Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Year: 2 Sam 7-9 for Mar 31

Although these chapters (2 Sam 7-9) speak for themselves, there are many aspects of this climactic section of the whole portion of the word of God since Joshua (2 Sam 7:11) to point out, and to continue to point out.

How have things gone for the people between the death of Joshua until now? Back in 1 Sam 8 the "elders of Israel" (8:4) demanded a king, yet God told Samuel this was "the voice of the people" (8:7). That voice was the same as what characterized them all the way back to the day they left Egypt (8:8). Could we ever say that Exodus through 1 Samuel is the story of the great accomplishments of the people?

When success comes to David, and David wants to build something that builds on his success, to God, even the prophet Nathan is convinced by that arrow (2 Sam 7:3). God begins this chapter by correcting Nathan and David (7:4-6). The arrow is pointed in the wrong direction. So the Lord rehearses David's life for him, so far (7:7-8), and points far into "the distant future" (7:19).

To the reader, at the very time we would love more explanation of the chapters and chapters of the history of so many failures so far, David's success makes us ask whether perhaps the idea David gets from his success (7:2) is not a worse thing than what he had been taught under his stressful past.

In any case, this correction, the correction of David's big idea to build God a big house, has been hinted at in various ways. The idea of taking care of God Himself is condemned in the stories of the punishments that come for trying to handle, literally, the ark. Just in the previous chapter, David was off base in dealing with it (6:6-9). The ark's use had to wait for a sign of God's blessing (6:12). It, and Whom it represented, could not be commandeered.

So the Lord has David at a time when he is quick to learn, and he uses Nathan the prophet: "the Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you" (7:11).

New Year: 2 Sam 3-6 for Mar 30

Is the gruesome "contest" of 2 Sam 2:14-16 also due to animosity between Abner and the men of Judah (2:4,8-10)? It reads like a type of warring, not a contest. It led to something else (2:17), which led to something else (2:19), which led to something else (2:23), and all that eventually led to what Abner did not want to happen (2:23), having to face with Joab's revenge, which was done in subterfuge (3:27).

David's his mourning and zeal are exemplary (2 Sam 1:11,16), but his politics are also shrewd: David is from Judah, and he merely announces his kingship of Judah to the others (2:6-7). The fair-mindedness about the issue of Abner and Joab is noticed by the population (3:36). It continues to be far greater than what consolidation of power was expected by some Realpolitik-advocates (4:8). It is coupled with a type of tending-to-business conquering of Jerusalem, which since the Judges had not been taken from the Jebusites. David was not interested in civil war. And somewhere along the line, David "realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel" (5:12). For "Israel" here, notice the national name.

New Year: 1 Sam 31; 2 Sam 1-2 for Mar 29

These chapters proceed in the bleakness of echoing bleak events, across the lines of the book and chapter division (1 Sam 31 - 2 Sam 2). Narrative history doesn't always tidy up with "the moral of this story is," even when it speaks teleologically throughout, as does 1 Samuel.

Recalling 1 Sam 28:19, "tomorrow you and your sons will be with me," and so it happened. But how? The armor-bearer, who "saw that Saul was dead" (31:5), fell on his own sword, and then Saul, wounded but not dead, encountered the Amalekite who killed him, and took his crown and bracelet (2 Sam 1:10). Then, the Philistines came and did what they did to a dead body and did not get his crown or bracelet, but only his weapons. Finally, the valiant men of Jabesh-gilead got Saul's body out from Beth-shan (1 Sam 31:9-10).

The rejection of implication from 1 Sam 28 is purposeful. The medium herself is abhorred at being misled, and her only concern is for the life of Saul. The book concludes and goes on in the next to the reaction of proper grief and justice, on David's part.

It is interesting that there is no moral summary based on Saul's failures. The only summary we get is David's lament (2 Sam 1:17-27). David calls Saul (not only Jonathan, but also Saul) "beloved and pleasant in their life" (1:23). The story makes us ask how that could have been, but David is consistent with his earlier description of his relationship to Saul, always having called him "my lord" and "my father" (1 Sam 24:10-11). What David said and did in 1 Sam 24:8-22, as well as what Saul said then, is now completely worked out.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

New Year: 1 Sam 27-30 for Mar 28

I Samuel 27,29, and 30 easily can be shown to put forward some imponderables about David.

We should remember, as the reader would, that David himself has had sufficient knowledge of his future from 16:13 onwards. Samuel anoints him. Goliath confirms him to the nation. His battles confirm him (23:11-12); the women of Israel confirm him (18:7-8). His father confirms him (17:37). Jonathan the king's son confirms him (23:17). The king, in contradiction to his own actions, confirms him, multiple times (24:20-21; 26:25). The Philistines confirm him, both directly (21:11) and later, indirectly (29:9).

How then does David come to the conclusion "I will perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than to escape into the land of the Philistines" in 27:1? While there, he will personally distinguish himself to his lord Achish the Philistine, and will be all prepared to kill his own countrymen, according to his own brag (28:2), in the service of Achish, to whom David will express his loyalty (29:8).

Is not the text asking us to shake the cobwebs out of our heads and ask "what is going on here?" The king that the nation asked for comes to a point in which there is no guidance from God for him (cf. 28:6,15). The king Samuel says God has chosen next is in the army of Israel's enemies (29:2), and is prepared to fight in a battle against Israel. Israel is going to lose that battle (28:19), and its king finds that out ahead of time. How? Well, first he tries to find out from God, but God does not "answer him" (28:6). He finds that out in a forbidden way, a way that he himself had forbidden in a saner frame of mind (28:3). But the truth that he learns from the wrong place is truth about his death, the death of his sons, and Israel's defeat. Nothing is right about this whole picture.

Providence comes into play. The Philistines overrule one of their leaders, and nix David, sending him ostensibly back home. Then, incredibly, on his way back, he finds out that his own city has been captured and taken captive by a third group, a traditional Israelite enemy, the enemy that Saul should have taken care of ... the Amalekites. And this is definitely a turn no one expected -- especially that not a single person was killed (30:2), nor a thing of value taken as spoil (30:19).

David can't lead himself, and is in the wrong army. Saul can't lead himself, and needs guidance so badly that he resorts to the supernaturally bad -- and yet, God brings about, both with both king and future king -- both with their will, and against their will -- what He has appointed to happen (1 Sam 13:14).

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

New Year: 1 Sam 24-26 for Mar 27

David's compassion is highlighted in these three chapters, 1 Sam 24-26.

If God is using circumstances and coincidental events, He is going to use them. That is not the same as attributing all such things to God. Saul found that out in 23:20-21, 28. David knows this in 24:4. He overrules his advisors, and even persuades them that he is right, that the circumstance of Saul visiting them is not the Lord telling David to kill Saul (24:4-7).

David attempts something seldom seen between political or military rivals at the top: personal loyalty (24:10-11). There were glimpses of David's loyalty to Saul before, but in these chapters it reaches to the point of going way beyond what anyone could expect of a leader who is expected to conquer rivals for power.

David spares Saul twice -- not only spares him, but treats him as a father and calls him that (24:11). We know from chapter 25, that David is not doing this out of a personality weakness. In 24:12-15 David shows that sparing Saul is not because he thinks Saul doesn't deserve to be judged for his actions (24:12,13,15). Saul's time of reckoning is coming.

It is because kings are so expected to completely destroy all rivals that Saul makes an agreement (24:21) with David about his family. We would think that there would be smooth sailing for Saul and David after that. But never presume consistency. Perhaps Saul was confirmed again by the trappings of power to pursue David again in chapter 26. Perhaps his subjects egged him on (26:1). In any case, what is the purpose of describing yet-another-attempt by Saul to find and kill David? The event in chapter 26 affirms the importance of David's compassion, it is true. However, 26:12 inserts as a little tiny detail too brief to notice, that God was behind this thwarting of the attempt. From that, the text implies that we must infer that God was watching over David the whole time, not only by a miraculous act of causing a whole army to sleep, but during all David's times of fleeing Saul.

As for 26:25, Saul's blessing, have we not heard this before? In any case, David's part is not to fall in with Saul again (26:21-23), but to re-iterate that the Lord delivers and holds people to account.

New Year: 1 Sam 21-23 for Mar 26

If 1 Sam 21-23 were part of a movie, this would be part of a sequence in which the hero is in a chase and it seems like it will never turn out possibly right and it will turn out for the hero's demise at this stage.

There was no hint of Saul's antagonism to Jonathan at the point of 20:2, and even when David is missed at the new moon in 20:26, Saul is wont to make an excuse for him. David's made-up story told by Jonathan doesn't go over well at all, and elicits some pointed insults father to son (20:30).

Saul like nearly all kings is out for his son's kingly interests (20:31), while Jonathan tells David in private before the Lord, "you will be king over Israel" (23:17). In this chapter (23) there is ample illustration of what was prefigured in 18:10-15, namely, Saul's animosity toward David, from fear, and from fear for Jonathan and his family (cf. 24:21). David gets guidance from God in matters of battle (23:11-12). This is a contrast with Saul, who evidently had not (18:12).

While Saul's political and military choices are on display as misguided and unsuccessful from his point of view, they are not without an attempt to employ a piety (23:21). And yet they seem to be directed by Saul's peers. David will pick up on this in the next chapter (24:9).

Monday, March 28, 2011

New Year: 1 Sam 18-20 for Mar 25

This story of brotherly friendship (1 Samuel 18-20) also has clues in it about the nature of Saul's actions.

The phrase "an evil spirit from God" (18:10) is no less odious to the original readers as to us as readers. Some people think it is a description of what we call clinical madness of some kind. The phrase first came up in 16:14. In 16:23, whenever David played the harp for Saul, "the evil spirit would depart from him."

In other words, this was a cyclical occurrence. First of all, the text has been building a picture of the character of Saul from very early on. It has been a conflation of opposites, in a way. His strength was combined with impulse to do the extreme: we first see him going on a nationwide tour to find his father's lost donkeys, in chapter 9. God uses that. In chapter 10, Samuel gives him such step-by-step instructions that we wonder if he's trying to compensate for Saul's impulsiveness, at least until the point where he tells Saul "you will be changed into another man" (10:6).

But Saul has a bout with lack of confidence (or, at the least, lack of good timing during a public meeting!, 10:22), and though Saul did not inspire confidence in some who were evil (10:27), God saw to it that Saul attracted valiant men to himself (10:26).

Saul's first military triumph versus the Ammonites, and the crowning of him as king in chapter 11, was not only "before the Lord" (11:15) but it was that to Saul. Saul expresses the understanding of Israel and God's relationship here quite nicely (11:13). But by chapter 13, after Samuel tells Saul "you have not kept what the Lord commanded you" (13:14) the outcome of the kingship of Saul changed. What happened?

In Saul's own words, "I forced myself and offered the burnt offering." (13:12). In Samuel's words, which we should take as the correct moral evaluation of it, "you have acted foolishly" (13:13).

Is this Saul's psychology, "consequences," or punishment, or providence, or temporal setback? All of the above! Saul's kingship is an act of accommodation by God to the condition of Israel at the time. Part of the lesson of this is that this accommodation to Israel's evil, its wrong choice, brings consequences, punishment, temporal setbacks, all governed by providence. Israel's psychology is mirrored by Saul's psychology. As Israel forced itself to seek a king, so Saul says, "I forced myself." There is a parallel relationship, wherein Saul is modelling, in one person, the dissonance in Israel.

This same is true of Saul's life, that it is full of the governance of providence, consequences, punishments, and temporal setbacks. His personality is one of extremes, tending to madness. And this all after the explicit statement "God changed his heart" (10:9).

The is the same God whose Spirit "departed from Saul" in 16:14. Saul after that had an evil spirit which "terrorized" him. Even Saul's servants said that it was from God (16:15), and that's the estimate we are given to hold, as well.

What does it mean, both that an evil spirit from God terrorizes a person, and that it departs from him when David plays his harp (16:23)? That God both changed Saul's heart, and that the Spirit of the Lord departed from him later? Looking now at 20:13, and Jonathan's estimate of the situation, "May the Lord be with you as He has been with my father"! we believe that this is true: God has been with the dissonant person, and supplied music for this person, just as He has and will be with Israel the dissonant nation, and will bring about a king after His heart.

New Year: 1 Sam 16-17 for Mar 24

We should be not surprised that David spoke and acted toward Goliath as as he does in 1 Samuel 17:45-47. We have been prepared for something like this since 13:14.

So the events are just catching up with the actions of God taken prior. But even people who "know" that, don't always know it well. Samuel in 16:1 gets a push to get moving, because he's grieving over the current situation (15:35; cf 15:11): not just the situation regarding Saul's kingship, but over Saul himself. Samuel learns as he goes, just as we do (16:6-7). This "heart" emphasis echoes 13:14.

And how does David's heart relate to his actions? Is it simply that a great heart means an obvious outward superiority? That's what chapter 17 was for! ESPECIALLY 17:46-47. 17:46 was to convince the skeptic of the fact. 17:47 was to convince the reader of the reason behind the fact. God shows himself often in the negation of obvious outward superiority. We saw this recently in the choice of David himself -- the youngest, treated by his father as courier (17:17-19), and harassed by his oldest brother just as so many younger brothers can vouch for (17:28-29).

New Year: 1 Sam 13-15 for Mar 23

What we had forebodings about back at 1 Samuel 8:7 about Israel's rejection of God as king over them, turns out one way (15:26) rather than another (13:13) for Saul.

Saul was responsible, not for the Israelite choice of having a kingship, but for other specific choices as king: in 13:9, his impatience toward Samuel was not just about disregard of Samuel's priestly role in matters of the guidance of a theocratic state during war (13:9; cf. 10:8), but about God Himself's guiding role. Kingship -- being at "top" -- still has the obligation attached to it, concerning God: to be a "man after His own heart" (13:14).

The theme of God appointing things way before they actually transpire continues, in 13:14. Indeed, these chapters vindicate that idea, in showing how Saul's character shows itself. If we castigate Samuel for over-reacting in 13:13, we see Saul's autocracy playing itself so large in 14:43-44 that the whole nation rejects it.

The portrayal of Saul is a complex portrayal: what is his attempt to use the ark in 14:18-19? What is his attempt to counsel the people in 14:34? The altar in 14:35? His following the priest's advice in 14:36? We already are pre-informed by Samuel that Saul's kingship will not continue. But Saul's story is not over yet, for many chapters. Here, these choices on Saul's part are contributory.

The narrative is giving us the events in which his choices work themselves out. They seem strangely worked out, almost star-crossed: Saul is trying to found out a sin (14:38), because God doesn't answer him (14:37). So he uses a lot to determine it, and Saul vows to kill the sinner, whoever it is, and when the lot (correctly) finds a sin in Jonathan -- unknowing (14:27) disobedience to a battle order -- Saul is stuck by the requirement of his vow, the people rescue Jonathan, by a ransom.

Yet all is not bleak for Saul (14:48). It is a complex portrayal.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Year: 1 Sam 9-12 for Mar 22

The contrasts are palpable in these chapters (1 Sam 9-12) between the condemnation of the Israelite desire for a king and the way events march forward toward that end, including actions of God.

The reader might well ask, if God did not want Israel to have a human king (8:7), why did He not judge them for the choice, as He had for so many other things in which they rejected Him? We've seen so many instances of immediate judgment, especially in the wilderness wanderings under Moses, that the story deliberately provokes the question.

And yet it is the covenant itself that hints that God is capable of enacting His will among long periods of unfaithfulness on the nation's part (Dt 29; but not to forget Dt 30!). Here the scenario is eerily the same as in the desert, when God gives them what they wanted, when they didn't want the manna, but they were "greedy" (Nm 11:34).

Is then this turn of events something that is a permanent albatross that will take Israel out of the plan forever? If we've been reading along, we know better. If we read ahead, we know better. Is there not a resolution coming in 2 Sam 7? Let's elaborate then!

In the meantime, the narrative has its very characteristic ways of containing the situation. One is high mockery (10:22). The second is subtle mockery: Samuel tells Saul, way before Saul has a clue what's going on, "for whom is all that is desirable in Israel? Is it not for you and for all your father's household" (9:20)? And Saul's answer is basically, "huh?"

And God is not without His own celestial "sounds" during the outplay of all this (12:17-18).

Samuel's summary well expresses the tension: "You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside...." (12:20) ... "for the Lord will not abandon His people on account of His great name, because the Lord has been pleased to make you a people for Himself." (12:22). The covenant is still intact. Go figure.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

New Year: 1 Sam 5-8 for Mar 21

Samuel's ministry is summarized militarily (1 Samuel 7:13), yet it is no more than a summary, in light of the amount of land gotten from the Philistines during his time (7:14).

Earlier his ministry was summarized personally and in regard to God (3:19-21). Yet these chapters give us more of a sense of the presence of God than of the succession of leaders. Indeed, that is one of the points of the problem being addressed in chapter 8, that God has been the Israelite king all along, but now the Israelites at the end of Samuel's years as judge don't want that (8:7). The summary of the reason why is very familiar.

The presence of God is distinguished early in the book in the way He characteristically chooses the unexpected and/or rejected (cf. 1:6) person. Even Eli fits into this mold: with all his problem with his sons (3:8), he had, as a ninety-eight-year-old, his priorities right (4:13,18) -- and so did his daughter-in-law (4:19-22).

And yet, with the capture of the ark, the way God works is more fully separated from the agents He uses. The extremely humorous (to the reader, not to the Philistines) story of chapters 5 shows that God Himself is sovereign through whatever means He decides to use: even the physical presence of a spoil of war that represents His name among the conquerers.

And what do we find God doing, and thus teaching the reader about? 1) His superiority, to the point of mockery over the gods of the other nations; 2) In chapter 6, the spread of the knowledge of Him to other nations (6:6); 3) The way even the twisted logic (6:4) of the Philistine "priests and diviners" (6:2) is used: their gold, in the shapes we can only imagine, and the cows' direction they took, are such that God even uses those things to instruct them, lest they miss the point of who He is (6:9).

When it comes to the Israelites, however, this teaching takes a more serious turn. The problem of syncretism was all over the country (7:3). Saying so evidently was not enough. There were two severe object lessons about the holiness of God that were learned at great cost (6:19-21). The first was a type of temerity: "they had looked into the ark of the Lord." The second was a disregard for the proper place of the ark's keeping (6:20-21).

We learn how completely God is "sovereign" over Philistia in Chapters 5-6, and how serious is His kingship over His subjects in the last part of chapter 6. The Philistines must have handled the ark many times, moving it from doomed city to doomed city, putting their little golden shapes all around it to get it ready for transport, etc.... But in Israel, the ark was not to be handled as a tool. Not a tool to win battles, as we saw at 4:11. Not as a tool of curiosity, or as a tool to just "keep around."

They got their idolatry (temporarily) straightened out (7:4), and their battles went great against the Philistines, under Samuel. But a pure military thing didn't last, because of the syncretism: they wanted something "that we also may be like all the nations" (8:20).

New Year: 1 Sam 2-4 for Mar 20

Did Eli rebuke his sons (1 Sam 2:25), or not (3:13)? At some point he didn't, plus, in any case, there was an over-ruling by God on the earlier situation.

Notwithstanding that, his character shows other fatherly qualities, especially toward Samuel. Eli is given to the reader as the one who explained to Samuel for the first time about the spiritual implications of what must have been very perplexing to Samuel (3:4-10). Lest we miss it, 3:6 explains: "Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, nor had the word of the Lord yet been revealed to him" (3:7) This distinction can help us understand the matter of Balak, no?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

New Year: Ru 4; 1 Sam 1 for Mar 19

Ruth 4 and 1 Samuel 1 certainly give a great picture of piety at Bethlehem and Shiloh before the times of Samuel and David.

And like a good website, we can see that piety need not have much elaborateness attached to it: basically, access to God and to be able to express and act on it (cf. Ru 1:16; 2:4,12,20; 3:10,13).

A greater factual knowledge is exhibited by, of all people, the civic leaders of Bethlehem. They know the Patriarchal story (Ru 4:11-12)!

Ruth 4, and the following chapter, 1 Sam 1, continue the pattern of Judges in highlighting the relationship of the socially unexpected person, e.g., Hannah before she bore Samuel (1 Sam 1:8), to the purposes of God: often in Judges we had the role of women highlighted. The whole book of Ruth, not to disparage Boaz's importance of course, did that. Here, the same pattern exists: while not disparaging Elkanah, indeed, honoring him (1:8) for his love for Hannah (1:5), honors Hannah, who in an uphill battle in her prayers for obtaining from God what she wanted (1:10-11), has to defend her outward actions to a priest, who, when convinced, grants her a priestly blessing as best he has to give anyone (1:18).

The language of 1:19 describes what the best thing someone who prays could ever want: "the Lord remembered her."

New Year: Ruth 1-3 for Mar 18

There was a difference between marriage with a daughter of Moab (Ruth 1:4) and the actions of playing the harlot in Numbers 25:1.

The Israelites were warned not to be syncretistic by Joshua (Josh 23:10-13). Therefore when Ruth 1:4 raises the eyebrows, 1:15-16 answers the implied question: just how is it that intermarriage of an Israelite with a daughter of Moab going to be handled? Naomi explains just how, in Ruth 2:20: "the man is near to us, he is one of our redeemers." Redemption binds closer than racial origin, when syncretism is out of the picture (1:16).

Yet it was not automatic. Whatever the stipulations were, from Dt 25:5, and from Lv 25:25, Boaz was not necessarily next in line, as 3:12 shows. Boaz knew from 2:6 onwards, just who Ruth was. Even though Naomi had an uncanny sense of what could happen, or tried to make it happen (3:4), that was no guarantee that it would.

Naomi's counsel and actions in 3:3-4 are reminiscent of the Patriarchal narrative, told with the same light touch of humor: here, "... then he will tell you what you shall do..." (3:4). Why does the text tell us that Boaz' heart was merry in 3:7?

It is to explain the success of the secrecy of Ruth, yes, but also to show the extreme honorableness of Boaz. His heart was merry, but when he woke up in the middle of the night, Boaz had the Lord in his mind (3:10). He was going to go by the book, after all.

Monday, March 21, 2011

New Year: Jdg 18-21 for Mar 17

Instead of saying "civil war in Israel was bad," Judges describes them (e.g., Judges 20:18ff). The conclusion is obvious enough.

What then can be said of seeking the Lord's guidance about and during civil war? The surprise to the reader is not that the sons of Israel "inquired of God" (20:18) about going to battle against Benjamin, nor that God answered, but that the answers brought defeat to the inquirers. And then, that they did so again (20:27), and again (20:28). Is the lesson from that some kind of "be specific in your prayers," the way we might teach a grade-schooler (cf. 20:18,23)? It is not that the Israelites were not specific enough in their prayers ... God is not a machine. It is that God was working out His will in the two initial defeats: perhaps it coalesced Israel, so that they actually would battle against Benjamin more fiercely (20:37,48).

Again, like so much in Judges, the moral of this story is hidden behind its narrative statements. Israel was interested in justice for the guilty party at the beginning, not civil war (20:13). But there was desire for civil war in Benjamin (20:13-14).

But who was really behind this conflict? Looking at 20:35, this is more than a slogan for the victor. Other cultures may say, after the fact, that God was behind their victory, but we have seen this pattern over and over from Exodus onward, that God wants it to be clear, because that's the way the wars He enters go, that He does the striking in front of the side He's on, against the side He's against (20:35).

New Year: Jdg 15-17 for Mar 16

Samson's story is highlighted by only a few incidents, since he judged Israel twenty years (16:31). But the summary of it in Judges 13:5 is still valid, however these few incidents pique the curiosity of us all.

One of the ways the story with Delilah gets its point across, as we have seen in the Old Testament so far, is repetition: 16:6,10,13,15 are so monotonic in the moronity of the situation presented, that the text begs us to ask obvious questions: 1) Is Delilah so stupid as to ask the same question over and over again, after Samson obviously mocks the question with his fake answers, multiple times? Does she really think that multiple break-ins, which she announces to Samson, each one as it comes, doesn't add up to Samson, so that he knows they are caused by her duplicity? The reader knows Delilah is corrupt (16:5). Samson knows Delilah is corrupt, because he gives her fake answers. 2) There is a carry-over from the first wife's question (14:16). If Samson really wanted to, with Delilah, it would have remained a secret to her, just as it had to the woman in Timnah. Therefore, if there is even a repetition from wife to wife, what do the two times have in common? Samson! It is Samson who caves (14:17) in the case of the first wife, and the irony is evident even in the wording: "because she pressed him so hard." This is high-handed irony, given the metaphor of 16:29-30.

But of what? Is Samson not a vessel in God's hands to "begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines?" Of course. "The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon him" in 14:6. Previously, "the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him" in 13:25. Then in 14:19; again in 15:14. To punctuate that, God supernaturally quenches his thirst, as if to remind the reader of His ways with Israel, in which He had done the exact same thing during the exodus from Egypt. So with Israel, so with Samson. God was behind Samson.

So should we resort to slogans about it, such as "every Samson has his Delilah"? We can assume that the text is teaching something more interesting than that.

What is it, then, to live in a way that furthers the purposes of God? Samson's life did so. We have some highlights of his twenty years of power. Do the highlights show Samson's strength, literally?! It is thirty miles and more between Gaza and Hebron (16:3). Do the highlights show any strength besides the physical? Look at the description of his dealing with his own conscience, in 15:3. The text is not trying to condemn the "warriorness" of Samson, but instead, exalt it, from beginning to end. All in a day's work of twenty years.

But Samson's warriorness comes one event at a time, and Samson knows that (15:18; 16:28). It comes from God. Samson believes, and the text teaches, that it's tied to his hair and his Nazirite-ness. The story highlights that in a direct set of brackets from 13:5 to 16:17. The text puts this question, therefore, to the reader. Do you, reader, believe that God can give a man such strength, and in such a way that superhuman feats can be accomplished, like Samson did, using Samson's actions to further His purposes -- and all the while have the miraculous aspect tied to the discretion of someone with a weakness?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

New Year: Jdg 12-14 for Mar 15

God appears to a barren woman, in contrast to those who have been previously described as full of children and grandchildren (Judges 12:9; 12:14; 13:2).

When there is a time of oppression by the Philistines, we know why it came about (Judges 13:1). But when there comes a time of deliverance from the Philistines, through the initiative of God, He begins doing so without telling us His reasons (13:5).

God's coming to those who by contrast aren't famous for their family is another example of His often-seen reversal pattern, reversing what is normally expected. We have seen this since the Garden, when the sound (Genesis 3:8) was not what the reader expected to be the sound Adam heard. In Judges we have it now ever-so-explicit, when in Judges 7:2 the Lord tells Gideon "The people who are with you are too many for Me to give Midian into their hands, for Israel would glorify itself against Me, saying, 'My own hand has delivered me.'" This couple had no donkeys, sons riding them, grandsons, or donkeys for the grandsons. That strange detail in the previous chapter was deliberate!

As for Manoah and his wife, the privilege of beginning to deliver Israel from the Philistines was not theirs, but their son's -- yet they are visited by God Himself (13:22-23). Manoah wife is not named, as well. This should alert us to something, because we have seen this detail before (Gen 32:29). Manoah's wife is spoken to by God, who shares with this object of His compassion a little small detail: the inaccessibility of their names, each one's: her name, and His Name.

Friday, March 18, 2011

New Year: Jdg 9-11 for Mar 14

Jephthah's diplomacy with the Ammonites uses a piece of logic (Judges 11:24) that only a thorough-going supernaturalist could use.

Can you imagine a diplomatic argument over territory going on in this way nowadays, saying 'hundreds of years ago, our God gave us this land. Wouldn't you have the land your god gave you.'?

There's other "logic" that makes this chapter a fascinating study of human reasoning, faulty or not, besides 11:24, e.g., the vow of 11:31 and its aftermath in 11:39.

It has often been commented that OT narratives often seem to suspend judgment on key actions and actors, and that they deliberately do so, to bring the reader to a huge necessity, brought on by the weight of our conscience, that we must understand and express a moral judgment ourselves, upon what the narrative is saying happened.

Here in Judges this use of understatement is also evident. In the previous chapter we had the evaluation of Gideon's ephod, told in narrative terms (8:27). In chapter 9, we see, told in narrative form, a story of the kind 'what is due will come back to you', as a working out of the announcements and parable of Jotham (9:7-20).

In that case, the story is explicitly capped with its explanation (9:56-57). But in the case of Jephtha's vow, the narrative is given without a direct statement of the disapproval which it seeks from us. 11:39 is understatement. 11:40 is understatement. It cries out for response from us: the vow was not to have been made. Having been made, it was not to have taken priority over weightier matters of good and evil.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

New Year: Jdg 6-8 for Mar 13

How does the story of Gideon show the progress of God's favor (Judges 6:17) toward someone? It is at least one example of it.

With Gideon, God had determined what He would do. But Gideon didn't know that; he was just trying to survive (6:11). God takes the initiative, not just approaching Gideon alone, but telling him about it: that He is "with you, O valiant warrior" (6:12).

In another great "who, me?" moment in the Bible, Gideon jumps to the conclusion that the Lord must be on his way to tell everybody, and Gideon happened to be the first stop, like the first restaurant at the edge of town coming in. So Gideon thinks God is telling everybody, and begins immediately to put his two cents in: "If the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us ..." (6:13ff).

One of the hallmarks of God's grace is how it is patient for its objects to catch up -- not just patience, but direct action: the "Go" part of the next verse is built upon the reason He gives Gideon why that will work: "have I not sent you" (6:14)?

Another "who, me?" in 6:15: Gideon hears what God just said, takes it up for consideration, and comes up with "O Lord, with what shall I deliver Israel? ..." With what! (6:15, NASB, lit.), plus the standard resources check, netting nothing (6:15).

God makes a very specific promise to Him. It has two parts: which one is more important, or which one is more spiritual to believe if you don't have the other, is extraneous here, because God gives him both: "Surely I will be with you, and you shall defeat Midian as one man" (6:16) The idea here is that Midian -- all its hordes (6:5), will be like just a single opponent.

Then, in one of the most amazing passages describing God's ways of motivating someone you'll ever read (6:17-18), look at what transpires.

Gideon becomes convinced that he himself has found favor with God. He has believed 6:16, because he makes a request, based on that, to God: "If now I have found favor in Your sight, then show me a sign that it is You who speak with me..." (6:17). Gideon wants to bring something to God, that he doesn't have right there with him. He's motivated to do this offering, to God, but has no clue if that's OK with God from His side. So he asks about it: "Please do not depart from here, until I come back to You, and bring out my offering and lay it before You."

And God said, "I will remain until you return." (6:18).

Gideon is a step-by-step guy, and at that point, that promise has to be the greatest thing Gideon could hope for. God gives Gideon time to do something proper and right toward Him. That is a huge motivation to get something done, isn't it, that God will remain, until we return to Him with it.

Rather than what transpires in 6:21-22, which makes Gideon anxious, so it doesn't function as the requested sign, I think the sign that Gideon got was that God remained while he got his stuff ready.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Year: Jdg 4-5 for Mar 12

Colleges and post-colleges study this song (Jdg 5) all over the world, Mrs. Lappidoth and Mr. Barak's duet (5:1; 4:4). Mrs. Lappidoth is Deborah the judge, a prophetess. Barak is the general known by name to the opposition (4:12). Chapters 4 and 5 are a study, yet another study, in the same kind of reversal of expectation that "we" have been seeing since Gen 12:1-2. (Did you notice that part, by the way? In leaving his nation, one of the results was God making Abram into a great nation).

The forward movement from when "Israel again did evil" (4:1) to when "the land was undisturbed for forty years" (5:31) is through war, muster for war, and the initiative of God (4:6ff.), in reverse order.

There is an unsappy love of righteousness, and "those who love Him," in the OT that might even form a necessary background for understanding God's nature. In these chapters you can see this in the stylization of the mother of Sisera in Jdg 5:28-30. Here, the mother of the commander of the army that had "oppressed the sons of Israel severely for twenty years" (4:3) is waiting, like any mother, for the return of the son.

The love of an outcome, e.g., "a spoil of dyed work embroidered," 5:30, is combined with the worry about an outcome, e.g., "'Why does his chariot delay in coming?'", 5:28, creating the tension. Is it not true that every army has its supporting base which waits for it to return, whichever side the army fights for? Of course. The tensions in the minds of mothers of commanders are well-understood. However, this part of the dynamic of war is portrayed only to contrast it with something bigger (5:31): "Thus let all Your enemies perish, O Lord."

It's better, even to be imprecated, that the generals of the armies of the enemies of God perish, than that the outcomes their mothers would prefer to happen, happen.

Perish, how? That's what the poem is about, and celebrates (5:2-31a). Israel, which has this "feature" about them, that God does things for them like "I will draw out to you Sisera [the enemy general]" and "I will give him into your hand" (4:7), is not your regular army. These chapters are another example of that.

The war is so complete a victory that it's clinical (4:17). Sisera's fate is described in prose (4:18ff), then poetically for emphasis (5:25-27). It is not a sappy story.

The option is deliberately cut off (5:31) to moan for Sisera or his mother waiting. That whole option is brought up, in order to be put in context of 5:31. There is no such thing in creation for God to set aside righteousness just because of the existence of unrighteous people.

New Year: Jdg 1-3 for Mar 11

The explanation for the intermittency of the Israelites is "there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, not yet the work which He had done for Israel" (Jdg 2:10). The sequence is blatant: "Then the sons of Israel did evil" (2:11).

Of the 8.5 landed tribes west of the Jordan, only Issachar is not mentioned in Judges 1 as having areas of their allotment not taken into possession. So we look prior to 2:10 and see that there is a betrayal-of-covenant aspect to the military failure. Military folks are always and imminently aware of this aspect of war: the behind-the-scenes compromise, or sellout. And there it is, in 2:2, making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land.

What then can be made of the crying? And even the sacrificing (2:4-5)? They were not of sufficient effect, to say the least, in view of 2:10ff.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

New Year: Josh 21-24 for Mar 10

The book of Joshua ends on a relative high note (24:31). It describes the cup as full, for a cup of that size.

The last two chapters of Joshua are a tremendous wrap up of the history from Gen 11:24 on. There had been very little about the patriarchs until here in Joshua 24:2-4.

Not only are these chapters a wrap up of the general history until the time of the death of Joshua's leaders (24:31), but there are resolutions and important details filled in, about particulars: 1) Balaam! Joshua 24:10 resolves what was going on in Numbers 22-24, because of which it seemed so odd, when reading Joshua 13:22, that the story would end that way! Finally we can better understand 2 Peter 2:15; 2) the witness of the Law! (cf. Gal 3:13) -- here, at the end of the time of Joshua with the nation, Joshua describes a dual function of the Law among the Israelites: it serves as a witness against them, and it serves as a deterrent to prevent them from denying God (24:27).

Thursday, March 10, 2011

New Year: Josh 18-20 for Mar 9

Judah can't get a break ... or does it? When they were last heard from (Josh 17:14ff), they were put off, in a way, in the request for more land, and in our chapters, 19:9 says that Judah's portion "was too large for them."

Someone might ask, in view of the existence of Providence, why is there a use of lots to distribute the inheritance (14:2)? The short answer was that it was commanded. But the longer answer has to do with just thinking about it a little bit. The lot was a sequential tool, that is, used to determined which tribe would be assigned next. It is not necessary to think that this tool also chose the parcel of land or its borders. In fact, the level of detail describing the borders is the amount we would expect when a mutually agreed upon decision is made that is not disputed.

All the more reason to be surprised at Joshua's reasoning with Judah at the end of 17: "you shall not have one lot" (17:17). There may be a reference there to future gains by Judah...

New Year: Josh 15-17 for Mar 8

The listing of the territories for Judah alone (Josh 15) would tax all but the greatest Bible memorizers.

What should be made of the fact that "Joshua took the whole land" (11:23), yet there are exceptions to this later stated (15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13)? This is standard military generalization, and well-reflects the truthfully stated case in wars, that there are decisive battles that are won and that indeed give control of a territory, but that there can be towns and places within territories that are not conquered.

Some Canaanites are not driven out completely ("because the Canaanites persisted in living in that land," 17:12) under Manasseh, and in Gezer under Ephraim, and at Jerusalem, which would be later under Judah. In two of the three cases, the inhabitants are described as those who would be "forced laborers" (16:10; 17:13). In Jerusalem, "the sons of Judah could not drive them out."

The promise of Joshua 1:5 stood, and "the land had rest from war" (11:23). The ensuing campaigns of the various tribes starting in chapter 15 are separated from Joshua's work. 13:1 had given the general scope of the ensuing task: "much of the land remains to be posessed," according to the Lord Himself. Joshua's time of leading into war was finished by chapter 13, and so the tribes take up their conquests, the new generation going on after the generation of Joshua and Caleb, after the generation of Moses and Aaron.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

New Year: Josh 12-14 for Mar 7

On Josh 14:14, compare the end of chapter 7 and the end of chapter 9 for a hint at a time-reference within this document ("to this day") to the events it describes.

The last verse in our passage (14:15) says "the land had rest from war." This is surprising in the light of all that's left to be done (13:2ff.) Compare this to-do list with 12:12-24. Ancient cultures heavily documented their conquests, and inscriptions and depictions exalt the victors over the vanquished. Do you notice anything missing here?

First, is there an elaborate attempt of any kind to justify the conquest and annihilation? Any depiction, or even listing, of the sins of the Canaanites, at the very point where we would expect a natural desire to list the sins, to justify the annihilation? No. The one-sentence explanation in 11:20 is all we get, as if that is not enough to chew on. The writer certainly must assume we've been reading all the previous story so far.

It is so deliberate, even in the counting: the king of xxxyyyyzzzz, "one." the king of aaabbbbcccc, "one." Just the facts. No bragging.

New Year: Josh 9-11 for Mar 6

In Joshua 9-11 is it that the battles are victorious, then Joshua claims that God was merely an explanation for it? No, it is that God does things previous to them (10:8, 19), above them (10:12), fighting for them (10:14), and they take second place to Him in what they do afterwards (10:11).

Shouldn't we see to it, give place to God, for this kind of thing, and not merely claim Him as the explanation for our doing well? God is bigger than a mere explanation of us at our best.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

New Year: Josh 6-8 for Mar 5

There are pacifisms of various degrees that can't stand citizens abetting war, much less war, much less conquest, much less by divine right, and least of all annihilation. What is NOT difficult for some, in Joshua 6-8? Did we mention claiming that a miracle occurs?

Take first, that a miracle occurs underlying the conquest of Jericho (Josh. 6:20). The "captain of the LORD's host" (5:15) is there for some reason, and God is with Joshua, speaking to him, telling him "'See, I have given Jericho into your hand'" (6:2), way before anything commences. The walls falling down is no accident or earthquake interpretation: it comes from God, as shown by God telling Joshua about it way ahead of time (6:5).

Therefore, this is no vanilla miracle story. It is announced beforehand. The nation is prepared to deal with adversaries (5:13). There is some kind of 'God doing the same thing as before' theme going on: the Jordan's waters dried up "just as the Lord your God had done to the Sea of Reeds" (4:23). The holy ground where Joshua is standing (5:15) is almost the same as Ex 3:5.

Therefore this is a claim to the miraculous. It is a claim to be working together with a miraculous God who has an army, a "host." If this is not clear to the reader already, the instructions for conquering Jericho could not make it plainer, although they do: God says "See, I have given [notice the tense, as if it's already a done deal...] Jericho into your hand, with its king and the valiant warriors" (6:2). These kinds of instructions have not successfully made it into the military strategy books.

IF this is truly a nation working together with the Creator of the universe plus His heavenly army, don't the other issues first mentioned take on a different light?

Instead of asking if someone (Rahab) was ethically justified to betray her culture, we must ask how God Himself got to her, singling her out for mercy.

Instead of asking if war is ever justified, we must ask how God successfully turned the nation we saw in four books of the Bible as failures into a nation that put together a whole army that was convinced, on the same day, at the same time, at the same moment, to rely on a miracle.

Instead of asking whether a nation is justified in conquering another nation, we must ask how a whole army can be disciplined to avoid taking private spoils and give everything of material value to the religious people.

Instead of asking how nations fool their armies into thinking their cause is right, we must ask how the very same army can be an agent of God in one battle, and lose the right to represent Him in battle the very next time out, because of one instance of greed (7:13), miraculously discovered (7:18).

Finally, instead of asking about the ethics of annihilation, we must ask that if the Righteous Creator removes all corruption, why is anyone still here?

New Year: Josh 3-5 for Mar 4

The three chapters for today culminate in Joshua 5:15. It is not a "literary surprise," but a God surprise. You might say the narrative at Exodus 3:5 until Joshua 5:15 culminates in Joshua 5:15.

Joshua 5:9 is also indicative of the conclusive significance of this time in Israel's history since even Exodus 1:8. What was the "reproach of Egypt?" The slavery, the suffering, yes, but also the possibilities Moses had mentioned in Ex 32:12. Now removed.

There is another piece of the reproach of Egypt that is also now removed, the one described in Numbers 14:4. Three reproaches are now removed: what the Egyptians had done, what the Egyptians might have said about God had the Israelites not crossed into the land, and what the Israelites had said about going back to Egypt along the way. All removed.

Friday, March 04, 2011

New Year: Dt 34; Josh 1-2 for Mar 3

It's great to see the seamless continuation of the story of the people of Israel across the end of Deuteronomy and into Joshua 1-2.

When Moses is called "the servant of the Lord" in Dt 34:5, and again in Joshua 1:2 -- by God ... -- we have verbal confirmation of the conscious continuation of the story across the two books. But that's just a verbal, external indicator that there is continuation. Much more evidentiary is the continuity.

Here are two evidences of continuity of Joshua with the perspective of the first five books of the story. First of all, just as God takes the initiative to call Moses, it is God, here (Josh. 1:1) who takes the initiative to speak to Joshua.

Secondly, in Josh. 2, who does not recognize the theme, in Josh. 2:9-10, of God as the God who acts in behalf of the Israelites? This is an unmistakeable biblical framework. God Himself is the architect of their commencement forward into the land (1:2,5,9,etc.)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

New Year: Dt 31-33 for Mar 2

Deuteronomy 31, all by itself, is enough to showcase the major contrasts of the Lord's revelation toward Israel.

The Israelites, regarding their obligations to God: "they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I have made with them" (31:16). God, regarding His promises, notwithstanding the former: "It is the Lord your God who will cross ahead of you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them" (31:3).

These contrasts are within one chapter. When we continue with the song of Moses in chapter 32, we have it in three verses: 32:3-5; repeated with elaborations, 32:7-14 (God's side), 32:15-35 (their side), and 32:34-43 (God's side after their failure). We saw these post-failure actions also in Dt 30:1-10.

As if that is not enough to comprehend -- present failure, and future success -- chapter 33 speaks of blessings to the nation, coming from Moses, the one who not only personally failed in his stewardship (32:51-52), but repeats God's indictment of the failure of Israel that he received from God (31:26-29). One who has failed, talking to a people who have and will fail, about future blessings! Where do these blessings come from? Where does 32:9-14 fit in? What explains it?

Part of the answer is God's love: "Indeed, He loves peoples" (33:3, lit.).

Part of the answer is due to a few events of compliance: 33:8-10;16-19.

In summary, the great preponderance of the future success of the nation of Israel is due to what is described in 33:26-29, summed up as "blessed are you, O Israel; / Who is like you, a people saved by the Lord, / Who is the shield of your help / And the sword of your majesty!/ So your enemies will cringe before you, / And you will tread upon their high places" (33:29).

New Year: Dt 28-30 for Mar 1

The covenant for the Israelites at Moab (Dt 29:1) is for their immediate and future well-being, theirs, and their descendants (29:22), "that you may live in the land which the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give them" (30:20).

The coupling of the listening to the voice of God and the doing of all these commandments is repeated and unmistakable (cf. Dt 28:1, lit.; 28:15, lit.; 30:2, lit.; 30:8, lit.).

So what is this covenant, in its nature? Historically, it certainly didn't come into being at Horeb (29:16). It started before all but three of them, that is, Moses, Joshua, and Caleb, were born, and is "with those who are not with us here today" (29:15), a phrase we can gather, from a parallel in Acts 2:39, may mean succeeding generations. Cf. Dt 6:20ff. As far as their present moment goes, the Israelites are told to listen, as above, and also in 28:45 and 30:10. The covenant is from long ago, but for them, the present moment begins with listening to God. Then what?

There is a variety of expression in the verses listed, for what is to follow. We can learn from that what the model of obedience to God was in this covenant. Let's go through this phraseology, because the variety of expression is surprising.

28:1 -- "if you diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all His commandments ..."

28:15 -- "if you do not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes..."

30:2 -- "...and listen to His voice with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today ..."

30:8 -- "listen to the voice of the Lord and observe all His commandments which I command you today ...."

30:10 and 28:45 are very similar. The relevant phrases there are "to keep His commandments" and "by keeping His commandments and statutes."

What is at risk, at stake, here? The curses of chapter 27:15ff and 28:15-68. Those things are at stake on the negative side.

What is to gain, here? The blessings of 28:1-14.


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