JUDGES Scraps Under the Table

I have decided my Monday Devotionals will take us through Judges just as they took us through Joshua. So, without further ado, a reading from the Book of Judges, the first chapter.

1 After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” 2 The Lord said, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.” 3 And Judah said to Simeon his brother, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. 4 Then Judah went up and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand, and they defeated 10,000 of them at Bezek. 5 They found Adoni-bezek at Bezek and fought against him and defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. 6 Adoni-bezek fled, but they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and his big toes. 7 And Adoni-bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to pick up scraps under my table. As I have done, so God has repaid me.” And they brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.

8 And the men of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire. 9 And afterward the men of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites who lived in the hill country, in the Negeb, and in the lowland. 10 And Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba), and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai. (Judges 1:1-10 ESV)

So, Joshua is dead, and Israel is leaderless. There is no successor to Joshua. Not now. Not yet.

Instead, God picks the tribe of Judah, along with Simeon (because Simeon’s land is smack in the middle of Judah, and Simeon will disappear into Judah) to resume fighting, to continue to conquest.

But note here, even as God picks Judah and Simeon to lead the fighting (a collective leadership akin to the post-Stalin or post-Tito arrangements made in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia respectively, and it will face a similar end), the Lord is still doing the real fighting, is still achieving the real victories here, still delivering the Canaanites into Israel’s hands. These are not Israel’s victories. They never were, and they never will be. Nothing fundamental has changed.

Not yet.

Long-time reads of this blog (assuming there are any) will know I am not a believer in what comes around goes around, so I find the fate of Adoni-Bezek — אֲדֹֽנִי־בֶזֶק The Lord of Bezeq — intriguing. At the hands of the Israelites, he suffers the same fate he used to inflict upon those he conquered. I’m not inclined to call this justice poetic or otherwise, but he does confess — “So God has repaid me.”

But I cannot read this without also thinking of Jesus’ encounter with the gentile woman in Mark 7 (where she is described as Syropheonician) and Matthew 15 (where she is described as a Canaanite). “Yes Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) He fed those he conquered with scraps, scraps they would have a hard time picking up because he deprived them of their thumbs. And now how is conquered, thumbless, trying to pick up scraps from under the table of Israel.

I’m not sure what this allusion — if Jesus is even drawing from this image of the conquered and humiliated foreigner (being a syrophoenician in Mark makes her an outsider; being a Canaanite in Matthew makes her a subject person) scrounging under Israel’s table — does. The story we have in both Mark and Matthew tell us that while Jesus sees his ministry entirely to the “Lost sheep of Israel,” and he basically calls the woman a “dog” in both passages, the story also gives us a Jesus surprised by her faith, and in both stories, her faith in Jesus heals the woman’s daughter.

By contrast, Adoni-Bezeq seems only to grasp that “God” (אֱלֹהִים, and not The Lord יְהוָ֖ה, which is how non-Israelites tend to meet the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) has paid him back. In the form of Israel’s conquest. Even this is faith, understanding that God is the author of one’s misfortune and poetic vengeance.

Perhaps we should be surprised by his faith, and never has there been such faith in Israel, to understand that God has repaid one’s own evil and oppression for evil and oppression. (This is a self-realization, not a self-righteous third person accusation. Remember that.) To have been the doer of evil who, now thumbless and toeless, gets what has really just happened to him. Because sometimes that happens.

It will happen later in this story, as faithless Israel is itself conquered and carried into exile. Recompense for its own sin. Faith in the righteous judgment of God is still faith. Even when there is no escape past “today you will be with me in paradise.”

It’s also interesting that Judah and Simon bring this conquered king of the Negev to Jerusalem, which is still at this point a Canaanite city that Israel is still making war against. The men of Judah manage to sack and burn the city here, but they don’t secure it. It is still full of foreigners.

JOSHUA Sometimes We Are Righteous

40 So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded. 41 And Joshua struck them from Kadesh-barnea as far as Gaza, and all the country of Goshen, as far as Gibeon. 42 And Joshua captured all these kings and their land at one time, because the Lord God of Israel fought for Israel. 43 Then Joshua returned, and all Israel with him, to the camp at Gilgal. (Joshua 10:40–43 ESV)

I am not a pietist, not by any stretch of the imagination. I have little patience for piety, especially the teetotaling, “I Am Righteous Before The Lord Because I Do Everything That I am Supposed to Do and Refrain From Everything I am Supposed to Do” kind of piety the seems to typify much of American Christendom.

Personal piety, that shows one is a good person who is right with God. That one does what God says.

In this, I am fully Lutheran — I am a sinner, and I cannot follow the teaching of God. I cannot be righteous. I cannot do what God tells me, and I cannot stop doing what God forbids me.

I am only righteous because Christ forgave me, because I am included in his life, death, and resurrection in my baptism. Because he pronounces his forgiveness to me, time and again, at the table, where he redeeming promises are made real in bread and wine.

This is my body. This is my blood. Given for you. Do this and remember me.

But these last 20 or so verses of Joshua show something worth reminding even a rotgut sinner like myself — sometimes we can do what God tells us. Sometimes we are capable of following the commands of God, of doing good, of forbidding evil, and reaping the blessings that God has promised.

These last few verses are a litany of efficient brutality. Joshua puts a lot of people — five nations, to be precise — to the sword, leaving no survivors and letting no one escape, in the narrative from verse 29 to verse 43. Joshua is delivering his people into the land promised long ago.

I like how in The Brick Testament — Bible stories illustrated by Legos — Joshua is always very angry, like that weird guy you all probably knew growing up who believed the Bible far too intensely and could quite too much of it length for no reason in particular…

But make no mistake, even as Joshua and Israel do all they are asked exactly as God asks, the work is still not theirs. The work is God’s. “For the Lord, the God of Israel, fought for Israel.” The Lord, and the Lord alone, delivered these people into Israel’s hands. Israel is merely an instrument.

The victory is God’s alone. The glory is God’s alone. The righteousness is God’s alone.

And so even as we can manage to follow the teaching, do (or not do) as God commands us, live upright whatever we strive for, or work for, or do, is still a gift, is still grace, still the provision of a merciful God who promises redemption to victory to we who have nothing of our own.

It is still nothing we have earned.

JOSHUA Signs and Wonders and the Work of God

1 Then Joshua rose early in the morning and they set out from Shittim. And they came to the Jordan, he and all the people of Israel, and lodged there before they passed over. 2 At the end of three days the officers went through the camp 3 and commanded the people, “As soon as you see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God being carried by the Levitical priests, then you shall set out from your place and follow it. 4 Yet there shall be a distance between you and it, about 2,000 cubits in length. Do not come near it, in order that you may know the way you shall go, for you have not passed this way before.” 5 Then Joshua said to the people, “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.” 6 And Joshua said to the priests, “Take up the ark of the covenant and pass on before the people.” So they took up the ark of the covenant and went before the people. (Joshua 3:1–6 ESV)

It’s easy for us to think, most of the time, that we are the doers of our own deeds, the workers of our own wonders, and masters of our own fates. If there’s work to be done, a world to be saved, a victory to be won, then we do it ourselves. With our own hands, our own hearts, and our own minds.

This is a very human thing, this belief. I’m reminded of a joke I heard a Mormon farmer tell at a county planning and zoning commission many years when I worked as a reporter in Northern Utah:

A farmer stands leaning on a fence, admiring his neighbor’s wheat, ripening in the summer sun.

“The Lord has certainly been good to you!” the first farmer said.

The second farmer shook his head and spat angrily.

“The Lord!?! The Lord had nothing to do with it. If it had been up to the Lord, this field would be nothing but weeds and thorns. I did all this work.”

And to the extent that this is true, it is true. My grandfather could never have simply trusted God to yield wheat and barley on the hills of his farm without sowing and tending and reaping himself. As Lutherans, we say God uses “means” — simple material things like bread, wine, and water — to convey the grace and promise of God. While we do believe in the miraculous provision of God — manna to gather in the morning, water from bare rock, thousands fed by five loaves and two fish — we also believe, and preach, that the work of God needs (if that isn’t too strong a term, because I do not like to impose necessity upon God) our hands in order to be incarnate in the world.

But that’s not what’s going on here. This is not about Israel doing the work of God, its own hands acting out the command of God. Joshua walks among the Israelites, preparing them for the battle to come. Make yourselves holy, he says,

… for tomorrow the Lord will do wonders among you.

He further tells Israel, as they are setting out behind the Ark of the Covenant to cross the Jordan River and enter Canaan

“Here is how you shall know that the living God is among you and that he will without fail drive out from before you the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites.” (Joshua 3:10 ESV)

I suspect the task Israel is setting out to start here — war without mercy to a take a promised land already inhabited by a myriad of people — troubles us. It is, to us, the worst of kind of religious violence, genocide sanctioned by God (Deuteronomy 7). We will see, however, that what happens in Joshua and Judges, is not that simple.

Our hands are at work, holding swords and shields, bows and arrows, hacking and piercing and killing. This is holy work, this conquest.

But it is not our work. It is God’s work. And God alone does this work, no matter how we bloody our hands. It’s as if we’re solely along for the ride, pantomiming at war while the real work is being done be a heavenly army in our midst. (Pay attention…) At the beginning of this book, we have the command to fight, to show no mercy, but we also have this prediction of utter failure given to Moses at the end of Deuteronomy, taught to us in song, and the promise that God — and God alone — will do wonders among us.

Will do the hard work so long as we are faithful.