JUDGES And So It Begins

A reading from Judges, the third chapter.

7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)

And here is Israel’s condition. Our condition. Israel has turned away from serving/worshiping עָבַד God, and has embraced the false gods of Canaan. Of its neighbors. Idolatry, serving and trusting and sacrificing to and telling stories about gods who have not saved Israel and cannot save Israel. This is Israel’s chief sin, its primary sin, the one for which the people of God will suffer conquest and exile — will be subjugated for time — time and again.

Othniel is of good character. He is an upstanding citizen, with a good pedigree. Caleb was one of the twelve scouts send to examine the promised land, and alone with Joshua, he was confident Israel could take the Canaanites. It makes sense someone like him would be the first “judge” שָׁפַּט (judge, lead, govern), the first one to redeem and deliver Israel, to defeat its enemies.

This establishes a pattern. Israel sins, and forgets God. Israel succumbs to sin — God gives Israel over not just to its sin but to foreigners, who conquer and rule it. They become the visible, tangible consequence of idolatry. Israel cries to God, God listens, and raises up a savior, who then fights for Israel, defeats its enemies, and there is “rest” for a time.

For a time. Until Israel forgets, and gives itself over to sin — again.

And God raises up a savior, to fight for Israel — again.

This is who Christ is. A redeemer, raised up not only to redeem the people from their sin, but also defeat their enemies. However, Jesus is no temporary savior. The rest he gives us is permanent. We do not need earthly champions anymore, our redemption is real and right now. Even if we do not see it, it is real. We live it. Right now. Even when we fail to trust God, when we turn for protection to those things which cannot save us, we are redeemed.

We cry out, and God hears our cries. But we are already saved.

JUDGES Our Condition

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:16–19 ESV)

This is our essential condition, as the people of God, as the church. In our faithlessness, in our inability and unwillingness to follow the teaching of God, we are given over — we give ourselves over — to those who would plunder us.

And plunder us they do.

God has pity on us, and saves us from our conquerors, from the consequences of our sin, of our faithlessness. We are not unfortunate people. We are sinners. We are cot redeemed from mere circumstances, we are redeemed from our sin.

And while we can be rallied to righteousness and faithfulness every now and again, idolatry is our fundamental sin. The worship of that which cannot save us is our fundamental sin. We cannot help ourselves.

This short narrative is the explanation. It is truth, and it is all we need to know about ourselves.

But it is also the narrative into which Christ comes. He is our judge, and he redeems us in our sin. He is faithful when we are faithless. He does not die, and therefore, we have no reason to turn away from God, to seek salvation in that which cannot truly help us — money, power, privilege, position, might. And yet we do.

And when we do, we are eventually given over to those who will plunder us.

But Christ, the righteous judge, is still with us. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful. He is our faithfulness, showing us that even when we forget, and walk away, we are never wholly and completely given over. We are afflicted and oppressed, but never abandoned.

We have a righteous judge, who is with us, until the end of the age.

JUDGES We Forget

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

7 And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:7–11 ESV)

“And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

So it is that we do not know. I am reminded of another place in scripture where someone does know, where things that were done become mere stories we may or may not tell, and because of that, where the reality we face suddenly becomes mysterious and undecipherable, something we are no longer capable of understanding:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.” (Exodus 1:8–9 ESV)

We forget so easily what God has done for us. A new Pharaoh forgets what Israel did, what Joseph did, to save Egypt, and sees not allies and friends but a threat so large it must be dealt with. Israel has forgotten its redemption from Egypt, God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the guidance of the pillar of cloud and fire. Israel has forgotten that the walls of Jericho fell without effort, how the sun stood still over Gibeon and how the birds came and dropped stones on the army of Adoni-Zedek, and how God gave Canaan into the hands of Israel.

Israel has forgotten. Because it has all faded into memory. It has all become stories.

We forget. We come to not know. We live in the midst of circumstances we have inherited and we do not entirely understand how. We do not remember the gifts our ancestors and forebears received from God, the gifts that got us here.

And so we abandon God.

We do not know the work because it is undone in our midst. Maybe we tell stories, but likely, we do not really believe them. God didn’t actually do any of that, we say.

We forget. We become those who did know. We worship what we find around us — the idols of the people we are conquering, who land and places we are inheriting.

It is easy, this forgetting. Israel forgets even when the acts of God are fresh in its memory and experience — why else worship a golden calf a Sinai when only recently our God drowned the oppressor’s army in sea? It’s a lot to expect that we will remember a generation or two removed from the saving.

We forget. Even when we tell stories. We forget and we abandon God. That’s just our nature.

But there is good news. As we shall see, this forgetting gives God a chance to intervene in our lives, again and again, to redeem us. So that we can become people who know the Lord, and the works he does for us.

JUDGES Life Amidst Thorns and Snares

A reading from Judges, the first and second chapters.

27 Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages, for the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land. 28 When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.

1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 1:27–28, 2:1–5 ESV)

Israel put its faith in its own strength. In its own means. As it faced its enemies, the Israelites no longer believed in the command of God — “I will drive them out before you” — and instead looked its arms and its numbers and its power and said, “we can control you, and we can oppress you, and we can deal with you.”

“We can deal with your gods.”

Again and again, Israel is told — make no covenant with the people of the land, make no deals, do net let their altars and their objects of worship stand, lest they “become a snare in your midst.” (Exodus 34:12) We are not told why their gods will be so attractive, why dealing with them and eating with them and making love to their daughters is so dangerous, except that their worship will be so much more attractive than that of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who called us and saved us and redeemed us.

We aren’t told why. Maybe the false idols of the Canaanites demand so little of us, demand only what we are happily willing to give. Maybe the worship of the Canaanites is so sensual, the food of the Canaanites is so delicious, the company of the Canaanites so pleasurable, that we cannot help ourselves.

And maybe we are so enamored of our power that we think, “We have the swords, we make the laws, we are in control, our God is powerful and has given them into our hands. Their labor makes our lives easier. We can bear their company.”

So now, God tells us we have to live with these people, in our unhappy relationship. In the kind of terrible closeness conqueror and oppressor have with those have they dispossesed and enslaved. That relationship changes us, turns us into a callous and brutal people, people who have little problem with the daily cruelties needed to keep others subordinate, to compel their labor, to deny them their humanity.

This will make us people who cannot love our neighbors. Who cannot love God. Who cannot love ourselves.

So we live with the smoldering resentments of those we have conquered and enslaved. We live with their desire for vengeance. It will overtake us a time or two.

We have to live with the consequences of what we have done, and failed to do, and who we have become. A people who trust our means, our abilities, our strength, to protect and save ourselves. And not God. This is our faithlessness, and our sin. Our doom has been set into motion. We have set it into motion. God has told us more than once what the consequences will be.

And so we weep.

LENT The Suffering of Innocents

4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; 5 if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, 10 and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority.

Bold and willful, they do not tremble as they blaspheme the glorious ones, 11 whereas angels, though greater in might and power, do not pronounce a blasphemous judgment against them before the Lord. 12 But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction, 13 suffering wrong as the wage for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you. 14 They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. Accursed children! 15 Forsaking the right way, they have gone astray. They have followed the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved gain from wrongdoing, 16 but was rebuked for his own transgression; a speechless donkey spoke with human voice and restrained the prophet’s madness. (2 Peter 2:4–16 ESV)

If yesterday’s passage gave me trouble, this one doubly so. For Peter begins his second letter speaking of faith and virtue adding to knowledge, self-control, steadfast faith in God, and true love for neighbors and brothers. This seems one more long harangue about good character and the need for continence and faithfulness.

However, Peter is reminding us, in this passage, that throughout much of the Bible, sensuality, lust, and disregard for divine authority are not merely the results of bad character or the desire for pleasure, but of idolatry — of the proclamation of false promises to and from false gods. Here he is warning his readers — and us — about the fruits of false prophets — ψευδοπροφῆται pseudoprophetai — those who preach a gospel of men, and not of Christ.

The false prophets Peter writes of here seem to teach a gospel that knows no law, no restraint on human behavior, no love of neighbor that seeks the neighbor’s good. It is not a gospel grounded in Christ, and it isn’t one we have received from God. These false prophets deny Christ. Many will follow these false prophets, Peter writes before today’s passage, and in their greed and with their sensuality they will exploit God’s humble and faithful people with lies and compel them to blasphemy and faith in things that cannot save them.

God, however, is faithful and just, and as Peter writes here, the justice of God does not sleep. “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment.”

I don’t know what to make of this passage, though reading it today gives me some renewed faith. I live in a world where the weak and helpless are exploited brutally and violently, where God seems unable or unwilling to help (where are the angels to save them, to show them the way out?), and where those who “indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” — literally, dominion, Christ’s divine authority over the church and the world — sleep well and untroubled at night. They prosper. Where is their punishment? Where do they suffer for their wrongdoing? How?

I trust the witness of scripture to a saving, delivering faith. I also trust my eyes, that some — no, many — are not delivered from their Sodom and Gomorrah (from that place where they are used and abused, and where that is simply expected), from the waters of the flood, from the armies of Babylon as they lay siege, from the Romans as they torture and crucify. For the first time in my life as a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, I am comforted by pious proclamations. Peter here speaks of a unwavering justice of God against those who would use and abuse and mislead God’s simple, faithful people. And I want to believe this with all my heart and all my soul.

But I am still troubled. I see no punishment in this world for the wicked, for those who greedily eye unsteady souls, who brutally and mercilessly use them for pleasure and profit and throw them away when they are finished. I see a world ruled by the wicked, for their own benefit, and for their own pleasure. And the innocent alone suffer the torments of hell.

Choice, Freedom, and Faithfulness

I used to be a libertarian. But I am not anymore.

That will likely come as a disappointment to those who know me from the days when I wrote for lewrockwell.com. I stand by all that I wrote during those couple of years — I am still very critical of the state, of war, and of modern notions of “the common good,” especially as they are expressed politically in the mass, liberal, democratic state. I needed to write them, and those things needed to be said. Continue reading