Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Conquest: Sunday's Sermon

John Shuck

February 3rd, 2008
Fist Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

(To get into the mood of this sermon, you might first want to hear Elvis and Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho).

As the year 2000 was approaching, our village in upstate New York did a millennium celebration. It was held at the high school. Local musicians performed. It was a full house. The organizer of the event asked me if I could summarize the 20th century in about three to five minutes. I am glad she didn’t ask me to summarize the millennium.

She asked me if I could, to do so without a lot of references to the wars. She was looking for a nice, humorous history of the 20th century.

So I put a little thing together. It wasn’t exactly poetry. But it wasn’t prose either. I used images, slogans from popular culture, song titles, and personalities that I strung together in a quasi-narrative. My Tuesday morning Bible study was helpful. They were folks about my parents’ age and gave me personal memories regarding events long before I was born. The final product was well-received. I might share it with you sometime.

The point is that when I finished, I realized that I didn’t heed the organizer’s request too well. It was fairly humorous, as she hoped. Yet it is nearly impossible to talk about the 20th century without reference to war. The wars were turning points in our history. For example, an entire generation, folks my parents’ age, is defined by the experience of World War Two.

History almost by definition is a history of war, of conquering and of being conquered. Times of peace, in the overall scope of things, have been brief. Even in times of peace, we find under the surface, a struggle. Some may argue that history is a history of war because we have not found a way to tell stories of peace that are compelling. A story without conflict is not a story. Life is a struggle for survival. The history of our lives collectively and individually, is the story of our struggle.

The Bible is a story of war. As we read Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, we are reading Israel’s war history. The stories are about the struggle. When the struggle ends, we find a sentence that says, “And the land had rest for forty years.” There are no stories about these restful times. They are not interesting, apparently. The struggle, the conflict, is the story.

In the book of Genesis, Jacob, the son of Isaac, wrestles with YHWH. After his all night wrestling match, in which Jacob does not give up, YHWH gives him a new name, Israel. El means God. Ytzr means struggle. Israel could mean “God struggles.” It could also mean “he (or she) who struggles with God.” Life is a struggle.

The earliest stories of YHWH are war songs. The scholarly consensus is that one of the oldest pieces of literature in the Bible is found in Judges 5. The story is told in narrative form in Judges 4. But in Judges 5 the story is told in the form of a song. You might think of this song being sung in the tent at night. This song would have been part of a repertoire of songs and tales that would be passed on through the generations. This song was finally captured in written form and placed alongside the narrative in the Book of Judges.

It is the song of Deborah and Barak. It is the victory over Sisera. After Sisera’s army is defeated, Sisera flees. He goes to the tent of Heber the Kenite. They had been allies. But the wife of Heber the Kenite, Jael, is on the side of the Hebrews. She gives Sisera hospitality, with a surprise at the end. Here is the song:

Joshua 5:

24‘Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
25He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
26She put her hand to the tent-peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
27He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.

I remember falling in love with Jael when my Introduction to Literature professor read that poem for us when I was a Freshman in college. Jael is a dangerous love, to be sure. You want to be on your guard when she is nicest to you.

That is poetry. That is the poetry of war. It is the praise of cunning. It is the praise of courage and nerve. The earliest songs human beings sang about theirs gods were songs of war. YHWH before he was even a creator-god was a god of war. He rides across the sky on his chariot to do battle with Marduk and Baal.

Before the escape from Egypt was a story it was a song. It is captured in Exodus 15:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to YHWH:
‘I will sing to YHWH, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.
2YHWH is my strength and my might,
and he has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3YHWH is a warrior;
YHWH is his name.

YHWH is no philosophical first cause. There is no monotheism at this point in Israel’s history. These first songs to YHWH were songs to the god of strength. Earth and heaven are filled with gods, but YHWH is the strongest.

The Song of Moses continues:

11‘Who is like you, YHWH, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in splendor, doing wonders?

Lest we think YHWH is simply an “Old Testament” god, we should hear the song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, again:

‘My soul magnifies YHWH,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty

YHWH does change over time. He matures. He becomes wiser in his ways. YHWH broadens his vision. Brute strength is not enough to control his people although he isn’t bashful about using it when he thinks the need arises. YHWH ultimately has to figure out how to deal with the shortcomings of violence. YHWH finds other aspects of his personality.

YHWH discovers that he is deeply compassionate. YHWH has a soft spot for the underdog. If you are interested in looking at YHWH in this way, I recommend Jack Miles, God: A Biography, and the sequel, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God.

The songs we sing and the stories we tell about the gods are stories and songs about ourselves. The evolution of God is our evolution. But before we leave YHWH the warrior, the one who commands obedience, and in the book of Joshua, slaughter, we need to be honest. Have we really left him? My answer is, no we have not. It may be a long time before we do. We may never.

Reading the book of Joshua is about enough to turn most sensitive people into atheists. YHWH is difficult to stomach. But he will not go away. In our attempt to reject YHWH, the warrior, he comes back even more ferociously. In an effort to substitute a deity who is more gentle and mild in his place, we simply bury YHWH the warrior deeper into our unconscious awareness.

YHWH the warrior is very much alive whether we admit it or not. YHWH the warrior is not good to leave unattended in our unconscious. He does destructive things there. In saying 70 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is reported to have said:

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

YHWH the warrior is within us. As westerners, whether we are believers in God or YHWH or Jesus or not, we have inherited them all. Denying their existence is only repressing them. They do not exist out there, but in here. As depth psychologists remind us, the gods are symbolic representations of our drives. They are as real as our secret delight in the misfortune of our enemies. They are as real as the desires and fantasies we admit to no one. YHWH the warrior is our shadow. What do we do with a shadow? We are to embrace it.

"If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you."

I have to be careful here. I could be misinterpreted as suggesting that we need to embrace or glorify war and violence. No. I am talking about psychically embracing the warrior within.

Ghandi is reported to have said that he wanted no one in his non-violent army who wasn’t able and willing to kill. He didn’t want people who hadn’t embraced and known the warrior within themselves. He could do something with those people. One can only be truly non-violent when they are capable of violence, but then come to realize that non-violence is the better way.

We need the warrior. We need the warrior’s strength and courage. We need the warrior’s cunning. We need the warrior’s ability and willingness for self-sacrifice. We can call on that warrior to defend our children, the environment, and human dignity.

If we think of the various archetypes as tools in a toolbox that we can draw on when the occasion warrants, YHWH the warrior is a tool.

However, and this is a big however. We need other tools. As YHWH matured and evolved throughout Israel’s history and discovered other aspects of his personality, we too, need to evolve and mature. There is compassion. Over it all is wisdom.

I think that our history of war, particularly in the West, is not because we have embraced YHWH the warrior. Just the opposite. YHWH the warrior has controlled us unconsciously.

YHWH the warrior, the one who commands destruction, is within us. Unless we consciously embrace the warrior, name it, and tame it, the warrior will act out in truly destructive and harmful ways. Each of us has the desire to obliterate our enemies. Unless we admit it, we are doomed to act on it. In psychology we call it passive-aggressiveness.

As we read the stories of Joshua through Kings, we are invited to enter them. They are the stories of our violence. We are invited to bring YHWH the warrior to consciousness and to bring the warrior in us to consciousness. Then, and only then, can we name this violence and tame it.

In Psalm 144:1 we read:

Blessed be YHWH, my rock,
who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle;

Yes. But we must also embrace YHWH the compassionate. What does YHWH require? From Micah, chapter 6:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does YHWH require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?



  1. Wow- this is good. Really good.

    Much to ponder, which I will do since I am not watching the SuperBowl.

  2. I've read many of your sermons and this is by far the best. I like how you framed the bible study from Joshua to Kings. This is an area of the bible that lots of Christians don't like to think about, but you presented it intelligently so that the lessons in them won't be lost amidst the violence. Sometimes I haven't agreed with your past approaches but here I think you nailed it. Good work.