Monday, July 30, 2007


After the great and terrible events of the conquest, the people of Israel are mired in a cycle of idolatry, affliction, and restoration. The tales of the great Judges that the Lord raises up to rescue his people are among the most memorable in the Bible. But these are very dark times; the book points beyond itself to a need for a leader who will guide the people in the ways of the Lord, and not simply beat their enemies off them when they've gone astray.
  1. Here Come the Judges (1-2)
  2. The Devices of the Crafty (3-5)
  3. This Might of Yours (6-8)
  4. A Stone Will Come Back on Him (9)
  5. What I Have Vowed I Will Pay (10-12)
  6. Strength and Wisdom (13-16)
  7. Abomination and Desolation (17-21)
  8. Right in Their Own Eyes (summary)

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Right in Their Own Eyes

The last line of the book of Judges summarizes the book perfectly:
In those days there was no king in Israel.
Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.
It amazes me how powerful this simple statement is, against the sordid backdrop of the stories we’ve been through. Gideon made an idol which became a snare to his sons because it seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. Shechem conspired with Abimelech to kill his brothers because it made sense to do so. Jephthah made a vow which ended up costing his daughter’s life because he thought it was the best way to ensure victory. Sampson pursued a foreign woman because she was “right in his eyes” and continued to follow them blindly until the Philistines shut them for good. The citizens of Gibeah raped the Levite’s concubine to death because it seemed like a fun way to spend the evening.

So far the Bible doesn’t seem too impressed with pursuing what is right in your own eyes. This has actually been nothing but trouble from the beginning:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.
Back in Numbers, the Lord had asked the people to start the custom of putting tassels on their clothing:
And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.
The point could hardly be clearer. The intentions of man’s heart are evil from his youth; he simply cannot trust his instincts. So what can he trust? The answer is, of course, to listen to the voice of the Lord, and do that which is right in his eyes. His are the only ones that see clearly.

So what do the people need? Right now the story is in a holding pattern, or, worse yet, a downward spiral. What can get them back following the law of the Lord, rather than the desires of their own hearts?

If Judges is to be believed, Israel needs a King. Oh, they’ve had plenty of “judges” – great warriors who rise up and beat back their enemies. But this is always damage control. What they need is a ruler who will guide them in obeying the voice of the Lord in the first place. They need someone who hears and obeys His voice.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Abomination and Desolation (Judges 17-21)

Judges ends with one of the most horrible stories in the Bible. A Levite is traveling with his concubine in the territory of Benjamin. It’s getting late, so they decide to take refuge in a town called Gibeah. A kind man (an Ephraimite himself) takes the couple into his house. After dark, a group of thugs gathers outside the house, demanding the Ephraimite bring out his guest so they can rape him. His reply is an almost exact quote of Lot in Sodom:
No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly; since this man has come into my house, do not do this vile thing. Behold, here are my virgin daughter and his concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing.
There is no angel this time to intercede. The concubine (not the daughter) is actually thrown out to the men to be raped and abused all night long, so that the Levite can escape unharmed.

How terrible! It’s hard to say what is more disgusting to me – the ravenous cruelty of the crowd or the cowardly misogyny of the Levite. I guess this is one of the things that continually appalls me about the ancient world - the utter absence of the concept of chivalry. I wonder when people started to consider it a virtue? Could it be that it was lacking until St. Paul talked of the husband loving his wife as Christ does his Church, giving his own life for her? Anyway, the story goes on:
And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up, let us be going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man rose up and went away to his home. And when he entered his house, he took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day that the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak.”
The similarity of this story to that of Sodom is no accident. The implication is clear. A town in Israel has become every bit as wicked as the city that God himself consumed with fire and brimstone. The tribes assemble and vow that the men responsible for this abomination must be destroyed.

Thus begins a war against Benjamin. Gibeah is assaulted twice, but the Israelites are repelled with heavy losses. In anguish, they beg the Lord for help. Assured of eventual victory, they use a strategy identical to Joshua’s attack on Ai. First, they feign retreat, drawing the men of the city after them. Then, a second group runs into the city and sets it ablaze. Once the pursuing Benjaminites realize what is happening, and begin to turn back toward the city, the first army turns and attacks full force. The Benjaminites are surrounded and slaughtered.

In the days that follow, nearly all the tribe of Benjamin is annihilated. And now the men of Israel are upset. Never before has an entire tribe of Israel been lost. They decide to secure wives and provide protection for the few survivors (though not without wholesale slaughter of another tribe’s city to make this possible), so that the Benjamin will eventually recover.

The whole series of events is overwhelming, shocking, and sickening. We are left with a terrible realization. Cities in Israel are now being destroyed in exactly the same manner that the Lord had them destroy those of the former inhabitants. Rather than filling the earth with a people more numerous than the stars in the sky, one of the tribes is now near extinction. The whole project seems to be spinning down into oblivion. If ever Israel needed a savior, it is now.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Strength and Wisdom (Judges 13-16)

The people once again are given over by the Lord to a group of oppressors for their unfaithfulness – this time it’s the Philistines. As we read about how God raises up this next judge, we are treated to the most dramatic childbirth story since Isaac.

It starts the same way as many others. A man named Manoah has a wife who is unable to have children. The angel of the Lord then appears to them out of nowhere with glorious news:
Behold, you are barren and have not borne children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Therefore be careful and drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. No razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb, and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.
The stunned couple asks the angel his name, to which he replies:
Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?
They offer a sacrifice to the Lord, the worker of wonders. The angel then rises up to heaven in the flames of alter. Manoah and his wife fall to the ground, terrified, because they now realize they have seen God face to face.

What a grand introduction to the life of Samson! And, in terms of raw power, the man does not disappoint. When the Holy Spirit comes over him, Samson is simply unstoppable. He tears a lion apart with his bare hands, unhinges the gates of a city and carries them on his back, and kills a thousand men with a donkey’s jawbone.

However, what the man has in strength, he lacks in wisdom and vision. He marries a foreign woman, showing contempt for his father and his nation. His great acts of power throughout his entire career are not motivated out of a desire to lead or save Israel, but only to avenge personal wrongs. And, when the Philistines realize they cannot beat him in a fight, they find him easily seduced by a pretty woman.

This woman, Delilah, feigns love for him in order to determine his Achilles Heel. He tells her it’s being tied up with bowstrings – and the next day he wakes up tied up with bowstrings. He says new ropes never fail – and he finds himself bound with new ropes. He tells her weaving his hair in a loom is the ticket – and lo and behold his hair somehow gets woven into a loom.

It’s apparently great fun teasing her, but eventually she wears him down:
And she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and you have not told me where your great strength lies.” And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death. And he told her all his heart, and said to her, “A razor has never come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother's womb. If my head is shaved, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak and be like any other man.”
Samson is a total fool - a icon of strength without wisdom. His idiocy is downright painful to watch. He wakes up to find his hair cut and his strength gone. The Philistines capture him, blind him, and chain him to a millstone (rewarding Delilah with a fortune). So much for the deliverer of Israel.

Though Samson may not be a great leader or visionary, there is actually a sense in which he is the perfect representative of Israel. The people as a whole are just like him! They are the product of an amazing miraculous promise, and have a high calling that will bring blessing to the world. The Lord is faithful to them, giving them great power over their enemies. And yet they are petty, easily distracted by worthless pursuits, lacking the vision to appreciate what God has given them. The secret of Israel’s power lay in their covenant with God, but they are easily seduced to follow other gods. Though their enemies could never conquer them with the Lord on their side, they are now easily oppressed and humiliated.

And yet, like the mutilated Samson grinding at the mill, they cry out to the Lord for help and restoration.

Samson’s story ends with the Holy Spirit descending on him for a final blaze of glory. He had been brought to the temple of Dagon as a trophy during a great Philistine celebration. Now he stretches out his great arms against the central pillars and brings the entire building down on top of him. And we are told that Samson killed in his death more Philistines than he did in his life.

Here again is a shadow of things to come. There will be a king who is both the power and wisdom of God. Israel’s greatest salvation for the world will come by this king stretching out his arms and dying. He will bring more blessing to the nations in that one moment than all the acts of Israel throughout their history.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

What I Have Vowed I Will Pay (Judges 10-12)

In the Law, the people are given this restriction:
No one born of a forbidden union may enter the assembly of the Lord. Even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants may enter the assembly of the Lord.
I’m not sure what it means by “a forbidden union” – but if it includes prostitution, it includes Jephthah. Raised along with his father’s legitimate sons, he is later thrown out of his home by his brothers and has to make his way as a brigand in the wilderness.

About this time Israel is being oppressed by the Ammonites for their idolatry. They beg the Lord to save them, to which he sarcastically replies:
Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.
Not daunted, the people continue to beg and plead, and even chuck their idols to prove their sincerity. The Lord finally softens and gets himself riled up over their misery. So, with classic Biblical irony, the he sends them Jephthah for a deliverer. His initial reaction has the same indignant cynicism we just heard from God:
Did you not hate me and drive me out of my father's house? Why have you come to me now when you are in distress?
The people again prove their sincerity by making Jephthah their leader, with all the rights and privileges thereof. As the Spirit of the Lord prepares him for battle, Jephthah makes a vow that will live in infamy:
If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.
He proceeds to beat the Ammonite army, of course, and then heads back to his house:
And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter. And as soon as he saw her, he tore his clothes and said, “Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.”
Jephethah is true to his word. His daughter is an amazingly good sport about it too. She tells her father not to feel bad about the vow, and just give her a few months to grieve with her friends over the fact that she will die a virgin. Apparently it later became a tradition for the young women of Israel to spend a few days each year mourning her fate. Meanwhile, we are left aghast and sputtering!

What are we to make of this? How are we supposed to react to such a story? There are so many questions and problems with it it’s hard to know where to start. What was the point of this vow? The law has firm restrictions on what can be sacrificed to the Lord, and it does not include daughters! How could Jephthah, in good conscience, vow to sacrifice what he did not know to be clean?

And doesn’t the Lord say he hates child sacrifice? Didn’t he make it quite plain that the inhabitants of Canaan sacrifice their Children in the fire to Moloch, which is a big reason why they were being dispossessed? Didn’t he specifically say Israel was not to worship the Lord in this way?

The text doesn’t really seem to give us any clues on how to deal with this. All we know is that Jephthah chooses to lead the people that have rejected him; that he makes an unconditional vow in order to deliver the people from the Ammonites; that this vow ends up costing him what is most precious in the world to him; that Jephthah keeps his vow despite the cost.

Indeed, after all this, poor Jephthah ends up having to fight off the Ephriamites, who call him a brigand and a fugitive. Jephthah is from Gilead after all, the land east of the Jordan that is not technically part of the Promised Land. They had built an altar of witness to remind the other tribes that they too are heirs of the promise to Abraham, but this doesn’t seem to matter.

Jephthah makes a rash vow, and ends up doing something that even he should have realized was indefensible. However, I can’t help but remember how the story began, and see Jephthah as an image of God’s heart towards his people. After all, the Lord has been rejected by them again and again. He made vows to Noah not to destroy the Earth, to Abraham to bless the nations through him, and to Moses to continue to go alongside the people of Israel. But these vows are looking increasingly rash. As we know, they end up costing him the life of his Son. Furthermore, many for whom Jesus died continue to reject God even after such a horrible sacrifice.

The author of Hebrews remembers Jephthah as one “of whom the world was not worthy.” Nor are the people of Israel worthy of their God; they are actually a rebellious and stubborn people. Yet they can rest easy in one thing: the God of Israel always keeps his promises, no matter the cost.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

A Stone Will Come Back on Him (Judges 9)

We come to the brief and dismal story of Gideon’s sons. The people had asked Gideon to be king over them, and establish a dynasty. But he refused, saying that that role belonged to the Lord himself.

However, one of Gideon’s sons, Abimelech, thinks this role would suit him just fine. He goes to his mother’s hometown of Shechem (for all intents and purposes the capital of Israel) and convinces the leaders to back his claim against his brothers.
And they gave him seventy pieces of silver out of the house of Baal-berith with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows, who followed him. And he went to his father's house at Ophrah and killed his brothers the sons of Gideon, seventy men, on one stone. But Jotham the youngest son of Gideon was left, for he hid himself. And all the leaders of Shechem came together, and all Beth-millo, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem.
Jotham prophesies against Abimelech, calling for both his destruction and that of Shechem. It is not long in coming. The city revolts against him three years later, and he brings his army to quell the rebellion. The leaders retreat to the citadel, but Abimelech sets the entire city ablaze. It is reduced to ashes along with the leaders.

Abimelech moves on to another (presumably rebellious) city, intending to do the same thing:
And Abimelech came to the tower and fought against it and drew near to the door of the tower to burn it with fire. And a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech's head and crushed his skull. Then he called quickly to the young man his armor-bearer and said to him, “Draw your sword and kill me, lest they say of me, ‘A woman killed him.’” And his young man thrust him through, and he died. And when the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, everyone departed to his home.
So much for what might be called the first king of Israel. The story is rich with symbolism. Seventy is the number of the congregation of Israel. Seventy souls went down to Egypt with Joseph. Seventy elders were assembled by Moses in the desert. And seventy brothers are killed by Abimelech. The jealousy and murderous treachery of Cain is alive and well in Israel, through a man that would see the nation fall to his own ambition.

But the youngest brother outlasts him. He dies inglorious; his face falls under a rock thrown by the hand of a woman – not unlike Sisera. And we hear the song of Deborah echoing in our ears:
So may all your enemies perish, O Lord.
But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.

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Saturday, July 07, 2007

This Might of Yours (Judges 6-8)

Idolatry, oppression, rescue, and idolatry again – this is the endless cycle of Israel in the book of Judges. This time the oppressor of choice is Midian, the folks who hired Balaam to curse Israel back in the book of Numbers. It is here that we first meet Gideon, hiding in a winepress to thresh grain without these overlords spotting him. All of a sudden, the angel of the Lord appears to him, greeting him as if it’s an honor to be in his presence:
The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.
Gideon isn’t buying it. If the Lord is with them, then why does he have to hide in the winepress for fear of the Midianites? Why indeed, the Lord replies:
Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do not I send you?
Gideon immediately pulls out a list of excuses that would do Moses proud. He’s from the weakest clan, and he is the youngest son of his father. But the Lord’s reply to Moses is more than appropriate here. It is no use appealing to lack of eloquence, when you are talking to the one who gave man his mouth to begin with. He called Gideon a mighty man of valor, and, well, when God says things, they happen.

He starts off, admittedly, rather slow. He gets a group of his servants to come with him to tear down the idols of his clan, but does it in the middle of the night. And then Gideon does something to delight our inner skeptic. He runs a series of scientific experiments to verify that this is actually the Lord. Here I am reminded again of Moses’ negotiations, demanding signs to prove to the people that God has spoken to him. But the Lord is willing to go along with this, and I even sense less indignance about it than before. Is God growing more patient with his people?

In attacking the Midianite army, the Lord allows Gideon a mere 300 men. They split into three companies, surround the camp, light torches, blow trumpets, and shout “a sword for the Lord and for Gideon.” The Midianites are terrified – in their panic attacking each other – and Gideon’s little band easily rout an army of thousands. The Ephriamites then raise an army and cut off the escape route over the Jordan.

Gideon crosses over with his 300, pursuing the two kings Zebah and Zalmunna with the survivors of the Midianite army. On the way, he asks the cities of Succoth and Penuel to lend him supplies. They refuse, not wanting to throw their chips in with little Gideon when the two kings of Midian and all their mighty men of valor are still at large.

Finally Gideon catches up with the army, and captures the two kings:
Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, “Where are the men whom you killed at Tabor?” They answered, “As you are, so were they. Every one of them resembled the son of a king.” And he said, “They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if you had saved them alive, I would not kill you.” So he said to Jether his firstborn, “Rise and kill them!” But the young man did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a young man. Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Rise yourself and fall upon us, for as the man is, so is his strength.” And Gideon arose and killed Zebah and Zalmunna, and he took the crescent ornaments that were on the necks of their camels.
“As the man is, so is his strength” – another jab at his calling. But those scoffing lips are soon silenced, and when he returns to Succoth and Penuel, there is Hell to pay for those Israelites who refused to recognize the Lord’s anointed. Gideon is known to be mighty by the only opinion that counts.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Devices of the Crafty (Judges 3-5)

Here come the first round of judges! The first of note is Ehud, a Benjaminite. He manages to assassinate Eglon, the king of Moab, who has been oppressing Israel from the east. This is done by securing a secret meeting with the king while presenting him with Israel’s tribute. When they are alone, Ehud stabs him (the Bible is careful to give us all the gruesome details of just what happens when a grossly obese man is stabbed with a short sword) and escapes over the roof. In the immediate chaos that follows, Ehud leads a rebellion resulting in 10,000 Moabite casualties.

Next comes Barak, who is able to rout the Canaanites who have been oppressing Israel from the central plains. Barak had refused to fight without the prophetess Deborah there to hold his hand. For his reluctance, God witholds from him the glory of killing the enemy general, Sisera. That honor goes to the woman Jael. Check out this devious cunning:
But Sisera fled away on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenit…And Jael came out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Turn aside, my lord; turn aside to me; do not be afraid.” So he turned aside to her into the tent, and she covered him with a rug. And he said to her, “Please give me a little water to drink, for I am thirsty.” So she opened a skin of milk and gave him a drink and covered him…But Jael the wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand. Then she went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple until it went down into the ground while he was lying fast asleep from weariness. So he died.
She sure fooled him – the sucker! But I admit I’m rather scandalized at the use of deceit and treachery to liberate God’s people. I’ve generally come to expect more chivalry from my heroes, but here Deborah and Barak praise Jael to high heaven for her treachery:
Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk;
she brought him curds in a noble's bowl.

She sent her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen's mallet;
she struck Sisera;
she crushed his head;
she shattered and pierced his temple.

Between her feet
he sank, he fell, he lay still;
between her feet
he sank, he fell;
where he sank,
there he fell—dead.

So may all your enemies perish, O Lord!
But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might.
Looking back, we do have a string of underhanded heroes in the Bible. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, Rebecca tricks Isaac into blessing her son and not Esau, and Gibeon secures a place in the blessing of Israel with a clever lie. This is all rather troubling – particularly since shrewd guile was a chief characteristic of the diabolical serpent himself.

Perhaps we are meant to reflect on the subtlety of the God of Israel. Though he himself is more powerful than anything in all creation, he loves to use the weak and the powerless as his agents. The overconfident older brother loses out to the younger. The grand old patriarch is foiled by his wife. The imposing king Eglon falls for a dumb trick. The mighty general Sisera is impaled by a woman’s tent peg.

Wisdom as well as power belong to the Lord. Without his guidance and blessing, the strongest among us have the wool pulled over their eyes, and fall prey to the crafty.

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