The Lord struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
and Og, king of Bashan,
and all the kingdoms of Canaan—
and gave their land as a heritage,
a heritage to his people Israel.
This was part of our morning prayers this week, this snippet from Psalm 135. It’s a psalm of praise to God, declaring the worship-worthiness of Yahweh. Yahweh is good and gracious! Yahweh is great and powerful! Yahweh’s goodness and greatness are shown in his awesome deeds!
Awesome deeds like killing Egypt’s firstborn, destroying nations and annihilating peoples, and slaying kings like Og, king of Bashan.
And what did Og do to deserve such a fate? Simply this: he stood up on behalf of his people against an invading army, which just happened to be the army of ancient Israel, who just happened to be Yahweh’s tribe. And so, the original story goes, the Israelites “killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land” (Num 21:33-35).
Not my favourite way to reflect on God’s gracious goodness. And not my favourite way to prompt prayer and worship on a bleary-eyed morning.
But yet I read it. And I reflected on it. And I prayed to God based on it. How in the world could I do that?
I’ve offered many thoughts already on this blog about how we as Christians should read the Bible, including the Old Testament. In general terms it boils down to this: the Bible points us to Jesus, and we follow Jesus.
That’s all well and good, and I’m convinced it is the right way for us as Christians to think about the Bible and how this collection of God-inspired, ancient human writings should function as authoritative Scripture for us.
But how do we then read specific passages, especially passages that make us go “ugh”?
What do we do with Og?
Well, here’s what I do with these biblical passages, and what I did Tuesday morning when the psalmist’s Schadenfreude over Og’s fate zapped me out of my comfortable morning fog.
First, I recognize these stories and songs for what they are: reflections of an ancient tribal culture with its contexts of tribal gods, tribal enemies, and tribal warfare. For me, this doesn’t in any way negate the divine inspiration of these texts—it certainly affects my understanding of how the inspiration of Scripture works, but not that the biblical texts are divinely inspired. I’ve written on this before, so I won’t belabour the point here: any notion we have of Scripture’s inspiration must take into account the simple realities of what these ancient writings are.
And what we have here is stark tribalism at work. Us versus them. Our god versus their gods. We win, they lose. Our god is greater than their gods. Yay for us! All praise to our god!
Sounds pretty pathetic when I put it just like that. Yet that’s the logic at work here, and we do ourselves no favours when we try to ignore it or deny it.
And it would be pathetic—and tragic—if we stopped there. But we’re not done yet.
I then read these stories and songs through the lens of other Scripture, especially later Scripture, especially the New Testament, and most especially Jesus. Throughout the Bible you have strong hints that this kind of tribalistic perspective is not really the best perspective to have, that it’s not really what God is looking for.
From the creation narratives pointing through Israel to all humanity, to stories of non-Israelites playing key roles in God’s work in the world, to the Hebrew prophets pointing beyond Israel’s present to God’s wider work among the nations—the Old Testament itself deconstructs its own tribalism.
This trajectory continues in the New Testament, centred on Jesus: through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God’s kingdom comes on earth for all peoples. The tribes of the earth become reflections of delightful diversity, not reasons for death and destruction.
All this points to a re-thinking of our “enemies.” Human, flesh-and-blood “enemies” are not our true enemies after all. Rather, humanity is united against a common enemy: our own sin and its resulting death. Og is not the problem. We’re the problem: our recycled attitudes and actions of harm against ourselves, others, our world, and ultimately God.
And all this points to a re-thinking of “God.” God is not like us only bigger. God doesn’t mirror our prejudices and dogmas. God doesn’t happen to hate all the people we hate. God loves the world—all of us, every tribe, every nation, every person. Even Og. And God comes to lift us out of our sin and death, to lift us out of our cycles of violence and harm, not through ever-greater displays of power and force but through ever-deeper expressions of selfless love.
Finally, I pray these stories and songs in this re-thought way, and seek to live in light of God’s fuller revelation of himself in Jesus. As I prayed this clip of Psalm 135 this week, in my mind I was converting the words about flesh-and-blood enemies into words about humanity’s real enemies. I read “Sihon and Og” but thought “Sin and Death.”
God has looked past our tribalism to our humanity, and through the crucified and risen Jesus God conquers our cruelty, our deceit, our prejudice, and more. God is greater than our fears! God is mightier than our hatred! Yay for all of us! All praise to our Creator God!
But this, of course, is not all, these joyful praises in private prayer. As I left our morning prayers Tuesday morning, my thoughts lingered in that space.
How do we continue to perpetuate that ancient tribalistic mindset? (Us versus them, our god versus their gods, we win, they lose, our god is greater than their gods.)
How do we do that as groups of people? (Mennonites, Christians, Straight-White-Males, Canada, The West.)
How do I do that in my everyday life? (My rights, my privileges, my little kingdom, mine, mine, mine.)
It was so much easier to just blame Og.