Jephthah’s Daughter (Judges 11)

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I used to think that being a Christian meant you had to find all the answers, be able to go toe-to-toe with the bits of the Bible that seem to contradict science or that portray acts of horrific brutality. I used to think there were clues hidden away, in the translations, in the culture of the times, that would make these difficult passages a lot more palatable. A part of me still does – you can see that throughout this blog.

There comes a point though when you’ve got to accept that some parts of the Bible are never going to be easy, will never mystically become comfortable; wrestling with them is going to hurt, so much do that it’s easier to run away. And this post is one I was running from. A post about Jephthah’s daughter.

In some ways I’ve tried to make it easier to deal with. I picture Jephthah as Clint Eastwood, the whole story as some messed up Spaghetti Western. Maybe that creates distance from the whole thing, I don’t know.

The heart of the story: Jephthah is a mercenary who, on the eve of battle, vows to sacrifice to God the first living being to leave his house upon his victorious return. Almost inevitably, the first person out the door is his daughter.

A parent sacrificing their child? Immediately we think of Abraham and Isaac, but that story has a happy ending. Not so here – Jephthah carries out his vow, no matter how loudly you scream at God to send a ram, to send an angel, to descend with chariots of fire to whisk the poor doomed girl to safety. Those words on the page obstinately refuse to change.

Why? Why did Jephthah go through with it? Why did God allow him to go through with it? Why was Isaac saved but not an innocent, nameless girl? Was Isaac fundamentally more important? Would this have happened had Jephthah had a son who eagerly ran out the front door to meet his father, relieved that he survived the battle? Would Jephthah have won the battle without the vow? If not, why did God honour such a stupid attempt to curry favour?

And yet, although he wins the battle and saves his people, this sacrifice renders Jephthah an anti-hero at best. He’s not remembered for his military prowess, he’s remembered for infanticide. The real hero of the story is his daughter. An innocent who meekly becomes a sacrifice for the same of others, does she in some way become a forerunner of Jesus? That doesn’t make everything okay, not at all, but it’s Jephthah’s daughter who remember, we honour, we weep for.

In her book, A Year Of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans talks about a forgotten tradition in which the young woman of Israel would take to the hills and remember Jephthah’s daughter. Evans revisits this tradition, holding a quiet ceremony to remember all the biblical women who were victims of violence and of malice.

That doesn’t end with the Bible – Jephthah’s daughter is every victim of honour killing, of rape, of forced marriage and FGM and domestic violence. We remember a horrific sacrifice; we also need to remember all the other women who receive repressive treatment at the hands of their families, of anonymous strangers, of society as a whole.

I still don’t know where God is in all those. On the side of the oppressed, I have to believe, but Judges 11 doesn’t make that easy. And yet me struggling with a chunk of the Bible isn’t a patch on the struggles faced by millions of women every day. And maybe, in a strange way, Jephthah’s daughter gives voice to them all, could maybe force other Jephthahs to rethink their actions, their lifestyles, their brutality.

There are questions, there are theories and their are possibilities. But there are no answers. Sometimes the Bible’s like that.

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Enter Password: What’s our Shibboleth? (Judges 12:1-7)

20121008-104057.jpgSince I started writing this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about Jephthah. At that same time though, I’ve been running away from it, because frankly the story of Jephthah is messed up.

However, it does have an epilogue which I’m a bit happier with, so I’ll go with that, even if it’s still brutal and uncompromising. That’s the book of Judges for you.

So anyway, one of Israel’s judges, a warrior called Jephthah (who I always picture as being played by Clint Eastwood) goes to war with a neighbouring tribe. How did they know who was on which side? Accents. The enemy pronounced the word ‘shibboleth’ differently, so if they couldn’t say the “Sh” properly, they got killed. If I ever get a voice activated computer, my password’s going to be shibboleth.

It’s a tough, violent story, but there’s a great use of it in The West Wing. The President has to decide if a group of refugee Chinese Christians are genuine or not, and so, just before a conversation with the leader of the refugees, this story gets quoted – the words of this man will decide if he’ll be granted asylum or not.

I really liked this use of the story until I was silly and thought about the implications. Because it’s my words that catch me out sometimes.

Yeah, I’m a Christian. Yeah, I’ve been to church since I was a baby. Yeah, I write a blog where I talk about the Bible. All these things are true.

But my words betray me at times. In the last 48 hours I’ve cursed, among others, my fellow drivers, reality TV stars, those responsible for traffic management, people who can’t use apostrophes and anyone who ever had anything to do with the construction of my iPhone. I’ve also developed a form of Tourette’s where I automatically yell scathing abuse upon any mention of the UK’s coalition government.

And that’s before the stuff that directly affects me on a day-to-day level.

Hypocritical? You betcha. At the end of the day, I struggle to say “shibboleth”.

What sort of witness is that? Do I sound like Jesus in any way, shape or form?

See, the people who say words will never hurt them are wrong. Sticks and stones may be an immediate threat, but words are insidious. How many of us have woken up at 3am, inexplicably upset at something awful someone said twenty years ago? How many of us find our lives crippled because, when we were young, others chose to tear down rather than build up, chose to not say the words we needed to hear?

How we use words is frighteningly important.

Of course, how we react to them is important too. Get your pronunciation wrong and Jephthah would kill you dead. What happens when people say the wrong thing to us? When they disagree with our doctrine or politics, when they’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Can they hear the words of Jesus when we’re getting ready to bite? Can we react with grace rather than rage?

Back to The West Wing. The President talks to the leader of the Christians about some biblical trivia, which he aces, but the moment of truth is when he speaks movingly of his faith. That’s when we can hear grace and and passion, that’s when his words reveal what’s in his heart.

That’s his shibboleth.

Samson’s Haircut (Judges 16:22)

(This post was inspired by a recent sermon from Mars Hill Bible Church in Michigan. Credit where it’s due!)

I never really got the story of Samson. It seems to break all the rules, and not in a good way – here’s a guy who’s been blessed from birth with supernatural strength, strength that’s supposed to be used in the service of God, in saving the fledgling nation of Israel from its oppressors. And yet he spends most of his life getting into fights over women and screwing up, but there he is, in a list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

It’s not that I have a problem with a hero having feet of clay, but Samson just doesn’t seem to care that his life’s going off the rails. He’s the nearest thing the Bible has to a superhero, and yet it seems like he hasn’t learned that great spiritual lesson, “With great power comes great responsibility” (I think that one’s from 4th Thessalonians or something).

But here’s the thing – the key to the whole story is in one little verse. After Samson has been captured, blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Judges 16:22 tells us that “the hair on his head began to grow again after it had been shaved”.

See, Samson’s hair is often seen as his Kryptonite but that’s the comic book slant on things. It’s really part of a wider vow that was made on Samson’s behalf before he was even born – the Nazirite vow outlined in Numbers 6, which basically meant that Samson was meant to stay away from wine and grapes, avoid contact with dead bodies, and not cut his hair.

Throughout his story, told in Judges 13-16, he breaks the first two fairly quickly. All that’s left of his vow in the end is his hair, a tenuous symbol of his relationship with God, a relationship that consistently takes third place to sex and vengeance. Those two finally catch up with him when he meets Delilah – she asks him the secret of his strength so that she can betray him to the Philistines.

And maybe there’s something in his response to this, because he lies to her three times, and each time Philistines come to imprison him, and each time he fights them off. He’s either arrogant, thinking that his strength is his own and that it’ll never really be taken away, or he’s completely self-destructive, continuing in a relationship with someone set on betraying him. Either way, he tells Delilah that his strength will go if his hair is cut, and there it goes, not because it’s a fundamental vulnerability but because it finally breaks the Nazirite vow and God leaves him.

And so his eyes are gouged out and he’s made to grind grain, but while he’s doing this, the writer of Judges goes out of his way to note that Samson’s hair begins to grow back. It’s a tiny detail, and fairly obvious – that’s what hair does after you cut it – but there’s more to it than that. Breaking the Nazirite vow wasn’t a permanent thing – if it was broken, then you could cut your hair and started again from scratch.

Hmm.

Because soon after this, the Philistines are offering a sacrifice to the god Dagon, and as part of this, Samson’s brought out to be humiliated. But Samson seems to now understand what’s been going on. Throughout his story, God has been at work, but it almost seems to be behind the scenes – Samson doesn’t really have a clear understanding or interest in the divine hand behind events; the narrator refers to God but Samson rarely does. Now, with his hair grown back, he seems to have stumbled towards humility and redemption: “O Sovereign Lord, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more…”

He’s still motivated by revenge, and that’s never healthy, but there’s humility here, an understanding that God is genuinely behind his great power and that the vow was something that should have been taken seriously. God honours this prayer, even though it’s belated and still somewhat self-serving – Samson’s strength is restored (notice it doesn’t return simply as a result of his hair growing back) and he destroys the temple of Dagon, ending the oppression of Israel. In his moment of self-sacrifice, he finally achieves the role he was meant to play from birth.

So in amongst the sex and violence and inspiration for a Tom Jones song lies a story of grace and redemption. Samson screwed up – he screwed up royally – and yet he was still able to start again with God. In a messy sort of way he returns to God and that’s honoured, and despite the catalogue of mistakes that make up his life story, maybe it’s that moment of redemption that really gets him into Hebrews 11, not because he was a superhero, but because he messed up and still reached out to God, even when it may have seemed too late.

Because it’s never too late to start again.

Obscure Biblical Action Hero of the Day: Shamgar (Judges 3:31)

It was a dark time.

Robbers and theives roamed the land. Nowhere was safe; no-one in their right mind would take a main road for fear of being murdered by Israel’s enemies, and whole villages had been abandoned, their communities fleeing to walled cities that offered at least some protection from invading armies.

And then a hero steps forward.

We know nothing about him, other than his name and that of his father. Shamgar is about an obscure a Bible character as you’re ever likely to find. And yet he’s another of those characters who, through his faith in God, achieves something extraordinary.

Extraordinarily badass.

Because he takes an oxgoad and uses it to kill 600 invading Philistines. This is even more impressive when you remember that an oxgoad was basically just a long, pointy cattle prod.

Now sure, gut reaction is to write this off as a gross exageration. But it fits within a biblical tradition of a small group of fighters – or even an individual – overcoming ridiculous odds. We see it in Chronicles’ description of David’s mighty men; we see it in the story of Gideon. The constant restating of this theme throughout the Bible may just be a way of driving the point home: “I saved your ancestors, I can save you”.

So maybe that’s why the very short and obscure story of Shamgar makes the Bible – a quick history lesson, sure, but also a way of re-emphasising a theme – don’t be afraid of overwhelming odds, because God will fight on your side. The converse is also true – try to do something without God and it can lead to dismal failure.

And yet, when you’re staring down a cattle prod, surrounded by 600 bad guys, trust in God can be hard to muster. Did Shamgar ever have a moment of doubt? Did he wish that he had access to air support. We don’t know, because we’re talking about a seriously unsung hero.

Maybe that’s just as well. Maybe the just-the-facts approach is important. Yes, our trust in God and our expectations of him fighting alongside us can flag and fail at times – the situation can appear insurmountable, the crisis unsolvable. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. Yet Shamgar’s story asks us to put all that to one side and believe – believe that God will come out fighting on our behalf, believe that nothing is impossible with faith, believe that 600 Philistines can be taken down with a pointy stick.

Because God is on our side,

Expect the Unexpected: Ehud’s Left Hand (Judges 3:12-30)

So anyway, the name of this blog…

Some context: following the deaths of Moses and his successor Joshua, Israel doesn’t have a fixed leader or centralised government, acting as a confederation of the Twelve Tribes. However, their disobedience to God and subsequent oppression by neighbouring countries / communities / tribes means that every few decades they need God to bail them out. God does this through ‘Judges’, although forget our concept of the word – here a judge is more of a military leader drafted to deal with a specific crisis. One of the earliest judges was a guy called Ehud, whose story is told in Judges 3.

Now, Ehud is from the tribe of Benjamin, which is an innocuous detail until you know two facts.

1. Ehud is left-handed. In fact, the tribe of Benjamin is known for left-handedness (see here and here, for instance).

2. The name Benjamin means ‘Son of the right hand’.

This little genetic irony is a symbol for the whole story of Ehud, however, because Ehud teaches us an important lesson – expect the unexpected. It’s one of those stories that, when you first hear it, your first reaction is something like “What, that’s in the Bible?!”

Israel has been oppressed for 18 years by the grotesquely obese Eglon, the king of Moab. Something needs to be done. Enter Ehud, who presents Israel’s regular tribute to Eglon, getting close enough to the king to carry out an assassination.

Ehud’s able to do this because he has a sword strapped to his right thigh, which he draws with his left hand – anyone expecting an attack would assume the exact opposite, and therefore Ehud’s left-handedness gives him the element of surprise. This may even have got him past security checks. Eglon doesn’t see his assassination coming.

And then we get to the bit where people say “WHAT?!” Because not only does Eglon get stabbed, the sword sinks into his stomach right up to the hilt, his fat swallowing up the weapon. Which is bad enough, but then, in the about-as-discreet-as-they-can-be words of the NIV, Eglon’s “bowels discharged”.

The word you’re looking for is “Eww”.

It gets better. Ehud is able to sneak out and makes his escape because everyone thinks that the king is spending a long time on the toilet.

Seriously. It’s in verse 24.

Ehud then has enough time to mobilise an army, using the chaos following the assassination of Eglon to defeat the Moabites and liberate Israel. The end.

The story of Ehud isn’t one that forms the basis of sermons or Sunday School songs with descriptive actions (“Now Eglon was a very fat man/A very fat man was he/Ehud stabbed him in the belly/Till he started to poo and pee/Oh, he started to poo and pee”… Nah, doesn’t scan well). But the lesson that jumps out at me is that God, as well as the Bible, rarely does what we expect. Any relationship with God, any attempt to study his Word should confound our expectations.

It’s the hated Samaritan that saves a wounded man, not the priest. It’s the youngest son of the family that becomes the great king David, not the eldest.

Jacob’s the father of the nation of Israel, but he’s basically a conman and a trickster.

The disciples include a collaborating tax-collector and a militant terrorist.

Jesus comes as Messiah and saves us, not through a military victory but through death on a cross.

Constantly throughout the Bible, God does the unexpected. The last are first. The mighty are brought low. Heroes have feet of clay. The greatest persecutor of the church becomes its greatest theologian. My initial idea behind this blog, and the reason it got named after a story that’s all about the unexpected, was to look at bits of the Bible that surprise us or that don’t get commented on much. But then I realised that the whole book is like that – little stories tucked away in a couple of obscure sentences can illuminate the whole book, and the epic, world-famous tales all have layers of meaning that we can uncover.

And that’s what God is like – consistent of character, yes, but unpredictable in how that character is expressed and how his purposes are achieved. The God who saves his people through devastating Egypt also saves his people through a virgin birth and a brutal execution. And, ultimately, death is turned into life.

Surprise!