Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Disturbing OT Judges, Ghoti Hook, and the Gospel

I am not sure what lead me to think now was the right season to cruise through the book of Judges, but that's what I began doing a few weeks ago. I try to ebb and flow between the Old and New Testament in my not-so-daily devotionals, convinced that it is irresponsible to read the New Testament without regular interactions with the Old.

This is not because I want to be able to claim victory every time I am head-to-head with a Bible thumper who claims he or she will crush me in a game of Bible trivia. Instead, I believe we must read the New Testament with the Old Testament as our running commentary.[1] We can only begin to know the depths of the gospel when we have some sort of interaction with the Jewish story Jesus embodied, fulfilled, and promised to be bringing to its new beginning.

So I like to read the Old Testament...a lot.

Also, you find some crazy stories in the Old Testament that would surely make for great Monty Python-esque sketches.

This is certainly true with Judges.

Take the "left-handed man," Ehud, for example. Ehud was sent as tribute, kind of like Katniss but not really, to the Moabite King Eglon. Scripture, not me, says that he was a "very fat man." King Eglon was so large that when Ehud thrust his sword into his belly, "the fat closed over the blade." Israel was then delivered from the hand of Moabite oppression and the "land had rest eighty years" (3:12-31).

Then there was Jael. At the time when Deborah was "judging Israel," she took a hammer and drove a tent peg into the temple of Sisera as he fled Barak's chariots, which were questing to liberate Israel from yet another foreign nation. I guess you can say Jael, Barak, and Deborah were "successful"...(Judges 4:1-23).

We also cannot forget Samson as judge. As a youth, this was one of my favorite stories, especially as told by ska-rockers, Ghoti Hook. Samson was the biblical equivalent to Hercules, whose strength lead him to slay lions and provide his family honey from the carcass, "but he did not tell them that he had taken the honey from the carcass" (14:9). Details. Samson also captures 300 foxes, sets their tails ablaze, and sends them to destroy the vineyards and olive groves of the Philistines. He even slaughters one-thousand men with the jawbone of an ass.

However, we must not forget the classic tale of Samson and Delilah. Scripture tells us that Samson's strength was found in his lovely locks, uncut as a covenant made between God and Samson's mother when her womb was opened and she conceived her son. Yet, when tempted and deceived by a Philistine woman named Delilah, she cuts his hair, and his strength flees. The Philistines then gouged out his eyes, forced Samson to labor at the mill, and provide them with plithy entertainment. Yet Samson's hair regrew and he regained strength. The nazirite then stood between two pillars of the Philistine temple, cried out to the LORD, "leaned his weight" into the pillars, and brought the whole house down. The life of this judge ended along with the many gathered in the pagan temple (Judges 13-17). This was claimed as salvation and deliverance for the people of God?

There are plenty more. And this is just the book of Judges.

Judges exists, though, for far greater purposes than another form of entertainment through violence and destruction. We must also refrain from reading and then proclaiming, "The LORD wills it. Go and do likewise." In fact, if we read Judges with these lenses, we are the only ones to blame when we breed a faith and tradition that continues to perpetuate the myth of redemptive violence in our neighborhoods, schools, and world.

But the question still remains, who are these "judges?"

"Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them...for the LORD would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them" (2:16, 18).

In short, these judges were those whom God appointed to effect God's justice.[2] Judges were God's advocates of human liberation from oppression. Judges were those who lead God's people out of captivity and into the way of the LORD, who was their King and ultimate Judge.

I find this very odd given the behaviors of these judges. They even seem to promote injustice versus work against it. Nothing screams, "justice," when Samson lights fox tails on fire to devastate the crops of his enemies.

Even worse, "Now these are the nations that the Lord left to test all those in Israel who had no experience of any war in Canaan (it was only that successive generations of Israelites might know war, to teach those who had no experience in it before)" (3:1-2).

Instructed in the way of war? It is difficult to grasp the writers of Scripture, whom we believe were somehow inspired by the Spirit, writing of God leading Israel into battle so that they "might know war." I also don't think there is enough blog space to engage why this may have been the mindset and religious conviction of the day.

So I will simply say this, I think we are supposed to be grieved by these stories versus celebrate them. Still more, Judges may be an invitation to hope for God one day to act as judge in a decidedly new way.

So we read Scripture alongside Scripture and come to Isaiah:

"[The LORD] shall judge between the nations; and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (2:4).,

When we speak of God's judgment, we must have both Isaiah and Judges in mind. A judge in the biblical sense was not merely one who wore black robe and held gavel in court, administering verdicts of guilty or not guilty. When we encounter the ancient texts and Hebrew theology, a judge was one who lead people into God's salvation. A judge was one who delivered the people from captivity and oppression.

Yes, Judges alludes to such liberation through violence. Yes, Isaiah says that judgement will one day come through pruning hooks and plowshares. That is, war will one day no longer be the prescribed vehicle for deliverance. This is the tension we are invited to engage.

This is precisely the backdrop for Jesus as judge.

This Messiah wields not a sword and instructs not in the way of violence, "blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God." Instead, Jesus awakens God's people to a new day of deliverance, justice, and redemption that comes by way of cross carried and tomb emptied. He is the expected arbitrator of peaceful judgment.

Karl Barth says it best:

"The so-called 'Judges' of the Old Testament in the early period of the occupation of Canaan are described as men [and a woman, Deborah] awakened by God and their main office is to be helpers and saviours in the recurrent sufferings of the people at the hand of neighbouring tribes. It was only in addition to this activity in 'foreign affairs' that they engaged in judging in the narrower sense of the term. Similarly in the New Testament- a fact which is later forgotten- the coming of the judge means basically the coming of the Redeemer and Saviour" (IV.1 p. 217).

Thanks be to God that in Jesus we are awakened to our judgment. We are lead into ours and the whole world's salvation. We are moved towards deliverance and set free from all forms of oppression and captivity. We are called to turn our weapons of mass destruction into tools for gardening and growing new life. We are invited to be judged and become new kinds of judges as we lead others into this new Way of justice and peace.

I guess you can say I am glad to be reading Judges. I need to be judged. I want to be judged. I am hopeful that in Jesus God's judgment is good news. The judgment of Christ leads me away from what holds me captive and delivers all of us into a new way of being human. To be judged is to enter into the gospel of peace.

All that is reason to thank God for the Old Testament as commentary on the New.


[1] See Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1, p. 168.

[2] The very title of the Book of Judges stems from a play on the Hebrew word for justice, šôpēt, which means "effector of God's justice."

***send my way recommendations for good reads and commentaries pertinent to Judges.