If you ever watch popular TV shows like JAG or 24, the plot may sound familiar. A rogue nation seeks to kill a good guy who seems to know the every move of its army and surrogate terrorists. The bad guys send their best men to find, capture and deliver our hero so that he can first be interrogated, then killed.
But this storyline has a supernatural twist &emdash; a little like the best-selling "Left Behind" series &emdash; when the "good guy" calls upon God to blind these terrorists. God responds favorably with the result that these Middle Easterners arrive in our hero's capital surrounded by overwhelming force.
At this point, there are three surprising aspects to what would otherwise make a pretty decent post-9/11 melodrama. The first is what our hero &emdash; Elisha &emdash; proposes to do. He's asked whether or not these ruthless would-be killers should themselves be slaughtered or at least tortured. He responds, "No! Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master."
Even more surprising to many than this show of mercy is its source: the Hebrew Bible that many Christians call the Old Testament. When many people think Old Testament, they (mistakenly) think only of the death of the Egyptians' first-born, God's commanded elimination of the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, etc., etc., and the psalmist's anticipated delight in the heads of Babylonian babies being dashed against the rocks. Even Elisha, the protagonist of our little story, cursed a subordinate &emdash; who sought personal advantage from his position &emdash; not only with leprosy, but also with the decree that even his otherwise innocent descendants would suffer from the dread disease.
But that's not even what is the most shocking about this ancient story. What happens when this foolish idealist, this peacenik, this &emdash; the scriptures repeatedly call him "man of God" &emdash; calls for mercy when common sense and the desire for self-preservation dictate otherwise?
Here's the biblical report:
"So he [the King of Israel] prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel."
There is no question that the biblical world whence this old story arose was even more brutal than our own. Yet somehow God guided the ancient author of this account to counsel mercy over strength. And the wisdom of this course of action, as opposed to endless eye-for-an-eye retaliation, is reflected in the longed-for closing: "... and the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel."
Some Americans may believe that we stand in the place of the Israelites as God's favored people. There are even those who believe that some among us &emdash; political or religious leaders &emdash; may indeed be "men of God." The true biblical call and test, according not only to this old Elisha story but also Jesus' command to love our enemies, is not whether we are powerful enough to make those who oppose us suffer, but whether we are trusting enough in God to show God's mercy even to those who would harm us. Elisha recognized and passed the test. Will we?
Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor and member of the bar in South Carolina. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.