A big department store can be bewildering. One way to shop is to wander around and see what you can see. But it can be pretty tiring even for the most determined shopper. We sampled a little of Bristol the other week … and a little of Ikea too.
But help is at hand. It’s usually by the lifts or by the staircase.
That store guide. That tells you to watch out for bad language on the second floor because that’s where you find men swear.
You want menswear you go to the second floor.
You want food, try the basement.
It’s the same in bookshops. The bigger the better – but they can be overwhelming. Waterstones have rejigged everything. Blackwells in Oxford still have the theology books down in the Norrington room, that vast basement room – and they’ve been in the same place for the forty years I have been going to Blackwell’s.
Want a biography? Go to the biographies. Want popular science? Go to the popular science section. Want a novel? Go to fiction. Want a thriller? Go to science writing.
In some ways the Bible is like a bookshop or a library of different books. It helps to know your way around the bible and to know the different sections.
It starts with the law books. Then you move on the history books, then you have the poetry books then you finish with the prophets. Then on to the NT, the Gospels, the history of the church in Acts, Paul’s letters,
There is, however, a problem.
The Old Testament especially can be a tricky read. Stuff happens, stuff goes on that can be profoundly disturbing not least in the setting of wars that touch on religion in the modern age and at this very time.
How do we read Joshua and its battles, Judges and its account of utter destruction at times?
I only recently discovered that the Miles Smith who wrote the preface to the King James Bible was the Bishop of Gloucester – a local lad. I have taken one of those wonderful sets of images he uses of translation as the inspiration for our read through of the Old Testament.
Translation it is that that “removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water."
The Old Testament has within it life-giving water – but it can be difficult to lift the lid on the old testament and come by the water!
The key for us as Christians is to come to the Old Testament and see it through Jesus – after all he claims to fulfil all the Law and the Prophets.
And there is great significance in that claim. Nowhere does he mention anything about ‘histories’. And there is a reason for that.
The Bible Jesus knew, the Hebrew Scriptures, indeed the Hebrew Scriptures Jewish people regard to this day as their Holy Book are not divided up the way the Greek translators, the Latin translators and the English translators have rearranged them. Our Bible is influenced by the kind of logical thinking of western minds, not lest in the way the Old Testament books are ordered.
The Hebrew Scriptures are arranged into Law, Prophets and Writings.
When we come to the end of the books of the Law at Deuteronomy and turn to Joshua and Judges we are in fact moving into the section of the Old Testament that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the mind of Christ are labelled ‘Prophets’. That is interesting.
These books don’t just tell a nation’s story if history books ever just do that. These books tell the story in such a way that they pack a punch, they have a message to share.
Prophets don’t just prophesy the future – that’s quite a misunderstanding of what Biblical prophets get up to. Prophets declare God’s word into the present, often by analysing how we got into the situation we are in, and they do so in order to help shape the future that lies ahead.
Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, have a flow to them that culminates at the end of II kings at the point at which the nation Israel, has collapsed and the people are in exile. That’s an indication of the point at which the books were collected together.
It is at that time that priestly writers who had served in the temple got together in exile in order to collect all the law codes into what we would recognise as those five books of the law.
And prophetic writers who had been in the business of declaring God’s word, pored over the story of the nation to ask how they had got into such a mess and what they must do to get out of it.
Those prophetic writers compared notes with the priestly ones, and they took note of the climax to the books of the Law in Deuteronomy.
As they stood on the threshold of the promised land the people of Israel had a choice. Choose life, choose death. To choose life they must obey God. The principle can be summed up … obey God and all will go well. Disobey God and all will collapse.
As other later writers reflect in places like the book of Job that principle doesn’t always work out. But it’s a pretty good general principle.
The prophets recognised it. When they saw the rulers of the people abandoning God, ruling unjustly it is the job of the prophet to speak out and hold the rulers to account. Return to God’s ways and the people will do well again.
The prophets responsible for bringing together the story of the nation in Joshua Judgges, Samuel and Kings pore over the story of their nation and they notice a pattern that works out in their sotry. When rulers and people obey God on the whole things go well; It is when they abandon God’s law that thigns fall apart. They test out that theory of history and they work it out in the telling of the story of the nation.
Once established in the promised land, and after the death of Joshua the people of Israel are still a fairly loose collection of tribes living in a land where there are many foreign peoples some of whom some of the time are quite hostile.
The prophetic writers pore over this period of a couple of hundred years maybe and they notice a pattern.
After an initial chapter, chapter 1, that sets the scene and identifies the areas controlled by the 12 tribes of Israel and the areas not conquered by them [a very intereseting observation, that is explored further in chapter 3, the writers then go on to work out the theory of history that they see working out in this period.
You can think of it as the judges cycle and it is described in chapter 2.
For a while after the death of Joshua the people continue in the ways of God and all goes well.
Then, the memory of Joshua’s leadership fades, and ‘the people did what was evil in the sight of the Lord’ (:11). That has consequences, these ancient writers don’t speak in the language of ‘consequences’ they speak in the more vivid language of God’s anger – but it amounts to the same thing.
The consequence is that everything falls apart, society crumbles.
Then the Lord raises up a leader who brings the people to their senses and establsishes the law of the Lord once again – those charismatic leaders are called ‘judges’. That then has the opposite consequence. And the people live at peace and with plenty.
The leader dies, and the cycle starts all over again.
A leader dies.
People abandon God.
Everything falls apart.
A charismatic leader, a judge comes on the scene
People turn back to God
All is well.
Charismatic leader dies … and it starts all over again.
The stories of six judges is told at length … and each story follows exactly that pattern
Othiel, Ehud, the woman Deborah (isn’t that interesting), Gideon, Jephthah and Samson
Another six judges are simply mentioned by name: Shamgar, Tola, |Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon.
There are lots of things we can take from the book of Judges and those stories. More than anything, there is so much in that insight into history to this day.
Model a society on the ways of God – particularly as Jesus summarises them and brings them together in the Sermon on the Mount and it would make a massive difference. We have practical guidelines that can help us shape society – love for neighbour, passion for justice, bias to the poor – these are all at the heart of the law, the prophets and come to fulfilment in the teachings of Jesus. This is a way of life that we need to feed into political thinking to this day.
But there is one intriguing strand that is hinted at already in the book of Judges and is going to play a much larger part when we move on to the person who is arguably the last of the line of these charismatic leaders, Samuel and the books that bear his name.
This is a longing that there should be a greater stability. Instead of just relying on a charismatic leader, couldn’t the people actually find someone who would be a King … just like the neighbouring nations had.
When Jesus came he came to usher in the Kingdom of God. So if we are reading these books through Jesus eyes, remembering that he claims to be the fulfilment of these books of the prophets, we need to be on the look out for what kingship entails, how its understood.
As the death of Gideon approaches the people are frustrated at the uncertainties attached to what happens when they have to wait for another ‘charismatic’ leader or judge to be raised up. So some suggest adopting a custom known among some of the neighbouring nations: they suggest anointing Gideon as King. He resists the temptation as it is fraught with even more uncertainty.
At his death, however, one of his seventy sons, Abimelech, born of a concubine, grabs at power, has his brothers killed and is hailed as King. One of the brothers, however, escapes. And on Mount Gerizim, the very place where in Deuteronomy the fundamental choice between life and death, between obedience of God and disobedience was put, Jotham challenges the leadesr at Shechem, and he holds Abimilech to account.
And he does that in a way that the prophets from Elijah and Elisha on are going to use. He tells a story, a parable.
It’s one of the classic things prophets do. No wonder when Jesus couched so much of his teaching in the form of stories and parables he was thought by the crowds to be a Prophet! Maybe it was no coincidence that he did exactly as the prophets before had done, describing himself as a Prophet, for he was, after all, bringing to fulfilment all the Prophets.
Jotham’s parable is a wonderful parable of the trees in the forest.
The trees once went out
to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree,
“Reign over us.”
The olive tree answered them,
“Shall I stop producing my rich oil
by which gods and mortals are honoured,
and go to sway over the trees?”
Then the trees said to the fig tree,
“You come and reign over us.”
But the fig tree answered them,
“Shall I stop producing my sweetness
and my delicious fruit,
and go to sway over the trees?”
Then the trees said to the vine,
“You come and reign over us.”
But the vine said to them,
“Shall I stop producing my wine
that cheers gods and mortals,
and go to sway over the trees?”
So all the trees said to the bramble,
“You come and reign over us.”
And the bramble said to the trees,
“If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
then come and take refuge in my shade;
but if not, let fire come out of the bramble
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.”
It is the most wonderful of stories and the most powerful of parables.
So, says Jotham. What is Abimilech? Is he a righteous, just ruler … or has he killed to get to power – is he the bramble?
Powerful stuff, and as the story goes, Abimelech’s reign comes to a pretty horrible end.
Jotham’s parable is a remarkable and powerful reflection on the nature of kingship and the nature of the kingdom.
In these early prophets we are not going to hear told the story of the arrival of the kingdom in Israel … and we shall reflect a lot on the nature of that kingdom.
But this is where the story starts.
The story for us as Christians reaches its climax in the coming of Chrsit and in his teaching that it is in him that the Kingdom of God has finally come – bringing to fulfilment all the law and all these prophets.
And what is Christ’s rule as king like? The awful power of the bramble?
What is the last of the trees before the bramble, in some ways the noblest of the trees in the parable, the tree that comes to signify the kingdom of the people Israel.
It is the vine.
And as Jesus comes to the crunch moment in his ministry, as he is about to enter into his kingdom, the very night before he is crucified to be raised on the third day, what does jesus say?
It’s a word picture, it’s a kind of parable.
And it echoes Jotham’s parable.
I am the bramble? No, of course not.
I am the true vine and you are the branches. Abide in me, as I abide in you.
Vine and branches are inseparable from one another
What is the kingship like that Christ exercises?
For Jesus the essence of living in that kingdom is love.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love, he says.
And then he echoes the great theme that runs through the whole of Judges.
If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments. If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love.
What is the commandment of Jesus that we are to obey?
“This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.”
IF we are to read Judges, we must recall that Jesus has brought all the prophets … and that includes Judges … to fulfilment in bringing in God’s rule, God’s kingdom. And that new commandment that we are to take from Jesus is the commandment to love one another.
We cannot use Judges to justify the atrocities of war. We have to uncover the well to get at the water that’s here in this book – and we do that as we read it through the eyes of Jesus.