The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
— Psalm 23
In our last post, we looked at the hospitality of the Middle East and the fellowship meal. For centuries, Bedouins have taken pride in sitting down at the family table with strangers and enjoying their company. There is also another ceremonial table meal that has been occurring in the Middle East since Bible times that has fascinating implications on the words we read in our English translations of the Text. This meal is called, “Sulha”, and is an Arabic word for a covenantal meal of reconciliation. The word,”sulh”, means ”peace”, or a literal act of settlement. Sulha is still practiced today in all the Middle Eastern countries and is considered an extension of the legal systems. In fact, it is still the main and official conflict resolution tool of all the Bedouin Tribes located in the Middle East. What is “Sulha”, how is it done, and what is it used for?
Sulha is a meal where you sit down at a table with you enemies and reconcile your differences. By using the cultural ideals of honor and shame, two parties with animosity between them eat together at a ceremonial meal to transition from revenge to forgiveness and reconciliation. Because of the strong family ties in this part of the country, disputes between individuals automatically become disputes between families and clans – often escalating to engulf an entire village. If you offend or harm the individual, you have done the same to the entire family and the problem festers and expands if not dealt with. Therefore, a Sulha is often called for to try and diffuse the situation. Are there some examples of a Sulha in scripture? One that is a good example is the story of Jacob and his father-in-law, Laban in Genesis 31. Jacob was tricked and lied to by his father-in-law, so Jacob took his two wives and flocks and left his father-in-law’s tents and went on his own. Laban was upset and went after Jacob and caught up to him ten days later. At first, it looked like violence might break out, but the two settled their differences by sitting down to a meal together. By eating together, Jacob and Laban were stating that their relationship had been restored. During the meal, they made a sacrifice to God which effectively stated God himself was a witness to the vows that they had made to each other. They were now at peace with God and each other. You can read the story of the meal in Genesis 31:51-55.
How does Sulha work? What are the steps that you take from revenge to forgiveness? The first step in the process has to be initiated by the offender and his family. The offender contacts a mediator from the area, usually a holy man (mukthar) or a pastor, and asks him to approach the victim’s family and offer restitution and seek a path to reconciliation. The mediator then goes to the victim’s house and invites them to take part in Sulha. The victim’s family, of course, has the right to say no, but it is considered very disrespectful to wait too long to respond. If the offer is accepted, then the Sulha meal takes place at the victim’s house with both the mediator and the offender in attendance. The offender, through the mediator has offered to pay some sort of restitution, called blood money. Both families wait for the patriarch of the victim’s family to make the decision of whether or not to accept the offer to reconcile. Cups of coffee are on the table, but no one makes a move until the patriarch decides. If he drinks from the cup of coffee, then he would be saying that he accepts the offer to of reconciliation. Then the patriarch would make a comment to the victim about forgiving him for the transgressions against his family and both families would shake hands. This agreement to “bury the hatchet” is binding on both families and is also considered a contract with God. From now on, “we will not speak of this again. We will acts as if we remember it no more”, would be the gist of the acceptance of the apology. There is lots of leverage for both families to abide by the patriarch’s decision. Honor and respect are very important in the tribal cultures and respect and social standing would be lost if anyone in the family went back on their word.
Think of this story in light of the 23rd Psalm. Preparing a table before me has got to be a Sulha! God invites our enemies in, we break bread together, and we are not enemies anymore. What about Revelations 3:20, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man will let me in, I will come in and eat with him and he with me”. That also sounds like a Sulha. Probably the greatest example is the Lord’s Supper. We are the offending party. God’s Son has died because of our sin. We have come to a meal with God to ask him to forgive us. He makes the first move by taking the bread and the cup and saying, “In the blood of Christ, your sins are forgiven and I’ll remember them no more. Then He invites us into His family, to be part of his house. In the Sulha meal there has to be a mediator between the offender and the victim and that mediator was Christ. What is the proof that Jesus requires to forgive our debts to Him? We are to forgive others (have Sulha with them), just as He did for us.
This is an amazing cultural story that makes the pages of the Bible come alive with imagery!
P.S. For an amazing story of a modern-day sullha, please read this story in its entirety.