A Sign of the Times: The Book of Judges

Our new series at Christchurch is based on the book of Judges from the Bible. Often with this book I try to base my life on, the words in the pages totally chime and carry a wisdom ripe for the world I see around me.

You know the kind of stuff I’m talking about. Even if we’re cynical about the prospect of God, or the faith stuff, these kind of words lift pretty easily off the page and into the ethos of our lives. As an ideal anyway, we don’t always manage them. But they resonate, they connect, we see how they could help the world and we understand the wisdom behind them. So we’re happy to crack on and give them a try. But that doesn’t always happen when you read the bible and that’s not what happened to me this week reading through Judges. It’s tragic. Have a butchers if you get chance.

Here’s a sample from Deborah’s reign that we’ll be looking at in two weeks.

I read it and my jaw dropped through the floor. I retrace my steps back to the start of the page to see if I’ve missed something! Is this still the Bible? Then I think, what is someone who’s reading this book for the first time going to make of this? What are they supposed to do with it? What am I going to do with it and how on earth do I write a sermon about it? In two weeks I’ve got Ehud the left handed man who knifes an opposing king and gets away because his guards think he’s on the loo (Judges 3). That’s pretty much it. Now it shouldn’t be the sole incentive for going to church but it’s got to be a pretty good reason to come. ‘What on earth will they say about that?’ ‘How does that end with the nice man Jesus and loving my neighbour?’ Well it does, and it will!

But as I sit down to write this, the radio is on and the news spurts out. Stories of brutal assassinations and planned retributions, of tribal wars and differing ideologies jousting for moral superiority. BBC Radio 5 Live, my midlife crisis station of choice is filled with it, and it speaks to an odd but interesting reality. This modern day news story, which kinda looks like it’s about power or ego or oil or nuclear capability or cultural difference is nevertheless still very much a story about God and people. It’s just as brutal, maybe even more brutal… and it’s still about people and God. Different sides and tribes claiming he’s with them, grabbing the moral high ground or trying to play the God trump card. Watching on the world holds its breath, assess the mess, gasps and wonders if he is actually with any of these people or if, given what’s going on he’s really there at all.

Listening to the news and thinking about the Judges stories, I realised something, this book isn’t very far off. In-fact it’s a lot like the world we live in today with, I would argue, God still in the thick and thin of it.

In a nut shell, Judges is not a positive tale, it’s a particularly dark corner of Israel’s past, certainly in terms of God. Over and over again the nation slips into the bad habits in Canaan. Child sacrifice and misogyny being chief crimes (maybe bad habits is not a strong enough term), and in the horror you’re left thinking;

Canaan as it happens is very much on God’s radar, knowing the impact it’s practices would have on His Holy people. A people tasked with being set apart, with pointing a way back to God himself. But this was not happening, it wasn’t just that their distinctness was diluted by the habits of their Canaanite neighbours, more they were completely intoxicated by their Canaan experience. Over and over again the ‘horror’ was embraced and God’s way forgotten. But God didn’t forget about Israel or His Promises to them. He just didn’t have a lot to work with at the time! So he sent in judges, not old men with wigs, but regional superheroes… tribal bosses, or perhaps (and this is very much my choice of phrase) the best of a bad bunch. People like Samson; big muscles, nice hair, growing reputation but with a wandering eye for the ladies. Or Gideon, brave as a lion, mythical battle victories but prone to a sour temper. Good but flawed leaders trying to guide an errant people with temptation constantly wafted under their noses. History was always going to repeat itself, it often does. So what’s the point?

I’ve heard Judges preached on loads of times, well I say that. I’ve heard lots of well told stories about Samson and Gideon. How with God’s help they saved the day and God’s people triumphed. Be strong, be brave and be faithful. God will save you then — things will be OK. That’s mostly what I’ve heard… and I’ve loved hearing it. It’s been a huge encouragement to me and my faith over the years and is a big and true part of the story. But only a part. It’s not nearly all this book is trying to say. Once you’ve read through Judges (and you should) and having read it begin to see where it sits in the big story of the bible. You won’t see a hero like Samson, admire his bravery and think… Wouldn’t it be great if we had a guy like him knocking around today that would fix everything and give the world a lift, knock the baddies of their perch and save the day! No you’ll see Sampson et al and ache for the fact that his people, your people really need something more. Because his world and our world is just too loaded with temptation, our neighbour is way too alluring, our hearts are too easily corrupted. History will repeat itself.

These Judges are like superheroes, but they’re flawed. This is not a comic strip adventure to marvel at, it’s a tragedy to make you stop and think.
Reading through Judges is a bit like being made to listen to five live non-stop for a year. If you do this you’ll realise a few things… Firstly, this is what being middle aged is like. But also this is what life is like. Every half an hour you’ll have a hero or a villain to cheer or to boo. But as your ears begin to ache with the news that repeats every half an hour, eventually so too will your heart, as you see history repeat. Because despite their superhero like qualities the patterns of life still repeat. The world manages to mess up. We see the heroes, laud the heroes… But ache for something more… Almost like we need it…

Judges. It’s a tragedy really. But tragedy always points you somewhere… and that’s the point. There is sense to be made of this tragic book, there’s sense to be made of this tragic world. There’s great hope here. Sometimes you need to look and observe the tragedy to notice it.

Ash Gibson, Pastor, Christchurch Xscape

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