Judges 20: How did this outrageous evil happen?
The final story in the book of Judges is about as dark and evil as it can get. It concerns a man and his concubine. The story contains deviant sexual behavior, rape, and murder. The result is a civil war in which the tribe of Benjamin is practically wiped out. One question asked during the story should ring in our ears: “How did this outrageous evil happen?” How did the descendants of Abraham, this miraculously freed nation of slaves, these recipients of the Ten Commandments, these people chosen to be God’s very own come to this? The answer is “self and sin.” Their faith hasn’t been passed on to their children. Their heroes become more and more flawed. God is forgotten and their society begins to unravel. The writer of Judges concludes in the famous epitaph of the book: “At that time there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing.” That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster. I’d better not read this with a detached sense of superiority. I live in a society in which “doing whatever one feels like doing” is the norm. We want a convenient God who does our bidding, but leaves us alone the rest of the time. When Israel tries that the result is disaster. Do we really think we can get away with it?
Take Away: Whether we’re talking about an individual or a nation, it’s foolish to attempt to live apart from God.
Grasping at straws
Judges 17: Stay here with me. Be my father and priest.
Things go from bad to worse as I progress through the book of Judges. The lofty mountain top encounter with God through his servant Moses of centuries before is forgotten as is Joshua’s declaration of faithfulness to God. The light of the promise made by their ancestors at the Red Sea and then at the Jordan River is nearly extinguished. Judges is a downhill book. There are occasional heroes but they become fewer and fewer. The heroes we do find become more and more flawed. Here’s the story of Micah and his hired Levite priest. In this spiritual night, there’s a hunger for God, but it’s so broken and disfigured that we hardly recognize it. Using God to get wealthy or for the purpose of fortune telling is the order of the day. The tribes that were so united under Joshua and Moses are now fragmented politically and greatly influenced by the pagans of the land. The tug of war over who gets the priest is a pitiful reminder of the result of spiritual emptiness. In spite of the uniqueness of this story, I think it’s being lived out in my own culture. People who think they’re beyond needing God grasp at anything that promises to satisfy their emptiness. As I see the pitiful people of this distant day fighting over the Levite priest, I’m reminded that our message of “God with us” is the one the world desperately needs today.
Take Away: There’s a hunger in our lives that can only be filled by the Lord.
The God of Second Chances
Judges 16: But his hair, though cut off, began to grow again.
Samson, lacking both self-control and common sense, has ruined everything. His undisciplined behavior with women and specifically his inability recognize Delilah for the traitor she is has cost him everything. His pride, strength, freedom, and eyesight are gone. The phrase “his hair began to grow again” is powerfully symbolic of what’s happening in Samson’s heart. As he does the work of an animal, grinding out grain, somehow, through his darkness, he begins to see God. However, a word of clarification is needed here. This isn’t a Samson story; rather, it’s a God story. We aren’t to focus on Samson’s strength or his stupidity, but on the marvelous grace of God. Samson had been raised up to be a deliverer of his people and even in his miserable state the Lord’s still willing to work in his life to that end. “His hair began to grow again” is a hopeful word in a terrible situation. This is a picture of our God of Second Chances at work. Samson’s end is not the conclusion to the glorious story as it could have been. In the exercise of his free will Samson sabotages his own life. However, even when everything’s messed up we find God at work salvaging even this destroyed life. That’s the kind of God I serve.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances, full of grace and mercy, offering us undeserved restoration.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Judges 16: Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me, dear, the secret of your great strength.”
Samson is a one-man army. Other Israelite liberators inspire people to follow them and rally armies to action. Samson does it all by himself. It’s just Samson and God. Well, really it’s just God. Samson’s unshaved head is the symbol of his connection to God and cutting his hair will break that relationship. Subtract God from his life and Samson is a zero. When Samson stupidly tells Delilah his story he breaks that relationship with God. Soon, the wheels came off and all is lost. I’m tempted to say, “Without his hair Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Actually, though, it’s, “Without his God, Samson’s just an ordinary man.” Subtract the unique features of this story and we’re left with the truth Jesus stated in John 15:5: “apart from me you can do nothing.”
Take Away: Every good thing I accomplish is because of the Lord’s presence in my life.
Not exactly the Sermon on the Mount
Judges 15: I swear I’ll get even with you.
Samson decides to marry a Philistine. Along the way he gets mad and kills thirty men for their clothing to use in paying a lost bet. He gets married, but when he’s absent for a while, her father gives his bride to the fellow who was best man at the wedding. Once again, Samson gets mad and burns their fields. The Philistines retaliate by killing his bride and her father. True to form, Samson swears to get even. Isn’t this a pleasant story (not!)? Interestingly enough, we’re told at the beginning of this story that “God was behind this.” What’s going on here? How can God be involved in feuds and retaliation and the like? I think I know the answer. Samson is one of the most selfish and self-absorbed people in the Bible. Apparently, his parents are so impressed that the birth of their son was announced by an angel and since he came with special “handling instructions” they have never said “no” to him in his life. The Lord knows that Samson will never consider taking on the Philistines for the good of his people. All he’s interested in is Samson. Therefore, there has to be something in this for Samson and a great motivator in his life is revenge. It’s strange, I know, but it seems God accomplishes his purposes by manipulating Samson into doing what the Lord wants him to do in the first place. Had Samson been a man with some moral integrity the account of his life would be quite different. Still, the Almighty has his way with Samson even though the byword of his life is “revenge.”
Take Away: Better to cooperate with the Lord in doing what he wants done, but, ultimately, God’s purposes will be accomplished either way.
The Bible’s strong man
Judges 14: A young lion came at him, roaring. The Spirit of God came on him powerfully and he ripped it open barehanded.
Samson is the “strong man” of the Bible. When artists depict him, they always draw him as a muscle man. Frankly, I doubt it. Remember that his enemies try to discover the secret of his strength. If he’s built like a super hero they wouldn’t do that. I think he’s of average build and that the only physical characteristic that makes him stand out in a crowd is hair; hair, and lots of it: long, flowing hair on his head and on his face. This guy has never had a razor used on him. His nickname could be “Harry!” The key to his strength is tied into his faithfulness to God. And, in his case, the symbol of that faithfulness is uncut hair. Really, I don’t even see evidence that Samson is always strong. It’s when the “Spirit of God comes on him” that he’s strong. The rest of the time, he’s just an ordinary, hairy guy. Thinking devotionally here, I’m reminded that it’s when the Spirit of God moves in my life that I move into the realm of extraordinary possibilities. I may not be “more powerful than a locomotive” but, when the Spirit of God is directing and empowering, I can do whatever it is the Lord wants me to do.
Take Away: The Lord gives us whatever capability he needs for us to have to accomplish his purposes.
A good story
Judges 13: The angel of God appeared to her.—
The set up for the story of Samson begins with the visitation of an angel. Manoah’s wife (unnamed in the Bible) is minding her own business when the angel appears to inform her that she’s going to have a baby boy. The child is to be raised under a strict code including his partaking of no fruit of the vine or ever having his hair cut. While the Nazirite vow was introduced in Numbers 6 this is the first time we hear of anyone actually under that vow and his case is (obviously) extraordinary. Not only does his being under the Nazirite vow set up the unique “haircut” feature of the story of Samson there’s also the fact that in Samson’s case being a Nazirite is not so much a vow as it is a lifetime assignment. His faithfulness to this vow is such a big deal that the angel has arrived early to stop his mother from drinking or doing anything that would constitute a breaking of the vow while Samson is still in his mother’s womb! When Manoah asks the angel his name he’s told that it’s a name beyond his vocabulary and comprehension. Then, as a burnt offering is made, the angel suddenly blends into the flames and ascends heavenward. It’s all very impressive and fun to read and think about. In fact, that’s all I’m doing with this passage because I don’t have a compelling devotional point to make. Sometimes a good story is just a good story!
Take Away: Most of God’s people just live their lives without visions or miracles. When those things happen, though, we have a story worth repeating.
How’s your accent?
Judges 12: Say “Shibboleth.” But he would always say “Sibboleth” – he couldn’t say it right.
Following Jephthah’s victory over the Ammonites the people of Ephraim are insulted that they weren’t called in to be a part of the army. Apparently, there was some kind of mix up in which Jephthah did call for their help but they didn’t get the message. The result is a skirmish and then all-out war between the forces of Gilead and those of Ephraim. Before long, Ephraim is routed by their foes. In disarray they flee and attempt to cross back over the Jordan to their own territory. However, Jephthah’s army has tasted blood and takes control of the most likely fords of the river. There are no uniforms, the soldiers on both sides look alike, and they speak the same language. It seems that the defeated Ephraimites will be able to claim to be with Gilead and escape. However, there’s one difference. The people of Ephraim, living across the river for several generations have developed their own accent. A challenged soldier is required to say “Shibboleth” (I think it means “river”). However the “h” sound is missing from their accent, so he says “Sibboleth” instead. For the lack of an “h” he is executed. On this day thousands of Ephraimites die at the hands of their relatives. As I read this I’m reminded of the New Testament statement that when Jesus comes back that “every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Everyone will say the right thing, but some will be commanded to “depart.” Why? The wrong accent of life! It takes more than lip service to be connected to the Lord.
Take Away: Just saying the right things isn’t good enough.
Don’t make stupid promises to God
Judges 11: I’ll give to God whatever comes out of the door of my house.
Jephthah makes a stupid vow. As he leads Israel into battle against the Ammonites he promises God that, if he’s victorious, he’ll make an offering of the first thing to come out of the door of his house when he returns home. Now, the battle is won and as he returns home it’s his own daughter who first comes out the door to greet him. Apparently, he keeps his stupid vow and offers her as a sacrifice. This is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, God doesn’t work this way. God does what is right because he’s righteous. He doesn’t play “let’s make a deal” with us. Beyond that, God doesn’t want human sacrifices. In the history of the Israelites, only one time is such a demand given and that’s with Abraham and Isaac. Even in the dark ages of Judges every citizen of Israel knows the story; and they all know that God stops Abraham before one drop of Isaac’s blood is shed. Finally (although there’s more) just because we say something stupid to God doesn’t mean he wants us to do it. “God, if you make me well I’ll be a preacher” might just get a response from God saying, “I’m the One who calls preachers, not you! What makes you think I want the likes of you as a preacher in the first place?” I’m to live in a genuine relationship with God, not one in which I’m constantly trying to bargain with or manipulate him into getting what I want.
Take Away: The Lord doesn’t want to make deals with us. Rather, he wants to connect with our lives.
So how’s that “ignoring God” thing working out for you?
Judges 10: They just walked off and left God, quit worshiping him.
It’s been over 60 years since Gideon died. We have short paragraphs mentioning two other leaders who have judged Israel and now, once again, the wheels have fallen off. The word picture is graphic. “They just walked off.” This was definitely one of those, “If God seems far away, who moved?” scenarios. The people aren’t kidnapped and carried away from God. They don’t accidentally wander off. Instead, we see them pull the plug, deciding that they’re no longer going to worship the One who has been so faithful to them. However, that’s not the most sobering part of this story. You see, God doesn’t chase after them. When they come to him in their distress, he replies, “I’m not saving you anymore. Go ahead! Cry out for help to the gods you’ve chosen over me.” It’s when they repent that the Lord reconnects with their lives. God always honors our free will. He doesn’t force us to serve him and he’ll allow us to face the consequences of our choices. The good news here is that he remains true to his character. While he won’t force us to live our lives in a relationship with him, he’s always ready to forgive and welcome us back into that relationship.
Take Away: We’ll either live in a relationship with the Lord of our own free will or we won’t live in a relationship with him at all…