War (Part 2)

So, we’re back to look at this difficult topic again. How is it possible, with all of the seemingly God-ordered, God-ordained violence that we see in the Old Testament, that we can make a case for a position of peace, of non-violence? Well, we are going to start by taking a look at some of the different stories that we come across in the Old Testament and see what they say to us about how we should act in a world soaked ‘red with tooth and claw.’

We begin by looking at the case of Cain and Abel:

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” Cain said to the LORD, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. – Genesis 4:8-16

Cain kills his brother. The first brothers, the first instance of violence, and the first murder/fratricide. If we were to call for justice then we would say, “Cain DIES!” that is just – an eye for an eye, justice must be done! How does God react to this whole thing? Does he stand by all passive? Does he do nothing? No, God acts – not to save, but to judge, to do justice. The thing that we would expect, and the thing that I have never really noticed in all my years of reading this story, is that God doesn’t demand the life of Cain in exchange for his brother’s. When I realised that it is not ‘life for life’ I thought, “Where is the justice in that?” The interesting thing that I DID notice is that, even when Cain tries to say that he should just die, that anyone who finds him can just kill him – what we would expect, especially when we see people bombing civilians, or countries invading other countries, war crimes being committed, we say ‘justice must be done – an eye for an eye! Anything else is weakness and letting evil win!’

We can’t seem to imagine a response that doesn’t end in violence, and that’s what I love about this story, God takes that out of the picture. It’s not about payback, it’s not about meeting violence with more violence. God puts a mark on Cain to STOP people from attacking him, to protect him. But it’s not like He didn’t punish Cain. The way of life that Cain had known – farming – was no longer going to be an option to him, he would have to work hard, and he would not find rest in his life. This, I think, is a worse punishment, and it’s not even the sort of punishment that we might think of today – locking someone away by themselves, isolated from others. This story opens up our imagination as to what justice might be, and sets the tone for the rest of the Scripture to tell us how God would have us pursue wholeness and shalom in the world. These we will look at in upcoming posts – stay tuned!

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