16But of the cities of these people, which the LORD thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: 17But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. . ." Deuteronomy 20
Yesterday, in church, the pastor read this passage and thereby time-capsuled me back to my childhood, my father's voice reading from the Bible. We kept up a strenuous family altar in our home, reading the Bible after every meal. Sometimes, to keep us entertained and a bit vigilant, he would stick his own words into the text.
With passages like this--"namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,' he would inevitably add another heathen tribe, much hated in my native Wisconsin, "the Mosquitobites." His little addition became such a tradition that we'd say it in chorus with him. Sweet family time.
So just for a moment I'm back around my childhood table, listening to my father read the verse, when it strikes me that he may well have done the right thing in sticking a joke to a verse like that one because Deuteronomy 20: 16 and 17 isn't particularly sweet for a kindergarten kid.
I doubt that my father had camouflage in mind when he made a joke, but the flashback made it very clear to me that Dad quite successfully defanged the passage by adding mosquito bites. The voice of the Old Testament God in that passage is a world away from the solace that is Jesus. If, as a kid, I hadn't been guffawing at my dad's joke, I might have wondered what manner of God it was we worshipped. Here's what he says, after all: "don't let anything breathing live."
Maybe my father did the right thing by making us laugh right then. He kept me from sinking my baby teeth into a holocaust, the bloody command from none other than the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
But then, the sermon--yesterday, I mean. It was a thoughtful examination of exactly that verse from Deuteronomy in light of the story of Rahab, the whore and liar and saint who saved Israelites and thereby shoehorned herself and her family into Jesus's own family tree.
Does God change his mind? A wonderful question. If, in fact, the Israelites had done things according to the Deuteronomy plan, they should have slaughtered the whore and her spawn. Once they left Jericho in ruins, her body--and those of her family--should have been left in the streets with the rest of the corpses of all breathing things.
But they didn't and she wasn't, and God almighty not only looks the other way, but goes so far as to inscribe Rahab's name among the elect in a biblical hall of fame.
I don't know that my father would have bought that theology back when I was a boy--the idea that God changes; and I can't ask him because he's gone now to a place where he may well have a better sense of the truth of things than he ever had when he made jokes about mosquito bites.
But when it comes right down to it, I'm sort of glad he didn't let me take that passage seriously. After all, if the biblical record itself is any proof, even God didn't.
And I like that.