SERMON: Judges: An Introduction (Judges 2:6-23)
Who here has heroes? Who here has people they look up to and admire for something that they’ve done?
From time to time we’ve probably all had heroes. And they could have been great leaders, someone with special talents and abilities, a great sportsman, or even a family member.
But then it seems that the world needs heroes. People to look up to. Because when there isn’t anyone around to look up to—because our heroes have failed—we invent them. People like Robin Hood, the Scarlett Pimpernel, and for those of us who were born since the 1930s, the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics. People like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. etc.
It seems that the world needs heroes. And there have been some great people over the years who fit that category. But having heroes is nothing new, they had them in the Old Testament too. But the heroes of the Old Testament were real people, and they weren’t called heroes, they were called Judges.
2. Modern Judges
Now if I were to ask you what a judge did, you would probably tell me that a judge is someone who presides over some sort of court proceedings—with the intention of conducting a trial in an impartial way. Well, that’s what you’d hope. You would tell me that he or she hears witnesses and looks at the evidence presented. The judge would then assess the creditability and the arguments of the particular case, and then issue a ruling based on their interpretation of the law. And that’s one definition.
Another would be someone on a television programme, whose role it is to encourage participants in the way that they can improve their act, as well as to decide who is the most talented in a particular competition.
3. Old Testament Judges
But today I’m going to give you a third definition—one that comes from the pages of the Old Testament. Because to be a “Judge” in Old Testament terms, a person needed to meet certain criteria.
The first is that the Judges were primarily “Saviours” or “Deliverers” of their people from their enemies. In other words, military prowess was identified as an important part of their lives. As a consequence, it was expected that if someone was a “Saviour”, he or she would lead the people in battle against their enemies.
Secondly, to be a “Judge”, administering justice was important. Indeed a “Judge” would be required to hear the people’s legal complaints and make the appropriate decisions.
And thirdly, to be a “Judge”, they needed to be chosen by God, and were often endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God, with different people having different gifts.
So they would be a leader in battle, a ruler in peace—a kind of saviour appointed by God. A sort of hero in Old Testament terms.
Furthermore, the position they held was for life. But it wasn’t hereditary. And their authority was limited in terms of meeting the requirements of God’s law alone. They weren’t free to add or take away from God’s commandments.
In other words they were heroes, but within the constraints of God’s appointment and God’s laws. They were appointed to rescue God’s people when things went wrong; they were there to ensure justice—God’s justice—to all the people; and they were there to represent God in everything they did.
1. Judges in the Bible
And in the Old Testament we have a number of people who meet the criteria of being a Judge—and they’re not all in the book of Judges.
We have Moses and Joshua. We then have a number of people in the book of Judges. Then following that there is Eli and Samuel.
2. The Book of Judges
Having said that, in the book of Judges itself, not everyone mentioned is a genuine “Judge.” Indeed, we have to be careful as we read the stories, because not all were appointed by God. And the appendix—the last five chapters—involve the telling of stories of two characters who are not considered Judges at all.
3. Faults and Failings
Now the Judges weren’t perfect. Indeed, Moses broke faith with God by not giving God his due at the waters of Meribah Kadesh (Deuteronomy 32:51-52); Gideon used his position to avenge the death of his brothers (Judges 8:18-21); Abimelech murdered his seventy brothers (Judges 9:5); Jephthah made a rash vow which later required him to sacrifice his daughter (Judges 11:30-31); Samson had a history of getting up to some very strange things (Judges 13:1-16:31); and Eli continually turned a blind eye to the abusive behaviour of his sons (1 Samuel 2:29).
C. THE BOOK OF JUDGES
1. The Downward Spiral
In the book of Judges itself, one Judge was not necessarily followed by another. Some of the Judges were national Judges, and others more local. And even though the bible doesn’t spell it out, some of the Judges would have overlapped.
As a consequence, the book of Judges begins with a vacuum. The people had arrived in the Promised Land, they’d had time to settle down, and Joshua their leader and Judge had died. And then time passed and there was no new Judge, and things very quickly went downhill.
Indeed, the book of Judges describes a cycle that is maintained throughout the rest of the period of the Judges: There is a generation who doesn’t know God (2:10); the Israelites do what is evil in the eyes of God (2:11); they provoke God to anger (2:12); God hands them over to raiders (2:14); God raises up a Judge (2:16); the people refuse to listen to the Judge, but God saves them anyway while that Judge lived (2:17-18); the Judge dies, and the people become even more corrupt (2:19). And the cycle continues over and over and over again.
2. The Role of the Judges
In the book of Judges we have story after story of Judges being appointed by God. Some names will be familiar, and others not. And yet even though the Bible does not state everything about each of the Judges—indeed in the case of Shamgar we only have two sentences—they all had the same role. They were leaders in battle, rulers in peace—a kind of saviour appointed by God.
In a male-orientated society, most of the Judges were men. But one—Deborah—was a woman. But then in the book of Judges women are portrayed as leaders and heroes, shrewd, manipulative and, at times, victims. Exactly the same as the men.
War was sanctioned by God. And at times that would involve conquest, liberation, and even civil war. But then God used war throughout the Old Testament period, in order to aid his people. Indeed, God loved his people so much that he was prepared to use extreme lengths to keep his people safe. Safe from physical harm and more importantly safe from spiritual harm.
God’s use of war was positive, not negative. What was at stake was people’s eternal welfare—their continuing relationship with him. So he used war to create a safe environment, where his people could be safe from outside influences (hence him giving them the Promised Land). He used war to send invaders—to discipline his people—in the hope that the people would return to him. And he used war to ensure that the faith on which the covenant was based was free from corruption. He wanted to create and maintain an environment where his people were protected from straying from their eternal path.
Which is also why, in the time of Moses, he didn’t say “You shall not kill”—indeed he sanctioned the death penalty in certain circumstances to safeguard the safety of the community. But he did say, “You shall not murder.”
So the background to the period of the Judges is very different to the world that we live in today. Indeed, many of the things that are familiar in our culture today stand in direct opposition to the demands of God as expressed in the pages of the Bible. We often think that we have become more “civilised” or that “We have grown beyond what the people understood in the pages of the Bible.” Yet there are some real truths that are locked in the pages of the book of Judges, and ones we would do well to remember.
1. Life is about our Relationship with God
And the first has to be, that life is not about what pleasures we can get, what things we can accumulate, how rich we can become, or how focussed we get on our own selves. It is about our relationship with our creator.
2. We all Make Mistakes
The second thing is that we all make mistakes. Indeed, it was the people’s mistakes that required God to respond by sending one Judge after another. But more than that, the Judges were not perfect either, and their lives are examples that even the most godly people fall of the rails. Indeed, they sometimes had their own agenda for doing what they did.
3. We Cannot Rescue Ourselves
The third thing that the Judges teach us, is that we cannot rescue ourselves. We may be good at getting ourselves in a mess, but we are quite wrong if we believe we fix it on our own. Indeed all we do is to make the situation worse.
Which is why I get amused when our politicians (and others) tell us that we can fix our own messes, or that we’ve grown, or that we are now capable of restoring the environment and our society on our own. Because we can’t; it doesn’t work that way.
4. We Need God’s Help
Fourthly, we need God’s help. Which is why the principle role of the Judges was to be God’s representative here on earth, showing us the way back to God. Yes, they did, with God’s help, pull God’s people out of their dilemmas and try to fix their wrong thinking. But their principle role was to stand as a reminder that we cannot live life in any sort of meaningful way without God at the centre. We need God to help and guide us.
5. The Downward Spiral
And lest we be tempted to think, that back on track, we can sort all things out for ourselves, then fifthly, we can’t. We need God’s help. We need that relationship with God. Otherwise we just continue the downward spiral, as things worse and worse and worse.
Now some people may not like the way God does things; some might want him to do things differently. But the one thing you can guarantee with God, is that his way is the way that is best for us. He has our best interests at heart. Everything that God does, is for our benefit. And when we forget that, that’s when we get ourselves into trouble.
Of course, we don’t always see it that way; and we may be tempted to do things differently. But there are reasons why God sent Judges on what appears to be an ad hoc basis. He wanted his people to trust him. And that’s why, when Samuel was Judge, Samuel objected to the people’s request for a king.
Because in the end, the people wanted a king. They didn’t want there to be a Judge one minute and no one the next. They didn’t like the gaps. What they wanted was to know that there was always someone—a human—that they could approach at all times to fix their problems. They wanted continuity. They wanted a hereditary kingship. They didn’t want the uncertainty of when God would come to their rescue next.
But that’s not what God wanted. God wanted the people to have faith. God wanted the people to learn to trust in him. Furthermore, God knew very well there would be no certainty that a good king would be followed by another good king. And if the people had thought back to when Abimelech followed after his father, Gideon, they would have realised that.
And yet, God acceded to the people’s request, and the period of the Judges ended with the death of Samuel. And so the time of the Kings began.
Yet even then, God used that situation too. Which is why, come the New Testament, God’s son was born to be king. A king who would point people to a relationship with God. A king who was born because of our mistakes. A king who was born to rescue God’s people. A king who would provide help and restore the people’s relationship with their creator. A king who would lead in the fighting of the spiritual battle. A king who was and is effectively the perfect Judge. The hero of all heroes. Jesus Christ.
There is something horribly familiar in the book of Judges. And that is the mess that we so easily get ourselves in. We are surrounded by it. Indeed, we only have to watch the news to discover war after war, of people being nasty to one another, and of people being self-centred and allowing—and even making—other people suffer.
It’s the same mess that the Judges were sent to clear up time after time in the book of Judges.
Which is why we need a Judge—a hero—today. But then we’ve got one. We’ve got the ultimate hero. A hero who has our own interests at heart and doesn’t make mistakes. Today, our world needs God more than it has ever done before. And why? Because, with the number of active Christians in this country being less than 5% of the population, we live in what the book of Judges calls “A godless generation” (Judges 2:10).
Our society’s culture and beliefs today are very different to that of the bible. But then, in our culture, we have persuaded ourselves that we are “More civilised”, that “We have grown up”, and as a consequence, “We are free to move on.”
Unfortunately, nothing is further from the truth. Because what’s at stake is people’s eternal relationship with God.
There is a reason why God does things in specific ways. And that’s very evident in the book of Judges. We need to have faith. And we need to make sure that that faith is not corrupted by outside influences. And only if we get that right, can we stop the endless downward spiral which leads to the destruction of our relationship with God and the destruction of the world.
Posted 4th October 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Abimelech (Judges 8:30-9:57)
a). Election to Office
I’d like to begin today by raising the issue of how we appoint our leaders. Because it is an issue which, as Christians, I believe that we need to think about.
After all, we have a monarch, which is a hereditary position. But we also have State and Federal Governments, which we elect on the basis of one person one vote. We have local councils, where property owners who live outside the municipalities join the residents in electing the mayor and the councillors. And as a parish, each year, we appoint a Parish Council, with the Rector appointing one third of its members, and those on the Electoral Roll electing two-thirds.
Now that adds up to a lot of voting, and a lot of different systems. But are they fair? And have we got the systems right?
Now you may be wondering, at this point, “What’s all this got to do with the Judges, and Abimelech in particular?” After all, my task today, is to preach on Abimelech, not on the merits (or otherwise) of our current electoral systems.
However, what I’m going to say today is that we cannot necessarily split the two. Because I believe that the story of Abimelech—and the events of three thousand years ago—can teach us much about the problems of selecting and supporting our leaders.
B. ABIMELECH’S STORY
1. Choosing a Leader
Now leaving the electoral process aside for the moment, what criteria do we use to appoint our leaders? Do we base it on ability, or do we choose people for their charismatic personality? Do we pick someone we know, and someone who represents our particular group, or do we go for someone because of their ideals? Or do we just pick someone, anyone, because they have to be better than the one who went before?
b). Abimelech’s Appointment
Well I’m sure in Abimelech’s day, the people, and their leaders in particular, were faced with much the same criteria. The previous Judge, Gideon, had died and immediately the people had lapsed back into their old practice of straying from God. Put simply, they were in a mess. They needed a new leader, a new judge, to come to their rescue. And it was at this point that Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons, saw his opportunity.
Now we’re not told what arguments he planned to put forward to get people to choose him, but presumably he intended to argue in terms of hereditary. After all Gideon had been a judge who had been held in very high esteem. The problem was, however, that wasn’t the way the system was supposed to work. God was the one who was supposed to choose the next judge, they weren’t man-made appointments. And on the basis of hereditary, Abimelech had seventy brothers who could all have made the same claim.
So, what did Abimelech do? Well we don’t even get a hint that he tried to put in his claim in at Ophrah, where his father’s family lived. Instead we see him travelling about seventy kilometres south to Shechem, to where his mother’s family lived. And his mother’s people responded very positively to his offer.
But I wonder on what terms? That he was a nice loving person? That he was called by God to do the job? That he was the best person for the job? That he would be the person most accepted by all the people? No, it was because his mother’s people identified him as one of their own. Indeed, we’re told that they said, “He is our brother.”
They then gave him seventy pieces of silver from the temple of their local god, which he took and used to hire mercenaries to go and murder his seventy brothers. But he didn’t just kill them, each was ritually slain. One by one they were brought to a particular stone and killed. Only one brother escaped, and he went and stood on the mountain overlooking Shechem and warned the leaders of the consequences of their actions.
Now all that might be a bit gory, but it does throw up the question of how we elect our leaders, and the criteria that we use. Because we need to get it right. It’s also a warning of what happens when we turn a blind eye to someone’s faults and failings, to get the person of our choosing. After all, did the people of Shechem think they were getting a good, fair and honest leader? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think seventy pieces of silver says a lot about the price they were prepared to pay in order to get “their man.”
2. Loyalty to our Leaders
Now, having raised the issue of how we elect our leaders, the next issue is the question of loyalty. Because having made our choice, do we always support those we have put in power?
Now I visited England in June 1997, one month after Tony Blair had been elected Prime Minister. At the time there was a lot of excitement. But I wasn’t sure whether the people were excited that Tony had got in, or that John Major had been kicked out. In Australia, we’ve also had many political internal party squabbles. There was Hawke and Keating, Howard and Costello, Rudd and Gillard, then Gillard and Rudd. And they all serve to give examples of people elected to positions only to face a lack of support, or even a stabbing in the back whilst in office (even within their own parties).
And even in the church in Tasmania, the poor attendance at one of our previous bishop’s farewell services many years ago now, shows that lack of support is not just restricted to the political arena.
b). Abimelech Dumped
And Abimelech went through the same thing. Because we’re told that he ruled over Israel for three years, and then dissent really took hold.
Now you can understand that God wouldn’t have been happy. Abimelech wasn’t his choice. Furthermore, Abimelech, acting as a “judge” would have given the impression that he was “God’s man.” But as a God of justice, there were injustices that needed to be resolved. In any event, the very people who had appointed him, turned against him. The leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with him—they did whatever they could to bring Abimelech’s name into disrepute. And Gaal son of Ebed saw his opportunity to take his place.
Now I have to say here, that I don’t think that this turn events came as any great surprise to Abimelech. After all, at one stage in the story we are told he had his base eight kilometres south east of Shechem. Indeed, he probably never actually lived in Shechem itself. His rise to power may have been rapid, but only three years later it was on the decline.
Now does that sound familiar?
Because in politics today there is a thing called “Political Capital.” It refers to the trust, goodwill, and influence a politician has with the public and other political figures. And it is at its highest during the so-called “honeymoon period.” However, in the context of our political system, which is noted as being “adversarial,” the support for our leaders doesn’t last very long at all.
So how long do we support our elected figures? Do we give them all the encouragement that they need? Having voted them in, do we turn on them, even talk about them to other people, and stab them in the back? And do we do the same for our church leaders too?
3. Facing Rejection
Now one of the things about those who have been removed or voted out of office is, “What do they do next?” Do they go away quietly, or do they hang around like a bad penny?
Well in the context of Australian politics, we seem to have had quite a few leaders who have not gone quietly. Indeed, moving to the back bench waiting for another opportunity, or using it to stir up trouble seems to have been a preferred option for many. And the classic examples of that have been John Howard and Andrew Peacock, and more recently Kevin Rudd. Meanwhile many of those who have quit, have remained commentators on the sidelines.
b). Abimelech’s Revenge
In Abimelech’s case, he wanted revenge. As a consequence, his usurper Gaal was quickly disposed of; the people of Shechem were killed; the city was raised to the ground; the people in the Tower a little distant from the city, were burned; and the tower was raised to the ground. And that was only the start. Because Abimelech then moved on to the next city.
But in the case of Thebez, he may have taken the city, but at the tower within it, he met his demise. A woman threw an upper millstone out of the tower, and his head was crushed. Then, at his own request, he was finished off by his own armour bearer. After which everyone went home.
Now if the first part of the story was gory, then the last part is even worse. But then what should the people have reasonably expected, knowing full well that they were complicit in appointing a man who was planning the mass murderer of his brothers?
And on that basis, we shouldn’t be surprised either, if someone we finally reject, continues to behave just as badly out of office, as they did before they were elected.
So, who we vote for is vitally important. Because it says something about us, and about the things we hold dear.
Now undoubtedly Abimelech was not a nice man. And I wonder whether that was why he needed to go to Shechem, to his mother’s people, to get into office. But he isn’t the only one who wasn’t nice in this story. Indeed, those who appointed him, those who helped him in the ritual killing of his brothers, the residents of Shechem, and everyone who turned on him, were not nice people either.
As a consequence, there are two questions which need to be asked about Abimelech. And the first is, “Why is this story here in the Book of Judges?” Well it’s here, because it tells the story of a people who had not only strayed from God, but thought they could fix up their own mess without God in the equation. And don’t we hear that so much today—about how we as humans have become so clever we can fix up our messes?
And the second questions is. “How does Abimelech fit into the concept of being a ‘Judge’ in a Biblical sense?” Well he ticks the box for being a military leader. He also ticks the box for being a judge (small “j”). After all, he ruled over Israel for three years. But he fails miserably in the department of having any sort of God-given gift. And that was the most essential criteria to be a genuine “Judge.”
In other words, Abimelech doesn’t fit in at all. He wasn’t a true Judge, he just paraded around as though he was. So, his story in the book of Judges illustrates what happens when we try to replace God, when we try to usurp him. It’s a good example of what happens when we leave God out of our election and decision-making processes.
So of course, that brings us back to the questions we asked at the start: How do we appoint our leaders? What kind of people do we appoint? What criteria do we use?
You know, our society takes great pride in our system of democracy. And yet democracy is quite foreign to the pages of the Bible. And the reason is, because it tends to leave God out of the equation. Nevertheless, democracy is a system that the church has worked alongside over the years, because amongst all the secular systems available it seems to be the best. In other words, from a Christian point of view, it’s not a good system, just the best of a bad bunch.
That, of course, then leaves the obvious question, “How should we, as Christians, appoint our leaders? And what process should we use to make those important decisions?”
Well in the Old Testament, the High Priest was given a means to seek God’s mind on serious issues. Indeed, he carried what is known as the Urim and Thummim on his priestly breastplate for that very purpose. Now no one seems to be quite sure what they were, the Bible isn’t clear. But over the years there has been a consensus that they were a means for casting lots.
But in Old Testament terms, this wasn’t just a matter of tossing some things up in the air and seeing which way they fell. This was very serious. Only the High Priest could use the Urim and Thummim, and he could only do so whilst performing his official duties in the Tabernacle or Temple.
And in the New Testament, there are at least two examples where serious decisions needed to be made. The first was for a replacement for Judas (Acts 1:12-26). And the second was when there was a need to appoint deacons to help the widows and the elderly (Acts 6:1-7).
But the leaders didn’t see these situations as trivial matters either. Indeed, the apostles asked for a list of names of appropriate people. And in the case of Judas’s replacement, they prayed and then cast lots, and for the deacons, they prayed, and then they laid their hands on them.
In other words, Old Testament or New, the focus was on seeking the mind of God. And only when it became clear what decision God had made, were the people commissioned or the decisions carried out.
There was nobody trying to pick the best candidate. There was nobody trying to work out who would do the best job. There was nobody trying to pick someone because he was “one of us.” All human preferences were eliminated. The only thing that mattered was who it was that was God’s choice. And if the people had sought the mind of God, in Abimelech’s day, none of the sorry events in Abimelech’s story would have ever taken place.
But, of course, that leaves us with the problem of today. Because, you can understand a secular society choosing a secular system. But the church…? Well secular systems should have no place. As Christian’s it’s not about who we want, but who God wants. Indeed, we need to have an emphasis on seeking God’s mind in all cases.
And if we don’t, then perhaps we shouldn’t be wondering why the church is in the mess that’s in at all.
The story of Abimelech, then, is a classic example of what happens when God is left out of the decision-making process. It’s a classic example of people who think they can fix their own problems. And it’s a classic-example of what happens when people elect leaders, without first seeking the mind of God.
Of course, translating that into a secular system of voting is not easy. But at least, in the church, we should be able to get it right. Because if we don’t try, if we don’t seek the mind of God, then we will end up with leaders like Abimelech—with the wrong people for the job. And not just in our State and Federal Governments, and our local councils, but in the people we elect as leaders in our churches as well.
Posted: 18th November 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: Abimelech (Judges 8:30-9:57)
A. Choosing a Leader
Read: Judges 8:30-9:6
1. Why did Israel need another judge? How were judges usually appointed?
2. Why did Abimelech travel to Shechem? What kind of person do you think the Shechemites thought they were appointing?
3. What criteria do we use when considering our leaders? What election processes do we use?
B. Loyalty to our Leaders
Read: Judges 9:22-31a
4. Having appointed Abimelech, how much support did he receive?
5. How would you explain verses 23 and 24 to someone who has a problem with the God of the Old Testament?
6. How committed are we to our leaders? How much support do we give them?
C. Facing Rejection
Read: Judges 9:39-43, 46-55
7. How did Abimelech respond to his rejection? Do you think he was justified?
8. How should he have reacted?
9. How do you react when you are rejected?
10. Was Abimelech a proper “Judge”? If not, why is his story recorded amongst the “Judges” of Israel?
11. What does this story tells us about the things we should consider when picking and supporting our leaders: a) in our country; b). in the church?
Posted: 24th November 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
BIBLE STUDY: Jephthah (Judges 10:6-12:7)
Read: Judges 11:1-2
1. Describe a time when you suffered as a result of prejudice. How did it make you feel about yourself? How did it make you feel towards the other person?
2. Consider Jephthah’s experience. What were the issues involved?
b). A Story of Mistrust
Read: Judges 11:3-11
3. Was it easy for Jephthah to accept that the elders were genuine in their offer? How necessary was it for the elders to make such a solemn vow, and for Jephthah to be commissioned in God’s presence at the Tabernacle in Mizpah?
4. When someone wrongs you, what needs to happen for your relationship with them to be restored? Can it ever be enough?
c). A Story of Rash Vows
Read Judges 11:12-15, 29-31
5. What do you think was going through Jephthah’s mind when he made his solemn vow to God? What do we know about him that could have made him so desperate?
6. Have you ever tried to bargain with God, by making a vow or promise that you will do something if he only will come to your aid? Did you ever keep it?
7. How important was it for Jephthah to keep his vow? Why do you think that neither Jephthah nor his daughter tried to back out of it?
d). A Story of Jealousy or Pride
Read: Judges 12:1-6
8. Why did the men of Ephraim confront Jephthah? What reasons did they give? Did they give any good reasons to start a war?
9. Could Jephthah have averted war with the Ephraimites? If so, what could he have done?
10. How do our attitudes affect our behavior to others? How do our relationships with each other affect our relationship with God?
Posted: 14th January 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Jephthah (Judges 10:6-12:7)
A. THE BOOK OF JUDGES
a). A Modern Day Judge
If I were to ask you what a judge did, you might tell me that a judge was someone who presided over some sort of court proceedings—hopefully with the intention of conducting a trial in an impartial way. You might tell me that a judge hears witnesses, and looks at the evidence presented. A judge then assesses the creditability and the arguments of the cases, and then issues a ruling based on their interpretation of the law. And that’s one definition.
Another might be someone on a television programme, whose role it is to encourage participants in the way that they can improve their act, as well as to decide who is the most talented in a particular competition.
b). An Israelite Judge
Today, however, I would like to look at a third definition—the one that comes from the pages of the Old Testament. Because to be considered a “Judge” in Old Testament terms, a person needed to meet certain criteria.
And the first is that the Judges were primarily “Saviours” or “Deliverers” of their people from their enemies. In other words, military prowess was identified as an important part of their lives. As a consequence, it was expected that if someone was a “Saviour”, he or she would lead the people in battle against their enemies.
Secondly, to be a “Judge” administering justice was very important. Indeed a “Judge” would be required to hear the people’s legal complaints, and make the appropriate decisions. (And genuine “Judges” or “Saviours” would have one or both of the skills to some degree.)
And thirdly, to be a “Judge” they would need to be endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God. And different people would have different gifts.
Now those are the three basic criteria. And in the Book of Judges we have a number of people who meet all three of those criteria. Of course not all “Judges” are in the Book of Judges—Eli and Samuel being two examples. And not every leader in the Book of Judges is a genuine “Judge” either. To be a genuine “Judge”, a person needs to meet all three criteria—military prowess, administrative skills, and being endowed with a special gift by God.
So with that in mind I’d like to introduce you to someone that you may have never heard mentioned in church before.
c). Introducing Jephthah
Because some of the most commonly known “Judges” or “Saviours” in the Book of Judges are Deborah, Gideon and Samson. But there are many lesser known “Judges” as well. So who here has ever heard of Jephthah before?
Now the story of Jephthah is a story of prejudice, a story of mistrust, a story of rash vows, and a story of jealousy or pride. Indeed all the ingredients which are evident in our society today. As a consequence the story, which takes up a little over two chapters of the Book of Judges, has much to teach us.
B. THE STORY OF JEPHTHAH
1. A Story of Prejudice
The story begins (you could say, as usual) with the Israelites doing what they did best—straying from God. Indeed throughout the book of Judges we come up with the same cycle: The Israelites turn away from God, God punishes them, they plead to God for help, and God provides them with a “Saviour” or “Judge.”
The problem with Jephthah—the man chosen by God to lead them—was that he didn’t fit in. His father, Gilead, had had many sons, but Jephthah was not the son of his wife. Rather he was the son of a prostitute. As a consequence his half-brothers wanted nothing to do with him. Indeed they disinherited him from his father’s property and drove him away from the family home (11:2). Furthermore, the town elders, no doubt with the influence of his brothers, were complicit in rejecting and expelling him too (11:7).
Now that, I think, is a very sad start to the story. Yes, the people had rejected God, but in this instance they had rejected Jephthah too. But why? Simply on the grounds that they didn’t like the fact that he was the son of a prostitute.
Now how often are our eyes coloured by our prejudices? How often do we treat people based on the fact that they are different, that they come from different backgrounds, or that they don’t conform to our particular standards?
So the story of Jephthah is quite a challenge to us. But so too is the realisation, that in that story God challenges us to see things through his eyes. Indeed this isn’t the only place in the bible he challenges us to do that.
So in this instance we see Jephthah (the son of a prostitute) as God’s choice of Judge. But, then later in the bible we can see a shepherd boy, the youngest son of an insignificant family, as God’s choice of king of Israel (in other words David). And, later still, we can see a young girl, probably no more than 12 or 13 years old, a nobody from Nazareth, as God’s choice to give birth to the Saviour of the world.
The story of Jephthah then, from the very start, is yet another story of the stupidity of prejudice, and the need for us to look at the world through God’s eyes. God often sees things very differently to us. And he certainly doesn’t always pick the people that we would, if we were left to choose on our own.
2. A Story of Mistrust
Now having been rejected, Jephthah ran off looking for somewhere to go. And it may say something about how others treated him too, because he ended up ninety-five kilometres south of Damascus, in the land of Tob. And there he gathered a band of undesirables around him—and went on raiding parties.
Now remember I said at the outset that one of the features of being a “Judge” or “Saviour” was military prowess. Well, he surely demonstrated that in the band to which he belonged. So when the Ammonites made war on Israel, the Israelites were so desperate for help, and for the need of a “Saviour”, that they sought his help. Indeed the elders of Gilead not only went to him in person, but promised to make him their leader if he was successful.
Now if you’re anything like me, and I’d been treated the way that Jephthah had, I wouldn’t have trusted the elders to keep their word. It’s not surprising then, that neither did he. He challenged them to the sincerity of their offer. And only after the elders had sworn the most formal of vows, did Jephthah go with them to the Tabernacle at Mizpah, to be commissioned in God’s presence.
Prejudice followed by mistrust—now there’s a destructive combination. One naturally follows another. Treat one person wrongly, and the whole situation spirals out of control. Sound familiar? Yet the story of Jephthah happened three thousand years ago, and we are still having trouble learning the lessons.
Now I don’t blame Jephthah, in the circumstances, making doubly-sure that the elders were genuine. And I don’t blame Jephthah for needing to be formally commissioned in the Tabernacle, in the presence of God. But wouldn’t it have been so much better if the prejudice and the grounds for distrust had never occurred in the first place?
And that’s a warning to us all. Because treating someone badly tends to have a snowball effect. So we need to be very careful about what we say and do to the others around us.
3. A Story of Rash Vows
But having been commissioned, Jephthah immediately got on with the task. His first step was to try to avoid war, and make peace with the king of Ammon. Very commendable. He wasn’t successful, but he did try.
Now remember at the outset, I said that to be a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour” that a person needed to meet certain criteria. Now we’ve already seen the first—military prowess. (Even though in Jephthah’s case it was seen in him being an outlaw or raider). But now we see the third—being endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God.
Because when the king of the Ammonites refused Jephthah’s offer of peace, God sent his spirit upon Jephthah. God effectively confirmed that Jephthah was his choice of “Saviour” or “Judge”, by giving him his Spirit, to help him in his role.
Now here, for the first time in Jephthah’s story, we come across something positive—a high note. And it would be very tempting to say, “Let’s end the story there, while we’re on top.” But sadly the story continues … And Jephthah, clearly not totally convinced by everything that’s happened, makes the most stupid of vows to God. “O God if you would help me to win the battle, I will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of my house when I return home.”
Now what could Jephthah have been possibly thinking? What or who did he think would come out of his home? What or who would be so pleased to see him that they would rush out to greet him?
And of course the inevitable happened. After having the won the battle he returned home, only to find the love of his life, his only child, coming out of the house to greet him.
Now we can ponder where God was in all this. Couldn’t God have stopped the child, or provided a substitute? But we need to remember that this vow was not demanded by God, but was given freely by Jephthah. We also need to remember that the laws of the Old Testament required a person making a vow to take their vow seriously.
But even that aside, what was it that made Jephthah swear such a ridiculously stupid vow? What made him so desperate, that he could not rely on God’s spirit, but that he believed he needed to bargain with God?
Well the short answer is that we don’t know. But we do know that there was a certain mistrust with the elders who had promised him the leadership—if he was successful in battle. And it may well be that his mistrust of others had spilled over into his relationship with God.
Now does that sound silly? Of course it does. But how many people do you know, or have heard about, who want nothing to do with God or his church because of something someone in the church has done.
It’s not a secret, that many people judge God based on what they see his people do. If someone in the church is nasty to another, then that can so easily mean that the victim leaves the church, and even blames God for what has happened. You hear it time and time again. So this interpretation of Jephthah is not out of the question.
And yet, in the context of rash promises themselves, isn’t this story a warning about making rash promises, full stop? In other words, a warning of those times when we are so desperate that we try to bargain with God too.
This story, then, is a great illustration of how our relationship with others affects our relationship with God. And that if we don’t treat each other right, then how easily our attitudes spill over into our relationship with God.
4. A Story of Jealousy or Pride
Now having faced an enemy from without—the Ammonites—the last part of Jephthah’s story relates to a problem within.
And it appears that the tribe of Ephraim had felt left out of the battle with the Ammonites. Indeed they were conspicuous by their absence. But they weren’t happy.
So Ephraim accused Jephthah of not inviting them to join in the fight with the Ammonites. But Jephthah said that they had been, they just hadn’t turned up. Then Ephraim accused the Gileadites of being fugitives from Ephraim. But whatever the truth, the Ephraimites were itching for a fight.
So the precise cause? We don’t know. The Ephraimites may have felt insulted about being left out. They may have been jealous; their pride could have been on the line. Equally they may not have been totally happy about now being led by the son of a prostitute. What we do know is that an internal, civil war resulted, and forty two thousand Ephraimites lost their lives as a result.
So much then for prejudice, mistrust, and whatever other negative things people do to each other. They’re all wrapped up here in this story. Jephthah’s story is warning about what happens when we mistreat one another. It’s about how one thing leads to another—a kind of snowball effect.
Now of course, some people look at the Old Testament and say, “Didn’t they do anything in the Old Testament but fight?” And, you know, there’s an element of truth in that. Yet, none of the events in this story needed to have happened. Indeed the whole chain of events the Israelites brought upon themselves, by firstly abandoning God, and secondly by mistreating one another.
And, when we look at the news, and what’s going on in our society, isn’t that exactly what we see going on today. Both the cause … The abandonment of God and mistreating one another. And the consequent effect … The mess this world is in. And we have it all neatly wrapped up in this one story.
So for us, as Christians, there are many lessons to be gained from the story of Jephthah. Not least of which is the challenges to our behaviour.
After all, how do we treat one another? Do we treat each other well, or are their certain improvements we need to make? And if there are improvements, how do our current attitudes affect our relationship with God?
Now, I’ve covered four basic parts of Jephthah’s life this morning. But there’s one aspect of Jephthah’s life I’ve missed out. Because as I said at the outset there were three aspects that we need to consider in order for someone to be considered a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour.” And in Jephthah’s case we have seen his military prowess, and his anointing by God with his Spirit. And on those two criteria alone, that makes him a genuine “Judge” or “Saviour.” But what about the legal side?
Well, happily, at the very end of the story we’re told that Jephthah met this criterion too. Indeed there’s a note to say that Jephthah served as a judge for six years, then he died. And despite the events of his early years, he was buried in his home town of Gilead (old prejudices seemingly forgotten).
So, at the end of Jephthah’s story, is his worth telling? Yes. Should it be included in our readings in church? Probably. (But then there are so many other stories that are missing from our readings too.) Is his story something we can learn from? Most definitely.
And the things that we can learn about revolve around our behaviour to others and our subsequent behaviour to God. After all, how often are our judgements coloured by prejudice? How deep is our mistrust of others? How much do we allow our mistreatment of one another to affect our relationship with God? And how much does jealousy or pride affect the things that we do?
Now these are the challenges of this three thousand year old story. But are they challenges we are prepared to face up to today?
Posted: 4th January 2017
© 2017, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Levite (Judges 19:1-30)
1. Public Safety
One of the issues that we are constantly faced with in our society is the issue of public safety. In recent times we have heard a lot about the abuse of children and the abuse of the elderly. But we’ve also been reminded that in many of our cities and towns it is not safe to walk in the streets at night, or even to take public transport. And places like parks at night are considered to be very risky indeed.
But it shouldn’t be so. People should be safe. People should be free to go out at night and feel safe in their environment. But they’re not. Which is probably why in the US, for example, so many people carry guns. And in Australia, people carry capsicum sprays, and whatever else they need to defend themselves with, should they find themselves in such a position.
And that’s sad. It is also an indictment on our society.
2. Old Testament
But then, not being safe it’s nothing new. Because wind back the clock to about 1373 BC, and the people and visitors to Gibeah were faced with the same problem. Indeed, the story today is of a Levite who entered the town of Gibeah with his concubine, and was basically told by a fellow Ephraimite, “You are welcome to stay at my house. But whatever you do, don’t spend the night in the town square. It’s not safe” (Judges 19:20).
And why wasn’t it safe? Because the men of the town had the reputation for sexually assaulting and abusing whoever was silly enough to be in the town square at night.
Now nothing really has changed.
But what’s the point of this story in the Bible? After all, it is not in the main part of the book of Judges. It is at the back of the book—one of two stories tacked on as an Appendix. The Levite was not a Judge. Indeed there are no Judges recorded in this story at all. Furthermore, the events in this story better fit, historically, at the beginning of the book of Judges rather than at the end.
So why is it there? Well, it doesn’t say. But it does illustrate the depths of depravity to which God’s chosen people had fallen. As a consequence, it is probably there to describe the kind of situation into which God was required to intervene by sending a Judge.
B. PART 1: THE LEVITE AND THE CONCUBINE
1. The Levite and the Concubine (19:1-28)
So what’s the story all about? Well, it’s about a Levite and his concubine. The Levite was from a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim in the north, and the concubine was from Bethlehem in Judah in the south. And for reasons that are unclear she left him and went back to her father’s home. Which is a tragedy in its own right.
Now the reason she left him will depend upon which translation you are reading. Some Hebrew manuscripts say that she had been angry with him; others say that she had been unfaithful. But whatever the reason, the Levite still cared for her. And so after four months he went to find her and bring her home.
Now the concubine’s father did not treat the reason for the separation as very serious. Which tends to suggest that they had had an argument rather than she had been unfaithful. Nevertheless, the disgrace of their separation reflected on her father. As a consequence, we get this picture of a very welcoming father who is desperate to make it up the Levite. Indeed, he lavishes hospitality on top of hospitality upon him.
So much so, that it takes several days before the Levite can finally extricate himself from the father’s hospitality. They then head back to Ephraim—a distance of no more than about forty-five kilometres. However, since they had only got away sometime towards evening, they had to stop somewhere to rest for the night. And refusing to stop in any town occupied by foreigners—not Israelites—they went on to Gibeah in Benjamin.
And this is where the Levite got his warning. He was met by a fellow Ephraimite, who offered him hospitality and was told that under no circumstances was he to stay in the square.
And so he went to the man’s house. But as the story goes, he wasn’t safe there either. The men of the city—some ungodly men—came and pounded at the door, wanting to get the Levite so they could have sex with him. And no matter what was said, they were not going to stop.
Now it needs to be said here, that the fellow Ephraimite would have been far more concerned about protecting his principal guest—the Levite—than he would have been about the safety of his own virgin daughter or the Levite’s concubine. Having said that, sending either of the girls out to the men would have been a blatant disregard to Hebrew law, regarding the care and protection of the weak and helpless. Furthermore, in sending his concubine out the Levite would have shown a total disregard for the woman he professed to love.
And yet that’s exactly what happened. The concubine was sent out, she was raped and abused throughout the night, and was left on the doorstop to die.
Now it’s an awful story, and neither the Levite, his fellow Ephraimite, or the men of Gibeah come out well in this story. But before we come to what happens next, there are some issues in this part of the story that need addressing.
a) Sexual Morality
Because first all the Levite—a man of God—had a concubine. Now that might seem a bit odd to us. It may even grate with our idea of sexual morality. But remember, under God’s laws the people who could marry—or have sexual relations with one another—was very different to the laws and practices of today.
Indeed, God’s Laws, as given to Moses, were more about the health of the community, than the wants of the individual. God wanted people to enjoy life, and for families to grow in a healthy relationship with him and with each other. And that’s why he allowed certain relationships which are not included in today’s Marriage Act. It is also why he prohibited others which today’s Marriage Act allows. The Marriage Act today does not have the same concerns. It is more concerned with regulating relationships, and meeting the wants of individuals, rather than on maintaining and building a healthy community.
There is a clear division between what God allowed (or rather disallowed) and the practice of sexual relationships today. And in Old Testament times whilst homosexual practices were condemned, having a concubine was not prohibited. Indeed, it was often seen as a solution to the problem of infertility.
After all, Abraham and Jacob both had concubines (in fact Jacob had two). And those concubines were first of all servants of their wives. But when those wives were unable to present their husbands with children—sons in particular—those servants were asked to take on the role of child bearer. In that way the family could be built up through those servants.
Now this was not considered an abuse of those servants by any of the parties. Concubines were not technically married to their mistresses’ husbands, and they did not enjoy the same privileges as wives. Nevertheless they were considered in high regard in Israelite families. On the other hand it was also seen as a great privilege by the servant, to be given the honour of bearing their master’s children. Particularly, because their children would be treated in the same way as any other children their master had fathered.
As a consequence, this story challenges us regards the issue of marriage and sexual relationships today. God gave us his laws for a reason. And yet if we comply with the Marriage Act, and even as a church uphold the Marriage Act in our ceremonies, then that is in blatant disregard to the laws and principles God provided for building up a healthy community.
And, incidentally, the fact that the Levite had a concubine, tends to suggest he also had at least one wife, and there may had been problems with them having children.
b). Caring for One Another
But the second issue is the aspect of hospitality. Of caring for one another. Of looking after those who are unable to look after themselves. Because this story does not reflect well on the Levite, the fellow Ephraimite, or the men of Gibeah at all.
Indeed, the men of Gibeah should have been welcoming. The Levite and his fellow Ephraimite should not have even considered sending out the virgin daughter or the concubine. And the Levite should not have shown a blatant disregard for the welfare of his concubine.
Every law of God regarding the care of the community is thrown out in this story. And yet how much of this story reflects our society today? Are we safe in our streets? Do people always look out for each other’s welfare? Or are there a lot of people whose only intent is on doing what they think is best for themselves?
In the days of King Hoshea, some 600 years after these events in the book of Judges, the prophet Hosea likened the events of his day to the events of this story in the book of Judges. He said, “They have sunk deep. They have become as depraved as in the days of Gibeah. God will remember their wickedness. He will punish their sins” (Hosea 9:9). He also said, “Since the days of Gibeah you have sinned, Israel, and there at Gibeah you have remained” (Hosea 10:9)
And that was an indictment on his society. And since things haven’t changed, that is an indictment on our society too.
C. PART 2: THE AFTERMATH
1. The Aftermath (19:29-21:23)
Now if you thought the first part of the story was awful, then what about the second?
The Levite went home and perhaps reflected on his own part in the story. He then cut his concubine’s body into twelve parts and sent them to the twelve tribes of Israel. And of course, he got the reaction he wanted. The people were disgusted, but in being so he did get their attention. An assembly was then called at which the Levite was allowed to tell his story.
Then once told, the people decided what they were going to do. So they sent an army to their fellow Israelites in Benjamin and demanded that the wicked men be handed over. All well and good. Except that the Benjaminites refused to hand them over. Indeed they were prepared to defend the guilty with all their worth.
So then you get this story of a battle, with the eleven tribes fighting the tribe of Benjamin, as the Israelites were determined to wipe the stain from their midst. But they were unable to take the Benjaminites out in one go. And you could easily question why. Except the fact that it serves to demonstrate that the Israelites needed to be whole-hearted—determined to put things right. As a consequence, they were not to give up at the first hurdle.
Nevertheless in the end the Benjaminite’s were finally defeated, with 25,100 of them killed, effectively wiping out the male population of Benjamin. Indeed, only 600 male Benjaminites of fighting age survived.
The story then concludes with the problem of the twelve tribes of Israel now effectively becoming eleven, and what they did to restore themselves back to be the twelve tribes of Israel.
And that, of course, leads us to a third issue in the story. The use of war to effectively wipe out the male population of Benjamin.
Now these days we would say, “That’s barbaric. We’re better than that. We’re more civilised.” And yet wars are being fought in this world every day. If someone doesn’t like what someone says, or stands for, or has done, there is war.
But war in this case—indeed, civil war—has its point. The behaviour of the men at Gibeah was unacceptable. In a society where God’s laws were supposed to rule, their behaviour could not to be tolerated. And, after all, the events described in the town of Gibeah were not an isolated event. The fellow Ephraimite clearly knew that when he told the Levite not to stay in the town square.
God’s laws of kindness and decency, and caring for one another, needed to be upheld. Because if they weren’t, that sort of behaviour would spread, and their whole relationship with God would be in peril. The community needed to be protected; it needed to be healthy. And if the rest of the tribe of Benjamin were not willing to uphold God’s laws, that made them as guilty as the people they were protecting. And if that sort of behaviour was allowed to continue, then people’s eternal welfare was at stake.
Which is why, the Israelites had to act. The Benjaminites had not listened to reason, and there was only one way left for the rest of the Israelites to act. They had to eliminate the disease; they had to fight to uphold God’s laws so that the people could live in peace and safety; they had to fight to restore their relationship with God.
Which is why we have to fight to uphold God’s laws too. Except that our situation is quite different.
The Israelites lived in a country where God’s laws were supposed to rule. But we don’t. We live in a secular country. Indeed, true-believing Christians are a minority in this country. As a consequence we cannot expect our society to abide by God’s laws. If the majority don’t believe, they can hardly be expected to behave—or even pass legislation—based on godly principles. And we need to understand that.
Having said, that does not excuse us as Christians—or the churches to which we belong—from professing and practicing godly principles. Indeed, we should even be noted for speaking out on issues—including marriage and public safety—in godly terms.
We should fight to uphold God’s laws; and we should not embrace the secular laws which are passed, which are contrary to a godly life. As a minority, living in a secular country, we may not strap on swords like the Israelites and have a physical fight, but we do need to express God’s values, and we do need to speak out against the abuses that are so prevalent in our society, and which have infiltrated our churches.
Now who thinks the bible is nice jolly book, with nice stories, where everyone is always terribly nice to each other?
You know, nothing is further from the truth. The bible is about people. It’s about real-life stories. But it’s also about people who think they know better. It’s about people who don’t care about others and are only in it for what they can get out for themselves. It’s about the gap between us and God.
Now there are three issues that I’ve raised today for special mention, from which we can learn much.
It’s about sexual morality. And the need to remember that God’s laws regarding sexual relationships are very different to those in society today. (Even if some of us may not wish to have a concubine ourselves.)
It’s about caring for one another. And the need to remember that God’s Laws are about how to build a healthy and thriving community. A place where everyone should feel safe.
And it’s about the need to fight to uphold God’s laws, which, after all, have all been provided for our benefit.
So do you feel safe at all times? Can you happily walk out on the streets at night? Are you assured that you will not be abused by someone who doesn’t really care? Probably not.
The events I’ve described—this gruesome story from the Old Testament—serves as reminder of the depravity to which mankind has fallen. And in the words of Hosea, commenting on events 600 years later, “The world hasn’t changed.”
And it was to this kind of world, to God’s own people, that God sent his Judges—from Othniel to Samuel. The people should have known better; they had the history of their relationship with God to which that they could refer. But they chose not to. And sometimes we may choose not to as well.
Nevertheless, sexual morality, caring for others, and fighting for God’s standards are all issues that still need to be addressed by us—as individuals as well as by our churches—even today.
Posted 11th October 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis