On Sunday, September 15, God’s people in Crafton Heights started an unusual journey – in the coming sermons, I’ll be looking at the Book of Judges and seeking to understand how those ancient and often harsh words and stories can speak truth into the lives of God’s people in the 21st century. Our scriptures for the day included Judges 1:1-7, 27-32 and John 17:14-18.
Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone or something that you simply love has made an absolutely terrible first impression on someone else? Maybe you’ve been talking about a restaurant that you’ve discovered and how amazing it is and you finally take your best friend there, only to have the trainee server spill hot coffee all over the table and the kitchen totally flub your dinner order. Or you really liked a teacher you had in school last year, and so you tell all the new ninth graders to sign up for her class, but then she just freaks out on the first day of the semester and scares the heck out of everybody. One time I invited some friends to see one of my all-time favorite musicals – we got great seats and settled in, only to discover that the sound system wasn’t working and the person who sung the lead role was sick and the understudy made some major mistakes…
Do you know what it’s like to rush into a conversation with some friends and say, “No, no, no…it’s not usually like this! I don’t understand what happened here…It’s almost always better than that!”
If you do, then let me simply say, “Welcome to the book of Judges.” If there is any part of the Bible that makes Christians want to avoid eye contact and feel the need to say, “Look, really, God is a cool guy. I don’t know what happened – it’s like he flipped his lid for a couple of hundred years.”
Have you ever read this book? It’s really, really hard to put a good spin on what is happening here. Judges is a difficult book. Let me ask you this: has anyone ever been talking to friends about faith and about the Bible and said, “You know, I think that the book of Judges really helps us get to the heart of who God is…”? I doubt it. This book is embarrassing – at least the way that we usually read it. To be honest, God seems like kind of a jerk in these pages.
And yet, I’m here to tell you that I have sensed very strongly a calling to study these pages. One particular verse from this book has been ringing in my head for months now, and so we’re going to spend some time looking at this difficult text.
You heard the way it begins. Let me give you a little context for this reading. Judges comes after the stories of Moses and Joshua. The main narrative in the Bible so far has been that God’s people have been taken captive and enslaved for 400 years, and then are led to freedom. Moses brings them to the edge of what has been called “the Promised Land”, and Joshua leads them into it. And Judges comes before the next main story line in the Bible, where we see how Saul, and then David and Solomon and the rest of the boys become kings and lead the people. Judges is after one important story and before the next…and the people are waiting, in a sense.
And what’s the first thing that happens in this new place for these people who have been freed from slavery, called according to God’s purposes? Don’t you wonder, “How will they experience this new ‘land of milk and honey’ as they live into God’s best for them?” Let’s see – Judges 1:5-7
They came upon Adoni-bezek at Bezek, and fought against him, and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. Adoni-bezek fled; but they pursued him, and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and his great toes. And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their great toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has requited me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.
Seriously? That’s what you’ve got? For 400 years you were slaves, and then you spent a generation in the desert, following Moses and Joshua; you saw water burst from rocks in the desert, and you heard the voice of God at Sinai and your father walked across the Red Sea and you know people who remember the Passover…and your big dream of liberation and freedom leads you to cutting off this chowderhead’s big toes and thumbs?
Well, Dave, that’s what it says. The man says that’s what he did to other people, so that’s what was done to him. Thanks be to God.
Yeah…NO. Because frankly, if God led God’s people all the way from the Egyptian enslavement through the wilderness across the Jordan into the Promised Land just so that they could go around pulling stunts like this, well, then, God is a jerk.
This is the kind of stuff that makes us want to avoid even reading the book of Judges. We don’t get it – what’s with all the violence? There is no good way to hear this story, if in fact it’s a story about smiting and genocide and wrath. And if someone does ask us about the god of Judges, we say, “Oh, no, He’s not really like that anymore. I mean, sure, God used to be pretty grumpy, but then he met Jesus and the Holy Spirit and they really lightened him up – seriously, God is OK now…” We can laugh at that, but really – that’s the theology of a number of people who claim to be Christians – that God used to be mean and crabby but got a little softer over the millennia.
How do we read Judges? Look, I believe that God caused this book to come together, and I believe that this book contains the word of God. I am obliged to take it seriously. So how do I make sense out of a people who go around telling other people that God wants them to cut off their enemies’ big toes and thumbs?
I don’t often do it the way that she does, but here, I’ll invite you to take a hint from my friend Barb. For years, she has told me that when she reads a mystery, she reads the last couple of pages first – and then she starts at the beginning and lets the story unfold – after she knows where it’s going.
So look with me at the end of Judges – the very last verse in this unfortunate book – the verse that has been echoing in my consciousness for months now.
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25)
I would like to suggest that verse as the background music for the entire book of Judges. And actually, I’m really not suggesting it – I’m just pointing it out, because it’s already there. Judges 19:1, 18:1, and 17:6 all contain that same motif… “In those days there was no king in Israel…” The story of Judges is the story of a group of people who ought to know better deciding to live as if nobody matters but themselves.
Listen: my hunch is that Judges is not in the Bible to reveal to us the flawless character of a perfect God who happens to be incredibly ticked off at a group of miserable losers (called Hittites, or Jebusites, or Canaanites) who happened to get in the way of his personal favorite people of all time, the Israelites.
Instead, I propose that Judges is in the Bible to give us a picture of what it looks like when human beings attempt to live as though there is no God. I am not so sure that the book of Judges is here to reveal anything to us about God – I think that it’s here to tell us something about ourselves!
If we read it this way, then Judges tells us about the contrast between two ways of living – one is characterized by the love, grace, and hope of a God who invites his people to a lifestyle of liberation, freedom and justice. The other is characterized by violence, selfishness, and oppression. Judges is not the story of two groups of people, one of whom is God’s favorite and the other of whom is God’s whipping boy. No, Judges is the study of two opposing systems – and our apparent willingness to choose the wrong one time after time after time.
Do you remember the main command from Joshua: Go in and take the land; live lives of faith. Be God’s people in that place.
What happens? Look at Judges 1:27-32:
Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.
And Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who dwelt in Gezer; but the Canaanites dwelt in Gezer among them.
Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; but the Canaanites dwelt among them, and became subject to forced labor.
Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob; but the Asherites dwelt among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out.
Again, I have to ask, seriously? You have just escaped from 400 years of slavery and the first thing you do when you move into a new place is capture the other people and make them your slaves? Is this the work of a people who have been shaped by the fourth commandment, wherein God’s people are invited to have a healthy view of work and rest, of acquisition and trust? It reminds me of that old saying, “slaves dream not of becoming free, but of becoming masters.” What I am suggesting is that the sin of Israel is not so much that they didn’t wipe all the other people out, but that they caved in and lived their lives just like those other people. They chose to live as Canaanites, rather than as Israelites. They gave their allegiance to the wrong power structure.
God calls us from a place of slavery and servitude and humiliation and oppression and says, “Go to this new land and live as new people. Transform the ways that you interact with people!” But what do they do? We barge into Canaan and simply adopt all the old ways that hurt us for the last four centuries.
Beloved, we are going to hear a lot more from this book in the weeks to come, but as we start this study, let me encourage you to read it with fresh eyes and an open mind. Don’t be embarrassed by what you think it says about God; instead, be instructed by what it says about us! The book of Judges is a collection of campfire stories that are told and retold in order to establish the identity of a people – in this case, to remind us how easy it is to choose to live in fear, anger, and defensiveness.
When Jesus was praying for his friends (and for us), he said that he hoped that we were in the world, but not of the world. That is, he knew that we’d be called to live and work and play and worship surrounded by other people, but he prayed that we’d have the strength to choose to live differently than all that surrounds us. The people of God were in the land of Canaan, and they chose to be of the land of Canaan as well. They adopted and supported and built up the same structures there that they had opposed while they were in Egypt. God looked at his people while they were in Egypt and said, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be – live differently!” But no sooner had they gotten to their new homes when they turned and embraced the sinful structures that had oppressed them for generations.
As we walk through this study, and as you walk through this week, I pray that you will look for ways to express the intentions of a graceful, creative, loving God in a world that will not always be receptive to grace, creativity, and love. It doesn’t matter. Be graceful, and create, and love anyway – because that’s who God made you to be.
Thanks be to God. Amen.