Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
The book of Judges focuses on heroes. Now, I am usually one of the first people to point out that these heroes are far from perfect. They probably don’t rank up there with Moses, Joshua, or David. However, the people who are declared as judges over Israel were the heroes of their day. They were called by God with the purpose of not only leading the increasingly rebellious Israelites, but also they usually had to save them out of the hands of some nation before they could properly start their reign. Actually, the imperfection of the heroes of Judges helps us to understand a valuable lesson in the sight of God: anyone can be a hero. Really, anyone called by God can be a hero, and apparently a mighty one at that (as seen from the exploits of the folks in Judges). All they had to do was (with the Lord’s help) get over the stuff that was holding them back in their own minds.
Let’s look at a few examples of the heroes of Judges and what they had going against them. First off, there was Jephthah; he was the guy who sacrificed his own daughter to God because of a rash vow that he made. But before that, he saved Israel from the hands of the Ammonites. The Bible tells us,
Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. He devastated twenty towns from Aroer to the vicinity of Minnith, as far as Abel Keramim. Thus Israel subdued Ammon (Judges 11:32-33).
But who was this Jephthah? He was actually a man who lived in disgrace before being called by the Lord. Why? Because he had a bad background, and due to the nature of his birth he was actually disowned by the rest of his family and forced to flee from them. We read,
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman” (Judges 11:1-2).
Now, after such an incident between family, being disgraced and forced to leave, one would think that Jephthah would give up. But God had other plans, and as we already read, he saved Israel from the oppression of the Ammonites.
Or what about Debora? In a male-dominated society like ancient Israel (and pretty much any other society at that time), God called her to step up and save the country. She had been previously leading the Israel as a judge due to her skills with prophecy. However, God had much bigger plans for her, because the Israelites needed a hero. Scripture tells us,
After Ehud died, the Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord. So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin, a king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth Haggoyim. Because he had nine hundred iron chariots and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.
Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at the time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided (Judges 4:1-5).
Israel had a problem, and since the days of Moses, when a problem arose, they’d go to their leader at the time. …Except that this time the leader happened to be a wise (and considering her status as a prophetess- righteous) woman who was helping to solve disputes- not quite the mighty warrior that people might have expected. If you notice in her introduction, Deborah is clarified as the “wife of Lappidoth,” so even as the leader of Israel, she was not able to hold her own name, but rather had to be associated with her husband. In fact, when the call of God came, she called someone else, someone with a Y chromosome. Judges 4:6-7 tells us,
She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead the way to Mount Tabor. I will lure Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”
However, things did not go as she had planned, and so we read,
Barak said to her, “If you go with me, I will go; but if you don’t’ go with me, I won’t go.”
“Very well,” Deborah said, “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera over to a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh, where he summoned Zebulun and Naphtali. Ten thousand men followed him, and Deborah also went with him (Judges 4:8-10).
Deborah was forced by the Lord (and her general, Barak) to overcome her status as a woman (the “wife of Lappidoth”) and become a hero. As it turns out, although Deborah told Barak that the Lord had called him, chapter four and five of Judges celebrate the exploits of not only Deborah, but another woman who made a decisive move during the battle. So one should never let their supposed position in society hold them back.
Let’s look at one more example: the famed Gideon. The people of Israel had been given into the hand of Midian, and were once again crying to the Lord for help. To get the idea of their situation, let’s take a look at Judges 6:3-5,
Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing in Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count the men and their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it.
With the invading peoples covering the land in such a way, the Israelites needed a strong, powerful hero to drive them away. Considering the reason Midian and other eastern people were invading Israel was over the food, it would take a pretty mighty man of God to drive away the hungry locust-like people. Enter Gideon. Gideon was not mighty. His introduction isn’t even as good as Jephthah’s, who was at least introduced as a “mighty warrior.” No, the reader first finds Gideon hiding from the invaders. We read,
The angel of the Lord came and say down under the oak in Ophrah that belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, where his son Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress to keep it from the Midianites (Judges 6:11).
In fact, Gideon was such a coward that even on the evening before the battle, the angel of the Lord felt it necessary to comfort Gideon. We read,
During that night the Lord said to Gideon, “Get up, go down against the camp, because I am going to give it into your hands. If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your servant Purah and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be encouraged to attack the camp.” So he and Purah his servant went down to the outposts of the camp (Judges 7:9-11)
Did you catch that? After talking with God, organizing an army, and even testing the Lord a few times; the angel still had to say, “If you are afraid…” Really? This is the kind of guy God picks? On top of being a coward, Gideon also was likely fat and poor. In fact, he was so fat and poor that everyone in the Midianite camp knew about him through these traits. Don’t believe me? Check out Judges 7:13-14 when Gideon goes to spy out his enemies,
Gideon arrived just as a man was telling a friend his dream. “I had a dream,” he was saying. “A round loaf of barley bread came tumbling into the Midianite camp. It struck the tent with such force that the tent overturned and collapsed.”
His friend responded, “This can be nothing other than the sword of Gideon son of Joash, the Israelite. God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into his hands.”
Now in my curiosity, I looked up what Bible scholars think about this dream, and many suggest that the use of barley bread suggests that Gideon was poor. I don’t know how they came to that conclusion. However, consider this, your friend tells you that a big loaf of bread rolled into camp and the first thing you say is, “Oh that must be so-and-so.” It sounds to me like Gideon was well-known for his rotund nature. In fact, he was not just well-known among the Israelites, but even the enemies of Israel knew about fat-boy Gideon (this is of course an assertion, but I think the scripture has my back on this one). Yet even with all of these things working against him, Gideon did save Israel and drive out the invaders. If he can be a hero, I’m pretty sure you can too.
After reading about these people’s flaws, disgraces, and social statuses; you might be wondering how they could ever become heroes. The way that Jephthah, Deborah, and Gideon became heroes is the same way that you and I can too. First of all, they had a love for God which they put over their own weaknesses. They were willing to give up other gods in their lives and focus on our Lord in order to achieve everything that he had set up for them. Take Gideon for example; despite being a coward towards others, in the face of any other god he had no fear. We read in Judges 6:25-26,
That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”
Gideon feared the Lord more than he feared other gods and people. Actually, he didn’t fear other gods at all. However, he did still fear people, but Gideon put God first anyway and did what he was called to do,
So Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the men of the town, he did it at night rather than in the daytime.
In the morning when the men of the town got up, there was Baal’s altar, demolished, with the Asherah pole beside it cut down and the second bull sacrificed on the newly built altar! (Judges 6:27-28)
Gideon was afraid of the people so he tried to do what God called him to do quietly, however if you keep reading, he was found out after a short investigation (maybe it was his extremely deep footprints or something that gave him away). But when it came down to it, Gideon didn’t shy away from what he did, and because of the whole situation, he was even given a new name. We read in Judges 6:32, “So that day they called Gideon ‘Jerub-Baal,’ saying, ‘Let Baal contend with him,’ because he broke down Baal’s altar.” Even with his cowardice, Gideon was willing to do whatever God called him to do, and when he came against resistance, he didn’t back down and even accepted a name that really was a curse in order to do God’s will. Indeed, Gideon’s love for God was stronger than any other emotion he might have been feeling.
Deborah, wanting to encourage others in heroism, actually wrote a song explaining her view on how to be a hero. We read in Judges 5:1-2,
On that day Deborah and Barak son of Abinoam sang this song:
“When the princes in Israel take the lead,
When the people willingly offer themselves-
Praise the Lord!
What is her secret? Step up and do something! Over and over, Deborah sings to us the value of volunteering in the name of the Lord,
My heart is with Israel’s princes,
With the willing volunteers among the people.
Praise the Lord!
You who ride on white donkeys,
Sitting on your saddle blankets,
And you who walk along the road,
Consider the voice of the singers at the watering places.
They recite the righteous acts of the Lord,
The righteous acts of his warriors in Israel.
Then the people of the Lord went down to the city gates (Judges 5:9-11).
The prophetess-turned-war hero commends volunteers, comparing them to princes. She exhorts people from all classes (from those on white horses to those who have to walk from place to place) to step up and give their time to God for his work. She continues,
Then the men who were left
Came down to the nobles;
The people of the Lord
Came to me with the mighty.
Some came from Ephraim, whose roots were in Amalek;
Benjamin was with the people who followed you.
From Makir captains came down,
From Zebulun those who bear a commander’s staff.
The princes of Issachar were with Deborah;
Yes, Issachar was with Barak,
Rushing after him into the valley.
In the districts of Reuben
There was much searching of heart (Judges 5:13-15).
Just like those who helped Deborah in her war, the angels sing of the people who are helping here on earth (If you read the book of Revelation, you’ll see that almost every action has a song attached to it). Also take note, Deborah totally burns the people in Reuben for not helping them. I suspect there is much “searching of the heart” in many churches today too. Our singing hero-prophet has more though,
The people of Zebulun risked their very lives;
So did Naphtali on the heights of the field.
Kings came, they fought;
The kings of Canaan fought
At Taanach by the waters of Megiddo,
But they carried off no silver, no plunder.
From the heavens the stars fought,
From their courses they fought against Sisera (Judges 5:18-20).
Deborah tells us that when the people of God stand up and actually put the work in that needs to be done, God wins. Not only does God win, but the people who do the work of the Lord are assisted by the angels and God himself. Volunteering and doing what you’re called to do also have an added bonus, blessing. We read,
Most blessed of women be Jael,
The wife of Heber the Kenite,
Most blessed of tent-dwelling women.
He asked for water, and she gave him milk;
In a bowl fit for nobles she brought him curdled milk.
Her hand reached for the tent peg,
Her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
She struck Sisera, she crushed his head,
She shattered and pierced his temple (Judges 5:24-26).
Just like Deborah, Jael did what she was called to do and overcame gender restrictions to claim the most blessed part of Deborah’s song.
We read about one of Jesus’ teachings frequently in church, “Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). And yet so many people in the body of Christ are willing to hide behind the next line, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38). People search their hearts and decide that instead of helping, they’ll pray that someone else does it. I suppose you can do that, I mean, Reuben didn’t come to help the Israelites against their enemies in Deborah’s time. But if you want to be a hero, you can’t do it from your easy chair (though some are called to help through an office chair). What is the Bible’s recipe for being a hero? The secrets are loving God above all else and actually stepping up to do what he is calling us all to do. And what are we called to do? Jesus tells us,
As you go, preach this message: “The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:7-8).
You may argue that I took the quote out of context, considering Jesus also told his disciples not to talk to gentiles or to carry money in the surrounding verses. However, the Lord repeats himself later and also gives us the confidence that if we step up and do what the he’s called us to do, all of heaven will help us to achieve our mission through the Spirit of God and every other force The Father can muster. We read,
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:15-18).
There you have it, right from the mouth of our Lord and Savior. When you get to heaven you want to be on the good side of Deborah’s new song, right? Get out there and do what you’ve been called to do, hero!