Day 75: Judges 19-21; Ending the Judges, continuing the Cycle.

“In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

That line is really the essence of the last 5 chapters of the book of Judges… or maybe the whole darn book.  We didn’t talk about the other stories that were contained in yesterday’s reading, and they go right along with today’s reading.  All are a bit strange, somewhat difficult to think about.  What do we do with some of this information.  Some folks set up an idol as their god and then it gets taken and set up in a city and stuff.  What do we even do with that?

A guy allows his already unfaithful concubine to get raped to death by the leaders of an Israelite town and then cuts her to pieces and sends her to all the different tribes of Israel?  The result of which winds up with a conflict resulting in the death of over 65,000 Israelites and then bringing about a peace in which the remaining people of Benjamin are allowed to choose their wives by kidnapping them from a festival?  What the heck?

Seriously… what do we do about passages in Scripture like this?

Honestly, I think that we often try to put things uncomfortable passages out of our minds.  These are not things we hear in sermons in church.  I certainly didn’t hear these stories in Sunday School as a child.  And yet, they are still a part of the Bible.  Which makes us ask the question, why?  What can we learn from this?  How do even read this?

Maybe the point isn’t to draw out some sort of moralistic teaching that makes us feel better.  We don’t have to just say, “well, don’t do these things and you’ll be a better person/Christian or something.”  We are quick to glean some sort of “try harder,” moral living lesson as a way of coping with our own uncomfortableness.

Perhaps narratives like this are simply meant to point us toward the fact that the world is still a very broken place.  We see this cycle time and again of disobedience leading to disaster leading to repentance leading to rest and then back to disobedience… and we realize that, though God is working towards restoration, sin is still present in the world.  It is a painful, uncomfortable reality, one that we don’t often want to face.  But in light of it, we also see, plainly illuminated before us, the work of God in the world!  Like the mercy that the people have on the decimated tribe of Benjamin, God provides for His creation working and restoring all that He has made.  There is hope at the end of this, even in the midst of the people of God just doing what they want.  It is clear, even in this strange way of kidnapping a girl to be their wife, that God is faithfully providing for the tribe of Benjamin, a people that is just as much a part of God’s promise as the rest of Israel.  He will not abandon them because of their sin, however horrid and awful it may be.  Because God is not one who is quick to condemn or quick to destroy, but is always gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love, faithfulness and forgiveness.



Day 74: Judges 16-18; Sampson (part 2)

So we come to the most well known story of the Judges: Sampson and Delilah.  Generally speaking, if you were in Sunday School or some sort of religious education, you probably heard this story at least once, perhaps many times.  Teachers that I had often told this story and sifted it down into some lessons about being tempted and not continually putting yourself in situations like Sampson.  As I read this story now, my mind is drawn to these lessons and I do think that there is something to them.

I ask myself often when I hear the story of Sampson, why did he stay in that situation.  If I was him, knowing exactly where my power came from and why it was that I was able to do the things that I do, I certainly wouldn’t hang around anyone that trying to figure that out in order to harm me.  I mean, maybe the first time it makes sense.  He tells her something that obviously doesn’t work and she tries it.  Duh!  Get out of there quick!  This isn’t necessarily temptation as we know it, but she requests kind of present themselves in the same way.  Sampson has taken a sacred vow, an oath to be set apart for the Lord.  He has been given obvious power and the Spirit of the Lord has been with him in all that he does, even in those questionable things.  I wonder why he didn’t bolt out of there at the first sign of trouble.

Some would say it was because of love (or infatuation).  Others might say it was strictly arrogance.  Perhaps Sampson had become too self-reliant or was testing the limits of God’s willingness to be with him.  It might very well have been a combination of those three.  One thing that we have seen to this point is that Sampson has a weakness: women. Especially foreign women.  Scripture doesn’t come out and tell us that either of these women are Philistine women, but the implication is there based on the locations.  Like all attacks from an enemy, once you expose a weakness you will exploit it.  So it is with Sampson.  And so it is with us as well.

When the tempter comes into our lives he doesn’t go after the things we are very strong in, that would be quite foolish like Delilah taking on Sampson in a physical altercation.  Instead, our weaknesses are exploited, broken down, and demolished as a way of getting at our strengths.  We read that Delilah asks again and again, pressing Sampson until he can stand it no longer and gives in.  It is only then that his strength is attacked and easily overpowered.  I wonder if the right question to this narrative is “what is your weakness?”  I’m sure that you know those places in which you are vulnerable to attacks, those things that the enemy exploits to get at you.

Yet, like all stories, we need also be wondering where God is in all of this.  What is God’s location in this narrative?  Unfortunately for us, there isn’t a great deal of direct comment about where God is here, but what we can see is that even in the times of temptation, Sampson’s strength is still very much present.  Yesterday, as we read, every time Sampson needed strength “the Spirit of the Lord was upon him.”  So we can see in all of the times that Sampson is “imprisoned,” God is still present helping empowering him.  I guess the next logical question in this follows well here, “is God then absent when Sampson’s strength leaves him?”  It certainly seems that way, and yet I wouldn’t ever dare to say that God is completely absent from the scene.

Like Israel and the covenant in the Judges Cycle, Sampson goes through a time of disobedience in which he is weakened and forced into captivity.  However, like with Israel, this doesn’t mean that God has abandoned them either and we see this as we read of the death of Sampson.  There is a comment about his hair starting to grow back and we assume that there is at least some amount of time that has passed between his capture and this final scene.  I can only imagine the thoughts and prayers of Sampson working at the grindstone.  We hear but one of them, to grant him the strength one last time to avenge “his two eyes.”  And God honors his request, giving him the strength to strike down more philistines than all the rest of his life combined.

As we talked about a couple days ago, the cycle of the judges is often our cycle as well.  We find ourselves in times of disobedience and even disaster as a result of our disobedience.  Too often we say that there is no way that God would want us back after what we have done.  We feel guilt and shame for the sins that we’ve committed.  And yet even here we see that God does not condemn Sampson and abandon him, but is ready and waiting once again to empower him.  So it is with us, God does not abandon us in our sinfulness, but continually calls us back to himself, time and again drawing us into His arms to receive us, to heal us, and to empower us once again for the work of His Kingdom.



Day 73: Judges 12-15; Sampson (part 1)

After some a rather turbulent story continuing from yesterday’s adventures with Jephthah, we are brought to what I would consider to be the most well known, and longest story of the judges, Sampson.  Reading about the birth of Sampson, I was struck by some of the familiarity between the foretelling of His birth and the foretelling of Jesus’ birth.  An angel of the Lord appears to Sampson’s mother, and then later to His father.  They don’t necessarily understand what is going on, but they are willing to serve the Lord.  One thing that the angel says about Sampson is that he is to be a Nazirite.  This label and the promise that comes along with it takes us back to Numbers 6 with the explanation of the Nazirite vow.

The angel does a pretty good job of explaining all that comes along with this, but the gist of it is that anyone who takes the Nazirite vow cannot drink any wine, vinegar, or anything from grapes, the Nazirite cannot cut his hair, and he cannot go anywhere near dead body.  This vow is largely a part of the Holiness codes that were talked about in Leviticus and Numbers.  He is to be set apart for the Lord, in a way totally different from the people of Israel.

So as we walk through the story of Sampson we read that the Spirit of the Lord comes upon him at many times to do the will of God and perform miraculous wonders.  God always seems to be with him, giving him great strength and abilities.  What is interesting though, as we read about Sampson is the path that He takes… He is arguably the most controversial judge as well.

As a Nazirite he is not supposed to go near a dead body.  Yet Sampson kills thousands.  He even eats the honey out of a honeycomb found in the carcass of a lion that he killed.  And God was still with him…

As an Israelite he married a Philistine, an outsider forbidden by the Law.  And God was still with him…  God still cares for and provides for him!  His Spirit stays with Sampson and His will is worked through Sampson.

All of these narratives speak to the nature of God, and tell us things about His character.  What do you think this says about God?



Day 72: Judges 9-11; Abimelech and Jephthah

Throughout Israel’s history there are good leaders and there are bad leaders.  One thing that I have noticed in this is that those leaders who are good are leaders in whom the Spirit of God dwells.  There is no mention of the Spirit of God being anywhere near Abimelech, but when Jephthah leads Scripture tells us that the Spirit of God was upon him.  Abimelech does a great evil, killing many of the people of Israel, his own brothers even.  Jephthah does a great deed against Israel’s enemies striking a great blow and subduing them.

What strikes me as I read this is the nature of the reality that we live in post-Pentecost.  In Acts 2 we read that the Spirit of God was poured out on all who believe.  We believe that this is true even now, that those who believe in Jesus have the Spirit of God inside of them working in them and through them.  We ourselves are not like Abimelech, trying to grasp at power through evil means, but instead find ourselves filled with the Spirit, able to do great things for the Kingdom of God.  I wonder sometimes whether we really believe this, or whether its one more story that we remember sometimes.  We have received the Spirit of God in our lives and it works in ways that we don’t even know and are not capable of understanding.  However, it also works in us and through us, pushing and driving us to do the Lord’s work in our lives, transforming us into the Image of Christ each and every day.

Where is God in this story?  Well… it seems that God is above all these things, working out His will and Justice in due time.  And He is also working in the people of Israel, especially in the son of a prostitute.  It seems that this is something of a common theme with Tamar and Rahab also being counted among them in times past.  Yet we see here once again that God uses a broken person to bring about His will and show again that He is faithful to Israel and to the Covenant.  There is nothing that can keep God from using us, not even our horrible, sinful past.

I wonder, what are your thoughts on the final verses of Judges 11?  This is a hard story to read, and it doesn’t often sit well with us.  What do you think of Jephthah’s vow?  Do you think he should have kept it?

I found this map on Judges Bible Study, I think that it does a good job of putting some location placement within the nation of Israel.

Map of the Judges



Day 71: Judges 6-8; Gideon

Apart from the story of Sampson, Gideon would probably be considered one of the greatest, or at least most well known of the judges.  His story and all that goes with it are the subject of many Sunday School lessons about testing and trusting in God.  There are many facets to the story when we look at it from those angels, but again in this story I think we need to take a step back and look first at where God is in all of this, and how He acts for the people of Israel.

We read first that the Lord visits Gideon by way of an angel and the Gideon doesn’t recognize it until after a rather obvious sign is given to him.  After this sign, the meal he has prepared bursting into flames, Gideon still questions and tests God, just to make sure.  He kind of reminds me of another great leader of Israel that we had been talking about, Moses.  Even after being given signs and the promises of God Himself, still neither one of these men are willing to outright trust God.  Moses resisted so much that God became angry with him, Gideon tests God up to the hours and minutes prior to their attack.  Though I have to give Gideon some credit, he was still willing to go to the camp of his enemy with only 300 people, down from an army of 32,000.  However, it wasn’t until the he heard from the mouth of his enemy that the Lord was going to give the Midianites into the hands of Israel did he have the courage to face them.  I wonder what would have happened if he had heard this and then had to wait a day or two before he attacked.  Would his confidence have waned again?  Who knows…

In all this though, we really haven’t talked about God’s place in this story.  God shows up very clearly at the beginning, being present and hearing the cries of the people of Israel in their oppression.  God reminds them through a prophet of the covenant that they made and how they had broken it.  Yet once again He doesn’t leave them in their misery but raises up a great Judge, albeit a reluctant one.  God goes ever before them, preparing the enemy for defeat before Gideon even arrives, much less when he attacks.  God answers very clearly the challenge of Gideon’s father when he suggests that the people, angered by the breaking of baal’s alter (which they had no right or reason to have in the first place), that baal should contend for himself, if indeed he is a god.  And finally, the Lord is with Gideon and the people of Israel after their defeat giving rest to the Land even when the people “whore” after the ephod that Gideon creates.

Once again we see the true nature of God revealed in this story.  Though He punishes the people of Israel for their sins, God is not unmerciful or unforgiving.  He once again upholds His side of the covenant, a relationship that is kept from God’s side despite the continual unfaithfulness of Israel.  This is the true nature of God’s faithfulness and unconditional love, that even when Israel walks away God remains steadfast and unchanging in His commitment to His people.  He truly is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!



Day 70: Judges 4-5; Not for your Glory

As I said yesterday, some of these stories would are familiar while others are not… but many of them are graphic.  Tent peg to skull is surely not a way that I’d like to die.  However, I think this particular story is familiar for several reasons:  it is, to my knowledge, the only account of a female judge in the Bible and it is one of the more unique ways that the oppressor is killed.

Even with that in mind, I think that this story should gain its fame not from the judge, but from her testimony of the God that has empowered her.  She says to Barak, after getting him to agree to attack the overwhelmingly powerful force of Sisera and the Canaanite army, that though the victory would be won, the glory would not be his but would go to God.  As the story continues, where do we see God?  He goes before the people of Israel and He routes the army of the Canaanites so that they are destroyed to the last man.  All of what has happened here, Israel’s victory and the rest that would come to the land, was because of God.

Again we see His faithfulness in keeping the covenant with Israel.  He punishes them for the evil that they do, yet He hears their cries and has mercy on them in their time of need.  This is the cycle of the judges, back and forth again we will go.  It is important to see where God is in all of this.  It can look like He is absent or even mean, but these narratives tell us so much more about God and His faithfulness.  As we have seen and will continue to see, Israel is completely incapable of holding up their end of the covenant.  They broke it on the first day that they had received it with that Golden Calf.  Here again, and again and again they continue to break the covenant.  By the terms stated, God had every right to walk away and leave them in their punishment, but He doesn’t and He won’t.

Like a parent disciplining their children, so too does God discipline Israel using the power of other nations.  Yet like a loving parent, discipline does not mean that there is no longer love, and it is only for a time.  Interestingly, God upholds both ends of the covenant, becoming in Himself and His power, the means for the people of Israel to turn back to Him.  God knows that the people are sinful and He knows that because of our sin and our rebellion we wouldn’t choose Him if it were left up to us.  And even if we did, He knows that we wouldn’t ever be able to sustain that choice in our lives.  Which is why God has to take the initiative, He has to act first.  And this is what He does for Israel, providing a judge and the power to defeat their enemies and thus draw the people back to Him.

This is what He has done for us as well, even when we were lost in our sins.  Ephesians 2 tells us that we were dead in our sins and transgressions, and yet God, because He is rich in mercy, sent His Son to die for us.  We wander, all the time, like the people of Israel.  Yet God has taken the initiative for us too, providing a sacrifice for our sins!  He has kept His covenant and continues to be faithful to His people now and forever.



Day 69: Judges 1-3; The Judges Cycle

I don’t want to put anyone off by this post, but I think that the set up for the book of Judges is very important to understanding the narratives (some of them quite graphic) in the book of Judges.  There is a great deal that we can learn from these narratives, but once again I want to encourage you to remember that, in all of them, the main character, the primary mover… is God.  Stories about mighty men and heroes of old are great, but it is first and foremost important to understand that these are stories about God.

So, as we begin our journey into the book of Judges, and really the whole rest of the narratives of the Old Testament, I would like you to once again call to memory the covenant that we have been talking about.  There are different parts of the covenant… and there was a chart that looked like this:

Suzerian/Vassal Covenant Structure

 

So what we have read here in Judges 1-3 talks about how Israel did not follow the Lord.  A new generation grew up that did not know of Joshua or the Law of the Lord as Judges 2 tells us.  Remember back to Deuteronomy 6?  The Shema?

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.  You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.  You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

There were very specific instructions to what?  “teach them diligently to your children…”  Clearly this got missed in the previous generation for one reason or another.  So a whole new generation of Israelites grows up not knowing the Law.  And what happens?  Exactly what God said was going to happen.  They would begin to worship other gods.  Judges 2 says,

“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals.  And they abandoned theLord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.”

In Judges 3 we see the writer use the word “whored” or “prostituted” as a way of describing the people of Israel actions against the Lord to other gods.  We talked in the book of Numbersabout the imagery of Israel as the Bride of God and the wedding metaphor that plays in here.  The nation of Israel, that has committed itself to the Lord in a covenant relationship, forsakes that covenant and follows after other gods.  This is a direct violation of the 2nd commandment too, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image…. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

Interestingly, we just talked about this in my Hebrew class.  This second commandment has a very distinct implication that is used throughout the Old Testament to describe the effect that other gods would have on them.  That word “serve” is a word that we would normally use as a way of saying that we subject ourselves to something.  However, the form in the Hebrew text is a causative passive tense.  In other words, the command would read something akin to: “You shall not bow down to them or be made to serve them…”  The implication here is that the people wouldn’t just go after these gods, but that they would be acted on from outside forces… One could even say they would be enticed or seduced by these other gods.  Of course they still have to own the decision, but the warning is clear: Do not have idols because they will draw you away from God.  And this is exactly what see too isn’t it?  The Golden Calf was one example, the sin of Achan is one example, and now we’re into Judges, a book full of examples.  Just wait until we get into the kings…

Finally, I just want to take a moment to talk about the “cycle” of Judges.  Here is a graph from one of my Old Testament classes at Kuyper College with Dr. Kroeze that sums it up pretty nicely:

judges cycle

We’ll see this cycle played out over and over again in the coming days with a variety of judges, some familiar and some not.  What is important to note, as I said in the beginning, is to pay attention to what God is doing here.  Remember the covenant, at the end, where it talks about what will happen if the people disobey?  Yes… this is what is coming through in this.  The people of Israel are in a continual cycle of following God, not following God, receiving the punishment that was told in the covenant, repenting, and starting all over again.  Why does this matter?  It tells us something about God…

In all of this, God remains faithful to both ends of the covenant, upholding the whole thing despite Israel’s repeated failures.  God never leave them in their sin and disobedience, but rather empowers someone to come forward and deliver His people from their enemies.  This is true in our lives as well.  While I don’t necessarily think that God directly punishes us every time we disobey Him, this cycle does some somewhat familiar doesn’t it?

And yet even here the focus is not necessarily on sin… but how God rescues His people time after time from their sin.  Which is true, or should be true, in our lives as well… we turn our focus from the sin the we commit to the savior that washed it all away!