Deborah & Barak - Lessons from history Audio
One of my favourite lines from the TV series, Mash, was the statement that this was the latest ‘war to end all wars’. The point they were making of course was that we never seem to learn from history. In fact, isn’t this the one lesson we have learnt from history: that we never learn from history? No matter how bad our experience of history is, we never seem to be able to learn our lesson so we avoid the same mistake the next time.
But that begs the question of course, whether there are patterns in history from which we can learn. Historians and thinkers have debated that question over many years. Some would say, “Yes, there is a meaningful pattern to history, and if we can find it we can do something to change the way things happen.” Karl Marx thought he’d found a pattern in history revolving around the unequal distribution of power and resources. If you followed his model you’d eventually arrive at a Utopian, classless society that he called Socialism. Well, that didn’t work out did it? No more than any of the utopian communities set up in the 19th century. Socialist societies have been found to fail just as badly as the capitalist societies he was critiquing.
But that’s no surprise to the other side of the debate: to those who argue that there are no patterns to be found in history. They argue that so often the course of history is a matter of pure chance. I love the story of the discovery of penicillin. I imagine we’ve all heard the story of how Alexander Fleming discovered a window had been left open while he was away and a mould had blown in and killed some of the bacteria that had been left out on petri dishes in his lab. How often has history depended on some random event or individuals doing something extraordinary or unexpected? Yet, we can’t build a theory on those instances. No, I want to suggest that there are patterns to be found if we look in the right place, or with our eyes open to the right factors. The reason I say that is that here in the book of Judges we find just such a set of factors, just such a pattern.
The book of Judges begins after the death of Joshua, with the people of Israel attempting to finish their occupation of the land of Canaan. At first they have some success, but as time goes on, they fail to follow up the victories that God has given them. Groups of Canaanites are left behind all over their territory despite the warnings God had given them to rid the land of all other nations. As a result, in Judges 2, the angel of the Lord appears in Bochim with this message: “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you. 2For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! 3So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” (Judg 2:1-3)
The narrative that follows fills out the ramifications of this dire warning. The Israelites, having failed to drive out the Canaanites are now being corrupted by their pagan worship and are turning away from the Lord. Then develops a pattern of history that sets the tone essentially for the rest of the Old Testament. The people turn away from worship of the True and Living God to worship pagan idols. This results in the LORD becoming angry with them so he gives them up to the attacks of the surrounding nations. They’re defeated, but when they turn back to God, he raises up judges, or charismatic military leaders who save them from the hands of their enemies (2:16). Yet this respite from the attacks of their enemies is always short lived. Why? 2:17: Because they would “not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD.”
And as time goes on it gets worse and worse. The pattern of history that emerges is a downward spiral, in which every step they take forward is matched by 2 backwards, until in ch 2:20 God is so angry with Israel that he says he will no longer drive out any of the nations that Joshua had left behind.
And so we come to the first of the judges, Othniel. (3:7-11) Now Othniel is unusual, purely for the fact that there’s nothing unusual about him. Almost all the other judges have some particular feature that distinguishes them, but we’re not told anything special about Othniel at all except that he’s Caleb’s nephew.
Now it may be that this is quite deliberate. Othniel is an Everyman. He’s a model of all the other judges. His story contains the pattern that all the other stories seem to follow:
Spiritual failure: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs.”
Military oppression as a result of God’s anger: “8Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.”
They call out to God in their distress: “9the Israelites cried out to the LORD”
God sends a Spirit-filled Saviour: “the LORD raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother.”
God gives them victory over their enemies: “10The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.”
A period of peace: “11So the land had rest forty years.”
The Saviour dies and the cycle begins again: “Then Othniel son of Kenaz died.”
So here’s a cycle of history that repeats itself over and over again in this book, and might I suggest, continues right through the Old Testament and into the New until the coming of Jesus Christ, who’s the Spirit-filled Saviour to whom all these others point.
Following the story of Othniel we find 2 almost identical scenarios in the accounts of Ehud and Deborah. They’re each different from the other in the detail, but the basic pattern is the same.
What we find in this cycle of history is that there is a pattern, but it isn’t the sort of quasi-scientific pattern suggested by Marx and co. Rather it’s a pattern that reveals the hand of a personal God dealing with his people in a personal fashion. There’s no sense of random events shaping history according to the tricks of fate. Rather history is seen to be in the hands of a good and just LORD. The patterns we find are a sign that God deals with us in a consistent, dependable way. And so we can learn from history, if we’ll pay attention, truths about God and truths about ourselves.
So what lessons can we learn from the history of the Judges?
- God’s Freedom of Action and Ours.
As you read through the Judges you find that while there’s a clear pattern of sin, punishment, repentance and rescue, there’s a certain unpredictability about the time intervals involved. Sometimes there’s a long period of time of oppression, sometimes less, likewise there are longer and shorter periods of peace. God wants them to see that there’s a connection between moral behaviour and divine blessing, but there’s nothing mechanical about it. God enjoys personal freedom of action. Sometimes he responds quickly, other times he delays, and he gives us the same freedom even when we choose to misuse it.
- Individuals as God’s Key Agents
What we find in every case is that God chooses individuals to carry out his plan of salvation. They’re often unusual people. They’re certainly not perfect examples of followers of God. Ehud is described as left handed, but that may simply mean that he had a physical disability that prevented him using his right arm; Barak was afraid to fight Sisera unless Deborah came with him; Gideon was so brave he was threshing his wheat in the safety of a winepress when he was called to lead the people against the Amorites; Samson was a womaniser, Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter to the Lord because he’d made a foolish vow. And so we could go on. They were real people with real flaws, yet God used them to shape history according to his will.
But there’s no sense of the judges as automatons carrying out the master plan of God. They each have their own eccentricities. There’s space given to them to be individuals. There’s room for the odd surprise here and there. Yet each of them is essential to God’s plan being worked out.
- God is in Command
One of the greatest lessons that this pattern of history teaches us is that God is in control of history. In the book of judges this fact is brought out time and time again, but it’s equally true now, even if we don’t have a written commentary to remind us of the fact. This is an important thing to be reminded of in this day and age, when there’s a real fear about the future of our world. People look at history and see the endless repetition of failure and error, of wars and lawlessness. They look at our world leaders and can’t believe what they’re seeing: rising nationalism; all the hard work of the United Nations being snubbed by major leaders who want to maintain their national autonomy; trade wars that threaten the stability of the world’s economies. The result is a sense of futility and hopelessness and they think that there can’t be any point to life. So they turn to a search for pleasure or they go after New Age philosophies, looking at their stars or clinging to crystals in a search for hope, or else they simply give up and opt out of life. But the biblical view of history as we find it in Judges is that we’re not alone. History does have purpose. God is in control. As Rom 8 reminds us, “All things work together for good to those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose.”
- Judgement Follows Human Sin
But if God is in control, one area where we see that in action is in his response to our sin. There’s a clear link in Judges between the rebellion of Israel and the withdrawal of God’s protection. In fact in many cases it’s put stronger than that. God actually takes the side of their enemies in order to chastise them. Mind you, we do have to be careful how we apply this fact. We mustn’t take on ourselves the role of God’s interpreter in singling out individuals as having received a punishment from God. What is true in the general may not be true in the specific. As Jesus pointed out to his disciples in John 9 the blind man’s illness was neither the result of his own nor his parents’ sin. It had happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. So be careful how you apply this lesson from history.
- God Will Respond With Mercy When We Confess Our Sins.
Again, one of the clear patterns we find here and elsewhere in the Old Testament is that when God’s people repent, he responds in mercy. When God proclaimed his name to Moses back in Exodus 34, here’s what he said, (Exo 34:6-7 NRSV) "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." When God’s people repent he shows his mercy and grace by forgiving their sins and cleansing them from all unrighteousness.
- No Human Deliverer Ever Meets Our Need.
Finally, one of the striking things we discover as we read through the Judges is that for all their heroism, none of them brought about a lasting solution to the situation. One reason for that is that the judge always dies. While he’s with them he’s able to provide the leadership they need, but as soon as he dies there’s a vacuum, that quickly fills with idolatry and immorality.
This pattern continued with the history of the Kings, where so much depended on the faithfulness of each successive king. You see it today in churches, where so often a church grows under a particular leader or leaders, but when they leave the growth can seem to taper away. The reality is that no human leader can meet all our needs. That’s why it’s so important to be asking God to lead us by his Holy Spirit.
You see, the reason God was teaching that lesson through the history of the Judges was to prepare us for the Leader who was to come who would never die. While no human king will ever meet all our needs there is one who does. Jesus Christ, the true saviour and judge is all that these human judges could never be. He continues with us through the presence of his Holy Spirit keeping us true to God, forgiving our sins, and leading us on the path to eternal life.
Well, over the next couple of weeks we’ll be looking at the stories of another couple of the early leaders of Israel. None of them are perfect, but I trust we’ll learn lessons from each of them that will help us in our worship of Jesus Christ, the Judge and Saviour they foreshadowed.