Friday, September 11
Judges 14: It is significant, surely, that all three stories about Samson have to do with women. His addiction to women is Samson’s tragic flaw. It would be easy enough to blame the women, I suppose, but that would be missing the point. The problem is Samson’s.
This first story about Samson (verses 1-4) concerns his projected marriage to a Philistine woman, and we recall that the previous chapter began by describing Israel’s bondage to the Philistines. Samson’s fascination with this Philistine woman, then, symbolizes Israel’s fascination with the surrounding paganism, a fascination that in each case leads to blindness and death.
As a consecrated Nazirite, Samson represents Israel’s higher calling to dedication to the true God in true worship. His failure to live according to that higher calling is symbolic of Israel’s failure.
Samson’s parents mention that Israelites are not supposed to marry pagans, but the inspired author speaks of God’s own plan, even in this deviation from the Law. All of Samson’s career, including his sins, will be under the influence of Divine Providence. Through all of it, God will bring good out of evil.
A strong man, but also a very weak man, Samson is an ironical figure. Ultimately his victory over the Philistines will involve both his weakness and his strength.
The blindness of Samson, however, begins very early in the story. In a sense, indeed, Samson starts out blind, long before the Philistines gouge out his eyes. Through this whole account Samson seems to be walking in the darkness. No matter. God knows where the story is going.
The story of the lion (verses -9) invites a comparison between Samson and David, both of whom fought against Philistines. The latter are symbolized in the lion. David, before he killed the Philistine Goliath, first killed the lion. Samson, before he takes on the Philistines, kills a lion with his bare hands.
This is why the Spirit of the Lord came down on Samson, as the Spirit of the Lord will descend on him in the next chapter. The roaring of the lion will be matched by the shouting of the Philistines. Samson will tear the binding cords apart, just as he tore the lion apart.
The killing of the lion, then, symbolizes Samson’s vocation. Indeed, Samson’s own tribe, Dan, was liked to a lion: “Dan is a lion’s whelp that leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22).
Once the lion is dead, the bees build their hive in its carcass. This symbolizes the Holy Land itself, flowing with milk and honey. What is this honey? It is the tasting of God’s Law, which the Psalter describes as sweeter than honey. This honey is the fruit of Samson’s victory over the lion. It is the result of his combat with the lion.
Samson will use this incident to stump the Philistines. That is to say, he perceives the incident to involve a riddle, or mystery. There is a mystery in the lion and the honey that lies beyond the comprehension of his enemies.
The honey in the carcass is symbolic also of Samson himself, who will be victorious in his defeat. Sweetness will come from his death.
Samson’s first contest with the Philistines (verses 12-14) will not be a test of muscles but of brains. He will attempt to outwit them, as Moses had done with the Philistines.
Alas, Samson the riddler does something not very bright. He is deceived by the woman, and this is Samson’s first experience of betrayal. The real treachery, on the other hand, comes from Samson’s own emotions. He loses control. He is betrayed by his feelings. Had he maintained control over his emotions, the woman would never have deceived him. The man who cannot control himself can hope to control nothing else.
The wedding feast ends badly.
Saturday, September 12
Judges 15: To put the era of Samson into perspective, it is useful to consider him along with two other biblical characters, Samuel and Obed. According to Judges 13:1, Israel was in bondage to the Philistines for forty years, a bondage that ended at the Battle of Mizpah in 1 Samuel 7. In that chapter we learn that the Battle of Mizpah was twenty years after the Battle of Aphek, when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and briefly held it. It was right after the Battle of Aphek, we recall, that Eli died. These facts give us a basic chronology with which to work.
If Samson was born at the beginning of the Philistine enslavement, and if we put his marriage at about age twenty, then the marriage of Samson took place about the time of the Battle of Aphek and the death of Eli.
It was while Samuel was growing up, then, that Samson judged the tribe of Dan, and it was Samson’s weakening of the Philistines that prepared for Saul’s victory over them at the Battle of Mizpah in 1 Samuel 7.
Someone else born during the lifetime of Samson was Obed, the grandfather of David. Obed himself, we recall, was something of a “miracle baby,” in the sense that God used a special providence to arrange for his birth.
During the period of Samson, then, the Lord was already mightily at work to provide for Israel’s future. He did this by sending the world three special babies in rapid succession: Samson, Obed, and Samuel.
Even as Israel was on the point of death and annihilation, the Lord of history was providing three little babies to oversee its renewal and rebirth. Resurrection would come out of death and judgment. Blind Samson to blind Eli, but God sees the future.
With respect to Samson’s own decline, the present chapter encourages us to trace it through a succession of animals: from lions, to foxes, to asses.
Sunday, September 13
Judges 16: Two facts, recorded in the first three verses of this chapter, prepare for the rest of the drama, in which Samson will be forced to fight to the death.
The first concerns Samson’s strength. Samson is unwilling to press the advantage he has by reason of his superior strength. He toys with the men of Gaza, but ultimately he simply leaves them alone. He will learn that the Philistines are not an enemy to be tolerated.
The second concerns Samson’s weakness, which is his addiction to the company of women. This weakness will lead finally to his downfall.
In all the previous judges we read that So-and-so judged Israel for X number of years, and then, after his death, Israel went awhoring after false gods. In Samson’s case, however, we are told that he judged Israel for twenty years and then he went awhoring. That is to say, Samson has become the symbol of Israel itself.
The men of Gaza presumed that they had Samson trapped. The city gates were locked, and they could deal with him in the morning. Samson not only opened the gates, he carried them a great distance, uphill all the way, leaving Gaza open to attack.
The time of Samson’s deliverance and exploit comes at midnight, a time that may remind us of Pharaoh, Moses, Egypt, and the Exodus. There is also a parallel with the opening of the Book of Joshua, where there was also an incident involving the city gates and the residence of whore.
Samson has become careless in his declining years. He has begun to play with danger. He no long flees evil, as God would have us do. He teases his own soul, as it were, even as he teases Delilah and the Philistines. Every time he plays around, however, there is a lurking danger. His attackers are just out of sight, concealed in the inner room. He should remember the Lord’s warning to Cain with respect to temptation, “Sin lieth at the door.” Like Cain, Samson is within the reach of danger, but he continues to act unwisely, trusting too much in himself, as though his own memory no longer contains the record of his past failures. Samson acts blindly, even before the loss of his eyes.
In his whole relationship to Delilah, Samson was playing with death. The one thing Samson never did in his life was to flee. There is a proper time to flee, however. In the hour of t
emptation, flight is the proper path. Samson was blind, not recognizing the presence of temptation. He treated the whole thing as a game.
In fact, however, Samson was a dead man from the hour he entered the prostitute’s house. He was already walking in blindness. Delilah “annoyed him to death,” says the Sacred Text, in a rich ironical expression. Proverbs 2 says of the adulterous woman that “her house sinks down to death, and her tracks lead to the dead.”
The free man has foolishly handed himself over to bondage. Samson will spend the rest of his miserable existence grinding the grain of a false and foreign god.
The return of Samson’s hair signifies the growth of repentance in his mind. Having lost his eyes, Samson must find a new light in his heart. This discovery will lead him to death unto self.
The Philistines never knew when to quit (verses 21-31). We must not fail to observe here the parallel between the capture of Samson and the capture of the Ark in 1 Samuel 5. In both cases, the stories describe a battle between Israel’s God and the Philistine god, Dagan. In each case Dagan is humiliated by capturing more than he can handle. In both cases his apparent victory is the condition and cause of his defeat. Dagan captures more than he can hold.
Both of these instances are types and foreshadowing of the Christian salvation, in which Death takes captive the Victim on the cross but cannot hold Him. The apparent victory of Death is the cause and condition of the overthrow of Death. Dagan and Death are the same thing.
Samson is also a type of Christ, of course. Both are sold for silver, both are betrayed with a kiss, both die with a prayer on their lips, both are mocked in their blindness: “And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, ‘Prophesy! Who is the one who struck You?’ And many other things they blasphemously spoke against Him” (Luke 22:64).
Monday, September 14
Judges 17: The final five chapters of Judges form a sort of appendix, to show how bad things had become just prior to the rise of the monarchy. It was a period of great decline, and these stories serve to explain why Israel at last decided to want a king to rule over them. Israel’s lack of a king is mentioned five times in these five chapters.
Indeed, we perceive a decline even in the quality of the judges themselves. The list had started with the heights represented by Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon, declining gradually to the depths of Jephthah and Samson.
The present chapter begins an account of the failure of the Levites, on whose ministry the spiritual life of Israel depended so much. These were the spiritual guardians of the people. The apostate Levite introduced in this chapter was, in fact, a descendent of Moses!
We also see in this chapter the moral failure of a mother. When we began with the book with Deborah, “a mother in Israel,” we hardly expected things to end so badly.
If we compare this story with the Bible’s earlier idolatry of the Golden Calf, we see a decline from gold to silver. Even the idolatry is cheaper. Everything is declining!
The Levite described here is very typical of a certain kind of clergyman, who fails in his duties as a pastor because he finds it more profitable to become the domestic chaplain of a wealthy family. It happens all the time. We may contrast this Levite with the zealous Phineas.
Tuesday, September 15
Judges 18: The Danites migrated north to get away from the Philistines (verses 1-6). These men, we must understand, were quitters, unwilling to fight for their proper inheritance. They sought and accepted the counsel of a man that was not qualified to give counsel. They already knew what they were supposed to do, but they wanted a “second opinion.” The Lord had said, “Go, conquer the land that I will give you,” but they wanted an easy out, after finding that the task was more difficult than they supposed. Consequently they sought out a teacher who would tell them what they wanted to hear.
This should not surprise us, because we already know that this Levite’s own ministry has already been based on compromise and half-measures. He was not, after all, even authorized for the ministry he has undertaken. He is a false teacher, who pretends to speak for God.
The Bible is full of criticism against false teachers and false prophets. They are chiefly to be recognizes by certain traits:
First, they like to please people. They have no authority beyond their ability to please people. Their authority is based entirely on their popularity.
Second, Because they want to please people, they tend to say what people expect and want them to say.
Third, if challenged they appeal to their success.
The situation was described by the Apostle Paul: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:2-4).
The Danites, who had insufficient courage to fight the Philistines, are quite prepared to invade a small defenseless people, who lived in an unwalled city (verses 7-21).
The Danites, that is to say, in addition to their other shortcomings, believed in cheap grace. They wanted the blessings of the covenant without the cost of the covenant.
Just as the Danites robbed somebody else’s land, they absconded with somebody else’s gods. Indeed, they wanted only such gods as they could control. Those were gods worthy of their cowardice.
They also discovered a clergyman who was worthy of them, a quisling that would do their bidding and tell them what they wanted to hear. This nameless man was a nobody, a clerical non-entity, a hierarchical cipher. Because the price was right, he went along with them.
Man-made gods, however, tend not to be very loyal to their makers. They are disposed to take on a life of their own. They declare their independence, as it were. Micah learned this the hard way.
The city of Dan became a center of idol-worship. Jeroboam I would eventually erect there one of his two golden calves.
Wednesday, September 16
Judges 19: We come now to a horror story, a nightmare. There is a growing sense of darkness, beginning with physical darkness and going to moral darkness. The unfortunate woman is thrown out into the dark, where she is gang raped all night long. After enduring unspeakable brutality, she dies at daybreak.
There is a great irony, of course, in the fact that the Levite did not want to spend the night among pagans. He wanted to sleep secure, surrounded by his fellow Israelites. He lengthened his journey for this very purpose.
We must bear in mind that this is not a story about pagans. All the characters in this account are children of the covenant.
Gibeah, however, has become as bad as Sodom. Indeed, there are striking parallels between this story and that in Genesis 19.
There is also the cruelty of the Levite himself, who abandons his wife (for “concubine” in context means only a wife of inferior rank) to the cruelty of the mob. He has clearly not forgiven his wife for her infidelity. He is morally worse than she. This compromised individual is no man of God.
It is instructive that Hosea is the only prophet ever to mention this distressing incident at Gibeah, and he does so three times (5:8; 9:9; 10:9). Obviously Hosea, who also was married to an unfaithful wife, thought a great deal about this story and its potential lessons. Indeed, Hosea’s own treatment of his wife is a fruitful matter of contrast with the behavior of the Levite in this chapter.
Thursday, September 17
Luke 6:43-49: These closing verses of Luke’s Sermon on the P
lain suggest three considerations:
First, the teachings of Jesus are not separable from His person. We do not follow the teachings of Jesus because we see that they make sense. Indeed, to the outsider the teachings of Jesus do not always make sense. In fact, the teachings of Jesus rather often won’t make sense ahead of time. Often enough, they make no sense at all until we obey them. Which is to say, the first thing to be said about the teachings of Jesus is that we follow them because we place our trust in Jesus. What He says is not separable from who He is. Thus, He commissions the Church to teach all things “which I have commanded.”
And today He says, “Whoever comes to Me and hears My words.” There is no such thing as real Christian teaching that can subsist without Jesus. Jesus is the not the sort of religious teacher from whom the world may take what it likes and leave aside what it doesn’t want.
Whole countries are full of folks that call themselves Christians, but who have absolutely no personal familiarity with Christ. They think they are Christians because they adhere to some sanitized Christian moral code, or insouciantly assent to some creedal formulations vaguely remembered and never actually thought about. But they do not, in the depths of their conscience, know Christ. The teachings of Christ have become separated from the person of Christ. This is not real Christian discipleship.
Second, what is needed in a foundation is depth: “He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock.” Jesus contrasts such a man with what we may call surface Christianity, a discipleship that is only skin deep: “But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation.”
The hour of temptation will prove whose house is solidly established, and who has what may be described as trailer-park faith. The folks most at risk in a storm are the poor who live in trailer homes, homes without foundations. It is the same in the realm of faith. The faith of some Christians is trailer-park faith. The slightest wind will blow it over. As Jesus describes the matter, saying that against such a house “the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great.”
Thousands of people joined the Christian Church in the second half of the first century, and the vast majority of them fell away during the persecutions at the end of that century and the first decade of the new century. Their faith was not solid, and they fell away, as the Gospel says, “immediately.” Pliny wrote to the Emperor Trajan that most Christians willingly denied Christ on the mere threat of persecution.
This is why the Church of the 2nd century instituted a very strict regimen for catechumens, a time of 3 years of probation and instruction prior to baptism. To accept the discipleship of Christ is to put one’s signature on his own warrant. This is why we do not permit people to join the Church right away, as soon as they want to. It is no favor to anybody to permit this. Becoming a disciple of Christ is a very risky business, and Jesus today speaks of that risk: “the ruin of that house is great.” It would have been far better if Judas Iscariot had never even heard the name of Jesus of Nazareth.
Third, depth is attained by disciplined obedience. Jesus expresses it thusly: “Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock.” Depth comes from being what St. James calls the “doer of the Word.” Such a one may not be interested in speculative religious and theological questions. He does things; he acts in accord with his faith in Jesus.
Indeed, speculative religious and theological questions can be great distractions, which take our attention away from real obedience. Such questions appealed to the Samaritan women, who had five husbands and was currently living with a man that was not her husband. Instead of giving her attention to her own standing with God, she was all preoccupied about whether they should worship in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerazim. This is why Jesus pulled her up short. Religious and theological speculations are not the way to God.
The way to God is to come to Jesus and to hear and do His word, to obey Him. He is not only our Savior; he is also our Lord. This is what St. Paul meant by his expression, “the obedience of faith.” We attain depth in the Christian life—the life in Christ—by the steady application of what we know, the utter simplicity of the Gospel.
Friday, September 18
Judges 21: The governing motif of this chapter is rebirth for the tribe of Benjamin.
It begins with a problem. The other Israelites have taken a vow not to let their daughters marry Benjaminites. This is the problem. No one had instructed them to make that vow, and now the vow has created a serious difficulty. They had taken the vow before they offered the sacrifice of reconciliation. They had acted with a split mind, doing things that were mutually opposed. This is an example of a rash vow, of the sort that Jephthe made. Such vows often enough create bigger problems than those they were supposed to solve. Anyway, this is the problem governing the present chapter, and the Israelites themselves caused it.
The story is full of irony, of course. For example, it ends at the shrine city of Shiloh, one of the ancient words for “peace.” The scene, however, is anything but peaceful.
How do we explain all this contradiction and activity at cross-purposes? The chapter’s final verse does the best it can for an explanation. Namely, everybody was following his own inclination and preference. “Everybody do what you want,” though a slogan not without popular appeal in our own times, is a formula for chaos, and what we have here toward the end of Judges is a chaotic situation.
Still, the Book of Judges finishes with an act of deliverance and a new birth. Benjamin is spared. It does not disappear from history, as did Simeon and Reuben. From the tribe of Benjamin, in fact, would come, in due course, the Apostle Paul. This final chapter, then, is about God’s fidelity even in the midst of irony and chaos.