Monday, August 3, 2020

A Promising Start-Judges 11:1-28

The season that we are currently in has a funny way of keeping people humble. Everyone who is honest with themselves knows that the problems our world and country face with the pandemic what it is, economy what it is, politics what they are, and other pressures that exist are beyond any single person’s pay grade to solve. Over the last several months we have come face-to-face with the realization that we cannot guarantee our own victory in any number of things (in all things). Add to this what we know about ourselves and those personal struggles, idiosyncrasies, past experiences, and the chapters of our lives that we choose not to read aloud, and it is any wonder that we ever grow haughty, prideful, and self-sufficient, believing that we can conquer this world and all the things therein in our own strength. In Judges 11 we are introduced to a new deliverer—Jephthah. His introduction and installation in Israel teaches readers how they can remain dependent on the Lord to do what only he can do when/if they are tempted to do things by themselves.

a. A Truly Humble Beginning-11:1-3

When we last left Israel, they were searching for their next deliverer to help save them from a new and frightening set of oppressors—the sons of Ammon and the Philistines. We were left dangling by the cliff-hanger of 10:18 which asked “Who is next?” and in verse 1 of chapter 11 we find quick relief with the introduction of Jephthah—“Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior,…” (11:1a). What we learn of Jephthah upon his introduction is given to us by means of three descriptors in this verse—his name, his heritage, and his character. First, “Jephthah” means “god has opened” indicating, perhaps, his mom’s great joy in being able to conceive and bear this son. Second, “the Gileadite” reveals what family and region Jephthah calls home. Later we will learn that Jephthah is a bona fide Gileadite with a noble father who bears the same name as his people. Third, “a valiant warrior” tells us something of his character. The story in chapter 12 will portray Jephthah as a “resourceful warrior, one without any hint of timidity” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 352). This quick introduction immediately establishes Jephthah as the next deliverer in Israel.

However, as with many of the other deliverers, Jephthah is far from perfect (at least by ancient standards). The text indicates this with the conjunction “but” that introduces the second half of verse 1—“but he was the son of a harlot. And Gilead was the father of Jephthah” (11:1b). Sure Jephthah may have had a noble father and all of the blessings appertaining thereunto, but his mom was, as the Bible describes her, a harlot. God was highly intolerant of any sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage, including those with professional prostitutes. What is worse, some have suggested that Jephthah’s mom was not just a harlot but a Canaanite harlot at that! In this way Jephthah takes his place among flawed people called upon to lead Israel. Ehud was left-handed, Barak was hesitant, Gideon was a coward, Abimelech was the son of a concubine, and Jephthah too is illegitimately born into a noble family.  

Jephtah’s precarious birth later comes back to haunt him. Jephthah’s mom and questions of his illegitimacy is eventually used as cover to shun him out of the family—“Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they drove Jephthah out and said to him, ‘You shall not have an inheritance in our father’s house, for you are the son of another woman,’…” (11:2). While on the surface the issue seems to be that Jephthah is a not a full sibling to these other children, the text makes it clear that it was the inheritance that motivated this expulsion from the family (it is always about the money). “Whether Jephthah, as the firstborn, had rights to a double portion, or whether they were divided equally…elimination of one party would increase the shares of the others” (Walton, Matthews, and Chavalas, IVPBBC, 267).

“So Jephthah fled from his brothers and lived in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows gathered themselves about Jephthah, and they went out with him…” (11:3). While readers might be driven to sympathy for this would-be deliverer given the ill-treatment of his brothers and his humble beginnings, one cannot help but draw parallels between Jephthah and Abimelech (and we all remember how unsympathetic a character he was earlier). Neither man was a full-fledged son and both gathered around themselves “lawless men”/”worthless fellows” (see 9:4). Yikes, is this cycle going to go the way of Abimelech (bloody, corrupt, etc.)?

With the introduction of this new deliverer out of the way, the story continues in verse 4.

b. A Very Peculiar Calling-11:4-11

“It came about after a while that the sons of Ammon fought against Israel. When the sons of Ammon fought against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob;…” (11:4-5). We return in verse 4 to the struggle between Israel and her oppressors and Israel’s search for relief from the mounting pressure. Due to the size of the threat and the growing need for “all hands on deck,” The brothers who once shunned Jephthah into obscurity now call out to him for help.
However, more than just calling for help, they call him to be their leader-“Come and be our chief that we may fight against the sons of Ammon” (11:6). This is curious for several reasons. Why would Jephthah’s family who once drove him out of town now want him to be their leader? Is it because he, in their minds, is expendable and they would rather him be the target for the arrows of Ammon? Or is it because Jephthah had already developed a reputation for skill in battle and effectiveness in leading campaigns alongside his band of worthless men? Regardless of why he is called to lead so quickly, Jephthah is going to milk this request for everything it is worth.

“Then Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘Did you not hate me and drive me from my father’s house? So why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?’…” (11:7). Jephthah seizes the irony of the situation by asking them why having sentenced him to a life of perpetual distress, should he now come to them when they were in trouble (Block, Judges, Ruth, 355). Jephthah finds himself in a relatively powerful position, holding all the proverbial cards. The last thing that he wants is to be used by the very family that shunned him earlier. Apparently Jephthah perceives that the elders are trying to acquire Jephthah’s services at the lowest possible price. Dragging things out here might get his half-brothers to offer him more in return for his services (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 346).

“The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘For this reason we have now returned to you, that you may go with us and fight with the sons of Ammon and become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’…” (11:8). In this response to Jephthah’s inquiry, the elders state that regardless of what has occurred, they have returned to him and are prepared to make it worth his while if he decides to join forces with them against the sons of Ammon. They offer Jephthah the presidency over all the residents of Gilead if he will come and help bring the victory over this new threat.

Despite this offer, Jephthah is not going to let them off that easy, he continues to drag them along in verse 9—“So Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, ‘If you take me back to fight against the sons of Ammon and the Lord gives them up to me, will I become your head?’…” (11:9). Paraphrase: “you mean, you will make me king? Little ol me? Really?”

“The elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, ‘The Lord is witness between us; surely we will do as you have said.’…” (11:10). Paraphrase: “Yes, we promise.” Jephthah has successfully manipulated them into offering him the rulership of his people. Satisfied that his demands have been met for his services, he agrees to help. “…Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the Lord at Mizpah…” (11:10). Thankfully, the reader can breathe a sigh of relief. Jephthah is not the same person as Abimelech before him (though there are some similarities). Unlike Abimelech who came to power through murder and whose campaign was financed by money from a pagan treasury, Jephthah did not actively pursue leadership (at least initially), does not resort to violence, and appears to be a worshiper of the Lord (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 347).

c. A Tired Old Dispute-11:12-26

Now that Jephthah’s leadership has been established, he must confront the new threat facing Israel. This Jephthah does in verses 12-13 and in so doing arrives at the underlining reasons for this conflict—“Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, ‘What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?’ The king of the sons of Ammon said to the messengers of Jephthah, ‘Because Israel took away my land when they came up from Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok and the Jordan; therefore, return them peaceably now.’…” (11:12-13). The issue between these two parties is land. The Ammonites believed that their jurisdiction had been invaded by those God led out of Egypt and they would like these escaped slaves to leave the premises.

Obviously there has been some confusion and Jephthah races to clear it up—“But Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the sons of Ammon, and they said to him, ‘Thus says Jephthah, “Israel did not take away the land of Moab nor the land of the sons of Ammon. For when they came up from Egypt, and Israel went through the wilderness to the Red Sea and came to Kadesh, then Israel sent messengers to the king of Edom, saying, ‘Please let us pass through your land,’ but the king of Edom would not listen. And they also sent to the king of Moab, but he would not consent. So Israel remained at Kadesh. Then they went through the wilderness and around the land of Edom and the land of Moab, and came to the east side of the land of Moab, and they camped beyond the Arnon; but they did not enter the territory of Moab, for the Arnon was the border of Moab. And Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, the king of Heshbon, and Israel said to him, ‘Please let us pass through your land to our place.’ But Sihon did not trust Israel to pass through his territory; so Sihon gathered all his people and camped in Jahaz and fought with Israel. The Lord, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them; so Israel possessed all the land of the Amorites, the inhabitants of that country. So they possessed all the territory of the Amorites, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and from the wilderness as far as the Jordan. Since now the Lord, the God of Israel, drove out the Amorites from before His people Israel, are you then to possess it? Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the Lord our God has driven out before us, we will possess it. Now are you any better than Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab? Did he ever strive with Israel, or did he ever fight against them? While Israel lived in Heshbon and its villages, and in Aroer and its villages, and in all the cities that are on the banks of the Arnon, three hundred years, why did you not recover them within that time?...” (11:14-26). Amid all the technicalities and history that Jephthah reports there are three takeaways that the reader needs to learn from this defense. 1) In many cases, Israel sought to pass through territories, not take them over and it was only when safe passage was not granted that God gave the land into their hands. 2) The land currently in dispute was taken from the Amorites, not the Ammonites. So why are the Ammonites laying claim to it now that Israel possesses it? If they have a problem with anyone, it would be with the Amorites not Israel. 3) Israel has taken over other regions without problems with neighbors, why is this different? Jephthah determines to keep what the Lord has given to Israel and suggests that the sons of Ammon had their chance to right wrongs in the past but they had missed their opportunity. Now was not the time to pick a fight with God’s people.  

d. A Firm Resolution-11:27-28

Jephthah puts it even more simply as his firm resolution is made in verses 27-28. The first element of this resolution is a concluding indictment against God’s enemies—“I therefore have not sinned against you, but you are doing me wrong by making war against me;…” (11:27a). Here Jephthah concludes his speech with a declaration of his personal innocence and a direct accusation of wrongdoing on the part of the Ammonites for their military aggression against Israel (Block, Judges, Ruth, 363).

Immediately following this indictment is Jephthah’s commitment to let God ultimately take care of the matter in question—“may the Lord, the Judge, judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon’” (11:27b). This is a rare but important acknowledgement of God’s ultimately authority and power in Judges. While in other episodes that we have examined in the book people have grown self-absorbed and self-confident in the midst of conflict, here, at the beginning of this chapter, Jephthah acknowledges that this is ultimately God’s fight for God’s people and God will see them through by judging the Ammonites accordingly. Jephthah is confident in his cause because his confidence lies not in himself, but in his God. this is a lesson that we must all learn from today as we navigate the struggles and difficulties we may come across.

But before we talk about how this all applies to us in appropriate ways, it is important that we at least mention the response of the Ammonites to Jephthah’s case—“But the king of the sons of Ammon disregarded the message which Jephthah sent him,…” (11:28). While Jephthah would have liked to handle this dispute with words and not rush to the battlefield, this response on the part of the sons of Ammon makes military conflict inevitable.

So What?

Regardless of whether Jephthah will maintain this posture of reliance on the Lord and commitment to him moving forward remains to be seen. However, this posture of trusting the Lord with all things and refraining from dependence on oneself is one that all God’s people should assume, regardless of what threats they come up against. Though our world of self-reliance and self-sufficiency would have us believe that “we can do it!” no matter what, the Bible unapologetically reveals that we cannot fight the battles we come against well and reach the victory on the other side in and through our own power. Jephthah realized this early in his tenure as judge. While he was called to serve as judge, God was the ultimate judge in the situation.  Similarly, while the Lord might call us to be agents of change, witness, leadership, and light, only God can provide the transformation, supply the truth, serve as sovereign Lord, and provide the light its source. Maintaining this perspective requires that we remember from whence we came. I imagine that Jephthah’s humble beginnings and early issues with his brothers went a long way in reminding him of his dependency on the Lord to ultimately fight his battles for him (at least here). Similarly, before God called us into his service we were completely flawed and scarred. Remembering this keeps us from believing our own press and helps us return to God all the glory for what he does in and through us and in and through his church.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Major Transition: Judges 10

Expositional preaching (the kind of preaching we entertain here behind this pulpit week after week) does not allow me to skip over what some might deem are “interludes” or “transitional” passages that are often unnoticed or glossed over at other places. I am not going to lie to you. There have been times where I go into my sermon preparation, see what passage is next, and begin working with a little hesitation and trepidation (wondering what God could possibly say through that passage or how it could possibly translate in our world today). However, I can honestly say that by the end of my time in preparation, I am always amazed and, often more excited than ever, to preach that following Sunday. I should not be surprised given that 2 Time 3:16 says “all Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…”. Today’s transitional chapter of Judges 10 is one such passage—a passage for which I began preparing with questions and hesitation but am so very excited to preach to you today. In this passage Israel is in-between major storylines (Gideon’s and Jephthah’s) and yet, Judges 10 has an incredible message to communicate about both the nature of man and the nature of God—a message many need to hear today.

a. The Seniority in Israel-10:1-5

After the crazed tenure of Abimelech (illegitimate and bloody) the people of God were led by two “minor” judges (this is not a biblical designation, but a designation many scholars assign to them today). Though these are not given much attention in the Bible, they are use of God to carry his people through the next couple of seasons. The first of these transitional judges is Tola—“Now after Abimelech died, Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar, arose to save Israel twenty-three years. Then he died and was buried in Shamir…” (10:1-2). With a name like Tola (meaning “worm”) you can only hope for so much as a reader 😊. His leadership during this period is described by means of three phrases: 1) He “arose to save,” 2) he “ruled” (“saved”), and 3) “23 years” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 338). Given the lack of an identified threat that Israel needed saving from, one can only guess just how chaotic things were in Israel upon Abimelech’s death. In other words, Israel needed saving, perhaps, from herself! Also, it is interesting to point out that there is no mention of Yahweh here in this account, perhaps indicating that the Lord, as in the case of Abimelech’s reign, was relatively uninvolved and unsought-after. Thank you Tola, next please!

“After him, Jair the Gileadite arose and judged Israel twenty-two years. He had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities in the land of Gilead that are called Havvoth-jair to this day. And Jair died and was buried in Kamon…” (10:3-5). Yahweh remains un-referenced in the account of this next leader. As far as the narrator is concerned, what makes Jair’s leadership worth reporting on is not his own accomplishments, but his many sons and the inheritance he left them (a Gileadite town and donkey for each) (gee, thanks dad!). While the description of this legacy is peculiar, the best understanding to walk away with is that Jair’s descendants enjoyed relative peace (the donkeys help illustrate that) over a region that included 30 small cities for 22 years.

This is one of the rare occurrences of relative peace in the Book of Judges and proves telling given the very next verses. Relative comfort and peace can be just as problematic/troubling spiritually than oppression and heartache. Satan and his forces are able to manipulate both contexts to accomplish their aims. Here, the peace enjoyed under the 22 years of Jair’s family produces self-confidence and spiritual boredom leading to a familiar evil that strikes God’s people once again.

b. The Sin of Israel-10:6-9

The sin of Israel is introduced in verse 6—“Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord, served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the sons of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines;…”  (10:6). Why choose only one idol when you can collect them all? This cycle in Israel’s history opens “with the most elaborate description of Hebrew apostasy in the book and thus signals the (rock bottom) of Israel’s degradation and the climax of their process of Canaanization” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 344). Rather than live according the ways and will of the one true God, like the many pagan nations in their context they were devoting themselves to all kinds of false gods. The list of these gods (seven in number) goes out of its way to illustrate just how far Israel has fallen in this 22-year period of relative peace and comfort. The seven-fold list corresponds to the list of Canaanite nations listed in Deut. 7:1 and highlights the total and complete corruption of the nation. Israel have successfully blended into its ancient pagan neighborhood so much so that you might not even be able to tell the difference between her and the polytheists surrounding her. The summary statement at the end of verse 6 is especially incriminating—“…thus they forsook the Lord and did not serve him.” Here, Israel once again exchanges devotion to the living God for a collection of lifeless idols.

Understandably, “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel and He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and into the hands of the sons of Ammon…” (10:7). This the same response we have seen from the Lord time and time again in the book of Judges and it is brought about by the same tired transgression. If you want to anger the Lord, the quickest way is through idolatry—granting something/someone else the glory that is due his name.  With white-hot holiness God seeks to discipline his people severely for their gross sin and his method of choice here is selling them into the hands of both the Philistines and the sons of Ammon.

The Philistines were a sea-faring people who immigrated from southern Greece to the coastland of Canaan during the time of the judges. Once their beachhead was formed in this region, the Philistines proved to be an enemy of the Hebrew people between the time of the judges until the divided kingdom following the reign of King David. Like a terrible case of chronic bronchitis, this unclean people would prove especially problematic for Israel for many years. In this chapter of Israel’s history, it was not just the Philistines from the west, but the Ammonites from the north east that oppressed God’s people. The Ammonites had settled the territory north of the Moabites during the wilderness wanderings and now that Israel was vulnerable, they wanted to move in to rule over God’s people.

The severe oppression God allowed these two nations to bring upon Israel is described in verses 8-9—“They afflicted and crushed the sons of Israel that year; for eighteen years they afflicted all the sons of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in Gilead in the land of the Amorites. The sons of Ammon crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah, Benjamin, and the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was greatly distressed…” (18:8-9). It is one thing to be “afflicted” and quite another to be “crushed.” To be “afflicted and crushed” sounds really awful. In Hebrew, words like “very” or “severely” demonstrating varying degrees of an emotion or result do not exist the same way they do in English. Instead, to increase the severity of an emotion or state, you must compound related descriptors on top of each other. Like multiplying two integers together to yield a large sum, these words multiply the emotion by several factors when they are brought together in this way. This is why by the end of verse 9 it reads “Israel was greatly distressed.” Such distress leads Israel to call upon the Lord as they have done time and time again when facing agony. (In fact, with this track record, one wonders if comfort/peace is not more of an encumbrance than a blessing and distress/heartache preferred as it keeps God’s people seeking and dependent on him).

c. The Supplication of Israel-10:10-16

“Then the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, ‘We have sinned against You, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served the Baals.’…” (10:10). Nothing like a little distress to cause you to return to the one true hope in a world of imposters. Here, the cry of Israel is described in more detail than anywhere else in the book. For the first time in the book, a confession is heard from Israel along with a recognition of the wrongs they have done. On its face, it sounds like a good first step in the right direction. However, one must note the absence of any appeal for forgiveness and plea for grace. We must continue reading to see if this is genuine or if Israel is just not becoming more sophisticated in their attempt to manipulate God into providing them the relief for which they desire.

Another unique thing about this particular episode in Israel’s history is the back and forth that God entertains once he is called upon. In previous cylces, this kind of dialogue between the two parties is left out—Israel calls out and God raises a deliverer. However, here, God engages the people in a back and forth. In so doing, he appears to see through his people’s supposed confession and reminds them of how the breakdown of their relationship does not fall on him. In fact, God has done anything and everything he can and more to preserve their covenant relationship—“The Lord said to the sons of Israel, Did I not deliver you from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the sons of Ammon, and the Philistines? Also when the Sidonians, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, you cried out to Me, and I delivered you from their hands…” (10:11-12). The particular cases of deliverance are not as important as the sheer enormity of the list. God has repeatedly come through for his people and yet they have repeatedly deserted him. You have heard it said that it takes two to ruin a relationship. Well, in God’s case, he is innocent, and his people are the sole responsible party for any issues they may be facing.

God’s indictment against his people reads as follows: Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods; therefore I will no longer deliver you. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress,…” (10:13-14). On the surface, it appears as though God’s patience has run out. He is sick and tired of being sick and tired. He even mockingly calls upon his people to seek their help from their impotent suitors—salvation from idol playthings—for which he knows (and they know) there is neither help nor salvation to be had. Israel has made her bed and now, as far as God seems concerned, she can lie in it.

In response to the people’s expression of distress, he recognizes and exposes their true motives. They have repeatedly used him to get out of difficult circumstances with no intention of remaining faithful to him afterward. God sees past their supposed confession and at least in this moment communicates that he is unmoved to help them.

What else can Israel do in this moment, genuine or not, but throw herself on the mercy of God—“The sons of Israel said to the Lord, ‘We have sinned, do to us whatever seems good to You; only please deliver us this day.’…” (10:15). The duplicity of Israel is witnessed even here as on one hand they appear to submit to whatever God’s will may be for them but on the other hand they insist that he deliver them. A moment’s reflection might have helped Israel understand that God always does what seems good to him—even if that means placing his people in distress. Just because it hurts does not mean God has not allowed it.

What speaks far louder than their pleas and platitudes is the putting away of their idol playthings in verse 16—“ So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord;…” (10:16a). Not only do they put their idols away, but they serve the Lord instead. We are not told what form the service of the Lord took, but what we do read is God’s response—"and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer,…” (10:16). Scholars are divided as to whether any of this on Israel’s part is genuine or, again, is just their more sophisticated way of trying to get what they want (and what they want is relief). However, it does not matter. The hero of this story is not, nor has it ever been, Israel. The hero is the unconditional love and grace of God who has made promises to his people that he intends to keep. God is not, nor has he ever been, a pawn that we can play to do our will, he is an absolute sovereign who does what he wants and, in this case, in keeping with his absolute goodness, he wants to make good on the promises he has made and demonstrate his matchless love and glory by extending these people unmerited/undeserved grace. He will deliver his people again, but through whom?  
d. The Search in Israel-10:17-18

A search begins in Israel for the next deliverer in verses 17-18—"Then the sons of Ammon were summoned and they camped in Gilead. And the sons of Israel gathered together and camped in Mizpah…” (10:17). The search is instigated after some of Israel’s oppressors—the Ammonites—gather in Gilead for battle. The Israeli troops respond by gathering nearby at Mizpah.

However, they are still without a leader. That is the question on everyone’s mind—“The people, the leaders of Gilead, said to one another, ‘Who is the man who will begin to fight against the sons of Ammon? He shall become head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.’…” (10:18). We will have to wait until next week to see who is called.

So What?

But until then, this transitional text shines much needed light on the nature of God and the nature of mankind. As has already been said in the context of Israel’s history, God is not, nor has he ever been, a pawn that can be played to do what we want. Instead, he is an absolute sovereign who does what he wants and. The good news is that in addition to being absolutely sovereign and holy is that he is loving and good. In keeping with his absolute goodness, God wants to make good on the promises he has made and demonstrate his matchless love and glory by extending unmerited/undeserved grace to those who are in desperate need it. This includes you and me. Regardless of where you come from or what may have been perceived from the outside, before you receive the unmerited grace of God in salvation, we were not unlike the Israelites in this passage. We too, like those in these verses, entertained many idols and placed out hope in either ourselves or in our many playthings. At some point, we had to learn that these were impotent to give us the help and salvation for which we desperately long from the brokenness and darkness of this world and in our own lives. It is only at this low point, just as it was for Israel in this text, that we learn to cry out to the one true God for deliverance and it is only because he is loving and gracious that he even entertains such cries with an answer. His answer is a deliverer and while Israel waited to learn who their next deliverer way, we do not have to wait. His name is Jesus and he alone restores the broken relationship between a holy and sovereign God and a broken and sinful people. Those who trust in him lay down their idols and serve the Lord with their lives. Is this something you have yet to realize? Is this something you have yet to do?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Family Feud Pt. 2 Judges 9:22-57

Last week we began looking at a family feud that has already become pretty ugly. We learned that those who assume roles that are not designed for them can create problems both for themselves and for others. This week we are going to continue to investigate this unfolding feud in Judges 9 and learn what is really to blame for much of the chaos and destruction that we see in our world. This we will learn by looking at four stages of the feud that occurs in Judges 9:22-57.

1) The Feud Begins-9:22-25

Just to remind everyone of where we are in this story. Abimelech (the son of Gideon and one of his concubines) illegitimately rose to power following Gideon’s death after raising money from his mom’s family and killing off 70 of Gideon’s sons. Following this blood bath, Gideon was made king by the Shechemites (family on his mom’s side) and, according to verse 22 “ruled over Israel three years” (9:22). Again, everything about Abimelech is illegitimate—including his rule. One surviving son of Gideon (Jotham) knew this and prayed a curse on Abimelech earlier in chapter 9 which asked that one day Abimelech and his own people—the Shechemites—would destroy each other.

Judges 9:20-“let fire come out from Abimelech and consume the men of Shechem and Beth-millo; 
and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from Beth-millo, and consume Abimelech.”

As we continue reading, God answers this request.  

“Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, so that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood might be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers…” (9:23-24). So while at first the family feud was between an illegitimate son (Abimelech) and natural born sons of Gideon (the 70 sons of Gideon) in 9:1-21, here, a feud is instigated between Abimelech and the very people who fundraised his campaign and nominated him to be their leader. God instigates this feud and sends a spirit of treachery to begin causing strife between these related parties. God is perfectly within his rights to do this given that the whole situation, once again, is totally illegitimate to begin with. The purpose of this strife that God sends Abimelech and the Shechemites is simple, the Lord, like Jotham, wants this regime to be destroyed. They are not worthy or fitting to rule God’s people.

As a direct result of God’s influence, “the men of Shechem set men in ambush against him on the tops of the mountains, and they robbed all who might pass by them along the road; and it was told to Abimelech…” (9:25). This is where the feud really begins for all to see. Things are not well between these people and their newly appointed king.

2) The Feud Finds a Sponsor-9:26-41

Abimelech’s young tenure as king is being undermined by the very people who put him in power and this paves the way for others to try and take control. The feud that was instigated in verse 25 finds a sponsor in verses 26-29. “Now Gaal the son of Ebed came with his relatives, and crossed over into Shechem; and the men of Shechem put their trust in him. They went out into the field and gathered the grapes of their vineyards and trod them, and held a festival; and they went into the house of their god, and ate and drank and cursed Abimelech. Then Gaal the son of Ebed said, ‘Who is Abimelech, and who is Shechem, that we should serve him? Is he not the son of Jerubbaal, and is Zebul not his lieutenant? Serve the men of Hamor the father of Shechem; but why should we serve him? Would, therefore, that this people were under my authority! Then I would remove Abimelech.’ And he said to Abimelech, ‘Increase your army and come out’” (9:26-29). With Abimelech on the run, the Shechemites meet this new guy (Gaal) and appoint him as their ruler (even quicker than they did Abimelech just three years earlier!). They even throw him a big party. Comfort in his new role breeds confidence which gives way to cockiness. Gaal knows that Abimelech is still out there and despite this he taunts him and challenges him to a battle—“increase your army and come out” (9:29).

However, what Gaal fails to realize is that not everyone at the party and in his new entourage is sympathetic to his kingship. Some, in fact, are still loyal to Abimelech. “When Zebul the ruler of the city heard the words of Gaal the son of Ebed, his anger burned. He sent messengers to Abimelech deceitfully, saying, ‘Behold, Gaal the son of Ebed and his relatives have come to Shechem; and behold, they are stirring up the city against you. Now therefore, arise by night, you and the people who are with you, and lie in wait in the field. In the morning, as soon as the sun is up, you shall rise early and rush upon the city; and behold, when he and the people who are with him come out against you, you shall do to them whatever you can’” (9:30-33). Zebul, a leftover from Abimelech’s regime, cannot stand the new doubly-illegitimate king Gaal and prefers the less-illegitimate king Abimelech instead (Yes, things are that precarious). Therefore, Zebul hatches a plan. He runs to Abimelech who is in hiding and encourages him to gather at night and to then, early in the morning, rise up and take the city from where Gaal is ruling. The surprise attack could overwhelm Gaal and reassert Abimelech’s power.

Abimelech does just that—“Abimelech and all the people who were with him arose by night and lay in wait against Shechem in four companies” (9:34). I love this next part! By the time of the attack, Zebul (the Abimelech sympathizer in Gaal’s court who has helped hatch this plan) has made it back to Gaal’s side (knowing full well what is about to take place). We pick up the story early that morning as Gaal is strolling in the city, perhaps feeling confident in his new digs and invincible in his new role. “Now Gaal the son of Ebed went out and stood in the entrance of the city gate; and Abimelech and the people who were with him arose from the ambush. When Gaal saw the people, he said to Zebul, ‘Look, people are coming down from the tops of the mountains.’ But Zebul said to him, “You are seeing the shadow of the mountains as if they were men.” Gaal spoke again and said, ‘Behold, people are coming down from the highest part of the land, and one company comes by the way of the diviners’ oak.’”” (9:35-37). As Abimelech and his men advance upon the city, Zebul has the king convinced it is a shadow. This allows plenty of time for the attack to advance. Zebul’s plan is this: if Abimelech can get close enough before Gaal responds, it will eventually be too late for a successful response to be lodged.

Once this threshold is reached and Abimelech is barking at the door “Zebul said to [Gaal] ‘Where is your boasting now with which you said, “Who is Abimelech that we should serve him?” Is this not the people whom you despised? Go out now and fight with them!’ So Gaal went out before the leaders of Shechem and fought with Abimelech. Abimelech chased him, and he fled before him; and many fell wounded up to the entrance of the gate. Then Abimelech remained at Arumah, but Zebul drove out Gaal and his relatives so that they could not remain in Shechem…” (9:38-41). The plan works and by the end of verse 41 it is Gaal, not Abimelech that is on the run (mind you, neither of these guys has any business in charge of anything to begin with). Reading through this is a bit like watching two worthless sports teams play each other. It may not get good ratings or matter much in the scheme of things, but it can still be instructive for those who are willing to watch and learn from what is going on.

3) The Feud Boils Over- 9:42-49

Abimelech could have stopped there, but once he has a taste of revenge, he cannot satiate himself. Like a shark with blood in the water, Abimelech goes on a rampage as the feud boils over in verses 42-45—"Now it came about the next day, that the people went out to the field, and it was told to Abimelech. So he took his people and divided them into three companies, and lay in wait in the field; when he looked and saw the people coming out from the city, he arose against them and slew them. Then Abimelech and the company who was with him dashed forward and stood in the entrance of the city gate; the other two companies then dashed against all who were in the field and slew them. 
Abimelech fought against the city all that day, and he captured the city and killed the people who were in it; then he razed the city and sowed it with salt…”. This last detail is a bit curious. Since salt rendered a land infertile, spreading salt on a city may have been Abimelech’s attempt to ensure that this place would never rise again. However, salt was also used in the ancient world in a ritual that would have been conducted in the removal of a curse on a particular site (Block, Judges, Ruth, 330). Either way, superstition and pagan ideology is driving this practice and fueling Abimelech’s rage.  
The people of Shechem (again, the same people who at one point in time appointed Abimelech but then just as quickly drove him out and replaced him) see what is going on and head for refuge—“When all the leaders of the tower of Shechem heard of it, they entered the inner chamber of the temple of El-berith. It was told Abimelech that all the leaders of the tower of Shechem were gathered together” (9:46-47).

After learning of their retreat, Abimelech comes up with an idea to level these leaders in one fail swoop. The text reads as follows: “ So Abimelech went up to Mount Zalmon, he and all the people who were with him; and Abimelech took an axe in his hand and cut down a branch from the trees, and lifted it and laid it on his shoulder. Then he said to the people who were with him, ‘What you have seen me do, hurry and do likewise.’…” (9:48). While this looks like a really strange way overwhelm an enemy, as we learn more, the methodology behind this madness is revealed.

“All the people also cut down each one his branch and followed Abimelech, and put them on the inner chamber and set the inner chamber on fire over those inside, so that all the men of the tower of Shechem also died, about a thousand men and women…” (9:49). Yikes! Abimelech and his men roast their enemies in a huge bonfire fueled by these branches. Such savagery is rarely seen, even among pagans.

Let us catch our collective breaths and just recap what has transpired. Gideon leads God’s people to victory over Midian but gets proud, postures as a king, and fathers many children (legitimate and illegitimate). Abimelech, one illegitimate son, kills all the legitimate sons in an effort to be made king. He is driven out by those who once supported him and is replaced by Gaal. Gaal gets too cocky and Abimelech returns to kill him and all his followers and, along with them, his own people. It is violence, chaos, anarchy, lawlessness, and, ultimately, godlessness in its natural state.

4) The Feud Ends-9:50-57

However, it does not stop there. For no good reason other than he felt like doing it, Abimelech continues to terrorize surrounding areas –“Then Abimelech went to Thebez, and he camped against Thebez and captured it. But there was a strong tower in the center of the city, and all the men and women with all the leaders of the city fled there and shut themselves in; and they went up on the roof of the tower…” (9:50-51). While towers were viewed by ancients as places of refuge, we have already learned that not just any tower will do.

Rather than reinvent the wheel or change tactics, Abimelech plans to set fire to this tower as he did before. However, something stops him in his tracks. “So Abimelech came to the tower and fought against it, and approached the entrance of the tower to burn it with fire. But a certain woman threw an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull…” (9:52-53). How is that for a surprise ending? Just when we thought we were going to see another deathly bonfire, a woman drops a huge stone right on top of Abimelech’s head, crushing his skull. However, what is this? Abimelech is somehow still breathing and conscious. The text continues, “Then he called quickly to the young man, his armor bearer, and said to him, ‘Draw your sword and kill me, so that it will not be said of me, “A woman slew him.”’…” (9:54). Thousands of years ago, it was more disgraceful to be killed by a woman than it was an uncircumcised Philistine. Being the proud man that he was, Abimelech wanted his servant to save him the embarrassment of dying in this “unmanly way.” However, the irony is not lost on the reader, especially the ancient audience. “The many who had (illegitimately) accomplished so much so quickly—gaining the kingship of a significant city of Shechem, murdering dozens of his sibling rivals, staving off a revolt and destroying all the rebels, conquering the city of Thebez, falls victim to a most humiliating death” (Block, Judges, Ruth, 333). He sought power in the beginning by appealing to mommy and now shamefully falls victim to a woman in the end.

This humiliating death does more than anything else to put an end to this madness--“When the men of Israel saw that Abimelech was dead, each departed to his home,…” (9:55). Good grief! If we had only known it would take a woman crushing his skull with a millstone, we might have tried this long ago! Though the means of his death is quite unexpected, the death of Abimelech successfully concludes this family feud.

Makes you wonder what God was up to as all of this is transpiring down below. Let’s just keep reading—“Thus God repaid the wickedness of Abimelech, which he had done to his father in killing his seventy brothers. God returned all the wickedness of the men of Shechem on their heads, and the curse of Jotham the son of Jerubbaal came upon them…” (9:56-57). God is pulling all of these strings from above and, in so doing, God provides an illustration of what life is like in the world when people do not live under his authority and according to his ways.

So What?

Chaos, violence, hatred, anarchy, and destruction follow the godless in this world. In this passage, whether it was under Abimelech’s regime or in the short tenure of Gaal, disaster and lawlessness abound. This is the residue of those who do not place themselves under the authority of the Lord and, instead, act as their own authority on the world’s stage. This goes a long way in helping us define much of what we are seeing around our country and around our world today. Though we might be dismayed by reports of destruction and violence both near and far, we ought not be surprised that it exists in a context that growing further away from the Lord and his precepts. Those unwilling to submit to the Lord and his plan bring destruction upon themselves and others.

We as God’s people must not entertain these tendencies. Rather than seek to build our kingdoms or make ourselves king as the rest of the world does with great regularity, we must submit ourselves to the King of kings and Lord of Lords and be invested in his kingdom. When we do this, we shine a bright light of order in the midst of the chaos, truth in the midst of deception, purpose in the midst of relativity, and hope in the midst of despair.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Family Feud Pt. 1- Judges 9:1-21

One of the long-standing game shows on television is The Family Feud. In it two competing families battle for prize money by demonstrating whether they are able to guess how people answer all kinds of questions. Due to its long-standing success, I’m sure when you hear the phrase “family feud” you think of the show and the laughs that are typically associated therewith. However, the show is so named for feuds that have and still exist within and among family units, some fairly notorious. Some of the most legendary stories—both historical and fictional—have families fighting with each other for dominance. Think of the Hatfields and the McCoys or the Capulets and Montagues. One such family rivalry is found in our passage today. In Judges 9:1-21 we witness a family feud take place and things get really heated. This feud will teach us how important it is for us to not engage in quests for self-importance and/or dominance over others, especially as members of the family of God.  

1) A Question-9:1-3

We have already been introduced to the sad state of affairs following Gideon’s idolatry and over-indulgence following his victory over Midian in chapter 8. In chapter 9, we witness a struggle that takes place between Gideon’s many children—both legitimate and illegitimate. Gideon left behind a vacuum of leadership and many in chapter 9 are found scrambling to fill it. One such person is Abimelech. While Gideon refused to be made king and start a dynasty, he behaved as one, marrying multiple women and fathering many sons. When he fathers a son by a Shechemite concubine, he paves the way for a jealous rivalry to ensue. What is worse, he gives this illegitimate son the name Abimelech (8:31) which means “my father is king,” filling this young man’s mind with illegitimate aspirations (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 310-11). We pick up the story in verses 1-2 of chapter 9—“ And Abimelech the son of Jerubbaal went to Shechem to his mother’s relatives, and spoke to them and to the whole clan of the household of his mother’s father, saying, ‘Speak, now, in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem, “Which is better for you, that seventy men, all the sons of Jerubbaal, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?” Also, remember that I am your bone and your flesh.’…”.
Abimelech’s idea, in its own twisted way, made sense. Would his people rather have him rule as one of them or be ruled by seventy men with no blood connection to them?

“and his mother’s relatives spoke all these words on his behalf in the hearing of all the leaders of Shechem; and they were inclined to follow Abimelech, for they said, ‘He is our relative.’…” (9:3). In an example of “the ruler you know is better than the seventy you don’t,” Abimelech’s countrymen decide to back him as their candidate to lead in this leaderless context. With this backing, he prepares to go head-to-head in round 1 of the family feud against his rival half-brothers.

2) A Decision-9:4-6

As he prepares for this encounter those who back him provide him with added support—“They gave him seventy pieces of silver from the house of Baal-berith” (9:4a). Baal-berith is the same name of the pagan statue Gideon erected that was made from the spoils of the war with Midian. You have probably heard of blood diamonds and how risky it is to have and trade them, well this was idolatrous money Abimelech was given. He matches this dirty dough with a perverse purchase—“with which Abimelech hired worthless and reckless fellows and they followed him” (9:4b). Things are not looking good as illegitimate Abimelech assumes illegitimate power hires an illegitimate crew of lawless and dangerous men to enact illegitimate violence against his half-brothers.

With this posse of thugs in tow, Abimelech “went to his father’s house at Ophrah and killed his brothers, the sons of Jerubbaal, seventy men, on one stone…” (9:5a). The magnitude of the slaughter is punctuated by the method of the killed, “on one stone.” One commentator has suggested that this was probably a stone butchering table where blood could be drained from the bodies. Abimelech may have wanted to avoid the possibility of blood spilling on the ground where it could “cry out” arousing a response from an avenging God (Mobley, The Empty men, 151).

Genesis 4:10-in response to Cain’s killing of Abel God says “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to Me from the ground…

One of these potential victims of Abimlelech’s bloody insurrection hides and flees—Gideon’s youngest son Jotham.

Following this massacre, “All the men of Shechem and all Beth-millo assembled together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar was in Shechem” (9:6). In this tragic summary of what has just transpired we see how by posturing as a king and establishing pagan worship at the end of his life, the seeds Gideon planted were now bearing their poisonous fruit. “Israel…now had as its king a murderer who was financed from the treasury of a pagan god and was support by a gang of thugs” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 312). Though Gideon was dead and gone, it appears that he/his legacy had finally lived up to the name his daddy gave him many years prior-Jerubbaal (“let Baal contend with him”). Here, Abimelech’s murderous attack was financed by the temple of Baal (Baal-berith) and had resulted in nearly extinguishing Gideon’s legacy. This might also explain why Jerubbaal is used exclusively in this chapter when speaking of Gideon (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 313).

After winning his victory, Abimelech is made a king in Shechem.

3) An Analogy -9:7-15

This does not sit well with Gideon’s youngest son who survived the slaughter mentioned earlier. When he hears of Abimelech’s enthronement, he gets within earshot of those conspirators who killed his family and draws the following analogy: ““Now when they told Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and lifted his voice and called out. Thus he said to them, ‘Listen to me, O men of Shechem, that God may listen to you.  Once the trees went forth to anoint a king over them, and they said to the olive tree, “Reign over us!” But the olive tree said to them, “Shall I leave my fatness with which God and men are honored, and go to wave over the trees?” Then the trees said to the fig tree, “You come, reign over us!” But the fig tree said to them, “Shall I leave my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to wave over the trees?” Then the trees said to the vine, “You come, reign over us!” But the vine said to them, “Shall I leave my new wine, which cheers God and men, and go to wave over the trees?” (9:7-13). Jotham’s speech begins with an account of an unsuccessful campaign to appoint leadership. The trees (symbolizing Israel and Shechem) are seeking a king. One by one the most likely candidates to serve in this post—the olive tree, fig tree, and grapevine—turn down the opportunity. It appears as though these trees are content to yield their produce for the benefit of others and have no interest in swaying in the wind as king over the trees.

This is followed by one final plea as the trees turn to the thorn bush (a plant clearly unqualified to rule as king over the trees): “Finally all the trees said to the bramble, “You come, reign over us!” The bramble said to the trees, “If in truth you are anointing me as king over you, come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, may fire come out from the bramble and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”’…” (9:14-15). The thorn bush agrees to rule but emphasizes that the trees must take refuge in its shade lest fire destroy even the grandest trees of them all—the cedars of Lebanon. The image is absurd and for good reason. After all, how much shade can a small thorn bush cast anyway? Similarly, how appropriate/capable was Abimelech to rule over others? How stupid were the Shechemites for believing that they could hide under Abimelech’s protection? This is the point of the analogy. Abimelech had taken illegitimate control and was unprepared to rule and adequately protect those who sided with him.

4) A Challenge -9:16-21

Jotham is not finished airing out his grievance against Abimelech. In the final element of this round in the family feud he issues a challenge. He begins by saying, “’Now therefore, if you have dealt in truth and integrity in making Abimelech king, and if you have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have dealt with him as he deserved…if then you have dealt in truth and integrity with Jerubbaal and his house this day,…—" (9:16 & 19). This is the condition that must be reached if nothing is to happen to Abimelech. Of course, both the reader and Jotham know that Abimelech cannot reach this threshold because of the instant replay that Jotham is able to produce in verses 17-18.

“For my father fought for you and risked his life and delivered you from the hand of Midian; but you have risen against my father’s house today and have killed his sons, seventy men, on one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your relative--…” (9:17-18). What is really sad about this account as it appears is that there is no mention of the star of the show—God. Imagine watching a highlight real of the 90s bulls without seeing Michael Jordan and multiply that by ten. Jotham gives all credit for Israel’s victory over Midian to his dad and then expresses outrage that Abimelech would repay Gideon’s family by killing 70 of Gideon’s sons.

Jotham’s challenge in light of all this is simple. If Abimelech is somehow innocent of this charge and Shechem has dealt well with the people of Gideon’s house then, “rejoice in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you,…” (9:19b). That is a laugh!

“But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech and consume the men of Shechem and Beth-millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem and from Beth-millo and consume Abimelech’…” (9:20). Ultimately, Jotham prays that Abimelech and the Shechemites would destroy one another. In so doing Jotham hopes that victims would be made of this illegitimate ruler and those who have conspired with him much as they had made victims of his family members.

After airing this grievance and voicing this curse “Jotham escaped and fled, and went to Beer and remained there because of Abimelech his brother” (9:21). This Jotham guy is good at escaping (as this is the second time he has done so in this passage).

So What?

What can we possibly stand to learn and apply today from this passage that describes a family feud from thousands of years ago? Believe it or not, amid personal grievances and estranged relationships found in this account, there is an important lesson that we as God’s people can and should take very seriously. Those who assume roles that they are not designed to fill bring havoc upon themselves and those around them.  Gideon had, in a practical way, illegitimately assumed the role of king prior to his death and in his pride named and illegitimate son “my father is king.” This inspired a rivalry that had this illegitimate son lay illegitimate claim to an illegitimate throne. The process of taking this power had Abimelech massacring his half brothers and instigating a feud between him and those who remained. It is a hot mess that could have been avoided had people not stepped into roles that were not designed for them.

How often do we attempt to play a part that was not written for us or assume leadership over something that is not ours to rule? Technological advancements, cultural pressures to speak “our truth,” the phenomenon of “celebrity experts,” and social media have contributed to many posturing as professionals in fields for which they have no experience or real knowledge. While in our world we may not leave a pile of dead bodies in our wake as Abimelech did, certainly there are casualties of a different sort that follow us when/if we selfishly seek to be force our way, opinion, or perspective on a host of things for which we are woefully uninformed in our pursuit of self-importance and captain status. Division, broken relationships, increased polarization, anxiety—this is the residue of a world in which everyone assumes they are an authority on everything. Look around at the results. God’s people ought to recognize one ultimate authority in everything—God—and seek to humble themselves before him in all things. God is not interested in you forcing your way on others or, for that matter, you getting your way to begin with. He is interested in us following his way and sharing the blessings and benefits thereof with others.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Snatching defeat from the Jaws of Victory: A Cautionary Tale- Judges 8

May of us if asked, “what kind of life/legacy do you want to leave behind for those who will outlive you?”, would come up with all kinds of amazingly positive and inspiring answers. However, well-intentioned though these answers may be, it is the direction you and I are and will take that is going to ultimately take us to that destination (or not). I’m sure if asked about what kind of legacy he wanted to leave behind Gideon would have come up with a good answer. However, as we will see in the fallout of Judges 8, the choices that he made and the direction that he took landed him and his people in an undesirous place. In this chapter we will witness five disputes that take place in the aftermath of Gideon’s victory and learn what NOT to do if we are to leave the kind of legacy that glorifies the Lord and leads other to do the same.

a. Dispute #1: Between Gideon and Ephraim-8:1-3

At the very end of chapter 7 we saw Gideon begin to take matters into his own hands (calling for reinforcements to finish the job that God sent him to accomplish). This demonstrated both a lack of faith in God’s plan and a bloated view of human convention and capacity. Unfortunately, this theme will continue and grow as we witness the disputes in this passage. The first of these is a dispute between Gideon and Ephraim in 8:1-3. This dispute begins when a question is raised—“Then the men of Ephraim said to him, ‘What is this thing you have done to us, not calling us when you went to fight against Midian?’” (8:1). Remember, Ephraim was not called up to the battle until after the initial attack at night when Midian was already on the run (see 7:24). This question reveals that the tribe of Ephraim was upset that Gideon did not call upon them earlier (probably because God did not ask him to call upon them). In their minds, they were “late to the party” and this was displeasing. 

To smooth things over with this tribal partner, Gideon makes the following presentation: “…But he said to them, ‘What have I done now in comparison with you? Is not the gleaning of the grapes of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer? God has given the leaders of Midian, Oreb and Zeeb into your hands; and what was I able to do in comparison with you?’…” (8:2-3a). Here, Gideon demonstrates his skill as a diplomat. In order to turn the Ephraimites disappointment into contentment he draws attention to their important role in the battle. Though their part came later, Ephraim was the tribe that successfully cut off the fords of the Jordan river, captured two retreating Midianite chieftans, and executed them. In a skillful display of self-deprecation, Gideon wonders “what did I do in comparison to you? I may have started this initial attack, but you finished it.”

This presentation seems to do the trick—“then their anger toward him subsided when he said that…” (8:3b). While this dispute appears to be easily handled, notice who is not included in the explanation—God! No mention of Him, his power, his direction, his involvement, is given by Gideon. This omission betrays Gideon’s newfound confidence in his abilities over God’s direction and demonstrates the trajectory both he and Israel will take in the remainder of his saga.

b. Dispute #2: Between Gideon and Succoth-8:4-17

As we move to consider the second dispute of verses 4-17, it is important to remember that while the initial battle was over, the campaign was still underway. Oreb and Zeeb (who were taken care of at the end of chapter 7) were just two of many chieftans on the run and Gideon and the 300 men with him were in hot pursuit of those who remained (Zebah and Zalmunna). Verses 4-6 pick up the action and reveal the offense that leads to the second dispute in the chapter—the dispute between Gideon and Succoth—“… Then Gideon and the 300 men who were with him came to the Jordan and crossed over, weary yet pursuing. He said to the men of Succoth, ‘Please give loaves of bread to the people who are following me, for they are weary, and I am pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.’ The leaders of Succoth said, ‘Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we should give bread to your army?’…” (8:4-6). At this time Succoth was under Israelite control and while Gideon as the commander of the group of soldiers could have simply confiscated the necessary provisions, he continues to employ diplomacy and asks for much-needed refreshments nicely. However, despite his niceties, this request is rejected and Gideon is met with speculation. Succoth’s request for some proof of their quest (“are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hands, that we should give you bread to your army?”) reveals that they do not completely trust Gideon. This raises an important question: Has the Spirit of God, so evident in the earlier chapters of Gideon’s story, left him? Earlier, when the Spirit of God was more active, people immediately responded to Gideon’s orders and answered the call to battle. Here, not so much. Perhaps this dispute is the first example of God letting Gideon doing things in his own power and, at least here, feeling the negative effects of spirit-less decision-making.

Rather than change his ways and seek the Lord’s direction/provision for his men, Gideon responds to this offense with an angry threat—"Gideon said, ‘All right, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, then I will thrash your bodies with the thorns of the wilderness and with briers.’ He went up from there to Penuel and spoke similarly to them; and the men of Penuel answered him just as the men of Succoth had answered. So he spoke also to the men of Penuel, saying, ‘When I return safely, I will tear down this tower.’…” (8:7-9). Instead of answering their refusal with a gentle word, Gideon throws diplomacy out the window and threatens to take the law into his own hands and beat their bodies with a switch of desert thorns and briars like a man beats grain on the threshing floor (Block, Judges, Ruth, 290). Gideon not only meets friction at Succoth, apparently Penuel does not come to his aid either. He speaks to both the same way and promises in Penuel’s case to tear down their defensive tower.

Gideon continues his campaign, flustered by the lack of aid, and is successful. “Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor, and their armies with them, about 15,000 men, all who were left of the entire army of the sons of the east; for the fallen were 120,000 swordsmen. Gideon went up by the way of those who lived in tents on the east of Nobah and Jogbehah, and attacked the camp when the camp was unsuspecting. When Zebah and Zalmunna fled, he pursued them and captured the two kings of Midian, Zebah and Zalmunna, and routed the whole army…” (8:10-12). The battle that is briefly mentioned here appears to take the same shape as the initial skirmish of 7:19ff—1) Gideon surprises an unsuspecting larger unit 2) takes advantage of their confusion, 3) the enemy then flees 4) two of the chieftans are captured.

“Then Gideon the son of Joash returned from the battle by the ascent of Heres. And he captured a youth from Succoth and questioned him. Then the youth wrote down for him the princes of Succoth and its elders, seventy-seven men. He came to the men of Succoth and said, ‘Behold Zebah and Zalmunna, concerning whom you taunted me, saying, “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna already in your hand, that we should give bread to your men who are weary?”’ Gideon takes the elders of the city with thorns of the wilderness and briers in hand and he disciplined the men of Succoth with them. He tore down the tower of Penuel and killed the men of the city…” (8:13-17). In this account, Gideon makes good on the threat that he shared earlier. When the elders had gathered before him, Gideon presented the captive chiefs and reminded them of their earlier taunting challenge to produce the hands of these kings before they would offer any food to his exhausted troop. Then Gideon took the elders and beat them with thorny switches. He then continues on to Penuel and does far worse. Not only does he make good on his promise to tear down their tower, his rage propels him to slaughter all the men of the city—mind you, this is a city of fellow Israelites! If readers were not yet sure that Gideon has changed for the worse following his victory over Midian, here they are given compelling proof that Gideon is no longer listening to the Lord, walking in his ways, bound by the rules of civility, or even concerned about national loyalty. He is simply out of control.

c. Dispute #3: Between Gideon and Zebah and Zalmunna-8:18-21

Following the dispute with Ephraim and Succoth is a dispute between Zeba and Zalmunna (the two recently captured chieftans). This is introduced by Gideon in verses 18-19-“Then he said to Zebah and Zalmunna, ‘What kind of men were they whom you killed at Tabor?’ And they said, ‘They were like you, each one resembling the son of a king.’ He said, ‘They were my brothers, the sons of my mother. As the Lord lives, if only you had let them live, I would not kill you.’…”. Where is this question coming from? Where is Tabor? We can infer here that in addition to harassing the Israelites and ravaging the countryside (see 6:4-5), the Midianites, under the rule of people like Zeba and Zalmunna, had committed murderous acts against God’s people during the Israelite oppression. By asking “where are the men you killed at Tabor?” Gideon is mockingly drawing attention to these terrible acts to indict these two Midianite leaders. They answer his question and Gideon lays out the charge saying, “had you not killed them I would have spared your life.”

Things go from bad to worse when Gideon announces the way that he intends to carry out the sentence of these two—“So he said to Jether his firstborn, ‘Rise, kill them.’ But the youth did not draw his sword, for he was afraid, because he was still a youth” (8:20:21a). Imagine the kind of thinking that must have motivated this decision to ask his young son to carry out his dirty work! Again, Gideon is out of control. Gideon’s request of his son places him in an impossible situation. If he said yes, he would become an accomplice in his father’s personal vendetta and behave in a way similar to the Canaanites who proved their maturity and nobility through violent acts like this. If he said “no,” disobeying his father, he would come across as unmanly before all looking on. Jether, a very young man, refuses to play a role in this episode.  While this is no doubt the right decision, he is quickly derided by the Midianite chiefs—“Then Zebah and Zalmunna said, ‘Rise up yourself, and fall on us; for as the man, so is his strength’…” (8:21a). Paraphrase—"be a man and do it yourself or does your mettle match that of your son’s?”

“So Gideon arose and killed Zeba and Zalmunna, and took the crescent ornaments which were on their camels’ necks…” (8:21b). The narrator’s final comments concerning the conflict between Gideon and Midian depict the deliverer as a common conqueror claiming the customary trophies of victory—jewelry worn by the royal camels. Gideon ends the campaign less attractive than he began all the way back in chapter 6.  In his tenure thus far Gideon moves from cowardly to confident to cruel. While the struggle against the Midianites is over, the disputes in this passage are not yet finished. You may say, who is there to have a dispute with if Midian has been taken care of? The answer to this is found in verses 22-27 as Gideon enters a dispute with his own people.

d. Dispute #4: Between Gideon and his People-8:22-27

This dispute is instigated after God’s people make a request of their leader, “Then the men of Israel said to Gideon, ‘Rule over us, both you and your son, also your son’s son, for you have delivered us from the hand of Midian.’…” (8:22). Context clues suggests that the nation of Israel, represented by the delegation approaching Gideon here, wanted Gideon to “rule” over them much as a king would in the ancient world. Perhaps Gideon’s retrieval of royal ornaments from his victim’s camels placed this idea in their head. Though this offer to Gideon was ill-advised given that Gideon had not been divinely chosen to serve in this capacity, the people of Israel present this offer as a reward for his victory over the Midianites (Block, Judges, Ruth, 298).

Gideon’s responds to this offer by refusing the post—“But Gideon said to the, ‘I will not rule over you, nor shall my son rule over you; the Lord shall rule over you’” (8:23). Here, Gideon actually (and, perhaps accidentally) gets something right. He rejects the opportunity to be the founder of the first dynasty in Israel. In fact, he goes further suggesting that it would be wrong for him and his family to usurp the role of Yahweh, the only truth ruler of Israel. However, rather than go even further in explaining that the victory they have just achieved came from God and not from him in the first place, he enters a compromise that proves to be the foundation for more problems.  

“Yet Gideon said to them, ‘I would request of you, that each of you give me an earring from his spoil.’ (For they had gold earrings, because they were Ishmaelites.) They said, ‘We will surely give them.’ So they spread out a garment, and every one of them threw an earring there from his spoil. The weight of the gold earrings that he requested was 1,700 shekels of gold, besides the crescent ornaments and the pendants and the purple robes which were on the kings of Midian, and besides the neck bands that were on their camels’ necks…” (8:24-26). Gideon appears to be more interested in the spoils of victory than in giving God the credit for it. In fact, though Gideon refuses to be made king, his request here was in keeping with what kings in the ancient world would do following military success. Like the monarchs of the ancient near east, Gideon demands a symbolic gesture of submission—the earrings—and would start a royal treasure trove. 1700 shekels of gold is equal to about 43 pounds! Surely sounds like the kind of wealth fit for a king to me! In addition to the submissive symbol and gold treasure, Gideon demands the purple robes worn by the kings of Midian. Hmmmmm….for someone who does not want to be made king, Gideon is sure beginning to look like one.

While Gideon’s acquisition of the emblems of royalty was wrong in and of itself (and went against his own refusal to be king just verses before), something even worse happens in verse 27—“Gideon made it into an ephod, and placed it in his city, Ophrah, and all Israel played the harlot with it there, so that it became a snare to Gideon and his household” (8:27). Like the pagan kings he just defeated, Gideon assumes a pagan’s king’s role as sponsor of the community cult erects a makeshift shrine, possibly to Baal, in his city—IN THE VERY SAME REGION THAT HE REMOVED A SHRINE AND ASHERA FROM EARLIER (see 6:28-35). At the beginning of Gideon’s saga God saw to it that an altar to Baal and Asherah pole was removed, thereby clearing distractions that would keep God’s people from being led astray. However, at the end of Gideon’s saga, the very same leader God appointed, equipped, empowered, and used, reintroduces a spiritual distraction that draws the worship of God’s people away from its only appropriate destination. Though it might appear small—a single shrine—it was enough to ensnare both Gideon and his household on into the future. How could Gideon get it so wrong so fast? The answer lies in his over-confidence following the victory God had given. It led not only to the cruelty exhibited earlier at Succoth, the embarrassment before Zeba and Zalmunna, the posturing as an illegitimate king before his people, but here it has flowered into open idolatry.  Gideon’s overconfidence has made him cruel, careless, cocky, and now complicit in pagan worship. Where was God in chapter 8? He appears to be absent, not because he has left Gideon, but because Gideon has ignored him and is behaving as though he does not need him. When this happens, it does not take long at all for a false god to take the place of Yahweh in Gideon’s house, and for that matter, in the nation of Israel.

e. Dispute #5: Between Israel and their God-8:28-35

Before acknowledging the last dispute found in this troubling chapter of Judges (and Israel’s history), the narrator calls attention to the resulting geo-political context following the defeat of Midian in verse 28-“So Midian was subdued before the sons of Israel and they did not lift up their heads anymore. And the land was undisturbed for forty years in the days of Gideon” (8:28). Despite the unimpressive fallout from the victory over Midian under Gideon’s leadership, God’s grace allows an entire generation (40 years) of relative peace for Israel. The same Midianites who harassed, pillaged, and murdered Israel before would not be able to lift their heads during this season.

Next, the narrator tells the end of Gideon’s story. However, evidence that the speaker is less than impressed with this deliverer is witnessed in the name he employs at the beginning of verse 29—“Then Jerubbaal (let Baal contend with him) the son of Joash went and lived in his own house. Now Gideon (the same as Jerubbaal) had seventy sons who were his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who was in Shechem also bore him a son, and he named him Abimelech. And Gideon the son of Joash died at a ripe old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash, in Ophrah of the Abiezrites,…” (8:29-32). Despite Gideon’s hesitation at the beginning of his story and idolatrous treachery at the end of his story, he is allowed a long life. During this long life we see the evidence of indulgence and a lack of self-discipline resulting in many multiple marriages and children both by wives and concubines. One of these illegitimate sons is named—Abimelech. He will be part of the unfolding story of Israel very shortly. However, for now one must realize that the ending of Gideon’s story is one that, while pleasing and desirous on a worldly level, is one that falls short of God’s character and standard.

This goes a long way in explaining why Israel behaves the way that it does following Gideon’s death—leading to its dispute with God. The chapter concludes with “Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the Lord their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel” (8:33-35). Followers reflect leadership and the same treachery Gideon himself introduced earlier permeates his people leading to mass idolatry. In this particular case the offense is especially egregious as rather than embrace worship of the God who has made a covenant with them (Yahweh), they decide to take the misplaced initiative to establish their own covenant with a master of their choosing. “Baal-berith” means “Baal of the Covenant.” Yikes! In so doing, the Israelites forget the very God who had graced them with an undeserved victory over their enemies and act viciously against Gideon’s household, or should we say (as the narrator does here) “Jerubbaal.” It is fitting to end this saga with his pagan name. After all, he behaves and leads as a pagan in the end and the people of God follow suit.

So What?

Gideon’s saga is nothing short of a real tragedy. Though God had done everything to ensure his victory and the victory of his people in a way that would not puff them up with pride, overconfidence in the life of this leader transforms this hesitant coward into a cruel, over-indulgent, and idolatrous pseudo-king. This goes a long way in demonstrating the frailty of the human condition. What Gideon endorses in this passage is not beyond possibility in your life and my life today. If/when we grow overconfident in ourselves, we drown out God’s influence on our lives and fall prey to the same fate we read about here, leading to all kinds of trouble for those both in our households and around us.

So what steps might we take, in God’s grace, to keep ourselves from sliding down this slippery slope? The answer is found in what is not present in this chapter—seeking the Lord. Rather than seek the Lord God as he had done in chapter 6-7 (even if there it was for reassurance), Gideon steps out, not in faith, but in unmerited self-confidence in chapter 8 and the result is tragic. The Lord is barely mentioned and even then only in a glib comment of feaux self-deprecation (8:23). What would we tell Gideon if we were there on the field of victory to prevent this tragic ending? What does it mean to seek the Lord well today? Let me ask you, what is your prayer life like? A prayerless person is a person placing confidence in the wrong thing/person. What is your Bible study life like? Those uninterested in the word of God might be trusting their own word or the word of someone else? What fellowship do you keep?  Those who look for ways to avoid or mistreat the people of God prove that they are operating in an unhealthy degree of uncertainty. Do not fall prey to idolatry of the self and/or others that Gideon and Israel slip into in Judges 8. Finishing well is possible for those who depend on the Lord and prayer, adherence to the Word, and fellowship with his people go a long way to that end in any season.