September 22nd, 2013

Every hero needs a Savior.

Judges 3:7-21

September 22, 2013

Sitting around the campfire

So far in in our study of Judges we have introduced the book two ways.  In the Preface (chapter 1) we learned about Israel’s human enemies.  In the Introduction (chapter 2), we learned about Ba’al, the Canaanite rival to Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Last week we asked the question, “What’s Wrong with False Gods?”  Moderns have a hard time with the exclusive demands of the God of the Bible.  But if you think of God as a teacher, asking his students to remember, or a parent, expecting some gratitude, or a husband, expecting fidelity, or a pastor, pleading with his sheep not to destroy themselves, you understand why God expects exclusive allegiance.

Today we come to the first three of the “Judges” – leaders, deliverers, legends. We will call them “Heroes.” I will retell three Hero stories contained in Judges 3.  Let’s imagine we are sitting around a campfire in the Judean desert with David, future king on the lam, running from King Saul who intends to kill him.  The nation is coming together, but it is far from what it will be.  David rehearses the stories of Heroes past.

The first Hero story will be a character story, meaning that the protagonist is an ideal hero with an exemplary character. This story illustrates the cycle in the book of Judges – sin, judgment, repentance, deliverance, and peace.

The second Hero story will be a crude story, so be forewarned.  It’s a bit of Hebrew humor – what one writer calls “a literary cartoon.”[1]  This story making sport of the antagonist may seem inappropriate for good company, especially mixed.

The third Hero story will be a courage story.  It’s the shortest of the short stories.

Othniel: a character story

 (Judges 3:7-11)

God’s Lion vs. The Great Evil


Go back with me to the days when Adonai[2] had brought our fathers into this land, but had left the Canaanites, Hittites, and Jebusites among us to test us, whether we would obey the commands of Moses. In those days our people gave our daughters to their sons and our hearts to their gods.[3]   There was no king in Israel, and every man worshiped and obeyed himself.[4]  Only during those seasons when God raised up Heroes was there unity and rest in the land.

Scarcely a generation had passed since Joshua had led the conquest.  Of his generation, only Caleb son of Jephunneh joined Joshua in serving Adonai faithfully.[5]  Even Caleb’s younger brother Kenaz, was among those who died for their disobedience.[6]

One of the sons of Kenaz was named Othniel, which means “God’s Lion.”  He was our first Hero.  God’s Lion rose up against the greatest enemy we have ever faced, ruling over an empire more vast than Pharaoh with a heart even harder. Cushan-Rishathaim was his name, which means “Cushan the Doubly Wicked.”  I call him The Great Evil.  Not content with ruling the vast lands of the Euphrates River valley, The Great Evil swept ruthlessly and forcefully down the coast into Canaan.  In those days the battles between Canaanite and Israelite seemed like forgotten tribal skirmishes.

Where was Adonai, who had delivered us from Egypt and brought us into this land?  We had forgotten him, so in his burning anger he sold us to the Great Evil.  Rather than converting Canaan into the home of Adonai, we allowed Canaan to entice us to the excitement of worshiping Ba’al, the god of storms and enjoying the sensuality of his Asherahs.  When we abandoned Adonai, we absolved him of his responsibility to us.  For eight long years we all lived like Pharaoh’s slaves before The Great Evil.

But when we screamed in pain from our suffering, Adonai raised up Lion the Hero from the tribe of Judah.  He became our new Joshua.[7]  Adonai’s Spirit came upon Lion the Hero and he was the walking, talking, fighting presence of Adonai.  The Great Evil of the Rivers may have been a world class barbaric invader, but he was no match for a Hero who overwhelmed him by the power of Adonai.

Calm settled over Israel for that entire generation, as long as God’s Lion lived and led.  The people remembered Adonai and followed him.  He, in turn, blessed them.

Ehud: a crude story

 (Judges 3:12-30)

Lefty vs. King Obese

The next Hero’s story is as funny crap, and smells as bad.

Israel’s antagonist in the next generation may not have ruled as large an empire as The Great Evil, but his ego was larger.  And the largest part of him was his belly.  Even his name, Eglon, sounds like “Fat,”[8] so we’ll call him King Obese.  His head was as big as his waist, but he was as stupid as this rock I’m sitting on.  What a buffoon!

The story begins again after the death of The Great Lion, with the Israelites abandoning Adonai, doing evil right in front of his face.  Because of that, Adonai gave King Obese power over them.  He was King of Moab. Moab!  A tiny little neighbor, not an empire.  Our cousins! – the descendants of Lot, the nephew of our father Abraham.[9]  (Their people had tried to curse Israel through Balaam, a plot foiled by an ass.[10]  That’s a funny story too.)  Moab wasn’t even strong enough to defeat us on their own.  King Obese needed allies – Ammon and Amalek.

King Obese was no equal to the Great Evil, and he never would have triumphed over Israel except for Adonai’s will to punish Israel with a rotund idiot.  Perhaps our fathers felt secure with no mighty emperor like The Great Evil on the scene, so without fear they lapsed into evil and set up sculptures of pagan gods.  Adonai sent King Obese to attack from the east, and he set up his headquarters and built a palace in Jericho from which he exercised oversight and received taxes.[11]  King Obese was not just ‘pleasingly plump’ but encased by a foot of fat on all sides.[12]  To him, blubber was a sign of wealth, so he gorged himself constantly, constantly filling up his intestines.

Our second Hero was named Ehud.  Unlike God’s Lion, a warrior of character from Judah on whom the Spirit of Adonai fell, Ehud was a left-handed[13] deceiver[14] from Benjamin, the smallest tribe. I call him Lefty.  Furthermore, Lefty was a traitor to our people.  He collected and delivered taxes to King Obese in the Jericho palace.  If the eight years under The Great Evil of the Rivers weren’t enough, the oppression under King Obese of Moab lasted eighteen years.

But one day, Lefty had enough.  He hid a double-edged sword with no cross blade, eighteen inches long, under his clothing on his right side, where no warrior ever keeps a sword.  Bringing with him an entourage of men to carry the tribute, he flattered King Obese with all the usual words and gestures, earning his naïve trust.  Lefty and his men exited the audience hall closely watched by the Fat Guardsmen[15].  But when he reached Gilgal on the outskirts and saw the idols, Lefty resolved to carry out the plan that he had conceived.  So he turned back around and headed to Jericho, alone.

Entry into King Obese’s audience hall was no trouble for a man who had just brought enough tribute that it had to be carried by several men.  Lefty approached King Obese and said in front of all his stoutly attendants, “I have a secret message for you, O king.”  You’ve got to admit – he was telling the truth!  But none of those jesters suspected a thing.

“Shut up!” cried King Obese to his attendants in his folly. Everyone cleared the hall except the King and our Hero.  How can you be so stupid, right?  Lefty the Hero then walked up the steps to the chamber throne where King Obese awkwardly squeezed into the oversize throne of his summer palace at Jericho, and changed the message:  “I have a message from God for you.”  Gullible to the point of idiocy, King Obese was flattered!

A message from God requires respect, so King Obese pushed with one arm and then the other and rose to see what God would say to a king who was able to command this sort of tribute and honor and personal attention, and who was, indeed, the fattest king who ever lived.

Lefty the Hero reached for his right side, where no self-respecting warrior ever keeps a weapon, drew his dagger, and plunged its entire  eighteen inches so deep into the king’s blubber that the blade was buried in fat.  The dagger’s tip ripped open King Obese’s bowel, which emptied its crap all over the throne room as the clumsy body slumped silently to the floor.[16]  And Lefty slipped out the door, locking it behind him.  The idols lining the hallways and streets were impotent to stop this Hero.

The boneheads guarding the king suspected nothing with a throneroom locked on all sides, so they waited…and waited…and waited.  When the smell of the king’s crap  floated through the air and out the door, their first thought was, “Don’t bother him now – he’s taking one of his famous dumps in the throneroom toilet.”[17]  But even King Obese doesn’t take all day for nature to take its course, and finally in confusion they unlocked the door to find the king dead and the assassin long gone.

Lefty the Hero wasn’t through yet.  He gathered an army and marched against 10,000 of King Obese’s robust soldiers in Moab, slaughtering every single one.  Overnight Moab went from master of Israel to its slave, and the flow of tribute reversed itself.  For two generations Israel enjoyed its peace.

Shamgar: a courage story

 (Judges 3:31)

A Pagan Hero vs. the Philistines

But Lefty wasn’t the last Hero.  He was followed by Shamgar, who wasn’t even an Israelite and himself worshiped false gods.[18]  We’ll call him A Pagan Hero.  Yet Adonai used even him to deliver the Israelites.  The best story about him is that he took a cattle prod and leveled 600 Philistines all by himself.  No army, no battle, no help.  All alone.

Stories of God at work

Don’t you love the Bible?  What a collection of literary genres, from the strict laws of the Torah to the soaring praise and brutal honesty of the psalms to the simple actions and words of Jesus in the Gospel.  And this.  What are we to make of the three short stories in Judges 3?

Yesterday I attended the Barnabas training event in the Althouse Room, and one-day event designed to help us be better spiritual friends.  I wrestled with whether I should attend the seminar or work on the sermon, and it turns out I could do both.  If you were there, you will recognize some of these insights.

Everyone has a story.  Roger Edwards from the Barnabas Center opened the day with a Chick-Fil-A training video that showed several customers – a couple, a single Mom with her kids, a little girl, a teenager, an older woman sitting alone.  Floating beside each head was a short summary about them.  For example, the older woman had just lost her husband a month earlier, and she was eating at Chick-Fil-A on what would have been her fiftieth anniversary.  The principle for Chick-Fil-A is that you aren’t just selling a product – you’re serving people, each of whom has a story.

Roger, our facilitator, asked the group which of those stories in the film touched us, and I chose the older woman.  We just put my Dad in a nursing home on Friday, and the odds are that will be his last home and he won’t be there long.  Here I was 5 minutes into the one day seminar, and my eyes moistened because I was there with my own story.  My four siblings and I had a phone conversation Friday night, when our doctor-brother made it clear to all of us that Dad has a terminal disease, which is called old age.  We all reacted to that in various ways.  My siblings are all opinionated, strong-willed, and articulate (if you can believe that!).  Each one of us has a story, and I need to remember that their way of handling this moment is going to be shaped by a story very different from my own.

Every person you touch every day has a story and is a story.  The happy ones, the grumpy ones, the impatient ones, the fearful ones, the friendly ones, the strangers and the people who live under your roof – they all have a story.

When I meet people for the first time, I often ask them, “Tell me your life story in five minutes.”  I don’t time them, but I want the big picture because whatever’s going on in their lives at this moment is part of a larger story.  Maybe at this moment they’re getting married or having a baby or battling cancer or looking for a job or engaging in an extramarital affair or looking for a church.  But that part of their story is like the moment when Lefty pulls out a hidden dagger.  It’s only one frame of a full length feature film.

The narrator of Judges could have left us with the generalities and principles and overviews of chapters 1 and 2, but instead he gave us names and details and time frames and enemies and heroes.  He gave us stories.  Perhaps he wanted us to see ourselves in those stories – good guys, bad guys, victims, villains, nobodies, and legendary heroes.  More importantly, perhaps he wanted us to think more clearly about our own stories and to make more room and time to hear the stories of others.

Our stories all matter to the Lord of life and history, and Judges 3 teaches me to be curious about the stories of others around me and more open about my own.  People aren’t numbers and workers and citizens and names.  They are living stories created and known and loved by God who is weaving them into a greater story.

Every story has a hero.  These stories in Judges 3, of course, aren’t exactly comparable to the ordinary lives that most of us live.  Siblings chatting about what to do about Dad’s first day in the nursing home would not rise to the level of the stories in Judges 3.

These are hero stories.  They are stories of larger-than-life legends who accomplish heroic feats and do exploits.  They are so dramatic at times that some people question whether they are historical.  I choose not to delve into such debates, for two reasons.  First, the Bible gets the benefit of the doubt for me.  The Holy Spirit led the community of faith to preserve and pass on these stories, and that’s all I need to know.  Second, debates over details tend to obscure the power of these stories.

These stories are designed to make us think about our heroes.  You and I all have heroes.  Heroes are people who are admired for what they do or who they are.  Heroes are people we want to be like.  The reason I asked you to imagine David running from King Saul telling these stories around a campfire in the Judean desert is because I’m convinced David knew these stories and they shaped his life.  They helped him kill Goliath and wait for his time as king and expand his territory in battle.

We all have heroes, and naming them helps us understand our own stories.  My Dad has his heroes.  He himself was born of missionary parents, and one of Dad’s heroes was his Dad, who served in India for 50 years.  Another of Dad’s heroes was Gandhi, and my Dad is quite proud he was born in India on Gandhi’s birthday.  When I go see him next week on his birthday, Dad will be more proud that it’s Gandhi Jayanti (Gandhi’s birthday) than that it’s his own.  Before next week, which is likely to be my Dad’s last birthday, I want to spend some time researching Gandhi again and understanding how Dad’s hero has shaped him.

One of my heroes is my Dad.  When people ask me why I’m in the United Church of Christ, a denomination very different in some ways from my own background and thinking, I often talk about my Dad giving his life to missionary service in Pakistan.  What matters to me about that part of his story is that he was there because he was called there – not because he could see what difference he was making or because he could count the converts.

Every hero needs a Savior.  This is a theme we will develop throughout our studies in Judges, because we are still prone to look for heroes when we need a Savior.  All our Heroes are human, and they are as full of crap as the rest of us, they just know how to hide it or even use it to their advantage, as many pop heroes do today.

Roger showed us two clips yesterday from a movie Linda and I both love – Mr. Holland’s Opus.  Mr. Holland, played by Richard Dreyfus, was a public school music teacher who was downsized and felt his life had not mattered to anyone.  At the end of the movie, he realizes the number of people to whom he has been a Hero – including the governor of his state, who had learned self-respect by learning to play the clarinet from Mr. Holland.  But along the way we also learn of Mr. Holland’s very human flaws – his flirtations, his failures as a father, his self-pity and self-absorption.  We learn from our Heroes, but they also divert and destroy us if we worship them.

In these three short stories about evil enemies and stupid people and flawed heroes, lost in the pools of blood and a heap of dung may be the real back story – or should I say front story.  While it’s easy to get distracted in the intrigue and deception and gore, it was Lori Blocker this week in our staff meeting who pointed out how central God’s action is to this chapter.  Did you miss him?  It’s easy to miss him!

In his anger, Yahweh sold his people to Cushan (8).  Yahweh raised up a deliverer, Othniel (9).  The Spirit of Yahweh came upon Othniel and Yahweh gave Cushan into his hands (10).  Yahweh gave Eglon power over Israel (12).  Yahweh gave them Ehud as their deliverer (13).  Yahweh gave Moab into Ehud’s hands (28).

Roger Edwards reminded us yesterday that when we live and hide and tell our stories, they are always stories of God at work.  Every week I talk to people fearing surgery or fighting a spouse or worrying about money or needing a friend or craving worth.  The stories in Judges remind us that these moments are generally not about what we think they are about.  They are about the God who alive and active, who is moving and changing and wooing and punishing and inviting and inhabiting and stepping aside and listening and hurting and craving and pursuing and forgiving and using us in ways we cannot possibly grasp at the moment.

This goes to the question of why I think the book of Judges is worth our time.  Why would I spend ten minutes of a Sunday morning sermon on a left-handed Hero stabs the crap out of an obese, egotistical, idiotic king?

Because it’s a reminder that every Hero needs a Savior.  At the end of the story, even our Hero stories are not about them or about us.  They are about God.  And if our fallen or flawed Heroes disappoint and devastate us, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it’s a good thing.  They simply serve once again to remind us how flawed we all are, and what a gracious God we have who has rescued us once and for all by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

[1] Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, 156.

[2] For almost two thousand years, at least, Jews have not pronounced the Name of God, YHWH, out loud, substituting “Adonai” (Lord).  We don’t know for sure what the practice was during the time of the Judges or of David.  http://www.hebrew4christians.com/Names_of_G-d/Adonai/adonai.html

[3] Judges 3:1-5.

[4] Judges 21:25.

[5] Numbers 32:12.

[6] We find his name in Judges 1:13, and infer from Numbers 32:12 that Kenaz was among those who perished because he did not follow the Lord as his older brother did.

[7] Judges 3:9 says Othniel “saved” them, using the verb form of Joshua’s name.

[8] “Eglon” is a form of egel (bull, calf), but it sounds like agol (round, rotund).

[9] Genesis 19:36-37.

[10] Numbers 32-34.

[11] In the 1930s, archaeologist John Garstang excavated Jericho and discovered the ruins of a palace he dated to the 14th century B.C. It seems to have been an isolated structure occupied by a wealthy administrator for a brief period of time.

[12] The two Hebrew words together mean “exceedingly rotund.”  Think Sumo wrestler or contestant on “The Biggest Loser.”

[13] There is some disagreement in commentaries about whether left-handedness was considered a defect and handicap, or whether Benjamite soldiers were trained to be ambidextrous.  The only thing the text implies is that it was unusual.

[14] His encounter with Eglon exposes him as a “master of deceit” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 161).

[15] The descriptive words in v. 29 indicate that even the soldiers in Moab’s army were overweight men, and one can imply that the bodyguards would have been the model specimens of size.

[16] The most likely interpretation of a difficult Hebrew phrase in v. 22 is that Eglon’s “bowels relaxed and discharged their contents” (block, 168) as he fell to the ground.  See newer versions of the Bible – 2010 NIV, NLT, ESV.

[17] The phrase “inner room of the house” in v. 24 probably indicates a private bathroom adjacent to the throne room.

[18] Shamgar’s name is four consonant sounds in Hebrew (sh-m-g-r), which probably indicates a non-Hebrew origin.  “Of Anath” seems to indicate the worship of an Egyptian/Canaanite goddess of war.

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