Friday, August 23
Judges 11: Jephthe is a mixed man. He is personally ambitious and clearly wants to be chief over Gilead. At the same time, he is a believer and a God-fearing man, as we see in his response to the Gileadites: “if . . . the Lord gives them before me.”
God does, in fact, used mixed people to accomplish His purposes, Perhaps the Lord would have chosen someone better to defeat the Ammonites, but He too makes the best of what He has. This fact suggests that if God does not wait around for ideal conditions, neither should we.
Jephthe’s first act (verses 12-13) demonstrates that he is really a man of peace. He appeals to the Ammonites in the hope averting war. His first thought is to avoid bloodshed if possible, so he seeks a discussion with the Ammonites. He is not a rash nor a violent man.
Indeed, Jephthe’s overture to the Ammonites may be taken as a sort of foreshadowing of the Gospel of peace proclaimed to the Gentiles. It calls on the Ammonites to forsake the ways of war, to reconsider and repent of the paths of violence.
The Ammonite response, however, was to argue back. They rehearsed their historical grievance as best they could remember it: “Because Israel took away my land when they came up out of Egypt, from the Arnon as far as the Jabbok, and to the Jordan. Now, therefore, restore these lands peaceably” (verse 13). Perceiving a misunderstanding on their part, Jephthah went to some pains to spell out for the Ammonites several points on which his memory of the matter differed from theirs.
First, he said, Israel had always been careful to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbors east of the Jordan (verses 14-18).
Second, the land under dispute had not belonged to the Ammonites anyway but to another group called the Amorites. Moreover, the territory in question had been seized from the Amorites when the latter attacked Israel, not the other way around (verses 19-23). In this reference to the ancient events narrated in Numbers 21:21-26, Jephthah also gently reminded the Ammonites that they themselves had formerly lived under Amorite rule, from which Israel had delivered them and restored them to their ancestral property (verse 24; cf. Numbers 21:29-30). With this they should be satisfied. For this they should be grateful.
Third, three hundred years had elapsed since all these things had happened (verse 26). Why had the matter never been brought up before?
The Ammonites, in short, were engaged in an exercise of historical revisionism, which consisted in treating old events with a new theory. Viewing history under the lens of a “fresh interpretation,” the Ammonites concluded that three centuries earlier they had suffered an injustice that now needed to be set right. Thus, having lived in peace with Israel for three hundred years, they were now commencing a war for the purpose of correcting an alleged wrong from a time before even their grandparents were born.
It came to pass, of course, that the Ammonites failed in this endeavor. Their historical revisionism brought upon them only further suffering-indeed, “a very great slaughter” (verse 33).
Saturday, August 24
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 is the house that the Ephraemites threaten to burn down. 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 long after the fighting is done.
Ever the man of 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, August 25
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, August 26
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 (verses 5-9) 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 likened 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, August 27
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 guides 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.
Acts 27:1-12: In this final voyage Paul is accompanied by Aristarchus and Luke (verses 2-3), who had helped him bring the alms to Jerusalem over two years earlier (20:4,6), and who have been with him at Caesarea since that time (Colossians 4:10,14; Philemon 24).
They board a ship whose homeport is Adramyttium, just south of Troas, or Troy, from where Aeneas had set sail for Rome. Luke’s inclusion of this detail is thus significant. Leaving Phoenicia, they cruise along the east and north sides of Cyprus, against strong headwinds (verse 4), and then go north to Asia Minor. The ship is obviously returning to its home port. At the city of Myra, on the south coast of Asia Minor, they change to an Alexandrian ship bound for Italy. It was perhaps a grain cargo ship, so many of which brought wheat to Rome at a fraction of the cost of transporting grain overland to Rome from elsewhere in Italy. Still fighting contrary winds, they make their way to Salmone on the northeastern tip of Crete, a port well known to ancient navigators (cf. Strabo, Geography 10.3.20; Pliny, Natural History 4.58.71).
The “Fair Havens” they reach on the south coast of Crete is still known by that name in Greek, Kali Limenes. In verse 9 Luke informs us that the Feast of the Atonement, or Yom Kippur, had already passed. If, as we are justified in suspecting, this was the year 59, then the Day of Atonement was October 5. That is to say, they were approaching the winter season when sailing on the Mediterranean was considered unsafe (November 11 to February 8 [Pliny] or March 10 [Josephus]). Phoenix, where they hope to winter, lies some forty miles further west on the south side of Crete (verse 12).
Wednesday, August 28
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 a 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, August 29
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.
Mark 6:14-29: In the New Testament triangle of the anemic Antipas, the hateful Herodias, and the relentless John, we have a striking parallel to the Old Testament triangle of the anemic Ahab, the hateful Jezebel, and, of course, the unrelenting Elijah. John’s uncompromising moral vision is what finally brought about his martyrdom.
It is remarkable that the Gospel of St. Mark (6:14-29) provides the most complete detailed account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. If one searches a reason for this, I suggest that the explanation lies in the central theme of Mark’s Gospel, namely, the mystery of the Cross.
This story of John’s death stands in Mark’s account as a foreshadowing, of sorts, of the trial and death of Jesus.
Indeed, in both stories the tragedy comes about through evil forces working on the weakness of certain political figures.
Thus, Herod orders the beheading of John the Baptist, much against his preference, when his hand is forced by the thoroughly corrupt Herodias. And Pilate, also against his preference, orders the crucifixion of Jesus, when his hand is forced by the corrupt Jewish leaders.
In both stories, that is to say, we witness the inability of cowardly political leadership to guarantee the most fundamental political rights: to life and a fair trial. Both stories are indictments of moral weakness; both Herod and Pilate are cowards, unable to resist injustice, even though they bear the responsibility of maintaining justice. Each case—the beheading of John the Baptist and the crucifixion of Jesus—demonstrates the inability of human power to render even the most basic justice.
Friday, August 30
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.