Thursday 6 October 2011

God's will, my way (Judges 1)

Who is next?

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites asked the LORD, “Who will be the first to go up and fight for us against the Canaanites?” The LORD answered, “Judah is to go; I have given the land into their hands.”
Judges 1:1-2

The book of Judges begins with the passing of a great leader. Joshua had led the people of Israel into the Promised Land, taking up the mantle of leadership from Moses, who, in turn, had led Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Both were men of God, chosen by God to lead the people of God. But now, Joshua was gone. Who would lead Israel now?

Their first instinct was not to appoint another military commander. Joshua had taught them well. It was God who had rescued them from slavery. It was God who  had given them the land. The Israelites turned to God for guidance.

They ask God which tribe should go first and “fight for us”. The land was inhabited by the Canaanites, and taking the land was an act of war against the local inhabitants. The Canaanites were stronger, more numerous and technologically more advanced (They had “iron chariots” in verse 19). Yet in the previous book of Joshua, we read that the land had be divided up amongst the twelve tribes to secure and occupy. Now the Israelites wanted to ask God, “Who’s first”.

God answers “Judah”. In the NIV, verse 2 reads, “Judah is to go, I have given the land into their hands.” Yet in the original, God refers to each tribe as an individual. In the ESV, it’s “I have given the land into his (singular) hands”. There is a double-meaning here. The people have come to God asking for guidance - his will - in the absence of a leader. The ask which tribe will lead them into battle. God says “Judah”, and by that God is giving both a short-term and long-term answer. Judah as a tribe would lead the initial conquest, But out of Judah would one day come the leader who would succeed Joshua and Moses, and lead the nation as a kingdom.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s read on.

Two brothers

Then the men of Judah said to the Simeonites their brothers, “Come up with us into the territory allotted to us, to fight against the Canaanites. We in turn will go with you into yours.” So the Simeonites went with them.
Judges 1:3

It was a move of tactical brilliance - to invite the smaller tribe of Simeon to join forces with Judah. After all, Simeon’s territory was actually smack within the area of land allotted to Judah. Working together would be mutually beneficial.

Also, these two had a history together. The twelve tribes were descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob. Judah and Simeon were particularly closely related as they both came from the same mother, Leah (Genesis 33), It is again worth pointing out that in the original text, Judah and Simeon interact with one another like two individuals. If you read the ESV you will see that “Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come with me’” (verse 3) and “So Simeon went with him”.

And it looks like this partnership between the two brothers paid off. Their first battle was an overwhelming success.

When Judah attacked, the LORD gave the Canaanites and Perizzites into their hands and they struck down ten thousand men at Bezek.
Judges 1:4

Yet it is in the midst of this triumphant victory in Bezek that the book of Judges records for us a scene of extreme cruelty and torture.

The way of the kings

It was there that they found Adoni-Bezek and fought against him, putting to rout the Canaanites and Perizzites. Adoni-Bezek fled, but they chased him and caught him, and cut off his thumbs and big toes.
Judges 1:5-6

Adoni-Bezek was a title for the King (‘Adon is Hebrew for Lord or King). It wasn’t enough to take the city. Judah went out of their way to capture the king, even hunting him down as he attempted to flee the battle. And once they did, they “cut off his thumbs and big toes”.

Why did they do this? Remarkably, not only does the book of Judges tell us why, but it does so using the words of this pagan, Canaanite, enemy king - who even acknowledges God in the process!

Then Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, and he died there.
Judges 1:7

The King of Bezek essentially said, “This is exactly what I would have done.” In his mind, God was simply paying him back for the cruelty and humiliation he had inflicted on the captives under his rule. “This is what I deserve,” he seems to be saying.

And yet, there is something very wrong with this picture. These are the words of a pagan king. These are the actions of a pagan nation. Yet these have now become the accepted practice of the people of God.

It was a form of torture, humiliation and cruelty that Israel could carry out in the name of justice, and yet do so in such a way that nations around them would look at and say, “That makes sense. It’s what we would do.”

This was the way of the world. It wasn’t the will of God.

What then were the Israelites to do?

Utter destruction

The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire.
Judges 1:8

Then the men of Judah went with the Simeonites their brothers and attacked the Canaanites living in Zephath, and they totally destroyed the city. Therefore it was called Hormah. The men of Judah also took Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron—each city with its territory.
Judges 1:17-18

In short, the Israelites were to attack and annihilate the cities with their inhabitants. The Hebrew term for this is herem - used in verse 17 to describe how the city of Zephath was “totally destroyed” - and incorporated into its new name, Hormah.

Where I come from, in Malaysia, the Malay word “haram” means something that is forbidden - something that would defile a person in the eyes of God. It has a similar meaning in the Arab language; and there actually is this same sense of forbiddenness in the use of the word herem here. In Joshua Chapter 6, the word is used repeatedly when speaking of the herem or destruction of the city of Jericho:

The city and all that is in it are to be devoted (herem) to the LORD. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall be spared, because she hid the spies we sent. But keep away from the devoted things (ha-harem), so that you will not bring about your own destruction (th-haremu) by taking any of them. Otherwise you will make the camp of Israel liable to destruction (le-herem) and bring trouble on it.
Joshua 6:17-18

The reason why they were to utterly destroy the Canaanite cities was because leaving any traces (They were to “keep away” from them, and never contemplate “taking any of them”) would lead to their own destruction. This also meant the Israelites were not to “profit” from this destruction - by keeping any bits of wealth back for themselves (See especially the excuse given by King Saul in 1 Samuel 15 where the word herem recurs).

Over four hundred years earlier, God told Abraham in a vision how he would use Abraham’s descendants to bring judgement upon people of Canaan. In a vision recorded in Genesis 15, God foretells the slavery in Egypt, the exodus and finally, the conquest of the Promised Land, saying, “In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16) In other words, all this while God had been holding back his judgement for generations and for centuries.

And forty years earlier, while the Israelites were still in the desert, God spoke through Moses, warning them of the dangerous influence posed by the idolatrous practices of the Canaanites.

I will hand over to you the people who live in the land and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land, or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.
Exodus 23:31-33

Now in all this, it is clear that God is the one who (1) gives the land to Israel, as part of the fulfilment of the promise made to Abraham; and (2) uses Israel to carry out his judgement upon the inhabitants of Canaan. It wasn’t because Israel was better or more deserving. Indeed, the book of Judges is there to illustrate the very point that the people of God progressively fell deeper and deeper into sin, idolatry and rebellion against God.

The kingdom of the Son

At the same time, God does carry out his judgement upon the sins of the Canaanites. It is a punishment of death and destruction. We cannot ignore that or excuse the fact that this is plain in the bible. Death is a consequence of sin and rebellion against a holy God, who has every right to judge his creation through the punishment of death. Having said that, physical death is but a shadow of the greater and infinitely more serious judgement that is spiritual death. It is this spiritual reality that Jesus clarifies to Pilate at his interrogation before his crucifixion.

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.
John 18:36

The kingdom of God is a spiritual reality inaugurated through Jesus. It is not of this world, Jesus says. Otherwise his servants would fight. Otherwise, like the Israelites here in Judges Chapter 1, we would be fighting a physical war to enlarge territory and destroy any opposing influences. But we don’t and we shouldn’t. Because the bible tells us that the Kingdom of God comes through the cross of Jesus Christ.

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Colossians 1:13

On the cross, Jesus takes our judgement upon himself. Our punishment. Our death. Our complete destruction. In order that we can receive “redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. By trusting in his death on our behalf, God brings us “into the kingdom of the Son he loves.”

The next generation

Now back to Judges 1. Embedded in this story of wars and battles and skirmishes led by Judah, is a story about the family of Caleb, who was also a member of the tribe of Judah. Remembering that Judges picks up where Joshua left off, Caleb is the only other surviving member from Joshua’s generation; the only other Israelite to have lived under the leadership of Moses, seen the rescue from slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and experienced the forty years of wandering in the desert. So what Caleb is doing here is ensuring that his legacy of faithfulness to God is passed on to the next generation.

From there they advanced against the people living in Debir (formerly called Kiriath Sepher). And Caleb said, “I will give my daughter Acsah in marriage to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher.” Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it; so Caleb gave his daughter Acsah to him in marriage.
Judges 1:11-13

Caleb was now eighty-five years (Joshua 14:10) old but this old man was right up front leading the charge to claim the land that was promised him by God.

I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day.
Joshua 14:11

Yet at the same time, Caleb knows that this is a fight to be passed on as a legacy and an inheritance to the next generation. So he promises his daughter in marriage to the man who successfully takes the city of Kiriath Sepher. It turns out to be his own nephew, Othniel (who later on features as one of the judges in this book). He wants a son-in-law who knows how to fight and how to lead in the fight for the land.

But we don’t hear anything from Othniel. Instead it is Caleb’s daughter who features next in a request she makes to her father through her husband.

One day when she came to Othniel, she urged him to ask her father for a field. When she got off her donkey, Caleb asked her, “What can I do for you?” She replied, “Do me a special favor. Since you have given me land in the Negev, give me also springs of water.” Then Caleb gave her the upper and lower springs.
Judges 1:14-15

Why does she ask for “springs of water”? Her father has given her in marriage to Othniel - about which she has no apparent objection - but she does have a comment about the land given as her dowry. She calls it “land in the Negev”, and if you look just a few verses later to verse 16 - we read that it is a desert (“The Desert of Judah in the Negev”). Meaning: it is a dry land unsuitable for sustaining life.

Again what we have here is continuity. Acsah is thinking ahead about what it takes to build a new home and a new life. The land needs water to grow crops and sustain livestock. So she asks for springs of water. And her father Caleb, generously bestows upon her both the “upper and lower springs”. All the water she needs.

The land was not just a prize to be won in a fight. It was a source of life and blessing. Both Caleb and his daughter display foresight in planning for the future - ensuring there is a legacy to pass down the generations to come; securing abundant means for life and growth for themselves and those they love.

Things start to take a turn for the worse, however, from verse 19 onwards.

Who can be against us?

The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had iron chariots. As Moses had promised, Hebron was given to Caleb, who drove from it the three sons of Anak. The Benjamites, however, failed to dislodge the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites.
Judges 1:19-21

Judah’s campaign has seen victory upon victory. Until, that is they go up against technology. “Iron chariots”, as verse 19 describes them. What happened? The beginning of the verse clearly states “The LORD was will the men of Judah”. Does this mean God’s pretty useful in a small-time skirmish involving swords and bows and arrows. But the moment the enemy gets a hold of laser-guided missiles and nuclear weapons, we’re done for?

Back in Joshua 17, the Israelites complain to Joshua about these “iron chariots”. There, the tribe of Joseph demanded more land - simply because they were bigger. Yet, the area allotted them was too difficult to obtain. This was long before anyone had even stepped into the territoy or engaged in a single battle. One of the largest tribes was already demoralised and concluded that they couldn’t take on the Canaanites. Why? Because of their “iron chariots”.

The author of Judges knows this, which is why he places Caleb’s victory right after summarising Judah’s failure. An eighty-five year old man succeeded where an entire tribe - who had enlisted the help of an additional tribe - had failed. Caleb fought not because he had the numbers, or because he had the strength, but because he had God’s promise. This was the mountain God has promised - it was his inheritance.

The result was compromise. The Benjamites fought to clear the land but failed. As a consequence, the Jebusites continued to live permanently in the land with their people. “To this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites”.

Now, what’s so bad about that, you might ask?

Winners and Luz-ers

Now the house of Joseph attacked Bethel, and the LORD was with them. When they sent men to spy out Bethel (formerly called Luz), the spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, “Show us how to get into the city and we will see that you are treated well.” So he showed them, and they put the city to the sword but spared the man and his whole family. He then went to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city and called it Luz, which is its name to this day.
Judges 1:19-21

They sacked Luz and spared just one man and his family. It’s a victory. The house of Joseph even renamed the city to “Bethel”. Meaning: this was an important location in the history of Israel. Bethel was where Jacob received God’s promise of blessing in a dream (Genesis 28) and built an altar to God (Genesis 35). There, God gave him the promise of this very land the Israelites were now fighting for. This was a momentous victory for the people of God.

And the way in which they sent spies and got the cooperation of the local is reminiscent of their most recent triumph in Jericho. Rahab hid the spies and she was spared from destruction together with her family (Joshua 6:16).

But that is where the similarity ends.

Unlike Rahab, this man from Luz had no regard for God. Unlike Rahab, he didn’t remain in Bethel and had no interest in being a part of the people of God. When his life was spared, he simply left for his own country “to the land of the Hittites, where he built a city.” What did he name that city? Luz.

Luz wasn’t destroyed. It changed postal codes, that’s all. And all it took was one man to rebuild Luz, a city that remained “to this day” (verse 21).

Failed conquests and forced labour

But Manasseh did not drive out the people of Beth Shan or Taanach or Dor or Ibleam or Megiddo and their surrounding settlements, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that land. When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labour but never drove them out completely. Nor did Ephraim drive out the Canaanites living in Gezer, but the Canaanites continued to live there among them. Neither did Zebulun drive out the Canaanites living in Kitron or Nahalol, who remained among them; but they did subject them to forced labour. Nor did Asher drive out those living in Acco or Sidon or Ahlab or Aczib or Helbah or Aphek or Rehob, and because of this the people of Asher lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land. Neither did Naphtali drive out those living in Beth Shemesh or Beth Anath; but the Naphtalites too lived among the Canaanite inhabitants of the land, and those living in Beth Shemesh and Beth Anath became forced labourers for them. The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain. And the Amorites were determined also to hold out in Mount Heres, Aijalon and Shaalbim, but when the power of the house of Joseph increased, they too were pressed into forced labour. The boundary of the Amorites was from Scorpion Pass to Sela and beyond.
Judges 1:27-36

We move on from bad to worse. No longer are we presented with a list of cities won over by the people of God. Instead we have a string of “would haves” and “should haves” and “might have beens”. Meaning: we don’t have here a list of attempts that didn’t quite make it, though Well done and bravo for giving it a go. No, what we have are people who have tried, failed but then given up trying altogether.

Manasseh fights but fails in five cities (Beth Shan, Taanach, Dor, Ibleam, Megiddo). The reason? The Canaanites were too strong. And yet, when we read next that Israel musters up its forces and does grow strong enough, what do they do? “They pressed the Canaanites to forced labour”. The same thing happens with Zebulun (verse 30), Naphtali (verse 33) and Joseph (verse 34): “When the power of the house of Joseph increased, they too were pressed into forced labour”.

They always had a good reason for letting the Canaanites stick around. Either it was difficult to dislodge them or it was just more advantageous to put the Canaanites to work as slaves.

Of the long list, two tribes stand out: Asher and and Dan. While most of the other tribes had Canaanites living among them, the situation was the reverse with Asher - “They lived among  the Canaanite inhabitants of the land”. Instead of claiming the inheritance due their tribe, Asher had given up completely. It was just easier to find a corner to settle down and not cause any trouble.

Still, it is the tribe of Dan who had it really tough. They couldn’t move in at all. “The Amorites confined the Danites to the hill country, not allowing them to come down into the plain” (verse 34). We meet the tribe again in Chapter 18 where they were “seeking a place of their own where they might settle”. They still didn’t get an inch. There we see a people who had become desperate, opportunistic and even idolatrous. They end up attacking a peaceful, unsuspecting town and made that settlement their home instead.

God’s will and God’s son

The chapter began with Israel enquiring after God’s will but ended with them doing God’s will their own way. No longer was the conquest an act of obedience to God’s word. Instead, success or failure depended on numbers, weaponry and the terrain of the land.

When Joshua died, much of the battle was still left to be fought and the people of God were left without a leader. Yet for Christians, we look back to the death of another Joshua - more commonly known as Jesus (though both share the exact same name) - who through his death secured the victory and leads us into the kingdom of God.

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Colossians 2:13-15

Christ who descended from the tribe of Judah was the one chosen to fight for us. He was obedient to his Father’s will unto death - he was herem; accursed on our behalf - that we might receive forgiveness and full restoration as citizens in God’s kingdom. But finally as the Colossians 2 makes clear, he defeats all who oppose him by “triumphing over them by the cross”.

As tempting as it would be to draw an analogy between the conquest of Canaan and our Christian faith, or even our struggle with sin, Judges Chapter 1 isn’t really about us. It is about Jesus and his victory secured through his sacrifice on the cross, won on our behalf through his obedience to the will of God.

On the cross we see God’s will carried out God’s way through God’s son: Jesus.

Through the kisses of a friend's betrayal,
He was lifted on a cruel cross;
He was punished for the world's transgressions,
He was suffering to save the lost
He fights for breath, He fights for me
Loosing sinners from the claims of hell;
And with a shout our souls are free -
Death defeated by Immanuel!
(“From the squalor of a borrowed stable” by Stuart Townend)

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