This month, I’ve been loosely tying our worship services and youth series to Rachel Held Evans’ Inspired, the book a small group of us are also discussing in Saturday morning book group. Held Evans’ book walks through scripture with attention to the types of stories told therein: origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, wisdom stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, fish stories, and church stories. In both youth group and worship, I’ve conveniently skipped over a focus on the war stories chapter, for reasons other than the obvious one of avoiding violence and discomfort. There are stories I (in all my wisdom) deem more central to an overarching understanding of scripture than the war stories.
But war is plaguing our world once more, and again in the part of the world wherefrom our holiest stories spring. As much as I and many of us try to be peace-seeking and peace-making people, war’s reality is not to be denied. Not in our current day, and not in the ancient days either. Especially if you dig into Joshua and Judges (or even skim the surface), you’ll get both the victory songs and the grim details from the battlefield and home fronts of Israel and their neighbors.
There’s even the “casual” mention in 2 Samuel 11: “It was now spring, the time when kings go to war,” which sets the stage for the story of King David and Bathsheba. War is presented as seasonal, perhaps cyclical, and it makes for some rather unholy behavior—in King David’s case—both on and off the battlefield.
Like Held Evans, I have a lot of questions and not many good answers when it comes to the Bible’s (and our day’s) war stories. But I’ll share with you a place where she pauses. It’s the response to the murder of Jephthah’s daughter. You may recall the story where warrior Jephthah returns from defeating the Ammonites, having promised God that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his door to greet him first upon his return home. When his daughter is the first to cross the threshold, he tears his clothes in grief, but nonetheless follows through on his promise and offers her as a sacrifice (or so the story goes, but see also this episode of Poetry Unbound for a different take).
Yet the chapter ends with a note that “each year the young women of Israel go out for four days and commemorate the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite” (Judges 11:40). Held Evans writes, “While the men moved on to fight another battle, the women stopped to acknowledge that something terrible had happened here, and with what little social and political power they had, they protested—every year for four days. They refused to let the nation forget what it had done in God’s name” (74)*.
As horrible as war is, woe be upon us if we fail to remember its costs, distancing ourselves from the soldiers and civilians, refugees and humanitarians, all in the crossfire when the season arrives. We are right to pray for peace, to debate whether a war can be just, to encourage diplomatic solutions that make war unnecessary. But when war arrives, there is also a place for preserving its memory: not that old animosities never die, but that atrocities might not be soon repeated.
That feels like a lot to hope for in days like these, violence begetting violence more rapidly than ever. But if peace is the desired destination, let’s be honest, and mournful, and repentant about the alternative. And in that, the Bible’s fraught war stories can perhaps be a guide.
With fervent prayers for peace that passes understanding,
* Held Evans, Rachel. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2018.