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
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
BIBLE STUDY: Jephthah (Judges 10:6-12:7)
a). A Story of Prejudice
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