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!