds Israel of several things about their identity. The Lord has created you. You are creatures of the Lord, the God of Israel. You are not creatures of the Canaanite god, Baal. You are not meaningless specks of dust. You are the Lord’s people. “I have called you by name, you are mine” (43:1).
To remember, to understand, to be clear about this identity is crucial. Isaiah is certain that hope comes from God. Hope is a gift of this loving, creative, compassionate, persevering God of Israel. Hope is based on realizing that God’s mercies endure forever. If you are not clear about your identity as God’s people, as people created by and named by God, then you won’t be clear about God’s persevering love. You will be tossed around by competing ideologies. You will be motivated by fearfulness and anxiety. You will tend to base your identity on things other than God’s love – things such as gathering possessions, or lording it over outsiders, or nationalism and power politics.
Isaiah points back to the foundations of the community with Abraham and Sarah to make the point of the profundity of God’s creative love. This love provides the basis for present-day hope. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song” (51:1-3).
These verses tell us several important things. “Look to the rock from which you were hewn” look to God as your creator who made you and blessed you as good and gave you responsibilities to share God’s care and love with the world. “Look to Abraham and Sarah” – look to the way God has cared for those who have gone before and look to the tradition of God’s people of which you are part. “The Lord will comfort Zion” – look to the promises of God to bring healing, to bring joy and gladness. Clarity about our identity as God’s people feeds hope, feeds a sense that the future is meaningful and will be fruitful.
In Israel’s case, major trauma provided the context for new clarity. It is out of the shattering loss of their physical world—the temple, the king’s palace, the great city of Jerusalem, all lay in ruins. The people suffered in exile. And in the context of that deep trauma, the loss of their world, really, the prophet proclaims once again God’s love.
What the prophet proclaims are words of comfort indeed. When God says to the people, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (43:4), God is not speaking to faithful, successful, or morally upright people. God is speaking to the people who have been judged and traumatized because of their faithlessness, their failure, and their immorality. It is to these failures that God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you”.
The prophet proclaims God’s promise, God’s gift of hopefulness, in order to bring encouragement to the people. The words of the prophet are meant as a rallying cry, an energizing force, an empowering message. God loves you in the midst of your trauma and grief. God will continue to give you life. God will continue to give you hope.
The book of Isaiah’s hope is based on a deeper understanding of who we are – people created, named, and loved by God; people intended to live in relationship with God, to follow faithfully God’s commandments. The book of Isaiah portrays hope that emerges from times of distress and trauma, as the people face their brokenness and sinfulness honestly and open themselves to creative grief.
Hope is a gift from a loving God. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13). “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine….You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” (43:1,4).
This love of God provides the foundation for hope that living in light of that love will be possible, and will be the means God uses to bring healing to the entire world.