Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 21

In this final chapter of Judges, the Israelites plunder wives for the surviving men of Benjamin.

We've been going through about 5 chapters now of things that happened "when there was no king in Israel", and this chapter is the grim conclusion to all these stories.

Having murdered all the women and children of Benjamin and sworn to not give them their daughters in marriage, Israel is now mourning because Benjamin will disappear as a tribe if they cannot marry and bear children.  At this point, Israel is trying to figure out how to keep Benjamin from dying out, so they begin by wiping out Jabesh-Gilead and taking 400 virgins from that clan to give to Benjamin.

Israel concludes the best way to solve this "problem" is to have the men of Benjamin go and kidnap women who are dancing in a feast to the LORD that year in Shiloh, in the hill country of Ephraim.  This solves the "problem" of getting wives for Benjamin because the women were not given by their fathers voluntarily, so nobody had to break their vow, and then the other tribes protected Benjamin from the (obviously angry) fathers.

Even though I think Israel did the right thing in the last chapter, in this chapter they obviously drift back into sinful behavior.  The author reminds of us of his disapproval in the last verse, saying that in this time "everyone did what was right in his own eyes."

To some extent, the events of this chapter look wrong to us because of cultural differences.  It was common in the ancient world to take surviving women as plunder after defeating other nations.  For instance, Deuteronomy 21:10-13 discusses how Israel should behave when they see "among the captives a beautiful woman" that they want to take for a wife.  Obviously the woman doesn't get a choice in this arrangement.  Israel behaves similarly towards Jabesh-Gilead, slaughtering all the men and married women and taking the virgins as plunder to give to Benjamin.  On the other hand, Israel is once again destroying their own brothers, the men of Manasseh, in order to find women for Benjamin.

They go even further, encouraging Benjamin to kidnap women from Shiloh, and this has no justification, nor does it represent cultural differences. It is a violation of the law. Exodus 21:16 says, "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death".  Deuteronomy 24:7 repeats this command in a more detailed way: "If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you."  This is a metaphorical extension of the commandment against stealing, because kidnapping is like "stealing people".

This is exactly what happens to the young women of Shiloh, and the entire congregation of Israel explicitly assents to this behavior.  This is what the author is condemning when he says "there was no king in Israel."  Like I called it before, it is a grim conclusion to a period of anarchy, when Israel behaved as they saw fit and did not regard the Law or the covenant.  I can understand why they wanted to preserve Benjamin as a tribe, but the way they went about it seemed so wrong.  We know it and the author knows it, and that's what the author was trying to show us, how Israel behaves when they don't have a king to unite the tribes together and bind them under the Law of Moses.  The situation that they create by killing nearly all of Benjamin they try to "fix" by encouraging the survivors to go kidnap women from Ephraim.  The author concludes, this is why we need a king, to prevent things like this from happening again.

I also hope my readers see the strong tribal divisions that are revealed by this story.  Benjamin stands with their brothers of Gibeah, resulting in the other tribes nearly destroying Benjamin altogether.  This is another reason why they need a king, to help bring unity to the tribes so that they might stop fighting each other.  This is the second time this has happened in Judges, the first being when Jephthah and the Gileadites (men of Manasseh) fight against and slaughter men of Ephraim in Judges 12, but this time is far more severe, nearly destroying an entire tribe.

Back when we were reading through the Pentateuch, I tried to point out multiple times how different expressions and patterns were designed to emphasize the unity and equality of the twelve tribes.  Things like the pattern of precious stones on the high priests garments (Ex 28), amongst many other things.  The book of Judges is a demonstration of why that was necessary.  Even with the encouragement of the law, the tribes of Israel are still fractious and in periodic conflict.  With a king, it is possible that Israel might finally be unified and work together as a nation.  That's certainly what the author of Judges has in mind, I think.

Bible Commentary - Judges 20

In this chapter, all Israel unites together to destroy the men of Gibeah, but Benjamin rallies to defend their clansmen.

In general, I think the tribes of Israel are doing the right thing here.  The phrase we saw over and over in Deuteronomy is "you shall purge the evil from your midst", and that's exactly what they decide to do.  The entire town of Gibeah collaborated to commit this atrocity, so now the tribes of Israel align to destroy the men responsible.  I don't think the Levite man did anything good, and in fact I'm pretty disgusted with him, but as he says in verse 5, the men of Gibeah would have killed him if he tried to stop them.

This chapter continues with the theme of "there was no king in Israel".  The men of Benjamin rally to defend Gibeah, sticking to their tribal allegiances rather than justice and the Law.  Benjamin is severely outnumbered, but win the battle on the first two days.  The battle eventually goes in favor of the 11 tribes, in a way that reminds me of the battle against Ai in Joshua 8.  In Joshua 7 and 8, Israel is defeated by the men of Ai after Achan sins against the LORD.  The people kill Achan and then attack Ai, defeating it.  Israel sets men in ambush, draw the men of Ai out of the city by feigning defeat, and then surrounding them and attacking on two sides.

This is exactly what happens here against Benjamin, who on the third day are drawn out of the town of Gibeah by the men of Israel feigning defeat, and then having an ambush destroy the city with fire.  The men of Benjamin are terrified when they see that their retreat is cut off, and they attempt to flee but are nearly all slaughtered.  What started as retribution against Gibeah ended in almost total destruction to the entire tribe of Benjamin, with only 600 survivors.

Unlike the battle of Ai, this results in the destruction of a tribe of Israel rather than an idolatrous nation of Canaan, so it's a Pyrrhic victory in that sense, but it's a battle that I feel they must have waged in order to fulfill the Law's demands for justice.  Indeed, their war against Benjamin seems to have divine favor as they inquire of the LORD three times to ask whether they should attack Benjamin, and all three times the answer is yes.

Apart from the parallels to Ai, I think one of the interesting parts of this chapter is how Israel (i.e. all of the tribes except for Benjamin) is defeated by Benjamin twice even when they have the assent of the LORD.  This is unusual because I don't think we saw Israel defeated by any of the Canaanites except for when Achan sinned and they were defeated by Ai.  I've thought a lot about why the sons of Israel get defeated twice, and I can't really think of a theological explanation.  We know that the Benjamites are skilled warriors, and they are renowned for their left-handed slingers both here and in other parts of the bible.  Interestingly, Ehud from Judges 3 is also a left-handed Benjamite.  A later example is 1 Chronicles 12:2 where the tribe of Benjamin fields ambidextrous slingers.

So even though Benjamin was outnumbered by 400,000 to 26,000, they win on the field through sheer prowess.  In the end, the larger Israelite army has the LORD's support and they defeat Benjamin by laying an ambush and taking advantage of Benjamin's overconfidence.  To us, I suppose this is a lesson about persistence.  Even if the LORD is with us, and in favor of us doing something, it still might not work out at first.  We have to avoid getting discouraged and continue to seek the LORD's guidance.  After every time they are defeated, the men of Israel go back to the LORD weeping and asking if they are doing the right thing, attacking their brother Benjamin.  Every time the answer is yes, and every time they go back out to fight against Benjamin again.  They are doing a hard thing, attacking their fellow tribe, and that's why they continue to petition the LORD, because I'm sure they began doubting whether their path had the LORD's blessing.  Perhaps they felt they were doing wrong, attacking their own brother, even though they knew that Benjamin had sinned by protecting Gibeah.

Israel began doubting, but they did the right thing and turned to inquire of the LORD every day whether they should attack Benjamin, and with his affirmative, they did so.  So I believe that Israel did the right thing in this chapter, and Benjamin did the wrong thing by putting tribal affiliation and a desire to protect "their people" above justice and the Law of Moses.  In the end, Benjamin is nearly destroyed because of it.

Bible Commentary - Judges 19

In this chapter, a Levite's concubine is raped by Benjamites of Gibeah.

This is another story of how things went "when there was no king in Israel".  As with the stories about Micah, this is a key phrase to us indicating that this is a story about the anarchy that existed before a centralized authority came in to bring law and order to Israelite society.

This story begins with the concubine was in some way unfaithful to him.  I don't know if that implies adultery or what.  I've looked at a couple different translations, and they use phrases like "was unfaithful to him", "quarreled with him", "was untrue to him".  The NASB is the most explicit, saying that she "played the harlot", suggesting that she possibly engaged in prostitution.

Either way, the man goes to collect his concubine from her father's house, and he doesn't seem to be holding her behavior against her.  When he's there, there is an interesting anecdote about how the woman's father seems to be trying to delay him from leaving.  To paraphrase, he says in the morning, "it's too early, have some breakfast and stay a while," and in the evening, he says "it's too late, you should rest here and leave in the morning."  I don't exactly know why the woman's father was trying to delay him, maybe he wanted to keep his daughter around longer, or maybe it was a demonstration of hospitality.  Something like that.

Eventually they leave, and start to go back north from Judah towards the land of Ephraim.  They spend the night in Gibeah, which is in Benjamin.  To remind my readers, Benjamin's inheritance was placed inbetween Judah (in the south) and Ephraim (in the north).  When he gets there, he begins to camp in the town square before an old man comes by and agrees to lodge him in the old man's house.  (P.S. I apologize for the ambiguous pronouns, but we aren't actually told the names of any person in this entire story.)  The old man was himself an Ephraimite, so he was not a native to the town of Gibeah where they were staying.

Towards evening, a bunch of "worthless fellows" come and demand to rape the visiting man, when the old man offers both his daughter and the man's concubine to suffer their abuses.  More than anything else, this reminds me of Lot offering his two daughters to the men of Sodom when the two angels visit his house in Genesis 19.  It's even similar in how the old man is himself a visitor to the town and not a native Benjamite, just as Lot was a foreigner to the town of Sodom.

The big difference is that in this story, there is no angel to save the man's concubine, so when she is brought out the men rape her all night.  She stumbles to the doorstep and dies there.  The men, heroic as they are, soundly sleep until full daylight, and only know her fate when they go out in the morning and see her lying on the ground.  Probably the worst verse in this entire chapter is verse 28, when the man looks down on his concubine and says "get up, let's go."  After suffering a night of atrocities and literally dead on the ground, and this man who came to get her has no compassion whatsoever.  I am utterly disgusted by his behavior in this chapter, just like I was disgusted by Lot in Gen 19.  Unlike the story of Lot, in this case the abusers are themselves Israelites, men of Benjamin.  In Gen 19, the men of Sodom were destroyed by fire from heaven.  In this chapter, the Levite cuts up his concubine into pieces and sends those pieces into all the tribes of Israel, in order to rile up the anger of Israel against the men of Gibeah who did this.

The story continues in the next chapter, but I wonder if this chapter is meant to recall Lot and Sodom.  It shows us the depth that Israel is sinking into, as they progress from theft and idolatry (in the last story) to rape and murder (in this story).  Unless something changes, Israel is heading towards God's wrath and destruction like how Sodom was destroyed.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 18

In this chapter, men from Dan come by and steal Micah's idols and priest, and then go on to raze Laish.

This is another crazy chapter, lots of really questionable behavior from the Danites.  Basically what happens is the men of Dan send out spies looking for a place to conquer, because "an inheritance had not been allotted to them" (v. 1).  The inheritances were divided back in Joshua and Dan was assigned its land in Joshua 19.  Possibly that means the events in this chapter happened before the land was divided by Joshua, or possibly it means they were assigned their land but couldn't take it and were now looking for an alternative.  We don't really have any indication of the chronology of this chapter.  With Samson and the other judges, it seemed like they were structured linearly so that one judge followed another.  With the stories of Micah, that might not be the case because Micah isn't a judge.  In fact, there aren't any more judges in this book.  After the story of Micah is going to be another story of how the Israelites are harming each other and doing wrong.  So it's possible this story (and the story in the next chapter) take place some time during or even before the judges started to rule over Israel.

Either way, the Danites seem to be pretty far out of where they should be, because their inheritance was given to them in the land of Canaan, near modern-day Gaza.  This would be between Judah and Ephraim, to the west.  Instead, we see them going up north of Ephraim to conquer Laish, which is near Sidon in the far north.  In particular, the Danites are targeting a people who are "living in security", "quiet and secure", with only Sidon as their ally and no other allies.  I.e. a peaceful land that would be unlikely to offer much resistance.  Unlike Caleb, who asked to be given Hebron, which was populated by giants and large walls, the Danites are taking the path of least resistance, looking for a lightly armed and isolated city to butcher and take for their inheritance.  And that is exactly what they do.  Although they were conquering territory within the promised land, and to that extent were behaving properly, the Danites are hardly a model of faith like we saw in Caleb.

Verse 1 reminds us that there was no king in the land, and it is apparent that the Danites are not model citizens.  After passing near Micah's house, they decide the best course of action is to steal Micah's idols and his priest and by inference, the LORD's blessing.  In this, we can see that the Danites share Micah's attitude towards faith and God, which I talked about in the last chapter.  They think that by stealing his ornaments of religiosity that God would bless them, and they couldn't be more wrong.

The priest seems to take a similar attitude.  For him, joining Micah's family was an excellent job opportunity, but now came an even better offer, and so "the priest's heart was glad" (v. 20).  In all of this, Micah, Dan and the priest all seem to treat religion as primarily a business interest.  Micah and Dan sought God's blessing over their affairs, and the priest sought compensation in exchange for "providing" that blessing.

Basically the short version is that everybody in this story is doing something (or many things) wrong.  That's why I called this chapter crazy, because so much of the stuff going on here is just wrong.  Interestingly, the author of Judges does not explicitly condemn their behavior.  His condemnation is implied through the phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel", but that is the extent that the author writes any personal commentary on what he is otherwise simply describing.  But I don't think there can be any doubt that the Danites are being incredibly sinful, both stealing and worshiping an idol, both contrary to the ten commandments, and the author of Judges would have certainly been deeply familiar with the commandments.  A while ago I wrote about how the OT does not always explicitly condemn things that are wrong, and that sometimes people mistakenly believe that implies assent.  As we can see in this chapter, it does not.

After his priest is stolen, Micah goes to recover his belongings and is promptly threatened by the Danites.  Lacking military force, Micah goes back home to mope.  And with that, we won't see Micah in the rest of this book.

I think this story (and the story in the previous chapter) is really interesting because it gives us a view into "what life was like when there was no king".  Most of Judges is writing about the exploits of these great heroes, like Gideon or Deborah, or less heroic figures like Samson.  This chapter is about a man who isn't a judge at all, he's just an ordinary Ephraimite trying to make a living in their newly conquered home.  It provides an interesting perspective because it shows us how some of the Israelites were living at that time.  Of course, these stories were selected by the author to prove a point, so it might not be representative of what all Israel was like.  But I think the author is trying to say, "before there was a king, people would do all kinds of crazy stuff, steal from each other by force, lie, make idols, steal idols, and they thought God would bless them for it."  And as I said, they couldn't be more wrong in this attitude.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 17

In this chapter, a Levite joins the household of Micah to minister to his idol.

This is a pretty crazy chapter, and the first chapter that contains the expression, "there was no king in Israel, every man did what was right in his own eyes."  This is an important verse to Judges, which both foreshadows the future kingdom and also tries to explain why the kingdom is necessary.  This phrase, and even this entire book, point out the sinful tendencies of the Israelites in a bunch of ways.

Already we have seen Samson sin in several ways, like eating unclean food and sexual immorality.  Now in this chapter we have Micah stealing money from his parents, but then returning it out of fear of a curse.  His mother celebrates the occasion by asking Micah to construct an idol, to which he complies.  Lastly, Micah consecrates one of his sons as a priest, which again contradicts the Law, because the Law demands that every priest must be a son of Aaron.

When a wandering Levite passed by, Micah realizes that a Levite would be an upgrade over his son, so he hires the Levite to serve as his priest instead.  The Levite is perfectly happy to offer sacrifices at Micah's idol, so he agrees.  This indicts the Levite, because every sacrifice is supposed to be made before the bronze altar in front of the tent of meeting.

Nearly everything in this chapter is a sin, from beginning to end.  This is what it means by "right in his own eyes"; that people are behaving as they see fit, rather than following the covenant or the principles of the LORD.  It implies a sort of wild godlessness, akin to the notion of moral relativism.

The reason why this relates to the kingdom is that the king is a unifying figure in Israelite society.  When Israel gains a king, he will lead the people and direct them to all behave in the same way and with the same standards.  In theory, the king is supposed to espouse the law and direct the people to obey the covenant, bringing unity to the nation and directing the people so that they do what is good, not "what is good in their own eyes".

In practice, we will see that a few of the kings are good and many of the kings are bad.  The good kings direct the people to follow the law, and the bad kings direct them into idolatry.  Either way, much of Israelite history is dictated by the moral standards of whoever was king at the time.  So it's definitely true that the kings ended the lawless period of their history, but it's not true that the kings ended their sinful period.

I once heard someone teach out of this passage, and more than anything else what he criticized was the notion that Micah could buy himself a priest and that as a result, "the LORD will prosper me".  Micah seems to have the notion, popular with many, that by purchasing or constructing various trappings of religiosity, that God would bless him.  He built his own idol, made his own ephod, and then hired his own priest to minister to him, and he thinks that's enough to draw the LORD's blessing.  This is a very individualistic notion of faith and it runs contrary to the strongly communal covenantal structure.  It's also a very materialistic notion, and it assumes that God cares more about the appearance of devotion than the heart reality of it.

As it relates to individualism, the covenant was centralized by design, with three national feasts every year where all the males were required to appear before the LORD.  Sacrifices had to be made before the LORD, and the LORD was only found in one place, the tent of meeting (a.k.a. the Tabernacle).  Trying to maintain his own idol and priestcraft runs contrary to the principles of the covenant.

But this is not just Micah having a personal faith.  In fact, in some ways Micah's faith is very impersonal because he expects that money is going to buy him blessings, when what the LORD wants from him is devotion.  That is the materialism side.  Micah is cutting his own way forward, doing what is right in his own eyes.  But there is a big difference between ignoring human standards in your pursuit of God and ignoring God's own standards in your pursuit of him.  In my opinion, human standards are flexible.  The social or cultural expectations for how people are supposed to pray or worship have changed many times and in many ways over the years, and that's generally okay.  In my opinion, a certain amount of drifting away from those standards is okay.

This is what it means to have a personal faith, to pursue God in a way that is your own, praying in your own way or worshiping in your own way, but always within the broader concepts of how God desires to be worshiped.  To disregard God's standards, how he tries to structure human interactions with himself, is not any kind of faith at all.  If you know how God wishes for you to approach him, and you disregard that way, how can it even be considered approaching God?  God does not bargain over blessings, he does not sell them in exchange for worship, because that cannot be real worship if it is done for a price.  And it just doesn't make sense to construct an idol and pretend that God is okay with that when the Law clearly says that he is not.

It's like trying to buy a friend.  Money cannot ever buy a real friendship.  In the same way, offerings cannot buy God's blessing.  God's blessing comes upon the hearts that seek him.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 16

In this chapter, Samson is finally betrayed by his indiscretions and is captured by the Philistines.

This is something we should have seen coming for the last two chapters.  Even in the midst of all Samson's sins, the Lord was still blessing him with great strength, and he used his power to fight in revenge of his own personal interests rather than advancing the interests of his countrymen.

Probably the best analogy to what happens here is the life of Adam.  We are told that Adam sinned and was condemned to death in Genesis 3, but he nevertheless continued to live until he was 930 years old.  So it took time for the consequences of his actions to catch up with him, but it eventually did.

In the same way, Judges 16 is the inevitable day of reckoning for Samson when his mistakes catch up with him, and it's basically the same issue; sexual desire for Philistine women.

This story has always confused me a little.  I guess what I don't understand is why Samson keeps going back to Delilah.  From the story, we can infer that he slept with her for at least 4 nights, and he knew that on 3 separate occasions Delilah betrayed him by trying to bind him to remove his strength.  It's not just that she keeps asking him how his strength may be "afflicted", but that she also does the things that he tells her.  Why is Samson continuing to go back to Delilah when he knows that she's trying to harm him?  That's what I don't understand.  You'd think even with a selfish heart, Samson would realize she is trying to kill him.

In the end, Samson reveals that his strength came from his Nazirite dedication.  Of course, we already knew this.  But it's strange to me that his power is derived from his unshaved hair.  It's true that this is one of the signs of the Nazirite, but I believe the Nazirite vow means so many other things, like obeying the whole law.  The law that forbids intermarrying with Canaanites, which is what Samson has been doing all this time.  Shaving his consecrated hair is really the last step of breaking his Nazirite vow, not the first.

The way this story is normally understood is that verse 19 is considered Samson's fall from grace, when the "LORD departed from him".  Verse 22, when his hair starts to grow back, is an allusion to Samson's redemption.  The conclusion, when "the dead whom [Samson] killed in his death were more than those whom he killed in his life", is meant to reflect his redemption and return to grace.  In particular, we can tell that as his hair regrew, his strength also returned, and that was how he destroyed the temple where he was brought to entertain the Philistines.

So that is the story arc in how Samson is normally interpreted.  And I think that's mostly true.  However, I would like to point out how Samson is still motivated by personal revenge.  Like he prays in v. 28, he wants revenge "for my two eyes".  So I guess I don't really feel that Samson ever turned away from the selfishness that dictated his actions in life.  But what is clear is that the LORD used him to harm the Philistines, to try to free Israel from their oppressors.  What's not clear is if the Israelites were even freed.  We know that Samson killed a bunch of people, but it doesn't say that Israel was liberated through this.

So here's my personal opinion on Samson.  This conclusion to his life and his story is indeed a sort of redemption.  The LORD slowly began to return his strength to him, and he used it in a final act of vengeance against the Philistines.  I don't know if Samson's heart was ever turned back to his calling and destiny, or his Nazirite vow.  And he did some good for his people, but only incidentally to his own desire for personal revenge.  It's evident that Samson never really walked into his destiny, and it's not because he lacked power, it's because he lacked character.  Even in Samson's redemption, he never really returned to do what he was born to do.  That's my opinion.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 15

In this chapter, Samson kills a bunch of Philistines, then gets captured, then kills a bunch more.

This chapter partly explains how Samson's wife was given to another man.  Apparently he just ran off without her and left her in her father's house, and while he was gone the woman's father gave her to another man instead.  It's kinda crazy, but this entire historical period is pretty crazy.  That's one of the themes in Judges, which I was talk about more later.

At this point, Samson gets into tit-for-tat revenge against the Philistines, first burning up their crops during harvest.  Then they kill his ex-fiance, presumably because they could not harm Samson directly.  He responds by killing a bunch of Philistines.  This is somewhat ironic because Samson was just responding to something that his wife's father did, and when the other Philistines kill him for it, he gets even more angry.

Once again, the Philistines find they cannot harm Samson, so they go to attack Judah unless Judah delivers Samson over to them.  Judah does this, but Samson once again breaks out and kills a bunch more Philistines, this time using a jawbone as a weapon.

This, and many other details from Samson's life, is meant to exemplify how powerful he was, how the LORD "came upon him mightily".  Killing a thousand men with a donkey's jawbone is one such example, juxtaposing the power of his actions with the feebleness of his weapon.  Samson's song reinforces this, alternating between mentioning the "heaps upon heaps" and the jawbone.  In addition, the Hebrew words for "donkey" and "heap" share the same root, so this is also a play upon words.

We know that Samson was powerful, one of the most powerful fighters in the bible.  But we can also see how Samson is misusing his power, since he is fighting to avenge himself personally rather than fighting on behalf of Judah or the LORD.  Indeed, his actions served more to imperil Judah than anything else, because the Philistines nearly attacked Judah in reprisal.  Samson is a story of great power used in misguided and selfish ways.  He could have been a great deliverer to Israel, but he betrayed his own destiny through selfishness.

That a glib, though accurate, summary of Samson's life.  Indeed, that is probably what the author had in mind, pointing out how Samson had a callous disregard for the Law's dietary restrictions (i.e. kashrut).  This entire chapter is a result of Samson's desire to marry a Philistine, which is also contrary to the Law.  So that's the glib summary, the common parable that is drawn by Sunday school teachers worldwide.

What I always wonder though, is what kind of circumstances and decisions brought Samson to this place?  Somewhere between the great promises of Judges 13 and the Samson's disastrous intentions in Judges 14 there must have been something that shaped him in this way.  I asked the same sort of question about Moses, who passed 40 years in the Midianite desert and came out of it a righteous man.  I also wonder about Abraham, who in Genesis 11 lived in idolatry with his father and relatives in Haran, but in Genesis 12 he obeyed the voice of the LORD, left everything he knew and went into the land of Canaan.

I am in awe and wonder at such decisions, both the good (Moses and Abraham) and the bad (Samson).  The stories themselves make for glib pronouncements ("look at the faith of Abraham!", "look at the selfishness of Samson!").  But I marvel at the stories that aren't told, what mysterious forces shape the hearts of man in all those secret years.  All those years that passed with hardly a mention, with a sentence at most, but those are the untold stories that created the greatness of the heroes we know, and the sinfulness of the villains we know.  In some ways I am more interested in Moses's years in Midian than in his days on Sinai.  The 40 days on Sinai were the product of Moses's 40 years in Midian, tending to sheep, caring for his wife and raising his children.  Moses didn't climb Mount Sinai a sinner and come down a saint; he climbed Mount Sinai with humility and love, and he descended with glory.  God honors the humble and meek, but what a mystery is humility!  How is this force produced, and how is it tendered?  Certainly God honors humility, but where does that humility come from?

This is the mystery I've been trying to solve for the past 6 years or so, trying to discover the source of humility, faith and love.  It's not something I can really address in the context of Samson's life.  But I will say that I think Samson's selfishness is just as big a mystery as Moses's humility.  The glib interpretation is to warn us, "do not be selfish!", without bothering to tell us just how to do that.  It can honestly be irritating sometimes.  Even if I know what selfishness is, how can I just "not do it"?  That doesn't even make sense to me, telling you to avoid something without explaining how.  Hopefully this is something that I'll get to explore more as we go through the bible.

I do think there are answers, but my honest opinion is that a large part of becoming humble is the process of learning about humility and seeking it.  Humility isn't like an equation that you can read in a book and suddenly "know it".  It has to becoming part of you, like mixing yeast into a lump of dough.  Desiring humility and trying to find it is how you get it.  But it takes time, and often it seems that is what makes it so hard for people.  Of course, by "people" what I mean is "me".  Maybe others too, but mostly just me.  But this is just my own personal musings and philosophy.  I didn't want to ask a broad question like, "how do you attain humility" without making some sort of effort to answer it, but the truth is that it's a really hard question and I'm still trying to figure it out myself.  If anybody else has a really easy and simple answer, let me know and I'll just do that.  :)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges 14

In this chapter, Samson marries a Philistine; and other escapades.

In the last chapter, we learned about Samson's great destiny, how he is to bring about Israel's deliverance, the LORD's blessing upon his life.  In this chapter... we learn how it all comes crashing down.

This chapter starts off on (what is to me) a grim note; Samson desires to marry a Philistine.  We should already know this is a problem because it runs completely contrary to the biblical command against intermarrying with the tribes of Canaan (Deut 7:3).  Samson's own parents discourage him from marrying a Philistine, but he insists and they reluctantly go along with it.  This is a pretty serious issue already, because of what it says in Deut 7:4, that marrying with the Philistines would lead the Israelites into sin.  Samson is supposed to save his people, but he's falling into the same sins that led them into bondage in the first place.

The next part of this chapter is little better.  Samson demonstrates his fantastic gifting by tearing a lion to pieces with his bare hands.  This is remarkable by any standard, and it shows us how much Samson is capable of.  Although it says that Samson went down with his parents, he must have been alone when he fought the lion because his parents are unaware of what he did.  When he goes back and sees the lion, he finds there is honey within the lion.  This is also pretty miraculous, because bees do not normally transport honey to animal carcasses.  It's not unreasonable for bees to be near the lion (because many kinds of wasps eat meat), but it is unreasonable that the bees would bring their honey to the lion.

But that's not the important part here.  The important part is that Exodus 22:31 commands the Israelites against eating the flesh of torn animals.  That prohibition would clearly expand to eating the honey from the lion, because the lion's flesh would be intermingled with the honey.  This is the second commandment Samson has broken in the span of 9 verses.  Even worse, he also feeds it to his parents.  It's hard to describe how abominable it is that Samson would not only make himself unclean, but he then feeds this same unclean food to his parents without telling them where he got it.  Verse 9 says that "he did not tell them" where he got the honey, because if they knew they wouldn't have eaten it.  The author of this chapter is implying that it would have been unkosher, and that's why Samson was concealing it.

Given that his parents seem relatively pious, Samson would have almost definitely known that eating the honey would violate his ceremonial purity.  But this is a man who is intentionally marrying a Philistine.

We don't really know why Samson is breaking the covenant.  That's not part of this story.  But I can already say that Israel is unlikely to be saved by Samson.  What God has shown over and over, through Moses and Gideon and others is that he doesn't want to bring deliverance through the strongest or wisest of men, but through the faithful.  Samson is strong, but he is not faithful, and it's going to cost him sooner or later.  It is not bad that Samson is strong (nor is it bad that any man be strong or wise or rich or powerful), but if he doesn't combine that strength with faithfulness, humility and righteousness, then the LORD will not act through him.

The last part of this chapter is also pretty weird, with the men of Timnah threatening Samson's wife to get the answer to the riddle, and in the end Samson doesn't even marry her, as she is "given to his companion".  I don't exactly understand how that happened; she must have departed with the 30 men while Samson was off killing their countrymen to pay off the wager?  For whatever reason, it seems that she did not go with Samson after their marriage feast.

The other thing that kinda confused me is verse 4, which says that marrying the Philistine woman was "of the LORD", since it was indeed contrary to the Law.  What I guess this means is that the LORD was intending to use this event to his advantage, but not that the LORD desired for Samson to marry a Philistine.  The LORD wanted to deliver the Israelites, and that's why he raised up Samson.  But if Samson wasn't going to work along with the LORD (like Moses), then he would work with the LORD in a more difficult way.  I guess this is analogous to Pharaoh, whose "heart was hardened" by the LORD.  Pharaoh did not choose or desire to work with the LORD to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, so the LORD used Pharaoh against his will.  In the same sense that it was "of the LORD" for Pharaoh to harden his heart, it is also "of the LORD" that Samson would marry a Philistine.  I don't think the LORD creates or desires these situations, but he does take advantage of them when they come up.  That's my opinion anyway.