Judges 7-9, Psalm 75, John 9
We are not blind, are we?
Judges 7 – 9
If Yahweh does not have a big ego, then at least the authors of Joshua and Judges want to insure that God gets as much credit as possible for the Conquest. They are wonderful press agents for Yahweh. Chapter 7 tells a marvelous story about God’s need to receive credit for winning the battle. We read,
The Lord said to Gideon, “The troops with you are too many to give the Midianites into their hand. Israel would only take the credit away from me, saying, “My own hand has delivered me.” (Judges 7:2)
Yahweh cannot let this happen. So, God commands Gideon to send home anyone who is fearful before the ensuing battle, and 22,000 warriors accept his offer, leaving only 10,000 remaining. This, however, is still too many. God commands Gideon to march the 10,000 remaining soldiers to the water and watch them drink. Only those who lapped the water with their tongues like dogs shall be allowed to stay behind and fight. The rest shall be sent home. This winnowed down the warriors to 300.
Using animal horns as trumpets and glass jars to be smashed and make a terrible sound, Gideon and his troops surround the Midianites and Amalekites, whom we are told “lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” (Judges 7:12) Gideon won the day with his tiny army. He then pursued his enemies, Zebah and Zalmunn and their army of 15,000 men, who were all that remained of an army that once totaled 120,000 men.
Thus far, Gideon and his men have far outpunched their weight. They are exhausted and enter Succoth and Penuel seeking the sustenance of a little bread. Inhabitants of both cities refused to feed them. Gideon returned and destroyed both niggardly cities. When the Israelites asked Gideon to stay and rule over them, he refused. “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” (Judges 8:23) The land then rested for 40 years.
Gideon’s one request was to receive a golden earring from each soldier, who had raided towns and seized gold and other valuables as booty. He received about 42 pounds of gold, which he used to make an ephod, which was normally worn by a priest and contained the Urim and Thummin (see Ex. 28:30), which were used to consult the oracles. Gideon used his Urim and Thummin to cast lots and seek divination regarding every earthly matter for which people sought his wisdom. Was this a way to provide his future security? Was it the modern equivalent of buying a seat on the stock exchange?
Gideon then died. He had fathered 70 sons through his many wives. The number 70 was often used in ancient literature to mean “a great amount.” Each wife was often a daughter of a family whose community wanted to form a political or military alliance, in this case with Gideon and the Israelites. When a leading citizen offered his daughter in marriage, it firmed up the connection between the two powers and often insured military protection. The large number of sons indicated family strength and preserved a dynasty, but the number 70 was probably exaggerated or being used metaphorically.
One of Gideon’s sons was Abimelech, whose name literally meant “my father, the king.” Most of us have known people who have had a very successful parent. Some spent their lives struggling to live in the shadow of a famous parent. Others traded off of it. Some carved a name for themselves. Some tried constantly to compete with this parent. Others were happy to be themselves.
Abimelech son of Jerubbaal, however, went to his kinsfolk in Shechem and suggested that they make his king. “Which is better for you, that all 70 of the sons of Jerubbaal rule over you, or that one rule over you?” (Judges 9:2) They agreed that it was better to serve one master than 70, and they gave him 70 shekels in return. This was hardly a strong show of affection. Leviticus 27:3 tells us that it cost 50 shekels-per-male for ransom. It cost 20 shekels to buy a slave. Clearly, the folks in Shechem did not highly value Abimelech and his siblings by offering one shekel per child of Gideon.
Nevertheless, Abimelech used his small reward to purchase a band of rogues, who helped him to murder 68 of his siblings on a stone in Ophrah. Fortunately, Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son escaped to tell of the tragedy. For three years Abimelech led a reign of terror, which concluded when an unnamed woman dropped a millstone on his head from a tower.
Psalm 75 is a psalm of thanksgiving. “We give thanks to you, O God. People tell of your wondrous deeds.” Verse 3 notes, “When the earth totters, with all its inhabitants, it is I who keep its pillars steady.” Are these the pillars of the earth? In the Bible, pillars generally denoted boundaries. Even Solomon’s Temple was said to have two pillars on the portico, serving as a boundary to the holy place.
The world, however, was envisioned much differently by the authors of the Bible. They believed that the earth was a flat surface. Underneath it was water. Above it were the heavens or sky, which held back great waters, which when the heavens opened let down rain and sometimes massive amounts, which led to floods. It was the “pillars of the earth” that suspended the heavens above the earth. This may be what the author is referring to in verse 3. Then verse 8 tells us,
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
with foaming wine, well mixed;
he will pour a draught from it,
all the wicked of the earth
shall drain it down to the dregs.
From ancient times until the late Middle Ages water was often undrinkable. Beer and wine were readily consumed as normal drinks. Wine was often watered down to make it less potent and to allow more of it to be drunk without noticeably affecting the person who drank it. The image of wine being used as a punishment such as is found here is somewhat common in the Bible and is found in Jeremiah 49:12, Isaiah 51:17 and Habakkuk 2:15-16. Drinking “the cup of judgment” or spiced wine was not intended to kill someone, but to render them defenseless and unable to control him or herself.
Finally, we read, “All the horns of the wicked I will cut off, but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.” (Ps. 75:10) Horns were often used on the crowns of deities in the ancient Near East. The gods would wear crowns featuring protruding horns.
In a recent article that she wrote for The Christian Century – a wonderful magazine for mainline Christians – Episcopal author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about “Light without sight.” She recounts the story of the blind French resistance fighter Jacques Lusseyran, who wrote a two-volume memoir called And There Was Light.
Lusseyran was not born blind, but at an early age his parents noted that he was having trouble reading, and they fitted him for glasses. One day in school, Lusseyran got into a scuffle with a classmate and fell hard against his teacher’s desk, driving one arm of his glasses into his right eye and part of the frame into his other eye. When he awoke in the hospital, he had lost his right eye and could not see with his left eye. At the age of seven he was completely blind.
Children in similar situations at that time were taught to cane chairs, play instruments in religious services or to beg for a living. Lusseyran’s parents, however, refused to send him to a school for the blind. They wanted to keep their son in the public school. His mother learned Braille with him, and Lusseyran became adept at typing on a Braille typewriter.
His parents strived not to pity him nor let him pity himself. Rather, his father instructed him, “Always tell us when you discover something.” In this way, Lusseyran began to explore a new world within and around him as the light moved from outside of him to within him. Ten days after his accident, he made a discovery that changed the rest of his life. He wrote, “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there.” He added,
Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gush forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread out over the world. I had only to receive it. It was unavoidably there. It was all there, and I found again its movements and shades, that its, its colors, which I have loved so passionately a few weeks before.
This was something entirely new, you understand, all the more so since it contradicted everything that those who have eyes believe. The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.
Lusseyran’s senses became acute. He was able to tell trees apart by the sound of their shadows and could tell how wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body. “Since becoming blind, I have paid more attention to a thousand things,” Lusseyran wrote. One of his greatest discoveries was learning how the light he saw changed his inner condition. When he was sad or afraid the light decreased immediately. When he was joyful and attentive, the light increased as strong as ever. He learned that the best way to see light was to remain attentive to the present moment and to love.
In January 1944 the Nazis captured Lusseyran and sent him to Buchenwald concentration camp along with 2,000 of his countrymen. There he learned what hate could do to him. When he became consumed with anger, his world grew smaller and he could no longer see at all and slammed into buildings, ran into things and tripped over furniture.
When he called himself back to attention and chose to love instead of hate, both his inside and outside world opened up at once. The most valuable thing that he learned was that no one outside of him could turn off the light within him without his consent. He alone had the power to control this. Jesus says in today’s reading from John’s Gospel, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (John 9:30)
In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel we discover something rarely found in any gospel. The entire chapter is dedicated to one story. In most gospels, Jesus does several things in any one given chapter. He heals a leper, cures a person possessed by a demon, preaches a sermon, offers wisdom and eats in the home of a Pharisee. This entire chapter, however, is devoted to the healing of one man – a person who was born blind.
Chapter nine opens with perhaps the most foolish question asked in the Bible. Jesus disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” This question makes no sense. In ancient Judaism, people believed that a handicap, a disease or an infirmity was the direct result of one’s own sin or the sins of one’s parents or grandparents. The sins of one’s family could be passed onto us, and God would inflict punishment such as blindness or deafness or being born lame upon a child, because his parents or grandparents had sinned.
How could this man have sinned before he was born in order that he was born blind? He would have to have sinned in the womb! This question is foolish. One of the keys to religion is asking the right questions. Episcopalians practice a faith that does not claim to have all the answers, but we strive to ask the right questions. Questioning is good and is welcomed in the Episcopal Church. Questioning often arises out of our doubts and struggles and is what leads ultimately to our faith and convictions.
Jesus responds to his disciples not with a theological treatise, but by healing a blind man on the Sabbath. It is one of seven miracles that Jesus performed on the Sabbath, a day on which he performed more miracles than on any other day of the week. The Pharisees, who held the Sabbath to be sacred and free of any work, were furious. They debated as to whether Jesus was a charlatan or sinner for having cured a man born blind on the Sabbath. Surely, they could not see. The Son of Man, God incarnate, was standing right before them and they were blind. Their anger, self-righteous attitude and rigid belief system blinded them. Is this not true in part of each one of us?
When Jesus heard that they have driven the man whom he cured of blindness out of the Temple, Jesus asked him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He replied, “And who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” The man said, “Lord, I believe.” (John 9:35-38) Like Lusseyran, the man who was healed had made an incredible discovery. He believed that a man standing in front of him was the Son of God. This is a discovery that each of us can make in our own lives today, and we can also learn to see the beauty and goodness in our spouse, children, colleagues, neighbors, friends and folks at church, even those who drive us crazy.
Some of the Pharisees near Jesus said, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (John 9:40) It’s a great question, which we need to ask ourselves. Jesus responded, “If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9:41)
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world. (John 9:5)
If you were blind, you would have no sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (John 9:41)
How are you going about creating security for yourself and your family? Is it a legitimate way to do this? What do you thank God for each day? What has occurred in your life in the past month for which you are most thankful? In what ways are you blind? Who around you needs to have their eyes opened? Is anger over someone or something causing you to live in darkness and not to experience the inner light?
Almighty God, behind every infirmity and loss is an opportunity to grow and develop in new ways and discover things that we would never have learned or experienced had we not suffered or lost things that we took for granted. Help us to look to make discoveries each day of our life and to share them with others. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania