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'Don't use Scripture' to justify war warns theologian after Netanyahu speech

by Donna Birrell

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ruled out a ceasefire in Gaza by quoting from the Bible and declaring it's "time for war".

He said Israeli soldiers are part of a legacy going back 3000 years.

Addressing the nation on Monday evening, Netanyahu drew on Ecclesiastes 3:8: “a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”

So what can Christians make of the Bible being used to justify a war that is seeing thousands of people killed and many more injured and displaced?

Rev Dr Ian Paul who is a writer, theologian and member of the Archbishops’ Council, has been giving his view to Premier:

“This is another cycle in this absolutely tragic, long term situation. His (Netanyahu’s) use of that text is interesting because as somebody once said, a text without a context is a pretext, if you lift a verse out of its context, you can make it mean anything you like.

“I think the interesting thing about that particular text is it says there's a time for war, there's a time for peace and a time for living and a time to die. The point of the text is not to justify any of those things. I think the point of that text is that all these different things will happen. But you need to discern what is the right time and not be surprised when these things come along. So I don't think the text actually justifies the way that he was reading it. But it does open a larger question about whether the Bible justifies war? Does it justify a particular kind of war, a particular way of fighting? Which is a really important question. It's one that theologians and readers of Scripture have wrestled with for years and years and years.”

During his speech, the Israeli Prime Minister also referenced a nation (Amalek) in the Hebrew Bible that the Israelites were ordered to wipe out in an act of revenge. In 1 Samuel 15:1–9, Samuel identifies Amalek as the enemy of Israelites, saying "Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt."

But Dr Paul says it’s vital Scripture is read in the context of the modern world :

“As Christians, we need to make sure we read Scripture carefully. Scripture is not given to us simply to be taken out of context to be used as isolated verses to justify what we want to do.  The Old Testament texts were very often looking at pre-modern context, a context where violence was rife. So the question is not so much ‘have we been given a template here for the modern world?’ The question is, ‘what has God said and done in a context’, where violence was assumed to be the norm ? The second thing we have to do is to actually read the text carefully and see what it says.  When you do that, you find that these Old Testament texts, which on a surface reading look as though they're advocating or justifying violence, actually are much more complex and much more nuanced.

“I was preaching on Sunday, and one of the readings that we had in church was from Isaiah two. And the vision in Isaiah is both that all nations will come to worship God and come to Jerusalem. But God Himself will settle their disputes. And that's our famous verse where they will take their swords, and turn them into Ploughshares, they'll take their pruning forks and  their spears and turn them into pruning hooks. So God's ultimate aim is the end of war.

"And that leads us to the real key for the whole of this, which is to read it through the lens of Jesus. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The gospel is the gospel of peace. And when Paul writes to the Christians in different places, he greets them saying grace and peace to you. So what if there is a Christian case made to say that war is at times and in certain ways justified, that is only an imperfect means to the perfect end of the peace that God alone can establish. So we have to read those  texts in that bigger picture.”

Ecclesiastes 3 says :”To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.”



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