Good old boredom
Judges 10: After him, Jair the Gileadite stepped into leadership. He judged Israel for twenty-two years.
I’m thinking today about the “one paragraph” judges of the book of Judges. I’ve already read about Deborah and Gideon. Jephthah and Samson are just a few pages away. Scattered throughout the pages of Judges are references to national leaders whose stories are summed up in one paragraph each. Usually the most prominent feature is now long these leaders ruled; around 22 years on the average. While it would be thrilling to watch Gideon’s 300 defeating the Midianites and Amaliekiets, I think I’d rather live under the rule of Tola or Jair. These folks quietly go about living their lives under the authority of the Lord God and lead their people in faithful worship of him. Today, I thank God for people like that and I’m reminded that without spectacular spiritual failure we don’t need to have as many stories of miraculous divine rescues.
Take Away: Good leadership sometimes means no big stories, no disasters, just lives quietly lived…
There, but for the grace of God….
Judges 9: Just then some woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and crushed his skull.
Not all the inhumanity of Israel’s “dark ages” of Judges comes from the belligerent peoples surrounding them. A lot of the bleakness comes from within. Gideon apparently makes himself into a sheik and fathers lots of children. When he dies there’s a power struggle that’s won by Abimelech, the son of Gideon and one of his maidservants. Abimelech seals the deal by murdering his seventy brothers. However, he’s better at murder than he is at leading and within three years there’s mounting opposition to his rule. Abimelech acts to quash the rebellion and arrives at Thebez, a town known for its fortified tower. As this wicked leader prepares burn alive those who have taken refuge there a woman drops part of a millstone on his head, thus bringing an end to the short and evil leadership of Abimelech. This is an ugly, if somewhat interesting story of a bad man who does bad things and then dies in a violent, unexpected way. No doubt, the detail of his inglorious death is told to us that we might see the judgment of God on Abimelech. In the larger view, I’m reminded that when God is removed from their lives just how much these descendants of Abraham look like the other heathen of that land. When I look around my community and see people doing stupid, self-destructive things to themselves and one another; when I see them blindly pursuing worthless things; and when I see them stubbornly traveling down the wrong road I’m wise to remember that without the Lord in my life that could easily be me. One response then, is to be thankful for what the Lord’s doing in my life. It’s not about me – it’s all about him. Another response is that, rather than feeling superior, I’m to be compassionate to them. These are people who are like me. They just don’t yet know the Life Changer I know.
Take Away: There, but for the grace of God, go I.
The Golden Ephod
Judges 8: Gideon made the gold into a sacred ephod and put it on display in his hometown.
Gideon and his army have won a great series of victories and now he returns home to a hero’s welcome. When the people want to honor him he asks for some of the gold earrings that were taken from the slain enemy. One has to read between the lines a bit but it seems Gideon’s intentions are good. He takes that gold and uses it in making a priestly garment called an “ephod.” In the history of the Israelites the ephod was worn by the high priest. It appears that this ephod isn’t intended to be worn; after all, it weighs around 100 pounds. Instead, it’s put on display as a reminder of all the Lord has done for them through Gideon. If this understanding is accurate this fancy “reminder” isn’t all that bad. However, it isn’t long before this object of remembrance becomes an object of worship. In fact, Gideon, himself, leads the way in bowing down before the Golden Ephod. How easy it is for us to elevate things to supreme importance while overlooking that which really matters. We church people debate music styles or building plans and worry about who will clean up after the potluck dinner (none of which are bad in themselves) while forgetting why we came to church in the first place. All the while, God is calling out to us, “Here I am, over here.” We miss his call for attention because we’re busy buffing our Golden Ephod.
Take Away: Ultimately, it’s all about the Lord and our relationship with him.
The battle that never was
Judges 7: I had this dream: A loaf of barley bread tumbled into the Midianite camp.
In preparation for the coming battle the Lord sends Gideon to the outskirts of the camp of the mighty Midian army. As he cautiously scouts the camp he overhears a conversation between two soldiers. One is telling the other about a dream he’s had that has nearly scared him to death. In his dream he saw a tent that represented the Midian army. Then, of all things, he saw a giant loaf of barley bread, representing Gideon and the Israelites, tumbling down the hill into the camp and knocking down the tent of Midian. The soldier has concluded that this is a message from his gods that Gideon’s army is going to roll over Midian. Overhearing all this is greatly encouraging to Gideon who concludes that God is preparing the way for his tiny force to defeat this mighty army. That night, when Gideon’s 300 sound the trumpets, light their torches, and break the jars what the skittish Midian army hears and sees causes mass confusion and they begin fighting one another and running for their lives. In no time at all the battle that never was is over. I think stories like this are important to God’s people. We need to tell them to our children and in telling them, instill in our boys and girls a deep faith in a God who takes care of his people in sometimes delightful, unusual ways. As we tell and retell stories like this, we, ourselves, are reminded of God’s power over those things that overwhelm us and his faithfulness to us in all the circumstances of life. Maybe that’s a message you need today.
Take Away: The Lord delights in doing good things for his people and he especially seems to enjoy doing those good things in unexpected ways.
Judges 7: You have too large an army with you.
The Lord has such a sense of humor. Gideon’s been rounding up the troops to take on the mighty Midian army and he’s done a pretty good job of it. Now they’re on their way into battle, but first, God has some trimming to do. First, those who are afraid are invited to leave. Two thirds of the army decides this is a good time to go home. Then, as they get a drink of water, the few who show “battle sense” are kept while everyone else goes home. Gideon was reluctant enough to take on this fight. He must be beside himself as the Lord keeps whittling down his army. He’s now left with just 300 fighters. Of course, God has a purpose in all this. Even as we see the Lord’s disqualification of almost all of Gideon’s army, we see that the Lord is quite intentional here. If Gideon’s large force wins a victory they’ll take all the credit for it. The Lord wants not only to bring deliverance to Israel, but to restore them to himself as well. I believe proper preparation for things I attempt is wise and reasonable, but I also know that the ultimate Source in my life is, not my plans and resources, but my Lord. Sometimes, he has to whittle down my approach so, when it all works out, I’ll know who it is that gets the credit. And, as he does it, I think he’s smiling to himself.
Take Away: The Lord loves turning the tables and doing the impossible.
Putting out a fleece
Judges 6: Let me say one more thing. I want to try another time with the fleece.
Here we are reading about Gideon and his fleece of wool. Actually, Gideon asks for, and receives, three signs from God. First, the angel of the Lord causes a fire to miraculously appear and consume his offering. Second, his fleece of wool gets wet from the dew while everything else stays dry. Third, the situation is reversed and the fleece stays dry while everything else gets wet from the dew. This is interesting reading, but it isn’t a lesson in how we’re supposed to deal with God. We’re to be people of faith, trusting in the Lord and learning to hear his voice. We’re not supposed to be sign-seekers and deal-makers. The star of this story isn’t Gideon, a near heathen who keeps getting signs from God confirming what he’s clearly already been told. The Star is God, who is patient even when Gideon keeps asking him to prove his own words. I’m thankful for a patient God who puts up with my shallowness even as he works to produce in me a more mature relationship with himself. Generally speaking though, I need to just do whatever it is God has made clear to me without “putting out a fleece.”
Take Away: Don’t press God’s patience – just obey in the first place.
Asking God hard questions
Judges: 6: If God is with us, why has all this happened to us?
The startling honesty of Gideon arrests my attention today. Even as he has an extraordinary encounter with the Lord he’s brutally honest about how things are going. Of course, the answer to his question has already been given. God didn’t leave the people. Rather, they left him: they “went back to doing evil.” God isn’t going to stay where he’s unwelcome. The Lord departs and they’re quickly dominated by Midian. Still, God doesn’t forget them. When the time is right, the Lord appears to Gideon and calls this unlikely person a “mighty warrior.” More on Gideon’s leadership later on, but, again, my attention is drawn to his honesty before God. If God is so good, if he’s on our side, if he’s our deliverer then why are things so bad? There’s power in asking hard questions to God. In this case Gideon need only look to the pagan practices he and his fellow Israelites have incorporated into their lives for his answer. God’s grace is clearly evidenced by, first, the fact that they haven’t been wiped off the face of the earth, and second, the fact that God is right there carrying on a conversation with him. The truth is, though, that God isn’t offended by our asking hard questions. We aren’t to take up permanent residence in that house of questions but we almost have to pass through that neighborhood to ever arrive at a meaningful faith.
Take Away: It is okay to ask the Lord hard, honest questions.
Generation to generation
Judges 5: God chose new leaders, who then fought at the gates.
Following the defeat of the oppressor Sisera we hear a duet being sung by Deborah and Barak, the two people instrumental in the victory that has been won. It’s a war song, all about how God fought for them and how he empowered them to do what needed to be done. The book of Judges gives us history in 40 year or so chunks, so, while I earlier walked with Abraham year by year and traveled with the children of Israel in their wilderness journey at a much slower pace, each page of the book of Judges represents the rise and fall of an entire generation. In this song, I find a description of how “God chose new leaders” to fight for him in their generation. While there’s a lot of ugly stuff in this book of the Bible, I’m reminded that God continues to be active in Israel. Even though it’s sometimes hard to spot, I see the golden thread of God’s grace here. A set of leaders fail and Israel plunges into the darkness of sin. Then, the Lord graciously reaches down into that darkness and lifts a new leader to call his people back from the brink. This is far from ideal. It could and should be so much better. Still, the grace and faithfulness of God shines like a beacon against this bleak backdrop of sin and failure.
Take Away: God’s grace is seen in dark places. It fact, it shines there, bringing both light and hope.
Judges 4: God will use a woman’s hand to take care of Sisera.
It comes as a surprise that we must journey into what might be called the “dark ages” of Israel before we find a genuine woman hero in the Bible. I guess it could be argued that Moses’ sister Miriam qualifies, and maybe she does, but Deborah really shines here. Sisera is the commander of an occupying army that’s dominating the Israelites and Deborah is their recognized leader. She calls for Barak, another well-known Israelite, and tells him that it has become clear to her that God’s going to deliver them from Sisera and his army. Barak, though, is afraid to proceed without Deborah at his side. Deborah replies that because of his fear, God will use a woman’s hand to take care of Sisera, and she, not him, will get the credit. It all plays out as she said and, not only does Deborah go down in history as the one who leads the way to freedom a woman named Jael finishes Sisera off. Long before the promise of “daughters prophesying” is fulfilled in Acts 2, we find God using women as leaders in his work. Thank God for women who are willing to be used of God to accomplish his purposes.
Take Away: The Lord uses willing people, and there’s to gender qualification in it.
(Don’t) Make yourself at home
Judges 3: But the People of Israel made themselves at home among the Canaanites.
It’s their first test and they fail it. They’ve failed to remove the pagan people from the land and now their test is to live near them but not become one of them. They miserably fail. Before long their young people are getting married to Canaanites and the perverted worship practices of those people is being accepted by them. Simply put, they feel right at home with these heathen. In his anger, God turns his back on them and soon everything falls apart. How at home am I in my society? Jesus loved sinners. He ate with them and genuinely liked them. But he never became one of them. On one hand there’s the example of the Israelites who feel so at home with the Canaanites that they adopt their ways. On the other hand we have Jesus who loves people and fellowships with them, but in doing so, invites them to be the ones who are changed. God help me to love the lost without making myself “at home” with them in the manner of these Israelites.
Take Away: Is the Church changing the culture or is the culture changing the Church?