Pastoral Perspectives

A Divine Exchange That Is Undeserved

On 24th November, a truce between Israel and Hamas came into force, marking a major milestone since Israel’s continuous bombardment of the Gaza Strip following the deadly Hamas attack of October 7th on southern Israel. After a protracted negotiation brokered by the Qatar, Egypt and some extent, United States government, both Israel and Hamas were agreeable to put a pause on their fighting so that there can be exchange of people between them and to allow for humanitarian aid to filter into those battered areas where there has been tragic loss of lives.

Even though the temporary ceasefire is certainly a relief for all, one cannot help but question the morality of such an exchange. This is because when you take into account the people who are being exchanged, it can hardly be considered a fair or just exchange. While Israel is releasing detainees back to Hamas, Hamas is releasing hostages, Israelis (mostly civilians) and other internationals such as the Thai foreign workers who were forcibly taken away against their will during the murderous attack. Judging from what has transpired thus far, the kidnapping of foreigners was a calculated move on the part of the Hamas rather than a case of mistaken identities.

While those captured by Hamas are largely innocent victims, the same cannot be necessarily said of those who are under Israeli custody. As much as one may differ on whether imprisonment is too draconian a punishment, the fact remains that a vast majority of those held by Israel were guilty of things such as assault by stone throwing and other more serious crimes. While some may reason that these individuals are justified in their antagonism towards Israel, it would be somewhat unreasonable to expect Israeli authorities to simply sit on their hands.

Furthermore, the “maths” of such exchange is very lopsided. For every hostage returned by Hamas, Israel would be releasing three detainees. How is it that Hamas get to dictate such unequal terms when a majority of those whom they hold hostage have done nothing to deserve their freedom from being trampled upon. If Hamas is so eager to prove the legitimacy of their cause, shouldn’t they show the same resolve in doing what is morally right and return those innocent hostages to their families?

With those Palestinian detainees being released in exchange of hostages, it only means that the former’s freedom was paid through the blood of Israelis, fellow Palestinians and others who have died in the conflict thus far. In what ways would it be considered moral that these handful of Palestinians get to be set free while others have been cruelly slain, their families decimated and homes destroyed? Alas, some will argue this is but tit for tat for the long, complicated history of conflict and strife in this region.

Whatever one’s justification for violence, to be using hostages as bargaining chips for whatever Hamas hope to gain can hardly be considered honourable. It also begs the question that after this period of truce, will Hamas continue to resort to kidnapping whenever such wicked deed is believed to help advance their nihilistic agenda? In the same manner that many are calling Israel to take on a more measured approach in their retaliation, should those who are sympathetic to the dire straits of the Palestinians turn a blind eye and not call Hamas to account for such diabolical methods?  

We do recognise that the Israeli government is caught in a horrible moral bind. Not only is it being pressured by its own citizens to do something about the hostage situation, the rest of the watching world has hardly any appetite for this conflict to drag on. To finally acquiesce to this lopsided hostage exchange is but to unwittingly create a “market” for any potential kidnappers. Once Israel embarks on such a policy where it is prepared to pay any price to get its own people back, its playbook is basically being read by all who are hostile towards it.

Put simply, its people will always remain vulnerable simply because they have chosen to make their home in a land contested by many. Even if Israel is eventually successful in annihilating Hamas or at least mitigating its threat for some time, there are others who remain fundamentally opposed to Israel’s very existence as a nation.

With the truce being bought to an abrupt end since Dec 1, it is seems rather pointless now to talk about the morality of the exchange of humans that took place between Israel and Hamas. After all, there remain hostages whose fate are uncertain. And for those whose loved ones have died during this recent war, whom can they cry out to for justice, comfort and hope if there is no God or if they believe God has forsaken them?  

In this season of Advent, perhaps it is timely that we turn our attention to how the Gospel writer, Matthew chose to quote Jeremiah 31:15 as he recounted Herod’s wicked massacre of all male children in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or under. In Matthew 2:18, we read that “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more”.

Although this verse in Jeremiah was not a prophecy, it seems that Matthew wanted to connect the tears of those mothers who were bemoaning the loss of their children under Herod to another moment of intense grieving in Israel’s history during the time of Babylonian Captivity in 586BC. More importantly, just as the passage in Jeremiah does not end on a note of despair since Israel did survive just as God has promised, Matthew wanted to encourage his readers to take heart in the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s chosen Messiah.

Despite Herod’s evil plot to end Jesus’ life, Jesus will go on to live in accordance to God’s sovereign plan. Indeed, Jesus perfectly fulfilled all of God’s will for his life including the atonement for the sins of humanity and the conquest of the very evil that brought the tragic loss of innocent lives.

As God’s people, we are mindful that there are no easy solutions in the face of unspeakable evil and immense suffering. Until our Risen Christ comes again, there will inevitably be many more mothers like Rachel who will weep for her children, whether in Gaza or some other parts of the world where man’s sins continue to wreak havoc. But as Christians mourn with those who mourn, we do not mourn as those without hope.

For we know that when Jesus came into our world for the first time, he was not held hostage by sin nor sinners and certainly not Satan. Yet Jesus willingly came to lay down his life as a ransom unto many (Mark 10:45). And in so doing, he has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostilities, reconciling all who are undeserving of God’s grace to himself and each other (Eph 2:14-16) and setting free all who are in Christ  to walk in the fullness of life now and ever more. As much as no one knows whether there will be another truce, may God’s people not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21) and press on in prayer, trusting that soon enough there will indeed be peace on earth (Luke 2:14). Maranatha!