Religion that works and if we were God
We’ve been talking about what we mean when we talk about “religion that works“. We look for God to give us what we ask for in our prayers and to shape the world according to our needs and desires. We’ve also talked about the common complaint that “If I were god I would run this world right!” We’re sure that we would meet out more happiness, justice and beneficence that we currently see and we’d all be a lot happier. This week in Judges we get a peak at reality. How we actually work, what we actually do, and how it usually turns out.
Religion and Politics
We also saw last week how when you ask people on the street a question like “what would Jesus say about poverty” many respondents immediately jumped to politics. This conversation about us and God has a lot to do with politics and the book of Judges is a very political book. It is a critique about what we do with power and how we are.
Last week we met Gideon. God found him humiliatingly threshing grain in his winepress for fear the Midianites would steal his food just as they had killed his brothers and were oppressing Israel. God through many signs and wonders raised him up to deliver Israel. In their gratitude mixed I’m sure with some pragmatism and ambition wished to make Gideon king. Gideon right thing in noting that Yhwh was their king so he would refuse but he couldn’t hold himself back from some of the kingly privileges.
Judges 8:22–27 (NET)
22 The men of Israel said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son, and your grandson. For you have delivered us from Midian’s power.”23 Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24 Gideon continued, “I would like to make one request. Each of you give me an earring from the plunder you have taken.” (The Midianites had gold earrings because they were Ishmaelites.) 25 They said, “We are happy to give you earrings.” So they spread out a garment, and each one threw an earring from his plunder onto it. 26 The total weight of the gold earrings he requested came to seventeen hundred gold shekels. This was in addition to the crescent-shaped ornaments, jewelry, purple clothing worn by the Midianite kings, and the necklaces on the camels.27 Gideon used all this to make an ephod, which he put in his hometown of Ophrah. All the Israelites prostituted themselves to it by worshiping it there. It became a snare to Gideon and his family.
Judges then continues with what on the surface might appear to be simply an explanatory note but one that would shape the next chapter.
Judges 8:28–32 (NET)
28 The Israelites humiliated Midian; the Midianites’ fighting spirit was broken. The land had rest for forty years during Gideon’s time.29 Then Jerub-Baal son of Joash went home and settled down.30 Gideon fathered seventy sons through his many wives.31 His concubine, who lived in Shechem, also gave him a son, whom he named Abimelech.32 Gideon son of Joash died at a very old age and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash located in Ophrah of the Abiezrites.
Baals and Baals
Gideon in his call echoed Moses. Gideon in his “reign” resembles David and Solomon. Gideon had 70 sons with his many wives, but of course there were concubines, one of which was in Shechem who gave him a son named Abimelech.
Judges 9:1–6 (NET)
1 Now Abimelech son of Jerub-Baal went to Shechem to see his mother’s relatives. He said to them and to his mother’s entire extended family,2 “Tell all the leaders (Heb: ba’al) of Shechem this: ‘Why would you want to have seventy men, all Jerub-Baal’s sons, ruling over you, when you can have just one ruler? Recall that I am your own flesh and blood.’ ”3 His mother’s relatives spoke on his behalf to all the leaders (Heb: ba’al) of Shechem and reported his proposal. The leaders were drawn to Abimelech; they said, “He is our close relative.”4 They paid him seventy silver shekels out of the temple of Baal-Berith. Abimelech then used the silver to hire some lawless, dangerous men as his followers.5 He went to his father’s home in Ophrah and murdered his half-brothers, the seventy legitimate sons of Jerub-Baal, on one stone. Only Jotham, Jerub-Baal’s youngest son, escaped, because he hid. 6 All the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo assembled and then went and made Abimelech king by the oak near the pillar in Shechem.
To readers of the English Old Testament we immediately identify “Baal” as the name of a pagan Canaanite deity. That is a legitimate translation of the word, but the word basically means “lord”. A baal is a boss. The baals of Shechem, meaning the men who were lords or bosses of the town had set up a large temple to the Baal of the Covenant, “Baal Berith”. Dropping the Hebrew into the English communicates correctly that this was not Yhwh or necessarily Yhwh. The Israelites were in effect basically operating as Canaanites. Religion and politics are, after all, mostly the same with religion in a non-secular culture doing politics with the spiritual lords of the earth. This is exactly what is happening in Shechem and what will play out with Abimelech. You might notice that “Abimelech” means “my father is king”. It is like having the name “crown prince”.
What we have in Shechem is democracy in action. It is also monarchy in action. If you want to secure the crown slaughter the rivals even though they may be your brothers.
A Fable and a Prophesy
Judges 9:7–21 (NET)
7 When Jotham heard the news, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim. He spoke loudly to the people below, “Listen to me, leaders of Shechem, so that God may listen to you! 8 “The trees were determined to go out and choose a king for themselves. They said to the olive tree, ‘Be our king!’9 But the olive tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my oil, which is used to honor gods and men, just to sway above the other trees!’ 10 “So the trees said to the fig tree, ‘You come and be our king!’11 But the fig tree said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my sweet figs, my excellent fruit, just to sway above the other trees!’ 12 “So the trees said to the grapevine, ‘You come and be our king!’13 But the grapevine said to them, ‘I am not going to stop producing my wine, which makes gods and men so happy, just to sway above the other trees!’ 14 “So all the trees said to the thornbush, ‘You come and be our king!’15 The thornbush said to the trees, ‘If you really want to choose me as your king, then come along, find safety under my branches! Otherwise may fire blaze from the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon!’ 16 “Now, if you have shown loyalty and integrity when you made Abimelech king, if you have done right to Jerub-Baal and his family, if you have properly repaid him—17 my father fought for you; he risked his life and delivered you from Midian’s power.18 But you have attacked my father’s family today. You murdered his seventy legitimate sons on one stone and made Abimelech, the son of his female slave, king over the leaders of Shechem, just because he is your close relative.19 So if you have shown loyalty and integrity to Jerub-Baal and his family today, then may Abimelech bring you happiness and may you bring him happiness!20 But if not, may fire blaze from Abimelech and consume the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo! May fire also blaze from the leaders of Shechem and Beth Millo and consume Abimelech!” 21 Then Jotham ran away to Beer and lived there to escape from Abimelech his half-brother.
One of my friends noted that Abimelech drove Jotham to drink because he ran away to Beer. 🙂
Jotham’s parable has three self-donating plants: the olive tree, the fig tree and the grape vine who refuse (like Gideon) to be king. Each is content to serve the world with the gifts they’ve been given for the welfare and joy of the world. The thornbush, however, offers nothing to the world but its prick. The thornbush is defensive, self-protective and rather than giving oil, fruit or wine it only gives pain and draws blood. It jumps at the chance to rule the world and threatens all who would not bow with death.
In Jotham’s parable is also a subtle critique of those who clamor for a king. They are a match for the kings they create. They don’t seek a king to bless the world they seek a king to bless themselves. Both the king and the king makers are in it for themselves and they will in time destroy each other.
If we take the parable up a notch it also becomes about the baals. The human baals of the town erect the temple to the spiritual Baal to be their god. The dynamics are identical.
The rest of the Abimelech story is told and ends as prophesied.
A Later Parable by the True Judge
Matthew 26:48–52 (NET)
48 (Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I kiss is the man. Arrest him!”)49 Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi,” and kissed him.50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and took hold of Jesus and arrested him. 51 But one of those with Jesus grabbed his sword, drew it out, and struck the high priest’s slave, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back in its place! For all who take hold of the sword will die by the sword.
“Those who live by the sword die by the sword” are some of Jesus’ most famous words. The parable of Jotham is in a sense an extrapolation of that parable. There are two postures, one is assumed by the olive tree, the fig tree and the grapevine. They live to bless, to give life, to nourish and bring joy. The is like the thornbush. It has nothing but spikes it sends outwards to protect itself by drawing the blood of its adversaries. Once it sees its chance it expands its domain to encompass all it can, at the expense of all others.
This story is told again and again in the Bible and in the World. CS Lewis nicely illustrates the same thing in the Screwtape Letters where one demon explains the opposite polarity of their “father below”.
To us a human is primarily food; our aim is the absorption of its will into ours, the increase of our own area of selfhood at its expense. But the obedience which the Enemy demands of men is quite a different thing. One must face the fact that all the talk about His love for men, and His service being perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself –creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because he has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself; the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him, but still distinct.
Screwtape letters, pg. 46
The Good Shepherd
Jesus in John reiterates the point once again.
John 10:11–18 (NET)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not a shepherd and does not own sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and runs away. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. 13 Because he is a hired hand and is not concerned about the sheep, he runs away. 14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me—15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This commandment I received from my Father.”
Misery: How We Really Are
Now we begin to see the pictures. When “religion works”, the power of divinity located in human hands, we become tyrants upon the earth. This gets played out in our fantasy of being god. We imagine that if power were in our hands then we would set things right. The problem is that we are less like the olive tree, the fig tree or the grape vine and more like the thornbush. This is how we are and this is the pattern of the gods we create.
Fortunately for us Jesus is not like us in this way. He is the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He is the god we need not the gods we would be.
The conclusion then rests on how we will respond.
The natural outcome of living Jesus way is death. Jesus gets arrested and executed because he refused to allow his disciples to protect him with the sword. His intention was in fact to be raised again. This is terrifying for us because we, like the thornbush, have our thorns out to repel attack. Jesus wears a crown of thorns as he gives up his life for us. He invites us to follow him, in giving up our lives for each other and receiving life from him in return both now and in the resurrection.