Monday, October 12, 2009

Cording the Moabites

[Text of a sermon delivered at the Meadowood retirement center, October 11, 2009]

David also defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute. (2 Sa 8:2)

I don’t like this verse. It makes David sound like a despot who throws his weight around stealing from people and killing arbitrarily. If this is the “man after God’s own heart,” I certainly don’t want to worship that God. He can threaten me with eternal hellfire and get me to kowtow and grovel with the best of them to avoid it. But that’s not the kind of worship the God of the Bible wants. The worship God wants from me is for me to say from my heart that he is good. And when I read this verse, my first reaction is to say that whatever god led David to do what he did is not good. But I want to think of the Bible as the word of a good God. How can I do that?

The first watchword of biblical interpretation is context: be sure to read any passage in its context. Maybe I can get some help here. Well, the preceding verse says that David defeated the Philistines, but nothing about the Moabites. The preceding chapter describes God’s revelation to David that he would be king and David’s prayer of response. No help so far. In fact, the last time Moab is mentioned at all, we find the Moabites giving refuge to David’s father and mother (1 Sa 22:3-4). (Remember that David’s paternal grandmother, Ruth, was an immigrant from Moab.)

In the broader context, we find Balak, the king of Moab, opposing the Israelites after they had left Egypt on their way to the promised land. But I can understand his concern that this horde would take away all their food (Nu 22:4). I can also see why, after he had seen what they did to the Amorites and the people of Bashan, he would choose to have Balaam curse them and, when that didn’t work, lead them into sexual immorality. So, while I can sympathize with their instinct for self-preservation, we have here our first clue about the nature of the Moabites: they were sexually immoral. In fact, they were named after their forefather, whose name proclaimed that he was a child of incest (Gn 19:37).

Then we read this: “Elisha died and was buried. Now Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring” (2 Ki 13:20). While this was many years after this action by David, let’s assume that the Moabites had practiced banditry all along. After all, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, [and] theft” (Mt 15:19). We know Moab was a sexually immoral society. It’s not unreasonable to assume that they not only practiced theft and murder, they approved it. “Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Ro 1:32). If David was dealing only with the raiders themselves, and if the wages of all sin is death, then David was giving two-thirds of them no worse than they deserved.

However, it could also be that he actually went into Moab and laid out the women and children who had “support the troops” bumper stickers on their ox carts. In that case, and if God approved of his actions—and there not even a hint of disapproval here—we need to stop looking down our noses at David’s actions and start having concern for ourselves.

I don’t need to tell you that we live in a sexually immoral society. You know what you would see if you chose ten television channels by a roll of the dice and watched them for six minutes each. The humor in sitcoms is sexual. The advertisements are for things to make you sexy. You know who the hero and heroine of dramas are because they have extramarital sex. The most interesting news segments are sex scandals. Or you could stand in front of a magazine rack for ten minutes. Try to find a teaser that glorifies what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy, or people who are patient, kind, interested in others’ welfare, humble, well mannered, self-effacing, forgiving, protective, trusting, hopeful, or perseverant. You might find some, but you’ll wade through a lot of slime before you do.

I must confess that this is the pot calling the kettle black here. I remember deciding when I was in sixth grade that I wasn’t going to be the kind of guy that asked girls out just to see what I could get off them. And as I went through the dating years, I thought I was living up to that decision. But now that I look back from forty years on, I have to admit that though what I was after was tame even by the standards of the day, that’s exactly what I was doing. And there’s more of that lusty youth walking around today than I care to talk about. So if God hates sexual immorality, I’m in trouble.

Moab was also a violent society, and so is ours. Just think of the word infanticide. There is no murder more heinous than infanticide. When the psalmist wanted to curse his Babylonia oppressors, he cited their infanticide: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:8-9).

Our society has been proudly killing babies since at least the 1840s, when Uncle Sam marched the Cherokee from their homes in North Carolina to Oklahoma in the dead of winter and thousands of babies died. George Custer went to the Little Big Horn to kill civilians, including babies. The carpet bombings of Dresden and Tokyo targeted babies, and Uncle Sam is the only entity in the history of the world to target babies with atomic weapons.

Is the pot calling the kettle black here, too? Absolutely. I cheered when the cowboys killed the Indians on TV when I was a kid. The highlight of my week in sixth grade was Friday night, when they incorporated clips from the carpet bombings into the story lines of Twelve O’Clock High. During the first Gulf War, I was disappointed that I couldn’t watch the bombings on the evening news because we were overseas. If I had known at the time that Rush Limbaugh was playing “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iraq” (“Bomb Iraq / Get Kuwait back”) on his show, I would have sung along. When after that war Bill Clinton announced sanctions against Iraq to make life so miserable for the citizens that they would overthrow Saddam, I thought it was a great idea. (The overthrow never happened, but half a million women and children died from the sanctions. I didn’t know about it at the time, but if I had known, I wouldn’t have cared.) After 9-11, I was ready to nuke some Muslim city in retaliation, and if another attack had happened here, I would have been in favor of nuking every Muslim city from Morocco to the Philippines. When I found myself awake when Shock and Awe was scheduled to begin the invasion of Baghdad, I turned on the TV so I could (finally!) see some action. So I’ve not only dropped bombs on children, I’ve done so not from a position of vulnerability in the cockpit of an airplane but from the safety of my living room. I’m not only a murderer, I’m a coward. And I suspect I’m not the only one in this nation.

So if Jesus Christ, David’s greatest son, were to treat me as I deserve, he could well begin by laying me out on the ground along with the rest of this immoral and violent society. And if I were one of those two-thirds who were under the wrong cord, I would die—no worse than I deserve.

This passage is a picture of our salvation. Those of us who belong to Christ are no less deserving of death and hell than those who do not: all have sinned, and the wages of sin is death. Yet he chooses to have mercy on some people: he says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” He tells us of a man who was justified because he prayed, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Yet I’m sure that there were those among the Moabites who begged for mercy to no avail, so I assume it is not the act of asking for mercy itself that somehow brings mercy forth. After all, how can anyone ask for mercy out of anything other than the same self-centeredness that causes one to sin in the first place?

Yet Jesus says that he will not cast out anyone who comes to him, and he commands us to live lives that get our neighbors’ attention so we can tell them the good news that he died so that the sins of his people could be forgiven. So I am here to tell you that we are a violent and immoral people. We deserve death and hell. Yet, according to the Bible, he has commanded me to tell you that if you call out for mercy and accept his gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, he will have mercy on you. He will save you not only from the consequences of your sin but from that sin itself. He will work in your heart through his Spirit, teaching you to hate it and giving you the desire and eventually the power to overcome it.

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