The lesser glory or the severity of the law (in 1 Samuel 14-15)

A man’s word or vows mattered a great deal; they actually had power. Subconsciously we know there is power in words when we curse our enemies and bless our friends. When Saul declares a vow in 1 Samuel 14, he is bound to fulfill it without compromise, even if it meant the death of his first born son, Jonathan.

24 And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” So none of the people had tasted food…27 But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. (1 Samuel 14:24, 27)

Though the narrative frames Saul’s vow as rash and foolish, and even though Jonathan was not aware of Saul’s vow, he is nevertheless marked as a transgressor so that God does not answer when Saul inquires if he should plunder the Philistines. God is not honoring Saul, the individual, apart from his role as King of Israel. As King of Israel, Saul is privileged with honor and authority that reaches to the heavens. Saul as King issues an edict; Jonathan violates the edict (albeit unintentionally) which brings a consequence – the curse; the sin must be dealt with before God, therefore He does not respond to Saul’s inquiry.

44 And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” (1 Samuel 14:44)

But the people ransom Jonathan so that he does not die. This would mean that the people have accepted the curse on behalf of Jonathan. We do not know what form the curse takes among the people but we do know that Saul stops pursuing his enemy, the Philistines, who live to plunder, enslave, and kill the Israelites in future days.

In the book of Esther, we see how the King’s commands are absolute and has God-like authority. King Ahasuerus is persuaded by Haman, probably the highest official in the land, to destroy the Jews, unaware that the reason is out of personal wrath against Mordecai, a Jew, who refused to show reverence to Haman. When a King, the supreme and irreproachable power in the land, issues an edict, it’s unfathomable that it can ever be reversed. To do away with the edict is to admit that his authority and wisdom can be questioned; and his glory would be diminished. The King’s commands are like that of God speaking and bringing things into existence as when he said “Let there be light: and there was light (Genesis 1:3).”

To save the Jews from slaughter, King Ahasuerus grants Mordecai unrestrained privilege to issue another edict that allows the Jews to protect themselves even by destroying their enemies. What seemed at odds with each other are now both fulfilled – the King’s original command to destroy the Jews and yet the salvation of the Jews.

8 But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” (Esther 8:8)

Transgression has severe and exacting consequences… and we see this in God’s stunning command to destroy the Amalekites…

1 Samuel 15
3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

God gives two specific reasons for this judgment: when the Israelites came out of Egypt on their way to Canaan, the Amalekites attacked although unprovoked and God makes clear that the Amalekites committed atrocities . To us 21st Century folks, the command to “kill both man and woman, child and infant” is horrifying, generally speaking and especially for those in the West. But in those days, the Israelites would not have blinked an eye. It’s hard for us to imagine but the ancients really did live in a world that is upside down to the one that we live in. The critical distinction between their world and ours as it relates to the 1 Samuel 15 account, is that the ancients lived under the heavy hand of the law with no escape from judgment upon transgression. We too of course are subject to laws and judgment but there are three ways we confront it. For those who no longer believe in a holy God, values are relative, boundaries are relaxed and markers have been moved. The law does not have the weight of majesty and glory that was imposed upon the ancients; back then, slaves and kings lived epic lives in so far as they accepted the severe consequences of their actions. So a self-interested killer today may be described as having a personality pathology. But the more common theme of our lives is hypocrisy and broken promises where our deeds do not match our words because what is being upheld by our words is rootless. We live casual lives, our words have no power or authority, our speech is unmeasured and careless and our judgments inconsistent. We live atomized lives and are left to our own devices – there is no king, no God, nothing transcendent.

Then there are those who esteem the law and principles as universal and fixed across all peoples and from the beginning of ages but they are also divorced from an experience with the divine that produces trembling and leads to an understanding that a highly exalted law issuing from a sovereign God exposes us and makes us undone. Consequently, we are able to console ourselves that we are good people and that we can march upward with a vision of justice and flourishing – if we just try hard enough.

The third way is to realize that the ancients were living in a truer world, one in which the existence of the supernatural was a given. We believe that we are on a trajectory of progress and achievement and perhaps we are in terms of technology, but we are also very much earthbound and enslaved to what gratifies the five senses. There is no ready satisfaction for the soul that longs for an encounter with something that is greater and higher so that, in being overwhelmed, we finally bend our knees and revel in our smallness. Yet worship makes us sane, brings healing and puts us in our right minds. To identify with the ancient world is to believe that there is a living God and that there are many gods. And to believe that there is, in particular, a God of the Israelites who carried a people from out of bondage and, as their warrior King, defeated many peoples in order to settle them into their own land. It’s to believe that God walks among us and that myths and legends are artifacts of an ancient order; that there is a Son of God who incarnated as a man just two thousand years ago in order to fulfill a prophecy about the only man who truly worships and obeys God, and in that sanctified state offers himself up as a blood sacrifice, the only ransom that is sufficient to set us free from the judgment of death and condemnation as transgressors of the Law. To contemporary ears, the story is preposterous which goes to show how wide the gap is between then and now. But Jesus does say “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

In the 1 Samuel 15 passage, there is seemingly no way out for the Amalekites, no savior, no mercy, unlike the favor shown to the Jews of Esther’s time. The judgment was meant to be carried out in an exacting manner. And this is the lesser glory as described in 2 Corinthians 3: the law bringing condemnation and death is a ministry of glory. The glory is in the severity of the consequence and the uncompromising fulfillment of that consequence as a result of wickedness as judged by the law.

If a woman’s beloved child was murdered, the only just and satisfying compensation is for the murderer’s child to be killed. Either that or bring the child back to life. Let’s say that instead of a measure for measure judgment, the murderer’s arm is cut off but her own beloved child is spared. The consequence though still severe reflects some degree of leniency and mercy; that is if the murderer loved her child more than the soundness of her body. In that leniency, the force of the law, the absolute value that gives meaning to a set of laws, would then be diminished and trampled upon. While a measure for measure judgment may be considered severe and horrifying (especially for the transgressor), the law is exalted as sacred, inviolable and enduring forever. It’s as if the world would come apart at the seams if not for the Law that holds creation together.

Along with the proposition that the King’s command (whatever it may be) is to be obeyed with reverence (Jesus shared that his food was to do the will of God – John 4:34), there is the corollary proposition that God is just. Jeremiah 9:24 affirms that God “exercises loving-kindness, righteousness and justice.” What is the root purpose of the law? The law serves to protect the weak, to ensure that the strong do not eat the weak; therefore the refrain in the Old Testament that God upholds the cause of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. If not for this innate human problem of exerting force upon and manipulating one another to satisfy our cravings, the law is unnecessary.

Nothing good can happen in life apart from the restraining influence of laws of conduct. Law on the grand scale allows for an abundant life – a life of flourishing, beauty, nobleness, glory… and a vision of nobleness, beauty and glory will move men to extremes…

The law as given to Moses is the operationalized derivative of the Law that the Psalmist is able to behold and meditate upon as beautiful and glorious as in Psalm 19:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.

The Apostle James discusses the law of liberty (James 2:12) which if we contrast it to the law of Moses, the law of liberty is super-positive, without the boundaries and drawn lines that we typically associate with laws. By describing it as super-positive, I mean that the law of liberty is not really a “law” but a heart’s desire – see Psalm 19.

The essence of the law of liberty is love so that out of a heart overflowing with love, we obey God not out of fear or duty or obligation or guilt or calculated self-interest, but because we love and worship God and know Him to be our life and breath. This assertion is actually quite distressing because we cannot remake our hearts; we cannot will to love God. The default mode of the human heart is to be hostile toward God.

But even in our fall from glory we catch glimpses of faithfulness, honor and courage where men and women commit to great self-sacrifice and even death to serve and love others. The everyday sacrifice is seen in a parent’s unfailing love for a child. We know stories of soldiers so committed to his unit that he dies to save his brothers in arms. There is a kind of self-interest in these acts of great self-sacrifice, the secret being that in living out a life of godly and divine love, we are finally alive and living (seeing a joy that is set before us); we gain an abundant and rich life – but one that we willingly lay down for the one we love.

To love God in this same way is to know and receive Jesus just as one might relate to a faithful and loving husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister. To know the personal and intimate love of God, one that is like fire and passionate and jealous for our love, is through the doorway of the Son of God who became the Son of Man who entered our world in a mission to save and redeem his beloved bride. That God loves us like a husband/lover is undisputed and declared throughout scripture. If only we can take it into our hearts, we would become alive in an instant. One would have to write a novel at the very least to explore the depths of God’s love for us.

To wrap up in one sentence: The law is an expression of God’s love for all that he has made.

Worship and obedience in 1 Samuel 13-14

In ancient Israel, warfare was the normal experience of young and old, rich and poor. During Saul’s reign, the Philistines were Israel’s great enemy who had dominance over the Israelites to the degree that no one in Israel was able to sharpen his weapons except by paying the Philistines. The Israelites were feeble before the Philistines. In one battle episode in which the Philistines rise up against the Israelites, Saul blows the trumpet to call out the people for battle. But Saul is barely able to hold together an army let alone a resolute army, with the men fleeing and hiding in holes and caves; and at Gilgal (Saul’s home base) “all the people followed him trembling” (1 Samuel 13:7). The Philistine army on the other hand is prepared and confident, maybe even dazzling in their numbers and armaments.

“And the Philistines mustered to fight with Israel, 30 thousand chariots and six thousand horsemen and troops like the sand on the seashore in multitude.” (1 Samuel: 13:5)

As an aside, it’s not possible that the Philistines could have had 30 thousand chariots (!), a staggering number that was probably the result of a copy error, lol. The number of chariots was probably in the 3000 range and even then there is a mismatch of strength with the Israelites like farmers with pitchforks in comparison. According to 1 Samuel 13:22, “…on the day of battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them.”

It’s in such dire circumstances that Saul is called to stand fast and wait upon God. During this time and in previous generations the Israelite army fought with the Ark of the Covenant (and the priest) on the battlefield. The priest’s role seems to have been to give the green light to engage in any particular battle. The priest stirred the men to action and strengthened their faith to believe that God would give them victory. The Israelites’ greatest strength and deliverer was God, Yahweh, who supernaturally delivered them in battle through certain leaders, even such as Saul.

1“When you go out to war against your enemies, and see horses and chariots and an army larger than your own, you shall not be afraid of them, for the LORD your God is with you, who brought you up out of Egypt. 2And when you draw near to battle, the priest shall come forward and speak to the people 3and shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel, today you are drawing near for battle against your enemies: let not your heart faint. Do not fear or panic or be in dread of them, 4for the LORD your God is he who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies, to give you the victory.’” (Deuteronomy 20:1-4)

Faced with his men fleeing as the Philistines mustered for battle at Michmash, Saul succumbs to fear and takes emergency action. Saul breaks the chain of command: he willfully “offers the burnt offering” to petition God for victory though he was not sanctified for this role. It may be difficult for us to grasp why this is a serious transgression but Saul should have known the severe consequences of doing things that only priests and certain anointed individuals like Samuel had authority to do, given history. If he had reverence for God’s commands (in this instance by way of Samuel), Saul would have waited and submitted to God’s word even if the world was going up in flames before his eyes.

Saul had a casual way with God’s commandments. Why does God demand Saul obey His word? Obedience despite not knowing why and despite the life and death pressure to take matters into one’s own hands indicates faith, reverence and “the fear of the Lord.” Saul started out with a bright future but along the way he succumbed to the fear of man.

What is God looking for? He is looking for total worship. We see something akin to total worship in Jonathan, Saul’s son, through his spectacular and God-glorifying faith as described in 1 Samuel 14.

6Jonathan said to the young man who carried his armor, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” 7And his armor-bearer said to him, “Do all that is in your heart. Do as you wish. Behold, I am with you heart and soul.” (1 Samuel 14:6-7)

Jonathan has a laser beam faith which betrays no hint of uncertainty. I wouldn’t even describe it as faith but as knowledge that comes by way of knowing and having encountered the living God. Actually, many of the Israelites would have had this type of faith, including Saul. For if the visceral presence of God was in the camp and the glory of God manifested on occasion, then they would have lived in the reality that they are not their own. The key difference is that Jonathan worshipped while Saul’s missteps betrayed a careless and what was in fact a rebel heart.

So Jonathan was given the privilege of witnessing God’s faithfulness and thrilling deliverance as God intervened from the heavens, so that by two men and an earthquake the Philistines camp was thrown into chaos. The pitchfork contingent overran the tech-heavy thousands: God testified yet again He alone is God and is to be worshipped.

A fascinating detail about Saul not being able to chase after the fleeing Philistines without the priest first “withdrawing his hand” confirms the strict adherence to spiritual protocols in warfare.

In this narrative there is an obvious contrast between Saul and his son Jonathan so that we understand who God is and the type of man He is looking for. The narrative builds a case for Saul’s deficiency and sets up the subsequent rise of David as a man after God’s own heart. And David as we know is a foreshadowing of the only true worshipper of God, Jesus Christ.

The glory of God and the ark

In their many battles against their various enemies, Israel knew that their strength and victory came from God. If Israel lost a battle, they would not have blamed their tactics or level of readiness primarily. They would have been confused and amazed at the defeat, and perhaps would have questioned their consecration – did someone sin? When Israel was chased down by the men of Ai (in Joshua 7), Joshua falls on his face before the ark of the LORD in great distress:

“O Lord, what can I say, when Israel has turned their back before their enemies! For the Canaanites and all the inhabitants of the land will hear of it and will surround us and cut off our name from the earth. And what will you do you for your great name?” (Joshua 7:8-9)

God answers: “Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their belongings. Therefore, the people of Israel cannot stand before their enemies.” (Joshua 7:11-12)

In 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites are defeated by the Philistines and instead of inquiring of God, they decide to use the Ark of the Covenant as a talisman by bringing it into the battle field. The consequences are great and in fulfillment of God’s judgment: Thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel are slaughtered, the ark of God is captured and the two sons of Eli are killed in battle.

There would have been shock and lamentation in Israel upon hearing that the Philistines had captured the ark of God. Eli, the priest, falls over backward from his chair, breaks his neck and dies. His daughter-in-law gives birth prematurely and names her son Ichabod. “And she said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.'” (1 Samuel 4:22)  That she has born a son is no consolation to her in the reality of what seems like God’s departure.

During these ancient days, the glory of God is dramatically revealed on the battlefield or when God routs an advancing enemy. The text implies that Israel was being harassed by the Philistines who were threatening to overwhelm the Israelites, if not already. In these desperate times, the leaders and the faithful would have been compelled to cling to God as their only hope of deliverance from a strong enemy. Philistine triumph in battle could presumably lead to Israel’s worst nightmare, which eventually became a reality with the end of the monarchy in Judah and exile to Babylon, along with all the horrors of war. When God does bring about deliverance, the exultation in triumph, the singing, dancing, memorials, worship and glory given to God as recorded in scripture draws the modern reader into their world and deepens our understanding of what it means for believers to be ‘saved’ by God today.

The battle narratives in scripture are compelling in that God reveals himself as the mighty warrior in glory and brilliance. He is the champion of Israel who in great power scatters and stuns the enemy so that Israel need only rally and pursue. God’s constant teaching to the Israelites is that only He can save and deliver and that only He is God.

In Joshua 5, Joshua has a face to face encounter with God:

13 Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” 14 “Neither,” he replied, “but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence, and asked him, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” 15 The commander of the LORD’s army replied, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” And Joshua did so.

This was certainly God in the flesh because the scene echoes Moses’ encounter with God in the flames of the burning bush (Exodus 3). God had also instructed Moses to take off his sandals for the ground on which he stood was holy and furthermore, God clearly identified himself: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Joshua’s encounter is bit more visually compelling to me because here is God appearing in the flesh, as a warrior. Being face to face with God, Joshua falls facedown to the ground and worships. And the response is the outflow of a core longing to worship before a true and long-awaited King, the memory of glory imprinted into the soul of every human being. In those moments of true worship, we have arrived home and our identities are revealed; we have the Spirit to be brave and honorable for His sake and for others.

The Philistines return The Ark of God after 7 months of destruction and “emerods in their secret parts” according to the King James translation. The speculation is that the bubonic plague ravaged the Philistines. At Beth-shemesh, where the ark of God is received, God destroys over 50,000 men (or 70 men depending on translation) because they looked into the the ark – I suppose it was equivalent to gazing at someone’s private parts without permission, an exchange that should only happen between lovers. Later (perhaps 20 years later), Samuel gathers the people together where they commit to turn away from foreign gods and serve the LORD only. When the Philistines hear of the gathering, they marshal their forces to attack Israel. By faith, the people of Israel wait upon God to deliver them from the Philistines:

8 And the people of Israel said to Samuel, “Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. 10 As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. 11 And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car. (1 Samuel: 8-11)

To stand still in weakness and wait for God to deliver us from a desperate situation is to test our belief that God is alive and merciful. And when God to our thrilling amazement intervenes supernaturally, he alone receives praise and the glory.

The book of Judges chronicles several accounts of God working though the Judges to save them from their enemies. The most spectacular account involves God instructing Gideon to go into battle with 300 men into the camp of Midian. Gideon by nature is cautious and doesn’t have the zeal and fervor to risk life and limb in an impossible mission and God knows that of course. With patience and understanding, God strengthens his faith by small miracles and with bits of knowledge so that by the middle night watch Gideon has the confidence to muster his handful of men. All 300 men are set around the camp with torches in their hands and they blow their trumpets at the appointed time as if to herald a charging army into battle. The Midianites in terror and confusion draw swords against one another and flee from what they perceive to be a massive assault. Yet, the strength of Israel was as real as if Gideon had an army of 100,000 at his command because God was present in the battlefield with sword drawn, leading the armies of the living God. And Joshua and his men must have been swept up into reality of God’s glory and power as they watched the enemy crumble away.

Only Israel had the glory of God in their midst. God’s presence was in the camp as a comforting reality that God provided and protected them. But beyond that, they had access to the God of mighty acts, the God who lead them out of slavery in Egypt. They were near to the God of glory before whom they trembled and reverenced.

Much later on in history, God visits again in the flesh, but not as a warrior. He visits as a gentle and supremely approachable carpenter in a story of salvation through voluntary weakness and sacrifice that is heart-wrenching and stuns the enemy into silence.

To know the LORD

1 Samuel begins with the story of childless Hannah crying out to God for a son in “anxiety and vexation.” To not have children and a son in particular suggests that being barren was about the worst possible situation for a woman in those times. Despite having a husband who favored her over the other wife, Hannah could not be consoled. Her anxiety suggests that being barren was beyond a matter of pride and shame but consequential to her security and well-being. Which is not to say she desperately wanted children only to offset any future hardship as a result of famine, war, violence and other situations where life can be easily snuffed out. But in those times (and even today in many parts of the world), prosperity meant food to eat and safety from pillaging, rape, murder and slavery. Therefore, the harvest season was a time of rejoicing and celebration. Security and peace meant having a strong king and a strong army with chariots, horses and menacing weapons.

The request for a son is of such importance that Hannah vows to “give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head” – the visible mark of a Nazirite. God grants her petition and her prayer in response is the prayer of a woman who has experienced dramatic deliverance, such as from a great enemy or from death itself. In her prayer, Hannah exults in the LORD, derides enemies, rejoices in God’s salvation. Her prayer describes God as confounding the ways of the world in breaking down the mighty, giving strength to the feeble, the prosperous begging for bread, the hungry satisfied, the lowly seated with princes, and the rich brought low. In other words, God executes justice.

The scene quickly changes to the matter of Eli the priest’s two wicked sons who were the modern equivalent of shakedown thugs operating in God’s temple. Acutally, perhaps there is not really a modern equivalent of blatant thuggery occurring in a place of worship.  Today’s sins are expressed through addictions and passive aggression. The heart of the matter in God’s eyes was that the two sons “treated the offering of the LORD with contempt.” As people offered animal sacrifices to God, the priest’s servants would beligerantly and greedily take the best of whatever they wanted. “Thus the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the LORD.” (1 Samuel: 2:17) The men had no sense of the sacrificial offerings as being a bridge to God.

A few paragraphs further into the narrative, it is revealed that “it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.” It is interesting to note that throughout the telling of the account of Eli’s sons, the author interjects here and there that the young Samuel was ministering before the LORD, grew in the presence of the LORD,  continued to grow in stature with the LORD…

A prophet visits Eli to pronounce severe judgement upon his house and descendants – forever. The judgment is pronounced again by way of Samuel when God calls to him as he was lying down in God’s temple. When God calls out his name to get his attention, Samuel has no inkling that it is God as explained in the following :

Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. (1 Samuel 3:7)

Samuel knew and heard about God but he had not yet met the living God. God had not yet spoken to him directly. And anything that God says to us is “the word of the LORD” meaning that what He tells us is to be regarded with reverence and accepted in order to obey wholeheartedly and remembered always.  In this way Samuel did not yet know God. (In our day, the normal and perhaps safe way that we communicate with God is through reading scripture and prayer in response to scripture. We now have “the word of the LORD” in print.) In a later episode, when the people cry out for a king, Samuel “repeated them in the ears of the LORD” which is a striking way of expressing Samuel’s privileged and intimate relationship with God. After an earlier reading of this verse, I remembered it as Samuel whispering into God’s ears. Samuel had the kind of relationship with God that Moses had, in God speaking to him face to face, as one speaks to a friend (Exodus 33:11).

We grow in knowing God as we encounter who He is in His compassion, as well as His severity, with both attributes expressed in His laws and commandments. We see God’s compassion with Hannah in giving her a son who would achieve for her significance and security. Hannah’s story is of course a shadow of the one and only Son of God who delivers those of us who also cry out to God as Hannah did. God tells us repeatedly that His steadfast love endures forever, that His faithfulness reaches to the clouds. But this is not the whole story; there is God’s severity and His uncompromizing verdict that we are accountable for our wicked hearts and deeds. When Abel was murdered by Cain, his blood cried out to God for justice. As other examples, should God forgive genocide, the child abuser who destroys young lifes? Blood must be shed in order to have peace with God and He will not allow His creation to go down the drain as a result of hatred, selfishness, injustice and the list goes on. In some cultures, people cannot accept a God who forgives because they understand that some atrocities are just too mind-boggling. Yet, if we seek forgiveness, God has provided a way out for us. His love and mercy compelled Him to send His only begotten Son to shed blood on our behalf, the only possible sacrifice worthy and sufficient in order to satisfy God’s wrath. If not for His grace, we would be on the receiving end of His severity, which is what befalls Eli in all its horror:

Then the LORD said to Samuel, “Behold, I am about to do a thing in Israel at which the two ears of everyone who hears it will tingle.” (1 Samuel 3:11)

God’s first message to Samuel is that Eli’s house will be punished forever and that there will be no atonement by way of sacrifice…forever. What is Eli’s response? “It is the LORD. Let Him do what seems good to him.” (3 Samuel: 18) I think certainly Eli knew God too.

Glory in weakness and the heart of God (in the book of Ruth)

God seeks out Ruth for she is one of His own. He provides for her who is poor, a woman, a widow, and a foreigner – in other words defenseless and weak in a hostile world. He calls her and brings her into community and a family, none other than the royal family line of David. This is our God who cares righteously for the weak and the poor to the point of exercising judgment on the oppressor.

Why is there a book in the Bible dedicated to Ruth’s story? Ruth’s most important significance is that she is not an Israelite. Yet, it is implicit throughout the narrative that she is being honored and Boaz declares more than once that she is “worthy.” Her honored stature points to the heart of God who at this point in history is looking ahead to the gathering of His people from many nations. The new Jerusalem is described as a beautiful bride which must mean that God’s love for us is passionate. And if we meditated on this and God’s own expressions of zeal and fervor for Zion (His dwelling place with his people) and ultimately, if we look to the life of Christ who though God became man and stripped himself of all glory and submitted to suffering and death, the truth would be electrifying. Only a love that is passionate and consuming, therefore personal and intimate, would compel the God of all creation and enthroned in splendor and majesty to do what is shocking.

Light in the darkness (or the ministry of the Spirit)

The refrain in chapters 17 to 21 of Judges is “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” The author seemingly tacks on two out of place narratives at the end of a series of action-packed narratives about the deliverers that God raise up to give relief to His people. In the two narratives, there is no account of a Judge saving the day. Rather, we see the outcome of the Israelites left to their own devices with God’s word far from their thoughts and practices.

Both narratives involve a Levite that travels from Bethlehem in Judah to the hill country of Ephraim. The first Levite departs from Bethlehem “to sojourn where he could find a place” and initially settles down to become Micah’s priest. The second Levite fetches his concubine from Bethlehem to bring her back to his home in the hill country of Ephraim. Why is this significant? Bethlehem is the birth place of King David and also the birthplace of the greater King, Jesus Christ. The significance of Bethlehem is explained in prophecy:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

The movement from Bethlehem to Ephraim by these two Levites (who are supposed to be God’s attendants in His temple) become significant and meaningful in the context of the Levites’ unwise and sinful decisions that result in a false worship system (in the first case) and internecine warfare (in the second case). Ephraim was blessed with the riches of the earth through becoming many nations (by Jacob) and yet God laments over Ephraim for playing the harlot.

In Psalm 78, we are told that God rejects Ephraim:

67 Then he rejected the tents of Joseph,
he did not choose the tribe of Ephraim;
68 but he chose the tribe of Judah,
Mount Zion, which he loved.
69 He built his sanctuary like the heights,
like the earth that he established forever.
70 He chose David his servant
and took him from the sheep pens;
71 from tending the sheep he brought him
to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel his inheritance.

The ministry of condemnation

It’s helpful to review Samson’s career to better understand the role of the Judge. Samson’s tactic of aggression against aggression only escalates the atrocities until there is mutual destruction. Samson as Judge is guided by a measure for measure world view.

Because the Danites had trouble establishing their land inheritance, they migrate northward; but not all since Samson, a Danite, contends with the Philistines in the area west of Ephraim. It is apparent throughout this narrative that the author is critical of the Danite tribe and the way in which they conquer the northern part of the territory. The people of Laish are described as “unsuspecting and secure”. Six hundred Danites go up against “a peaceful and unsuspecting people”. “There was no one to rescue them…” and the city was named Dan “though the city used to be called “Laish”. The Danites did as they saw fit, albeit it was Micah’s priest who gave them the green light to attack Laish after supposedly consulting God. On their way to Laish, they stop by Micah’s house and carry away his idols as well as the Levite priest. In this encounter with Micah and the Levite priest, the author is explaining the origins of Dan’s descent into idol worship. The Levite priest is identified as Jonathan, a grandson of the Moses, whom everyone would have known – the author’s contemporaries might have exclaimed “so that is how Jonathan became a priest for the Danites”. It was to Dan that Jeroboam sent one of the 2 golden calves to be worshipped as the god who brought the Israelites out of Egypt.

The story of the Danites is one of lost glory. Instead of being clothed in righteousness, the Danites are the unrighteous aggressors against an unsuspecting and vulnerable people. The Danites take and conquer without direction from God. Therefore the refrain: “In those days there was no king.”

With the setting up of the idol by Micah and the Levites as his priest, the Israelites are on course for deepening apostasy that ends in conquest by foreigners and exile from the land. The breaking of the second commandment is an expression of having broken the first commandment: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Our God is a jealous God, He wants an exclusive relationship with us, same as we would expect if we were married. By calling upon the living God and entering into a relationship with him, we are agreeing to worship only the true God and give our lives to Him. In their backsliding, the Israelites have rejected the Covenant relationship, therefore, God to some degree withdraws and leaves them to their own devices. Without clear direction from an anointed leader, the Israelites do as they please and grope about in the darkness, transgressing God’s ways and laws, such that the weak are trampled upon and left vulnerable to aggression. There is a role reversal in which the Danites become God’s enemy instead of his people and the people of Laish (not God’s people) take on the characteristics of God’s people in that they are described as “peaceful and unsuspecting”. Surely they were in need of a deliverer from the aggression of Dan!

(This narrative is placed early in the order of events in Judges since Jonathan, the Levite priest and grandson of Moses is alive. The events in the book of Ruth occur at around this time as well…)

In the final narrative of Judges, a Levite living in the mountains of Ephraim goes to Bethleham to bring back his unfaithful concubine who had returned to her father’s house. The Levite’s plan was to depart quickly with his concubine but the father-in-law detains the Levite. The Levite decides to stay for 3 days only but the father-in-law prevails upon him to stay a fourth day and again a fifth day. On the evening of the fifth day as they draw near to Jebus (later Jerusalem), a city of the Jebusites, the Levite’s servant requests that they lodge there for the night but the Levite wants to go further to seek shelter in an Israelite city. At Gibeah, they have difficulty in finding someone to take them in until an old man (also from the mountains of Ephraim) gladly brings them to his home.

It is in this Israelite town that a shocking and revolting assault enfolds. The men of Gibeah pound on the doors of the old man demanding to have sex with the Levite. Instead they rape his concubine throughout the night until she collapses to her death in the early morning. This parallels the account of the men of Sodom wanting to have sex with the visitors in Lots house, not knowing that they are angels sent by God to destroy the city. The same words are expressed: “Don’t do this wicked thing,” and offers his two young daughters as substitutes. In this parallelism, certainly God is saying that Gibeah is deserving of the same judgment. And they were judged so that only 600 Benjamites remained after the tribes of Israel fought against them to purge the evil from within. In Hosea, God refers to Gibeah in the following way:

They (Israel) have sunk deep into corruption, as in the days of Gibeah. (Hosea 9:9)

Since the days of Gibeah, you have sinned, O Israel, and there you have remained. Did not war overtake the evildoers in Gibeah? (Hosea 10:9)

The Levite was biased against a non-Israelite town, Jebus, not wanting to lodge there, and yet experiences a heinous crime in a Israelite town. It seems that at this point, though God had planted Israel as a choice vine, they have become as wild as the Canaanites if not worse. In the war of judgment, the Israelites lose upwards of 40,000 men and the Benjamites are nearly wiped out with 25,100 struck down. Would not God be pronouncing judgment on all the Israelites since there was sure to be idolatry across all of Israel? (It is important to keep in mind that God allows the Israelites to experience the consequences of their sinful decisions rather then willfully wiping out thousands upon thousands. One gets the sense that the Israelites have no moral compass and decision after decision results in bloodshedding.)

God’s glory

Scripture tells us that God exercises lovingkindness, righteousness and justice. God loves righteousness and hates wickedness, wherever that may be. In these two last narratives, we see judgment being brought to bear upon the Israelites.

God’s glory is in his lovingkindness, righteousness and justice. He intended for his chosen people, Israel, to be righteous and just. But they become just like the idol worshiping peoples around them, and at times God says they are worse. Therefore, curses befall them as part of the terms of the Mosaic Covenant, the main curse being exile and dispersion. In Hosea, God pronounces the Israelites as being no longer his people. Most of the tribes lose their identity by being exiled from the land and being absorbed into the culture of the conquering nations. The remnant that return after being carried off into Babylon are mostly from the tribe of Judah and presumably Benjamin.

As Israel does what is right in its own eyes, they become like the Canaanites whom they were supposed to expel from the land in righteousness. In the case of the defeat at Ai, we saw that the people could not stand against their enemies because of forbidden treasure hidden in the camp. In the same way, the Danites were not able to prevail over the Philistines so that they were pushed northward.

The Danites and the Benjamites in their unrighteousness deeds face (or will face) God’s judgment. That God judges (even his own people) point to his glory in that God is just and righteous. And beyond judging his people, there are intimations that God is lifting up non-Israelites. The people of Laish whom the Danites destroy are portrayed as victims. The Danites do what is right in their own eyes, in contrast to the Judges who prevail over the Canaanites with a true sense that God is with them. In the account of the Levite and the concubine, the tragic incident would have been avoided if the Levite had consented to spend the night at Jebus (a Jebusite town and later Jerusalem after conquest) instead of insisting on pressing further until they reach Gibeah. Presumably, the Levite was thinking that an Israelite town was better in terms of safety, comfort or hospitality.

Where else do we begin to sense that God has his eyes on the Canaanites, or those who are not “his people”? As mentioned earlier, there is a Levite priest that travels from Bethlehem to the hill country of Ephraim in both accounts. Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and his descendant, the greater King, Jesus Christ. Under King David’s reign, the Israelites have control over the land from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. David remains faithful to God (despite a grievous sin) and leads the people in righteousness. But the flourishing under his reign points to a greater flourishing under Christ’s eventual kingship. Under the reign of the eternal King, the people in the kingdom are from all nations. In Psalm 87, we learn that within Zion (Jerusalem) where God dwells are people from Egypt, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush – meaning peoples from all nations. According to the following verses, Zion is God’s beloved city:

1  On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2  the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
3  Glorious things of you are spoken,
O city of God.

In remembering the rape and death of the concubine and how she had no one to protect or rescue her, we see that Jesus (as man) would have taken her place knowing that he would be brutalized and killed. Whereas the Levite failed her, the true priest sacrifices his own life for his beloved. I think it’s not a stretch to see that the concubine is a stand-in for the church, the bride of Christ, Zion – God’s beloved.

Referring back to Psalm 78 where God rejects the tents of Ephraim and chooses the tribe of Judah, God has in mind a true savior arising from Judah, his chosen vine. The savior from Judah saves from all nations. Ephraim is dispersed while the line of Judah endures until the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, God does not ultimately abandon Ephraim and we see the heart of God in the following:

8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
9 I will not execute my burning anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and not a man,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
(Hosea 11:8-9)

Though God judges sin, yet His heart is also to save and rescue. Therefore, God raises up Judges despite the iniquity of His people such as we see in the narratives discussed here. Ultimately, the Judges cannot truly save the people; they only point to the one Saviour who will truly save Ephraim once and for all time. I may be verging on speculation, but scripture seems to be indicating that Ephraim and the Gentiles are one, so that the Gentiles are saved through the disperson of Ephraim!