Friday, September 16
Judges 11: By way of preparing us for the establishment of Israel’s monarchy near the end of the eleventh century BC, the Book of Judges ends with a discouraging analysis of the moral climate of the period prior to that of the kings: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). Since the identical words appear earlier, at the beginning of the account of Micah and the Danites (17:6), we are likely correct in thinking that this melancholy assessment pertains especially to the wild and, frankly, disedifying stories that lie between those two verses: the migration of the Danites and their kidnapping of Micah, the gory account of Gibeah and the Levite’s concubine, Israel’s war with Benjamin, and the abduction of the virgins of Jabesh Gilead.
Earlier accounts in the Book of Judges, however, also indicate a considerable lack of moral direction throughout Israel during that early period. The stories of Jephthah, for example. Did the Bible not explicitly tell us that “the Spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah” (Judges 11:29), some of us might really wonder. Even so, quite a number of students of Holy Scripture, over the years, must have shaken their heads in bewilderment at the behavior of Jephthah.
Most conspicuous in this respect, surely, is the story of Jephthah’s sacrifice of his own daughter (11:29–40). Although various commentators have endeavored to “explain away” the obvious meaning of this story, such explanations will not stand up to literary and historical scrutiny. However uncomfortable it makes us, Jephthah really did offer his daughter in sacrifice.
Other writers, perhaps taking their cue from the story of Herod Antipas and John the Baptist (cf. Mark 6:22–29), have spoken of a “rash oath” on the part of Jephthah. Dante, for example, read the text this way (cf. Paradiso 5:64–68).
However, there is nothing in the account of Jephthah to suggest that the vow was incautious on his part, except in its unexpected result. It is portrayed, rather, as his deliberate pledge to sacrifice a precious human life, an oath that Jephthah apparently believed he would fulfill by sacrificing a slave or some other person less significant than his own daughter. The literal meaning of the narrative is very plain.
It is also conspicuous for its lack of moral comment, the author using a restraint markedly in contrast to other places where the Holy Scripture speaks of human sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; Jeremiah 7:31; Micah 6:7). Likewise, the tragedy of Jephthah and his daughter is told in the starkest terms, with emphasis on his own grief and on the daughter’s bravery in accepting her allotted fate and her compassion for the dereliction of her father. There is no doubt or hesitation in the mind of either of them.
Unlike the case of Abraham, God does not intervene to save the situation. Nor would Jephthah be long in following his daughter in death (Judges 12:7). A great sense of irony and doom hangs over this whole story, told as an unmitigated tragedy.
The oath of Jephthah, once he makes it, seems to carry an iron-like inevitability which, from a purely literary perspective, may put one in mind of the Greek tragedies. Indeed, readers have often remarked on the thematic similarity between the stories of Jephthah and Agamemnon, who also sacrificed a daughter in connection with a military operation. Dante (Paradiso 5:64–72), for instance, believed that the stories would always be remembered together.
Arguably more prominent, however, are the ways in which these two accounts stand in contrast. First, unlike Jephthah, Agamemnon is not struck by a misfortune unforeseen; his sacrifice of Iphigeneia is planned and very deliberate. Second, unlike the bloody details in Aeschylus’s portrayal of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, the Bible’s narrative is very sober and subdued; there is no direct mention of the sacrifice itself. Indeed, from a strictly dramatic (as distinct from theological) point of view, it may be argued that the sense of inevitable doom in the biblical story of Jephthah is even more “Greek” than the Greek tragedy.
Saturday, September 17
Judges 12: Jephthe is not the first Judge to have trouble with the Ephraemites (verses 1-7). We recall Gideon’s earlier difficulties with them.
Here they threaten to burn down Jephthe’s house, the very house from which he recently saw exit his now mourned daughter. This threat was not a proposition crafted to bring out the gentleman in Jephthe. It showed bad judgment.
It was also bad timing. Not having gone to battle before, the Ephraemites are ready to fight after the fight is over. The Lord had given victory anyway, and the Ephraemites had not been part of the victory. Now they threaten the very man through whom the Lord gave the victory. They are the classical troublemakers, itching for a fight after the fighting is done.
Ever the man peace, by preference, Jephthe endeavored to reason with these fools, as he had earlier attempted with the Ammonites. The Ephraemites, however, under the impulse of an irrational jealousy, refuse to act moderately or listen to reason.
The Jordan River, which divides the Ephraemites from most of Israel, is also the place of a linguistic divide, which will prove to make it, in the present context, a place of judgment. It is as a place of judgment that the Jordan River will later be the site of the preaching of John the Baptist.
Ephraem never learned its lesson. Never. Having resisted Gideon and Jephthe, it would resist David and rebel against Solomon. The Lord would later use the Assyrian army, under Sargon II, to take care of the problem.
And then Jephthe dies (verses 8-15). Why does Holy Scripture tell us that he died? Obviously it is not something that we doubt, so why mention it? Indeed, of some of the Judges we know precious little more than the fact that they died, so why bother with saying so?
The reason is theological. Each of these men was a deliverer of his people. Yet each of them died. Their deliverance, therefore, was temporary. In each case, death got the last word. That is to say, death still ruled. The mortality brought into the world by Adam’s offense still prevailed. Of not a single one of these men was it said that they rose again. In every instance, death was finally victorious over life. That is the real difference between the New Testament and the Old.
It is also the reason why burial sites are mentioned. Tombs are memorials. Men look upon them and are reminded of that supreme humiliation called death. This is why tombs are prominent in the Bible. They stand in eloquent testimony that something is very wrong in human life. Tombstones are the standing reminders of, the perpetual witnesses to, the fall of Adam. This is why, like the Ten Commandments, they are normally made of stone. They are stone because they testify to a hard fact, a fact you can lean on, and it will not give way.
But tombstones are also witnesses to man’s hope. Besides the past to which they refer, they point to the future and the Resurrection.
Sunday, September 18
Judges 13: We now come to Samson, whose great physical strength made him one of the most memorable characters in Holy Scripture. If (as I have argued elsewhere) Jacob is the Semitic equivalent of the classical Odysseus, we may think of Samson as the Semitic parallel to the classical Hercules. In both cases, their stories form a series of “feats.” Indeed, St. Augustine testifies how easy it was for his contemporaries to confuse the two: “. . . there was also the Judge of the Hebrews, Samson, who, because he was so marvelously strong, has been thought to be Hercules”— erat et Hebraeorum judex Samson, qui cum mirabiliter fortis esset, putatus est Hercules (The City of God, 18:19).
Up till now, whenever the Book of Judges spoke of the political oppression of the Israelites, the text invariably went on to say that Israel repented and turned to the Lord. Not here, however. There is no mention of repenting or turning to the Lord. Israel no longer has the ability even to repent. Israel has hit rock bottom, and all human hope is gone (verse 1).
In this chapter we observe that God speaks to the woman first, not Manoah (verses 2-7). Earlier, we recall, God spoke first to Rebekah, not Isaac (Genesis 25).
The message of the angel to Manoah’s wife touches on the biblical theme of the barren woman (cf. Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, et aliae). The introduction of this theme continues the note of despair with which the chapter began.
We bear in mind that all three of the “permanent Nazirites” in the Bible (Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist) were born of seemingly barren women. Each of these mothers is a kind of new Eve, receiving God’s promise in the midst of her own sense of inadequacy.
The second visitation (verses 9-10) reinforces the fact that the message was for the woman. The angel ‘deliberately’ appears when Manoah is absent. When questioned by Manoah (verse 12), the angel responds that he has already said all he has to say—to the woman! (verse 13) Manoah is the nervous questioner, but all the needful information had already been conveyed in the first apparition. There is nothing to add. The angel simply repeats what he had said before, and this time with less detail (verse 14).
The angel is not going to explain himself. He was sent to earth to convey a promise and a command, not to give a news flash. He was proclaiming God’s plan of redemption and man’s place in that plan. The salvific initiative is God’s. The proper response to the message is obedience, not curiosity for more details.
Manoah, that is to say, is like the rest of the Israelites. None of them have been serving God and seeking His will. But now that God proposes a plan for deliverance, Manoah is full of questions and curiosity. He wants a more active role in the plan. There isn’t one. God does not need Manoah. God is not interested in Manoah’s questions and curiosities.
Manoah is a curious combination of audacious, inquisitive, controlling, and superstitious. Only such a man will get out of line with an archangel. (Compare Zachary in Luke 1.)
Manoah is also not a quick learner (verses 15-23). Having heard the Lord’s message, he now wants to deal with the Lord’s messenger. Manoah is spiritually insensitive. Indeed, given how dangerous it can be to deal with the biblical God, Manoah is let off pretty easy. He is not struck dead like Uzzah!
But what does Manoah accomplish? At the end of the scene he knows no more than he did at the beginning. God had given as much information as was required. This second apparition of the angel served only to point out Manoah’s limitations more clearly.
Manoah’s attitude was not unique. On the contrary, he was typical of his own culture, which was shallow, audacious, recklessly inquisitive, and deeply superstitious.
In these respects, Manoah’s inherited religious culture was a great deal like our own. Our own culture, too, knows very little of the biblical God. It is highly subjective, pretentious, and insensitive to the presence of holiness. It craves quick and easy answers to deep and impossibly complex questions. It is a generation disposed to wear its shoes at the Burning Bush. And what does God do with such a generation? He sends someone like Samson to knock some heads together.
The name Samson (verse 24) is a derivative of shemesh, meaning “sun.” Indeed, Samson resembles the sun as described in Psalm 19: “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; he rejoices as a giant to run his course.” The very next chapter will describe Samson as a bridegroom. In fact, after strong man, bridegroom is the description of Samson most easily remembered.
Monday, September 19
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 and 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 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.
Tuesday, September 20
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 and 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.
Wednesday, September 21
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 a-whoring after false gods. In Samson’s case, however, we are told that he judged Israel for twenty years and then he went a-whoring. 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 temptation, 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 foreshadowings 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).
Thursday, September 22
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.
Luke 8:40-56: The likelihood of chronological precision is particularly strong in the sequence of the storm scene and the episode involving the demons and the pigs. Since the latter event was remembered to have taken place in Gentile territory (Jews not being permitted to tend pigs) on the east bank of the Sea of Galilee, we naturally find it preceded by a boat trip to arrive at the place. Beyond simple historical sequence, however, the two narratives are appropriately juxtaposed for two other reasons.
First, both stories are concerned with the mysterious identity of Jesus in a context symbolic of baptism. First, the marveling Apostles raise the question of Jesus’ identity in reaction to His manifest authority over the storm (Matthew 8:27; Mark 4:41; Luke 8:25), and then the demons address Him as “Son of God” (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28): “Who is this? The Son of God.” This combination of query and response, found in all three Synoptics, suggests that the demons themselves are answering the question that the Apostles have just asked: “Who?” The joining of this specific doctrinal question and this specific dogmatic answer, given at the waterside, follows the ancient interrogation of the Sacrament of Baptism (cf. Acts 8:36–37, for example), which in the Church has always been prefaced by an exorcism. To this very day, when someone is presented for baptism, that person is first exorcised of demons, who are explicitly rejected, and is then asked to confess Jesus as Son of God, Savior, and Lord.
Second, the juxtaposition of these two stories suggests an imaginative analogy between the outer, physical storm on the lake and the inner, spiritual storm afflicting a tortured soul.
Both of these storms—the outer and the inner—have a “before and after.” Thus, of the first one we read, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat,” and then, “the wind ceased and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:37, 39). Of the second storm we are told, “he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones,” and then, they “saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind” (Mark 5:5, 15). In both cases, it is the encounter with Jesus that produces the calm. In each instance, Jesus’ command is inexorable: “Even the wind and the sea obey Him” and “Send us to the swine” (4:41; 5:12).
Prior to meeting Jesus, this poor demoniac is the very type of the lost soul, his heart and mind fractured and fragmented into thousands of warring parts. (There were six thousand foot soldiers in a Roman legion, besides cavalry. Now, if six thousand demons entered into two thousand pigs, that would mean . . . well, you can do the math.) This meeting with Christ is baptismal; the demons perish in those same deluge waters from which the Church has just been delivered.
Friday, September 23
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.