‘Gott mit uns’ – ‘God is with us’ was reportedly inscribed on the belts of the German soldiers invading Poland in 1939, according to my late grandmother’s stories. The genocidal occupation followed, highlighted by one of the most infamous death camps in Oswiecim, better known by its German name Auschwitz. The ‘Gott mit uns’ ideology comes to my mind when I watch the news footage from Middle Eastern battlefields and hear people proclaiming ‘Allahu akbar’ – ‘God is the greatest’ – while firing RPGs or heavy machine guns at their opponents. The black flag of Isis, the so-called Islamic State, was raised in the name of God, however twisted their interpretation of the Koran is. Yet before we get smug, it’s worth remembering that as a nation we had our share of cruelty committed in the name of the Christian God in the Scottish and British religious wars. The ‘Gott mit uns’ attitude seems to be at the heart of today’s first reading, triumphantly presenting the genocidal victory of the Israelites over the Amalekites as an act of God positively supporting one side of the battle.
In fact, over the years I’ve come across many people who understandably couldn’t reconcile the merciful God of the New Testament with the bloodthirsty, at times genocidal God of the Old Testament. For a good number of those people, such apparent disparity was a massive stumbling block, sometimes putting them completely off the faith. Although such indignation is understandable, it’s a result of quite a common misunderstanding of the Bible being similar to modern-day factual historical books. It isn’t. The Bible is a complex library of many genres, and even those books in it we call ‘historical’ tell their stories in a substantially different manner from our modern factual books. We can compare those biblical historical books to the contemporary ‘based on facts’ fictional story. The actual facts are the starting point of the story, which is not necessarily factually true in the fine details but still conveys the message that is true. The 1998 film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ – one of my all-time favourites – is a good example of such a story. Based on historical hard facts (the Normandy landing and following battles in that part of war-torn France) it tells a fictional story that conveys a true message of the cruelty of war, brotherhood and ultimate sacrifice. Similarly, many historical events were told in the Bible; based on and built around the facts but telling a story with a certain message to convey.
Now we can return to the particular story in today’s first reading. It took place during the Israelites’ 40-year wanderings in the desert, sandwiched between their escape from the slavery in Egypt and conquering the Promised Land. That period played a particular and significant role in Jewish folklore as a time of trial but also intense closeness to God. The desert wanderings were punctuated by a variety of challenges, testing the people of Israel’s trust in God. Facing hostile tribes, like the Amalekites mentioned in the first reading, was one of such challenges. In this story, the survival of Israel is at stake. But the emphasis of the story is put on the power of prayer by Moses, not on the actual battle (which factually was probably nothing more than a local skirmish). This story is not about genocide committed in the name of God, but about trusting God, without whom any human enterprise is doomed to fail. With such a fine point made by the biblical author, we can learn a lot for ourselves.
In no particular order, the first lesson is that my everyday activities and prayer should go hand in hand. God created us as rational and judicious creatures so we must use the power of reason and will to do the right thing. However, as our intellect is darkened and will weaken as a consequence of original sin, we need God’s light and wisdom to avoid making wrong choices by following temptations and our own desires. The second lesson is that we need a small community that can support us in prayer like Aaron and Chur did for Moses when he weakened. When you pray for yourself, it’s just one person praying for you. When the whole congregation prays, you have many people praying for you and at the same time, everyone else has similar backing. Such prayer is very powerful indeed – it remains personal, but it’s never individual. The last but not least, prayer isn’t a tool for changing God’s mind, but yours. In today’s gospel, Jesus urges us ‘to pray continually and never lose heart’, which is particularly valid in our immediate-effect culture. I’ve encountered many people disheartened by their prayer being unanswered. They have prayed for this or that, but it has never been granted as they wished. There’s a very instructive passage in the Letter of St James: ‘You don’t get what you want because you don’t ask God. Or when you ask, you don’t receive anything, because the reason you ask is wrong. You only want to use it for your own pleasure.’ (James 4:2-3) Prayer is the way to purify your intentions, to see through the devil’s smoke and mirrors and to find out what truly is beneficial to your life. Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the finest sculptors ever, said: ‘The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there; I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.’ Think of prayer as God’s chisel at work that will eventually reveal your beauty.