The Impossible Dance – Chapter 6 – A Nation Settles
Courage and memory
When the people of Israel first approached the Promised Land, Moses chose twelve spies to scout out the land. Joshua and Caleb were the only two spies that did not bring back a report of discouragement. The discouragement brought by the other ten spies caused all the people of Israel to rebel against God as they forgot all the miracles of God’s provision in their flight from Egypt. This resulted in God subjecting the people of Israel to encamping in the wilderness for forty years. All the adults except for Joshua and Caleb, were subject to die in the wilderness before the people of Israel would enter the promised land.
Therefore, God chose Joshua to lead the people into the Promised Land at the end of the forty years. As before, the nation of Israel would encounter other people already living in the land, so Israel would need to fight for the land; it would not be easy. Before Joshua led his people into the land, God repeatedly said to Joshua, “Be strong and of good courage … do not be terrified or discouraged.” Then as a refresher, God also performed miracles as the people entered the land, causing the Jordan River to cease flowing to allow the people to cross on dry land – repeating the miracle of the parting of the sea as they fled Egypt.
Before Israel even left Egypt, the Egyptian people gave the Israelites gold and other wealth that was not theirs, the water from miraculously made springs and the manna that fell from the sky was not theirs. Now the homes and fields that God gave them to capture were the provision of God as well.
God’s fullness, his followers’ emptiness
God’s provision though was going to require their involvement. It would start with the way they crossed the Jordan River where the people carrying the ark needed to get their feet wet in the river before it would stop flowing. And since this time, the river would now be the boundary of their new land, God told the people to set up a monument of twelve stones to be a reminder God’s provision. The next miracle which came soon after was the crumbling of the walls of Jericho which occurred after seven days of marching around the city. That miracle would be followed by others as the people of Israel continued to capture the cities.
According to the message that Yahweh shared with Abraham, the entry of Israel into the Promised Land meant that the sin of the Amorites had now reached its full measure. As with the time of Noah, that full measure would now end in the destruction of the inhabitants of the land, this time by the people of Israel. The danger to Israel would be, that if the current inhabitants of the land with their idolatries and atrocities, which included burning their children alive to sacrifice them to their gods, were allowed to live among the people of Israel, the people of Israel would be tempted to also turn from God.
So, beginning at Jericho, the people of Israel to instructed to “totally destroy” (Hebrew “herem”) the inhabitants of the city. God would repeat this instruction at other times as well. But Israel did not always follow these instructions with the consequent result that Israel continuously fell into the idolatries of the current inhabitants.
Before Joshua died, he challenged the people to serve Yahweh and the people responded that they would choose to serve Yahweh. Joshua replied that they could not serve Yahweh, the God who is so holy. Nevertheless, the people responded that they would serve Yahweh. Joshua then said that they were “witnesses against themselves.” They would be. In the end, they did not follow God’s commands to defeat the tribes in the Promised Land. They did not “completely destroy” the cities as God told them to do. Israel therefore allowed themselves to be subject to continual temptation to sin by turning from worshipping God and towards worshipping idols, participating the same atrocities that God found so reprehensible.
The God of War
One of the troublesome tensions of the Christian faith is how to reconcile our picture of Jesus who came to bring us peace with the picture of the “pre-Jesus” God who seems so violent. In particular, the God who commanded Israel to “totally destroy,” to leave no one alive in the cities of the “promised land” they were to inhabit.
It has been so hard to reconcile the two images of the God, one of the Old Testament that engaged in violence and the second of one of the New Testament who came to “bring peace,” that from the earliest days of the church some Christians felt compelled to abandon the Old Testament altogether. There are several issues that come affect how we deal with this problem.
There are less differences between God’s portrayal in the Old vs. New Testaments than many think. (See Chapter 2; Paradoxes and Mysteries; Gracious, Merciful and Just). If we have a problem with God in the Old Testament, then we have a problem in the New Testament as well. Both Testaments together provide the full story of the Gospel and a full picture of God.
We need to see all suffering and death in context of Jesus’ suffering and death by execution. Jesus is God the Son, present from before Creation, the God of Creation, the God of Abraham, Moses and Israel, and the God who commanded Israel to herem (“totally destroy”) the people in Canaan. We cannot separate Jesus from all the activity ascribed to God’s activity in the Old Testament. The Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace that we are more comfortable dealing with, is only available because of all that He had done beginning with Creation, extending through history of the patriarchs and Israel and eventually his own incarnation, suffering and death.
We need to accept that there is much that we do not know. This comes at us a couple of different ways. We must deal with our cultural separation from the times before Jesus, there are things going on with the ancient near east culture that we don’t know. We also must deal with a knowledge of God that is far beyond ours. We need to take seriously Yahweh’s criticism of Job, and of Yahweh’s admonition to Isaiah, “my ways are higher than your ways,” we must be careful to accuse Yahweh of injustice because there is much that do not understand.
The totality of destruction implied by herem catches our attention, but this is only a specific, though perhaps extreme, case of the question, “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The answer to the everyday issue of why “innocent” people suffer, is the same answer that underlies the killing of people that we assume are innocent.
Our modern-day culture is in many ways sanitized compared to the Biblical culture. Because most of us do not witness the slaughter of animals we eat, we have a challenging time associating with those who lived in the time where there was the ritual slaughter of animals, not for the sake of food but for the sake of sins. We have not had to watch the slaughter of animals and contemplate the awfulness of our sin and of God’s hatred of sin because of its awful effect on us. All that makes is difficult for us to grasp the concept of a God so jealous for us that he would even offer himself to be slaughtered on our behalf.
Add to that difficulty is the reality, that although the church has not always lived up to its professed values, we still amazingly live in a world that has been cleansed by the effect of the grace of Christian values, even if the world is unable to recognize how our current values had their roots in Christian values. It was the Christian value of life that confronted the once customary practice of abandoning babies on the street to die and so today it is rare. It has been Christian values that have elevated the status of women and children. It has been Christian values that led to the development of modern science, technology, and medicine.
Yet another level of “sanitization” occurs when we don’t consider the extent of our own sin and depravity in context of the extent of the holiness of God. A contrast that caused the prophet Isaiah to proclaim, “Woe is me. I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips.” Hiding our own sins darkens our view, hiding the extent of sin around us.
We also are forgetful of the mercies of God. 1) Jonah was perturbed when Yahweh responded to the repentance shown by the Ninevites by not bringing about the threatened destruction. 2) The mercies shown to many of the idolatrous kings of Israel when they repented. 3) In the case of Israel entering the Promised Land, we don’t know what kind of warnings the Canaanites may have received prior to the “total destruction” of their cities. We do know that Yahweh patiently waited until he “sin of the Amorites would reach their full measure.” The Canaanites may have had sufficient warning to change their ways (and they had, among other abhorrent practices, that of sacrificing their children to the flames) and yet they didn’t. While we, in our time, may think of the “total destruction” as genocide, it may be instead an act of mercy – reducing the pain and suffering that would otherwise go on.
Sparing the lives of the “innocent” within the borders of the Israel did lead to the Israelites to continue the reprehensible practices of the Canaanite religions, prolonging the suffering that Yahweh wanted to put an end to. Israel’s fell into the sin of the nations around them, even after God warned them that allowing the original inhabitants to live alongside of them would cause the Israelites to adopt the same abhorrent practices – which is what happened.
God had already used the forces of nature to directly perform his herem version of justice (ex: The Great Flood which killed all people except Noah and his family, the crossing of the Red Sea in which innumerable Egyptian soldiers died). God’s commanding Israel to invoke herem was now calling Israel to serve as his agent in executing a type of justice that God had already been practicing.
How innocent were the Canaanites: men, women, and children? We can’t argue from silence that the Canaanites did not have a chance to respond to God’s warnings. We do know that God waited several hundred years before executing his judgement.
It is not just in the Old Testament that we witness immense suffering. All around us today and through the years before, there has been great suffering among God’s image-bearers caused by our own violence or the violence of natural events or the violence of birth defects. All these can cause us to question, “Why, God?”
All these are various issues, and likely not the only issues, to consider while grappling both with God’s implication in violent activity and with the suffering endured by those people who we consider to be innocent. These issues, even all taken together, will not necessarily provide us comfortable answers. But we also need to remember, that if we have a “God” we think we totally understand, then it is not God that we are really understanding. Also, if we have a “God” that we are fully comfortable with, then we are not fully dealing with the holiness of God and the totality of our sin.
Jesus dealt with the totality of our sin by his suffering and excruciating death. It is only by the violence endured by Jesus that He has become our Prince of Peace. And in the end, when Jesus returns, His promise to bring peace will include herem, the total destruction of sin and death. The Biblical images of that time are of much violence. This then, is the lens through which we must see the violence around us. But even with that lens, we are not likely to have a ‘satisfactory’ answer. Even with that lens we will still struggle.
Perhaps we are meant to struggle, to lament about all that’s wrong, evil, awful, terrible, sad, and more that our hearts can bear. But in our lament, not to give up the hope that is also in our hearts, the hope that God our Father is alive, that our Father cares so deeply that He gave His Son, that miracles still do happen and that we can expect God to show up in our midst.
Judges and the Cycle of sin
Israel’s action reveals to us what happens if we fail to totally destroy the sin around us. Because Israel had not been faithful to “totally destroy” the people whose land they conquered, the foretold consequence became true, Israel became ensnared in the horrid idol worship practices of those people. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
To discipline his people, God allowed the peoples surrounding Israel to plundered Israel until they cried for mercy. God then raised up leaders called judges to successfully fight off the oppressors and Israel would respond by turning from idol worship, but only for a while. Eventually Israel would fall away from Yahweh once again and the cycle of oppression, rescue, and falling away would repeat.
God raising his people
During the time of the judges, while the nation of Israel struggled and failed to follow God, we find that God was raising judges in response to Israel’s cry for help in their ongoing cycle of sin, God was also quietly working the background through individuals to fulfill His larger plan.
During the period of the Judges, God used drought to cause Elimelech and his wife Naomi and their two sons to move to Moab. Both of her sons got married in Moab and one of them married a woman named Ruth. When Naomi’s husband and sons died, Naomi moved back home to Israel. While Ruth could have stayed in Moab, Ruth desired to follow Naomi and particularly to follow Naomi’s God. God used that act of faith to arrange for Ruth to meet and married Boaz, and thus inserting a Moabite woman into the lineage of people who would become the ancestors of Jesus.
There is a recurring story that began in Genesis with Abraham and Sarah, where God working through women who have difficulties in pregnancy. In the time of Judges, the woman was Hannah. In her struggle to become pregnant, Hannah leaned on God. One day, while she was praying at the tabernacle, the priest, Eli, saw her and asked God to grant Hannah her wish. Shortly thereafter, Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Samuel. In an act of gratefulness, after giving birth to Samuel, Hannah committed Samuel to serve at the tabernacle with Eli. Little did Eli know at the time that God would raise up Samuel to be a priest in place of his sons. When Eli’s sons had become corrupt and unfit to serve as priests, God worked with Hannah’s fervent worship to raise up Samuel and eventually called Samuel to replace Eli as priest. Samuel ended up being a prophet for Israel and served as the last of the judges.
The Cycle of Sin Continues
While Eli was priest, there came a time when Israel had to fight the Philistines, a nation with iron instruments that was exceedingly difficult to fight. After the Philistines routed Israel in one battle, Eli’s sons thought that the solution for victory was to take the ark with them into battle. They thought that they surely would win the battle if they carried God, whose presence was supposed to be in the ark, into battle. What they didn’t do, however, was to consult with God. Not only did Israel lose again, but Israel also lost the ark itself to the Philistines.
The mistake that Israel made was a mistake as old as Adam and Eve. We would rather have a God that we can manage rather that one we are accountable to. Want wisdom? Don’t wait for God, just eat from the tree. Want to win a battle? Don’t wait for God to lead you, take God (as the ark) with you. One of the previous judges, Gideon, would make an ephod that would become an idol for Israel. Also, in the period of the judges, a priest named Micah, would make an ephod that would also become an idol. One of the convenient things about idols is that while they may not have the power of God, they don’t make uncomfortable demands about changing our lives either.
Rejecting God as King
Ever since the time of Adam and Eve, we have had a problem of thinking that we know better than God. After Israel started to settle into the Promised Land, that same problem appeared again with the diagnoses, “everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It was that problem that caused the cycle of God discipline of Israel: Israel would fall into sin, God would then allow surrounding nations to dominate Israel, Israel would then cry for help, God would raise up a leader who overcame the dominating nation, Israel would then turn back to Yahweh for a while, but then would fall into sin and the cycle would repeat.
Eventually, Israel figured that they thought they knew what the problem was … that they needed a king … like everyone else. When the prophet, Samuel, was old and people became uncomfortable with Samuel’s sons leading the nation (Note: It seemed that Samuel had the same kind of problem with his sons as Eli had with his), the people rebelled against God and asked the prophet Samuel to ask God to give them a king. Samuel was troubled because he knew that their diagnosis was wrong. Yahweh confirmed that when he told Samuel that the real problem was not that they rejected Samuel, but rather they’ve rejected Yahweh as king. Unexpectedly, Yahweh said that he would grant their wish anyway. They will get a king (!!!) … like everyone else (!!!). One of the lessons from this event is that we need to be careful; in our rebellion, God may condemn us to what we want.
God gave Israel a king in the mold of other kings. In physical appearance, King Saul was a tall, handsome son of a powerful man, but spiritually, Saul would continue the national habit of “doing what was right in his own sight.” In fact, there were times when Saul was talking to Samuel that Saul made references to “Yahweh your God” instead of “Yahweh our God.” (That phrase was used before by Jacob before his wresting match with God and would be used again by King Jeroboam at a later time.) Saul had ceased to trust in God. There would also be other times when, instead of leaning on God for victory, Saul would also resort to making foolish, rash vows.
Saul barely began his 40-year ministry as king before Samuel had to inform him that God had rejected him as king. Although that rejection happened early in his career, God did not replace Saul until much later. Saul would have to endure the knowledge that God had rejected him for the rest of his career, which was most of his career, as king. That may have been a factor in him becoming more unstable as time went on. Yet despite his rejection by God, he did have some success in conducting war against Israel’s enemies, but Saul’s standing with God did not change.
Testing and Waiting
Meanwhile, God had selected David, who the Bible describes as “a man after God’s own heart,” to be the next king. However, David’s reign did not begin until many years later. This meant there was going to be a long and difficult in-between time of testing. In the meanwhile, there would be much conflict in which David had to trust God and do what he thought he needed to do. David didn’t test God by unnecessarily putting himself in harm’s way, rather he looked to God for wisdom and acted accordingly. When David had opportunities to kill King Saul, he refused to do so and instead waited for God to act.
This is the area where we typically fail: Adam and Eve could not wait for God to give them knowledge so they grabbed for it; Abraham and Sarah could not wait for God to give them a son through Sarah and so they used Hagar; Jacob could not wait for his inheritance so he and Rebekah had to trick Isaac; Moses could not wait for God to provide water by just speaking to the rock and so he had to strike it. In contrast, to be obedient, David was willing to wait for God to replace Saul and did not take advantage of the opportunities he had to kill him.
In this difficult period, David would form with Saul’s son, Jonathan, the best friendship he ever had. Jonathan recognized that God had rejected his own father, Saul, as king. However, instead of jealously trying to hold onto what he could not have, he accepted David as the heir to the throne. In fact, Jonathan was crucial to David’s survival.
The war King
In time, Saul did die, and David became king, although it would be in phases. Initially there was a civil war as people that were loyal to Saul did not pledge loyalty to David but to another king. As in many conflicts, in addition to the overt conflict, there was much subterfuge and political intrigue as well which would have consequences later. Then, even after uniting the kingdom, David had to lead Israel through constant warfare as he expanded the kingdom. So even though God had called David to be king, that did not mean that there was a clear path to becoming king and it did not mean that there would be no conflicts once he became king. It also did not mean that David would be perfect.
There were a couple of instances where David committed sin but, unlike Saul before him, David responded to Yahweh’s rebuke with repentance. The most egregious sin David committed was to have an affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, getting her pregnant. Then when he failed to cover it up, he arranged for that soldier to be killed on the front lines. When the prophet, Nathan, confronted David about the sin, David repented and confessed his sin. The baby born from that affair died shortly after being born, but later David would have another child with Bathsheba, Solomon, setting up the next story line.
Messy family life
David did have many wives and concubines, but unlike Solomon, the king who reigned after him, David’s polygamy had not led him to worshiping other gods. The Bible doesn’t condemn David for his polygamy, but it seemed to exasperate a weakness in David. David had many children through his wives and concubines, but he failed to discipline them. His inability to discipline his sons resulted in rape of one of his daughters by one of his sons, who was then murdered by another son to avenge the rape, and then attempted to dethrone David. This all meant that the path to succession to David’s throne would not be straightforward, but in the end, David selected his son Solomon to succeed him.
Solomon had a great start. David gave him materials with which he could start building the temple. Solomon’s heart was humble enough to ask Yahweh for wisdom above all things, for which God blessed Solomon not only with great wisdom but with great wealth besides. The one weakness in all this provision was that Solomon, like other Oriental kings, accumulated wives and concubines. The problem was that Solomon loved his wives who came from other cultures more than Yahweh. Because of that, he not only tolerated their idol worship but took part in that idol worship as well. One thing that Solomon ignored despite his great wisdom, was the warning for kings not to accumulate great wealth and many wives. One early sign of his failure may have occurred during his prayer of dedication for the new temple when, despite the use of wealth from donations or taxes and despite the slave labor and labor from other countries, he still said, “the temple I built.”
The Divided Kingdom
Solomon’s divided heart ended up dividing the kingdom. When Solomon’s son Rehoboam succeeded him on the throne, Rehoboam foolishly followed the advice to increase taxes, causing a revolt. Yahweh, who knows all things, had already selected Jeroboam to lead the revolt. The result was that ten tribes (the Northern kingdom, commonly called Israel) followed Jeroboam, leaving only two tribes (the Southern kingdom, commonly called Judah) to follow Rehoboam. With only a few exceptions, most of the kings in the divided kingdom participated in idolatry and the associated practices of the surrounding communities, earning God’s wrath. These two kingdoms were in continual conflict with each other until each came to an ignominious end.
- Read Deuteronomy 6:10-12. It is a good thing to have God provide for us, but what dangers are there when God does provide for us?
- Read Deuteronomy 7:1-5. God certainly had the power to simply wipe out all the inhabitants of the Promised Land. God did many miracles, intervening many times on Israel’s behalf. Why do you think that God had the Israelites carry out those many battles?
- Read Joshua 6:17-21; 1 Samuel 15:1-3. If you think about Jesus being one part of the moving, brooding, dancing God who invoked violence in the Old Testament, how do you process that?
- Read Judges 2. The book of Judges is a record of our penchant to turn from God and of his patient faithfulness, continuing to rescue us despite our persistent failure. How does this cycle make you feel?
- Read Ruth 1-4; Matthew 1:1-17. Think about the travails of Naomi and how God worked in the midst of her troubles to insert a foreign woman into Jesus’ ancestry. What does it mean that Jesus set it up so that non-Jews were part of his human ancestry?
- Read 1 Samuel 8. Knowing that God may discipline us by giving us what we want instead of what we need, how should we then pray?
- Read 1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:1-12. On more than one occasion, David had a chance to kill the man who was out to kill him. Why not?
- Read 1 Samuel 15-16; 2 Samuel 1-2. Many years and many difficulties passed between God anointing David to be the next king and then actually becoming king. Why might God call someone to do something but allow many difficulties to occur in the process?
- Of the three kings of the united kingdom of Israel, why was only David was also known as a man “after God’s own heart.”
- Read 1 Kings 11:11-13. What does this passage say about the messes we make and God’s plans for our lives?