Friday, August 28
Judges 7: This chapter presents the second and third scenes that render the story of Gideon so memorable:
Second, there was the curious exercise by which, at the Lord’s bidding, Gideon reduced the size of his gathered army. Indeed, the reduction was of ridiculous proportions—from thirty-two thousand to three hundred (7:1–8)! If this victory was to be truly of God, it was important that no human being could take credit for it, because the Sprit of God is not to be identified with any human force or fleshly impulse.
Third, there was Gideon’s defeat of the Midianites by the singularly improbable means of the breaking of jars and the blowing of trumpets
(7:15–23). This latter action is, of course, reminiscent of Joshua’s over- throw of the walls of Jericho and conveys the identical message. Namely, that God, alone victorious over His enemies, alone deserves the praise, a truth to which Gideon himself bore witness by his subsequent refusal to become king (8:22–23). This was a lesson God’s humbled people needed to learn, and their defeat of the Midianites would be in vain if they did not learn it.
Acts 27:30-44: To prevent the ship’s continuing progress toward the unknown land, drop four poop anchors from the stern to hold it back. The situation during the rest of the night is tense, and no one has eaten very much during the past two weeks of storm.
Finally it begins to grow light, and Paul suggests that breakfast would be a capital idea. Accordingly, he says grace. Everyone takes heart and begins to eat. Afterwards they throw the rest of the ship’s cargo overboard in order to make the ship ride higher in the waves as it approaches land. (That is to say, a lighter ship can be beached closer to the land.) They cut away the four anchors at the stern and endeavor, under foresail, to beach the ship on the shore of a bay. (This inlet, on the northeast coast of Malta, is still known locally as St. Paul’s Bay.) The ship, once its bow runs aground on a spar, begins to break up from the violence of the pooping waves. They all scramble for shore as best they can, and everyone arrives safely. It has been a very rough two weeks, and no one is sad that it is over.
Saturday, August 29
Judges 8: This chapter includes the account of the the incident in which Gideon, leading his three hundred exhausted and hungry warriors in pursuit of fifteen thousand escaping Midianites, requested loaves of bread from the cities of Succoth and Penuel. This request was entirely reasonable. Gideon’s small force, by routing the Midianite army by the hill of Moreh (7:19-22), had effectively delivered all Israel, including Succoth and Penuel, from seven years of oppression (6:1). Now there remained only a modest mopping-up operation to subdue the last vestiges of the fleeing Midianite force, led by Zeba and Zalmunna. Providing Gideon’s little army with a bit of bread was the very least to be expected from those cities which benefited from that army’s victory.
Yet, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel refused Gideon’s petition. The Sacred Text tells us why: “Are the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna now in your hand, that we should give bread to your army?” (8:6) That is to say, the men of those two cities, Succoth and Penuel, were afraid to take the chance. If they were to give bread to Gideon’s forces and then Gideon should lose the battle to Zebah and Zalmunna, the Midianites would retaliate against the cities that had provided the requested assistance. (One recalls the vengeance of Saul against the priests of Nob, who honored an identical request from David; see 1 Samuel 21:1-7; 22:6-19.) In short, until the battle was actually over, the men Succoth and Penuel decided to play it safe. No bread, then, for Gideon’s men.
This story illustrates the difference between those who play it safe and those who play for keeps. By boldly marching his three hundred men into the massive Midianite camp (“as numerous as locusts; and their camels were without number, as the sand by the seashore in multitude”), Gideon had played for keeps. This story emphasizes the fortitude of his army by its contrast to the cowardice of Succoth and Penuel. Gideon won that battle, because the Lord took his side. In some of the battles that men fight on this earth, you see, God does take sides. Never, however, does He take the side of the coward.
This story also illustrates why the virtue of fortitude is necessary for all the other virtues, as a condition and catalyst. The history of moral philosophy insists that no other virtue is possible without the virtue of fortitude, certainly not justice nor charity. The man deficient in fortitude will not measure up in anything else. In the words of Ambrose of Milan, “In the mediocre soul there is no fortitude, which alone defends the adornment of all the virtues” (De Officiis 1.39). ). For this reason, the man least deserving of our trust, on any matter whatever, is the coward. Fortitude, wrote Thomas Aquinas, is “the general virtue, or rather, the condition of any virtue” (generalis virtus, vel potius, conditio cuiuslibet virtutis—Summa Theologica Ia IIae, Q. 123, Art. 2). Thus, the leaders of Succoth and Penuel, falling short in fortitude, failed in an elementary duty of justice and charity.
Sunday, August 30
Luke 4:16-30: This is Luke’s very solemn, detailed description of Jesus’ first sermon. When the author earlier wrote, “Jesus increased in wisdom” (2:52), he not only stated a fact; he also initiated a line of reflection, in the light of which to assess other facts—particular events—in the life and ministry of Jesus: he grew and matured. Luke, throughout his narrative, invites us to observe the Savior’s continuing growth in wisdom, and he presents clear evidence of it here in the event at Nazareth.
Acts 8:1-16: Arriving on Malta, perhaps in mid-November, Paul and his companions must winter there until sailing again becomes possible in the spring, three months later (28:11).
The apostle’s run-in with the snake, though regarded by the Maltese as miraculous, need not be interpreted that way. The Greek word here translated as “viper” (echidna) normally refers to non-poisonous snakes and is different from the word used in Mark 16:18. Paul’s healing of Publius’s father, however, certainly is miraculous and leads to further healings on the island.
When the time comes to depart, they once again sail an Alexandrian grain ship, which has wintered at Malta. Luke includes the detail that its prow is adorned with carved statues of Castor and Pollux, astral gods revered by the sailors who call upon them in times of storm. They sail to Syracuse, on the east coast of Sicily, where they remain three days while the crew unloads old cargo and takes on new.
They then cross over to a port on the Calabrian coast, Rhegium (modern Reggio), on the very toe of the Italian boot. Taking advantage of a southerly wind, they then sail up to Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) on the Bay of Naples, where they find a congregation of Christians. Some of these Christians immediately rush north to Rome, 125 miles away, to inform the Christians in the capital that Paul is on the way.
The apostle and his company, meanwhile, spend a whole week at Puteoli, before continuing their journey overland. Eighty miles later they come to Appian Forum, and, ten miles further, to Three Taverns; in both places they are met by Christians who had been forewarned of Paul’s coming by the Christians from Puteoli. They are all glad to see him, of course. They may be thinking of the letter that he wrote them three years earlier from Corinth.
Monday, August 31
Judges 10: The forms of idolatry listed here (verse 6) come from all around Israel: Canaanite, Syrian, Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Philistine. Israel’s every border becomes an entrance for idolatry.
Such infidelities bring their own punishment. Having permitted themselves to be invaded spiritually, the people are soon attacked physically. The Philistines attack from one direction, the Ammonites from another (verse 7).
These two invasions prepare for the next two judges—Jephthe against the Ammonites, Samson against the Philistines. The accounts of these two men are distinctly grotesque. Even the stories of their deliverance are somewhat oppressive. Jephthe and Samson are two really strange characters.
In God’s response to the people (verses 11-12), he lists seven (the number of perfection) occasions when He delivered Israel in the past. That is, God has always been faithful. He has forgiven them seven times.
There is nothing automatic about the divine forgiveness. God is not a slot machine in which we simply put the right coin. God is not a computer where we may hit the right keys. God is personal, and He deals with man personally. When we offend Him by sin, is a personal offense, and God “takes it personally.” Offending God is not like neglecting to get an oil change. God does not respond to sin like a neglected engine. Sin always takes place within a personal relationship. It always has the quality of a personal insult.
And this is the reason why God relents once more, when the people put away their false gods. God forgives for His own compassion’s sake.
Hitherto in Judges, when Israel was oppressed, the Lord raised up a hero to defend them. It was not up to the people to choose their own. All of Israel’s champions so far were raised up by God. Now, however, the people go look for a deliverer, to whom they will offer the crown.
God will certainly pour out His Spirit on Jephthe, and the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:32) will list him among the heroes of faith, but God will not permit Jephthe to do things his own way. In particular, Jephthe will not be able to found the dynasty he intended.
It is worth remarking on the similarities between Jephthe and Remus, the brother associated with the founding of Rome. Both characters are illegitimate sons, outcast by their families, and both become leaders of impoverished, oppressed men. Neither man leaves a dynasty.
Jephthe has no home, no family, no specific city of either birth or burial. He has no past, and, as the story develops, he will have no future. Jephthe receives no inheritance, nor will he leave one. He is a tragic character, and the entire account of his deliverance is freighted with tragedy. Jephthe will make many mistakes, and all of them will be costly mistakes. His final mistake will deprive him of offspring.
In a way peculiar to himself, Jephthe represents the weakness of God, which is the Cross, but his story will also demonstrate that the weakness of God is stronger than men, as the foolishness of God is wiser than men. In all of this tragedy, in all of this darkness, Jephthe’s faith is tried by fire, and this is exactly how the New Testament remembers him.
Tuesday, September 1
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 argtue 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).
Wednesday, September 2
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, still itching for a fight 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.
Thursday, September 3
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, the Hebrew word for “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.
Friday, September 4
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.