Ancient Jewish Insight on Gun Control :: The Weekend Reading List

Our teachings tell us that preserving human life is the greatest human calling, and murder the most depraved attack on man and G‑d there can be. — Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe

The scriptures have a profound way of speaking into modern life. The privilege of a spiritual kingdom, which stretches through time and culture, is that our understanding of how God’s word articulates today can be inspired by the faithful who walked in faith before us.

The ancient world was deeply marked by hostility and violence. The Hebrew Bible and rabbinic commentaries written during this time explored the profoundly spiritual implications of using weapons against others, protecting the innocent, and maintaining civility.

“The rabbis could never have fathomed the destructive nature of modern guns,” says Marc Katz in his exploration of the Jewish view on weapons.
To understand what our sages would have thought about our modern problems of unlimited ammunition and semiautomatic weapons, we have to examine their perspective on the dangers of their time… Their wisdom remains eerily relevant. — Marc Katz
Regulations for The Creation and Sale of Weapons

Weapon creation and sale was permitted in ancient Jewish culture, but multiple rabbinic writings prohibited the sale of a weapon to a suspected criminal or member of a country who served other gods (assuming they would be an enemy of the state).

To better understand how the rabbis applied their understanding of the scriptures to weapons, we can look at a more common instrument of self-defense: animals. Dogs used as a means of protecting life and property had to remain chained at all times. (If the owner lived in a rural area the dog could be loosed after dark.)

Dogs are not the most efficient or violent animals when it comes to taking a life, but other animals like wolves, lions, bears, leopards, panthers, and serpents, were entirely forbidden as means of protection. The rabbis believed that using these animals, due to their extreme unpredictability—and the damage they were capable of producing—was unfit for people of faith.

Permission to Use Weapons for Self-Defense

The image of blood is a central theme in scripture, often highlighting cases of either injustice or redemption. Tellingly, it is the image invoked when scripture speaks to the issue of home invasions.

If someone breaks in to another person’s home—in the dark—the writers of the Law permitted the victim to respond as if the criminal “had no blood,” thus prioritizing the lives of innocents. The ancient commentator Rashi says the thief is to be considered as dead “from the beginning.”

All other invasions and confrontations were excluded from this understanding. In general we see those furthest from protection—living in rural settings, under the veil of darkness—were given margin to be aggressive. Everyone else was called to restrain their reactions in order to protect the lives of themselves and those around them.

Blood of Innocents

The overwhelming majority of what the rabbis wrote about about regulating weapons of defense prioritizes the conservation of life, not the protection of property. In Leviticus, God commands, “You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord.” More than a simple call to arms, it is a call to action to protect those God has placed around us through diligence and restraint as much as threat.

This calling, to protect the innocent, is where the rabbis of the past would have the most to say in today’s world. Nicholas Kristof reframes the statistics; “Since 1970, more Americans have died from guns than died in all U.S. wars going back to the American Revolution.” More sobering, “In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.”
[The sages call] weapons a “disgrace” and point to the most famous prophetic text from the book of Isaiah to show that humanity’s goal is to someday make these weapons disappear: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” — Marc Katz

Christ didn’t disarm Peter, but he did rebuke the disciple’s naiveté for believing that the answer to violence from weapons was more weapons—those who believe that, Jesus said, were as foolish as they were likely to die by the mechanism of their own violence.

Until the time when all humanity is fully disarmed by the peace of Christ, we tolerate weapons as necessary—though they are also byproduct and perpetuator of the brokenness and evil of our world. Legislations will come and go, political parties will change their positions, and evil will not be restrained by the power of man. Our ultimate hope rests in Christ. His return will bring the deeper repentance and restoration needed for peace on this earth.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 8 (Listen – 5:40)
Acts 8 (Listen – 5:10)

This Weekend’s Readings
Ezra 9 (Listen – 3:19) Acts 9 (Listen – 6:05)
Ezra 10 (Listen – 6:19) Acts 10 (Listen – 5:49)
The Weekend Reading List

 

Where to Find Sacred Space :: Throwback Thursday

By Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892)

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? Did not my hand make all these things?” — Stephen (Act 7.48-50)

I passed a church, the other day, and I saw on one of its doors the words, “The house of God.” I thought, Is it? On the next door, I saw the words, “The gate of heaven;” and I said to myself, It is not so, any more than any other door is.

Is this Tabernacle God’s house? While we worship him here, it is; but it is not any more holy than our own house is. One place is as sacred as another, for God’s presence has consecrated it all.

Every part of my garden, as I meditate upon God in it, is as holy as the aisles of the most venerable cathedral; your bed-chamber, as you kneel in prayer ere you lie down to sleep, is as sacred as the temple of Solomon. Every spot, where there is a devout worshipper, is the abode of Deity; it is no more and no less so in one place than in another.

If you begin to fancy that one place is sacred above others, you will tread there with superstitious reverence; you will scarcely dare to put your foot upon the chancel pavement, and you will bow to the East, as I have seen some do, as if there were something more holy in that direction than at other points of the compass. Ugh! But this is idolatry, and nothing better.

The right thing is to look upon the street pavements as too sacred for you to sin there, and to turn to the East or West, to the North or South. They who would come to God must believe that he is everywhere, and that he is specially where they are praying to him.

When we pray aright, we speak into God’s ear—into his very heart, for he is wherever there is a praying soul; and when you truly praise him, you are not singing to the wind, for God is there, and he hears you.

*Abridged and excerpted from Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s sermon, What Is Essential in Coming To God?, delivered December 12th, 1880.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 7 (Listen – 4:39)
Acts 7 (Listen – 8:49)

*Correction: A previous version of this post indicated the sermon was delivered August 18th, 1901, the date the transcript was re-read for a Sunday service.

It is Better to Serve

“It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” — The Apostles (Act 6.2)
At first glance we must ask if this statement represents the apostles abandoning Christ’s calling. They say that it is not good for them to serve. The Greek word they use for “serve,” diakonia, appears multiple times in the New Testament, most notably in Christ’s words during the Last Supper:
Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.
These words mark Christ’s fulfillment of his message earlier in ministry: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In all cases, the word serve is the same Greek word as above.

Serving, diakonia, held a vastly different place in the first Church than it did in Greek culture. The word in its root form refers to the act of serving tables—a menial task, far below the elite Roman culture. “How can man be happy,” Plato asked, “when he has to serve someone?”

Because of Christ’s work as servant on our behalf, the role of diakonia took on a meaning in the early church that was foreign to Rome’s status-obsessed culture. Notice how the story unfolds in Acts 6:
“Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
This wasn’t a relegation so the apostles could do what they wanted; they chose mature Christians to serve. This was a confession that in order for the gospel to spread the city would need Christ with them in both word and deed.

Stephen was among those chosen that day—his sermon effectively summarized the entire Hebrew Bible in light of Christ—he was a theological heavy-weight. And yet, like Christ, he humbled himself to serve.

In his act of humility, Stephen inherited an experiential understanding of Christ that fueled his other gifts. In this we see the apostles weren’t jettisoning Christ’s calling to serve, but fulfilling it through the unified service of Christ’s beloved Church.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 6 (Listen – 4:24)
Acts 6 (Listen – 2:35)

How the Church Grows

 

“Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” — Gamaliel (Acts 5.38-39)

Christianity’s first followers faced enormous opposition, dozens of competing religions and philosophies in Rome, and lacked the backing of cultural influencers. In a sermon on discipleship Timothy Keller asks how Christianity “not only forced the most powerful state in the history of the world to come to terms with it, but even was able to outlive and survive the complete destruction of the very civilization and government that sought to destroy it?”

Keller explores the work of Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume series, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, to reject the superficial answers often given:

1. Rome was struggling from a loss of absolute truth and Christianity provided it. 

The problem with this theory, according to Latourette, is that every religion offered absolute truth.

2. Christianity was far more inclusive than any competing religion or philosophy. 

No other religion was as gender-inclusive as the first Christians, nor, as Keller points out, “there really had never been anything that brought slave and masters together, the poor and the rich, the simple and the elite.” Yet if inclusivity was enough, Rome’s liberalism would have survived.

3. Intransigence and flexibility.

While Christians denied the syncretism of Eastern religions, they were also enormously flexible in regards to who could come to faith. Converts did not have to leave their culture, change their language, or abandon their vocation—instead they became witnesses inside their communities. But this doesn’t account for the speed and scale at which Christianity spread.

Finally, Latourette concludes:
It is clear that at the very beginning of Christianity, there must have occurred a vast release of energy, unequalled in the history of the race. Without it, the future course of the faith is inexplicable… Something happened to the men who associated with Jesus. That burst of energy was ascribed by the early disciples to the founder of their faith. Why this occurred may lie outside the realms in which historians are supposed to move.

As Christians adjust to a smaller global population we must not look to Acts as a step-by-step model for programs. The first Church grew not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of God. Its followers stopped at nothing in their submission to Christ, love for their neighbor, and sacrifice for one another.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 5 (Listen – 3:02)
Acts 5 (Listen – 6:49)

Resolutions that Bring Change

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” — Jesus (Acts 1.8)

Julius Caesar updated the Roman calendar in 46 B.C.E., moving the beginning of the year and drawing attention to Janus. The ancient deity, who reigns over beginnings and endings, is depicted as having two heads—one facing the future, the other looking back toward the past.

At the same time in history it was a cultural standard in Babylon to make pledges to the gods—particularly around the return of borrowed objects and the repayment of debt.

The desire to be resolute this time of year has deep roots, though we are not as superstitious. Modern New Year’s resolutions are generally not focused on commitments to a deity, but to self. The principle strength for accomplishing goals is our own discipline and power; the primary goal is that our life will be better.

We can discipline ourselves to eat better, work out more, or use our time more wisely. Many will succeed—we are shockingly powerful creations—but accomplishment in these areas still leaves us longing for something greater.

In Acts 1, after making possible the fulfillment of all humanity’s longings, Christ passed his mission to his church. Contrary to the contortions of his message today, he did not challenge them to live perfect lives (legalism), to be their best selves (individualism), or to live a blessed life (prosperity gospel).

Christ told his followers that power would come through his Spirit—the implication is that they would remain weak—their power would be his presence. He gave them a mission that required them to sacrifice their pride, taking his message to the people they liked the least. He invited them to join something larger than themselves: his mission to restore all things.

Gospel-centered resolutions, it would follow, are those that cost our pride and sin the most—and yield the greatest gains for the cause of Christ. They join us to the community of believers and give us cause to rely on prayer and scripture as we lay down our pursuit of self for the glory of Christ. They accomplish, through our lives, the very wonderful things God intends for humanity. Best of all, they will come to fruition because of Christ’s power and presence in our world.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 4 (Listen – 4:27)
Acts 4 (Listen – 5:15)

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