War in Israel

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton — the presiding bishop of my church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — recently opened one of her pastoral letters with: “As Lutherans, we are accustomed to holding tension between two truths.” As I prepare to preach at Celebrate! this week, I’m reminded that the Bible has the same custom. 

The week’s text (1 Kings 12:1-29) is the story of Israel on the cusp of civil war. It is early in Israel’s line of kings; King Solomon has just died, and his son, Rehoboam, has inherited the throne. A man who had once conspired to lead an uprising against Solomon — his name is Jeroboam — returns from hiding to petition this new king, on behalf of the people: “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and this heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (They’re talking about the hard labor forced upon people to build the temple and the palace, and about the heavy taxes placed on them in order to make these kinds of projects possible.)

The new king refuses, instead doubling-down: “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.”

The people feel neglected by their king. A group that the text refers to as “all Israel” stone the man who was taskmaster over the forced labor. The king flees to his stronghold in Jerusalem. And then “all Israel” elects Jeroboam (the conspirator/advocate) to be their king. War breaks out between these two claimants to the throne, and it will end with Israel splitting in two: the Northern Kingdom (Israel) ruled by Jeroboam and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) ruled by Rehoboam.

The commentators I read all stand within the tensions of this story. Old Testament writings both praise and condemn the monarchy. Solomon is one of the great kings, and yet his lavish style was a burden to God’s people. The new king is the true king in the anointed line of David; he is also unrighteously hard on God’s people. Jeroboam is a champion of the people, and he takes the advice of a true prophet; he is also condemned for his role in splitting up the nation and leading people away from worship in Jerusalem. 

Right now, these stories and their tensions break out of the Bible and out of ancient history. Although there are important differences between biblical Israel and the modern state, we hear the same vocabulary in this biblical story and in today’s news headlines: “war” and “Israel,” debates over true worship and the will of God, a land at war within itself, vehement disagreements about the way to tell history, and even questions of oppression and faithful leadership.

And again, right and wrong defy easy sorting.

To continue quoting from my bishop’s letter:

“…we have borne witness to the horrors of the escalating crisis between Israel and Hamas. We also watch a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza as Israel blocks food, water, fuel, and medical supplies and as airstrikes continue to cause unbearable civilian casualties ahead of a just-announced ground assault. We see Israelis and families around the world in the agonizing wait for word about the fate of loved ones killed or taken hostage by Hamas. We are in anguish, grieving and praying for all people who are living in trauma, fear and uncertainty.” 

In the face of such violence and chaos, what are we to say? What are we to do? What are we to pray for? 

We stand in the tension. We turn our hearts toward the humanity of every victim — and every perpetrator (Matt. 5:44). We seek the Holy Spirit not among the powerful, but among those who suffer and those who show compassion (Luke 1:44-55; Romans 13:8-10). We advocate for a true peace that is rooted in justice (Jer. 6:14).

And we pray:

God of Justice,
bless those who work for peace through justice.
Strengthen their resolve in the face of seemingly endless violence.
Guide the leaders of the people of the Middle East to know your will and to support a just peace for all of your children. 

God of Love,
lifting up the holy land for all humankind,
breathe love and compassion into our prayers with a desire for nothing other than peace:
peace in our hearts,
peace for all creation, and
especially peace in the land that is called holy. 

God of Hope,
we lift up the city of Jerusalem,
distracted and divided,
yet still filled with promise as all the cities of the world.
Come again into our cities, places of worship,
Upper Rooms and Gethsemanes,
that we may be given sight to recognize you. 

God of Mercy,
even as we long to understand that which is often beyond our comprehension,
we lay before you the hearts, minds and bodies of all those suffering from conflict in Palestine and Israel and from the ongoing occupation.
Shower upon all the people of the Holy Land the spirit of justice and reconciliation. 

God of the Nations,
give to all our people the blessings of well-being, freedom, and harmony, and,
above all things, give us faith in you that we may be strengthened to care for all those in need until the coming of your son, our Saviour and Lord. 


– Pastor Kate

Rev. Katherine Museus and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and take turns writing weekly devotions.

October 25, 2023