Judges 13-15, Psalm 77, John 11
What binds you and holds you back in life?
Judges 13 – 15
Judges is like a song with a refrain. The refrain played again and again is, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of the…” This time they are given into the hands of the Philistines, and their punishment endures for 40 years or “for a time that seemed like it had no end.” After each refrain, we hear a new verse to the song. Today’s reading tells us about Samson. It is one of the best-loved stories of the Bible.
Samson’s name is derived from the Hebrew Shemesh meaning “sun.” Just a few miles south of Samson’s hometown is the town of Beth Shemesh, which means House of Sun. A sun cult was believed to have existed in Israel. In 2 Kings 23:11 we read, “[King Josiah] removed the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun, at the entrance to the house of the Lord, by the chamber of the eunuch Nathan-melech, which was in the precincts; then he burned the chariots of the sun with fire.”
One of the surprises in reading the Bible and especially the Old Testament is discovering how shockingly unrighteous are many of the great figures are. Samson is a prime example. He is the last of the charismatic figures of the Book of Judges. We remember him as a man of superhuman strength with a weakness for immoral women and an anger management problem that led him to set the tails of 300 foxes on fire in order to destroy the grain fields of those who had wronged him.
The Bible is full of stories of women whose barren wombs left them in precarious situations until a miraculous birth transformed their situation. Most ancient marriage agreements allowed for a husband to divorce his wife or take other wives if his wife was barren. If another wife or wives bore children to the husband, the first wife was often displaced by additional wives and children.
Like other prominent biblical figures such as Isaac, Joseph, Samuel and John the Baptist, Samson was born to a woman who was previously considered infertile. Fortunately, we read, “And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you are barren, having borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son.’” (Judges 13:3) The angel insists that the Manoah’s wife can drink no wine or strong drink or eat anything unclean. If she does this, she shall conceive a son.
Samson’s father was Manoah from the tribe of Dan, who lived with his wife, whom remained unnamed in the Bible. They lived in Zohar, a town 15 miles west of Jerusalem on the border of Philistia. Verse 5 tells us their son Samson “shall deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.”
Who were the Philistines who exercised control over the Israelites for 40 years? They are frequently spoken of in Judges and in 1 and 2 Samuel. They were also known as the Seas Peoples and are thought to be responsible for the destruction of the Hittite Empire as well as many cities along the Palestinian and Syrian coast. The fought epic battles with Pharaoh Rameses III and were depicted in the Homeric Epic of the siege of Troy. The probably used Cyprus as a base for launching attacks before setting in southern Palestine and establishing five capital cities in Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath and Gaza.
To be a nazarite entailed taking stringent vows. We read, “for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth to the day of his death.” (Judges 13:7) What is unusual about Samson’s vow is that they were life-long. This was most unusual. Like the other Hebrews, Samson and his mother were to avoid anything ritually unclean such as coming into contact with a corpse. Nazirites were also not to cut their hair and to refrain from drinking wine or strong drink or even eating grapes. Samson eventually broke all of these vows. He ate honey from the carcass of a lion he had killed earlier, wine flowed freely at his wedding feast, and he let himself be tricked into having a haircut.
What about hair? What is the symbolism or purpose of Samson not shaving his hair? Blood and hair were two life forces that were believed in the ancient Near East to represent a person’s life essence. Sometimes a prophet’s hair was even sent along with his prophecy to a king in order to determine whether or not the king would listen to the message.
Samson’s marriage was an arranged marriage. This was common throughout the ancient Near East, where marriages were rarely a romantic encounter between two individuals and more commonly represented a clan partnership that strengthened family status and created economic wealth. Many of these marriages were arranged while the future bride and groom were still children. The arrangements were made by the head of the family or clan. Endogamy called for marrying within one’s tribe or village. Marrying outside of one’s tribe or village was frowned upon. Brides were frequently purchased for a price in the Bible, rather than for a dowry.
One of the great stories of Samson was the killing of a lion with his bare hands. Archeologists have discovered similar stories recounted in Egyptian paintings or depicting Assyrian kings riding in chariots chasing after lions. Ancient heroes such as the Sumerian king of Gilgamesh and Heracles the Greek legend reportedly killed lions with their bare hands. Lions roamed freely in ancient Palestine.
This psalm offers tremendous guidance to us when we grieve or are depressed. We all have a tendency to go inward when we hurt, suffer a loss or are depressed. We take an inward journey, often shutting off others around us and reducing our own resources for healing by doing so. The more we hurt, the less we feel like going out, socializing and doing the things that renew our spirit. The Psalmist cries out,
I cry aloud to God,
aloud to God, that he may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord. (Ps. 77:1-2)
Despite his cries, his voice seems to fall on deaf ears. His prayer is like a long-distance phone call with no one listening on the other end of the line.
my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.
You keep my eyelids from closing;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
What causes you to awake and worry at 3:00 a.m. or prevents you from falling asleep? What do you awake at dawn pondering that prevents you from falling back to sleep? This is what the Psalmist is experiencing, and why we can enter into his prayer with him and seek guidance.
I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit:
Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Has God forgotten to be gracious? (Ps. 77:4-8a)
Has he in anger shut up his compassion? (Ps. 77:9)
We have all had this experience. It is one thing, however, to resonate with someone else’s plight or suffering and to allow their words to help us identify and articulate our own pain and dejection, but it is another thing to find a way out of our desperation. This comes in verses 11-14, where we read,
I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
I will remember your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all your work,
and muse on your mighty deeds.
Your way, O God is holy.
What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
You have displayed your might
among the peoples. (Ps. 77:11-14)
Here is a path to wholeness and happiness. We can wallow forever in our perceived plight. There is ample reason in every life to say, “My cup is half empty” or to perceive ourselves as victims of the universe. Those same energies, however, can be concentrated on counting our blessings and reviewing all the good that God has done for us. Which path is wiser? Is it better to wallow in self-pity or regularly do a life review and count our blessings and all the good that God has done for us already in our life?
The vast majority of chapter 11 focuses on one story – the raising of Lazarus. It is very noticeable when the deacon or priests reads these sections of John’s Gospel aloud in church how long and singular in focus are many of the chapters of John’s Gospel. We often find ourselves reading or listening to 40-45 verses in a row, which is a lot of Scripture to read aloud or listen to at one time. It is made easier because with John the focus is on one story. It is made more difficult, because in John almost everything can be read on two levels or more. The raising of Lazarus is no exception.
We are told that Jesus’s close friend Lazarus was ill. The name Lazaros (in Greek) or Elazar (in Hebrew) means “God has helped.” Certainly, this will be the case here. This Lazarus, however, is not to be confused with the Lazarus found in Jesus’s parable (Luke 16:21), which is only recounted in Luke’s Gospel. While this Lazarus is mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, only John tells us about the “raising of Lazarus,” which is the seventh sign that Jesus performed. John’s Gospel is all about signs that help us to believe. Achieving belief that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, is John’s goal for us.
Lazarus had two sisters, whom we have already met in Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 10:38-42) Martha is a workhouse, a Type A person of action and hospitality and true hands on helper. Mary is the Type B, contemplative, prayerful, worshipful follower. They present the Ying and Yang of Christian living. Both are clearly needed to form a complete and balanced Christian pilgrim.
When Jesus was informed that Lazarus was ill he oddly noted, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4) The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used this verse as a starting point for his book Sickness until Death.
Despite being informed of Lazarus’s serious condition, Jesus stayed two more days where he was. This was not good pastoral protocol. Most wise clergy move quickly when informed that a church member has been hospitalized for something serious. I learned the hard way when I was first ordained, never to think that I could wait to visit a person on the following day after being informed that they had been hospitalized. After waiting on several occasions to visit on the following day, I experienced several occasions where person died that very night. We do not get a second opportunity to get it right. I have learned to go quickly to the hospital.
After two days, Jesus informed the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” This seemed like an absurd suggestion to his disciples, as they had just fled from Judea, where the Jews had sought to stone Jesus. Since the beginning of Jesus’s ministry some three years earlier, according to John’s timeline as opposed to the Synoptic authors’ one-year timeline, animosity and opposition towards Jesus has been building.
When asked why he wanted to return to Judea when the political climate is so dangerous, Jesus replied in a strange figure of speech, saying, “Are there not 12 hours of daylight?” (John 11:9) The Jews divided the day in half with 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. Twelve hours is a sufficiently lengthy time to get things done, but it is a fixed amount which runs out. There is time for a few more signs or miracles to be done so that others might believe and in believing be saved and experience eternal life, but time is now running out for Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” (John 11:11) Time and again, Jesus’s followers and those around him live, listen and understand on a surface level, while much of what Jesus said can be understood on at least two levels. Nicodemus wondered “How can a man be born again?” (John 3:3-8), the Samaritan woman wondered about “the living water” (John 4:10-15) and the crowds of thousands wanted “the bread from heaven” (John 6:32-34).
Because the disciples did not understand the deeper significance of what Jesus said, he spelled it out plainly for them. “Lazarus is dead.” Then he added, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” (John 11:15) Had Jesus arrived before Lazarus had died, surely he would have been asked to cure him, but such a healing could have been explained away. Perhaps Lazarus had regained health miraculously despite what Jesus said or did. But if Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been buried for several days this would be a true miracle and help others believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
As if to verify how dangerous returning to Judea would be, Thomas blurted out, “Let us go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16) This reveals much about Thomas. He is impulsive, but also ready to die with Jesus. He is “all in” and fully committed, even if he is the one who will ultimately require the most physical evidence of Jesus’s resurrection in order to believe that Christ roses from the dead.
The village of Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, was two miles from Jerusalem and two days journey from where Jesus had been staying when decided to stay another two days. Pilgrims often visit this village to this day and see the church dedicated to Lazarus. The village has been renamed “El ‘Azariyeh” after Lazarus. Jesus may well have waited these extra days so that Lazarus had been buried in the stone sepulcher for four days when he arrived, for the rabbis held that three days would pass before you the color in the face of a dead person changed, signifying that decomposition was occurring. Lazarus was clearly dead. In fact, there was stench from his body decomposing.
True to form, Martha, the woman of action, rose from her house and ran to meet Jesus. She blurted out, “Lord, if you have been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) This is what we say when we are grieving. “If we hadn’t let mom undergo this surgery…” “If we had only take dad to the hospital sooner…” “If my brother had only listened more carefully to his doctor…” In our grief, we often look to assign blame, and often we blame ourselves for having done or failed to do something that might have altered the outcome.
Martha added, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” (John 11:22) Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:24) This was the belief of many Jews including the Pharisees by Jesus’s day. The Sadducees, however, did not share this belief. (See Mark 12:18, Acts 23:6-9) Jews who believed in an afterlife in Jesus’s time believed that the dead would rest in their tombs until the Messiah came or else they would dwell in a shadowy netherworld, a concept borrowed from the Greeks.
Jesus, however, was talking about resurrection now. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) This is a climactic moment. In this moment, all of the “I am” phrases or teachings that Jesus offered came together – “I am the light of the world,” “I am the bread,” “I am the good shepherd,” “I am the door,” “I am the vine,” “I am the living water,” “I am the way, the life and the truth.” Jesus added, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:26)
Then Mary believed and trusted that Jesus was the Messiah. This is the female counterpart to Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Messiah, that comes in the very middle of Mark’s Gospel and is the hinge upon which Mark’s Gospel hangs. (Mark 8:29) We find something similar to this in John 6:69.
Then Mary was summoned to come to Jesus. She came and knelt at his feet in worship. Mary was the contemplative one, who knew how to spend time in adoration with Jesus. She had a contemplative heart and soul. But she also questioned why Jesus had not come sooner. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32) When Jesus saw Mary and those with her weeping, he was greatly “disturbed.” The Greek word used here (en-brimo) is even more powerful. The Greeks used it to convey “the snorting in the nostrils” by horses. It conveys anger, frustration and indignation. Was Jesus angry at death or at the lack of belief in those around him or had grief merely overwhelmed him?
Then we read the Bible’s shortest verse, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35), which the NRSV translation actually translates into four words, “Jesus began to weep.” Clearly, we have a God who is not a transcendent deity remote somewhere off in the cosmos or a God of the deists, who wound the universe up like a clock and then disappeared, letting world tick away on its own. Here is a hands-on, interactive God who grieves with us, hurts with us, suffers with us and rejoices and celebrates with us. This is the God that Christians worship, believe, follow, share with others and attempt to emulate, even if imperfectly.
Jesus ordered them to remove the stone covering the tomb. When Martha warned him that her brother’s body had begun to decompose and there was a stench, Jesus persisted, saying, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40) This indeed was the shekinah or divine presence of God, the holy of holies, the awesome, mysterious otherness of God, which defies logic, language, and empirical identification. This is what people pursuing religion ultimately seek.
After praying to God with a prayer of thanksgiving or eucharisto such as he did when multiplying the fish and loaves (John 6:11), Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus shuffled out, with cloths used to wrap a deceased man still covering his face and body. This was like seeing a mummy exit a cave. It was a foreshadowing of Jesus’s own resurrection, except Jesus’s burial clothes were neatly folded and awaited those who discovered the empty tomb. “Unbind him, and let him go,” commanded Jesus. The Greek word aphete can mean “release” and is the same word used in “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in the Lord’s Prayer. (Matt. 6:12-15) What person, thing or event do we need to forgive in order to release ourselves and from free the tomb where we have been dwelling?
I am the resurrection and the life. (John 11:25)
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11:26)
Are you trapped in self-pity? How regular are you when it comes to counting your blessings? Do you write a few of them down each day? Do you begin your day with words of gratitude to God for a few gifts that you call to mind? What are the grave clothes that you are wearing which keep you from experiencing new life in Christ? Who or what must we forgive in order to move from the darkness of the tomb into the light of the world?
Gracious God, so many of our lives are blessed with more blessings than we can count, and yet we so often feel slighted and cheated by life, as if we were not among the most blessed of all people, loved and cherished by you and by others. Help us to release those who we have failed to forgive and to shed our grave clothes and count our blessings so that we might emerge from the tomb and walk in the light of Christ. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania