Justice League Part 9: Conquering Faith?

Last time I mentioned that Jephthah is included in Hebrews 11’s list of exemplars of faith.  I think it’s an odd inclusion, but then, the whole section regarding the figures from Judges is odd.  Here it is:

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. […]

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

I skipped over verses 35-38 because the Hebrews author seems to be discussing saints and martyrs from the early Church period there.  Verses 39 and 40 seem to be addressing all of the paragons that are listed in this chapter, including the judges.

Here we get the list of paragons from the Book of Judges, and it’s a strange list for sure.  As I’ve mentioned before, it includes Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah.  Clearly this is an abridged list, since the writer says that there’s not enough time to extort the acts of faith from every significant figure in Israel’s history, but I still find it odd who made the cut.  Gideon makes sense, and so does Barak, but why are Samson and Jephthah included when Deborah was left out?  I haven’t discussed Samson yet, but he’s basically the ancient version of an irresponsible fratboy, and Jephthah’s a cutthroat who murdered his daughter.  In both of their stories they do accomplish some things that help Israel out, but they are rather terrible human beings.

I know the standard argument that faith is not dependent upon a person’s character, and the fact that Samson and Jephthah are awful should emphasize how God can redeem anyone for his purposes.  I’ll even give that Samson has a redemptive moment at his death when he asks God to give him one last burst of strength (so he can get his revenge on the Philistines, I might add).  I just don’t know what’s commendable about the faith of these two though.  In a sense it’s childlike, because they trust that God can give them what they want, but what they want is still petty and destructive.  I don’t see them hoping for something beyond what’s in front of them, and I don’t know what to do with that.

Perhaps more problematic for me (and this may simply be a personal problem) is the suggestion that faith is what enabled these men’s conquests.  I’m currently enamored with the concept of love as a weak force that overcomes forces of power through patience and kindness.  God is not interested in conquest, but reconciliation.  I can understand how the writer of the Book of Judges might have seen military conquest as demonstrating exemplary faith, but moving forward into the letter to the Hebrews, when the writer had the context of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection to incorporate, it doesn’t jive so well.  I don’t know how to resolve that problem, but I suspect it lies somewhere in the realm of understanding what the writer of Hebrews was trying to communicate to their audience, while contending with all of their cultural presuppositions as well.

Anyway, next week we’ll move on to Samson so we can talk about why he’s such a popular figure to turn into a Sunday school hero for children.

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Justice League Part 8: Two Monsters

I’m of the opinion that Deborah was pretty much the highpoint of Judges, and Gideon was a pretty good follow-up, but after that everything just goes downhill.

“Quick! Stab me so they can’t say I was killed by a woman!” “Alas! He’s been dealt a fatal blow by the millstone that woman in the tower dropped on his head. Better put him out of his misery…” The Death of Abimelech by Gustav Dore (Image credit: http://poetry.rapgenius.com/Holy-bible-kjv-genesis-20-lyrics#note-1522939)

We get a break in the stream of judges following Gideon’s death to learn a little about one of his seventy sons, Abimelech (or Abimelek if you’re using the most recent translation of the NIV).  Abimelech has a very impressive resume with accomplishments including the murder of all his brothers, ruling over Israel as its king for three years, and getting killed in battle when a woman drops a millstone on his head (he tried to get that last one removed with the help of his armor bearer, whom he instructed to run him through so no one could say he was killed by a woman–the Judges author isn’t fooled though; death by impalement doesn’t override the fact that Abimelech was going to die of his other injuries anyway, and now we can also add “thought it was humiliating to be killed by a woman” to his list of accomplishments).

Abimelech’s a real charming person, right?

His whole episode sets up an interesting scenario, because it seems that the root problem with Abimelech (besides all the kin slaying) is that he wants to set himself up as king of Israel (something his father expressly refused to do).  Chronologically following the Book of Judges is the Book of Samuel, which gives an account of how Israel established its first legitimate king (who also turned out to be kind of crazy) and warns that Israel’s desire for a mundane ruler in place of God will only cause them trouble (you can see the echoes of the theme of broken covenant as theodicy that run throughout the Deuteronomistic texts).  Nonetheless, Abimelech comes across as more of an odd blip in Israel’s history, though he’s a monstrous one.

The next judge that we’re introduced to is Jephthah.  He’s interesting because he fits into the mold of the successful underdog that’s a common thread connecting most of the judges we read about here.  Of course, Jephthah’s classification as an underdog comes from the fact that he’s an outcast son of his father’s house because his mother was a prostitute (this unfortunate situation inclines me to sympathize with Jephthah, because it seems wrong to punish him for an accident of birth; shortly we’ll see why that sympathy doesn’t last long).

Because Jephthah is outcast, he apparently leads a very difficult life where he gathers a “gang of scoundrels” around him and earns a reputation as a mighty warrior.  His reputation as a warrior is so good, in fact, that his brothers actually come to him and ask him to lead their military campaign against the oppressors of the decade, the Ammonites.  In exchange for Jephthah’s expertise at killing people who are trying to kill him back, the Gileadite leaders offer to let Jephthah rule over them if he’s successful in defeating the Ammonites.

This deal’s just too good for Jephthah to pass up, so he agrees to it and sends a letter to the king of the Ammonites requesting that they stop attacking.  The Ammonites claim that Israel’s taken land that rightfully belongs to them, and they’re just trying to take it back, but Jephthah doesn’t buy that argument.  So the two sides go to war.

Because this is a history from Israel’s perspective, we can already guess that Jephthah’s campaign is successful.  What’s interesting here is the promise that Jephthah makes to God in order to guarantee his victory: he promises to sacrifice as a burnt offering the first thing that greets him when he returns home.

Of course, that turns out to be Jephthah’s only (unnamed) daughter, and being the violent, live-by-the-sword kind of guy that he is, Jephthah carries out his promise.

This incident’s always been kind of troubling, because we have someone making a vow to God, then finding that in order to fulfill it, he has to make a human sacrifice, which God doesn’t stop (it’s an interesting contrast with the story of Abraham and Isaac, although in that case Abraham didn’t promise to sacrifice his son so much as he was carrying out God’s instructions up to the point where God stopped him by providing a wild ram).

Jephthah's sacrifice - Maciejowski Bible

Jephthah’s sacrifice – Maciejowski Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my study Bible, which I began using less and less throughout the Justice League study, there’s a footnote about Jephthah’s oath that says something to the effect of “God will not be mocked!”  The point of the footnote is to suggest that Jephthah is at fault for making the vow in the first place, and that God was punishing him for being so rash.  That’s problematic because the Law doesn’t condone human sacrifice (even animal sacrifice had very strict regulations surrounding it), and it seems monstrous of God to use a person’s death as a way of teaching someone else a lesson about swearing oaths.  It’s a cruel and unusual punishment, and on top of that it involves hurting an innocent in the process.

I don’t much care for that reading of God’s character here.

Conversely, a viable reading of this passage that doesn’t suggest God’s no better than George Bluth, Sr. examines the fact that Jephthah was an outcast from his clan.  He lived separately from his family, and made his life on the foundation of being a conqueror.  It’s entirely possible that Jephthah was just poorly educated in his faith, and had no idea that God wouldn’t be pleased with a human sacrifice (keep in mind that while this reading promotes Jephthah’s ignorance as an explanation of his actions, it doesn’t excuse them; he still murdered his daughter).

That’s a less troublesome reading all around, I think.

Of course, we still have to contend with Jephthah’s inclusion in Hebrews 11 (I told you Gideon was the least problematic judge listed there), but that’s a topic for another time.

Reading Somebody Angry?

Oh. My. Gosh.

I don’t know where to begin with this week’s Chick tract.  I thought that last week’s tract intended for distribution at a funeral was bad, but I’ve apparently only touched the tip of the iceberg.

Page 19

Just a reminder to everyone reading: If you’re afraid you’ll be caught in the next Act of God and meet an untimely death, just remember to believe in Jesus so you can gloat in Heaven over everyone who opposed the expansion of Israel’s borders and brought death and destruction down on your heads as a result. (Image credit: Chick.com)

This week’s tract is called Somebody Angry? and it argues that the United States is subject to natural disasters that have claimed thousands of lives and done billions of dollars of property damage all because we as a country are not staunch enough supporters of Israel holding on to its land.

Let’s let that sink in a little bit more.

Chick is actually saying that because America is not a strong enough supporter of Israel that we are suffering natural disasters like Hurricanes Andrew and Katrina, along with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

My mind is boggled.

I mean, really, I’m not sure how to respond to something like that.  I could make an argument about how that kind of thinking betrays an absolute ignorance in relation to America’s foreign policy (this coming from someone who considers himself woefully ignorant on that subject), climate science, and, perhaps most shocking, God’s character.

Really, I’m sitting here trying to think of what I could say in response to this, but it’s just so absurd.  While modern-day Israel is predominantly Jewish, it’s not a country that’s ruled exclusively by adherents of Judaism.  To equate the State of Israel with the Old Testament’s nation of Israel is just wrongheaded and assumes too much about the demographic make up of Israeli citizens.  To suggest that meteorological phenomena are a kind of punishment for failure to adhere to a certain political agenda is nonsensical.  To claim that God would punish people with storms, floods, and terrorist attacks because of efforts to end violence that’s been endemic to a region of the globe for the better part of a century is to ignore the character of God as revealed on the cross.

Chick’s talking about trading human lives for the maintenance of land, and not just the lives of the people he’s claiming are being punished for their lack of support in Israel holding its lands, but also the people in Israel and Palestine who are directly affected by the fights over those lands.

That is not a just, or even sane, statement to make.

Of course, Chick bases these assumptions on a skewed reading of Zechariah:

 On that day, when all the nations of the earth are gathered against her, I will make Jerusalem an immovable rock for all the nations. All who try to move it will injure themselves. (Zechariah 12:3)

Zechariah, for anyone who’s curious, is one of the twelve minor prophets included at the end of the Old Testament.  He wrote his book after the start of the Babylonian Exile and likely had in mind a purpose of helping to comfort those citizens of Israel and Judah who were longing for relief from foreign oppressors (kind of like the purpose that the writer of Judges had in mind).  Talking about Jerusalem as a rock that will injure everyone who tries to mess with it is a call forward to the time when the Israelites would be free again.  It’s not a call to reclaim all of the lands that were promised to Abraham in Genesis or a warning to other nations that they shouldn’t mess with Jerusalem (I doubt that Zechariah would have had citizens of other nations in mind when he was writing).

As for the climate science, all I can think of is a recent video that made the rounds about a plan to help remind people what kind of political agendas actually do encourage the kinds of natural disasters that this tract talks about.  Here’s the video, for your pleasure:

Climate change is a serious problem, and it’s irresponsible to suggest that these disasters are directly caused by not having a political ideology that favors a specific foreign relations agenda.

I know, I shouldn’t be surprised by these things in Chick tracts anymore, but really, this is just over the top.  Maybe next week I’ll find a nice, sensible tract with moderate political views coupled with an open, loving presentation of the gospel that doesn’t rely on fear tactics.

I shouldn’t be so optimistic.

Justice League Part 6: Mighty Warriors Hide From Their Enemies… Or Something

So following the fantastic story of Deborah and Jael (and Barak), we come to the narrative centerpiece of Judges’ arc involving the judges: Gideon.

Gideon’s narrative is the second longest in the Book of Judges, and it tells pretty much his entire life story from his calling to save Israel through his exploits to the end of his life when he lives peacefully in the liberated Israel where he doesn’t want to be king because he thinks God should rule over them (then he takes his spoils of war to make a priestly garment that people begin to worship, so whatever).

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Bo...

English: Gideon is a judge appearing in the Book of Judges, in the Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We first meet Gideon when he’s hiding inside a wine press while threshing his wheat.  The reason he’s doing this is that the Israelites are currently being oppressed by the Midianites, who like to come along and take all their stuff.  It’s quite a sensible thing to do if you’re constantly being harassed by raiders who steal your crops and livestock.  It’s also a wonderful setup for when an angel appears to Gideon in the wine press and calls him a “mighty warrior.”

Because, you know, I imagine Beowulf hiding in a wine press when Grendel comes knocking at Heorot’s doors.

Like a lot of stuff that happens in Judges, I think we’re supposed to find this incident funny since “mighty warrior” is a translation of Gideon’s name, and he’s literally hiding from his enemy.  It’s also a fine piece of foreshadowing, since Gideon later proves to be a very successful military leader despite his inauspicious beginning.

Besides the humorous tone, this introduction also serves to tell us a little about Gideon’s character.  He’s a shrewd man, seeing as he knows it’s better to hide his wheat rather than threshing out in the open, and when he talks with the angel (whom he doesn’t yet realize is an angel) he asks the pointed question of how God can be with the Israelites (which the angel exclaims right off the bat) if they’re currently suffering under the Midianites and all the wonders that they’ve heard about from the period of Exodus are no longer present.

As an aside, I think this passage raises an important question that the writer of Judges and their contemporaries would have been asking in the days of the Babylonian Exile.  The whole book’s looking for an explanation of foreign suffering when God says that he’s with his people, but Gideon gets right in there and says what everyone’s actually thinking about these cycles of oppression.  Of course, the answer that God gives him (and the answer that the entire book seems to be pushing towards) is that he should just trust God to do what he does.  Also, apparently, that if you find yourself in a bad situation and God tells you to do something about it, then you better get to it (I like that last bit, though I’m sure there’s endless discussion to be had about what constitutes God telling you to get to work).

Gideon, being the shrewd hider of wheat that he is, decides it’s probably best to make sure he’s actually getting a command from God, so he proceeds with a series of tests.  First there’s the test where Gideon asks the angel to wait for him to get together materials for an offering, so he can receive a sign that he’s definitely getting instructions from God.  The angel does this whole rigamarole where it sets the food for the offering on fire with its staff before disappearing into the flames, and Gideon freaks out because he realizes he’s just been face to face with an angel of God.  God, being the chill Deity that he is, reassures Gideon that he’s not going to die.

The second and third tests are slightly more famous.  Gideon puts a fleece out and asks God to perform two miracles two nights in a row that are exactly the opposite of each other.  God does both miracles, and then Gideon’s convinced that he’s received a divine visitation.

And for all this testing of God, Gideon is named a paragon of faith in the Letter to the Hebrews from the New Testament.  I’m formulating some ideas on why that is, which I’ll get into next time.

Justice League Part 2: Dealing with Cherem

In my first entry of this series, I explained a little bit about the difficulties that come along with reading Judges for theological instruction (primarily the dissonance between the modern Christian exhortation to embrace grace in all situations as a demonstration of faith and the author’s opinion that the Israelites’ faith failed because they chose not to exterminate their neighbors when they moved into Canaan).  In the second, I want to explore briefly an idea that I originally came across while reading Richard Beck a few months ago (here’s the relevant article from him).

Israelites Carried Captive, illustration from ...

Israelites Carried Captive, illustration from the 1890 Holman Bible (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his original post, Beck examines the Book of Joshua and considers an interpretation that might allow him to read the book about the Israelites’ conquest of Canaan in a nonviolent way.  There’s a lot of good stuff there, and it’s definitely worth your time to read the whole post, but what I primarily got out of it was an understanding of the Hebrew concept of cherem.

Cherem, to be brief, is a dedication of everything within a city that the Israelites conquered to God, typically through burning.  This included all living things in the city.  It was supposed to be a kind of purification where the city was made habitable for the Israelites after everything that was considered unclean had been destroyed.

This is an idea that first appears in Leviticus (cf. 27:28) but what we find reading through the Old Testament is that it didn’t remain something that was considered an essential practice of faith.  Perhaps most famously we have the passage from Hosea where God tells Israel, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”  Over time, the Israelites’ understanding of God’s character changed to recognize this preference for inclusion over othering (a sentiment that actually is laid out rather clearly in Leviticus 19:33-34), and in later parts of the Old Testament (like Hosea) cherem receives some harsh criticism.

Despite this, we still have to contend with the author’s insistence that the Israelites were unfaithful in allowing their neighbors to live.  Judges does not reference cherem explicitly, but I read this book’s connection with Joshua, where it is a practice the Israelites engage in as part of their military campaign, as a suggestion that the author would have preferred if Israel had maintained this practice in settling Canaan.  Consequently, I think the only gracious way to read the author’s intent in Judges is through the lens of a theodicy; the author wanted to explain why Israel was currently suffering under foreign rulers, and the best explanation they could find when looking back through the nation’s history was that Israel had failed to maintain its cultural purity, which they expressed through a narrative that shows Israel repeatedly falling away from its faith.

Going back to what I mentioned in my last post, this is why I think it’s important to try to separate human and divine intent when studying the Bible.  I believe that God’s character is unchanging and eternally good, while human attitudes do evolve with time and context.  Confusing the writer’s anguish over being trapped in an oppressive situation (which they try to explain by casting blame on their ancestors’ decision not to commit genocide every time they met new tribes) and God’s desire for his people to flourish is hazardous, and I think it can lead to a warped understanding of God’s character that legitimizes the maintenance of in- and out-groups.

Next time I’ll get into the actual narratives of the judges and talk a little bit about the cycle that the book employs in making its theological point about faithfulness.