SEPTEMBER 20, 2015

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)


            Genocide. After World War II we had hoped it would have been a thing of the past, but this past March United Nations human rights investigators leveled accusations of genocide and war crimes at the Islamic State, commonly referred to as ISIS, citing evidence that the extremist groups fighters had sought to wipe out the Yazidi minority living in Iraq.

            Fifteen years before that the publication The Economist called the genocide in Rwanda  the most disgraceful episode of the 1990s or even the second half of the 20th century. The Rwandan population was primarily made up of two tribes, the Hutu majority, the toilers of the soil; and the Tutsi minority, the herdsmen making up only 15% of Rwanda's population. In a classic Cain and Abel story in 1994 about 100,000 Hutus rose up against the Tutsis exterminating their neighbors at random.

            Their actions were not only sickening, but also shocking because by the early 1990s Rwanda had become the most Christian nation in Africa. In fact, 85% of the population claimed to be Christian. It was one of the greatest missionary success stories in the history of Christianity.

            So, what happened? Were they not taught Jesus words, To love your enemies? What made someone get up from their couch, take a machete, go next door and slice the limbs off their neighbor's bodies, behead the men in front of the women, who were then raped, and killed?

            Three hundred and thirty three Tutsis murdered every hour.

            Five people killed every minute.

            It turns ones stomach to read and hear about accounts like this, and it catches us by surprise to find something similar in the bible taking place in the name of God.  I refer you to our passage for today, Deuteronomy 20, beginning in verse 10. What we are reading is part of Moses farewell address where he is going over the law one more time before he dies and before Joshua leads the Israelites into the promised land. In our passage Moses outlines the rules of war, rules that would violate the Geneva Convention today. Listen to the words of Moses.


            When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you at forced labor. If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. You may, however, take as you booty the women, the children, livestock and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not the towns of the nations here.


            What is proposed here was a part of the standard practices of the day.  It was the standard practice of the day to kill all the male warriors who could pose a threat if kept alive, and to women, children, and goods as property. That was standard operating procedure, and this was how they were to treat people who did not live in the promised land. This presupposed a time in the future when the Israelites already resided in the promised land, had to battle cities outside the promised land. Now, to be clear I am not justifying what Moses outlines here. Im just explaining the context. For those people who lived in the promised land, it was much worse.  Verse 16.


            But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them - the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hives and the Jebusites - just as the Lord your God commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.


            Of all the essentials that we will study in this Old Testament Essentials sermon series, this one, The Conquest of the Promised Land will baffle us the most.  This one makes us cringe.  This one embarrasses us. It deeply offends our modern day sensibilities. How do we reconcile this to what Jesus said about loving your enemies?  Do we put an asterisk next to that statement with the asterisk saying, This was a one-time deal? After the conquest of the Promised Land its no longer OK to do this?

            Im not going to try to explain it because I cant. The author of Deuteronomy attempts to explain it you need to purify the land so you wont succumb to the Hittite and Amorite and Canaanite crazy ideas about religion sort of like baby-proofing a home. In fact, some attempting to justify this says that these people were so sinful they needed to be wiped from the face of the earth, and maybe it had to do more with the judgment of God upon a wicked people than genocide, but if I could cut out anything from the bible it would be this, but I cant and so we live with the questions. 

            Of course, there is always something to glean from those passages in the bible that make us uncomfortable and the conquest of the promised land is one of those places. The story of the conquest is told in the book of Joshua, and from the story I want to highlight a couple of things.

            First, one of the great lessons of the conquest account in the Book of Joshua comes from the tale of three cities: Jericho, Ai and Gilgal.  What happens in these three cities comprise the longest episodes in the book of Joshua and teach three important lessons to the Israelites.

            Lets begin with Jericho, the most formidable city in Canaan. Jericho was also the oldest city in the region, renowned for its massive walls. Prior to the battle of Jericho, Gods commanding angel gives Joshua instructions for battle. They are sort of loopy instructions. Israel is not to attack the city of Jericho in a conventional manner, but to march around the city for six days. On the seventh and final day, the Israelites would blow trumpets, signaling the arrival of God, and the walls would fall down, allowing the Israelites to enter the city. Everything happened as God said it would, and this seemingly impregnable city fell easily to Israel

            The story of the Jericho contrasts dramatically with the battle of the second city, the city of Ai.  While Jericho was the most formidable city in Canaan, Ai was insignificant. As a matter of fact, the name Ai means dump or ruin. Joshua is so unimpressed that he sends only a small number of troops. However, while Israel easily defeated the mighty Jericho, they were soundly defeated by the lowly city of Ai. Why? Because one person, a guy named Achan, disobeyed Gods command that no one should benefit from the plunder of defeated enemies within the promised land.  It was OK to benefit if the city were outside the promised land, but it was not OK to benefit from a city within the promised land. Once Achan was found out, and executed, Israel could defeat Ai.

            Thus, the lesson of the first two battle accounts is clear. If Israel listens and obeys God, they will be victorious in battle, even against the mightiest of their enemies. If they are disobedient, however, even their weakest opponent will resist and defeat them.

            The third city illustrates one more important lesson. After Ai, the Israelites returned to their war camp in the city of Gilgal. One day a group of tired men, riding weary horses and carrying stale food showed up at the camp. These men falsely represented themselves as ambassadors of a people far away who wanted to enter a treaty relationship with Israel. They were actually from Gibeon a region within the promised land.

            Thinking that the Gibeonites were outside the land, Joshua entered into a treaty with them only to discover that they were really living just down the road within the land! The writer of the book points out that Joshua did not consult God before he entered into the treaty. Thus Israel learns a third lesson the hard way. Remember the first two lessons? Lesson one the Jericho lesson obey God and things will go well for you. Lesson two the Ai lesson disobey God and things will go poorly for you. And now the third lesson, learned the hard way in the city of Gilgal It is crucial to consult God before you take action. And by the way, later in Israels history the presence of Gibeon will become a major problem.

            So, thats the tale of three cities. Now for the second thing I want to highlight from the conquest the image of God as a warrior.

            Warrior imagery abounds in the book of Joshua. In the book of Joshua God fights and wins battle against Israels flesh-and-blood enemies, and throughout the Old Testament God fought for Israel, except for those occasions when they disobeyed him, like the time of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and subsequent Israeli exile. In those cases God would actually fight against Israel.

            We may not think of God as a warrior, however, especially given Jesus' words turn the other cheek and to love your enemies and blessed are the peacemakers, but that very image carries over to the New Testament. Many expected Gods messiah to be a warrior, expecting Jesus to wage war against the oppressive Romans.  And Jesus was a warrior, not just in the way the people expected. Jesus came to fight a more important battle, one that was waged against the spiritual powers and authorities.  According to the Apostle Paul, Jesus is the warrior who won this battle, not by swords and spears, but by dying on the cross and rising from the dead. And in the Book of Revelation we see Jesus again coming as a warrior, winning a final victory over all evil, both human and spiritual.

            So heres my question for today: What battle do we need to give to God to let him fight for us?

            Sometimes I get nervous about the future of our congregation.  It seems like at least one congregation a year in our Presbytery bites the dust.  A handful of you started worshipping with us because your previous congregation bit the dust.  And I know we cant keep doing the same old things and expect different results.  We need to think about doing some things differently, and Im not getting any younger, and I dont have the energy I once had, and I dont want to rock the boat, I just want to ease into retirement, but you know what?  In the midst of all this, in the midst of our stubbornness and in the midst of our fears about our future,  behind the scenes, God fights for this little church. God cares about our little church more than we care about it, and if we can just get on Gods page, and ask what God wants and not what we want, maybe, just maybe, this congregation will be around for another generation.

            Well thats enough for today. We may not be able to answer all the questions that the conquest of the promised land raises in our minds, but one thing that carries through the entire bible that we can take with us today is that God fights for us, and in the words of the Apostle Paul, If God is for us, who can stand against us? Amen.