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Self-Defense or Self-Denial? part 2

In the previous post we looked at some of David French's arguments for a biblical right to self defense. French has combed the Bible and marshalled a handful of isolated verses that he believes give him the right to use deadly force. When examined in context, his first three verses failed to make the case.

French next turns to the book of Esther. For the first time, French finds two verses in the same Bible book.

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods —Esther 8:11

So the Jews struck down all their enemies with the sword, slaughtering, and destroying them, and did as they pleased to those who hated them. —Esther9:5

These verses both refer to the same incident. But once again the context is important. Esther's cousin Mordecai had uncovered a plot by Haman, one of King Ahasuerus' advisors, to have the Jews executed. Esther, as queen, was in a position to plead for the king's help and protection.

Then Queen Esther answered, "If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king." —Esther 7:3-4

Ahasuerus had Haman hanged on the gallows Haman had built for the Jews. But there was still a problem. Haman had already set his plans in motion.

Esther rose and stood before the king. She said, “If it pleases the king, and if I have won his favor, and if the thing seems right before the king, and I have his approval, let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote giving orders to destroy the Jews who are in all the provinces of the king." —Esther 8:5

The verse quoted by French is the king's response to Esther's request. But once again French fails to quote the full sentence.

By these letters the king allowed the Jews who were in every city to assemble and defend their lives, to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate any armed force of any people or province that might attack them, with their children and women, and to plunder their goods on a single day throughout all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar. —Esther 8:11-12

Ahasuerus has granted the Jews immunity from prosecution for any violence committed in self-defense on the day of Haman's planned attack. He would eventually extend the immunity to two days in some locations. But where David French sees a precedent for using lethal force any time and anywhere, the book of Esther goes in a very different direction.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. —Esther 9:20-22

This is the main point of the book of Esther—it's a backstory for the feast of Purim.

But it's important to note what the feast of Purim represents, because it's not the day the Jews could take up arms with impunity. That day was the 13th (and also the 14th in the Citidel of Susa.) But the day of celebration is the 14th (or the 15th in the Citidel of Susa.) Purim commemorates the day the Jews no longer had to defend themselves. This is not a story about establishing a divine right to carry an AR-15. This is a story about no longer needing an AR-15.

And finally, French claims Jesus was a proponent of open carry, based on Luke 22:36.

He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one."

French interprets this to mean:

In fact, Jesus’s disciples carried swords and even said the unarmed should arm themselves. The sword’s use was only specifically forbidden when Peter used violence to block Christ’s specific purpose to lay down his life.

Once again, though, the context suggests otherwise.

He said to them, "When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?"

They said, "No, not a thing."

He said to them, "But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled."

They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords."

He replied, "It is enough."

Luke 22:35-38

Bible scholars don't all agree about the meaning of Jesus' last sentence. It may be that he was using the word swords metaphorically, as a warning that his disciples would face hardship and persecution. It wouldn't be the first time that Jesus' followers grasped the surface level of his words and failed to dig for a deeper meaning.

Preston Sprinkle, on his Theology in the Raw blog, lists several Bible scholars who read it this way:

The late New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall says that the command to buy a sword is "a call to be ready for hardship and self-sacrifice." Darrell Bock says that the command to buy a sword symbolically "points to readiness and self-sufficiency, not revenge." Catholic scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes, “The introduction of the 'sword' signals" that "the Period of the Church will be marked with persecution," which of course we see throughout the book of Acts. And the popular Reformed commentator, William Hendrickson, puts it bluntly: "The term sword must be interpreted figuratively."

Benjamin Corey puts it succintly.

To arrive at the position that Jesus endorses violence as a result of Luke 22:36 is almost as bad as saying that Jesus endorses adultery because of John 8:11.

There's possibly another dimension to Jesus' words. Again, the context is important. Jesus had already set in motion the events that would lead to his arrest and execution. He had caused a scene in the temple earlier in the week, drawing the ire of Jewish authorities. Conflict with the Roman rulers is the next step. If a centurion happens to see one or two of Jesus' closest followers carrying swords, it is inevitable that Jesus will be "counted among the lawless" and arrested.

In this light, the statement that two swords was "enough" for eleven disciples is a clear indicator that Jesus just wants his followers to help provoke the coming conflict; he's not advocating that they purchase assault rifles for their later protection.

When viewed in context, none of French's proof texts pan out. But there's an even bigger reason to doubt French's interpretation, and we'll examine it in the next post.

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