Monday, August 25, 2008

Heroes

by John D Ramsey

I just slogged through the book of Judges in preparation for Tuesday morning Bible study. I will read more again Monday night, but I decided to summarize the book in one sentence to avoid unpleasant details. With ellipses to indicate (a lot of) missing content, the Book of Judges reads, “Now it came about after the death of Joshua that . . . everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 1:1a, 21:25b (NASB)

I emailed Mark telling him that the book of Judges is depressing. Israel was not faithful to God, and God delivered them to oppressors to punish them. Moreover, the judges whom God used to rescue Israel are hardly the storybook heroes that children’s Sunday school literature makes them out to be.

Of course, there are bright spots, in the book. Gideon, for instance, delivers Israel from the hand of the Ishmaelites that lived in the land of Midian. Midian is the area east of Sinai across the Red Sea in what is now called Saudi Arabia. Israel had annihilated the Midianites as recorded in Numbers 31. Judges 8:24 explains that the Midianites whom Gideon conquered were actually Ishmaelites. As far back as Genesis 37, we see that the Ishmaelites travelled with the Midianites. This is a probable fulfillment of the prophecy in Genesis 25 saying that Ishmael would settle “in defiance of his relatives.” Ishmael was Abraham’s son by Hagar, and Midian was Abraham’s son by Keturah. Of course, Israel (Jacob) was the grandson of Abraham through Isaac. We infer that the Midianites are Ishmaelites in Judges 6-8 because they lived in the land of Midian and not because of any mitochondrial relationship to Keturah.

After routing the Ishmaelites of Midian with his 300 men, Gideon again went up against 15,000 more. Again, Gideon prevailed. Gideon captured two kings from Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna. These were the very men who had apparently murdered Gideon’s brothers. Upon learning this, Gideon killed them and took the crescent moon ornaments from their camels’ necks.

Seeing Gideon’s valor, the men of Israel wanted to appoint him as ruler, but Gideon demurred. Instead, he asked only that each man from Israel give him one earring from one of the fallen Midianites. The great Sunday school hero, Gideon, takes the gold (about 40 pounds), makes an ephod, and displays it in his town. What ever an ephod is, to Israel the ephod it became an idol, “a snare to Gideon and his household.”

Although Gideon refused to be king, he fathered a son by his concubine in Shechem and named him Abimelech, which means, “my father the king”, “my father is king”, or “my father, my king.” Abimelech became king in Shechem after murdering sixty-nine of his seventy brothers. Apparently, Gideon had second thoughts about not becoming king and chose an prophetic and regrettable name for his son. Regardless of his success, Gideon’s failures proved disastrous.

No account in Judges is redacted more aggressively than the record of Jephthah. Jephthah was a scoundrel, but he was bold enough to confront Ammon. Ammon descended from Abraham’s nephew Lot by an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Ammon took up an old offense from its cousin Moab and warred against Israel. In Moab and Ammon, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah survived. The last mention of Moab and Ammon in the Bible comes from the prophet Zephaniah.

“Therefore, as I live,” declares the LORD of hosts,
The God of Israel,
“Surely Moab will be like Sodom
And the sons of Ammon like Gomorrah—
A place possessed by nettles and salt pits,
And a perpetual desolation.
The remnant of My people will plunder them
And the remainder of My nation will inherit them. ”

Zephaniah 2:9 (NASB)

Moab and Ammon were natural enemies of Israel. When elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to fight Ammon, he would only do so if they promised to make him leader. When they agreed, he became the deliverer of Israel.

Now the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, so that he passed through Gilead and Manasseh; then he passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he went on to the sons of Ammon.

So Jephthah crossed over to the sons of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand.

Judges 11:29, 32 (NASB)

Although he showed an understanding of Israel’s military history, Jephthah’s approached God as a pagan would. God does not elicit bribes; the record of Balaam illustrates this profoundly. Yet Jephthah says,

If You will indeed give the sons of Ammon into my hand, then it shall be that [whoever] comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the sons of Ammon, it shall the LORD’s, and I will offer [him] up as a burnt offering.

Judges 11:30, 31 (NASB)

Most Bible translations redact Jephthah’s words to make it sound like he was expecting a little sheep, or kid goat, or perhaps a mini-cow to exit the house and greet him upon his return from war. Yet Jephthah was a violent man, a cold-blooded killer, and an ambitious politician. God used him deliver Israel from Ammon, but Jephthah later killed 40,000 men from Ephraim. Remember that the elders of Gilead chose Jephthah. Although God empowered him to battle Ammon, Jephthah was mercenary seeking his own glory, and God turned Jephthah’s profane vow against him.

When he returned from battle, his daughter, his only child ran of his house out to greet him. Two months later, Jephthah “did to her according to the vow which he had made.” Keil and Delitzsch argue against the interpretation that Jephthah offered a human sacrifice. They claim that only priests in ministry at the Tabernacle would offer burnt offerings—or at least they are the only ones who would offer burnt offerings that would become part of the historical record of Israel. This is a very convenient argument except that it is not true. Manoah, Sampson’s father, built an altar and offered a burnt offering to the Lord in Judges 13. In my Bible, I only need to turn the page to prove that Keil and Delitzsch’ argument is a vain attempt to redact a horrible crime by a Bible hero.

Sampson was a judge whom God chose from before his birth to be set apart as a Nazarite. Yet Sampson was licentious! His morally-vacuous lifestyle actually put him in the position of killing Philistines and liberating Israel from their oppressors. Sampson lived and died by the choices he made. God still used him to deliver Israel.

If we look to Judges for examples of righteous behavior, we will need to redact quite a lot. Nevertheless, what these judges of Israel lacked in exemplary behavior they mitigated by exemplary faith. In fact, Hebrews 11, the Faith Hall of Fame, commends all three of the judges we have considered here.

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.

Hebrews 11:32-24 (NASB)

Regardless of the weaknesses and even the wickedness of these men, when the New-Testament writer of Hebrews summarized their lives they shine as examples of faithfulness. When confronted with a choice of whether to trust God, they chose faith. In the end, that is what mattered. The Bible was not written to glorify men; rather it was written to glorify God. The Book of Judges shows that the Spirit of God can come upon scoundrels and make them effective ministers of God’s will. If this is true, then there is hope for us, too.

Slogging through the Book of Judges is nearly as disturbing as reading Herodotus’ Histories, yet in the end, the accounts in Judges are testimony to three things:
  1. Man’s absolute inability to measure up to a holy God,
  2. God’s amazing faithfulness to His Word,
  3. and man’s potential redemption by faith in God and His promises.
Today, we are more genteel than Gideon, Jephthah, and Sampson; nevertheless, we do not measure up to the standard of God’s holiness. Regardless of how civil we are, we fall short of God’s righteousness. Consequently, our only hope is salvation by grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The beauty of God’s grace is that it reaches even to scoundrels who by faith respond to God’s invitation for mercy through Jesus Christ.

Hebrews 12 refers to the heroes of the faith as a “great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.” They are testimony to the depth of God’s power to save, and they are testimony to God’s faithfulness to his promises. None of us is yet beyond God’s mercy, but we must “[fix] our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”

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