A look at how God calls us to respond to moments like this.
by Sam Rood | November 21 2023
When I first heard news of airstrikes in Gaza, I remember thinking, Good. I recoiled at the thought and was even more alarmed at my lack of ability to sympathize with the Palestinian people’s suffering. I was taken aback because even though my family is Jewish and we love Israel, I was raised to have compassion and empathy for Palestinians.
My mom is a Middle Eastern history scholar and passionate about advocating for Palestinians. When we’d travel to Israel, we’d make it a point to also visit Arabs in Israel as well as in the West Bank. In college one summer, I volunteered at a camp for Israeli and Palestinian children that focused on reconciliation. I was brought up to see caring about Palestinians as an extension of Jewish values and as an implication of our faith in Yeshua. Nonetheless, I am not immune to the tendency to side with my “tribe” and to dehumanize my “enemies.”
In the shock, horror, and grief we experienced in the aftermath of Hamas’ bloody slaughter of civilians in Israel, it was hard to give space for empathy to Palestinians. An Israeli who in the past has advocated for mutual understanding between Israeli and Palestinians said in a podcast, “I just don’t care about Palestinians suffering right now. I don’t say that with pride…. I wonder what this war will do to our soul.”
Inside and outside of Israel, Jewish people are grieving those who have been killed and are living in fear of antisemitism. Palestinians are grieving their own who have been killed and are living in fear of Islamophobia. Both groups feel that they are being silenced when they speak up. In this environment, having compassion for our own people’s enemies isn’t just difficult, it feels disloyal.
While I do not claim to speak from an Israeli perspective or to understand the complexities of Israel’s national security, I do believe that the Bible has a lot to say about how God calls his people to respond to moments like this. Although the teaching in the Bible about war and peace is complex and there are different interpretations, there is a dominant theme that unifies Scripture’s approach to this question: the God of the Bible is a God of compassion and loves all people. He also requires His people to reflect this aspect of His character by imitating His love for all of humanity.
One of the most striking and disturbing examples is the book of Jonah. God called Jonah to preach against the city of Nineveh, announcing that the time for their judgment had come. Though Jonah initially flees God’s call, he eventually goes to Nineveh to deliver the message. Unbelievably, Nineveh responds by repenting, and God does not destroy them.
Jonah responds to their repentance in a surprising way:
It displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:1–2)
There’s great irony to Jonah’s complaint. By describing God’s attributes of compassion and grace, he objects not only to what God has done, but to who God is. Jonah is saying that he feared God would have mercy on the Ninevites because that would be consistent with the character of God as Israel knew Him.
Jonah is quoting Exodus 34:6–7, where Moses pleads with God to forgive Israel after the sin of the golden calf. It is a dramatic highpoint in the unfolding biblical story: God reveals His essential character, what He is really like. Israel can depend on God to forgive us because that is the kind of God He is.
Jonah has no problem with God extending mercy and compassion to Israel. But he objects to God acting the same way with the Ninevites. Why? Because Nineveh is Israel’s enemy.
At the time, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was the most powerful nation in the world and a famously cruel enemy. They were infamous for torturing captives and committing atrocities as a way of waging psychological warfare.
So, we can understand why Jonah would object to God’s mercy. It was not just; God was not holding the Ninevites accountable for their sins. On top of this, He was failing to remove a very real threat to Israel.
God challenges Jonah. He appoints a plant to shade Jonah from the sun but then appoints a worm to kill the plant. After God appoints a hot wind, Jonah wishes for death. The book closes with a question God asks Jonah:
But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.” (Jonah 4:9–10)
The Hebrew says that Jonah “had compassion” for the plant. God is teaching Jonah to understand that He has compassion for the Ninevites because He is their creator. Unlike Jonah, He doesn’t primarily see them as “enemies” or objects of destruction. They are human beings, created b’tselem Elohim, “in God’s image.” He cares about each one of them—all one hundred and twenty thousand.
We don’t know Jonah’s response because we’re meant to stand in Jonah’s place and ask ourselves the same questions: Do we do well to hate our enemies? Aren’t they also human beings created in God’s image?
This story reminds me of the Ezekiel 33:11 where God declares, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” This lesson was always emphasized during our Passover Seder that Jews don’t rejoice at others’ suffering, even the suffering of our enemies.
Centuries later, Jesus took this teaching from the Tanakh and dialed it up to its most direct and uncomfortable form. The time of Jesus and the New Testament writers was an especially violent era of Jewish history. The Roman Empire occupied the land of Israel, and the Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee were well-acquainted with mistreatment, abuse, and violence at the hands of their Roman oppressors. They longed for a Messiah who would defeat the Romans and drive them out of the land of Israel.
In light of this, Jesus’ teaching is shocking:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:43–47)
The phrase, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” comes from common human attitudes—we prefer those in our own group. But the Torah commands, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) without qualification. So, Jesus’ teaching is in line with the highest ideals of the Jewish Scriptures.
While the Torah has these high ideals, it is also realistic about human nature. The Torah’s laws about retribution were meant to curb the natural impulse for revenge in favor of justice. Jesus teaches that his followers are to have a higher standard than the Torah made allowance for.
Unlike the zealots of his day who wanted to win Israel’s freedom through violent overthrow of their Roman oppressors, Jesus taught his followers to resist evil non-violently. This wasn’t theoretical; he was teaching his Jewish disciples how to respond not only to evil in general but specifically to Roman evil perpetrated against Jews. He taught his followers to love and pray for their enemies and not to resist them when they did evil to them.
Jesus’ teaching doesn’t seem very realistic to people who need to deal with injustice, oppression, violence, and terrorism. How are believers in Jesus supposed to put these teachings into practice? While there is debate among followers of Jesus regarding how to understand these teachings, there are a few clear implications.
First, we should pray for our enemies. That means that while we pray for our government and our soldiers, we should also pray for those who are working to harm us. That means we should be praying for Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist groups and their supporters. Obviously, we don’t pray that they are successful (we pray against that!), but we do pray for their hearts to be changed. Psalm 83:16 is a great example: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O LORD.”
Secondly, we should treat our enemies with compassion. We should not use dehumanizing language or actions that violate their human dignity. As Jesus says in Luke 6:27–31,
Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.
Third, we remind ourselves that our only true enemies are spiritual. Even terrorists like Hamas are held captive by demonic forces that deceive and manipulate people into hatred and violence. As Scripture says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). While there are ideologies that are objectively evil (like antisemitism or racism) for God’s people, no human being can be “purely evil” or “purely good.” While every human being is fallen and corrupted by sin, they remain God’s very good creation and are not beyond God’s ability to be redeemed.
Fourth, as followers of Jesus, we need to continually remind ourselves that we have spiritual family on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It may be natural for Jewish and Israeli believers in Jesus to sympathize more with Israel and for Palestinian and Arabic believers in Jesus to sympathize with the people of Gaza. However, the New Testament teaches that regardless of our ethnic heritage, as followers of Jesus we are part of the same spiritual family. Although we may find ourselves disagreeing with other Christians on matters of policy or politics, we must remember that we are still brothers and sisters in Messiah, and united for eternity.
Finally, we have the only message of hope that is able to change enemies into brothers and sisters. The gospel is God’s ancient peace plan that is able to reconcile Jews and Gentiles, Israelis and Palestinians, because it reconciles God’s enemies with Him.