Sabbatical 2017

Sabbatical 2017
Stairway in Blois, Fr

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Daily bread for Mar 25, Jdg 19-21

Today's readings are Jdg 19-21.

Jdg19 begins with the story of the Levite and his concubine. In Jdg 19:3-9, we see incredible hospitality and respect in the way the Levite and his father-in-law deal with each other. The Levite travels later in the day going north from Bethlehem. He walks about three miles to Jerusalem and, though it is getting late in the day, he passes by because it is inhabited by the hostile Jebusites. He heads for Gibeah, another six miles northward, and the perceived safety of staying among his own people, the Benjamites (Jdg 19:10-15), where another hospitable man takes him in.

The hospitality pictured in these verses is a stark contrast to the brutality the men in the town exhibit when the concubine is killed (Jdg 19:22-26). There are parallels with the story of Lot in Sodom (Gen 19:4-11), except in this case, the “worthless fellows” are Benjamites, one of the tribes of Israel!  What we’re witnessing is the degeneration of Israel into the same type of behavior that brought the fury of heaven to bear on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:22-29).

However, there is hope for Israel who reacts to the sin within by doing whatever is necessary to expunge it (Jdg 20:1-17), no matter how difficult or painful it may be. The battle is fierce, but God empowers His people to gain the victory (Jdg 20:18-48).

At this point, with only 600 men surviving and the remainder of the tribe having been executed (Jdg 20:46-48), the future of the Benjamites is in question.

The rest of the tribes mourn and repent of the drastic actions needed to purge the sinful behavior from God’s people. Having made a foolish vow not to allow any surviving Benjamites to marry their daughters, the tribes find themselves in the precarious position of having to honor their word. In so doing, they will be violating the rules of levirate marriage (Jdg 21:1-7), which were designed to ensure the continuation of all the tribes (Dt 25:5).

The solution comes in the form of another infraction. After the call for unity against the sin at Gibeah, no one from Jabesh-gilead joined in the battle against the Benjamites (Jdg 21:8-12). The punishment for this breach of a covenantal agreement among all the tribes was death for the inhabitants of this offending village, which was in the tribe of Manasseh. The virgin daughters, 400 of them, are spared and given to the Benjamites. This seems to mitigate the dilemma, but they’re still 200 women short of the 600 needed (Jdg 21:13-14). A compromise is reached. The remaining Benjamites can “steal” 200 virgins from the festivities in Shiloh with the tacit endorsement and support of the rest of the tribes (Jdg 21:16-24).

So, we see repentance among God’s people (Jdg 21:15), but we also see the quagmire of confusion, tension and in-fighting sin has caused. The people have tried to work their way out of it, but things only seem to get more complicated and messy, as they always do when God’s children try to resolve their circumstances with reason instead of merely trusting in God. These passages show that there was little to no prayer that went into most of the decisions they made. The less regard Israel has for the presence of God, the greater the confusion and strife they endure. Therein is a life lesson for all of us.

The first two chapters of Judges note several military victories. They also describe Israel's failure to eliminate all the opposing nations and their people from Canaan. Yet, the first generation that lived in the Promised Land was blessed awesomely. In Judges 2:7, we read that the entire nation "...served the Lord all the days of Joshua and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua..." In other words, things were going well. The nation was at peace and prospering...except for those seemingly minor infractions. By the end of the Judges, everything has degenerated into chaos. Entire tribes have forsaken God. There is infighting, pagan worship, ungodly behavior and near-total integration with the cultures they were told to eliminate and avoid.

The Book of Judges concludes with this chilling note, "In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit." (Jdg 21:25). It’s not just an editorial comment on the political state of the new nation, it is a recognition that the people are trying to govern themselves apart from God. Clearly, they are in need of a king in more ways than one.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Daily Bread for Mar 24, Jdg 16-18

Today's readings are Jdg 16-18.

Samson, with all his flaws and failings, manages to serve Israel. As the temple falls, crushing some significant Philistines but not all, Samson brings about his own demise as well. Ironically, more Philistines die in this event than Samson has killed in his entire career (Jdg 16:27-31).

Here's the lesson we can learn from Samson’s sad tale: Samson's death leads to an even greater triumph over Israel’s enemies than his life. You can hear the faint echo of the death of Christ in this, whose death led to His resurrection which became the greatest triumph of all time and the foundation of our faith.

Another lesson we can learn from Samson is that, in spite of his weaknesses and failings, he was blessed. God used Samson in a mighty way. His flaws reveal his humanity. His victories, because of his flaws, can only serve to give glory to God. None of the credit for his supernatural strength can go to Samson. Samson was not worthy of such blessings, and he certainly did not earn them. Samson's power was a gift of grace. Many believe flawed people can receive neither blessings nor victory. Samson is God's beautiful example of how He uses unexceptional people in an exceptional way.

But, now, Israel is on a downhill slide. The mistakes and failings of their invasion of the Promised Land are starting to catch up to them. Everything God warned them about is coming to pass. They are marrying into the native tribes, calling out to their gods and living like the ungodly people among them live.

The most amazing thing we see here is that God remains faithful. He continues to send redeemers. For certain, there is a price to pay but, through it all, the Israelites remain His children.

The good news for believers is that whenever Israel calls out to God with a truly repentant heart, He delivers them. Why? Because He loves them. Notwithstanding the consequences of their wrong actions, God wants to refine them, not destroy them. He wants to bring them closer, not punish them. It's a beautiful life-lesson. He wants the same thing for us.

Jdg 17 chronicles Israel's unrelenting downhill slide. Despite God’s grace and mercy, they are theologically reprobate and weak. This becomes evident when Micah, who stole from his mother (Jdg 17:1-2), creates his own shrine, priesthood and graven images (Jdg 17:3-6). None of this is commanded by God making the Levite’s decision to stay with Micah highly questionable (Jdg 17:7-13).

The Tribe of Dan (Danites), having lost their allocation on the coast (Jos 19:40-47) begin searching for a new home rather than fighting for the one they were promised. Along the way, they take the ephod, the idol and the Levite from Micah. Notice, these are Jews subjugating other Jews.

In a seemingly wise move, the Danites consult the priest about their plans (Jdg 18:5) wanting to know if they will be successful. It is only seemingly wise because the Danites do not ask if they’re in God’s will, they merely ask if their plans will succeed. The priest-for-hire gives them an ambiguous answer, telling them God sees everything they are doing. There is no indication that the priest even prays and none that God is blessing the Danites, only that He sees (Jdg 18:6). God’s lack of blessing will soon become apparent.

The priest told the Danites what they wanted to hear and the Danites chose to believe what they wanted to believe. The tribe of Dan knew the ephod wasn’t authentic, the priest was errant and the graven images were an abomination. Yet, eager to affirm themselves, they took the priest’s answer to be an endorsement of their ungodly behavior. How easy it is for God’s people to read what their own desires are into His word instead of objectively appropriating it to their lives!

A questionable priest, an unholy ephod and a graven image in hand, Dan captures Laish (Leshem), a city in the far North of the kingdom where they set up an altar and worship the idol they took from Micah. (Jdg 18:27-31).

What happened here? How did God’s people slide so far so quickly?

"A little leaven leavens the whole lump!" (1 Cor 5:6) Israel let sin creep in slowly and quietly until it began to gain more and more control over them. Early compromises that seemed good or inconsequential at the time had a long-term impact on Israel's walk. They drifted far from what the word of God said. They began to "do what was right in their own eyes" instead of what God said was right. God tells us to be vigilant in our walk, resolute in our discipline and uncompromising in striving for holiness. If we devote ourselves to these things, our own backsliding will become less likely.

The lesson of the leaven works both ways. Those wise choices we make, even though some of them may be relatively small, can yield significant blessings further down the road. For instance, committing to reading our Bibles for 15 minutes a day, over the long run, will make us more familiar with the Scriptures. The more diligent we remain to that commitment, the more familiar we become with the Scriptures and the better we understand the character and nature of God and the overall narrative of the Bible. As time passes, it becomes easier to make godly decisions. Furthermore, when crises arise, we are better equipped to navigate them and less likely to live in fear and doubt. Small, godly decisions can have a considerable impact further down the road.

As for Israel, she is beginning to see the sobering effects of the dark side of the lesson on leaven.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Daily Bread for Mar 23, Jdg 13-15

Today's readings are Jdg 13-15.

Ah, yes. Samson. If you read his story carefully, it runs through Jdg 16, you get an overview of how Israel is in total disarray and confusion. Samson is a snapshot of what Israel looks like in his day.

Far from the brave hero we learned about in Sunday School, Samson is a living dichotomy. Samson is of the tribe of Dan. You remember them. They were the ones who could not take their allotted land and went north to occupy the town of a passive and weak people (Josh 19:40-48).

Samson is physically strong but morally weak. He made incredibly poor decisions and was unable to control his emotions, yet God continued to use him. Samson held faithful to the letter of his Nazarite vows (except when he touched the carcass of the lion!) but entirely disregarded his Hebrew tradition and the tenets of his faith. He was far from conforming to the intent of the vows, which was to practice holiness (Num 6:5-21). He married the wrong women (Jdg 14:2), did questionable things (Jdg 15:4-5, 16:1), was enamored with pleasing himself, became astoundingly naive with Delilah (who seduced him the same way the Philistines were enticing Israel). Delilah was clearly Samson's enemy, but Samson was so blinded by lust that he was unable to see it. Israel was in the same position with Philistia, opposed to them but lusting after the things they had.

There is something to be learned from practicing our faith (Samson's dedication to the Nazarite vows) without having our hearts committed to being faithful (his disregard for God's commands). God gave Samson life through a barren woman, blessed him with extraordinary strength, gave him victory and shed His grace on him despite Samson's recklessness and self-absorbed nature. In the end, it was Samson's own self-centeredness that defeated him.

Samson's victories, while spectacular (Jdg 16:28-31), are short-lived and have no real significance. The Philistines will remain a problem until well after David becomes king.

The real encouragement in this story is not in Samson’s goodness, physical strength, and courage, but in God’s grace in using him regardless of his flaws, moral weakness, and mistakes. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Daily Bread for Mar 22, Jdg 10-12

Today's readings are Jdg 10-12.

As we continue in Judges, notice that problems begin to arise as those pagan inhabitants of Canaan who were allowed to remain living in the land exert an ungodly influence on Israel. The first of Israel’s tribes to struggle are the those that opted to settle East of the Jordan instead of going into the Promised Land. They live in proximity to and among the Moabites, the Syrians (Bashan) and the Ammonites. The tribes living west of the Jordan struggle with the nations they failed to dispossess beginning with the Philistines and the Sidonians (Jdg 10:6).

The longer Israel allows these others to live among them, the more Israel drifts toward their gods. God leaves Israel to their own devices until they begin to realize how desperate their situation has become and they call out to Him (Jdg 10:10-16). God responds to their repentance in grace and mercy.

A few notes about the various stories follow. 

We see how fickle Israel is in Jephthah's story. They ostracize him, then plead for him to help when they’re in trouble (Jdg 11:1-8). It’s a symptom of how Israel approaches God, taking Him for granted when things go well but crying out to Him when they’re in trouble. Furthermore, Israel has become so confused they are fighting the enemy and fighting themselves as well (Jdg 12:1-6). 

Meanwhile, Jephthah's vow and the sacrifice of his daughter is a tragic and arduous tale (Jdg 11:40). God never asks Jephthah for anything or to make any commitment. The good-intentioned vow Jephthah makes is self-initiated and places him in a dreadful situation.

Some background context will help in understanding how Jephthah found himself in such a dire set of circumstances.

We know from archaeological evidence that most houses in Jephthah’s time have a room for livestock on the ground level, to keep the animals safe from predators and thieves. The animals were usually the first ones to emerge from the lower level when the door was opened, similar to the way many people today take their dog out for a walk. Because of this, Jephthah probably assumed an animal would come out of his house as he approached. Instead, to his utter horror, his daughter comes running out to greet him.

Jephthah is a godly man who places a high value on his word being a reflection of the faithfulness and integrity of his God. As such, he feels he has to follow through on his vow. He is trapped between the love he has for his daughter and the obligation he has for the vow he made.

This is a difficult situation to understand for folks who live in a western culture. For most of us, we think, “Why doesn’t Jephthah just claim he made a mistake and has no intention of sacrificing his daughter? God will understand.” Furthermore, we all know human sacrifice is contrary to God's law. However, Jephthah lives in a culture that places tremendous value on a man’s word and fully expects whatever he says to be binding. Even though God never speaks a word about Jephthah’s dilemma, Jephthah feels obligated to carry out the letter of his vow, painful as it may be. It's a gut-wrenching tale and a harsh lesson that teaches us to avoid making promises or vows to God without prayerfully considering the ramifications.

Could God have intervened? Of course, He could have, but Jephthah’s grievous loss shows us something about God and His children. It’s not until we step back and look at the big picture of this scenario to see the profound nature of Jephthah’s story. Jephthah was the illegitimate son of the judge of Israel. He was rejected by his own people. He agonizingly sacrifices his only child to redeem those who oppose him and remain steadfast and faithful to his word, regardless of what it costs him. The parallels to what we will see in the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Christ are remarkable.

But, there’s more! Jephthah’s daughter teaches us another lesson about God’s plan of redemption. In an incredible act of obedience, she allows herself to be sacrificed for the deliverance of the very people who rejected her father.  

It’s all a picture of the gospel. One day God will be faithful to His word, regardless of the pain it causes Him, and sacrifice His only Son to deliver His people from their enemy, death.

Meanwhile, as we examine the narrative arc in Judges, we’re seeing Israel exhibit a breath-taking fickleness toward God and toward each other. Sadly, it will get worse! They have yet to learn the value of a consistent walk, the appropriate exercise of spiritual disciplines (prayer, reading, etc.) and the need to be vigilant about how the world around them can draw them into ungodly behavior.

As for us, we can learn from this. We should never take our relationship with the Lord lightly or for granted and always be aware that "some participation is required." Moreover, we should realize that there is always a price to pay for drifting from God. He is faithful to redeem those who are His, but we don't know when redemption will come and the time between our drifting away and restoration can be very painful.

On a lighter note, we see the pronunciation of "Shibboleth" (Jdg 12:6) has regional differences in much the same way the pronunciation of "ambulance" does. In our time, some folks accent the first syllable of "ambulance," some the last. One can usually tell what region another comes from by their speech patterns. It was the same in Israel in ancient times.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Daily Bread for Mar 21, Jdg 8-9

Today’s readings are Jdg 8-9.

As Gideon pursues the Midianite army and their allies, two cities along the way refuse to help (Jdg 8:1-9). Succoth and Penuel are towns belonging to Gad, Penuel (Penial) being the very place where Jacob wrestled with God and became Israel (Gen 32:28-30). The reason the towns refuse to help their brothers is for fear of Midianite reprisal in the event Gideon loses his war with them. Apparently, between the time of the tribal allotments and Gideon’s day, the region has become unstable. The inability or unwillingness of the original tribes to thoroughly remove all the ungodly peoples from the conquered areas is bearing rotten fruit.

With a decisive victory over the pagan kings, Gideon, seemingly over his doubts and fears, has become a conquering hero and a statesman. We see the first hints that Israel desires a king when they implore upon Gideon to become their king. Gideon wisely tells them that God is their leader (Jdg 8:22-23).

However, it all goes to his head, and he creates his own ephod, a garment designed by God to be worn only by one of His designated priests (Jdg 8:24-28). People begin to worship the garment rather than the God the garment honors and things start going downhill.

We also hear that Gideon has many wives and seventy sons. Note, Scripture neither endorses nor condemns polygamy, but the men who have multiple wives always seem to struggle mightily. Regardless of his many wives, Gideon has at least one concubine who bears him a son, whom Gideon names "Abimelech," which means, “my father is king.” Although Scripture does not judge Gideon harshly, he is incontestably struggling as will be evident as his family’s story develops.

Gideon dies as Israel begins to pursue other gods (Jdg 8:33-35). His legacy as a godly leader is not a lasting one.

When Abimelech comes of age, he accelerates Israel's slide away from God. He wrests control of the country by bloody and deceitful means, laying siege to his own hometown and killing all seventy of his brothers but one, Jotham (Jdg 9:1-6).

Abimelech comes to a sad end. It seems that Israel has learned neither from previous mistakes nor prophetic warnings. They’re losing their grip on the Transjordan region, struggling in Canaan, looking for an earthly king and blindly following the wrong people. The warnings about eliminating all ungodly influences have gone unheeded, and the consequences are beginning to make themselves known.

Ironically, Israel's stunning shift away from God occurs as they begin to prosper and enjoy peace. During their times of oppression and difficulty, they call out to God and beseech Him for help and deliverance. When things go well, they become complacent and drift toward self-interest and worship of just about anything or anyone other than the one true God of the universe. Their pattern of behavior is a lesson in how God uses trials to bring His children closer to Himself and refine them.