The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 87

Judges 1-3, Psalm 73, John 7
To the pure in heart all things are pure

Judges 1-3
Psalm 73
John 7
Key Verse

Judges 1 – 3

More books have been written about Jesus than any other subject. The second most popular topic has been the American Civil War. Authors who write about the Civil War must draw their own conclusions and take sides on crucial debates just as authors writing about Jesus and the Bible must do.

In his famous three-volume history Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, which focused on the brilliant southern General Robert E. Lee and the generals serving under him, Douglass Southall Freeman examined each battle. Freeman placed the blame for losing the pivotal battle of Gettysburg on the shoulders of General James Longstreet, who waited far too late in the day to assault the Union troops on Little Round Top, a critical hill where Lee’s forces could have turned the Union Army and won the day.

In Killer Angels, a Pulitzer-Prize Winning historical novel about Gettysburg, author Michael Shaara blamed General Lee for procrastinating too long before ordering General Longstreet to mount the critical assault. The Union Army was reinforcing Little Round Top with each passing hour, but because Lee failed to give a quick, decisive order to launch the assault, Longstreet’s assault failed. Whose view of the conflict is the correct one? It is hard to say.

In a similar fashion, the Book of Joshua and the Book of Judges recount the conquest in very different ways. Whereas Joshua portrays a quick and complete conquest, Judges focuses on the settlement of the land and informs us that the occupation took place slowly and over several generations.

While the Book of Judges makes it clear that the peoples of Canaan were not completely subjugated by the time that Joshua had died. It was not until 12 leaders known as the judges had arisen that the Israelites were able to complete the conquest. The judges are not courtroom officers as in western society. They may have had some responsibilities for deciding among differing parties, but they were chiefly military men like “Lee’s Lieutenants.”

We are told that there were 12 judges (Josh. 3:7-11, 31; 10:1-5; and 12.8-15), but the Book of Judges focuses principally on five of them: Ehud (3.12-30); Deborah (chs. 3-4); Gideon (chs. 6-8); Jephthah (10.6-12.7); and Samson (chs. 13-16) The underlying theme throughout Judges continues to be the theme of Deuteronomy, namely that loyalty to God brings about national success and disloyalty to God triggers national disaster.

Biblical scholars therefore consider judges to be part of the “Deuteronomic history.” We can also see how contemporary preachers have used this material to draw conclusions that military losses, large scale tragedies or natural disasters as support for claims that our nation has been disloyal to God. Preachers must tread carefully when making such claims. Many have made foolish statements in doing so and have given Christianity a black eye in the public for claiming God was to blame for disasters.

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites sought to know who would lead them against the Canaanites to complete the conquest. It was common in many ancient societies to seek divination of the gods before engaging in battle. Lots were often cast or animals were cut open and organs were inspected hoping to discover insight into what they gods were saying or natural phenomena were observed such as the flight of birds (see Homer’s Odyssey) in order to determine what they gods or oracles commanded.

We read that the Israelites defeated 10,000 Canaanites and Perizzites at Bezek. The Israelites pursued the leader Adoni-bezek, caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. It was somewhat common in the ancient Near East to mutilate military captives to insure that they could never grasp a sword and stand again in battle. Ironically, Adoni-bezek had performed this exact mutilation on 70 kings whom he had conquered and was now destined to beg for crumbs just as he had made his enemies do.

We are told that the Israelites “fought against Jerusalem and took it. They put it to the sword and set the city on fire.” (Judges 1:8) Archeologists, however, have found no evidence of Jerusalem’s destruction at this time. Some maintain that an unfortified part of the city was destroyed, but this cannot be proven. The conquest of Jerusalem would have to wait until David took control of the city and made it the capital of the combined northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah (II Samuel 5:6-10), which was a brilliant strategic move.

In Judges 1:12 Caleb offers his daughter Achsah as wife to any man who will rise up as a hero and lead the Israelites in attacking Kiriath-sepher. This was a dangerous assignment and the offering of a leader’s daughter as a “status elevation” to whoever would rise to assume a most difficult mission was not uncommon in the ancient Near East. For this very reason, David was permitted to marry King Saul’s daughter and become part of the royal household.

The people of the plains, however, possessed “chariots of iron.” (Judges 1:19) The Israelites were able to conquer the hill country, where chariots were unsuitable for warfare. The people of the plains were wealthier and more highly-developed than the Israelites and were able to rebuff any assaults because of their iron chariots. How much iron was used in the chariots is debatable. They may have only had iron decoration, wheel sheaths and iron-shod wheels, but iron chariots in the ancient Near East seemed as terrifying as Panzer tanks in World War II. It was not until the Israelites developed iron technology that they were able to find military parity with the Philistines.

What is clear is that the Israelites did not make a complete conquest. “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out.” (Judges 1:28.) The same thing repeated elsewhere. (Judge 1:29, 31,33 and 35) Nevertheless, the Israelites forced the Canaanites who lived among them to serve as slave laborers. Is this not what the Egyptians had done to the Israelites?

In chapter 2 we read that an angel appeared in Bochim and told the Israelites that because they did not obey Yahweh and destroy all of the adversary’s altars, but instead flirted with foreign gods, God would not allow them to prosper. “See what you have done! So now I say, I will not drive [your enemies] out before you; and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judges 1:3) The Israelites had flirted the Baals.

The Baals appear throughout the rest of the Old Testament as a threat to the Israelites Covenant with Yahweh. The Baals refer to the local manifestations of the Canaanite gods of storm and fertility. These gods were generally worshipped on high places, in shrines and in various cities. Baal, which means “lord,” appears as a name as early as the eighteenth century B.C. in Amorite writings. We read about them also in fourteenth century Egyptian writings. The consorts of the Baals are Anat and Astarte. Ashtoreths are the plural form of Astarte and form part of the Canaanite pantheon of gods.

Throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures we will discover a relationship cycle of Israel being faithful and then unfaithful to Yahweh, making up and breaking up and making up once again. Watching this may remind us of parenting a teenager who gets romantically involved, breaks up and makes up so many times that it is hard to keep tract as to whether they are or are not a couple at any given time. As long as the judges lived, Israel was faithful. However, “Whenever the judge died, [the Israelites] would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshipping them and bowing down to them.” (Judges 2:19)

In the same way, many of us fluctuate between good and bad behavior. A husband toes the line, only to return to drinking heavily, and then promises never to do it again only to stumble and go on a binge. Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites become God’s frustrating marital partner, who never gets it completely right and can never be completely depended upon. God is like an ever patient spouse, who allows the Israelites to reform time and time again, only to experience more heartbreak.

Chapter 3 tells us the story of the first of the great judges, Ehud, who deftly assasinated King Eglon. When the Israelites disobeyed Yahweh again, “the Lord strengthened King Eglon of Moab against Israel, because they had done what was evil in the sight of the Lord. In alliance with the Ammonites and the Amalekites, [Eglon] went and defeated Israel; and they took possession of the city of palms.” (Judges 3:12-13) The city of palms was most likely Jericho, which was located eight miles northwest of the Dead Sea. The city until this day is famous for its palm trees, which are irrigated from the continual flow of local springs of ‘Ain es-Sutan and ‘Ain Duq. For 18 years, the Israelites were subjugated by King Eglon.

Fortunately, Yahweh raised up Ehud son of Gera, a Benjamite, who was a left-handed man. In many languages, left-handed has come to mean “sinister” and been viewed with suspicion, but in this case it may have permitted Ehud to conceal his weapon strapped to his right thigh, where Eglon’s guards might have missed detecting it when searching him. The double-edged blade without a cross piece was designed for assassination and could be thrust easily into his victim.

Ehud informed Eglon, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” Eglon dispatched his attendants so that Ehud could reveal the message privately to him. “I have a message from God for you,” Ehud told Eglon, before thrusting his dagger into the fat king’s belly. Ehud escaped and the Israelites soon killed about 10,000 Moabites and “the land had rest for 80 years.” (Judges 3:30)

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Psalm 73

Matthew 5:8 tells us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” This is one of the most beautiful lines uttered by Jesus in the Beatitudes, which form part of the Sermon on the Mount. When our heart is pure, it affects every other part of our body. Outer health has much to do with inner health. One chapter later in Matthew’s Gospel we read, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matt. 6:22-23)

What we look at and what we do affect the purity of our soul. When our soul is pure, we see God clearly. One of my favorite lines in the Bible is Titus 1:15, where we read, “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving, nothing is pure. Their very minds and consciences are corrupted.” Think about that the next time you judge someone or something or hear another do that. Often our anger and indignation at others has much to do with what we carry inside ourselves.

Today, we read, “Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart.” (Ps. 73:1) This may mean that God is good to those who obey the law and lead a pure and upright life, but it may also mean that when we lead a pure, good and upright life we can see God as God truly is. We no longer see God as a cosmic traffic cop trying to bust others and us when we slip up or disobey, but rather we see God as the very heart and soul and divine essence of goodness and mercy, love and forgiveness, which inspires us to emulate this goodness and mercy and to be as forgiving and loving as is humanly possible.

The Psalmist is honest and notes that this has not always been the case for him. He therefore prays,

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant;
I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (Ps. 73:2-3)

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant;
I was like a brute beast toward you. (Ps. 73:21-22)

Then he saw the light and purity filled his heart. He could now tell that God is good to the upright, and the way that he perceived the world changed dramatically as a result. He wrote,

Nevertheless I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me with honor.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart any my portion forever. (Ps. 73:23-26)

But for me it is good to be hear God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
to tell of all your works. (Ps. 73:28)

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John 7

John’s Gospel does not paint a very flattering portrait of the Jews. Whereas Matthew’s Gospel often talks about the scribes and Pharisees, John refers to “the Jews,” sometimes as if they were the Gestapo seeking to arrest, imprison, torture and crucify Jesus. Modern scholars have shifted much of the blame for Jesus’s death to the Romans. The key for Christians, however, is to insure that we do not let the words of love found in the Bible to be used to despise Jews, Muslims or non-believers or anyone. That is not the way of Christ.

Be cautious, therefore, when you read that Jesus did not “wish to go about in Judea because the Jews were looking for an opportunity to kill him.” (John 7:1) This may or may not have been the case. In 85 A.D. the Jews issued the birkat haminim which was a curse upon heretics, which many believe to have been created specifically against Christians or members of the Way, who had chosen to follow Jesus but continued to worship with the Jews. Faithful Jews uttered this curse three times a day in the synagogue, and everyone would say, “Amen,” which means “So be it,” thereby assenting to what had been prayed.

No Christian could say this prayer or utter the amen without cursing himself. Scholars believe that for this reason, the author of John’s Gospel tells us that Christians were expelled from the synagogue. (John 9:22, 12:42 and 16:2) While scholars note that the birkat haminim was a curse upon Christians used during the Middle Ages, we cannot say for sure that this is how the prayer functioned during the first and second century A.D., when the Jewish and Christian communities parted ways.

Scholars believe that John’s Gospel was written after the institution of the birkat haminim, which may have led towards the separation of the two worshipping communities, but we cannot be certain to what extent it provoked their division.

Jesus’s brothers approached him with some unhelpful advice. The word “brothers” may or may not connote family members. In the ancient Near East, brothers could just as easily signify friends. We read, “So [Jesus’s] brothers said to him, ‘Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing; for no one who wants to be widely known acts in secret. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” (John 7:3-4)

Clearly, whoever these “brothers” are, they want to package Jesus for a road show like producers on TV’s Nashville looking to sign and promote the next big country music star to climb the charts. Jesus will have none of it. Hasn’t Jesus already instructed us carefully in Matthew’s Gospel saying, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1) and “whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (Matt. 6:5). Jesus tells his disciples throughout the sixth chapter of Mathew, whatever you do insure that you do it in secret for “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:4, 6 and 18)

Jesus noted, “My time has not yet come…” hearkening back to his first miracle when he transformed water into wine and uttered the same words to his mother (John 2:4). Jesus said, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify against it that its works are evil.” (John 6:7) From the very start of his gospel, John portrays Jesus as creating opposition, which led to a rapidly rising situation of conflict. Hence, after Jesus’s brothers went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Booths, Jesus went, “not publically but as it were in secret.” (John 7:10)

The rest of this chapter focuses on the mixed opinions of Jesus from those around him. Some thought that he was “a good man” while “others were saying ‘No, he is deceiving the crowd.’” (John 7:12) Jesus maintained that he was just teaching the will of God. “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.” (John 7:17)

According to John’s Gospel, when we refuse to acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we convict ourselves and demonstrate that we are not living in a just and righteous way, because if we would recognize Jesus as God’s Son, and see God working through him as he taught and performed miracles. Jesus invited his listeners to live from within and to see deep within those around them. “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment,” said Jesus. (John 7:24)

Many of Jesus’s listeners were dubious. They said, “We know where this man is from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.” (John 7:27) Many also believed that the Hebrew Scriptures prophesized that the Messiah would not come from Galilee. Therefore, they responded, “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:52)

John makes it clear that the “Spirit” had not yet been given, “because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:39) Therefore, until Jesus was crucified, died, resurrected, ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to those who followed him, few could recognize that the Son of God was right in their midst.

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Key Verse

Truly God is good to the upright, to those who are pure in heart. (Ps. 73:1)

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What prevents you from seeing Jesus more clearly? What prevents you from trusting the Scriptures and what they say about Jesus and what they call us to do with our lives? Have you acted or spoken in anti-Semitic ways or shown strong opposition against Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or other religious groups? Are you judging by the exterior of those around you or looking deep within them?

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Gracious and Ever Gentle God, to the pure all things are pure. Help us in our daily walk with you to be pure in heart so that we might see you in all things around us and that you might dwell within us. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania