The history of Israelite Judges is an account of a series of so-called deliverers. Each one, in sequence, appears to have been victorious over this or that people group, in this or that way, for some length of time. John Bright has offered a neat historical portrait:
It must be understood that the Israel of the early days in Palestine was not at all a nation as we would understand the term. On the contrary, she was a tribal League, a loose confederation of clans united one to another about the worship of the common God. There was no statehood or central government of any sort. The clans were independent units unto themselves. Within the clans there was the recognition there was recognition of the moral authority of the sheikhs, or elders, but organized authority was lacking. . . . [At Shiloh] the tribesmen gathered on the feast days to seek the presence of their God and to renew their allegiance to him. This tribal structure corresponds perfectly to the covenant-people idea and may be assumed to be an outworking of it. The covenant league was a brotherhood; it was ruled only by the law of the covenant of God.
One may best to see how the primitive order in Israel operated from a reading of the book of Judges. Here we see the clans maintaining a precarious existence, surrounded by foes but without government, central authority, or state organization of any sort. In times of danger there would arise a hero, one upon whom the spirit of Yahweh rushed (Judg. 3:10; 14:6), called a judge (shôphēt). He would rally the surrounding clans and deal with the foe. While his victories no doubt gain him prestige, he was in no sense a king. His authority was neither absolute over all Israel nor permanent; in no case was it hereditary. -John Bright, The Kingdom of God, 31
I’ll add just a comment or two here. First, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to paint all the “judges” as men over whom “the spirit of Yahweh” rushed. The judges were a motley crew, so I’d like to guard against a monolithic view that considers only the stories, say, of Gideon, Samson, and maybe Deborah.
Next, Bright has observed some important limitations. The Judge was not a king; s/he was not absolutely or broadly in power; and there were no dynasties.
Also important from a higher vantage point is this textually based, yet also philosophical probe: Texts may have multiple aspects or even “purposes” in different times, with different audiences. A reader in, say, 500 B.C.E. would naturally have read the Judges text differently in his historical/cultural context than you and I read it in our situation. And that variance ought not to threaten the sincere student; rather, if we’ll allow it, the cognizance of different contexts can illuminate.
In this brief series on the Judges, I have offered but a few snippets. I didn’t care to go into Ehud or spent much time with a few others. I’ll conclude this series before the sad case of Eli’s sons and Samuel’s unique influence. Overall, in reading and observing, I think of all the history of God and his people—not only during the actual time of the Judges, but during the centuries and millennia to follow. And I’m essentially led to wonder this: Is the whole history of Judges/Deliverers recorded for ancient Israel and New Israel to see that those deliverers were nothing but human, whereas God is the only One who delivers and is sovereign? Although some times of peace lasted 40 years or more, no one could ultimately deliver Israel except God.
Did Israel ever comprehend God’s utterly singular sovereignty? Do we?
In the tale of Abimelech, a son of Gideon, the name Ebed or Obed appears. I suppose it’s doubtful that this would be the same Obed who was the son of Boaz, since Abimelech’s clan is said to have lived quite a bit north of Boaz’s. Yet the later Israelite reader might connect the two stories, and, after all, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz is set in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). At least, we might note that Abimelech (meaning something like “father-king” or “my father is King”) figures into the Judges narrative, in which the Israelites are hopelessly un-delivered. On the other hand, Naomi’s husband is Elimelech (meaning something like “my God is king”). Something tells me the reader would pick up more than a name here. Not only Naomi is given renewal and hope; Ruth, a Moabite outsider of all things, is also given a place within God’s providence. Here, God is a benevolent, gracious King. We remember here, with John Bright, that “the idea of monarchy [had been] consciously rejected. This was Illustrated in the words with which stout Gideon spurned a crown: ‘I will not rule over you. . . .'” Bright, 32
As Bright observed re: the “primitive theocracy” with a given Judge, “it was the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.” (32) In a very real sense, the entirety of the Christian believer’s life may be summed up in two aspects: the perceived place/role of God the King, and doing His will. More succinctly put: Kingdom and discipleship. God is our Emperor/King, and we owe Him allegiance, which might also be termed loyal living as a disciple of Jesus, who was God’s “designated representative.”
N.T. Wright has asserted these truths:
“[T]the call to faith is also a call to obedience. It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master. (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.) That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith.’ Indeed, the word the early Christians used for “faith” can also mean “loyalty” or “allegiance.” It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects.”
Living by “faith,” therefore, is not merely saying “Jesus, I trust in You,” although that attitude and posture are important. Living by faith is also living loyally, acting obediently, being a disciple of the one everlasting “emperor.”
The book of Judges includes accounts of ~ 13 Judges. They were by no means homogeneous. The nature of the role seems to have morphed, or at least it was amorphous. I think they might be grouped along these lines:
- Othneil, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah (mostly admirable folks, as Israel’s stories go)
- Gideon, Abimelech, Tola, Jair (mixed)
- Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, Samson (more deeply mixed, with some horrific incidents)
With this post we move into the second group, beginning with Gideon, of “fleece” fame. Gideon is presented largely as a good guy, although not entirely built of faith. We want to be careful not to be to presumptuous in conceiving of the overall reality when we don’t have a complete picture; what we do have is this piece of literature that presents him in X way. Perhaps Gideon was actually more or less faith-filled than we read of, on average. He initially focuses on his own weakness/stature¹, and he appears to struggle with fear and doubt (6:15, 6:27). On the other hand, he must have had some courage, or he would not be flouting (albeit surreptitiously) the exploits of the Midianites and Amalekites by threshing the grain that they had a penchant for stealing. The angel of the Lord approaches Gideon, calling him “brave,” and Gideon’s father later renames his son to commemorate a bold, in-your-face move against Baal. God continues using Gideon, acknowledging and engaging with his fears (7:10).
After the fleece event, in another famous Gideon story, God shows who’s in charge by reducing an army to 1% of its original size . . . and then he uses an inimitably unconventional battle plan (trumpets and pitchers with torches, not arrows and shields). I find curious what happens with the battle cry: “for the LORD and for Gideon” had been prescribed, but the chant gained a foreword: “a sword for the LORD and for Gideon” . . . yet it appears the sword didn’t have to be used at all in the victory. Maybe the reader is to notice that, whereas the men wanted to use their own might and swords, God didn’t need those. Who is king, after all?
Speaking of the locus of power and strength . . . have you assumed that the 300 men were chosen because lapping water like a dog somehow made them more alert for battle, as compared with the men who fully knelt down? How important would human battle-readiness be, after all, if God was doing this? Notwithstanding repeated teaching to the contrary through the years, I now figure the posture was more an arbitrary means of selection than a symbol of readiness in God’s mind.
Gideon’s military heroism, which seems at least partly God-ordained at this juncture, sounds forte within the overall narrative of Judges, but the man’s character remains mixed, in my estimation. On the upside, we read that the men of Israel wish to start a dynasty with Gideon. He refuses. Then, with great devotion and character, Gideon responds,
I will not rule over you, nor will my son;
The LORD will rule over you.
This cry should ring like chimes in the ears of all Israelites who were to come! Gideon shows the right focus! But just as impressively, the next part of the story shows his failure: he makes a gold ephod (apparently a tribute to himself) that becomes an idol and results in the next downfall of the people. “All the Israelites went astray by worshipping it, and it also became a snare for Gideon and his household.” (8:27b) Despite Gideon’s folly with the gold, Midian was defeated, and Israel lived in peace for 40 years.
Gideon’s concubine gave him a son in Shechem, and that son was to carry on his father’s negative side. Abimelech boldly went to the people of Shechem and more or less proclaimed himself king. The tribal people weakly allowed this to happen, and Abimelech promptly, brutally murdered 70 half-brothers in a show of self-aggrandizing force. Jotham, the only brother to survive, seems to manifest at least some faith in the LORD: he expresses the hope that God will listen to them (9:7), even as he prophesies doom in what amounts to a second piece of literariness in the book. “Jotham’s diatribe” in chapter 9 is not quite the song of Deborah and Barak from chapter 4 but is nonetheless notable within the narrative—and more listenable, in my estimation. Jotham’s prediction comes true in the end: those who once gave Abimelech allegiance became his enemies and ultimately did him in.
Postlude to an episode
It bears mention that the name Abimelech is common and may be more of a title (or blanket designation of kings/would-be-kings?) than a name per se. The word means “father-king” or “my father is King” or “father of a king.” One of several biblical Abimelechs also appears in Genesis 20. Might this name in Judges invite the reader to hark back to Abraham’s fear and folly when he conveniently “forgets” Sarah is his wife as well as his half-sister?² Abraham wasn’t exactly acting faithfully at the time, whereas that Abimelech seems to fear God. The ruffian Abimelech in Judges clearly is not a man after God. At any rate, Israel remembers Saul, not Abimelech, as its first king, and rightly so:
- Abimelech is but a provincial, regional leader.
- Abimelech is not a man of God, nor is he in any sense chosen by God’s will.
¹ It should not surprise us that God might choose a “little guy” to accomplish a big thing.
² Here, I assume Judges was written later than Genesis. Even if that is not the case, oral history about Abraham would likely have been a factor. In other words, stories were told, and the name Abimelech was surely known.
I’ve begun to see the book of Judges as a historical theology narrative in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship may be perceived. Faith-wise, the Israelites definitely appear to have plunged in the time of the Judges. (Find the first two posts in this series here. I anticipate 3-4 more.)
Having skipped lightly over Shamgar, because the text nearly does the same, we see that Deborah, the 3rd judge, is unique:
- She is a prophetess.
- She is presented as having had a place for judging.
- It is not as a military leader that she earns her role.
- She is a woman.
Why, when I was a 9-year-old at Vacation Bible School, had my memorization list included Barak’s name along with Deborah’s as a Judge? Barak seems to be a non-entity, really.) In the story, Deborah’s prophecies and courage eclipse Barak’s might. He is criticized for a lack of courage,. The horrific story of the enemy Sisera’s death seems to show not only Jael’s (didja catch that name? Jah-El! Yahweh is God!) fearlessness but also the courageous faith of Deborah. It’s a victory, but not by traditional male might. What’s highlighted here is the power of women who were willing to take action.
Then comes the notable “Song of Deborah and Barak,” as the heading sometimes goes. It takes up an entire chapter of Judges, indicating its historical and theological significance within the narrative. A general principle of narrative interpretation is that when a portion of the story is notably longer (a conversation, a description, or in this case, a song of victory), the reader should take notice. And this song takes a whole chapter!
The song itself seems largely inaccessible to the modern ear. This is no “Wichita Lineman” or “She Loves Me, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.” I suppose it’s more akin to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but that’s another story. Some tribes or portions of tribes are taken to task for not heeding the battle call. The exploits of other tribes are praised. The song’s overall impact, I suppose, is clear, but along the way, it speaks things that do not resonate or even make sense to me. The closing sentiment (5:28-30) about Sisera’s mother looking for her son, the now-dead general, to come home is just mean. The song’s conclusion seems to be cognizant of the Lord’s role, and Israel, having apparently relied a little on God for a short time, “had rest for 40 years” . . . but then did what was evil. Again.
And this time, at least in the narrative, God seems resistant to delivering them.
Next: Strength and weakness . . . Midian and Gideon
As noted in the first Judges post here, the Israelites’ downfall appears to begin in the time of the Judges. The people had not completely driven out the Canaanite inhabitants from the land, instead being assimilated and integrated, to some extent.
Here, we might acknowledge that the politico-military events described in Judges involve what would today be termed “ethnic cleansing.” One people group, the “chosen” ones, wiped out other groups. Some of these realities, as described, are horrific to most 21st-century ears, including mine. What to do with this? Some would say that we have in the Hebrew Bible a manifestation of a merciless God; others have asserted that the whole Exodus and Conquest of Canaan scenarios were entirely fabricated. I lean heavily toward affirming historical significance and accepting the events as described, although that inclination is informed by these realizations:
- Ancient writers don’t appear to view historicity and the recording of history in the same way a 20th- or 21-st century journalist would.
- Theologically oriented narrative sequences do not depend on precise dates and time periods. Truth and “accuracy” are not to be seen in our strict terms.
- The God-ordained conquest of Canaan was not to be the end of the story, and ultimate deliverance is not physical.
With the above in mind, I set out to record some anecdotes harvested during my reading of Judges. Please note that I do not present these observations as researched. I hope they will be, at least at points, insightful, but it will be up to the reader to determine accuracy (e.g., of speculation about the meaning of names)—and to discern whether any insights or theories here can hold water.
First, I note that the tribes of Israel ask who will take the lead. God replies (1:2) that Judah—indicating the tribe descended from the fourth son of Jacob—would do so. Is the early, prominent mention of power/leadership indicative of what is to come in the book? It could be signaling something I want to pay attention to, but I shouldn’t allow myself to assume the book is playing into my presuppositions.
Right away in the narrative, we read of violence. Horrific, mean-spirited, gruesome violence. Adoni-bezek (meaning “lord of Bezek”), a Canaanite king, was captured and had his thumbs and big toes cut off. Othniel, the nephew of Caleb (and cohort of Joshua, of conquest fame), arises as a military leader. His name is said to mean “Lion of God” . . . so “Othni” must mean “lion,” because the oft-seen syllable “el” is a shortened form of “Elohim.” Othniel’s battle success earns him a wife; he becomes Caleb’s son-in-law, as well. And isn’t that interesting? For the Hebrew who hears or reads this story, the faith of Caleb and Joshua (the God-oriented two of the twelve spies who had been sent on reconnaissance) becomes linked to the work of God.
The Israelites settled in with existing people groups, e.g., the Amalekites and Jebusites (from what would become Jerusalem). This had not been the plan. God calls the people on the carpet, as it were, in 2:1.
Following the death of Joshua, the deliverer, the new generation is generally unfaithful. More unholy integration is noted in 3:5-6. In the memorable story of Ehud and his brutal slaying of the Moabite King Eglon, there is no mention of God. Only the sword. The land’s “rest time” under Othniel and Ehud is roughly 120 years—a long period, it seems to me.
Shamgar, officially Judge #3, has only one event attributed to him. Perhaps he is particularly strong, or at least driven by adrenaline, foreshadowing Samson: he kills 600 Philistines single-handedly. As with Ehud, God is not mentioned in connection with Shamgar, so I begin to suspect that the narrative is intent on showing a misplaced focus, i.e., on human strength apart from God.
God shakes things up in the person of Deborah. She is the only female judge and is also a prophet.
Next: Deborah, Gideon, and Abimelech
It took me six days, but I did it. I had told myself I was going to sit down and read the Hebrew Bible book of Judges in a sitting. It’s only 21 chapters and should have taken 2-3 hours, I figured. I was pre-motivated by the redemptive and historiographical “kingdom” significance I perceived, but it still took me six days. Pathetic, I know.
I did learn a few things. Or, more accurately, I observed a few things that might or might not be valid. (You’ll have to be the judge.) For instance, the duration of the period of the Judges seems to have been between 300-400 years. Early on in reading, I also recalled that the people of Israel sometimes eliminated the existing inhabitants of a region, and sometimes, they didn’t.
The book of Judges begins by telling us that Israel hasn’t completely driven out the Canaanites from the land. Instead, Israel follows their corruption and child sacrifice, becoming just as bad or worse. – The Bible Project
This seems to be the beginning of the Israelites’ downfall.
Out of the gate, I will admit to having prejudged Judges: I’ve begun to see it as (1) a historical theology book (2) in which Israel’s stark slide toward ignoring God’s kingship could be plainly seen. My premise, in other words, is that we find a significant era in the time of Israelite Judges. The Bible Project’s video introduction bears this out, referring to the “tragic downward spiral of Israel’s leaders and people” and to a “descent into madness.” Of course, there had been numerous departures from God in the past, but once the people had been finally delivered from the Egyptian oppression and enslavement, had suffered, wandered, and finally been given their promised inheritance in the new land, it would seem that God’s reign would be clear to them—and honored by them. This was not to be the case.
I judge that I have more to learn about the word “judge” (Heb. shophet). I have come to suspect that the English word does not do justice to the original role, as conceived and lived out among the ancients. The role also seems to have shifted with the time, personality, and need. One source¹ frames the scene well, I suspect: the Hebrew judges were people “who served roles as military leaders in times of crisis, in the period before an Israelite monarchy was established.” It’s important to recognize that there was no “nation of Israel” per se at this point in history. The judges, therefore, were not national leaders; they were “unelected non-hereditary leaders”¹—more like regional/tribal lords who arose, or who were elevated, based on military need and proven might.
Some judges failed miserably at points, but they also had many impressive successes. In general, we see in the book of Judges that it is God’s power that provides victory. On the contrary, when God is forgotten or ignored, bad things happen.
The number of Judges counted in this time period varies from 13-16, upward to 19 or 20 if others are counted that are not mentioned in Judges or 1Samuel. The events of Eli’s and Samuel’s lives, for example, seem to be in the line of Judges.
Next: the first three Judges
On this day, should you wish to ponder as well as celebrate and recreate, I might point you to this posting from about this time last year:
All the links in this cross-posting should open in a new tab in your browser (not sure what happens on a smartphone; I tend not to read much there since I like to see more than 20 words at the same time!). Here is a link to a recent post on my (less active) Christian Assembly blog:
A pleasant dip in a valley, in which I mention a few good thoughts on a good assembly experience
Recent posts on my Subjects of the Kingdom blog include these:
Exile, in which the pervasive notion of exile is spotlighted
Practicing the presence, in which the presence of God is compared to the presence of His Kingdom
The dentist’s office, in which sterile, calm atmospheres are contrasted with the Kingdom
In Ephesians 6 we have Paul’s famous, extended “armor of God” imagery. Where does this battle language come from? Approximately 14 years prior, Paul had used similar language in his first letter to the Thessalonians. He also appears to have drawn on other texts—specifically, Isaiah 59 and Wisdom 5:17-20. These armor texts might at first seem about the same, yet it soon strikes the reader that there are similarities but no quotations per se.
I don’t think the point in Ephesians 6 is to relate each piece of armor strictly to a particular aspect of Christian life. It’s not, for example, that Paul is saying the helmet protects the salvation thoughts in our brains so we can avoid the loss of salvation. Paul’s purpose in using this extended metaphor seems somewhat more general. The battle imagery has found continued life in many Christian songs through the ages—some good ones and some not so good. “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” (1742), for instance, contains quite a few expressions derived directly from Ephesians 6:
- “Strong in the strength which God supplies and in His mighty pow’r” (6:10)
- “Stand entire at last” (6:13)
- “Take, to arm you for the fight the panoply of God” (6:11, with “panoply” being a transliteration of a Greek word)
- Still let your feet be shod, ready His will to do (6:15)
The full poem (found here) does descend into militaristic machismo a time or two. Here’s an example:
Brandish in faith till then the Spirit’s two-edged sword,
Hew all the snares of fiends and men in pieces with the Word
I doubt that stanza has ever shown up in a widely published hymnal (!), but the song’s references and analogies are communicative overall.
“Lord, Speak To Me” (1872) similarly echoes the Ephesians emphasis on being filled with God’s power, especially in the later stanzas:
- “O strengthen me, that while I stand firm on the rock, and strong in Thee” (6:10, 11)
- “O fill me with Thy fullness, Lord” (1:10; 4:13)
Never a favorite of mine but widely sung for more than a century, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus” (1858) has some negative expressions, such as “charge for the God of battles, and put the foe to rout” and “each soldier to his post; close up the broken column, and shout through all the host.” To my ear, those phrases are gratuitous appeals to those experienced in the military forces and are not very communicative of spiritual realities or imperatives. Yet a phrase such as “put on the Gospel armor; each piece put on with prayer” does highlight not only the armor angle in Ephesians 6 but also the letter’s strong emphasis on prayer. On the whole, it is easy to see why this song has been published in more than a thousand hymnals.
The children’s song “I’m in the Lord’s Army” includes these words:
I may never march in the infantry, ride in the cavalry, shoot the artillery.
I may never zoom o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s Army! (Yes, sir!)
As the reader might remember, body motions suggestive of physical battle accompany that song. And why shouldn’t there be (from a keep-the-children-active perspective)? The actions are fun. Yet weaning children on that kind of thing probably gets them thinking more about U.S.A. military service than about spiritual armor and battle. Recently, I unexpectedly acquired a castoff record of George Beverly Shea (singer for Billy Graham crusades) and found myself unwittingly listening to a song called “The Army of the Lord.” This song is a hokey exhortation to march for the Lord, laced with Christianese, and set to music that unites Leroy Anderson with a sort of Sousa-like polka. At least it didn’t become blatantly militaristic. At this point, I start to wonder whether it’s been military personnel who write such things, as opposed to theologians or biblical exegetes. Leaving those ill-advised examples now, let me comment more thoroughly on the implications of two songs I would call ambiguous or perhaps questionable.
In the church of my youth, we sang “Faith is the Victory” (Encamped Along the Hills of Light) (late 1800s) quite a bit, but I don’t think I’d sing it today without prefatory explanation for the sake of the contemporary mind. For instance, what do the expressions “press the battle” or “let all our strength be hurled” mean to us nowadays? Yes, in one sense, “faith is the victory that overcomes,” but if we appeal to those “saints above” who “with shouts of triumph trod” and “swept on o’er ev’ry field,” we might start to envision a physical battle, largely unaware of the unseen realm that is under consideration in Ephesians 6. Put differently: if we have human war mechanisms at the forefront, trying to apply their strategy and protective gear to the (spiritual) cause of Christ, we’ll stumble. On the contrary, Paul had the cause of Christ in mind first, applying various metaphors and analogies in order to explicate Christian living, here focusing on the unseen.
The song has “we’ll vanquish all the hosts of night in Jesus’ conqu’ring name,” and that sounds like a mass military offensive, whereas Paul’s idea of “living as children of light” (Eph 5:8) is not aggressive at all. His advice to put on the armor so that you can stand against the schemes of the devil (6:12) is singular/individual, so it’s a leap to conclude that this is directly about any kind of “army of the Lord” or the actions of any faith community group.
Curiously, the music for the once-popular “Onward, Christian Soldiers” (1864) was written by Sir Arthur Sullivan¹ of British operetta fame. Sabine Baring-Gould’s lyrical exhortation to be a soldier for the Lord is biblical, yet what is communicated now (or in the 1860s, for that matter) to an American by the term “soldier” may not be what was originally intended by the poet, an Englishman, in words written very hastily for a children’s procession.² The first stanza (“marching as to war … with the cross of Jesus going on before”) seems the most problematic, possibly conjuring up Grant or Sherman for a Union loyalist, or Constantine and Theodosius for those with a broader view. The song has been removed from some hymnals, but it might still be used judiciously, if one is aware of possible communication gaps.
Further on the differentiation of corporate military actions from the individual spiritual battle, we might note at this point that Paul chose a word for “struggle” (6:11) that had been used in secular literature for a wrestling match. The word describes not a company-front marching offensive but an individual, up-close-and-personal conflict with the devil.³ Christian solidarity is no bad thing, but the notion of a Christian flag carried at the front of a marching military regiment communicates more to those versed in military history or experienced in the ways of war than to those who wish to understand the Christian life and mission on an individual scale.
Neither “Faith is the Victory” nor “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a bad song if one interprets appropriately, but as the decades pass, and as we have in the collective consciousness not only the Civil War but the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein, ISIS, and more, the picture becomes obscured with different types of clouds. The so-called Cold War and justifiable indignation over various outbreaks of tyranny, genocide, or human enslavement have led to increasing, many-faceted polarization. Anti-war politicists are more in the mainstream, if not more rabid; and it seems increasingly likely that rightist “Christians” would indiscriminately mix human/geopolitical militarism with Pauline imagery, forgetting that killing people is foreign to Christ and His ways. Apparently with notions of “manifest destiny” at heart, none other than the late Prime Minister of Great Britain said this, for example:
We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation. W. Churchill, 1941)
It makes great sense for Mr. Churchill, as the Prime Minister, to have delivered that stirring-if-over-confident “kill the Nazis” rhetoric at that point in history, but his comments became presumptuous at the point at which he appealed to “on high.” It was ignorant and arrogant for him to have mashed together (a) those who were killing the enemies with (b) those who spoke English, all under the aegis of “Christianity.” Yes, presumptuous: the very suggestion that God would help the English-speakers rid the world of that particular horror passes lightly over the prospects of death and hell in a way that Paul would abhor, suggests that Churchill and Truman had taken a prophetic mantle, and ignores that God had not always led His Old-Covenant people to physical victory. So why would God assure Great Britain and the U.S.A. a victory from on high?
In the event that I would be judged too serious and “too heaven-minded to be of any earthly good” at this point, let me share this fine parody on “Onward, Christian Soldiers”:
Like a mighty tortoise,
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.
(Ian Bradley, The Book of Hymns, New York: Testament Books, 1989, p. 333)
Perhaps church music in our era is no more nuanced or developed in the few instances in which it uses military imagery. In my estimation, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” (1984), full of musical strength, has some ironically weak lines. It is not a great song, but it does greatly point to the great Lord. Surely it is good to remind ourselves often that we have a greater One to serve. In considering this notion, we might recall Paul in 2Tim 2: the soldier’s aim is to please his “commanding officer.” And of course, the Lord’s power and strength are themes in Ephesians (e.g., 1:19ff; 3:16,20; 6:10).
The hymn-style “Fight the Good Fight” (1853) was once among my top 50, but I doubt it rises to that level for many. My conception of it was shallow, and its words do not even speak much of battle or armor, but I mention it here mostly to call attention to its title. “Fight the Good Fight” would not be sung much these days because concepts fighting and battles are different now, geopolitically speaking. I do love expressions such as “Christ is thy path, and Christ thy right,” “lay hold on life, and it shall be thy joy and crown eternally” and “upon thy Guide lean.”
Perhaps it is largely a result of my non-violence bias that I find so much of the military imagery in songs to zoom over the area of Paul’s real concern. The singer may mentally don his fatigues and load his guns, having been raised in post-World War America, before he ever stops to ponder what Paul was really writing about. As we ponder what “spiritual warfare” in the unseen realm means to individual Christians and to our churches, I think there are multiple good reasons to emphasize the shield of faith(fulness)—both in the Ephesians literary context and in the real-life context of Christian existence. In the next post, I will deal more briefly with an interpretation of this central piece of the “armor.”
B. Casey, 10/24/18 – 11/4/18
¹ Operetta, a subgenre touched off by Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan combo, is light, humorous opera. Sullivan wrote comparatively few “serious” works. It would come as no surprise that no deep or stately connection to Christian theology arose when Baring-Gould’s words were set to his music. Aside: Sullivan wrote “religious music” while being known to have adulterous affairs, indulge heavily in gambling, and participate in Freemasonry. See this Wikipedia link for more information.
² Baring-Gould apparently had second thoughts about some of the words and revised some later. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Onward,_Christian_Soldiers.
³ According to Benjamin Merkle, the word πάλη | palē “was most widely used for the sport of wrestling.” Merkle continues, “. . . Paul is envisioning a fierce battle and not merely an athletic competition. Nevertheless, the term may have been used to intensify the closeness of the battle. The struggle is not fought by proxy or at a distance but involves close-quarter, hand-to-hand combat.” Benjamin L. Merkle, Ephesians, ed. Köstenberger and Yarbrough, B&H Publishing Group, 2016.
“Freedom” is an English word which suggests a value held by most Americans—arguably, an innate value. What, though, is the referent of “freedom”? It depends on the context. Are we talking about Scots in the feudal period (see my essay with a Braveheart connection here), 19th-century Africans-become-Americans on the move, Jews or Christians in the 1st-century Roman Empire, or “free speech” in the 21st century?¹
I presume that all thoughtful people, regardless of how (or if) they feel patriotic, or how they support (or do not support) military action, can agree on a few things—for instance, that the loss of human life is to be avoided when possible, and that all human enslavement in recent history is abhorrent. I certainly consider freedom from such enslavement a worthy human cause. I would like to spend a few clarifying minutes here, though—sharing an illuminating, distinguishing feature of “freedom” in the New Covenant writings. There can yet be appropriate lessons for Christians to draw out on the occasion of a national holiday. I hope this post turns out to impress readers as just such a lesson, refining and deepening our thinking.
We should be aware, first off, that concepts and practicalities around freedom and slavery have changed through the ages. What felt like freedom to an ancient, freed Hebrew who had lived in Egypt would surely still feel like bondage to me, a person of some privilege. We know more of the life of a bondservant in New Testament times, but assumptions must still be made. One conclusion we might draw is that, whatever Paul thought about about Roman-era slavery, he didn’t consider it inherently evil, or he wouldn’t have sent the “slave” Onesimus back to Philemon, and he wouldn’t have told “slaves” to obey their masters. The point here is that one must learn something of the reality of the situation—the context of the “freedom”—before he can make apt assessments. Moreover, the human enslavement that occurs today is of a different stripe from that of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in western Africa (and they’ve all been awful, on the whole).
The first three “freedom” definitions given in one e-source all focus attention on liberty from something—from restraint, from despotic government, or from enslavement. Those definitions and references do summon images and historical education for many of us. But these are not necessarily directly related to “freedom” in the NT writings.
In 2015, Dr. Larry Hurtado, an influential, reputable scholar retired from the University of Edinburgh, wrote a paper entitled “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament.” Hurtado first treated NT references to freedom in the historical context of Roman slavery, which again deserves consideration in its historical context. He proceeds to emphasize that, in the NT, freedom is “for a certain direction in life” (Hurtado p. 1) and is to be seen in (positive) connection to other people. This freedom for something is to be seen in contrast to mere freedom from something—even something as dehumanizingly evil as the kind of slavery we typically think of. On the contrary, the secular view of freedom in the Roman world—and, we daresay, throughout the West today—is often seen to be “at the expense of others, their labor and service enabling one to enjoy a freedom from labor and service.” (p. 25) This assertion at first sounds overdone, but I consider it justifiable. In other words, the freedom I enjoy as a U.S. citizen does not on the surface seem to be at the expense of others, yet when it is analyzed, a good part of it turns up wanting. Hurtado’s point seems valid.
I don’t share all of Hurtado’s perspectives or concerns, and I wouldn’t claim any more than 10% of his intellectual capacity and insight, but I surely do appreciate the whole of his “Concluding Reflections,” which I reproduce below, with bold emphases of my own. Again, the stress is not on what one is free for, but on what she is freed to do.
Anyone may find Hurtado’s paper freely available in its entirety here.
– B. Casey, 5/20/18 – 6/30/18
Those who require an explicit scriptural text to authorize any thought or action will find the absence of NT statements on political liberation either frustrating or a (dubious) justification for conservatism. Those whose vision of liberation is essentially a hastily baptized version of Greek traditions of autarchy will find the NT vision of freedom incomprehensible and repugnant. I suggest, however, that both responses reflect shallow thinking. In any case, neither represents an adequate engagement with the NT.
As we have noted earlier, the NT does not teach about political liberation, largely because the sorts of actions open today (especially political organization) were not available or even conceived then. But the strong affirmation and enhancement of personal moral agency in the NT are most compatible with social and political environments that make ample room for freedom of conscience and action. The agapē urged in the NT requires a real measure of personal freedom in order to be exercised authentically. It is not possible to render the love advocated in the NT under compulsion and coercion. So, e.g., freedom of religion and conscience, and freedom from intimidation and oppressive social relationships are essential for the cultivation of opportunities for true faith and loving freedom to be exercised.
The eschatological vision that fuels NT teaching on freedom and other matters has been effectively lost in most versions of Christianity, along with the concomitant radical view of evil, with unfortunate results. Conservative Christianity has tended to identify too readily the Kingdom of God with this or that political regime (from Constantine onward), whereas liberal Christianity has tended to under-estimate the depth of evil and in its own ways has tended to assume that radical change for the better can be achieved by well-intentioned people. But the eschatological outlook of the NT reflects a profound, if jarring, view of the human predicament, which, in view of daily news reports, at least seems more realistic. Moreover, that same eschatological hope also requires a stubborn refusal to confuse any human regime with God’s Kingdom, which should allow scope for critique of all regimes, even those established in the name of freedom.
The NT emphasis on freedom for the love of others may be instructive as well. There are plenty of indications that modern liberal democracies are good at promoting individualism, and a culture of self-attainment. But these societies are not very successful in promoting a productive and free social cohesion, and common values, or in getting individuals to use their wealth and other advantages for the good of other people. Perhaps, then, the remarkable version of freedom in the NT is worth a second look. One implication of the NT treatment of freedom is that a “free” society cannot be measured simply in the degree of autocracy exercised by individuals. In today’s political climate, choice is a major commodity offered by politicians to a public coached to prize enjoyment of maximum personal opportunities. But the NT idea of freedom rejects acquisitive choice in favour of serious and productive inter-personal involvement. This dynamic freedom involves a greater realization of one’s own moral agency and an enlargement of one’s vision to take in others. The expression of this sort of freedom promotes inter-personal relationships that nurture and enhance others, freely loving others in the power of God’s freely given redemptive love.
– from Dr. Larry Hurtado, “Freed by Love and for Love: Freedom in the New Testament” (2010)
For the benefit of both sets of readers, this is also posted on my Kingdom blog.
For more (roughly) seasonal reading:
Nations—a probing of the ideas and concepts in the word(s)
The Babylon Bee can step on toes—and be rather probing with its stingers. Enjoy this year-old satire on one of the U.S.’s special days:
Former enlisted man now a CO (about what happened to change a “soldier’s” philosophy and allegiance)
¹ I don’t list here the countless Christian songs that rhyme with “set free.” Some of them might have something theologically sound in the background, but others seem rather glib and gratuitous, with no particular reference.
Cross-posted from my other blog: Memorializing. This brief post emphasizes the Christ on this holiday weekend.
Now posted on my other blog here: a second set of quotations on the kingdom of God from Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto. Ostensibly moving from the “manifestos” of Marx & Engels and Francis Schaeffer, these packed-with-punch authors pen powerful statements such as these:
Justice does not assume freedom from suffering.
The kingdom is a presence that we enter, a gem-like gift that we receive and treasure, a new creation that engulfs and embraces us. In other words, the kingdom of God is Jesus the Christ, and his righteousness.
Christians don’t follow Christianity. They follow Christ.
Quotations on the kingdom of God from Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto, with commentary, are now posted on my other blog here.