Judges 10-12, Psalm 76, John 10
Honest communication makes a difference
Judges 10 – 12
Today’s reading from Judges tells an engaging though tragic story. Chapter 10 mentions some “minor judges,” although this term is not employed. The judges were military leaders, but Tola son of Puah and Jair the Gileadite were not warriors even though they each ruled over Israel for over 20 years.
Then Israel went astray once again worshipping the Baals and the Astartes and abandoned Yahweh. One wonders whether they will ever learn their lesson. A segment of any given population only turns to religion in times of calamity or crisis. On the Sunday after September 11 churches across the United States were packed with worshippers. We wanted to be together and longed for words of comfort to appease our hurt, anger and confusion. My colleagues and I agreed that it felt like Christmas in September. One week later, the attendance surge ceased and it was worship attendance as usual.
In the ancient Near East, it was common to pay homage to any god that could protect you and avoid any god that could inflict evil. Yahweh, however, was a jealous God and punished the Israelites by allowing the Philistines and the Ammonites to oppress them for 18 years. The Israelites lamented, crying out, “We have sinned against you, because we have abandoned our God and have worshipped the Baals.” (Judges 10:10) The first step in repairing the breach of a covenant is to converse honestly. Both Yahweh and the Israelites are up front with one another. Yahweh instructs the Israelites to “Go and cry to the gods whom you have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your distress.” (Judges 10:14)
Chapter 11 introduces us to Jephthah the Gileadite, one of the most tragic figures in the Bible. He was the son of a prostitute. Gilead’s other wives bore him additional sons, and when they came of age they drove Jephthah from his home saying, “You shall not inherit anything in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” In was not uncommon in the ancient Near East where polygamy was prevalent for children of different mothers to be raised under the same roof.
The oldest son often inherited a double portion of his father’s wealth. By driving Jephthah away, his brothers would receive a larger inheritance. Like David and like Absalom after him, Jephthah welcomed rogue raiders to join him. When the Ammonites launched a war against the Israelites, the elders of Gilead asked Jephthah to serve as their commander and report to them. Jephthah insisted that if he won victory he would rule over them, and they agreed.
When Jephthah sent messengers to the Ammonites requesting to know why they made war, their king responded that upon leaving Egypt the Israelites had confiscated some of his land. Jephthah sent additional messengers who offered a more accurate recollection. They reminded the Ammonites that the kings of Edom and Moab were unwilling to allow Israel to pass through their land, so Yahweh gave them the land. Why were the Ammonites only disputing this issue now, 300 years after the Israelites have seized it. Jephthah communicated honestly, but was rebuffed.
The king of the Ammonites did not accept the messengers’ account, so Jephthah vowed that if he battled and beat the Ammonites, he would offer as a sacrifice whoever came first out of his house to meet him upon his return. Such a vow could not be broken without angering Yahweh.
It was not uncommon for those living in the ancient Near East to keep animals in their home, but animals did not come out to greet conquering heroes. There is a tradition, however, of maidens doing this. (see Ex. 15:20-21 and I Samuel 18:6-7) Did Jephthah have a bad marriage? Was he hoping that his wife might come forth to greet him? Did he expect that his only daughter would come to greet him?
Leviticus 27:2-8 offers a loophole for mitigating a vow made to the Lord, but apparently Jephthah was not aware of this instruction. According to Leviticus 27:5 Jephthah could have paid five shekels and forgone his vow. But Exodus 20:7, however, notes, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” We saw in Genesis 19:8, however, that daughters were sadly not esteemed and were viewed as expendable.
As a father of daughters, I shudder in reading the story of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter. She, however, is more at peace with this than her father. She asks only that she can spend two months roaming the hill country with her companions mourning her virginity and approaching death. The Bible mentions over 250 “burnt sacrifices, but this is the only one that was a person and not an animal.
Similar stories can be found in classic literature such as the vow of Idomenus, king of Crete, who was roughly a contemporary of Jephthah. When a storm threatened Idomenus after he had sacked Troy, the king made a similar vow to that of Jephthah, which led to the sacrifice of his son.
In chapter 12 we read of a civil war and internal dissension as the Ephraimites made a land grab and suggested that the Gileadites were of mixed stock of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and were not entitled to own tribal land. Referring to the Gileadites as “half-breeds,” however was misleading.
The Gileadites sought to kill the fleeing Ephraimites by forcing them to pronounce the word shibboleth, which meant either “ears of corn” or “river torrents.” In this case, it probably meant the latter. The Ephraimites pronounced the word as “shibboleth,” while the Gileadites pronounced it as “thibboleth.” The story is reminiscent of American soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge who had to test English-speaking Nazis wearing American uniforms who tried to infiltrate American lines by quizzing them about baseball teams and names of politicians and singers. Judges tells us that 42,000 Ephraimites fell at that time. Jephthah judged Israel for six years and then died.
Mainline Christians have done wonders by taming any sense of an angry and judgmental God. We ascribe only to the God of love, who forgives like a friendly father and rarely offers even a gentle rebuke. We speak about love, but if all Jesus stood for was love then why did he die upon a cross? Who would crucify someone who spoke only about love? Christian preaching and witness loses all power if it requires nothing of us, and if we reduce God to puny, gentle and absentminded figure.
The Psalmist presents a very different God, who is the God of Scripture and not our own fashioning. It is easy for us to take a few Bible verses and omit vast portions of the Bible that do not convey the god that we seek. This is the challenge for each Christian in every century, but one that is made easier today by biblical illiteracy and lectionaries that omit much of the Bible. The Psalmist tells us,
Glorious are you, more majestic
than the everlasting mountains. (Ps. 76:4)
This sounds like a line from a hymn of praise music, but then the Psalmist changes tone.
At your rebuke, O God of Jacob,
both rider and horse lay stunned.
But you indeed are awesome!
Who can stand before you
when once your anger is roused?
From the heavens you uttered judgment;
the earth feared and was still
when God rose up to establish judgment,
to save all the oppressed of the earth. (Ps. 76:6-9)
The tenth chapter of John’s Gospel is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. When I used to do a lot of youth ministry, I used this chapter to train youth mentors. Ministry begins with relationship. We cannot effectively minister to those whom we barely know and whose name we can hardly remember.
John uses the image of sheep and shepherd throughout chapter 10, and 2,000 years later it still speaks to us in a high tech culture. Jesus contrasts the good shepherd with bandits, thieves and hired hands. They have other motivations such as getting paid or stealing from others.
Jesus tells us that the Good Shepherds “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) It should go without saying, but ministry requires learning people’s names and developing a relationship with them. During my first 10 to 15 years in my parish, I had lunch almost every day with a parishioner in order to get to know our members better. Even today, I still offer to take any newcomer or visitor to lunch who is expressing interest in our parish.
Over lunch I learn their name, find out about where they grew up, went to school, what they do for a living, how much stress they operate under, what their family is like, what their religious background is and what they are seeking for in a church. I can respond to their individual questions. Most people who are church shopping, carry religious baggage with them. They have left a different tradition where they were unhappy about how religion was practiced. Sometimes, they have been hurt by a priest or pastor who broke the congregation’s trust. Learning these stories is vital.
I hope by the end of lunch to have created a friendship. I often try to help them participate in a learning ministry by using their time, energy and talents to serve God and others through one of our ministries. This helps them become a more visible part of our church as they move from saying, “I go to St. Thomas Church” to “I belong to St. Thomas Church.”
They also meet others who will become friends and depend on them. If a new member’s circumstances change or if they undergo illness, hardship or lose their job, our clergy are more readily alerted. It all begins by learning their name and developing a personal relationship. We all want to be known.
We read that “the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” (John 10:4) The focus here is building trust. Trust takes time to develop. It comes when we meet someone who has our own best interest at heart and who exercises integrity, compassion and non-anxious presence.
Jesus told them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” At night, shepherds gathered their sheep in a circular stone enclosure. The shepherd would lie down in the opening and create a human gate. If a sheep tried to leave the enclosure, it had to climb over the shepherd, and would awaken him. The shepherd literally laid down his life to protect the sheep and keep them in the fold. If a predator tried to climb over the shepherd, the shepherd would be awoken and could quickly help.
John 10:10 is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” This is one of the most hopeful verses in the Bible. Jesus came in order to reorient every human life, so that peace and joy would be the trademark of each Christian life. If peace and joy are not part of our life on a regular basis, we should ask ourselves several questions. Why is it not part of our life? What can we do to change our lives and discover greater peace and joy?
I hosted a conference today with Professor Stanley Hauerwas, who was named America’s best theologian by TIME magazine in 2000. A woman in the audience told Dr. Hauerwas and how lonely and painful it was to lead the Christian life. At times it can be hard to lead the Christian life, but if our life is characterized by loneliness and difficulty, then something is missing. John 10:10 functions like a compass. If we find that we lack peace and joy in our daily life, then we have not discovered “abundant life” and something is missing. Changes need to be made.
Jesus informs us that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (John 10:16) A spiritual leader or shepherd should be a unifier, whose role is never to divide the congregation. Having said that, there may be times when the shepherd has to take a stand or hold the congregation accountable as it strives to serve God. Our goal is to make disciples, not to cultivate admirers.
Jesus tells his Jewish listeners, “The Father and I are one.” (John 10:30) Some prepare to stone him for equating oneself with God was viewed as blasphemous. Jesus, however, was God incarnate. His listeners were blind and could not see. Two thousand years later, many struggle to see this. The only difference is that those who are blind today do not pick up stones, but merely ignore Jesus.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. (John 10:10)
How honest is your communication? Do you talk about the elephants in the room with the people you need to discuss them? If not, what prevents you? How abundant is your life? Do peace and joy are major part of your life? If not, are you willing to make changes to add them to your life?
Holy God, we bow in reverence before you. Thank you for sending Jesus to live as one of us and teach us about love and so much more. Help us to search the Scriptures faithfully and to discuss them with friends and family, to read, study, learn, mark and inwardly digest your Word so that our life may be transformed and we might have the mind that was in Christ Jesus. In his name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania