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September 8th, 2013

At the end of Judges, we are left with a breathless wonder before the God of grace.

Judges 1:1-7

September 8, 2013

The treasure you completely forgot

This past Friday, when Linda and I were getting ready to head back from Portsmouth, VA, where we had visited my Dad who’s recovering from surgery, we were cleaning out “travel trash” – to-go cups and the like.  Linda spotted a Cracker Barrel paper bag under her seat and asked, “What’s this?”  My answer, all too typical for me, was “Probably just some trash.”  She actually wanted to look in the bag, for some reason, and exclaimed, “It’s Mike’s Christmas present!”  Mike is our son-in-law, and she had looked everywhere last Christmas for a small gift we had bought him. 

The book of Judges is like that.  It’s a treasure you completely forgot about.  You’re likely to get some dust flying off the page as you turn there in your Bible.  Clem Geitner, our Elder Chair, commented this week that in choosing Judges as our Bible book to study, we’re still dealing with “things we don’t talk about in church.”  In 25 years of preaching, I can only find two sermons in my files on Judges, both on chapter 6.

If you know anything about Judges, it’s likely to be for one of two reasons.  First, if you went to Sunday School as a child, among the “Bible heroes” you studied were the two most prominent men in this book – Gideon, known mostly for his prayer fleeces and his dramatic military victory over a huge invading army accomplished by 300 men who never had to thrust a sword, and Samson, the superhero who not only didn’t need a sword, he didn’t need fellow warriors.  He killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass.  (It was about the only time I was allowed to cuss while growing up.)

The second way you might have encountered Judges is if you have read through the Bible.  But when you read Judges, especially as an adult, you immediately notice that Gideon and Samson do some things that are decidedly unworthy of spiritual giants.  Furthermore, you are confronted by some of those details that discourage Bible readers, especially in the Old Testament.  Sure, there are a couple of intriguing stories, but there are also lots of names and places that seem far removed and irrelevant.  Why should I care that the men of Judah attacked Hebron, which used to be called Kiriath Arba, and defeated Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (1:10)?  Do I need to know that?

And then there’s the gory nature of the book.  Do I really need the details about the sword plunged by a left-handed warrior into a fat king’s belly (3:21-22)?  And even that doesn’t touch the moral dilemma of the “holy wars” ordered by God – not only the occupation of Canaan by force, but the annihilation of people of all ages and even animals and property as the Israelites take their land.  By the end of the book, the Israelites are even exercising this kind of battle against one of their own tribes.  So if you don’t like violence and you don’t like dealing with the more uncomfortable perplexities of our faith and the Bible, you just try to move on to something more palatable.

The main reason we decided a few weeks ago to preach on Judges this fall is because we never have.  And in my early reading of the book during the summer, I did start asking myself, “Why?”  As Tim Keller says, the book of Judges can be described as “despicable people doing deplorable things.”  Why study it?

The Bible does get the benefit of the doubt for me.  If a book is in here, it’s in here for two reasons.  The first is human.  Somewhere early on among the literature of Jews and then Christians, the community decided, “This is a keeper.”  In almost every case in the Bible, this happened before anyone consciously thought, “We’re preserving this so it can be in the Bible.”  In the case of Judges, the Hebrew manuscript is remarkably well-preserved, meaning that believers not only kept it, they made sure oversaw its transmission with care so that copyists kept it very close to its original.

The second reason a book of the Bible gets the benefit of my doubt is Spirit-ual.  I believe the process of preserving and collating the books was ordered and guided by the Holy Spirit.  So if it’s in the Bible, Judges is, as we say each week, “the Word of God for the people of God.”  God has a message for us in this book, and we ignore it to our spiritual peril.  When I read the book through those eyes, and further read some introductions to Judges written by those with that sort of respect for Scripture, my attitude was transformed.  I am so excited to preach this fall on Judges!

Today we begin with four observations about Judges that are all foreshadowed in the first seven verses.

The judges are not Joshua (1:1)

Judges opens, “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, ‘Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?”

You don’t have to know a lot about the story of the Bible to know we have a crisis on our hands.  Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, and even before he died, Joshua was groomed as his successor.  There was no gap, no leadership void.  The book of Joshua opens, “After the death of Moses…” and immediately God puts his hand on Joshua who is given God’s promise of success and his charge of high character.  “This book of the law will not depart from you.  Be strong and courageous!”  And Joshua was strong and courageous.  He was faithful to God’s commands and successful in his quest.  It wasn’t just the military victories.  The end of the book of Joshua says, “Israel served the LORD throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him” (24:31).

But the judges are not Joshua.  Gideon is strong, but he’s not courageous at first.  Then after his big victory, it all goes to his head. Samson is strong and courageous, but he’s not wise or godly.  And they’re the best of the lot.    Gary Inrig writes, “The book of Judges is filled with people very much like us – people with God-given potential for greatness and unfailing capacity for catastrophe.”  (Hearts of Iron, Feet of Clay, 9)  None of the judges have the enduring spiritual impact of Moses and Joshua.

Up to now in the Bible, the story of Israel has been rolling forward – at least since the time of Moses and Joshua – not on a straight line, but still forward.  Now the story flows backward.  It’s like going from conquest to anticonquest.

We probably should clarify something out at this point.  The word “judges” is not a good description of who these leaders were or what they did.  Part of the problem is cultural difference.  Today judges are respected and robed men and woman who sit behind elevated desks to preside over court proceedings.  They settle disputes and issue rulings in keeping with established law.

The seventh book of the Bible is named “Judges” because it’s a good English translation of a Latin word that in turn is a translation from a Greek word that translates the original Hebrew.  That’s like playing “gossip” across languages.  The original Hebrew appears in 2:16-19, “the LORD raised up judges.”  It means something more like “leaders” or “deliverers.”  I would suggest changing the name of the book, but it’s a little awkward for those of us who already learned the books of the Bible to say, “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Deliverers, Ruth…”

So let’s stay with “Judges,” but let’s note from the beginning the judges are not Joshua.  This creates their dilemma in verse 1:  Joshua is dead, so “Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?”  There is no obvious answer.

The main character is mostly invisible (1:2)

Verse 2 continues the story:  “The LORD answered, ‘Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands.’”  This verse inspired the sermon title because it’s all downhill from here in Joshua, spiritually speaking.  That’s not literally true – there are a few high points later in the book.  But in terms of the people seeking God’s direction and blessing, and finding it, the beginning of the book is the high water mark.

What happens in Judges is a cycle ad nauseam of sin, judgment, repentance, and deliverance.  The people turn away from their God.  Their neighbors oppress them, which the narrator of this book sees as a punishment from God.  So they cry out to God, and God sends them a leader.  This cycle can take decades.  But it happens repeatedly.

You find yourself wondering, “Why does God put up with these people?  Is he naïve?  Isn’t he enabling them by saying he’ll forgive them…again?  What kind of God is Yahweh?”

That kind of God.  I posted on Twitter and Facebook yesterday that I was preaching on Judges and I had gone in a week from “This is something I need to do” to “I’m so excited I can’t wait!”  A friend from college replied to my post, “When I preached through Judges I went with the assumption that it was a book about sin.  It is really a book about God’s character. One of the commentaries had as its subtitle, ‘Grace Abounding.’”

The most visible characters in Judges are these flawed heroes – rallying for short periods of time, doubting God’s direction, putting their lust for sex or power or blood on display, starting well but ending poorly or the other way around.  When you come to the most important commentary on the Old Testament from a Christian perspective, the New Testament, you surprisingly find that Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah among the judges are named right next to David, Samuel, and the prophets in the Great Hall of Faith!  What are they doing there?  Faith is not about the believer; it’s about the One being believed and waited upon.  But he is mostly invisible.

When I say God is “mostly invisible” in Judges, he does appear from time to time in physical form.  That’s an exciting subplot to the book, and we’ll deal with those events as they come.  But in most of the stories in Judges, you find yourself asking, “Where is the God of Moses who was so visibly active and interactive with the Ten Plagues, the Ten Commandments, the miracles of provision and the judgment?   Where is the God of Joshua who dams the Jordan River so the people can cross and crumbles the walls of Jericho? Where is that God and why isn’t he doing anything?”

Well, God is doing something in Judges, but he’s not often visible.  Does this not remind you of our own age and our own struggles with God?  Where are the miracles of old?  Why doesn’t God judge the wicked?  Why doesn’t he talk to me when I need him?  We will struggle with the seeming inactivity of God in the story, but by the end we will be encouraged to see that he is not only in the story, he is the main character.

Tim Keller says the themes of the book include these –

  • God relentlessly offers his grace to people who do not deserve it, or seek it, or even appreciate it after they have been saved by it.
  • God wants lordship over every area of our lives, not just some.
  • God is in charge, no matter what it looks like.

At the end of Judges, when read correctly, we are left with a breathless wonder not only about God’s grace toward flawed individuals, but about his determination to preserve his people and bring from them the Savior of the world.  This, like every other book of the Bible, is a God-story just like your story is a God-story.

The setting is wild (1:3)

What strikes me about verse 3 by way of introducing the whole book is the lack of a centralized government.  “Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers, ‘Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites.  We in turn will go with you into yours.’  So the Simeonites went with them.”

Notice that in the absence of Joshua, there’s no one insisting that the Simeonites join Judah.  We don’t even know if it was God’s plan that the tribe of Simeon join this battle.  Verse 2 just says that God will deliver the land to the tribe of Judah.  It doesn’t say whether or not they were supposed to have allies or help.  Most of Judges is like that.  There’s no moral evaluation of what happens.  The book is historical and descriptive.  Sometimes it’s obvious if someone’s action pleases God (such as when Gideon routs the Midianites) or is patently immoral (like Samson’s inability to control his lusts).  But much of the time we’re just left to judge for ourselves.

In this leadership vacuum, it happens that two tribes coordinate and cooperate in a battle, and it comes out well.  But unlike the battles under Moses and Joshua, there’s no obligation or assumption that anyone’s working together.  Many of the exploits by the various deliverers are local and unilateral – sometimes an individual, often a tribe or region.

This is like the American colonies before the Revolution, or the “wild, wild west”.  Power is temporary and fragile.  The theme verse of Judges is the last verse.  “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (21:25).  If you thought your neighbor could help you, you asked him.  If he didn’t think it was also in his best interest, he didn’t.  It’s every man for himself – doing what he thinks is right and protecting you only if it protects him and his family.

The people were finding out it’s one thing to occupy the land.  It’s quite another to govern, protect, and unite it.  Judges is a setup for the monarchy that will come later.

The struggle is not against flesh and blood (1:4-7)

Now we are ready for the first story in the book.  The first of the Judges battles occurs in verses 4-7, and it sounds at first like a continuity with the book of Joshua.  Before the record is over, however, we have an ominous sense that something is different.  Dramatically different.

We will save for a later sermon the whole issue of battle and “holy wars.”  If you read Christianity Today, the issue that came yesterday has a cover story called “Grappling with the God of Two Testaments.”  For now, let’s just take this narrative at face value.  God has promised victory to Judah when they go and attack the Canaanites and Perizzites in a town called “Bezek.”  We don’t know where this is, but it’s probably not far from Jerusalem and is likely within the territory of Judah, just to the west of the Dead Sea.  It was a hold out from the conquest, one of many places where the occupation had not been complete.

The attack is successful.  Ten thousand enemy soldiers die (4), and the “Lord of Bezek” is captured.  The NIV calls him “Adoni-Bezek” as if that’s his name, but it’s really his title.  You might even recognize “Adoni” as a word for “Lord.”  He’s a political-military leader of some kind, probably governing the town of Bezek which has allies among the surrounding towns and villages.  He has mustered an army to resist the Israelites, and he loses badly.  I’ll call him “the Bezek-Lord.”

Here’s where the story becomes strange and needs a little help to understand it.  When the Israelites win this battle, the Bezek-Lord runs, but he’s caught alive (6).  Now what do you do with him?  They cut off his thumbs and big toes.  This is a moral problem, but probably not the one you think it is.

You do not get what’s happening here if you judge this story by modern warfare standards.  By modern standards, it’s immoral either to kill the Mayor-General or to torture him.  By ancient standards, there was only one noble thing to do at that moment.  You kill him.  He fought with his troops.  Ten thousand of him died.  He tried to get away, but you got him.  So kill him.  He doesn’t have to live with the ongoing memory of his failure.  He dies in battle with honor.  It’s the merciful and right thing to do.  Furthermore, from the Israelite perspective, this is what God had commanded them to do.

What the Judahites do instead sets the stage for what the whole rest of the book.  When they cut off his thumbs and his big toes, for the Bezek-Lord this is a fate far worse than death.  He is maimed.  He will never be able to fight.  He will never be respected.  He will never be able to run.  He will never be able to farm or do anything productive.

We learn in verse 7 that this is exactly what the Bezek-Lord has done with seventy other political-military leaders he had beaten down.  He made these former honored tribal kings scavenge for table scraps like dogs for the rest of their lives.  It was an act of perpetual gloating, of egotistical hatred, of dishonorable behavior.  It’s what pagan kings do to each other, and the Bezek-Lord gives his own situation a theological explanation: “Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.”

But from the Israelites’ perspective something else is going on.  They are  imitating the customs of the pagan nations they are supposed to displace.  This is why I suggest it’s all downhill from here.  It starts early, on the heels of the first post-Joshua military success.  One commentator says Judges is about the “Canaanization of Israel.”  The story should be about the “Israelization of Canaan,” about the elimination of all that oppose Yahweh and a fresh start that established a new society based on God’s laws.

All this reminds us of what Paul says in Ephesians 6:  “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities and powers of this world.”  This battle, and all the others in Judges, is not really about swords and chariots and camels.  It is about Gods – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who has revealed his ways to Moses and all the false gods who have dominated the ways and thoughts of the inhabitants of the land.

Peter Berger points out that this is still our situation.  We don’t live in a world where it’s the true God vs. secularism.  “The world today, with some exceptions…is as furiously religious as it ever was”  (quoted in Inri, 12).  The false religions of our world include pluralism, relativism, syncretism, materialism, consumerism along with atheism, Islam, Buddhism, and New Ageism.  Behind every false idea of God are the “principalities and powers” Paul speaks of.  We are not fighting the most visible enemy; we are fighting the Evil One who knows how important it is to displace our faith in God with some kind of substitute.

Our study in Judges will help us recognize some of these wrong ideas.  More importantly, it will reveal the consequences when we fail to see them and allow them, subtly or overtly, to displace our trust and obedience toward the One who has called and redeemed us.  We will find ourselves living right in the midst of this story line.

Time travel to today

It hit me this week that Judges is a series of case studies in leadership.  When you teach leadership, generally you find positive role models.  You study George Washington, Gandhi, and Peter Drucker.  You ask what great leaders do well so you can follow their ways.

Studying Judges is like discussing leadership by using case studies of Richard Nixon, John Edwards, and Alex Rodriguez.  They have equally valuable lessons to teach us, but for the most part they are lessons in what not to do, how not to lead.

What we will find is that the world in which these leaders fail to lead is so much like our world.  As one commentator put it in his introduction to Judges, “Straight ahead lies yesterday!”  We find ourselves still “settling for heroes when we need a Savior.”  That’s why Judges is such a perfect set up for Advent.

I love teaching the Bible because it’s so relevant.  I love dusting off the pages of a neglected book of the Bible.  It’s like traveling in a time machine to days long gone and finding when we get there the details have changed, but we simply arrived at a different version of today.  Let’s pay attention to how the Holy Spirit will speak to us.  Amen.

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