Tuesday, January 1, 2013

How Does the Bible View the Military and Police?

 Part 1, Genesis and Exodus: An Honorable Profession?

While most evangelicals consider Barack Obama little short of the antichrist, they also consider military personnel, who these days find themselves at his literal beck and call, heroes. Politicians may be rotten, the thinking goes, but soldiers and policemen are always, or practically always, worthy of praise. Examples from Scripture are enlisted for the verbal battle, notably Romans 13, John the Baptist’s statement to soldiers that to show their repentance they need only be content with their pay, and the examples of Cornelius (“He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly,” Acts 10:2) and the anonymous centurions of Matthew 8 (“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith”) and Luke 7 (“He loves our nation and has built our synagogue”). These last were agents of an occupying army known for its cruelty (Dan 2:40), yet these three men are praised for their godliness. Certainly there is room for the godly in even the most godless of armies!

Before putting these men in context through a chronological skim through the Bible, let me suggest that though Jews were living throughout the Roman empire before the events described in these passages, these three men were less likely to have been believers in the one true God, converts to Judaism, who then joined the army and were out to enforce his will on Judean rebels by conquest, as was the case with the armies of Israel in the conquest of Canaan, than they were to have come to Judah as pagans and turned to the God of the Jews after their arrival, and from there to Christ.

But even if we assume that they knew the one true God before arriving in Judah, they are exceptions, and as we shall see in a later post, one can reasonably expect that their careers in the military were anything but smooth after their conversions to Christ.

The military being a government institution, the biblical history of the military closely parallels the history of government, which I discuss here.

The first military personnel we read about we do so by implication in Genesis 12: Sarai “was taken into [Pharaoh’s] palace.” Who took her there? Would Abraham have dropped her off so she could tour the place? Or would the original readers have assumed that the agents were Pharaoh’s “officials,” specifically his armed forces? What kind of person accosts a stranger, a sojourner, and abducts his “sister”? An honorable man would leave the woman with her “brother” until the marriage negotiations had taken place, but Pharaoh was not an honorable man; neither, then, were his soldiers. It was only after “the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai” (Gen 12:17) that Pharaoh returned her to him. Had Pharaoh known that Abram was Sarai’s husband, he would have killed him—more specifically, his soldiers would have been ordered to kill him. Can we not assume that a soldier who would abduct a woman for his ruler’s harem would have no qualms about killing her husband? What honorable man would have obeyed either order?

The next chapter in the story of government is in Genesis 14, where the four kings of the east are collecting tribute from the people of the Jordan Valley. What benefit, one asks, were those kings conferring on those they taxed? We don’t know, but we do know that when the residents of the valley, probably believing that “when any government becomes hostile to [the rights to life, liberty, and property], it is the right and the duty of the people to alter or abolish it,” stopped paying tribute, these kings led their armies out to pillage.

While one could argue—as does James Jordan—that on the basis of Noah’s curse of Canaan (Gen 9:26) the people of the valley, being Canaanites, owed tribute to the easterners, who were Japhethites, I leave it to the reader to extrapolate from that the right of any and all armies of “Christian” nations to conquer and levy tribute. More reasonable is to consider the easterners’ actions a violation of the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves and to do for them what we would have them do for us: they were simply “a band of thieves writ large.”

Either way, after they conquered Sodom, the soldiers from the east were overtaken by Abraham and his servants. We now have a battle between the “friend of God” and his cohort on the one hand and the kings’ armies on the other. While those who fought against Abraham had no way of knowing that he had a unique relationship with the creator and owner of the universe, on what basis do we impute honor to them? And if they were “just doing their job,” how is a job that puts the worker in mortal conflict with God’s people honorable?

Note also that Abraham’s troops were not professional soldiers. They were well trained and equipped, no doubt, but I see no evidence that their primary function was military; they were more likely his hired shepherds and herdsmen. We learn from David’s description of his early life that the shepherd’s life was hard and dangerous, so such men would have had ample opportunity to hone skills needed for combat (1 Sam 17:34–36), but a professional soldier is a different person entirely, and the army from the east would have been comprised of professional soldiers. Whatever honor God ascribed to those men’s profession did them no good in that battle.

After the battle, Abraham’s sojourn in Gerar involves a repetition of the threat he underwent in Egypt, though we are given more detail; again the military is complicit in abduction: those “sent” by Abimelech (Gen 20:2) are surely armed agents. And we find from Abraham’s explanation of his strategy that he had always been telling the truth to those who threatened him: Sarai was indeed his sister. Again, an honorable man would have dealt with his prospective bride’s brother, not abducted her before the terms of the marriage had been agreed on, and no honorable man would have been the agent of such an abduction.

Soon thereafter Abraham complains to Abimelech that the latter’s “servants” had seized the wells he had dug (Gen 21:26). While I cannot rule out the possibility that these were household servants, bureaucrats, or the like, I find it much more likely that these were professional soldiers—people who didn’t otherwise need to earn a living—acting out of peacetime idleness or boredom, or the “who’s gonna stop us?” bravery that comes easily to those with superior firepower.

We don’t see soldiers again until Jacob returns to Canaan from Paddan Aram. Though it is not stated, the king of Shechem undoubtedly had a paid royal guard. Yet after the rape of Dinah, two men armed with only a sword apiece were able to kill every male in the town, including the king himself (Gen 34:25–26). The Bible judges this slaughter reprehensible (Gen 49:5ff), yet the royal armed force was unable to stop it. This tells me that a standing army is no sure defense against malefactors: if it is likely to fail when needed most, why bother paying for it when it’s not needed? And what honorable man draws a tax-based salary for doing nothing?

During Joseph’s reign in Egypt, the military was presumably active, making sure people paid their 20% tax during the good years and keeping order after the famine began. The good news, as we all hear in Sunday school, is that life was preserved (Gen 45:5) and Joseph’s family lived well in the land of Goshen; meanwhile, the military was, depending on the translation, reducing the Egyptians to slavery (NIV) or relocating them (NASB; Gen 47:21), both activities beneficial more to those enacting them than to those on the receiving end.

The downside to this situation not often mentioned is that even though things were tough in Canaan during the famine (Gen 47:13), the Canaanites survived it—and so, presumably, would Jacob, had he not gone to Egypt. More importantly, once a Pharaoh arose who “knew not Joseph,” the Israelites were slaves. And guess whose job it was to make sure life was miserable for them: we hear about the “taskmasters”—government employees—but as the Israelites, who were “exceedingly numerous,” would likely have been able to overpower the taskmasters had they been of a mind to rebel, one can reasonably posit that behind the taskmasters stood what can best be thought of as armed law enforcement officers, decent guys who loved their wives and dandled their children, just doing their jobs.

Slavery was as much a part of life in the ancient world as dirt, so we can’t be too hard on the Pharaoh’s army for their part in the oppression of the Israelites. After all, they too might have been slaves: conscripts or children of the poor sold to Pharaoh by their parents. Then again, to the degree that they are not blameworthy for the evil they participated in they are not praiseworthy either.

Either way, theirs was not an honorable profession, and after the plagues, whatever honor they were worthy of went entirely out the window.

Everyone in Egypt knew that it was the God of Israel who was behind the misery of those plagues, and every household in Egypt with a firstborn son who had been killed was still grieving the loss when the Israelites up and left. “Many other people went up with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds” (Exod 12:38). The choice was plain: stay with the losers in Egypt or leave and take one’s chances with a God who was powerful, if nothing else. I suggest that those whom God would honor left, and those he would dishonor stayed.

Yet while Pharaoh’s people—and he himself, one would think—were still mourning and the memory of the other nine plagues was still fresh in their minds, he ordered his army to follow the Israelites into the desert and bring them back. Did nobody wonder if by bringing them back they would be putting themselves in line for more plagues? Did nobody ask whether bringing them back was the morally right thing to do? It would appear not.

And as if that weren’t enough, once the Egyptian military caught up with the Israelites, a pillar of fire and cloud separated the Egyptians from the Israelites for an entire night, giving anyone who chose to do so the time to examine his alternatives carefully. One doesn’t have to be particularly honorable to weigh the evidence and conclude that the penalty for unsuccessful desertion or mutiny would be no worse than the future awaiting those who followed orders to pursue the Israelites once the sun came up. So then, how honorable were the soldiers who were drowned that day?

I see nothing in the first two books of the Bible, which lay the foundation for the rest of Scripture, to indicate that the military is a particularly honorable profession or that those who join it are particularly honorable people.

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