Friday, March 09, 2007

Cut It Down

How do you deal with people who betray you? How do you deal with people who hurt you? How do you deal with your enemies: those who ignore you, despise you, or wish ill on you? The truth is: it may say more about you than it does about them.

The story picks up in 1 Samuel 10:26-11:15. Saul has been proclaimed the first king of Israel. After his appointment, he returns home and a group of warriors accompany him. But not everyone is pleased. In 10:27 we read these words: But some troublemakers said, “How can this fellow save us?” They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent. For whatever evil Saul may do later on in his reign he starts out well. He is humble and careful with his words.

It doesn’t take long for Saul to rise to the first challenge of Kingship. The main purpose for selecting a king was someone who would be a military leader for Israel. In chapter 11 Nahash, the Ammonite went up and besieged Jabesh Gilead. And all the men of Jabesh said to him, “Make a treaty with us, and we will be subject to you.” While you and I might recognize the pragmatic wisdom in all of this—this is really tantamount to treason against Israel.

Jabesh Gilead already has a troubled history. The city served as the buffer zone between Israel and Ammon. It seems they had always marched to the tune of a different drummer. When war broke out against Benjamin, those of Jabesh Gilead did not participate. Nor did they willingly participate in the restitution of Benjamin to Israel. As a result, all but 400 virgins of Jabesh were slaughtered and the women given to Benjamin for wives. Evidently, the tribe of Gad repopulated the town. Needless to say, there was no love lost between Jabesh Gilead and the tribe of Benjamin—King Saul’s own tribe. There is also something between the lines here. After they offer to serve as a vassal of Ammon, Nahash replies: "I will make a treaty with you only on the condition that I gouge out the right eye of every one of you and so bring disgrace on Israel." Generally, gouging out the eye was the penalty of someone who has broken a treaty. It is possible there had been a previous treaty between Jabesh Gilead and Ammon—which would have been like one of our states establishing an international treaty with Afghanistan in the days following September 11![1]

The elders of Jabesh request a few days reprieve to see if they can muster help from Israel. If not, they will surrender and give in to the terms of the Ammonites. Surprisingly Nahash agrees. But that isn’t too surprising after all. Either Nahash believes Jabesh Gilead has cut their own noses off as far as Israel is concerned, or he is convinced his force is vastly superior than anything Israel could amass.

Saul is out plowing with his oxen when the messengers come to his home town with the news. Everyone is weeping as Saul comes in from the field. “What’s happening?” he asks. When he is told the news, the Spirit of God came on him in power and he slaughters his oxen and cut them into pieces in a fashion reminiscent of a sacrifice or the sealing of an Ancient Near Eastern Treaty. He sends the pieces throughout Israel with the message: “Join me in delivering Jabesh Gilead, or may your oxen be cut to pieces like these.” Thirty-thousand warriors join Saul and he sends a messenger to Jabesh with the news: "By this time tomorrow, you will be delivered." They then send a messenger to Nahash: “Tomorrow we will surrender to you and you do what is good in your own eyes.”

The next day Saul divides his army into three divisions and early in the morning and completely routs the Ammonite army. They were so scattered, no two Ammonites were left together. After this there was a huge victory and we come back to the beginning. People begin saying: "Where are those trouble makers who asked if Saul could lead us? Let them be executed!" Saul puts a stop to that foolishness by saying: "No one shall be put to death today because today God rescued Israel!"

We could take several things from this story. However I only want you to consider one thing. It seems Saul once again demonstrated his qualification as King by his forgiveness. It would have been very easy to remember the past slights of Jabesh Gilead—the bad blood between them and Saul’s own tribe of Benjamin. It would have been easy to let Jabesh Gilead suffer for their offer to make a treaty with Nahash, king of Ammon. But Saul’s compassion was aroused for the Gaddites of Jabesh. Later on we would see how the people of Jabesh Gilead never forgot the kindness of Saul. After Saul is killed by the Philistines and is beheaded, his body hung on their walls—the men of Jabesh Gilead raided the Philistines and won back the bodies of Saul and his sons. Saul’s forgiveness is also extended to the trouble makers who mocked him and refused to honor him as king earlier. He correctly recognized himself as a recipient of God’s mercy and deliverance—therefore it would be wrong to withhold God’s mercy from these men—even though they proved to be his enemies.

This is perhaps the simplest truth and the hardest practice of the Christian way of life. We are called to forgive! We are called to forgive anyone and everyone—no matter what is his sin, no matter what his crime against us. That isn’t fair! That doesn’t sound right! Don’t we deserve justice? Yes. It isn’t fair, it doesn’t sound right, and we deserve justice. But God turns common sense on its head. Jesus says: “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you—if you only love those who love you, then you’re no different from anyone else.” Paul says: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…if your enemy is hungry feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” Even the disciples’ prayer Jesus teaches his followers to pray in Luke 11: “forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” Jesus in Matthew 6 and 18 goes as far to say we will not be forgiven if we do not forgive.

So what does forgiveness look like? We do not punish those who deserve to be punished. We do not constantly revisit the past and relive past hurts. We may not be able to erase past events from our memories, but we don’t have to keep bringing it back up—not as illustration or instruction. If we are ever to be freed from the pain of the past, from the hurt and trauma of the past, then we have to commit to bury it and not dig it back up. But how far do I go? Only as far as Jesus as he hung on the cross looking at a group of unrepentant soldiers gambling for his clothes—only as far as the first Christian martyr Stephen as his enemies stoned him to death: "Forgive them, they don’t understand what they’re doing!"

There is a story told about General Robert E. Lee. Years after the Civil War Lee was visiting Lexington, Virginia. A lady showed him the scarred remains of a tree in her yard. During a raid all the limbs had been shot off by Federal artillery. Thinking the General would share her sense of outrage, she waited expectantly for him to comment. Finally, Lee spoke, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”

How do you deal with people who betray you? How do you deal with people who hurt you? How do you deal with your enemies: those who ignore you, despise you, or wish ill on you? The truth is: it may say more about you than it does about them. It may say you are not a person of grace and forgiveness. This is something Saul teaches us, at least at this point in his life: you have received God’s mercy—extend it. Forgive.

May you learn the freedom that comes from forgiveness. May you experience the joy of throwing off that terrible burden. May your experience of God’s mercy compel you to extend it to others.
[1] Note: while the Dead Sea Scrolls and subsequently the New Revised Standard Version includes an explanation and background to this story by suggesting the gouging out of right eyes was Nahash’s standard modus operandi (and that he had been terrorizing Israel in this way for some time), this appears to be later embellishment. If Nahash had been doing this, it could be argued Israel’s reaction would have been less horrified.

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