Sunday, February 28, 2010

1 Samuel 16-20: David

Now we've reached the part of the story where David enters the scene.  This is a story that I think everybody knows, but it's really pretty fun to read because there's a lot of action in it.  It starts with God telling Samuel to stop mourning for Saul and to go anoint the next king, who turns out to be David, the youngest of eight sons.  At first Samuel thinks that one of the older sons is the chosen one - probably because Saul was a tall handsome guy, and Jesse's oldest son is a tall handsome guy too, but God says that he's looking at the heart.

Right after David is anointed as the next king, Saul has really problematic mood swings.  It says that an evil spirit from the LORD torments him.  I've always been confused as to what this means.  Is it referring to a fallen angel type being, a creature that is evil but is under God's control, as all things are?  Or is it more like the angel of death, a good being but one that causes destruction?  I have no idea.  And if it's a demon, then is it God Himself who's telling the demon to torment Saul, or is it more indirect than that?  Why is Saul getting tormented by a spirit at all just because God's Spirit has left him?  These are my questions.  But anyway, it's pretty ironic that they look for a musician to help soothe Saul, and it turns out to be David, the guy who's just been appointed to replace Saul someday.  By the way, I think this makes an important statement about the power of music and the arts, even the spiritual power of art.

Next is everybody's favorite story: David and Goliath.  When I read this story this time, I was struck by the fact that out of Jesse's eight sons, only three of them are at war.  Now what that says to me is that only those three are of fighting age.  From what I learned reading Numbers, fighting age is ages 20 and up, so there are 4 sons between age 19 and whatever David's age is.  The absolute oldest David can be in this story is 16, and that's like if his mom had a kid every 9 months. My little brother is 17.  I can totally picture him in David's role here.  He is super cute, super smart, and super opinionated.  He would have no problem going up to some hotshot gigantic Philistine and telling him to shut the heck up.  He's the kind of kid who really stands up for what he believes in, you know?  I picture David like that, only not blond.  My brother is blond.

Can you just picture a little 14- or 15-year-old kid who hasn't hit his growth spurt yet, running out to meet this 9-foot-tall Yao Ming on steroids?  Yao growls at the kid, who shouts back at him with his voice cracking, I'm going to cut your head off!  Then everybody here will know that there is a God in Israel! You would think, what a punk!  Goliath probably thought David was a punk, and he probably thought that right up until he died.

Thing is, David didn't give himself credit for what he did to Goliath.  It's clear he was pretty confident - he even told Saul that he'd armwrestled a bear and a lion before and won, but he wasn't claiming credit for those victories either.  He said that God was the one who delivered David from those enemies, and God was the one who would kill Goliath.  David had a lot of faith and a lot of courage, but not in himself - it was all in God.  What a dude.  No wonder all the screaming fangirls of Israel fell in love with him after that day.

Saul now goes through a wicked stepmother, "who's the fairest in the land" phase.  He doesn't like being #2 to this punk kid who can't even fit into his armor.  He tries various methods of getting him accidentally killed - send him on a dangerous mission, make him marry his daughter, throw a spear at him - but none of these subtle techniques seem to work.  That's partly because David has an inside man.  It's Jonathan, the honey-eater from earlier.  Jonathan and David are BFFs.  This is where we get a clue about what a great guy Jonathan is, because he knows full well that David is going to be king someday, and that is the job that he, Jonathan, has been brought up for all his life.  But he doesn't resent David.  In fact, it's his idea to make a covenant with David, swearing allegiance to each other all the days of their lives.  That's pretty hardcore.  So when David is afraid Saul is going to kill him, Jonathan finds out so he can warn David.

David has another inside man, actually an inside woman: his wife Michal.  Michal is Saul's daughter.  At first Saul tried to get David to marry his older daughter Merab, but David didn't feel worthy of the honor of being the king's son-in-law.  But Michal was violently in love with him, and Saul wanted him to kill a bunch of Philistines to marry her, so that made it okay.  Michal also helps David escape one time when Saul is trying to kill him, and I think it's pretty big of her to stand up to her dad when he comes looking for her.  Unfortunately, this is the last good thing I'm ever going to say about Michal.

So back to Jonathan.  Jonathan comes up with a plan to warn David if he finds out that Saul wants to kill him. Saul is really furious with Jonathan for being David's friend, and I kind of see why.  Jonathan is Saul's son; he's supposed to be on his dad's side.  Making Jonathan king after him represents everything they've been working for, all of Jonathan's life.  To see Jonathan so willing to give that up to some kid who smells like sheep is an even bigger blow than the son who doesn't want to go be a football player at his jock dad's alma mater because he would rather pursue a degree in musical theatre.

So you can guess what happens: Jonathan warns David, they have a very tearful farewell because they probably know they'll never see each other again, and David takes off running.  He's going to be running for quite some time.

So I think at this point we've seen Saul reach pretty much his all-time low.  I had really really liked him at first, and it makes me sad to see him turn into such a jealous paranoid freak.  I like David though, and Jonathan, and the friendship that David and Jonathan have.  I love the faith that David has in God to protect him in whatever circumstances he faces.  He's going to need that faith for the next several chapters.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

1 Samuel 8-15: Saul

I'm doing a bunch of chapters together so I can start to catch up to where I've read again.  But this whole passage is about Israel's first official king, Saul.

We start in chapter 8 with the people demanding a king.  See, Samuel's sons are almost as big of jerks as Eli's sons were - why is it impossible for a godly person to have godly children in this country? - and the people knew they were jerks, so they want a king "like the other nations" instead of another judge.  It really sounds like when kids ask their parents for some ridiculous new toy for no other reason than because "all the other kids have one."  I really wish Samuel had said "If all the other nations jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?"  Of course they'd probably say yes.

Surprisingly, God tells Samuel to listen to the people.  Actually it's not surprising.  Remember back in Deuteronomy when God gave them rules for their kings when they finally demanded one?  God knew this was going to happen, so at least He prepared for it.

So after lecturing the people and warning them about what a king is going to do, to which the people respond that they totally don't care, we transition to the man God has chosen to be king, only we don't know it yet.  His name is Saul, and his father's name is Kish, and he's lost his donkeys so Saul and his servant are traipsing all around the country to look for them - apparently for several days.  The servant says they should go ask Samuel where the donkeys are since he's a prophet - kind of like going to the mall psychic, I guess? so they do.

Then we find out that God has already told Samuel this was going to happen, and that Saul is the person he has chosen to be king.  So Samuel meets Saul, tells him the donkeys have already found their way back home, but invites him to stay and come to this party he's throwing, kind of hinting that he's about to become king.  Saul kind of goes, whoa man, I'm just a regular lowly guy, why are you talking like this?  Then Samuel sends him back home by a certain route, where he meets some prophets and starts prophesying because the Spirit of God comes on him.  After that he goes home.

Then Samuel calls all the people of Israel to Mizpah to publicly announce that Saul has been chosen king - only he can't find him, because he's hiding.  When Samuel finds him and finally gets him to stand up, Saul is a head taller than anybody in the assembly.  Now, something my pastor said once, is that Saul is the only Hebrew in the whole Bible who is described as "tall."  The people of other nations are generally described as tall, but Jews tended to be short (poor Zacchaeus must have been really short).  So when they asked for a king "like other nations," God gives them exactly what they want - he even looks like the other nations' kings.

Anyway, so at first some of the people aren't too keen on Saul being their king, but then Saul leads an army against the Ammonites and defeats them.  Then the people want to kill the guys who didn't want Saul to be king, but I love what Saul says in response - he says, "Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has accomplished deliverance in Israel."  This is a far cry from Gideon, who went through two cities and tore them to pieces just because they wouldn't give him any food.

The picture I am getting of Saul so far is that he's kind of bashful, hiding by the dumpster so Samuel won't make him stand up in front of everybody, that he's got a good enough dose of humility to know that he's nothing particularly special to be chosen as king, and that he's not vengeful.  Sounds like a good guy so far.  But if you know anything about the Bible, you know that things are going to go downhill, and that makes me really sad because right now I like Saul.

Next, Samuel addresses Israel and very briefly rehashes their history from Moses through the judges to today, tells them again that they're being really stupid by demanding a king, but here he is anyway, and exhorts them to fear God and serve him, and then things will be okay.  But if they don't obey God, they and their king will be "swept away" - in other words, their king won't be able to save them from God's judgment.

Then Israel goes to war with the Philistines, and we see Saul's first mistake.  He's waiting around for Samuel to show up to offer a sacrifice, and Samuel is running a little late, so rather than waiting even an extra day or something, Saul goes ahead and makes the sacrifice himself, which apparently is a really big no-no.  I don't know what kind of offering it was so I don't know if there are some kinds that only priests can offer, or something like that, but when Samuel shows up he gets really ticked and says that for this mistake alone, his descendants are not going to be kings.  I don't know why that happened after only his first mistake; you'd think God would give him more chances.  But maybe since God didn't want Israel to have a king in the first place, the stakes have been raised.

Then we meet Saul's son Jonathan.  He's a pretty cool guy, eager to go the extra mile and kill a few extra Philistines, but it gets him in trouble because while he and his men are out killing Philistines, his father is commanding the people not to eat anything until they've defeated the Philistines on pain of death, which sounds like a really stupid battle strategy to me.  On the first day of volleyball practice in seventh grade, I passed out because the coach's assistant told me not to eat before practice, so I didn't.  Food is good for you.  So it keeps saying that the people are exhausted, because they haven't eaten, but Jonathan, who hasn't heard about this stupid order, eats some honey and gets a sugar rush.  So anyway, then Saul is asking God (good idea) whether they should go down and attack the Philistines by night, but God doesn't answer him, so he knows that somebody's broken his rule.  He finds out it's Jonathan and, very reluctantly, is about to kill him, but thankfully the people convince him not to.

Then Samuel tells Saul to go to war with the Amalekites and completely destroy them, like the people did to Jericho and some of the other cities when they were taking over the promised land, as judgment.  I wonder why the Amalekites got extra time?  Hmm.  Anyway, so they go out and defeat them, but rather than destroying everything and everyone, Saul takes the king alive and saves the best of the livestock and basically everything that's good, and only destroys the crummy stuff.  Samuel comes and gets really mad at Saul, and Saul tries to excuse himself by saying it's a sacrifice to God, and then by saying the people did it, not him, but finally he confesses that he has sinned and begs forgiveness.

It's at this point that it says God regrets making Saul king, and Samuel knows it, so after this day he doesn't see Saul again, and instead he goes home and mourns over Saul.  I think Samuel really liked Saul in spite of all his lecturing him and everything.  Sometimes people who love us are the worst lecturers, because they're just concerned about us.

I'm really sorry for Saul.  He started out so well, but his inability to follow directions really got him in trouble.  I guess if you're the king, you're taking the place of the judges - you're basically the guy standing between the people and God, except for the priests.  So it must be really important to be totally obedient to God when He specifically tells you to do something - I mean, it's important for everybody, but when you're in a leadership position it's even more important because your example alone can influence so many people for good or for bad.

One thing I don't really understand is where it says God regretted making Saul king.  Does that mean God thought He had made a mistake?  That he wished He had appointed somebody else?  Or just that He was sad?  We say that everything God does is perfect and He never makes mistakes, and the Bible says God never changes, but sometimes - especially here in the Old Testament - there are statements that seem to contradict it.  It reminds me of Genesis when it says God was sorry he had made humans.

So this story, like so many others, ends on a sad note.  Poor Saul, if he had just followed directions he would have seen his son become king, and his grandson, and so on down the line.  But don't worry, he'll cease to be a cause for pity soon enough.

Monday, February 22, 2010

1 Samuel 1-7: Samuel

I have to say, this book starts off on a way better note than Judges ended.  We find out, thankfully, that there are still some people in Israel who follow God.  One of them is a man named Elkanah, and he has two wives: Hannah and Peninnah.  Peninnah has children and Hannah doesn't, which in that culture was a HUGE disgrace.  Peninnah is also a bit of a witch to Hannah because she always ridicules her for not having kids - and this is why polygamy is a bad idea, by the way - although Elkanah loves Hannah more than he loves Peninnah - which is also why polygamy is a bad idea.

Remember the last time this happened?  Rachel, the beloved wife, didn't have any kids and Leah, the unloved wife, had a ton, so Rachel and Leah got in this war and Rachel tried everything from verbally abusing her husband to trying fertility drugs in order to get even.  Fortunately, Hannah is a way better person than Rachel. Check this out.  When the family goes to Shiloh (which is where the center of the priesthood was at the time), she goes to the temple and prays so long and so hard that the priest, Eli, sees her and thinks she's drunk.  Can you say intense?

I like Hannah.  All she wants is one kid, and she even promises to give her child back to God if He answers her prayer.  Even though Peninnah (I don't know what the technical term is . . .  co-wife?) constantly pesters and belittles her, she doesn't want to get even or to get revenge, she just wants one little kid, and she's even willing to give him up.  And instead of whining to her husband or digging up roots or doing anything else stupid, she goes straight to God, and only to God.

So God answers her prayer and gives her a son.  Remember what Rachel named her son Joseph? "I want another one."  Hannah names her son "I asked God for him."  Isn't that beautiful?  I have a friend who prayed and prayed for a kid for several years with her husband, and finally they had a son, and she named him Samuel, just like Hannah did.  And Hannah is true to her word and gives Samuel to the temple, and she worships God and sings a long song of thanksgiving because she is so happy to have a son, even though she's only going to see him once a year.  I don't know if I could do that.  But it's so cute that the text goes through the trouble of saying that each year when they go to Shiloh, Hannah makes him a new outfit and brings it to him.  She's a good mommy.  I would like to be like Hannah, although I hope I don't have to give my son away.

But guess what!  After Samuel is born, God gives Hannah five more children, three sons and two daughters.  And it's not because she asked and pleaded and went to drastic measures or made any more deals.  She was perfectly happy with Samuel, and I believe God blessed her for her thankfulness.

But I titled this blog entry "Samuel," and I am going to try to write about 7 chapters, so I should move on.  The priest at this time is a man named Eli.  Now he seems like an okay guy, but his sons are awful - which, by this point in the game, is no surprise to me.  Just about every good adult has rotten kids in Israel.  Except Hannah.  Samuel is not a rotten kid.  In fact, God tells Eli that since his own sons are so rotten, he's going to raise up a faithful priest instead of them.

So that's what happens.  God calls Samuel when he's still a little boy, and Samuel grows up knowing, obeying, and listening to the Lord.  And everybody in Israel knows it, too.

Next what happens is that Israel is at war with the Philistines again, and they're getting pretty badly, so they have a great idea: let's take the ark of the covenant into battle with us!  This strikes me as a form of manipulation, or maybe idol worship.  The presence of God dwells in the ark, so they're thinking, if we bring God to the battle, He'll have to make us win.  God doesn't have to do anything, ever.  Sometimes we assume that we know how God will act if we make the circumstances right, as if He's a chemical formula.  God is a person, not a formula.  We can't always assume we know what he's going to do.

So God doesn't let the Israelites win, and the Philistines take the ark with them.  But God's not about to be manipulated by them either; all sorts of havoc starts to break out as soon as the ark gets to one of their towns.  But I have to say, may favorite thing that happens is when they put the ark in the temple of their god Dagon, and the next day when they go inside the idol of Dagon has fallen on its face in front of the ark.  Ha!  Even false gods which cannot see or hear or speak bow before the Living God.

Anyway, the Philistines get all kinds of plagues, so they keep moving the ark from city to city, and eventually they've had enough and they decide to send it back to Israel along with a bunch of offerings, which is kind of a nice thought in the morning.  But when Israel gets it back they don't put it in Shiloh again, they leave it at Kiriath-jearim at this guy's house, and it stays there for 20 years.

So then Samuel, who is a grown-up now, tells Israel that what they need to defeat the Philistines is not to bring the ark of the covenant with them into battle but to serve God wholeheartedly - duh.  So they get rid of all the idols and serve God, and guess what?  They beat the Philistines.

So I think this passage clearly illustrates the importance of being straight with God.  If you have a request, just ask Him.  Don't be like the stupid Israelites who thought they could manipulate God into doing what they wanted, when they weren't even serving Him at the time.  Be like Hannah who prayed diligently, sacrificed, and was thankful.  I believe God honors wholehearted devotion and sincere worship.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Parallel Structure of the Bible

I'm taking a small time-out to explain that the next book in this series is not Ruth.  In my Bible, that is the book that comes after Judges, and I'm willing to bet it's that way in yours too, since that is how every Christian Bible is (I think).  But that is not the way it always was.

Originally, the Old Testament was arranged in a thematic order and divided into three sections: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.  Here is a list of how the books appeared:
The Law

  • Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Leviticus
  • Numbers
  • Deuteronomy
The Prophets - Former Prophets
  • Joshua 
  • Judges
  • Samuel (originally 1 book on 2 scrolls)
  • Kings (originally 1 book on 2 scrolls)
The Prophets - Latter Prophets
  •  Isaiah
  • Jeremiah
  • Ezekiel
  • The Twelve (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi - originally considered 1 book)
The Writings
  • Psalms
  • Proverbs
  • Job
  • Song of Solomon
  • Ruth
  • Lamentations
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Esther
  • Daniel
  • Ezra & Nehemiah (originally 1 book, I guess)
  • Chronicles (originally 1 book on 2 scrolls)
And this is the way it still is in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures.

Why did this change?  When Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the manuscript we know as the Vulgate, he rearranged the books into more of a chronological order, because he thought it would make more sense to the audience of his day - which was his aim in writing the Vulgate (the word means "common") in the first place: to make it intelligible to the common, non-scholarly man.  This was before Latin became a dead language, obviously.

So why is any of this important?  Well, I believe that this structure parallels the structure of the New Testament.  This isn't my idea, by the way - this came from a Sunday school class in college one time, but I haven't seen it written out anywhere else, which is unfortunate because I no longer have my notes.  So this is all from memory.

Genesis begins with three major stories, a prologue of sorts: the creation of the world, the union of Adam and Eve, and the fall of man.  After that, we have the Law - God's instructions to man on how to be in a right relationship with God - and the establishment of God's covenants with man.

The Prophets trace the history of Israel, God's chosen people, largely through the eyes of the people He called to be his witnesses to Israel and the nations - the prophets.

Lastly we have the writings, which can more or less be divided by books that were written in the promised land (Psalms through Ecclesiastes), and books that were written outside the promised land (Esther through Chronicles).  They give us examples of how to live out God's laws and be in a relationship with Him, whether we are in the land He promised, or living in exile.

The Old Testament ends with Chronicles, which seems kind of random.  Chronicles is basically a re-telling of what's in the book of Kings, and it ends with a call to the Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple - with Cyrus saying, "Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up."  The end.

But then we have the book of Matthew, and in a way we see Cyrus' call being answered by Christ, who goes up to Jerusalem, whose temple is destroyed and rebuilt after three days.

Now here's the parallel part.  The first four books of the New Testament, the Gospels, introduce to us a new Law, the law of grace, and a new covenant, the everlasting covenant of Christ's blood.  It tells us how to have a relationship with God.

The book of Acts is the history of the early church, particularly seen through the eyes of a few men whom God called to be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth: the apostles.

Then we have the epistles, which are letters to the believers telling them how to live as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven - the true promised land - while currently in exile, as an alien and stranger on earth.

Finally, the book of Revelation acts as an epilogue, ending with three major stories: the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, the wedding of the Lamb, and the fall of Satan.

Cool, huh?

The Bible is full of parallels.  You can see it from the structure of the Creation story to the repetitive lines of poetry in the Psalms and elsewhere.  I think it is really beautiful.

What does this tell us?  For me, personally, it's an additional confirmation of the canon of Scripture.  I've studied that subject a little bit, so I'm aware of the historical factors involved, but seeing this parallelism sort of says to me, this really isn't arbitrary and random.  There is a purpose behind these books here.  Another thing this says to me is that the canon of Scripture is complete from Genesis to Revelation - hence the name of this blog.  I believe that God told us everything humanity needed for a relationship with Him in these books, and that He faithfully preserved them through time so that we could understand today what was written so many centuries ago.  I believe that God still speaks to people today, and that He still reveals things to us individually through the Holy Spirit, but I don't believe that any new gospels or new prophetic books fit in with the Bible.

Anyway, so when I learned about this, I decided that the next time I read through the Bible, I would read the books in this order.  It's taken me this long to get to it.  So basically, all this is to say that I'll pick back up tomorrow with 1 Samuel. :)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Judges 17-21: It's All Downhill from Here

Okay, I've received a few comments from people who read this blog on Facebook, since I'm staying off Facebook for Lent, saying "I thought you were giving up Facebook for Lent but you're posting!"  Facebook people, what you are reading is called an RSS feed and it comes from my site on Blogger,  I set the feed well over a month ago, and since I'm not logging in to Facebook, I'm also not going to turn the feed off.  Satisfied?

Okay, we're finishing up Judges, and I have to warn you: it is really chaotic and there is basically nothing good that happens in the rest of the book.  God kind of disappears from the equation, or at least very clearly disappears from people's consciousness.

It starts with a story about a guy named Michah, who steals a bunch of silver from his mom, who doesn't seem to mind when he tells her, and makes an idol with it.  Then a Levite - these are the ones in charge of keeping the people serving God, remember? - comes along and Micah hires him to be the priest of his little idol thing.

Next, the people of Dan - who, if you remember, got run out of their own territory by the people they failed to evict - are wandering around  looking for a place to stay, and they send out scouts who wander into Micah's house.  They keep going and find an area of land that they want to invade so they can live there, so they send for the rest of their people, who also come to Micah's hosue.  The people get Micah's priest to come with him and also steal all his idols.  Then all Micah's neighbors go out after the Danites to fight and get the stuff back, but the people of Dan are stronger so they just go away.  The Danites invade the city and they win because it's really far away from everything else, so there's nobody to come help the people in the city.  They set up Micah's idol and set up a Manassehite as priest of it, and apparently everything stays like that for the Danites until Israel goes into captivity under Assyria.

That's the first story.

In the second story, there's a Levite who has a concubine, and the concubine runs off to have an affair, but he goes and wins her back, so then they go stay at her dad's house.  The dad convinces them to stay way longer than the Levite intended, and finally they start going home, and travel to Gibeah, which is in Benjamin, to spend the night, because the Levite says they should stay with Israelites, so they get there and it's pretty late.  But since it's so late they can't find anywhere to spend the night, so they sit down in the road until a guy comes and invites them home.  So they go, and then they have a party.  While they're having a party inside, a bunch of people from the city (also called "worthless fellows") by my Bible start pounding on the door wanting the Levite to come up so they can sleep with him.  Does that sound familiar?  The host offers his own daughter and the man's concubine as a compromise, but the people don't listen.  Instead they seize the concubine and raper her all night long until she dies.  The Levite doesn't know she's dead until the next morning when he's ready to go home, and when he sees that she's dead he takes her home, cuts her body into 12 pieces, and sends the pieces to each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  And they freak out.

So then men from all the tribes, including the ones in Gilead, come together at Mizpah to have a conference about what they should do.  They decide to march against Mizpah - or rather, for 1/10 of them to march, because there's a lot of them - so they do, but when they get there and demand for the worthless guys to be delivered up, the rest of the people won't listen.  So Israel goes to war with Benjamin.  For the first few days, Benjamin kicks butt.  But finally Israel sets up an ambush, and they win.

Finally, once all this is over, the rest of Israel starts to feel sorry for Benjamin, because they've all decided that none of them can let their daughters marry Benjamites, and they took a vow and everything.  Now, I don't know what happened to the women in Benjamin, but apparently there aren't any, and the people are afraid that there will only be 11 tribes.  So they go attack a random city and kill everybody except the virgin women, but there aren't enough to go around, so they tell the Benjamites who still don't have wives to go to Shiloh, when they're having some sort of celebration and all the women are dancing, and they basically ambush the woman and carry them off so they can have wives, and so that's what they do and everybody goes home happy.

I have three words to say in response to these two stories: What the heck?

These chapters are where we see the famous line from Judges - "In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes."  And that sentence or part of it is repeated throughout these chapters, and these chapters only.

So what do we learn from these stories and why are they even in the Bible at all?  I think we learn that when we take God out of the picture, we screw everything up.  Also, when there's no accountability, no law, there is nothing to prevent rampant crime and vigilante revenge.  It's a bad situation.

I think we can see that the great idea of theocracy is not working, because that can only work when everybody's heart is set on following God, and that has clearly not been the case at almost any time in Israel's history thus far.  And I don't think the problem is necessarily the system - it's the people.  If you think about it, every form of government could work out really well, if only everybody involved was a good person who had everybody else's best interests in mind.  But since that is almost never the case, governments have this tendency to fail miserably, some worse than others.

I think we see God taking a different approach with Israel: letting them do what they want.  Maybe He's waiting for them to hit rock bottom again, or maybe He's waiting for the right person to come along and judge Israel again.  I guess we'll find out.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Judges 13-16: Samson, or Proof that God Can Use a Doofus

You're going to tell me that I'm giving Samson a hard time, but I have a hard time liking this guy, and it's not just because of Delilah.  All the good things he did were the result of his own stupidity.  Let's look at his life.

So we begin in chapter 13 with the age-old story of Israel doing evil, and the Philistines oppress them for 40 years.  Then an angel appears to a woman who has no children and tells her she's going to give birth to a son who will deliver Israel from the Philistines, but there's a catch: he is to be a life-long Nazarite.

If you remember from reading the Law, "Nazirite" referred to a certain type of vow that a person would take for a period of time, and during that time they could not drink wine or any other strong drink, and they couldn't cut their hair either.  Normally the vow and its conditions were temporary, something that an adult would choose to do.  Samson's the only person I know of who was a Nazirite his whole life.  Pretty cool.

I like Samson's parents, I think.  Or at least, I'm glad that this story's not all about Samson but that we get to see a little bit of them.  After the angel visits the woman, whose name we don't even know, she tells her husband what happened, and he prays to God that the angel will come again so that he can tell them how to raise their kid.  Isn't that great?  First of all that he believes his wife right off the bat, and secondly that the reason he wants to see the angel is not because it would be really cool, but because he wants advice.  This guy's name, by the way, is Manoah.  I like Manoah.

So guess what?  The angel does come again, and Manoah gets to meet him.  He doesn't know that it's the angel of the LORD; he seems to think he's a regular person because he keeps referring to him as "man."  So he asks the angel some questions, which the angel really doesn't answer directly.  Then Manoah asks the angel what his name is, and we get another clue that the angel of the LORD may be the LORD himself, a theophany: he responds, "Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?"  the "wonderful" there means "incomprehensible."  That immediately brings my mind to Isaiah, where he prophesies the birth of Christ and says His name shall be, among other things, Wonderful.

So then Manoah wants to make dinner for the angel, and he gets some food and puts a burnt offering and a grain offering on a rock, and God sends a flame of fire down from heaven and the angel ascends in it, or something like that.  So then or told them stuff or shown them stuff. Manoah knows who he's just been talking to and thinks he and his wife are going to die for seeing God, but she says if they were going to die He wouldn't have accepted their offerings  Smart lady.

Okay, so now it's Samson's turn.  Samson gets born and grows up.  One day he sees a Philistine girl and without talking to her or anything, he goes home and tells his dad he wants to marry her.  His father says, are the pickings really that bad amongst our own people that you want to marry a Philistine?  Samson's response?  "She looks good to me."  I just have this picture of Samson talking like a stereotypical caveman and grunting.  Whatever happened to people like Isaac who trusted his dad to find him a wife, and loved Rebekah his whole life?

So finally Samson goes back and talks to her, and what does the text say?  "She looked good to Samson."  I don't think he really got much out of talking to her, personally.

Next, we find out that Samson is also kind of a pushover.  He's throwing a wedding party, because he really is going to marry this girl, and he tells all her friends a riddle that they can't guess, promising them new clothes if they can guess, but demanding new clothes from them if they can't.  I think he is purposely trying to trick them so that he'll get 30 new outfits. They talk to the bride and tell her to coax the answer out of him or else they'll burn her father's house down.  So she goes and pesters him for a whole week, and finally he cracks and tells her, so she tells the men, so they can answer Samson's riddle.  Apparently he doesn't have any extra clothes because he goes out of town and kills 30 Philistines so he can take their clothes and give them to his new wife's friends.  And he's so angry that he doesn't even go back to his own wedding, and guess what?  His bride is given to Samson's friend.  Ouch!  Can't say I'm surprised though.

So Samson waits a few months before thinking he wants to be a husband, and then he goes to visit the girl he is supposed to be married to, and her father doesn't let him see her.  He offers Samson a different daughter though.  So Samson gets angry, but he doesn't want people to blame him for killing Philistines again, so he go rounds up 300 foxes - do not ask me how - and ties two foxes at a time together with a torch between their tails, and lets them go right by the grain fields, which is ready to be harvested at this time.  So the Philistines go to Samson's non-wife and burn her and her father to death.

Samson says "I will surely take revenge on you, but after that I will quit."  What a nice guy.  So he just goes on the rampage and kills we don't know how many of them.  Then he goes and lives in a cave, until the Philistines come looking for them, and then he takes the jawbone of a donkey and kills 1000 men with it.  By the way, click here to see how this would actually have worked.

Next is the story we're all familiar with: Delilah.  But first he goes and sleeps with a prostitute, a Philistine prostitute at that.  Why can't Samson live with his own people and just go kill Philistines on the weekends or something?  Then he meets Delilah, who is also a Philistine, and falls in love with her.  Apparently the feeling isn't mutual because the Philistines pay her to find out the secret to Samson's strength.  You know the story: the first three times she asks him, he tells her something totally bogus, but the fourth time he tells her that his hair has never been cut, and so she cuts his hair off, he becomes normal, and he gets captured by the Philistines.  They gouge his eyes out, which is really really really gross to me, and parade him around at one of their parties.

Finally, finally Samson does something intelligent.  He prays.  In this story, we've seen the Spirit of God come upon Samson to endow him with strength, but we haven't seen Samson acknowledge God, in spite of being a Nazirite and everything.  In fact, he seems to be the most un-Israelite Israelite we've yet met: he doesn't live with his own people, he doesn't appear to have any kind of communication with God, and the only women he's interested in are Philistines, whom the Israelites are forbidden from intermarrying with.  But now, at rock bottom, Samson turns to God and prays that God will give him strength one last time.   True, Samson seems concerned only with avenging himself because the Philistines took his eyes, but God listens to him, and Samson pulls an entire giant house down, killing well over 3000 Philistines - and Samson.

It seems to me like Samson was really motivated by hormones, and that both got him into trouble and caused him to kill a bunch of Philistines, which was what he was born for.  And that brings me to the title of this blog.  Samson may have been a total Neanderthal without an ounce of gentleman in him, and he may have been really hormonal and made stupid rash decisions, but God used those things to do what He had always intended to do with Samson, in delivering Israel from the Philistines.  God can even turn our foolishness and our stupidity into something useful to Him.  Isn't that crazy?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Judges 10-12: Jephthah

I know what you're thinking.  Jephthah?  Why does he get his own blog post?  Isn't he a little blurb like Othniel and Shagmar?  Acutally no, his story actually does have three whole chapters.

Well, the first chapter of Jephthah's story isn't about Jephthah, it's about the Philistines and Amorites oppressing Israel.  The Philistines and Amorites keep popping up all over the place - we're going to be seeing them for a while, and the Philistines will actually become more and more prominent the further on we go.  Isn't that great.

So what we learn in chapter 10 is that there are a couple judges after Abimelech's death and before Jephthah comes into play: Tola the son of Dodo (I know! it's even better than Joshua son of Nun) and Jair the Gileadite.  So after they're both gone, Israel again does evil, and then the Amorites and Philistines kind of take over.  Israel cries out to God, and God says, I delivered you from everybody else, but you still left me to serve other gods, so I'm not going to save you this time (how about I'll leave the quotes off unless I'm directly quoting the Bible - that way there's no confusion).  But the people of Israel say something very interesting: "We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day."  I think that when you can surrender yourself to God and say "do whatever you want," you've reached a good place to be.  But Israel is pretty desperate here, apparently.

I love what the next verse says: the Israelites got rid of all their foreign gods and served the LORD - and remember, this is before God delivers them or even raises up a judge.  And then it says, "and He [God] could bear the misery of Israel no longer."  Doesn't that statement amaze you?  When we are suffering, God's not up there rubbing His hands together saying "aha, finally they are good and miserable!"  It grieves God - I think He hurts when we hurt, because He loves us.  He would really not have any of this bad stuff happen to people, but remember, God is on a mission here.  He is on a mission to save the whole world, and He's going to do whatever it takes to accomplish it.  What does that have to do with anything?  Well, if Israel stops following Him and does its own thing for the rest of history, how do you suppose He's going to bring the Messiah into the world in the first place?  It seems clear to me that God wanted Jesus to be born and grow up in a place where the LORD was known and served.

So anyway, enter Jephthah, hereafter Jeph because Jephthah is too long to type..  Jeph is an interesting person right off the bat because he's the son of a prostitute.  But interestingly enough, we know who his father was, a guy named Gilead - in fact, it appears that Jeph was raised in his father's house.  Gilead has a wife, and he and his wife have sons, and when they grow up they drive Jephthah out of the house because he's an illegitimate son.  Now, if I remember my Torah right, people who had illicit sex were supposed to be killed or else made to marry if they were both single consenting adults, so technically this situation shouldn't exist.  But sometimes God takes things that shouldn't be, and does something really cool with them.  Bad stuff happens, and we can't always just get rid of it, but God can do something even better than erasing it - He can redeem it.

So Jeph is an outcast living in a place called Tob, and some guys who are apparently real losers hang out with them (seriously, my Bible calls themn "worthless fellows").  But Jeph must've been one heck of a fighter or something, because when the Ammonites start going to war with Israel, the elders from Jeph's hometown go out and find him and say, hey, we want you to be our chief so you can fight these Ammonites.  Jeph says, Um, didn't you guys kick me out?  Name one good reason why I should listen to you just because you're in trouble.  The elders say, because you'll become our chief.  So Jeph goes with them.

Jeph has an interesting battle tactic.  He sends a message to the king of Ammon saying, why the heck are you guys fighting us anyway?  The king replies, because you guys took our land away and we want it back.  Jeph says, No way dude, that's not how it happened.  And he tells them the story that we already know from Numbers: how Israel asked very nicely to pass through Moab, and Moab wouldn't let them, so they had to go around, and they had to go by Ammon, and they asked very nicely to pass through Ammon, and Ammon not only wouldn't let them, but went out to war against them.  Is this all coming back?

Anyway, Jeph's point is that after all this, God gave the land of Ammon to the Israelites, so the Ammonites lost their right to live there; they can live in whatever land their own god gives them (nice touch).  But he might as well not have said anything, because the king doesn't listen.

So of course, Ammon and Israel go to war, and Jeph does something really stupid.  He makes a vow that if they win, he'll give whatever walks out of his door first as an offering to God.  So of course Israel wins because God is with them, and Jeph goes home, and what - or should I say, who - walks out his door first? His daughter.

Okay, so I think scholars are probably divided on what actually happens to Jeph's daughter, because the Law forbids human sacrifice of any kind.  In fact, we learned all about the redeeming of the firstborn sons, since firstborn animals were offered as sacrifices, but instead of doing that with their children they would offer an animal in the son's place.  Now, the text says that Jeph's daughter goes into the mountains to mourn being a virgin her whole life, not that she goes to mourn being about to die, and when she comes back the text says that she had no relations with a man, so I think that what actually happened is that she just lived a celibate life, and maybe she spent the rest of her life in the Lord's service or something, kind of like what Hannah did with Samuel.  Here, I found a little article that explains it in further detail:

Anyway, so those Ephraimites once again are really miffed that they weren't invited to join the battle.  What is up with Ephraim?  Every time the people on the other side of the Jordan get in a fight, they want a piece of it.  Only this time the Ephraimtes tell Jeph they're going to burn his house down because he didn'task them to fight.  Jeph tells them that he did call Ephraim and ask for their help and they just didn't give it.  That part wasn't in the story already, so we didn't know about it.  Then Ephraim and the people of Gilead fight each other, and Jeph's team wins.  It kind of looks to me that what has happened is exactly what these people's ancestors were worried about when they made their memorial altar - that there would be a rift between the Israelites to the west of the Jordan and those living in Gilead, and that the people in the main part of Israel would say that the other guys weren't really part of them.  Ephraim says to the people in Gilead, "You are fugitives of Ephraim, O Gileadites, in the midst of Ephraim and in the midst of Manasseh."  I don't know what that means, but it sounds like it means "You're not real Israelites."  Their ancestors tried to prevent that from happening, but it happened anyway.

Oh, but this is really funny.  After this battle, there's a kind of lingering feud between Ephraim Gilead, and when crossing the Jordan the people all have to say the password: Shibboleth.  See, Ephraimites apparently couldn't make a "sh" sound, and they would say "Sibboleth," and then the Gileadites would know the person was an Ephraimite.  I think that's funny.

The end of this chapter just mentions all the people who judge Israel after Jeph, but the most significant ting about any of them is that the judge named Isban has thirty sons and thirty daughters, and another judge named Abdon has forty sons and thirty grandsons who rode on seventy donkeys.

Jeph's story is kind of a weird one, but I think he was a cool guy overall.  I really don't think he killed his daughter.  I like that he attempted diplomacy.  And I love that we see the heart of God in this story.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Judges 6-9: The Original 300

Okay, before I start, I just wanted to say about the Spartan 300 that when the Persian army was approaching, somebody said they were so numerous that when they shot their arrows, they blotted out the sun.  One of the Spartan warriors replied to this, "Good, then we will have our battle in the shade."  I love Sparta.

*clears throat* But that's not the 300 I'm talking about in this passage.  No, these chapters are about a little guy named Gideon.

Unlike the Spartan warrior, Gideon does not strike me as a very brave, valiant, "it's a good day to die" type of guy.  When we meet him, he is threshing wheat in a winepress.  What?  Well, it's because the Midianites are oppressing Israel right now, and since the winepress was kind of a pit (maybe like an empty swimming pool?), he was threshing wheat in there to hide from the Midianites.  Normally, threshing wheat was a community event, maybe like a party - we'll see that when we get to Ruth - poor sad little Gideon is all by himself, hiding from the school bullies so he doesn't get his milk money taken.  Okay, so maybe I'm not being fair to him.  I'm just saying all this to make a point: Gideon is not the kill-a-few-hundred-people-with-an-oxgoad warrior, or even the shove-a-tent-peg-through-a-guy's-temple-while-he's-asleep sneaky assassin that we saw in the last passage.  He's just a regular guy trying to thresh his wheat.

So the angel of the LORD appears to Gideon, and it seems he hasn't been informed that Gideon isn't like Othniel and Shagmar and all them, because he says right off the bat, "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior!"  Can you picture Gideon turning around to see who's behind him that the shiny man is talking to?  Well anyway, Gideon's response to the angel is really interesting.  He says "Oh yeah?  If God is with us why am I threshing my wheat in a pit?  What happened to all the miracles that we heard about that used to happen?" (my paraphrase)

Note: I don't know if Gideon just hasn't read the Torah or something, but I believe that if an angel appears to you, a miracle of some kind is very soon going to happen.

In all seriousness, though, I think it's really interesting that Gideon is saying that miracles don't happen anymore, O woe is me, etc., right when God is calling him to do something miraculous.  Gideon seems to have excluded himself from that possibility.  When the angel tells him that God is going to deliver Israel from Midian through him, what does he say?  "Who me?  God is going to make me a mighty warrior like Shagmar the Oxgoad-Wielder and miraculously defeat the Midianites through me? Awesome, I can't wait!"  No, he says "I'm sorry, the warriors are in the third winepress on your right.  I happen to be the resident wimp from a family of wimps.  God must have been mistaken."

I think sometimes we have such grand, idealized ideas about the heroes of the Bible that we put them in a separate camp from ourselves.  It's like we think there's a special "hero pool" that God pulls people from, and we're not in it.  Reading through the Bible so far, though, I've become convinced of one thing: there's only one pool, and that's the pool you and I were in.  Now, there's two ways to look at that: one way is to think that means we're all in the hero pool, and that the same amazing stuff that was in Moses and Gideon is in us, and so we are capable of doing just as amazing things as they were.  The other way of looking at it is to think that all the heroes are in the "regular person" pool with the rest of us, and that they are just as unremarkable as the rest of us, but that God did amazing things through them because He is remarkable, and God can do amazing things through us too if we just get up when He calls us.  You can even look at it both ways; I'll let you decide though.

Anyway, so I'll stop ragging on Gideon because I think the "sign" thing is kind of a cool idea.  I don't know if it's because he was doubtful or because he just wanted to be sure - I mean, just because a guy is shiny doesn't mean they're the angel of the LORD - but he asked God for a total of three signs during the course of this story.  The first one is right now, when he prepares an offering for the angel, which the angel burns up.  The second and third signs are after Gideon has already gathered an army together.

Now, I heard a sermon about Gideon recently, so this next bit comes fromn that pastor, not me.  He said that when you're asking God for a sign, you'd better be already committed to doing whatever it is God's asking you to do.  When Gideon asked for the signs with the fleece and the dew, there were 32,000 people in his backyard playing football or something, ready to go to battle as soon as somebody said the word.  Gideon wasn't about to contest the results of the sign if it proved true.

So then God does one of his plot twists and trims down the army just a little - from 32,000 to 300 men.  I think it's interesting, though, that he didn't just tell Gideon to count off or have them pull straws or something, but that it appears He really was looking for a certain group of people, rather than a certain number.  First, God has all the people who are afraid go home.  Then he has the people who drink water in a more "refined" fashion go home.  I think God is trying to zero in on the people who are really committed no matter what, and ready and raring to go, like they're sitting there chomping at the bit and stuff.  Maybe God was looking for these people so that when He cut the army so absurdly small they wouldn't all get afraid and back out.  I mean, what if God hadn't eliminated the scared people? There might be some fraidy-cats in the final 300, and they would freak out and say "no way are we going to win," and run off.  Or maybe if He hadn't done the drinking thing, there would be some people in the final 300 who were kind of slow and wanted to take their time and enjoy the scenery en route to the enemy's camp.  I dunno.

So we all know what happens - the 300 people surround the Midianite camp, Gideon sneaks down and overhears some guy saying that Israel is totally going to win, and then they get pots and torches and basically just make a lot of noise, and Midian is so jumpy that they think they're being attacked so, in the confusion of night, they all start killing each other.  So Israel wins, but that's not actually the end of the story.

First of all, the Ephraimites get miffed that Gideon didn't invite them to the battle.  Gideon says Ephraim has already done a bunch of cool stuff and his little victory is no comparison, so the Ephraimites feel better about themselves and don't push it.  After that, Israel pursues Midian all over the place.  They are really tired and they stop at a place called Succoth and ask for food.  The elders of Succoth say "yeah right, whatever," so Gideon says that when he comes back he's going to beat the tar out of them.  Then he goes to a place called Penuel and the same thing happens, so he tells them he'll tear down their tower.  So he does - he captures the kings of Midian, whose names both start with Z, and returns to Succoth and beats up the elders, and then goes to Penuel, tears down the tower, and kills all the men in the city.  Now, I don't know that this was really necessary, but it appears that suddenly Gideon has become a mighty warrior - so mighty that he kills the kings of Midian himself, after asking a kid to do it and the kid was too scared - and also so mighty that Israel asks him to be their king.  But Gideon hasn't let all the gore and glory go to his head - he says no way, God should rule over you, not me.

At this point it seems that things are going rather well.  But then weird stuff happens - yeah, it's still not over.  Gideon asks for the people to give him earrings, so they do, and he makes an ephod out of the gold and takes it home with him.  Okay, no biggie, but apparently the people of Israel - including Gideon! - start using it in some kind of idolatry.  Sheesh!  Are there no decent guys in Israel?

But then we have a short story about Gideon's kids, who are really precious.  Gideon has 70 sons (from many different mothers, thank goodness), and one of them, Abimelech, wants to be king, so he goes and kills all 69 of his brothers - well actually 68, because on escapes - and the people of Shechem make him king over them for 3 years.  But then some other guy named Gaal challenges his authority, and apparently Shechem decides they like him better than Abimelech.  So they go to battle and - get this - Abimelech wins!  And he burns down the tower of Shechem with about 1000 people, men and women, inside!  At this point I'm really just waiting for this guy to die.  But then, the most awesome thing ever happens.He's marching against some tower in a place called Thebez, and as he's standing under the tower, some woman who doesn't even get her name put in throws a milstone at Abimelech's head, which crushes his skull (ouch).  Only he has another guy run him through with a sword so that people won't say that a woman killed him.  But too late! It's already in the Bible!  Man, that Abimelech guy really bugged me.  I'm glad he got killed by a girl throwing a rock on his head.

Then everybody goes home, end of story.

After all the awesomeness of Gideon's story, it looks like no amount of miraculous deliverance is going to cause permanent change in Israel.  It also looks like no matter how great a person like Gideon is, he can't for the life of him raise kids who follow the Lord.  I'm getting really frustrated with these people and their lack of good parenting.  Is it too much to ask for two successive generations of obedience?  But Gideon himself sort of turned against God with that ephod thing, so in spite of judging Israel and having 40 years of peace, it doesn't look like Israel is really following God that closely at any point in this story, after Midian was defeated.

Last night I said to a friend that I think the reason people live so long is because we learn so slowly.  The history of Israel is really a picture of each of us, or at least those of us who are normal.  Maybe some people follow God whole-heartedly and never turn away their whole lives, and are dramatically and permanently changed after witnessing a miracle, but I tend to repeat the same stupid stuff I've always done regardless of what God is doing.  And maybe stories like this one are in the Bible to remind me that I can't slack off after a major victory; I have to stay committed to following God or all kinds of stuff will get in the way, and I don't want that to happen.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Judges 1-5: Dynamite Dudes and Deadly Dames

Now we're in Judges, which is, in my opinion, one of the Bible's most frustrating books.  The cycle of obedience, disobedience, oppression, repentance, and deliverance, is going to be repeated many times, and by the time we get to the end of the book things are just chaotic.  But there is some really cool stuff in this book too; in fact, a few of my favorite people are in this book.

So Judges begins more or less where Joshua ended, with Joshua having just died and the people of Israel wondering what to do about the Canaanite cities that have not yet been captured.  So they start to go after some of them, and Caleb even offers his daughter as a reward for whoever will capture Kiriath-sepher.  Things seem to be going well, but then we find out that the Benjaminites don't drive out the Jebusites in Jerusalem, and that there are people among Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan that are not conquered or not driven out - in fact, the people of Dan get driven into the hills by the Amorites and they essentially lose their land.  So the angel of the LORD comes and rebukes the people for not obeying Him by not driving out all the people, and warns them that those people are going to become a snare to them.

Here's when things really start to go downhill.  We read again about how Joshua died and the people served God while he was alive and while his successors were alive, but then we read a very ominous verse: "All that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel."

Time out.  Wasn't there a big push in the Law for the people to talk about the LORD constantly with their kids?  What happened?  From Abraham all the way till now, we have seen so few examples of good parents that I'm starting to think parenting skills are a genetic deformity with Israel.  So surprise surprise, Israel serves the Baals, which is the collective name for the pagan gods of the Canaanites.  And guess what? those people who didn't get driven out of the land, and a few people outside the land that God had given Israel peace with at the end of Joshua, they now are not so peaceful.

First the king of Mesopotamia oppresses Israel for 8 years.  God sends a dude named Othniel to deliver them, and for forty years things go well.  But once again, Israel is unable to make a good thing last more than one generation, because history repeats itself.  Only this time it's Moab who oppresses Israel, for 18 years this time.

Enter one of my favorite people in the Bible:  Ehud, a leftie.  He stabs the king of Moab, whom the Bible describes as "a very fat man," so deep that his blade gets lost in the king's stomach.  That's just gross, but the story is also really funny.  And after Ehud's display of left-handed cleverness, there are 80 years of peace - I think that's the longest period of rest that the nation is going to have during this whole book, so don't get too comfortable.

Next is a guy named Shagmar.  He only gets one sentence in the Bible, unfortunately.  He killed 600 Philistines using an oxgoad   I didn't know what an oxgoad was so I looked it up.  According to Wikipedia, "The goad is a traditional farming implement, used to spur or guide lifestock, usually oxen, which are pulling a plough or a cart; used also to round up cattle. It is a type of a long stick with a pointed end, also known as the cattle prod. Though many people are unfamiliar with them today, goads have been common throughout the world. Goads in various guises are iconographic device, and may be seen in the hand of Neith and the 'elephant goad' or 'ankusha' (Sanskrit) in the hand of Ganesha, for example."

Now I don't know anything about Shagmar, but he sounds pretty cool just from that.  I wonder why he didn't use a sword though?

After Ehud dies (so apparently Shagmar's oxgoad feat was during Ehud's lifetime), we have a really cool lady named Deborah, a prophetess.  She's not the judge - a guy named Barak is.  But she tells Barak to go fight Canaan, who is the current oppressor of the last 20 years.  Barak says he'll only go if Deborah goes with him.  I'm really not sure why; I guess he thought having a prophetess around would help him with strategy?  So Deborah tells him that Sisera, the army commander, will be given into the hands of a woman.  I thought that meant Deborah was going to get the credit for Canaan's defeat, but that's not at all what she's talking about.  She means, literally, that a woman is going to kill Sisera.  Her name is Jael.

Jael is probably the coolest lady in the Bible.  First, she has a cool name.  But more importantly, when Barak defeats the Canaanites and Sisera runs away, he comes to her tent, and she convinces him that she'll hide him, because apparently her husband's people has a peace treaty with the king of Canaan.  So he hides there and falls asleep, and Jael takes a tent peg and hammers it through his temple.  That's way grosser than what Ehud did.  Jael rocks!

The next chapter is a song that Deborah and Barak sing, and Jael has her own stanza.

So what do we learn about God from this passage?  One, that God is serious when he says there will be bad consequences for sinning.  Two, that God is also serious about forgiveness, and serious about keeping His covenant with Abraham.  I mean technically, God's already fulfilled the covenant; He kept His terms.  But He continues to keep it even after Israel has broken it over and over and over.  Why?  I guess because God has a plan that's bigger than Israel.  And He'll do what it takes to see that plan through, because ultimately it will save us all.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Joshua 13-24: Dividing the Land

Sorry I got behind again!  I'm going to finish Joshua today, but I might take a little more time with Judges.

So what happens now is that the promised land starts to get divided among the twelve tribes.  And that takes seven chapters.

In chapter 13 we see a list basically of what people/places have been conquered and driven out of the land, and which have not.  So there are some pagan cities and peoples who have not even been touched yet.  We also review that Moses promised land in Gilead to Gad, Reuben, and half the people of Manasseh, which they can now go back to because they kept their promise to help the rest of Israel fight the Canaanites.

In chapter 14, Caleb asks Joshua for a certain piece of land.  I really appreciate Caleb here.  He is basically Joshua's number 2 guy, although not officially (I don't think), and he's the only other person Joshua's age who's still alive because he was the guy who thought they could take on Canaan way back when the 12 spies were sent out and 10 of them were chicken.  I'm sure he does have a right to his choice of land.  Now, I get the feeling that if this had been Aaron or Miriam, they'd have griped and complained behind Moses' back by now, but Caleb doesn't do that.  He just goes to Joshua and makes his request.  Simple, bold, radical - the direct approach is generally always best.

So then for the next several chapters, we read what the borders of each of the territories are, and what cities are included in them.  I have to admit, this part got pretty dry.  I mean, do we really need to know exactly what Judah's western border is in explicit detail?  Well, I guess Judah needed to know.  Maybe it was written down like this so they wouldn't have border disputes later on, or maybe they just liked to record things.  Anyway, I'm sure there's a good reason as to why all this is in the Bible; it's just not very interesting for me to read.  I suppose if I were an archaeologist, it would be much more interesting because I would know what all these places are.  Kind of like how the genealogies are a little more interesting for me to read because I'm something of a genealogy buff.

By the time we get to chapter 20, all the land's been divvied up, and now it's time to designate six cities of refuge (we've read about those several times now).  I wonder why there are only six of them?  I guess they were planning on not having a whole lot of manslaughter-ers in the area, or maybe this just made it easier to keep track of who could and couldn't go where.  Anyway, in chapter 21 we see that there are 48 cities total that are just for the Levites to live in, and those are spread across the whole nation since Levi doesn't have their own section of land.

There's a great little addendum at the end of this chapter, once all the land has been given out: it says that the LORD gave Israel all the land He promised them, and that He gave them peace all around, and that not one of His promises to them failed to come true.  Isn't that just lovely to read? I think it is.  This stuff that we've been reading about since Genesis about promised land and a nation as numerous as the stars and all that - for the first time, it actually exists.  The nation of Israel is now more than a theoretical concept.  All the laws that God's been giving them for the last three books about "when you enter the land, do this," they can now do.  It's great.

So then something weird happens.  Once the tribes that live on the east side of the Jordan go back to their places, they rig up an altar.  Now, if you remember from a few entries ago, they weren't supposed to sacrifice stuff just any old place but only in the place God said.  So all the other tribes get really freaked out about it and march on Gilead.  What?  Well, for once the people are really concerned about doing things God's way, that's what.  They've just barely settled into the land, and they don't want anybody screwing it up for them.  Luckily, there's nothing to worry about.  The Reubenites and Gadites and Manassehites (?) have only put this altar thing up as a memorial to remind them that they belong to Israel, and so that their descendants and the other tribes' descendants will know that they're really part of each other and serve the same God, although there's a big river in between them.  So the other tribes say "false alarm!" and go back home.  I just find this really interesting.  After more than 40 years of people doing things their way and not giving a rip about what God wants, this generation is really committed to keeping God's laws.  If only it would last.

By this time, Joshua is an old dude.  He knows it's just about his time to go, so he gathers the elders together for a farewell address, like Moses did.  He urges them, just like Moses did, to remember the LORD and obey Him and teach their children to do likewise.  He reviews their history - everything that God has done, all the battles He's won for them and the good land that He's given them.  This is where that famous verse is: "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD."  And the people respond to this, "We'll serve the LORD too!"  Joshua says "yeah right, you're going to turn away from Him."  The people say "No, we really will serve God."  So Joshua says "Okay, don't say I didn't warn you."  And he writes, presumably, the book we are now reading.

Finally, Joshua dies at age 110, which means the last paragraph wasn't written by Joshua.  We find out that Israel did indeed serve the LORD all during Joshua's lifetime, and during the lifetime of the people who immediately succeeded Joshua.  I don't know if that is when this little postscript was added, or if it was written later, because it doesn't tell us what Israel does after Joshua's successors die.  We'll find out very soon though, as we move into Judges.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Joshua 7-12: Six Chapters of War

Jericho is the first of many cities in the area of Canaan to be destroyed by Israel, and once it gets flattened, the Hebrews are chomping at the bit to go on to the next city.  But if you're at all familiar with the story, you know that they jumped the gun on this one.  It's a little town with a little name: Ai.

What happens is, in the case of Jericho (and several of the other cities), God told the people that they couldn't take anything from Jericho.  Not just that all the people had to die, or even that all the people and all the animals had to die, but they couldn't even take gold or silver out of the city.  So along comes this guy named Achan, and I'll give you three guesses what he does.  Yeah.  To be specific, he takes a lot of something: a mantle, two hundred shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weight fifty shekels.  A shekel is 9.56 grams, or a little over a third of an ounce.  200 shekels is a little over 4 pounds, and fifty shekels is about one pound.  Now, I don't know what the subjective value of these things would have been to that society, but right now, gold is being traded at over $1000 per ounce and silver at over $16 per ounce.  So if Achan had taken that amount of gold and silver today (I have no idea what a mantle is), it would amount to about $18,783 in gold and $1125 in gold that he stole.  That's if it were today.

So math aside, Achan screwed up, so after being found out and confessing, he is stoned to death - and not just him, but his family too.  Why is that?  I looked up some commentaries and one of them pointed out that Achan is the fifth generation after Judah, making him one of the older Israelites, maybe in his 50s at this time.  Based on that and the fact that God had previously commanded that no child was to be killed for the sin of their father, I think it is a safe inference to make that Achan's children 1) are adults, and 2) along with Achan's wife, knew about his sin and hid it from Joshua.  Being an accomplice to an evil - or just not saying anything - is sometimes as bad as doing the crime yourself.

So after this matter gets cleared up, so to speak, Israel goes on to defeat every tribe that is in the land God has promised them.  Different people try different things to defeat them, including making a sneaky promise, banding together with other tribes, and so forth, but nothing works.  A total of 31 kings, including the ones we've already learned about in Numbers and earlier in this chapter, are defeated by the Hebrews.

One of the kings mentioned, one of five actually who join forces in an attempt to stop Israel in its tracks, is named Adoni-zedek, and can you guess what city he is king of?  Jerusalem.  If you know any Hebrew at all, you probably know that the word "Adonai" means "lord," and you may also know that "zedek" means "righetousness."  Put those words together next to Jerusalem, and does this name sound familiar to you at all?  It sounds frighteningly close to Melchizedek, the guy Abraham met waaaaaaaay a long time ago in Genesis.  But this guy appears to be bad and definitely not in Israel's side.  Descendant?  Unrelated coincidence?  I have no idea but it's really weirding me out.

What do we learn about God in a chapter that basically is one war story after another?  I think we learn first of all that he was faithful to Abraham and the covenant he made with him and Isaac and Jacob.  I think we also learn that God is punishing the sins of the Canaanites.  Depending oon what city they go to, there are different levels of destruction that must be brought to the city; in some, every living thing is killed.  In others, every living thing is killed and none of the spoil can be touched.  In some, only the people are killed, and in the ones outside the promised land, only the men are killed.  I read this and I recall a passage way back in Genesis that I will paste here for you:

Genesis 15:13-16 "God said to Abram, 'Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.  But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions.  As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age.  Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquty of the Amorite is not yet complete.' "

In other words, God had already given the land of Canaan to Abraham and his descendants, but he was going to give the pagan people in the land four hundred more years to repent and turn from their ways.  It seems from the context like they were just doing things a lot more immoral than what was going around in the surrounding areas, because God didn't call for any kind of conquest or judgment on any other tribes.  And I really believe that if these nations had  turned to God, he would have forgiven them.

And this in turn brings a passage to mind from 2 Peter.  Read it with the Canaanites in your mind:

"[B]y the word of God the heavens existed long ago and the earth was formed out of water and by waterthrough which the world at that time was destroyed, being flooded with water But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men But do not let this one fact escape your notice, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (3:5b-9).

God is patient with us - he is literally waiting for us to repent, and sometimes he withholds judgment in anticipation of that.  But there is evidently a point at which the time is up, when you either have repented or you are not going to.  The Bible says that today is the day of salvation - not tomorrow, not someday when you get around to it.  We don't know what exactly the Canaanites were doing that God disliked so much, but we do know that everybody does things that are wrong, and I even think everybody does things that are in rebellion of what we know is right.  And in the end, all sin separates us from God.  You cannot endure his presence unless you are no less than perfect.  I don't think it's because God is an Adrian Monk germ-freak afraid to get his clothes dirty; I think it's because our God is a consuming fire and everything that is not pure and holy already will be scorched when it comes into contact with him.  That's a problem, and that problem is what the nation of Israel was created to demonstrate.  The only way for us to enter God's presence is for something completely innocent to stand in our way - and friend, you and I will never be that.  No matter how good you become in your life, you can't erase the bad things you've done.  Only one person can do that, and his name is Jesus.  His blood is the only detergent that can wash the stain of our sins completely away.  All you have to do is take your dirty laundry to him and ask him to clean you.  The Canaanites had four hundred years to get things straight with God, and they missed the opportunity.  Don't let it pass you by.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rewind - Genesis 3: Sin Entered the World . . .

Note: In reading over my blogs I've noticed a few chapters that got overlooked somehow here and there.  Genesis 3 is one of them. I think I'm going to make separate posts for each of these (I've only noticed one other so far).

Genesis 3 is about sin entering the world - the serpent deceives Eve and she eats, and then Adam eats, and the rest is history.  This is a loaded chapter. 

First of all, there's a tension between seeing and hearing - God gave a verbal command to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree, but then Eve looks at the tree and sees that it appears good, so she goes with that.  We as humans, I think, are much more likely to believe our eyes than our ears.

Secondly, did you know that according to Jewish belief, Satan hasn't fallen yet at this point in the story?  They believe that Satan was specifically created to tempt man, so that he would have free will - the idea being that without options, you can't really be said to be making choices.  Ever since I heard about that, I've wondered if it is true.  The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us who Satan is or what he was before he became God’s enemy; tradition tells us that he is Lucifer, the name Isaiah gives to the king of Babylon, but the text itself doesn’t say that, although it may well be true.  All we know is that his name means “adversary.”

Thirdly, Adam and Eve realize they're naked.  Donald Miller has an amazing chapter in his book Searching for God Knows What about the significance of this idea.  To sum it up, nakedness represents complete vulnerability.  We equate it with shame today, but it wasn't that way in the garden because Adam and Eve knew they were completely, wholly accepted by God and by each other; they had nothing to hide.  We lost that at the fall, that security.  Now we are always trying to cover up what we perceive to be our inadequacy; we're embarrassed of ourselves.  You know this is all a double entendre, right?  Nakedness is more than physical openness, it's every kind of openness.  We try to hide who we are from each other because we fear rejection.  In the same way, Adam and Eve tried to hide their nakedness from God in a symbol of their disobedience - they no longer could be completely open with Him; having broken His law, they had something to fear, and something to hide.  God is not at all put off by that.  And the beautiful thing is, He doesn't leave them like they are, even though they're being punished.  He clothes them with animal skins.  This is the first time in history that something has died, so it probably really freaked Adam and Eve out.  Something innocent died to provide covering for them, when God had said that when they ate of the forbidden tree, they would be the ones who died.  So they’re looking at the dead animals on their bodies and thinking, “Is this what was going to happen to me?

What Adam and Eve did in the garden is what we all do.  I don’t believe that in a mystical, vaguely-Eastern way all humans were pre-incarnately present inside Adam’s body and every one of us chose to eat the fruit.  But I do believe that in each one of our lives, we take a shortcut – what we see over what we have heard, maybe – and we decide that our judgment is better than God’s.  Then when we screw up and we know it, we feel ashamed, inadequate, guilty.  We want to hide.  We try to cover up our wrongdoing by various means – good deeds, religiosity, denial, indifference, materialism, you name it – those things are leaves.  They’re a sloppy makeshift loincloth that is going to blow away at the slightest gust of wind, leaving us totally exposed.  But along comes God who sees who we are and what we’ve done, and He makes provision for us.  He doesn’t let us off the hook – no, when sin happens, something or someone has to die – and that someone was Jesus.  His death should have been our death, and would have been our death.  But now His body and blood give us covering for our shame and make us able to stand again.  It’s something we didn’t have to do and certainly didn’t deserve to have done.  In theological terms, that is called grace.

Joshua 1-6: We're Goin' to the Promised Land!

Okay, does anybody else read the story of Jericho with the music to Veggie Tales' Josh and the Big Wall running through their mind?  I do.  "You silly little pickle, you silly little peas, you think that walking 'round will bring this city to its knees?"  But more on Jericho later.

We begin with God commissioning Joshua, following the death of Moses, so this book picks up right where Deuteronomy left off.  Then Joshua appears before Israel and they vow to obey him.

What interests me about this chapter, and also about the end of Deuteronomy, is the charge to Joshua to be "strong and courageous."   Including Deuteronomy 31, Joshua is told to be "strong and courageous" seven times - first by Moses, then by God, then by the people of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh.  It makes me wonder if Joshua was really not that strong and courageous of a person.  Do you ever wonder why he was Moses' successor instead of Caleb?  Caleb is mentioned more in Numbers - he's the one mentioned as speaking favorably about the promised land way back in Numbers 13, for example.  He seems to be the strong and courageous type.  But I think Joshua had been prepped to take over Moses' job because he was his assistant, and he even went up to Mt. Sinai with him.  I think God wanted somebody who was as close to Moses as he could get.  Moses wasn't strong or courageous either, and we all know how much that mattered to God.  I think that you don't have to be brave to be brave . . . I think courage is something God can give you, and something that comes when you know you're on God's side.

In chapter 2, Joshua sends spies into Jericho kind of like Moses did earlier, but he only sends in two.  Think that's a coincidence since only two of Moses' spies (including Joshua) gave a favorable report?  I don't.  Anyway, they meet a girl named Rahab; apparently she's a prostitute, although I've read that the word could also be translated as "inkeeper."  Either way, she's hospitable and she hides the men while people come looking for them, and asks that Israel spare her life and the lives of all in her family in return.  So they make a deal with her that if she puts a scarlet cord in her window, then everybody within her house will live, but if she doesn't have the cord in her window, the deal's off.  Interestingly, it says she ties the cord in her window right when the spies leave.

Then Israel crosses the Jordan River, only they cross it by God cutting off the water upstream so the people can cross it on dry land.  This seems like a completely useless miracle because we just saw mention in the last chapter of fords, meaning there is a part in the river that is really, really shallow and can be crossed without a bridge.  I don't think that the point of the miracle was practicality, though.  I think the point was to remind the Israelites of what happened at the Red Sea.  I've noticed that God often does things in pairs (you'll hear more about this after I finish Judges) - for instance, Jesus feeds 5000 people, then he feeds 4000 people.  I think it's a way of reinforcing or confirming the message.  Joshua is new in charge, just as Moses was new in charge when he led the people out of Egypt 40 years ago.  Both miracles were signs that the power of God was on this chosen leader, only Joshua didn't have 10 plagues already under his belt, which makes this miracle even more important.  This is a way for God to show people that Joshua is the guy to follow.  It's also, I think, a miracle for the sake of the people who didn't see the Red Sea parted - since, remember, that was 40 years ago.  They've grown up hearing about it, and maybe this is a way for them to experience what it may have been like to see it happen.

Chapters 4-5 are more religious and less actiony.  In chapter 4, God has Joshua make a memorial pile of stones taken out of the Jordan River - a stone to represent each tribe of Israel - so that in future generations, the descendants of these people will ask their parents why that pile of stones is there, and they'll tell their kids about the crossing of the Jordan.  It says that the pile of stones is still there "to this day."  More on that later.

In chapter 5, God tells Joshua to circumcise all the males in Israel.  For some reason, nobody has been circumcised for the last 40 years while they were traveling.  I'm really not sure why that is.  Like, Moses didn't circumcise his kid either until an angel appeared on the road to Egypt about to kill one of them, and even then his wife did it. Did Moses just have a thing about circumcision, so he never told the people to do it?  I don't know.  Or was it like a travel concession - while you're on the road you can put it off.  I have no idea.  Anyway, that's what they do in chapter 5.  But then something really cool happens.

Joshua goes outside one day and sees a guy with a drawn sword.  Joshua asks him whose side he's on, and the guy says he's not on either side; he's the captain of the LORD's army.  Cool!  You can give me battle strategy advice, right? says Joshua.  Well not really.  Joshua falls on his face - which, for future reference, is the appropriate response when you're in the presence of the LORD, as it appears was the case here, because the angelic captain has Joshua remove his shoes.  Then (moving into chapter 6) he tells Joshua how to win the battle.  Basically he doesn't have to do anything except look weird, and God will take care of the rest.  So that is what they do.

Pause for a second.  Did the captain of the LORD's army just say he wasn't on Joshua's side?  Now maybe by that he meant that he wasn't an Israelite, and that probably is what he meant.  But I always felt like it meant something else too, that God is above the temporal divisions we humans make between ourselves.  Just like we say today that God isn't a Republican or a Democrat, He's not an Israelite either, and he certainly isn't under Joshua's command.  I think that it is not so important to have God "on our side" as it is for us to be on God's side.  Think about that for a bit and see if those two perspectives lead to different conclusions.  I think they do.

I love it when God's instructions don't make sense.  Here, walk around this fortified city, as if you haven't been walking enough over the last 40 years.  Walk a complete lap once every day for six days.  On day seven, lap it seven times.  Then blow trumpets and yell.  Trust me, it'll work!  Um . . . are the walls sensitive to sound waves?  But they do it, and it does work.  When they start shouting and blowing their trumpets, the walls fall flat - that's what it says, like "timber!" fall down flat.  They've found Jericho, by the way.  It looks like it suffered from earthquake damage is what archaeologists say.  Except for this one little spot along the wall which was left intact when the rest of the walls fell.  That would be Rahab's house.  Back to her.

So Rahab kept her promise, which means that the spies (and therefore all Israel) kept their promise, and when they destroyed everything in Jericho, they let Rahab and her whole family join up with them, not as slaves but as naturalized citizens.  We later find out that Rahab marries a guy named Salmon and has a son named Boaz.  We'll meet him later.  Pretty cool, huh?  And it says that "Rahab has lived in the midst of Israel to this day."

Now, you will find the phrase about something being somewhere "to this day" repeated a lot in this book, but we don't get any sense of when "this day" is until just now when it is used of Rahab.  Notice that Rahab is a living person, so if she has lived in Israel to this day, it means "this day" is during her lifetime, dating the book of Joshua to within a few decades of this event.  Also, I think I take back what I said about Joshua not writing the last part of Deuteronomy.  Among other reasons, the wording about "to this day" is a repeated phrase that I've only seen in this book.  So maybe Joshua did write it after all.

So that's where chapter 6 ends.  I'm going to stop on the high note, because there's bad news and I want to save it for next time.