Tuesday, March 11. Judges 18 – 20

Shades of Sodom!

There are a number of correspondences between the story of Judges 19 (which begins the final narrative of the book) and the Sodom story of Genesis. It may well be the most atrocious story up to its time in the Old Testament narrative.

A Levite took a concubine. Not a wife mind you, but a concubine. They had a falling out. Some versions say she was unfaithful to him, others that she was simply angry with him (perhaps because he wouldn’t marry her?), but in any case, she went back home to Bethlehem. Theses details are sordid enough for God’s people, but it gets worse.

After a four month interval, the Levite went to coax her to return. On the way back, beginning late in the day, they’d made the four mile trek to Jerusalem. The Levite’s servant, perhaps fearful of bandits or wild animals, wanted to stay the night there, but the Levite did not think it safe to stay among the pagans. He preferred to travel another four miles to Gibeah. Arriving in the late afternoon. Normally, the conventions of hospitality decreed that someone offer him protection for the night. It wasn’t like it was going to cost anyone anything. The Levite traveled with plenty of money and provisions (2 laden donkeys). The Benjaminites offered no hospitality. An elderly Ephraimite did offer hospitality, but late that evening, sordid men of Gibeah stormed his house looking to have sex with the Levite. The Levite threw them his concubine and they abused her all night. The next morning, he found her at the doorway. As if nothing had happened, he told her to get up and go. She, however, was dead.

The Levite, incensed, took her body home and cut it up into twelve pieces, sending it to all parts of Israel with his story.

As I said, this story begins the final narrative, but you can’t read it without saying “yuck!” The thing is, the story is dated at the same period as the beginning of Judges – the days of Phinehas, grandson of Aaron (compare Joshua 24:33 and Judges 20:28). So, what’s the point? The point is that the entire story of the judges takes place in the framework of a culture among God’s people, even the Levites, that is corrupt to its core. Something must be done. A king is needed to bring order and revival.

Or is he?

If Judges was written at the same time as Samuel and Kings, the point is that while the people may think their spiritual problems can be solved with better earthly leadership, the testimony of history is that they cannot. Only when the people of God submit to the will of God and make Him their king can their lives be changed and their problems solved.

Monday, March 25. Judges 20,21, Ruth 1

We should not suppose that the story found in Judges 19 – 21 happened at the end of the period of the Judges.  In fact, there are ample reasons for believing it occurred near the beginning.  Notice that Phinehas, the grandson Aaron is the High Priest in the story and the Tabernacle has not yet moved to Shiloh but is rather still in Bethel.  It is as if the writer is saying: “Israel didn’t get progressively worse.  She started out bad.”

There are some similarities between this story and the first chapter of Judges.  In both stories, there is an inquiring of the Lord and in both cases, Judah was to go into battle first.  There is mention of people with special characteristics.  In chapter 1, it involves seventy kings with missing thumbs and big toes.  In chapter 20, it is an army of seven hundred (notice the use of “7″) left-handed sling-throwers.  One group cannot shoot an arrow or go into battle.  In the other, the left handed sling-throwers are surprisingly adept in battle.

But there is a big difference.  In the story that ends Judges, the point is made that Israel is no longer focused on the conflict with her enemies, but has rather turned on herself and is in danger of wiping one of their own tribes off the map.
There is a lesson here for the Church.

Like the tribes of Israel, it sometimes takes great tragedy to see precisely how far we are from God.  Then, in an effort to return to faithfulness, we turn on one another, hoping to root out the cancer.  In the end, we decimate ourselves.

What should we do?

We should cultivate an awareness of where we stand with God based on the Word of God and our success at doing His will.  If we are not successful, we should ask why success has not come.  Then, having realized the problem, work within the church to heal those infected by the world.  Finally, we should never lose sight of the fact that the real enemy is not us, but Satan and the world He controls.  Christians often lose sight of this fact and rather than stick with the “hypocrites” they perceive make up the Church, leave the Church in favor of a world where hypocrisy does not abound – because it has given itself wholesale to do evil.

Sunday, March 24. Judges 16 – 19

How far has Israel walked from God?

The story of Micah does not point to a wanderer who just takes a wrong turn and gets spiritually lost. It points to those who by habit of character demonstrate a lack of real concern for the ways of God.

Micah’s mother lost eleven hundred shekels of silver – a little over $2000 on today’s exchange but a really hefty amount in the ancient world of the Judges. She not only uttered a curse on the person who took the money, but should it ever be found, she promised to give it to the Lord (the promise may have actually come before the money was returned – not as the New International Version reads). The young man, afraid of the curse (you see his belief in witchcraft), ‘fessed up, hoping that his mother would countermand it – which she did. But then, rather than dedicate all the money to God, she only gave a fifth of it – and that not to the Lord, but for the purpose of making an idol. It wasn’t the only idol in the house – just one among many which also included a priestly garment.

Ignoring the regulations for the priesthood, Micah made his sons priests (essentially founding his own religion). But when he came into contact with a wandering Levite, probably hoping to gain credibility for his religion, he put him on retainer as his head priest. On top of it all, by simply having the priest, Micah thought he had secured for himself the Lord’s blessing.

It’s a classic case of blindly making one’s own way and believing it will be ok. After all, he is a sincere man – though also a thief.

The story is presented as simply an example of faithlessness, letting us know how far afield Israel had gone. But it is not the last one. The final chapters of Judges take us deep into the depravity resultant in the lives of all those who determine to live as they see fit.

Saturday, March 23. Judges 12 – 15

The tribe of Ephraim (chapter 12) was the leading tribe of northern and central Israel. There was an element of pride in this position and she believed that everything that happened in Israel needed her participation and approval.

We saw this before in the conflict between Gideon and the Midianites (chapter 8). In that situation, Gideon mollified Ephraim’s hurt pride with superior diplomacy. Jephthah, however, was not so inclined to be diplomatic – especially with people who were threatening to “burn his house down.” “House” in the Old Testament doesn’t just mean dwelling, but can also refer to one’s family – particularly if he is a ruler. If this latter idea is what Ephraim meant, the threat was against Jephthah’s entire family line and his judgeship.

Jephthah is a strong and wise leader. He first explains the situation, tells them that he did call on them for help but they did not reply. When they ignore the facts and maintain their belligerence, Jephthah cuts them off at the knees. Ephraim is so decimated that she never again regains her former prominence.

Pride is at the heart of this fall. They should have seen the work of God in the story of Jephthah and rejoiced, but blinded by their own self-importance, they discount the work of God because they had no part in the victory.

Whenever others do well, we will do well to congratulate them. When we diminish the success of others because we had not part in it, we fall into the trap of the Ephraimites and risk more than our pride, but also future success and opportunity.

Friday, March 22. Judges 9 – 11

By the time you get through chapter nine, you might well wonder where God went. After all, in every case but that of Shamgar thus far, God has specifically raised up the deliverer for Israel.

Here, however, Israel begins to pick her own leaders, and you see right away the kind of leader she picks. The son of a prostitute, Abimelech talks his countrymen, the people of Shechem, into paying him to murder their royal family (or the closest thing they have to it – the family of Gideon). Abimelech is described by the only surviving member of Gideon’s family as nothing more than a thornbush the trees have chosen to rule over them – an improbability for a thornbush and a discomfort for the trees!

We do not know who Gaal, son of Ebed was. This is his only mention in the Bible. But known or not, he is the instrument by which God drives a wedge between Abimelech and the people of Shechem.

K. Lawson Younger observes on this chapter: “Sometimes it may appear as though evil is in control and God has taken a vacation. Injustice dominates and wicked people, morally empty and reckless like Abimelech’s hirelings, seem to prevail. Anyone living at the time of Abimelech’s rule must have felt that way . . . And when believers forget the Lord and live according to the world’s dictates, this only intensifies the power of the wicked. When believers choose this path, becoming functionally unbelievers, they may find that God allows them to get what they deserve, just as the Israelites experienced in the Abimelech story” (K. Lawson Younger, Jr. NIV Application Commentary: Judges/Ruth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002) p. 234).

Thursday, March 21. Judges 6 – 8

The Bible is not just a book of laws, stories, or pronouncements.  It is also a piece of art.  You will see it plainly in the poetry books, but as the story of Gideon begins, you can see it here plainly.  Already, in the story of Deborah, we have been introduced to the notion of pairings: Deborah and Barak were paired against Jabin and Sisera.  The story of Deborah is told twice, once in prose; again in poetry.

In the story of Gideon, you will notice that he has two names, tests God twice with fleece, faces Oreb and Zeeb on the west side of the Jordan and Zeba and Zalumma on the east side, builds two altars and makes two sacrifices.  Two cities in the story are treated with vengance.

Why does God tell us the story this way?

Perhaps one reason is to test whether we are paying attention.  It’s one thing to read the story.  It is another to notice all the nuances that go with it.  As with any relationship, the beginning is a matter of events.  But as time goes on, other things, little things that give it color and make the relationship dear, interesting and memorable enter in.  So it is with the Bible text.

The Gideon story is pivotal in this book.  For the first time, a “judge” story begins with the rebuke of a prophet.  Gideon’s background is less than stellar.  His father is an idolator.  He is the most faithless judge we have seen thus far and, though Israel returns to faithfulness after the work of the first four judges, she returns to idolatry after Gideon.  In fact, he is the cause of the idolatry.  Gideon is held up in the New Testament as an example of faith (Hebrews 11:32), but no one reading the story of Gideon critically would ever think of him as “faithful.”

Why the disconnect?

Jesus once commented that if we had an amount of faith the size of a mustard seed, we would be able to do the impossible.  Though Gideon can be criticized for many things, he had at least that much faith.  It shows us how patient and forgiving God can be, and comparing our lives with his, we can have hope.

Wednesday, March 20. Judges 3 – 6

The “Aram Naharaim” of the Othneil story in Judges three is in the far north (far off and north of the map below) of Palestine, in the area of the city of Haran. Balaam would have been from this area (Numbers 23). Closer to Israel were the Moabites whose home was on the east side of the Dead Sea (see the map below from www.BibleStudy.org).

Both of these nations were enemies of Israel, but the motivation for their aggression was not their animosity toward Israel, but the deliberate action of the Lord. He “sold” them into the hands of the king of Aram and “gave” the king of Moab power over them.

You should notice however that when Israel repents and turns to the Lord, that God responds by ‘giving’ the aggressor kings into the hands of Israel’s deliverers.

Three messages come to mind.

First, that God is absolutely sovereign over the nations. They stand or fall at His whim and direction. Second, God is determined that His people do as He says, and having tried blessing and revelation and reason, God is not adverse to using the “stick” when the “carrot” doesn’t work. Finally, God does not intend His people have options. Once you belong to God, the only option that makes sense is reverence and obedience. The notion that one ought to be able to take or leave their religion without consequence is a notion unknown and unsubscribed to by the Lord, who holds all things in His hands.

Tuesday, March 20. Judges 7 – 9

Remember that Gideon’s other name is Jerub-Baal.  He is a descendant of Abiezer, of the family of Manasseh.  His kinsmen are the Ephraimites, which helps us to understand their family rivalry when the Ephraimites are critical of him in chapter 8.

It is to Gideon’s credit that he refuses to be Israel’s king.  God is their king.  On the other hand, Gideon acts very much like a king – and a priest.  He makes himself a gold priest’s robe.  He gathers to himself gold from his subjects and rules over them.  He takes to himself many wives – enough to have 70 children – and if that were not enough, he also takes at least one concubine.  When he dies, he leaves behind a ruling dynasty (which comes into play in chapter 9).  In other words, he does the very thing he says he doesn’t want to do.

“What have you done for me lately” seems to be the cry of Israel.  Gideon rescued her from great oppression, but after the rescue, she did not appreciate his rule.  The same was true with God.  During rescue, Israel was obedient and appreciative.  But as the years wore on, the monotony of normal life led her to rebel against God and seek newer things.  It always led her astray, and it does to us.  Perhaps our greatest challenge is not with prosperity or poverty, but with the boredom that comes from day to day sameness.  Satan knows it, and is always throwing something our way to attract our attention.

 

Monday, March 19. Judges 4 – 6

The story of Deborah is the only story in Judges to be told twice, and that underscores its importance.  However, if you are not a fan of poetry, you may glide quickly over Judges 5.  But since most of the information we have on that story comes from Debroah and Barak’s song, you’ll miss a lot of the story – and probably the point of mentioning it.

The poem of chapter 5 reveals the desperate straits of Israel due to Jabin’s oppression, but most important is the notion that the Lord fights Israel’s battles for her.  This emphasizes her status with the Lord.  In chapter 4, our writer tells us that the Lord routed Sisera, but doesn’t tell us how.  It tells us Sisera abandoned his chariot, but doesn’t tell us why.  And how was it Israel overcame a mightier force with nine hundred iron chariots?

The poem gives us the answers.  The armies fought in a plain through which flowed the river Kishon.  The Lord sent enough rain (5:4) to cause the Kishon to overflow its banks.  The resultant mud made the chariots useless, and God’s people became victorious.

The Lord fights for Israel, but He expects His people to be on His side.  The poem reveals that some of the tribes were too interested in securing their own safety to fight on God’s side, and for that they are cursed (Meroz is a city of one of those tribes).  God is certainly on the side of His people, but He expects them to act like they are on His side.

 

Saturday, March 24. Judges 21

Might the book of Judges be a “set up” for the books of Samuel and Kings?

We have to remember that the book was not written at the time the Judges lived, but years later.  We know this to be true because there are at least six specific references in the book to a long passage of time since the stories being related (cf. 1:21,26; 6:24; 10:4; 18:12).  We have seen the persistent and adverse affect the people of Canaan had on Israel, simply because Israel wanted to be like the people around her rather than be the blessed people of God.

Is the book just a diatribe against buying into worldly culture, or is there something else involved?

I wonder this because when we come to the end of Judges, there are four specific references to the lack of a King (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).  It’s almost as if the writer is saying Israel’s troubles could all be solved if she had a king.

Some Bible scholars read this as a campaign for a monarchy.

Perhaps.

But if it is, the following books of Samuel and Kings point out that a monarchy is not the answer.  Israel doesn’t do any better – even with righteous leadership.  And that leads me to believe that Judges is a “set up.”  “Sure,” the reader will say to himself, “Israel needs someone to enforce God’s law.  A king is what is needed.”  But it doesn’t work.  Thus Judges becomes a part of a much larger story magnified in the book of Kings.

We’d do well to remember this lesson.  You can enforce God’s will with laws, but you cannot make a people godly with laws.  Change must begin within.  Christian people who devote large portions of their energies bemoaning the sad state of the world’s ethics and campaigning for laws that will make people at least behave christianly (yes, I know I made that word up) are barking up the wrong tree.  We need to be walking in the way of Jesus ourselves and inviting others to join us in a transformation that begins not with law, but with the heart.