The first book of the Bible tells this story: God sent a messenger to Abraham to tell him God is planning to destroy two nearby communities, Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham did not dispute the legitimacy of God’s judgement, but appealed to God’s sense of fairness: “Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” It is a good question to ask, as all families, congregations, tribes, and nations consist of some righteous and some wicked.
God responds, “If I find 50 righteous people in Sodom, I will spare all the people for their sakes.”
Even we today realize this is an honorable and just perspective, for families, congregations, tribes, and nations.
Abraham took it another step. “Suppose there are 45, rather than 50, righteous people? What then?”
God said, “OK. You find 45 righteous people, and I will spare the city.”
Abraham was emboldened. He continued the barter all the way down to ten, pushing God to admit: “I will not destroy the city if there are ten righteous people.” Which is the genesis of the confidence that ten righteous people can save a city from all the justice it deserves because of many more wicked people.
I think about this text as I watch the bombing of Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not quote this part of the Bible as a way to justify his assault on Gaza. He took his text from Ecclesiastes, “There is a time for war and a time for peace.” To which he added, “And this is a time for war.”
Which demonstrates once again that it is not what you believe about the Bible that counts but what you emphasize in the Bible.
It is easy to understand why Netanyahu is angry about things. Thugs in Gaza surprised Israelis on October 7 with a vicious, violent attack, killing more than 1,400 people, including men, women, and children. It was an atrocity of the worse sort.
But it was also a surprise, and the chief duty of a national leader is security, is to keep the people safe. So, on top of vigorous national pushback to his efforts to create an authoritarian, rightwing government, he failed his people in his most fundamental task. No wonder he was angry, and no wonder he wants to get even.
Very much like national leaders in the United States, after the 9-11 attacks in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. We lost 2,977, twice as many as died in southern Israel last month; and we sent our armies to kill those who planned, executed, and financed the attack on the United States. We know what revenge is like.
But whether American or Israeli bombs help things in the Middle East is a lingering question. Yes, the region is politically and economically unstable and has been for a long time. Yes, colonial and economic interests in the region complicate our efforts to “do justice and love mercy” in the region.
But bombing Gaza is revenge not justice.
When we lay the newspaper beside the biblical account on Genesis 18, the pressing question is: how many innocent people in Gaza must be killed to get even with the yet-to-be-counted wicked?
Isn’t this the very opposite of the questions used in the Genesis narrative?
Bombing Gaza is sure to create poverty, sickness, injury, and death. It will also create another generation of terrorists who hate Israel. It will also erode sympathy and support for Israel around the world (and not just on every university campus in the United States).
Violence begets violence. Or, as Dean of the Chapel Lawrence Carter (of Morehouse College) writes in his book on non-violence: “Violence … creates an atmosphere of tragic bitterness between two parties.” He quotes his mentor, the Buddhists teacher and organizer Disaku Ikeda, “War is the source of all evil. War normalizes insanity–the kind that does not hesitate to destroy human beings like so many insects and tears all that is human and humane to shreds, producing an unending stream of refugees. It also cruelly damages our natural environment.”
This is what is happening in Gaza.
Israel deserves to live in peace with themselves, with her neighbors, with the nations of the world. But crushing the people of Gaza is not the way to peace. Where it leads is clear: more hatred, more violence, more death, more destruction, more terror, more evil.
This from one who loves Israel, who prays for the peace of Jerusalem, who stood on Mt. Zion 50 years ago and watched as Israeli jets raced overhead and Israeli tanks rolled down the main road of Jerusalem. That was 1973, the Yom Kippur War. This is 203, the Gaza War. There must be a better way.