Sunday, September 15, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 13

In this chapter, Samson is born.

Samson is the most famous of all the judges, and also one of the more tragic figures in the OT.

There are a lot of cool things about this story.  First of all, I want to point out the recurring theme of barrenness again.  Back in Genesis we were told that Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel were all barren (Gen 11:30, 25:21 and 29:31).  Manoah's wife (who is unnamed in this story) is also barren, and like her ancestors, she will also play a pivotal role in Israel's history.  This, combined with the angelic visit, strongly suggests that Samson has an inherent greatness, that he has so much potential in his future.  This whole story recalls us to the angelic visit to Abraham and Sarah, when the LORD predicted Sarah would give birth to a son who carries on Abraham's family line and the divine promise from Gen 15.

Where the story goes different is that Samson just doesn't stay true to the LORD or follow his destiny.  But more on that later.

For now, a second point I want to bring up is that Samson is the first Nazirite in the OT.  There are only a few Nazirites in the bible, and Samson is the only person in the bible who is explicitly called a Nazirite.  It is implied that Samuel and John the Baptist are Nazirites (1 Samuel 1:11, Luke 1:15), but that's pretty much it.  To remind my readers, the Nazirite vow was specified in Num 6 as a special vow of dedication to the LORD, and you see that kind of language of dedication here.  The requirements of a Nazirite vow are to avoid grapes and wine of every kind, to avoid shaving your head and to avoid dead bodies.  Normally the Nazirite vow is a temporary, personal declaration.  It is not required by the law of Moses; it is completely voluntary.  Here, Samson is being dedicated as a Nazirite from birth for the rest of his life, before his birth and without his consent.

Samuel and John are also vaguely implied to be Nazirites for life as well (and in similar circumstances: children of barren mothers and John's birth is also predicted by an angel).  So every reference to a Nazirite in the bible is to one of these lifetime Nazirites.  There are no references to the temporary, seasonal Nazirite vow that is instituted in Num 6.

Samson is expected to live a life of strict dedication, but we can expect that the LORD will grant him corresponding power to free the Israelites from their Philistine oppressors.  Even Gideon, the other great judge, did not have this level of dedication.  However, the story of Samson's calling reminds me of Gideon because of the sacrificial offering.  In Judges 6, Gideon prepares an offering to the LORD, when the angel sets it on fire with his staff and disappears.  In this chapter, Manoah offers a sacrifice to the LORD and the angel ascends in the smoke of it and disappears.  In both cases, Manoah and Gideon fear they will die from seeing the face of the LORD (v. 22 here and Judges 6:22 for Gideon).

So in all of these ways the story of Gideon is similar to that of Samson, and v. 24 tells us that the LORD blesses Samson.  In the next chapter we will discover how Samson responds to his calling.  Until now, the story has only been about Samson's parents.  Samson himself must accept or reject the path set before him.

The last point I want to address is verses 17-18 when Manoah asks the angel for his name and the angel responds, "why do you ask my name when it is beyond your understanding?"  This reminds me of Ex 34 when the LORD passes in front of Moses and proclaims his name.  Names are significant in the bible (and to some extent in the real world) because they signify identity.  The LORD's name is more than just what he is called, it's also who he is.  Ex 33:19 says that "my goodness [will] pass before you, and [I] will proclaim the name of the LORD before you..."  This is in response to Moses asking to see the LORD's glory.  So the LORD is equating his glory, his goodness and his name all together, along with his grace and compassion (in the rest of the verse).  Therefore his name is an expression of his character and attributes, what I call identity.

With all that as the background, the angel is saying, "who I am is too great for you to understand."  To Manoah, this seems like a rejection, but to us who have access to the whole bible, I see it as an invitation to seek those truths that define who God is, and by understanding his character and nature we can learn about his name.  His name is great and beyond understanding, but it is one of the mysteries of God that we can ponder the unponderable and approach the unapproachable, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit who lives within believers.  That it is God with us who helps us to approach God and learn more about God, which no human strength could ever do alone.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 12

In this chapter, Jephthah and his Gileadite clansmen get into a war with Ephraim.

Remember when I said in Judges 9 that the loose affiliation between the tribes of Israel was falling apart?  In this chapter it becomes an all-out war between Manasseh and Ephraim.  Specifically it is the Transjordan Gileadite clan, the largest and most powerful clan of Manasseh, which has been the source of at least one other judge (Jair, and possibly Gideon who is a Manassite but not necessarily from Gilead).

In general, I think this story is a very strong parallel to when the men of Ephraim (again) complained to Gideon about this exact same issue, that they did not get "called up" to fight against the invaders of their time (in that case, Midianites; in this case, Ammonites).

The Ephraimites are correct in one sense; they didn't get called up to fight against the Ammonites.  In another sense, Jephthah is also correct; the Ammonites have been stomping around in Israelite territory for something like 17 years and there is no indication Ephraim has done anything about it in that time.  Why should Jephthah be obligated to invite the Ephraimites whenever Gilead goes to fight their national enemies?  The Ephraimites are probably seeking both the honor of victory and the spoils of war, so now they respond with jealousy and anger towards the Gileadites.

I think Jephthah is largely correct in what he says, but at the same time, his words resulted in a battle between Gilead and Ephraim.  Gilead was victorious, but Israel (as a whole) was defeated.  There is no victory in destroying a brother tribe, and while Jephthah was victorious over Ammon, this is yet another grim conclusion to what was otherwise a victory for the people of Israel.

In addition, this story is commonly contrasted with the very similar event in Judges 8 when the men of Ephraim contended against Gideon for the same reason.  The big difference is that Gideon was able to assuage their hurt feelings by emphasizing their glory in killing the two kings of Midian.  In this story, Jephthah responds with anger, which is perhaps justified, but nevertheless results in a war between two tribes.  This is another example of how things are progressively getting worse in Israel as time passes.  Many commentators view Gideon favorably compared to Jephthah for this reason, although Gideon had some issues of his own (which I also discussed in Judges 8).

There are a few judges after Jephthah in this chapter, but all of them are relatively inconsequential (and never mentioned again).

The last thing I will mention about this chapter is the funny little story about "shibboleth".  As obscure as this story may seem, it is the origin of an English phrase, "shibboleth", which means basically like a password or code phrase of some kind.  Sometimes, as here, it refers to particular regional pronunciations of a word that reveal the hometown of the speaker.  I think I have also heard it used in reference to authentication techniques in computer security.  So this is just another way that biblical stories have influenced modern English idiom.

Bible Commentary - Judges 11

In this chapter, Jephthah saves Israel from the Ammonites, but unintentionally vows to sacrifice his daughter to the LORD.

First of all, verses 1-3 seem to imply that Jephthah is literally the son of Gilead, but I think this is very unlikely because of the timeline involved.  According to Num 26:29, Gilead is a grandson of Manasseh, who died in Egypt roughly 400 years before the Exodus.  It should be obvious then that Jephthah is not literally the son of Gilead, but much more likely a descendant of Gilead, and verses 2-3 are almost certainly referring to other descendants of Gilead.  It's possible they are literally Jephthah's brothers, but it's also possibly a reference to just Gileadite clansmen in general, who drive him out of the land of Gilead (which is collectively their inheritance).

We have never heard of the land of Tob before.  Presumably it's just one of the many wastelands in this arid region.

It's not really clear from the story why the Gileadites thought that Jephthah would make a good leader.  He must have had some sort of reputation for feats of strength, but if so we never learn of them.  The main point seems to be the inconsistency between the Gileadites driving Jephthah out because he's the son of a prostitute, but then coming back to him in their time of need.

After that, Jephthah argues briefly with the king of Ammon.  Basically, this dispute is over the land of Sihon, which is the territory southeast of the Jordan.  The land of Bashan was the northeast territory, and that's where Gilead (and Manasseh) are.  Ammon is trying to claim the land south of that which is the home of the Reubenites and Gadites.  Gilead is probably not directly attacking, but what was clear from the prior chapter was that Ammon is threatening most of Israel, including crossing the Jordan to attack Judah, Benjamin and Ephraim.  Giving the land of Gad and Reuben would probably not stop Ammon from attacking the remaining tribes of Israel.

What happened was that the Amorites captured this land from the Ammonites, and as Jephthah recites, Israel conquered it from the Amorites on their way through to the promised land.  Although Israel never attacked the Ammonites, the Ammonites are now seeking to reclaim the land that they once possessed before the Amorites took it from them.

But let's be realistic.  Israel has fought many, many wars that neither had, nor required, any provocation.  The Midianites, Moabites, Amalekites, Philistines, etc. have all attacked Israel without any prior provocation.  One could reasonably suggest the Israelites' invasion itself had no provocation.  The Mideast in this time is definitely a "might makes right" sort of place.  Every war is justified by victory.  Jephthah himself implies this in v. 24 when he says "Do you not possess when Chemosh your god gives you to possess?"  This statement (and those that follow it) implies that any land you possess is given to you by your nation's god, which in turn justifies your possession of it.  If your god is strong enough to take a land, then you deserve to possess it.

The second implication is something I have stated before, which is the notion that every god in the OT is inherently a national god.  The LORD is the national god of Israel, Chemosh is the god of Ammon, and Judges 10:6 lists "the gods" of many different nations, without specifically naming them.  This was a concept I discussed several times (what I call "patron gods"), and it is very important in many places in the OT, such as here.  Because Israel's god is stronger, they defeated the Canaanites in their invasion.  Because Israel's god is stronger, they drove out the Amorites from the Transjordan region and killed Sihon, king of the Amorites.  And it is the strength of the LORD that will preserve the Israelites against the Ammonites now.

Jephthah brings up another point, which is that the Israelites have possessed this land for generations now (80 years after Ehud alone, Judges 3:30, another 40 years after Deborah and 40 years after Gideon), what he calls 300 years.  I'm not going to bother working out the chronology, but this is probably reasonably accurate given how many judges have already come and gone.  What this shows is that the Ammonites attacking now is opportunistic.  They aren't attacking because they think they have a right to this land, but because they think they can win it.  The Ammonites' reason for invading is almost entirely pretense.

Anyway, Jephthah destroys the Ammonites as we should all expect by this point, but with a pretty twisted conclusion: he promises to sacrifice whatever (or whoever) comes out of his house to greet him after his victory, and by chance it is his only daughter.  Like Gideon's ephod, this shows that even the judges of Israel can and do make serious mistakes, and the least I can do is call this vow a serious mistake.  Fulfilling it (as he does) is not to Jephthah's credit.

God commanded Abraham to kill his only son, but then relented and stopped him from doing so.  Deut 18:10 specifically commands the Israelites to not offer their sons or daughters as sacrifices, and one can speculate that it is from Canaanite human sacrifices that Jephthah got his idea to make this vow.  It is unlikely that Jephthah expected an animal to walk out of his home's front door to greet him upon his return; although he might not have desired his daughter's death, he must have known or thought it would be a person, perhaps a servant or other relative.  But it doesn't matter: the law of Moses makes no provision for human sacrifice.  Leviticus 20:2-5 puts this in even stronger terms, demanding that anyone who sacrifices his children to Molech should be put to death.  Jephthah doesn't sacrifice his children to Molech, but there can be little doubt that it was contrary to the law.

If Jephthah sinned and violated the law, why did the LORD save Israel through him?  There are many reasons, but the most relevant is that the LORD didn't save Israel for Jephthah, he did it for Israel.  But you could similarly ask why the LORD passed the covenant on to Jacob, who stole his brothers blessing, why Judah is the chosen tribe for the kingship when Judah himself married a Canaanite, and the list could go on and on.  Just because "a hero" does something doesn't mean that the LORD approves of their action, and just because the LORD works through somebody doesn't mean they're perfect.  The LORD is working to bring redemption to the earth, and that means by definition the people being worked through are not themselves yet redeemed.  More often than not, people are purified and redeemed by being worked through, when the LORD is bringing redemption through them to other people.  Why some people are chosen as vessels of redemption, while others are chosen as recipients, is beyond my understanding or wisdom.  But I have learned enough to recognize that more often than not, this is how the LORD works.

In the case of Jephthah, as with many others throughout the bible, we see both the redemption that they bring (such as rescuing Israel) and the spots where they also need redemption (such as here, where Jephthah inexplicably vows to perform a human sacrifice).

Bible Commentary - Judges 10

In this chapter, Israel turns back to idolatry and the LORD gives them over to the Philistines and Ammonites.

The story here should be getting very familiar.  It starts off with two heroes who "save Israel" from various troubles, and again both of them are from northern Israel (one is from Issachar, the other from Gilead in Manasseh).  This whole book seems to be biased towards northern Israel and especially Gilead.  We can suspect that the author might be from northern Israel or Manasseh.

After these two heroes die, Israel returns to idolatry, serving the gods of all the nations around Israel and from within the land, which is again very familiar.

Before the LORD sent Gideon to save the people, he also sent an unnamed prophet to rebuke the people for their idolatry.  This time the LORD rebukes them again, telling them to ask their new gods for help if those are the gods they wish to serve.  This chapter doesn't tell us how the LORD shared this message, but it was most likely through a prophet or something similar.

Most of the enemies listed here are nations that attacked Israel earlier in Judges, such as the Amalekites, Ammonites and Philistines.  The LORD also mentions the Egyptians, who haven't fought against Israel since they departed during the exodus.  The LORD further mentions the Sidonians and Maonites (the people from Maon, a town in Judah, Joshua 15:55), which we haven't heard had been oppressing Israel.  It's possible they were lesser allies of earlier oppressors.  Who knows, it's not really that significant.

The main purpose of this chapter is to set us up for the next chapter, when the next hero of Israel emerges to save them from their enemies on behalf of the LORD.  Having "put away the foreign gods from among them", it seems inevitable at this point that the LORD will indeed save them.  I can only ask for how long it will remain thus, before Israel returns to sin.  Honestly I would say more but this is a pattern we have seen multiple times now and it's really the same thing all over again.

Bible Commentary - Judges 9

In this chapter, Abimelech conspires with the people of Shechem to kill the other sons of Gideon, but later destroy each other in their treachery.

Things have been getting gradually worse in Israel for some time, but this chapter is when things really start getting messed up.  This chapter also really highlights the intertribal conflicts within Israel, as the men of Shechem support Abimelech because "he is our relative."  In the last chapter we saw Ephraim complain because they hadn't been included in the fight against Midian, and in chapter 6 we saw how rapidly the men of Manasseh rallied to Gideon, who is their relative.

It's always been a bit of a juggling act keeping all the tribes aligned together.  For another example, think of how the 2.5 tribes settled east of the Jordan created an uproar because they were seen as abandoning the other tribes (Num 32).  Later in Joshua, the other tribes nearly went to war against these same 2.5 tribes because the transjordan tribes built an altar (Joshua 22).  These are the kinds of problems that Moses and Joshua had to deal with, but now that Israel has no unifying leader, it now results in murder and open strife.  Ironically, both Gideon and Shechem are part of the same tribe, Manasseh.  So this isn't even intertribal conflict, it is between clans of the same tribe.  We are going to see a lot more of this before Judges is over, and this is actually one of the reasons why Israel wants (and probably needs) a king, is to keep the tribes together.

After murdering all the other sons of Gideon (to prevent them from challenging Abimelech's kingship), Jotham pronounces a curse from Mount Gerizim, which was supposed to be the mountain of blessing (Deut 11:29).  Through Shechem's treachery, it has become a curse instead.

For the parable that Jotham tells the Shechemites, it seems like the general idea is that "the trees", a metaphor for the people, were looking for a king, but all of the good plants (those that produce olives, grapes, etc) refused to rule over them, so they chose a bramble of thorns, which is a symbol of destruction and produces no good thing (see e.g. Gen 3:18).  If there is any other particular allusion, I don't see it.  What is obvious is that Jotham is predicting disaster, and that's what happens.

The short version is, if there is a people who deal treacherously with one man, they cannot be trusted with another.  Since the Shechemites betrayed Gideon and killed his sons, it should surprise no one that they would also betray Abimelech in the right circumstances.  I do think v. 28 is really weird, I don't understand why Gaal is referencing Hamor (who was the father of Shechem, and was killed by the sons of Jacob in Gen 34), since I would assume the inhabitants of Shechem are Manassites and not actually descended from Hamor.  Maybe Gaal is implying that some (or many?) of the people of Shechem actually are descended from Hamor and living in servitude to the Israelites, and Gaal is encouraging them to rebel against Abimelech (who is an Israelite).  It's certainly possible given that we know many parts of Israelites still contained native tribes, which would likely have merged at least partially with the Israelites.

The other thing that kinda confused me about this chapter is why, if Gaal controls the city and knows that Zebul is loyal to Abimelech, he would allow Zebul to remain.  There must have been some reason why Gaal couldn't drive him out, or maybe Zebul was only loyal to Abimelech in secret, and publicly disclaimed friendship to Abimelech.  Nevertheless, he appeared to remain loyal to his master.

The rest of the story is pretty straightforward.  Abimelech beats the men of Shechem and destroys the city.  Then he goes around the countryside and starts attacking other towns that probably allied themselves with Gaal such as Thebez.  After burning the tower of Shechem he tries to do the same to the tower of Thebez, but dies, and the war is ended.

One other thing I'll point out is how Abimelech was afraid of being killed by a woman.  Even though Deborah and Jael were considered heroic figures, this is obviously a very misogynistic culture.  As in verse 49, the women of a town live or die depending on the fate of their husbands, who fight in their defense.  But only rarely do they get to fight for their own survival.

Lastly, this chapter is pretty grim, but this is approximately what Israelite history looks like for the next ~900 years.  It's sometimes good (like when Gideon overthrew the Midianites) and it's sometimes bad (like when the Shechemites killed all his sons).  It's bad more often than it's good, but it's not the end of the story.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 8

In this chapter, Gideon kills the two kings of the Midianites and launches reprisals against Israelite towns that did not support him.

This chapter begins with the Ephraimites complaining that Gideon did not invite them into his army when he gathered the original 30,000 (and later, 300) men to fight against the Midianites.  Gideon responds by trying to flatter them, calling the "gleanings" of Ephraim better than the vintage of Abiezer (his family).  Gleanings are the remnant grapes that are left over in a field after it has been harvested, so Gideon is basically saying, "your worst is better than my best", all because Ephraim caught the two leaders of Midian (presumably these are the military leaders or generals of Midian; their kings are captured later).

Ephraim is pacified by this response, which is interesting because it shows us (in hindsight) how significant it was that Jael killed Sisera.  Indeed, the honor of slaying the leader of the Canaanites was given to a woman, just as the honor of killing the commanders of the Midianites is given to Ephraim, although Ephraim was not involved with the earlier battle.

Gideon's response to Ephraim is generally considered a positive example from his life, because he answered them wisely to assuage their wrath.  This is juxtaposed with a later story in Judges where, in a similar situation, a different judge will give a much less wise response and things will go worse.

After this, Gideon and his men pass by two Israelite towns, both of which refuse to help him.  This is yet another example of how Israel is paralyzed by fear.  Even after Gideon won a major victory and had destroyed 90% of the Midianite army, two towns (both in Gad, east of the Jordan) refuse to help Gideon because they are afraid of Midianite retribution if Gideon is later defeated.

Still with the same 300 men as before, Gideon defeats the Midianites again (this time reduced to 15,000 men), and just as he promised he goes back and scourges the leaders of Succoth, while destroying the town of Penuel.  When he meets the two kings of Midian, he commands his own son to kill them and his son is too afraid to do it.  While verse 20 says this is because "he was still a youth", it is also probably because of a general fear of the Midianites like we have been seeing not just in this chapter, but also chapters 6 and 7.

After killing the two kings, things with Gideon start getting a bit more complicated.  The people ask Gideon to rule over them, and he refuses.  On the one hand, Gideon says, "the LORD shall rule over you", which seems like a pretty godly opinion.  But on the other hand, he turns around and creates an idol for his hometown, contrary to the second commandment.

I think there are two interesting dynamics going on here which I will address in turn.  The first is Gideon's faith.  Gideon constructs an ephod, which the people of his town treat as an idol.  This is somewhat peculiar because the last time we saw an ephod it was part of the high priest's garment, but in this case Gideon's ephod somehow became an object of idolatrous worship itself.  I don't exactly understand why they would worship an ephod, but from what I can tell ephods are commonly associated with household gods (see e.g. Judges 17:5, Hosea 3:4).  Possibly Gideon also had household idols, on which he puts the ephod of gold.

But that's not the interesting part to me.  The interesting part is, why is Gideon worshiping an idol when he was the selected champion of the LORD?  I really think this is one of the most confusing parts of Gideon's story.  His fear I can understand, and the LORD reassures him many times to get him over it.  His victory over the Midianites was great, and then he makes the very pious statement, "the LORD shall rule over you".  And then he makes an idol which becomes "a snare to Gideon and his household".  In part, I wonder why the LORD would choose a leader for Israel whose heart would fall into idolatry.  All of the previous heroes of the faith have been so strong and reliable, like Abraham or Jacob or Moses or Deborah.  I mean sure, some of them struggled with doubts or anger or other problems, just like Gideon struggled with his fear, but it just seems unusual for a judge to fall into idolatry.  To be fair, Aaron also was involved with the idolatry of Ex 32, and Aaron was the high priest.  But he got rebuked for it, some people died and they moved on.  In this case, after Gideon made the idol it seems to cast a lingering shadow over Gideon's family as there is no sign they ever stopped worshiping it.

For everything he accomplished, you want to like Gideon.  But this ending to his life's story is so bitter it is hard to feel positive about him.  I guess what I can say is that he accomplished great things, but like many people who do great things, he had some real problems too.

The second interesting dynamic is how the Israelite people seem to be inclining their hearts towards a king.  Although Israel has had supreme leaders for a while (Moses, then Joshua, then the judges), this was not a hereditary system.  With Gideon, they ask for "you, your son and your son's son" to rule over them, establishing a de facto kingdom under Gideon.  Deuteronomy 17 predicted that the Israelites would ask for a king, and generally seemed okay with the idea as long as it was a king appointed by the LORD, not a foreigner, and who honors and follows the law of Moses.  It wouldn't have been wrong for Gideon to become king of Israel, but I don't think his refusal is bad either.  What we can see is that the Israelite people are seeking a king to protect them from the hostile nations that lie on every border (having warred against Moab, Ammon, Amalek, Midian and Canaan, there doesn't seem to be a friendly nation anywhere to be found).

Lastly, Gideon has 70 sons through his "many wives", which seems like it contradicts the command in Deut 17:17 against doing just that.  Although Gideon refused the kingship, he is still effectively the leader of Israel at this point; how else could he afford to feed 70 children and numerous wives and servants if he wasn't also extremely wealthy?  So I wouldn't say that this is a direct violation of the law, but it's pretty close.  I think it's fair to say this is another sin on Gideon's part, marking yet another poor conclusion to what was a great beginning.

To the surprise of no one, the Israelites return to idolatry after Gideon dies.  In the next chapter we will find out what happens to Gideon's legacy.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 7

In this chapter, Gideon gathers an army and uses it to defeat the Midianites.

Having received the signs in the fleece and having gathered an army out of Manasseh (Gideon's home tribe) as well as Asher, Zebulun and Naphtali, Gideon is now ready to strike against the Midianites.  Note that as with Deborah, all of these are northern tribes so it appears that Judah is not involved with this battle either.  Midian also gathered an army in the last chapter after Gideon destroyed the altar to Baal in his hometown.  It's not clear to me if they gathered an army in response to that or just for some other reason.  Either way, the author doesn't elaborate on why the Midianites assembled themselves, just that they were positioned on the opposite side of the valley in preparation for a fight.

The first part of this chapter is Gideon, at the LORD's direction, selecting down his army from roughly 30,000 to 300 men.  This is exactly the same principle that led to Gideon's selection at leader, and now it's at work in building his army.  The LORD is deliberately reducing the army to a state of weakness so that his power would show through them more obviously.

The method of selecting the 300 seems peculiar.  Removing all the people with trembling hearts is standard (see Deut 20:8, which proposes this exactly).  What follows to select the 300 out of 10,000 is not.  When I first read this I couldn't at all understand the difference between those who "lap the water" versus those who "kneel to drink".  But I once heard a teacher suggest a pattern that seemed plausible enough for me to repeat it.  What this teacher said is that if you kneel the drink, then that means you are putting your face down into the water to drink and cannot see anything around you.  Those who "put their hand to their mouth" are able to drink with head up, able to observe the surroundings and be aware if anyone threatened them.  It's a minor distinction, but it's the most interesting suggestion I've heard for why the LORD told Gideon to choose those who lap from hand to mouth instead of those who kneel to drink.  Otherwise, it seems completely arbitrary, with the only purpose to bring down the number of troops to something too small to attack the Midianites by conventional means.

Verses 9-14 contain yet another encouragement for Gideon, this time coming from the mouths of his adversaries.  Is it a miracle?  I don't know, in my opinion it's hard to distinguish between miracles and natural events.  By some accounts, everything is a miracle.  By other accounts, everything is natural, and even for the same reason, that the LORD is the source of all things.  Calling one thing a miracle (as if God did it) and another thing natural (as if God didn't) seems to create a false dichotomy, and debating whether this dream is a miracle is just arguing on which side of an imaginary line it should fall in.  It contains supernatural elements (like Gideon being directed by the LORD to the right place and time to hear it) but also natural elements (because the dream and the two men talking are both ostensibly natural things).

One could say it was a natural event and not a miracle at all, but I think that kind of interpretation belies the true point, which is that it doesn't matter if it's "a miracle" or "natural".  It accomplished what it was supposed to, which was to encourage Gideon to fulfill his mission in overthrowing the Midianites.  Every other question is secondary.  But this is something that comes up often in Christian circles.  You'll hear about something like a person who has severe back problems (or whatever) and then one day the problem goes away, maybe after prayer or a word from the Lord or whatever.  Does this qualify as a miracle?  To a non-believer looking for proof of God, maybe not, because of confirmation bias and a whole host of other plausible doubts.  But what about to a believer who accepts the reality of God but still isn't sure if it is a miracle?  To that my response is as before: does it even matter?  Something good happened.  Saying "the LORD did it" or saying "it happened by nature".  If it happened by nature, does it become any less good?  If it happens because the Lord did it, does it become any more?  The Lord is the source of all good things, debating whether something good qualifies as a "real miracle" seems like a foolish pursuit.

I'm glad I got to address that topic because most of the miracles in the bible take the form of "and then the dead person rose to life again" or variants to that effect.  It's like, unquestioningly a miracle of some profound order.  But in ordinary life, especially in the western world, there seems to be a lot of "minor miracles", things much like what we read here with Gideon, and because they are relatively low-key, some people question whether they are "real miracles" versus the placebo effect of people.  Like if you have a headache that goes away after someone prays, maybe it got healed because you were expecting it to get healed.  As if that makes it somehow fake.

Anyway, I should move on.  Gideon comes up with a plan to have his 300 men blow trumpets and smash some jars and hold aloft torches, etc.  The plan, as eccentric as it sounds, was to terrify the Midianites into thinking that they were surrounded by a much larger force (such as the 30,000 who had been encamped against them earlier) and it is a smashing success, as one would expect from the LORD's orchestration.  Gideon summons men from several surrounding tribes to pursue and slay the fleeing Midianites, and the men of Ephraim capture and execute the two leaders of the Midianites.  Although these tribes were not involved in routing the army of Midian, they are called up to help kill the Midianites, because there are too many Midianite soldiers for the 300 to kill them all.

As with the dream, it is "quasi-miraculous", with the 300 men blowing trumpets and waving torches (which would imply that they had many more men without trumpets or torches), but the LORD also sending fear and confusion upon their enemies.

Bible Commentary - Judges 6

In this chapter, Gideon is chosen to save Israel from Midian.

Gideon is probably the second-best known of the judges of Israel, behind Samson, and his story is both richly detailed and interesting (to me, at least).  The overall pattern of this story is the same as for every other judge, with Israel once again doing "evil in the sight of the LORD", given over to their enemies, and now Gideon is being raised up to save Israel from their troubles.

This time around, their national enemy is the Midianites (allied with the Amalekites and "the sons of the east").  We have seen the Midianites a few times before, but until now they have been politically neutral more than anything else.  For instance, Joseph was sold by his brothers to Midianite traders (Gen 37:28).  Later, Moses flees to Midian and marries a daughter of "the priest of Midian" (Ex 3:1).  One of the sons of Abraham is also named Midian (Gen 25:2), but given the timelines involved I think it's unlikely that the Midianite traders were descendants of Abraham's son Midian.  Since Joseph is a great-grandson of Abraham, that would leave around three generations for Midian to grow from a single person to a widespread national identity.  It is more likely to be a coincidence.  Another possibility is that Abraham (who himself came from the east) named his son Midian after the Midianites.

Nevertheless, from what descriptions of the Midianites we have seen before and in this chapter, it seems likely that the Midianites are an eastern people and mostly nomadic.  As described in v. 5, they possessed vast herds of livestock, and from Gen 37:28 we know that they would range up and down from the Levant to Egypt.  Their alliance with "the sons of the east" further suggests that the Midianites lived in parts of the desert, possibly in the Arabian peninsula or maybe Iraq, although in the bible Iraq is usually called Shinar or Babylon.  There aren't any direct references that I know of to the home of the Midianites, and indeed their nomadic culture would imply that their home, if anywhere, is a widespread region that possibly overlaps with other national territories.

With that background in mind, this chapter marks two divergences from what we have previously known.  The first is that (as I said) Midian was not hostile to Israel before, and indeed Midian does not appear to share any common borders with Israel.  Midian's invasion of Israel suggests a regional power shift, because they would have had to either invade or pacify at least one of the nations around Israel to get through (i.e. Moab, Ammon, or some of the Amorite kingdoms to the northeast).  The second divergence is that the Midianites, as a nomadic tribe, did not previously seem to have such large numbers.  Although horses and camels act as substantial force multipliers in battle, it is historically very uncommon for nomadic peoples to be so successful against agrarian societies (which can usually sustain much higher populations).  The Mongols were able to conquer almost the entire world in the 14th century under Genghis Khan, and the Arabs were able to conquer almost the entire world in the centuries following the life of Muhammad, but these are exceptional cases.  Most other empires in world history, and certainly in biblical history, were agrarian.  The big empires in biblical history are: the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  I might be forgetting one or two, but all six of these empires I listed were agrarian societies.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Midianites, as a nomadic people, are not who you would expect to become such a threatening regional force.  And yet here we are, with the Midianites devouring all the crops of Israel "like locusts".  The Israelites get so used to oppression that they start making caves and mountainous fortresses to save their lives while the lowlands and valleys get overrun.

At this point, the LORD rebukes them through a prophet.  And yet, he chooses to save them again.  Rebuke, yet save.  And there is little evidence to suggest that Israel will stop sinning once they are saved from the Midianites, yet still he saves.  It's hard to explain why the LORD would save.  But if the LORD chooses to forgive, who am I to question him?

With all that in mind, we find Gideon "beating out wheat in the wine press".  A wine press would be like a pit or something, where they would dump grapes and them trample on them to squeeze out the juice (which would then be collected and fermented).  Grains of wheat taken from a stalk is not particularly edible because it is covered by a hardened shell called a "hull".  The hull protects the wheat from pests, but also protects it from human consumers.  To render it edible, the wheat is "beaten" to break off the hull into fragments called "chaff".  Then the wheat would be thrown into the air using a shovel or something, so that the air can carry off the lighter, fragile chaff, while the heavier wheat kernel (which is the edible part) falls back down and can be gathered together.  This process is usually called "threshing" the grain.

Gideon's behavior, threshing the wheat inside a pit, is therefore unusual.  Normally threshing is done on hilltops where the stronger and more consistent wind patterns will separate the chaff more easily.  Threshing inside a wine press will not separate the chaff as effectively, and if the chaff is ground together with the kernels then the resulting wheat flour is of lower quality.  Why is Gideon doing this?  Because as v. 11 tells us, he is trying to "save it from the Midianites".  By threshing it inside a wine press, it would be harder for the Midianites to see him and to steal his crops.  This is the kind of behavior you expect from a thoroughly cowed individual.  We can see, then, that Gideon is not acting much like a hero.  The Israelites are living in caves in the mountains out of their fear and desperation, while Gideon is threshing grain in a wine press out of his own fear.  The LORD appears to him in v. 12 and calls him a valiant warrior.

This is a central paradox to both the OT and the NT, because it is fundamental to how the LORD relates to people.  One example of this is Deut 7:7, where it says that the LORD did not choose Israel because they were strong or numerous, because Israel was "the fewest of all peoples".  Indeed, it was because of their weakness that the LORD chose them, to reveal his power the most clearly through them.  Even before that, the LORD chose people (through Adam and Eve) to administrate the planet and the animals therein, even though they were made out of dust.  Some people might say it was "in spite of" their weakness that the LORD chose them, but from the bible it seems more likely that it was "because of" their weakness, working his power through us to reveal himself to us and to everyone around.

By the same token, the LORD demonstrated miracles and signs when he brought Israel out of Egypt, both to reveal himself to Israel but also to reveal himself to Egypt and all the nations in that part of the world.  And now he chooses to do the same thing with Gideon, but in an even more exaggerated way, taking the youngest son from the smallest family in Manasseh, out from threshing in his wine press, to be the next judge of Israel.  This is the first wonder of this chapter.

The second wonder of this chapter begins in verses 17-18, when Gideon asks for the LORD to show him a sign, and the LORD agrees.  Gideon prepares an offering to the LORD and when the LORD sets it on fire and disappears, Gideon fears for his life (just as Jacob did in Gen 32), but the LORD reassures him.  After this first sign, the LORD asks him to destroy an altar of Baal and replace it with an altar to the LORD.  This is less than what the LORD first told him, that he would destroy the Midianites.  But what we should see from this is how the LORD is building up Gideon's confidence.  After having stated his destiny (to overthrow the Midianites) and then showing him a miracle (setting the offering on fire with his staff) he now asks him to perform a lesser task, destroying an altar.  His success at this lesser task will also give him confidence for the greater task.

Even then, Gideon is still afraid, so he destroys the altar at night.  He gets discovered (probably because he brought 10 servants with him), but his father convinces the other Israelites of his own town (who had been worshiping Baal) to not kill him.

After this, Gideon asks the LORD for a second miracle, to reassure him for the greater task of overthrowing Midian.  He asks for a wet fleece and dry ground, then dry ground and a wet fleece.  The LORD fulfills both requests, at which point Gideon has enough confidence to attack Midian with the army he has gathered (in the next chapter).

I think this whole series of miracles is very interesting.  I'm not exactly sure how to put it, but there are many people in the world who are trying to figure out "God's will for their life", trying to understand what God wants them to do or what they should be doing.  Many of these people are also afraid that they will miss what God wants them to do.  The story of Gideon has led my friends to sometimes use an expression, "put out a fleece".  Used in a sentence: "If you think God wants you to quit your job, put out a fleece and see what happens".  What we mean by this expression is to establish some sort of concrete litmus test that would guide whether you are hearing from the LORD correctly or not.

Generally speaking, we only "put out a fleece" when contemplating a radical departure from the normal or what we would otherwise do and feel unsure if it's the right thing to do.  To put it in simpler terms, if you think the LORD is asking for radical faith, it's reasonable to ask for a fleece.  Gideon's fleece is not a radical miracle like Moses's staff turning into a snake, but it was concrete and physical, something that Gideon knew could not naturally happen and it was sufficient proof for him that the LORD was truly speaking to him and he could risk his life.  In the case of Moses, he had to convince all the elders of Israel that the LORD was with him, so a greater miracle was required.  In the case of Gideon, he only needed to convince himself.  It's not like bigger miracles are better; each miracle is appropriate for the situation in which it is given.

So getting back to "God's will for your life", my general philosophy is that we have to try to listen to what the LORD is saying, and when you think he says "do this" and it is risky or unusual and you aren't sure if it's the LORD, then seek confirmation.  Put out a fleece, and if it's the LORD and you are asking genuinely, then he will do it.  The actual nature of the "fleece" is variable, and can be nearly anything in practice, like "let there be a rainbow in the sky today" or whatever.  It doesn't actually matter what it is, as long as it's something unlikely or unnatural enough to be convincing.  If you have no doubt, then it's disingenuous to put out a fleece, but if you have doubt, then putting out a fleece is fair and from what I understand, the LORD will honor it.

Bible Commentary - Judges 5

This chapter contains the song of Deborah.

From what I heard when I was researching the dating of Judges, this song is supposed to be one of the oldest parts of the book based on linguistic analysis.  I don't think you can really tell just by reading the English translation though, because content-wise it fits in pretty closely with what we just read.

The song describes, in flowing terms, how Israel was oppressed in the days of Jael (v. 6-7) until the mother Deborah arose, an army was gathered, and a battle fought against Sisera.  After Sisera's defeat, his mother stands in opposition to Deborah, the mother of Israel, and Jael, the most blessed woman who slays Sisera.  Sisera's mother, for her part, worries at the delay of her son's chariot bringing back news of the victory.  She wonders if Sisera is late because he is gathering spoils, but instead we had already learned that Barak was gathering the spoils to himself from his victory (v. 12).

So I'd say that's the first theme of Deborah's song: drawing a contrast between the valorous and victorious mothers of Israel against the distraught mother and princesses of Sisera.  It is common in biblical songs for women to rejoice or mourn at the results of various battles.  What is uncommon is Deborah's participation as a leader of Israel and Jael's prominent role in slaying Sisera.  The weapons that Jael used, too, are the weapons of a homemaker, not a warrior.

The second theme I'd like to point out is the contrast between the participating tribes and those who did not fight against the Canaanites (verses 14-18).  This chapter lists six tribes as participating: Ephraim, Benjamin, Makir (a clan of Manasseh), Zebulun, Naphtali and Issachar.  I'm not sure exactly what it's trying to say about Reuben, but the consensus seems to be that Reuben did not participate in the battle.  Gilead (a region of Manasseh east of the Jordan) did not fight, nor did Dan and Asher.

This is a more expansive list of participating tribes than what we read in the last chapter (where Deborah commanded Barak to gather men from Zebulun and Naphtali), but I don't think this is a significant discrepancy.  I would guess that Zebulun and Naphtali are the most significant tribes present for the battle (since they are the two tribes honored in v. 18 of the song), but it's not contradictory to suggest that the other tribes named here (Ephraim, Benjamin, etc.) sent smaller contingents that simply didn't merit inclusion in Judges 4.

The third major theme is in verses 19-23, which recounts the LORD's divine assistance on behalf of Israel.  This section begins by telling us that "the kings" are fighting in Taanach, but it quickly elevates to the heavenly realm.  This shows us that while kings were battling on the earth, there was a corresponding battle going on in the heavens as well.

The stars and the river Kishon fought against Sisera.  The stars are a common metaphor for angels, in this case fighting "from heaven" to influence the battle on earth in Israel's favor.  This creates a dual suggestion of both supernatural power fighting for Israel, but also the natural world (in the literal stars and the literal river Kishon) fighting on behalf of Israel.  Many powers, then, are aligned to ensure Israel's victory against a stronger army (symbolized for its part by the iron chariots and the dashing hoof beats of the mighty horses, v. 22).  The root source of Israel's assistance, however, is the angel of the LORD, who is bringing his power to bear against their enemies.  It's interesting that the thundering chariot, a symbol of Sisera's power, is exactly what is delayed in v. 28 to the dismay of his mother.

The last thing I would like to point out is the use of poetic repetition, something that I have discussed before, beginning all the way back in Gen 1:27 (which repeats the words "God", "created" and "image").  In this chapter we see repetitions all over the place, but some examples are v. 7 ("until I arose"), v. 11 ("the righteous deeds"), v. 12 ("awake, awake!"), and my personal favorite, v. 27:  "He bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell."  There are a bunch more, in nearly every verse of this chapter, so I won't list the rest.

There are a few other minor details that I don't really understand.  what is Meroz from v. 23?  Is it a city in Israel?  Also, I don't really understand why there are references to the LORD marching out of Seir/Edom in v. 4.  So I will gloss over these details.  :)  I think I have succeeded in mostly capturing the intended sense of the song with the three themes I listed above.