WHO WILL GO UP FOR US?
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I borrow a lot of books from Regis College downtown. I like to tell them about what’s going on, particularly my friend Mary the head librarian. When I put the stack of books on Judges on the table she said “You’re really going through the Bible aren’t you?” I said “We like to look at the whole thing.” Even Judges, which frankly would be very easy to ignore. For churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary which schedules which passages to read and look at over a three year cycle, Judges appears in one week (Judges 4:1-7).
It would be very easy to ignore. It’s full of terrible violence. Assassins and daughters being sacrificed and war and smiting and rape and finally civil war and an almost complete genocide. Why would we want to look at this? When people complain about the Old Testament and its God of anger and wrath and how they don’t like to think about that but prefer the loving God of the New Testament, they’re generally talking about writings like Joshua and Judges.
So why look at Judges? What does it have to speak to in our day? Look at the situations that are described in the book. One writer puts it like this: “tension and strife between rival groups; disputes over land and territory; uncertainty over the roles of men and women; power hungry political leaders; child abuse; spouse abuse; senseless and excessive violence, male political leaders who chase women; excessive individualism; moral confusion; social chaos.”
Does this sound like any world we know?
We look at Judges because we’re told to listen for God’s voice. We believe that God speaks to us in scripture and we take scripture seriously. That doesn’t mean we always take scripture literally. Did you know that in the early days of the US, Puritan preachers preached Judges and used it to justify killing entire indigenous populations because the Puritans were the new Israel? You can use the Bible to justify horrible things. We look at scripture as a whole. We look at the book of Judges in light of the Torah that taught the people of Israel how to live in harmony with God and with humanity. We look at is as a prophetic book that instructed the people of Israel how to live under God’s covenant. We have our own four year sermon cycle here at Blythwood which will enable us to look at different parts of the Bible – Torah, poetry, Gospels, letters, history. We call the book of Judges history but it’s not history the way it’s come to be known – as an objective factual account of events (and no historian these days would tell you that any history is completely objective). For Israelites the book of Judges is among a set of books known as the Former Prophets which includes Joshua and 1st and 2nd Kings. Like the Latter Prophets, the purpose of Judges is largely to instruct people in what it means to live under God’s covenant – to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. For this reason I won’t be spending any time trying to reconcile the historical records in Joshua and Judges and why they differ. I won’t be trying to explain how Joshua’s death is reported in Judges 1:1 and how he’s alive and dismissing people in Judges 2:6.
But we will take it seriously. We must see books like Judges in light of the whole canon. Did God’s choosing of Israel mean they were favoured above and beyond the Egyptians or the Canaanites? Did God deliver the Israelites from Egypt with some force because he didn’t like the Egyptians or because the Egyptians were oppressive and oppressors usually don’t give up without a fight? Did God prefer the people of Israel over the Canaanites or do the Canaanites represent forces that work against God’s good purposes and work against the things that God loves? Is the importance of land emphasized because God is telling us it’s alright to dispossess people of their land or because in a fragmented agrarian society land meant life and following YAHWEH means resting in your land and following God means life?
Biblical historians have many different points of view when it comes to how Israel settled in Canaan. Some say it was an invasion, others a peasant revolt, others a gradual infiltration. Judges doesn’t answer this question definitively, but one thing that is undeniable is that Israel is in a precarious situation. They’re outside of any power base. They’re fragmented. A loose collection of tribes. It’s been called a “liminal” situation. Liminal being a word derived from a Latin word meaning “threshold” or “border” or “margin”. They’re in between things. They’re marginalized. Kind of like how we feel a lot of the time no? As a church. As individuals. We’re going to see throughout the book how God sends judges, though don’t think of them in terms of Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown. They’re leaders. Sometimes they’re called deliverers. Deliverers. I like that. They point forward to the one who delivered us. What do these stories have to say to us? I think they ask a question.
“Who will lead us?”
“After the death of Joshua, Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who shall go up for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’” This is the question of the book of Judges and I would say that in many ways it is the question of our lives. “Who will go up for us?” “Who will lead us?” “Do you love me?” as someone would so famously ask about 1,000 years later. To whom will we go for life? Will we follow God? Will we trust God? Will we trust ourselves? Will we live lives that are dependent on God or will we live lives that are founded on self-assertion and self-will? Will we seek God’s ways or will we seek our own ways? One writer that I read in preparation for this series wrote about God’s way as being the way of compassion. Do we choose compassion over all else? Do we choose to ask God to work God’s compassion over all else – over prosperity for example? Or how about even survival? Because when we make survival (which seems like not such a bad goal) the thing we strive for above all else, there are winners and losers. When it came down to it, God chose love over his own survival didn’t he? Are we willing to follow this God? What might that demand of us?
“The Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.’” So far so good, but things start to go south rather quickly. “Judah said to his brother Simeon, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; then I too will go with you into the territory allotted to you.’ So Simeon went with him.” A little brotherly quid pro quo might not seem like such a bad thing but the point here is that that was not the plan. We see initial success nonetheless. “Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek.” Again we see the issue of self-assertion coming into play though. The king Adoni-bezek is defeated and flees and is captured. They cut off his thumbs and big toes. This apparently is a Canaanite practice as the defeated king talks about how he had done the same to 70 other kings. It would have rendered them unable to hold a sword. It would have hindered their mobility. There’s nothing in the Torah about doing this to people. It’s almost like Judah and his tribe thought that they needed a little something extra to make sure. This is not how they were to live.
It’s not about who you are or what tribe you came from. It’s about how we choose to live. They brought Adoni-bezek to Jerusalem and he died there. Note the mention of Jerusalem here. It would become the seat of the Israelite monarchy. Later, when the Israelites choose not to pursue justice and righteousness, and the widow and orphan were oppressed, and the prophets were crying “Peace! Peace!” when there was no peace, a similar destruction would occur. It’s never been about “us vs. them.” Israel was to be a nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed. We’re called to be a blessing to all the nations.
The descendants of Hobab the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law went up with the people of Judah. Kenites are going along with the Israelites. Foreigners had always gone along with the Israelites. When they left Egypt we read “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds.” (Ex 12:37-38) It was never about what tribe or people you were born into. The question for us is how loyal are we to the God who has shown his loyalty to us? Do we trust his promises or do we think we need to hedge our bets? Are we unduly influenced by or are we taking part in practices and principles and systems that reflect the ways of Canaan rather than the ways of YAHWEH?
The rest of Chapter 1 details mixed results for the people of Israel. We see Judah having success in the hill country but not so much on the plains. We see tribes failing to drive out Canaanite inhabitants, but living among them instead. Finally we come to Napthali who “did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; nevertheless the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and Beth-annath became subject to forced labor for them.” Before we go thinking that this doesn’t sound too bad, remember that there was nothing in the Torah about subjugating people to forced labour. In fact, being subjected to forced labour – in other words enslaved – was what the Lord had delivered them from in Egypt.
You can imagine God shaking his head at them. In exasperation. In pain. This message is for us my friends. May we take the time throughout these weeks to reflect on the things, the systems we’re involved in that are not of God. May we turn to him. Ask him to help us.
There are many questions swirling around chapter 1 and the opening of chapter 2 of Judges. One writer puts them like this. Did Israel truly repent? How will Yahweh respond? What will be the effect of the Canaanite presence? How will Yahweh respond? How far can Israel stray from the covenant before God gives up on them altogether?
It’s a bit of a cliffhanger and we’ll consider these questions as we go through the book. We see God responding though at the beginning of chapter 2. The response is grace. The response is faithfulness. The angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim – from the place that the Israelites first camped when they crossed the Jordan into the land of promise. What kind of judgement is the angel of the Lord going to pronounce? God’s grace. “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ‘ I will never break my covenant with you. For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done!”
See what you have done! This is a question of relationship isn’t it? The question isn’t “Why have you done this?” like it were something theoretical or merely philosophical, or there was some excuse to give. When we hurt someone or are hurt we never first ask “Why?” We say “What have I done….” We say “Look what you’ve done…”
In the midst of this, the first word is an affirmation of God’s grace. I delivered you. It is an affirmation of God’s unrelenting love. God loves us relentlessly friends. When we consider the question “Who will lead us?” over the coming weeks, may our answer be ever more this God who loves us relentlessly. May this be true for us all.