Judges 3 and 4
A Sermon preached at Southminster
September 13, 2009
In a not so surprising development, neither of the passages you heard read this morning from Judges ever appears in the Lectionary cycle of readings. Apparently they think these texts may not need to be preached.
And, perhaps they have a point. These texts are disgusting. Murder, violence, war, destruction.Dangerous women and left handed Benjaminites.
Yet, these texts, too, are the Word of the Lord, just as much as the Sermon on the Mount or the 10 Commandments.
What does that mean for us, as people who call this Book the Word of the Lord?
We believe the Bible to be God’s word to and for us.
All around us in our culture, people hold up the Bible as the solution to all of society’s problems. And it might be—but which chapters, exactly, are they thinking of when they say we need the Bible in the schools? Do we really want our kids reading some of these passages without parents around to help interpret?
Do we really know what we’re doing when we present Bibles to 3rd graders? Perhaps sections of it should have a PG 13 rating?
And really, how do we make the Bible seem so boring that kids never want to pick it up? Because it is anything but boring.
What we should do is forbid our children and tell them the Bible is too violent to read.
That would get most kids I know to read it.
Listen to some of this language from our Book of Confessions about how the church has understood our relationship with Scripture through the ages.
From the Scots Confession from the 1500’s:
As we believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct
and make perfect the man of God, so do we affirm and avow their authority
to be from God, and not to depend on men or angels. Scots Confession 3.19
The Westminster Confession, a more modern document from the mid-1600’s says:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all;yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. Westminster Confession 6.007
Confessional language changes, over the years, however. By the time the Confession of 1967 was written, listen to how our understanding has changed:
The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. Confession of 1967 9.27
The Bible is to be interpreted in the light of its witness to God’s work of reconciliation in Christ. The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture. Confession of 1967 9.29
I confess I am much more comfortable with the language from 1967 than I am with Scots and Westminster. Because how, exactly, I’ve been wondering, do these stories from Judges help us “instruct and make perfect the man of God”?
And I know that for some of you, reading through these Old Testament books has been a disconcerting experience. If all you know of the Bible is what people tell you about it then reading through the lists in Numbers or these stories in Judges has been difficult. Where is “God’s Word” to you in this?
So, let’s look at these texts with new eyes. Let’s keep in the back of our minds what the Confession of 1967 tells us—both that these need to be read keeping the context in which they were written in mind and trusting that God is still speaking to the church today.
Let’s start with Ehud the left handed Benjaminite.
Isn’t it interesting that his left handedness is mentioned in the text? I am a left handed person, so I tend to notice when it is mentioned. For years, as I’m sure you know, being left handed was seen in a negative light. The word “sinister”, comes from the Latin for “left”. My aunt was left handed, but forced to become a right handed person by her teachers. So, much like women not often being named in scripture, when a left handed person gets a shout out in scripture, it is worth noting.
(Thanks to Charles who pointed out to me after worship that a left handed assassin could shake your hand with their right hand and stab you with their left.)
And our left handed Benjaminite, Ehud, is raised up by God to deliver the people from the bondage of Moab. But why were they under Moab’s rule in the first place? Because they sinned and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. This refrain works its way through the Old Testament to explain why bad things kept happening to the tribes of Israel. Eventually the people will repent and call out to God. Deliverance is not only the big theme of Exodus. Deliverance happens again and again.
So, in our lives, when you read a text like this, think about the Deliverance in your life. There may be the big moment that you can look back to. But there may not be a big moment for you. There may be weekly deliverances that you can notice. And some of these deliverances may come in stories like this—okay, hopefully not exactly like this one, but not stories that you would ordinarily want to tell to people.
Our human tendency is to tell stories in a way that frame us as individuals and as a people, in the best light possible. George Washington, who couldn’t tell a lie, helped to give his new country an ethos of integrity.
Yet, because of a sword through the king of Moab, Israel was delivered to 80 years of peace in the land. So, perhaps reading this text can be a reminder to you to look for deliverance in the stories of your life that you aren’t so proud of. Perhaps this text can be a reminder that here, in this place, we don’t need to whitewash our lives. We can be who we are. If these stories can be in Holy Scripture, then surely we can come to church. Here we can accept ourselves for the things we’ve done and we can accept others for the things they have done. Even left handed Benjaminites.
But my favorite story from Judges is Deborah the Judge. Because she’s a woman. And a Judge—someone to whom the people would come to lead and guide them. And the judges were often more than judges—they oftentimes seemed to be prophets as well. And Deborah goes into battle alongside the men. Even better, the men won’t go into battle without her.
A few weeks ago, someone found my blog on the web and started asking me about how women have the right to be ministers. He didn’t seem to be combative, so I tried to answer his question. But I finally had to shut the conversation down because it became clear that, for him, the fact that nowhere in the Bible does it say, “women can be ministers” means that it isn’t okay for women to be ministers.
This is why I wanted all of us to undertake the Year of the Bible. Because we need to know what the Bible actually says. This commenter was correct that the Bible never actually says, “women can be ministers”. But his reasoning is faulty. It also doesn’t say explicitly that blondes can be ministers. Or that people can use computers to make comments on people’s blogs. There are lots of things the Bible does NOT tell us.
But in the story of Deborah, there are lots of things it does tell us. Women can lead the people, both in peace and in war. Women can be prophets, carrying God’s word about the success of the battle to the people.
And then we get to Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. Note that in this story, we have not one but TWO women who are named!
Sisera, the opposing commander comes to their compound seeking rest from the battle. Jael feeds him and puts him to sleep in the tent. Then, while he’s sleeping, she uses the tools available to her, in this case a tent peg, and kills him. This is not just a subtle, “feminine” murder of poisoning or trickery. Think about the strength required for this job. And Israel received its deliverance at the hands of a woman.
The whole of scripture, when you look at the involvement of women in the life of the church, is of more value than any one verse could be. The argument I gave up trying to make on my blog in response to this gentleman’s comments is that the entirety of Scripture ought to be considered.
George Bernard Shaw once said,
“No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.”
But think about how, for centuries, people used Scripture to tell women that they were somehow less human then men. “Eve sinned…yada yada yada” You know the story. But, clearly, they weren’t using Judges 4 to build their case.
Which brings up another reason to embark on the Year of the Bible.
William Sloan Coffin, who was a Presbyterian pastor and civil rights activist, once said, “It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.”
But the Bible can only open discussions if we’re opening the Bible. It is a conversation that needs to be read.
So, as we encounter these texts that have remained, largely, hidden and unread in the Bible, I invite you to consider why they didn’t make the lectionary or why they aren’t often quoted on those signs they hold up at football games. What is it about these particular stories that we DON’T want to hear?
And what conversation might God be starting with these stories? How might these texts force us to reassess what we assume we know about God and ourselves?
The Adult Sunday School class will be taking one Sunday a month to look at our Year of the Bible readings. The next discussion is this coming Sunday, here in the sanctuary. Even if you haven’t kept up with all of the readings, I invite you to come to the discussions. And then the next week, we’ll start discussing Jack Rogers book, “Jesus, the Bible, and Homosexuality”. This book will require us to be in conversation with Scripture and to trust that God is still speaking to the church through Scripture.
I am thankful to be on this journey with you, to be a partner with you in this conversation with God. Amen.