Turn the Other Cheek?
In the worship services lately, we’ve been looking at problematic passages in the Bible. For example, the New Testament says:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matt 5:38-39)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matt 5:43-44)
Yet in the Old Testament, Moses speaks about abattle with King Sihon and says:
“And the Lord our God gave him over to us, and we defeated him and his sons and all his people. And we captured all his cities at that time and devoted to destruction every city, men, women, and children. We left no survivors.” (Deut 2:33-34)
And we see during the battle of Jericho, the Israelites “devoted all in the city to destruction, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys, with the edge of the sword.” (Joshua 6:21)
It sounds like the Old Testament reveals a God who is a barbarous villain and the new testament he softened up and is nice now. In the Old Testament, he is Voldemort and in the New Testament he becomes Harry Potter. In the Old Testament he’s Prince John in the New Testament he’s Robin Hood. There has got to be a better way to think of it than that, right?
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I’ve gotten so many questions about this, I thought I would put in writing the key points that have been made and add one other point as well.
Five comments that can help us better understand and reconcile these texts:
Our culture says that grace is normal and punishment is exceptional.
We live in a time where we think that judgment is reserved for a select few evil people and everybody else gets grace. The assumption is that we are born good and therefore deserve good things. And God is obligated to give us good things because we are so good. We see one side of the coin about God, that he is gracious and loving, yet forget the other side of the coin: that is wrath burns hot against sin and that he alone is that correct judge of the world. If we forget that God is Judge the thought of him wiping out the evil Canaanites (who sacrificed by burning living virgins and children, for example) is mind blowing. What we remember that he is not just gracious and loving but also judge it is easier to wrap our minds around.
Our culture has misplaced skepticism.
When we see something in the Bible we don’t understand we assume the problem is with God not us. What an arrogant way of looking at the world! If God is God we should assume he is right and we are wrong. God doesn’t have to explain himself to us. Just because we don’t know the answer forgot doesn’t tell us the answer doesn’t mean there is no answer. This text shouldn’t make us question God but remind us of our own, small minds that need Him.
Culture conditions us to see the negative and not the positive.
In Deuteronomy 7:1-2 we see God being gracious to the Israelites in giving them great victory over an enemy that is stronger, established, fortified and ready to defend itself. Notice how almost always focus on that text is the command to “Show them no mercy “ and miss the graciousness of God towards Israel. That is getting mad at God when a plane crashes and people die, but never giving Him credit for the thousands that take off and land safely each day.
Culturally we think differently about community and accountability.
In America, we believe that you are responsible for yourself and nobody else. If one kid in your classroom doesn’t listen and everybody gets in trouble for it, you better believe parents are calling the school to complain. (“My kid didn’t do anything!”) In any eastern context, say China, no one would call to complain. They understand that they are innocent or guilty as part of a larger community. One reason why God can say ‘show them no mercy’ even to the women and children is that their cultural, communal ties we’re so strong, even the smallest child would grow up to think like their community they live in, and be willing to avenge his people. Picture the dilemma that we even face today in the Middle East: if we bomb an ISIS camp, they now have some propaganda to spread about how the US is evil and blowing them up. It rallies people to their cause because they are so united. As hard as it may be to understand for us in 2018 America, communities we’re so similar they would’ve understood the punishment falls on them all for the sin of one.
Also important to note is that the command to ‘show them no mercy’ is not as sweeping as it appears on paper. The two main texts we’ve been looking at both have examples of mercy. Deuteronomy 6 has King Sihon offered grace and peace before battle. This offering of an enemy peace before a battle was unheard of in the culture! But our gracious God first offered peace before He hardened their hearts and had the Israelites bring judgment upon them. Also, in Joshua 6 after the walls fell down in Jericho, and before they wiped everybody out, they rescued Rahab and her family. They didn’t rescue Rahab because she was particularly moral (remember that she was a prostitute), but because she showed faith in God.
Bottom line: This issue does not have an answer that fits on a bumper sticker.
Here’s the good news: when we don’t stumble over the texts but when we wrestle with them we can get a more glorious picture of our great God and Savior. His grace, His love, His mercy, His wrath, His anger, His supremacy, and His judgment.
Without wrestling with texts like these it’s difficult to get the true picture of the complete character of God.
Because they give us a fuller picture of his character, I for one, am glad they’re there.
See you Sunday!