The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)


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Engaging faith and pacifism

Genesis one establishes this world we live in as founded on peace, not violence. The harmony of Genesis one will not last. Already in we see that human beings have boundaries.

To be whole, they need to live within the framework God has provided. Adam and Eve give in to the temptation to eat and numerous consequences follow. They are now afraid of God. They feel shame at their nakedness. There is established a hierarchy between the man and the woman. She will now experience pain in childbirth.


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A new struggle with bringing fruit from the earth ensues—battling with weeds and thistles. Then, Cain murders his brother Abel. In the following chapters there are more—the widespread sinfulness which leads to the Flood, the human arrogance contributing to the construction the of the Tower of Babel, in Genesis 11, and the barren condition of Sarah, who is unable to have children.

They are allowed time and space, the possibilities of a future. The story of Noah and the Flood may be read as supporting peace. More than being a story about Noah or about sinful humanity, this story focuses on God. The place where the real action takes place is with the heart of God. The events themselves are more or less a backdrop, meant to get at the real issue—what happens inside of God? God is free to respond; we could even say, in this story, God is free to learn.

This story about the Flood starts out as a story of judgment, but ends up being a story of mercy.

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Is Yahweh a God of War or Peace?

We must notice that the change from judgment to promise is not based on a change in human beings. As a unit, Genesis 1—11 essentially gives an account of the disintegration of the human community. With Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham and Sarah in a way that creates life out of chaos. God speaks a new work with creative power, and makes a future out of barrenness. The dead end now becomes the path to life. We see a pattern that characterizes the core story of the rest of the Bible—God is a God of life, whose response to the destructive consequences of humanity seeking autonomous power is patience and creative love.

Through people of faith living together, face to face, learning to love and give and take that God will make peace for all the families of the earth. The book of Genesis ends with the children of Israel in Egypt. Pharaoh subjects the Israelites to slavery, setting the stage for the main salvation story of the Old Testament. Rather, the God of the Exodus is a God of slaves.

The liberation of the Hebrews from slavery and toward freedom was not accomplished through human military might. The Hebrews did not out-muscle Pharaoh. God used miracles in nature the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea to bring about liberation. That the power rests with God means that what God values most—mercy, compassion, caring for the powerless and outcast, just distribution of resources—matter most in the society. Following the exodus, Egypt is not simply left behind but is rejected. Egypt and Pharaoh stand for the human will-to-power and trusting in brute strength.

God is a warrior

This deliverance kept the promise alive. At Mt. The Law self-consciously provides structure for social life in which the wellbeing and wholeness of all the people in the community receive the highest priority. Torah rejects the exploitation of the many for the aggrandizement of the few out of hand—and when in later times the Hebrews evolve toward such exploitation, the prophets invoke the original intention of the Law as a basis for critique.

The story continues with the Hebrews ready to move into a homeland. For this promise to be actualized, the community must exist as a concrete community in a particular location. In terms of its role in the bigger biblical story, the account from the book of Joshua of the Hebrew people entering the promise land, settling down with the mandate to embody Torah, accountable to their liberating God, tells of a crucial beginning.

God and War: What the Bible Says About the Just War Theory

Reading this account today, we find many elements of the account to be deeply disturbing. We struggle with the violence, the massive, indiscriminate slaughter of the people who happened to be in the way of the Hebrews. While the book of Joshua itself celebrates the events that established the Hebrews in Palestine, we end up by the time the Old Testament concludes with something quite different.

To the extent that the Joshua story reflects the establishing of Israel as a nation-state, a project wherein the promise must be embodied to be sustainable, the conclusion of the Old Testament tells us that the nation-state option failed. The promise will be fulfilled apart from being linked with any particular nation-state.

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The promise does not rely on the founding violence of conquest nor on the sustaining violence of standing armies and centralizing economic practices that came to characterize this nation-state. In fact, when read as a whole, the story makes clear that the main effect of gaining the promised land was to make apparent that the families of the earth will ultimately only be blessed by a genuinely alternative politics centered on love not coercive violence.

The story that takes us from Joshua to Jesus radically transforms the promised land motif. The Joshua story in important ways is part of the trajectory that runs from Abraham through Moses and then later prophets on down to Jesus. The basis for the victory was trust in God, not a large collection of horses, chariots, and warriors.

Possession of the land from the start was understood to be contingent on continued faithfulness to God. The Joshua story also sets the stage for the events to follow—events concluding in the Old Testament with the final failure of the Hebrew nation-state. The integral place the Joshua story plays for Christians may be seen, symbolically, in the fact that our central figure, Jesus, takes his name from the central figure of the older story. Jesus and Joshua must be reckoned with together.

But that does not mean that they must be harmonized. We should look for important points of continuity while also recognizing crucial points of contrast.

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Jesus was named after Joshua. Both Joshua and Jesus preached trust in God. Do not trust in human wisdom or in empires and their horses and chariots. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is at hand.

God loves you and wants you to know life and to share life with others. All God asks is that you live faithfully in response to this love. However, we also see discontinuities. In contrast, Jesus insists that even enemies are to be loved. In the story of Joshua, violence wins the victory. This violence is qualified in some ways. Israel was not to be a militaristic state, with a permanent army, and the generals running things. I find it helpful to recognize that the Bible simply reflects actual life—for better and worse. In life we do have a great deal of violence, but as pacifists we choose to interpret the violence in light of our convictions of the supremacy of love and compassion, seeking healing over seeking to dominate.

The biblical stories are stories of life, they too may be interpreted in light of our convictions about peace. In being honest, then, we admit that we do not read Joshua as an accurate portrayal of the true character of God—at least the parts that speak of God commanding putting every single person in various communities to the sword. These stories were told in a historical context prior to the kind of clarity about pacifism that came with Jesus. Nonetheless, the overall story points toward Jesus, not toward power politics.

Christianity and violence

The Joshua story helps make clear how ultimately the nation-state option was a failure. It also helps make clear the portrayal of God by Jesus as one who loves enemies and calls believers to do the same. In the story, the book of Joshua ends with a sense of triumph. Christians use these quotes in a discussion about war and the use of violence to show that there are times when war is justified.

God cannot be totally opposed to war in all circumstances. He overturned the tables of the money-changes and the benches of those selling doves. To some Christians this means that it can sometimes be right to be violent when people are being cheated or treated unfairly. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.

The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)
The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice) The Way God Fights: War and Peace in the Old Testament (Peace and Justice)

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