Monday, November 22, 2010

Judges 14, 15, 16 Samson: God's Choice

Samson in Dagon TempleImage via Wikipedia
Samson's very existence was a miracle.  He was born to a childless couple; to a woman the Lord called barren and sterile.  From the very beginning, he was a Nazirite, living a life dedicated to God.  And, before he was even conceived, the Lord told Manoah's wife, Samson's mother, that he would begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines.

Decisions were made made for Samson before his life ever began.  As a child he observed the Nazirite vow and no doubt heard the prophecy about his future.  But did Samson ever make a decision to accept God's choices for him? Did Samson ever chose God?

One of Samson's first adult decisions, to marry a Philistine woman, was not only a violation of God's Law but also a rejection of his parents' wishes.  Later, on his way to arrange the wedding, he walked through vineyards.  In and of itself, that is not bad but it showed a desire to explore the grey areas of God's Law for him.  As a Nazirite, he was not permitted to drink wine or to have his hair cut.  True, the vineyard is not an alcoholic beverage, but there is a strong association with wine.  On this initial trip, when a lion attacked him in this vineyard, the Spirit of the Lord came upon him with power so that he was easily able to kill it.  God communicated to Samson that he would protect him against hostile forces.

Through this lion attack, God also revealed himself to Samson in a personal and in an intimate way.  God saved Samson's life and also gave him the opportunity to evaluate what he was doing in the vineyard.  Scripture states that he didn't tell his parents about the lion; maybe he didn't want them to ponder this sign from God; maybe Samson didn't want to meet God yet.

On the way to the wedding, Samson went out of his way, again through the vineyard, to look at the lion's carcass.  Samson found a beehive inside the carcass and scooped honey out of it.  By touching a corpse, Samson again rejected God's Law for the Nazirite  and became ceremonially unclean.  Not only did he eat some of this honey himself, but he also brought some to his parents, who ate not knowing its source.

Leading up to this ill-fated wedding, Samson had made numerous, conscious decisions to violate God's Law.   Normally a joyous occasion, this wedding feast was a tortured event because the Philistines blackmailed Samson's bride into aiding them to solve the riddle.  Anger and massacre consummated the celebration.

Samson stormed away from his bride and wedding feast, not to return for several months.  When he returned during the wheat harvest, to visit his bride, he was informed that she was now someone else's wife.  Enraged, Samson exacted revenge on the Philistines by using three hundred foxes to torch their fields and vineyards.  After the Philistines burned down the house of his bride's family, Samson fought them even more viciously.

Until now,  while Samson did fight the Philistines, it was more of a reactionary skirmish rather than a planned military feat.  Rather than turning to God for wisdom or direction, Samson trusted in his own strength, which was supernatural but confined to the way in which he saw fit to use it.

An escalating exchange of hostilities between Samson and the Philistines resulted in Judah's alignment with vengeful Philistine forces.   Judah turned Samson over to the Philistines, a thousand of whom Samson slaughtered with a donkey's jawbone.  After this battle,  Samson's first prayer was recorded.  Dehydrated from the battle, Samson realized that in his power, he could not satisfy his thirst.  He called out to God to provide water.

When faced with his weakness, Samson recognized his need for God.  Perhaps it was at this moment that Samson made a decision to have a relationship with God; to call the God of Israel his own.  Nevertheless, I also wonder if, during the ensuing twenty year  period of peace, Samson drifted away from his need for God, from his relationship with God.  Immediately following  the peaceful interlude, is recorded the notorious story about Samson and his love with another Philistine woman named Delilah.

Again spurning God's Law, Samson entered into an adulterous relationship with Delilah.  Because she agreed to betray Samson into the hands of the Philistine, Delilah persistently prodded Samson each  night that he spent with her to reveal the source of his strength to her.  Samson fibbed; Delilah acted on his information and then called in the Philistines; Samson was always able to break the bonds.

Because this pattern repeated a few times, Samson knew that Delilah had conspired to cripple him.  Yet, although he finally told her what he thought might be close to the truth, he was surprised to see that his strength really left him after Delilah cut his hair.   Scripture states that he expected to shake himself free of the Philistines.  Since the hair was the outward manifestation of his relationship with God, maybe God left him because Samson abandoned even a superficial allegiance to him.

The Philistines gouged his eyes out and imprisoned him.  In this weakened, humiliated position, as Samson's hair began to grow back, perhaps he also drew closer to the God of Israel.  When he was marched out as a spectacle for the Philistines reveling in their success against the God of Israel, Samson was recorded as praying to God, the source of his unusual strength, to strengthen him once again so that he could avenge himself on the Philistines.  Samson also asked that he might die with the Philistines.

In the end, Samson, a Judge in Israel, died after he accepted the relationship that God wanted to have with him.  Unfortunately he lived his life his way: died childless and without a wife; died without brilliant military campaigns; died with a legacy of being known for his rage and unbridled sexual exploits.  Fortunately, before he died, he understood that God was the only true source of his strength.

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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Judges 11, 12, 13 Land for Peace

אזורים בארץ ישראל Holy Land regions -- Galilee...Image via Wikipedia
Whoa!  There it is again - land for peace.  Nestled in the pages of the Book of Judges, Israel's new military leader/judge, Japhthah entered into a dialog with the Ammonites who waged war against Israel.  He simply asked them why they were attacking his nation.

The Ammonites replied that three hundred years earlier Israel took their land and they wanted it back, immediately and peacefully.  In so many uncanny ways this mirrors current events in the Mid-East.  However, Japhthah did not waffle on his right to the land.  Japhthah's response to the Ammonites, recorded in Judges 11: 14 - 28, reflected his knowledge of history, his relationship with God, and his faith in God's covenant relationship with Israel.  It is so powerful that I am inserting it here:

Judges 11: 14 - 28

14 Jephthah sent back messengers to the Ammonite king, 15 saying:
   “This is what Jephthah says: Israel did not take the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites. 16 But when they came up out of Egypt, Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea[a] and on to Kadesh. 17 Then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Give us permission to go through your country,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. They sent also to the king of Moab, and he refused. So Israel stayed at Kadesh.
 18 “Next they traveled through the wilderness, skirted the lands of Edom and Moab, passed along the eastern side of the country of Moab, and camped on the other side of the Arnon. They did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was its border.
 19 “Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, who ruled in Heshbon, and said to him, ‘Let us pass through your country to our own place.’ 20Sihon, however, did not trust Israel[b] to pass through his territory. He mustered all his troops and encamped at Jahaz and fought with Israel.
 21 “Then the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and his whole army into Israel’s hands, and they defeated them. Israel took over all the land of the Amorites who lived in that country, 22 capturing all of it from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the desert to the Jordan.
 23 “Now since the LORD, the God of Israel, has driven the Amorites out before his people Israel, what right have you to take it over? 24 Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the LORD our God has given us, we will possess. 25 Are you any better than Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever quarrel with Israel or fight with them? 26 For three hundred years Israel occupied Heshbon, Aroer, the surrounding settlements and all the towns along the Arnon. Why didn’t you retake them during that time? 27 I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me. Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites.”
 28 The king of Ammon, however, paid no attention to the message Jephthah sent him.

In Judges 11:33, Scripture records that the Ammonites were completely subdued because the Lord handed them over into Japhthah's hand.

In His infinite wisdom,  the Sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob made a covenant agreement with Abraham to give him and his descendants through Sarah (Genesis 17), the land of Canaan.  Abraham did not ask for land.   In Genesis 12, God told Abraham to leave his country and to go to the land that He would show him.  What I am pointing out is that God both initiated this move and predetermined  to give this land to Abraham.  The disposition of the land had everything to do with God's Sovereign Will  and with Israel's submission to it.  

For Israel, to trade the land for peace is tantamount to rejecting God's covenant with Israel.  The Sovereign God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe, who gave the land to Abraham and his descendants, is the One with whom  the unbelieving world must contend.  The God of Israel has defended His people when they placed their trust in Him and in His Will for them.  I encourage Israel to do the same today.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Judges 9, 10, 11 Jerub-Baal

Death of Abimelech.Image via Wikipedia
When God called Gideon to action, his first assignment was to tear down his father's altar to the pagan god, Baal.  Because he was so terrified of the public outcry and repercussions about destroying the altar of this popular deity, Gideon dismantled it at night.  The next day, when this deed was discovered, all of his townsmen wanted to kill Gideon for blaspheming against their god.  But, Gideon's father said, " If Baal is really a god, let him defend himself." (Judges 6:31)

That day,  the townsmen began to call Gideon, Jerub-Baal, meaning "let Baal contend with him". (Judges 6:32)  This phrase carries the expanded meaning of, if Baal is really god, let him judge Gideon for the destruction of his altar; conversely, if Baal is no god, Gideon will suffer no judgement.   So, Gideon's life was a bold statement testifying to his unswerving allegiance to the One true God of Israel, in whom he placed his trust.  Gideon's new name proclaimed to the world that he stood in opposition to faith in Baal, to whom many Israelites already succumbed.

In spite of all of his military conquests, Gideon, at the time of his death, was still known as Jerub-Baal. After Jerub-Baal's death, his seventy sons identified themselves with his stance against Baal, but Abimelech, his son by a concubine, despised his father's relationship with God.  Returning to Shechem where his mother's family lived, Abimelech incited the people to rebel against the leadership of Jerub-Baal's sons.  When the people of Shechem hired him to lead their military, they paid him from the coffers of Baal's city temple, which implies that Abimelech was now working for Baal.  Abimelech's first act was to massacre his seventy righteous step-brothers.

 Jotham,  Jerub-Baal's youngest son who managed to escape, climbed up Mount Gerizim and proclaimed  a curse over Abimelech.  Although, in the Books of Moses, Mount Gerizim was identified with blessings, not curses, it would appear that Jotham, by ascending Mt. Gerizim was identifying himself with God's blessings.  As a representative of Israel clinging to the true knowledge of God, he described Abimelech's sin and then placed the judgement of it into God's hands.  Where Jerub-Baal was a name that called on Baal to avenge himself, Jotham called on the living God of Israel to avenge the slaughter of his brothers, Jerub-Baal's sons.

Three years later, the curse of Jotham came upon Abimelech, the citizens of Shechem, and the citizens of Beth Millo.  In this very public arena, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob defended Himself and vanquished those who trusted in Baal, a god who couldn't defend his followers against God's judgement.

Intertwined throughout Old Testament accounts, Baal worship was something with which young Israel constantly struggled.  Baal, the supreme male deity of the Phoenecians or Canaanites, originated from the   Hebrew בַּעַל (ba`al)  meaning the adversary who is also lord or master.  Baal later became known as Beelzebub.  Eventually, this name was identified with the prince of demons.  

It is imperative to note that the struggle has always been between Absolute Good and Evil; between Light and Dark; between the One true God of Israel and Baal, in his numerous incarnations and names.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judges 6, 7, 8 Gideon

Gideon is a judge appearing in the Book of Jud...Image via Wikipedia
In stark contrast to the song of Deborah, the Israel of Gideon was in the grip of paralyzing fear.  Hordes of neighboring tribes, seeking to destroy Israel, raided Israel, ravaging the land, the crops, and the livestock.  For seven years, Israel, cowering in fear, hid in caves, mountain clefts, and strongholds. 

So, where was the God of Israel?   While Israel was creatively hiding from enemy forces, there was no Biblical account of Israel seeking God.  In fact, this section began with, “Again, Israel did evil in the eyes of the Lord…” (Judges 6:1).  Israel abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when they turned to worship the gods of the land. 

There is what is of God and what is not of God; the forces of Light and the forces of Darkness; forces of Good and forces of Evil.  These are very distinct black and white delineations – they are no shades of grey.  Right and wrong are absolutes in God’s spiritual economy. 

When Israel chose to worship pagan gods, they effectively rejected the God of Israel.  When the peace and wisdom of God’s reign ceased, fear flooded the emotional and psychological landscape of Israel.  Worship of false gods generated both false and harmful lifestyles which reflected toxic values.

Israel was so entrenched in pagan idolatry, that they couldn’t see clearly through the spiritual darkness that enveloped them.  Unable to formulate a prayer to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Israel continued to suffer at the hands of the Midianites until they couldn’t tolerate it any longer.  Then, Israel called out to God who immediately responded to them.

Scripture introduced Gideon as representative of the people of Israel.  Because of his great fear of the Midianites, he was threshing wheat, normally done in a large open area, in a winepress, a fairly confined, enclosed structure.  While Gideon saw himself to be a helpless victim, the Angel of the Lord came to him and greeted him saying “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” 

Failing to perceive God’s ambassador, Gideon took this opportunity to voice his frustrations and fears.  As far as he understood, God had in fact abandoned Israel.

When the stranger commissioned him to fight Midian, Gideon declined, by citing his own weakness and social insignificance.  When the Angel of the lord promised to be with him in battle, Gideon, too fearful and perhaps too spiritually blinded to readily discern God, sought a sign to confirm that he was talking to God.

After Gideon received the sign he needed, he again became fearful because he saw God.
While God conferred His peace upon him, He also admonished him to cease being afraid.
Later that night, God instructed Gideon to tear down his father’s altar to Baal and an Asherah pole.  Because he was afraid of his family and of the townsmen, Gideon, with friends, tore the altar down at night. 

Although Gideon chose to obey God, it appears that he was not fully convinced of God’s power and of God’s covenant agreement with Israel.  When God appointed him to lead the military, Gideon seemed to be more concerned with Midianite destruction by his hand rather than Midianite defeat because it is God’s Sovereign will, regardless of whose hand God used.  Perhaps Gideon didn’t fully understand God’s plan for His people.  While Gideon didn’t know God that well, he still gave God a willing and obedient heart. 

Even though Gideon as always fearful, God faithfully met him at the point of his fear and gently worked with him.  With God’s help, Gideon subdued the Midianites and Israel enjoyed forty years of peace.  So towards the end of his life, Gideon was the man that God saw him to be when He first greeted him, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”
Gideon relied on God for the direction, strategy, and planning that went into his military campaigns against Midian. And, God was with Gideon, the mighty warrior.
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