Deuteronomy 18

We’re laying the ground rules for Israelite society. Last chapter law and government, now religion.

The priests are to be supported and honoured as full time ministers. They have no land, God is their inheritance. And prophets will continue Moses’ role of speaking the words of God.

This is compared to the occult practises already rampant in the land, and there is reference to why they are so detestable, child sacrifices etc. 

They have the voice of God, they don’t need to consult the dead or search for truth by elaborate divination rituals. 

Exodus 26

The tabernacle, an incredibly fancy tent designed in detail by God. Ditto yesterday really.

I found myself wondering at the Israelites ability wandering in the desert to be able to make the metal bits required, bronze & gold clasps, the embroidery, the large wood poles. 

And the logistics of moving with all those materials to hand, carrying the tent, the workshop equipment. It’s a nightmare.

I wonder how often they moved. Did they pack up and resettle every day? Surely not more than once a week?

They spent 40 years or something wandering like this. There is something powerfully symbolic about the ephemeral nature of it all. 

I wonder if the tabernacle wasn’t closer to god’s ideal for worship than the temple they would everythings make under Solomon at the height of their influence.

1 Samuel 23

Complicated time in Israel’s history, Saul and David are conducting a civil war with constant breaks for international war against the philistines.

David has learned his lesson about involving people in his fight against Saul. He takes a side quest to save a city from the philistines. he then leaves the city before Saul can come and start killing the inhabitants for associating with him. 

David’s group, on the run, is nearly encircled by Saul’s forces, but Saul is called away to yet another philistine aggression.

This while episode is about Saul’s refusal to accept god’s will if it means losing earthly power. Saul struggles to find David, but Jonathan, who shares in god’s grace with David, is mysteriously able to visit him at will. He reports that Saul knows David will inevitably be king. 

I was struck with David’s easy relationship with God. He talks conversationally with him, and also consults a priest to discern the will of God. I’m puzzled by the varying methods. But the message is clear: god is with David, every step. 

Saul praises god when a city informs on David’s whereabouts during the manhunt: both sides of a war always claim God. 

But Saul’s quest is defiant, his religion empty and self serving.

1 Samuel 14

The legalist and the true believer. The contrasting faith of father Saul and son jonathan is spelt out in parallel stories of a battle against the philistines.

Saul is the legalist. He is enlisting god in his fight. Checking the god box at every step, but talking as though it is his fight, his vengeance that will be wrought.

So he has the ark bought in as a kind of magic box… Again! He is slow and nervous consulting the priests: he’s clearly insecure, as he should be rationally because the Israelites are outnumbered and outclassed with no weapons to speak of. 

But he is judging the battle on his strength to win it, not god’s will for his people. He has the men take a vow not to eat until the victory is his, it’s a vow and test of allegiance to him, not God. And time passes he camps opposite the philistines and talks, and panics.

Jonathon sneaks off and takes a tiny band and just goes up to the enemy camp to see what God will do. He figures god will determine the outcome, and will do it as easily with a few as many. Which is what happens.

With sheer rat cunning jonathon beats a group of them 20 to 2. The philistines panic, they know if the Israelites reputation for occasionally miraculous victories. Noise and confusion land on the philistines and they start to kill each other. Israelites who have been hiding in hole and in the hills come out and pursue them.

It’s a mighty victory… If God. Saul reacts by threatening to kill jonathon because he accidentally broke the silly fasting vow, which was a spectacularly dumb strategy because the troops who followed it were weak with hunger. He can’t rejoice in god’s victory or share the glory with his son. He’s lost it.

But the religion is there, the whole apparatus of the priesthood is with Saul. From the outside you would think Saul was the holy one, with fasting, priests, the ark etc. All the trappings, just not actual faith in God. 

Make me reckless father, make me bold. We are starting at a new church. Give me the spirit of jonathon.

1 Samuel 13

Going though the motions. Over and over in these old testament stories it’s about how quickly religion becomes a talisman, a superstition. 

The Israelites obviously feel unguided in their role as chosen people, but god wants their hearts to be their guide, to improvise life on the theme of loving God. 

Saul is preparing for battle here and Samuel, who must be really old by now, is late to do a sacrifice before. So Saul does it. 

It’s a false move, the sacrifice is not the point the point is obedience and trust. The chapter includes Samuel’s rebuke of Saul and ends in a cliffhanger with the enemy philistines starting the attack.

Obedience sometimes requires sitting on your hands. Trust requires admitting you aren’t able to fix a problem. Doing this consistently is hard for human nature. 

But there’s no other way…

1 Samuel 11

Saul passes his first great test, Israel not so much.

Some bad hombres annex a group of Israelites and as part of a humiliating “peace” deal threaten to take out the right eye of every male. The Israelites beg 7 days to see if anyone will help. 

Saul galvanises his personal outrage into national leadership and rescues them and the territory, defeating the ammonites. Israel has a born leader.

Sometimes what we want, our deepest desires, and god’s will and plan overlap. Israel want to be winners, to keep all their land, to unify and be strong. God promised the land, said they are a single nation, a chosen people. That’s a fair degree of overlap.

But the gaps show in their reaction, such as wanting to put to death anyone who questioned making Saul king. Saul himself intervenes and reminds them that the victory is not his but the lord’s. 

However the subtlety is already being lost in the joy of victory. The king, the victory, are tangible. The people never seem able to completely connect, in a sacrificial way, with God.

Good for God, good for me. It’s a seductive notion. But “win win” is not the third great commandment. 

It’s easy to criticise in obvious examples like prosperity doctrine, which teaches that earthly wealth is evidence of god’s blessing. But the comfort of my existence is surely riddled with it. 

How much am I willing to put on the line for God?

1 Samuel 2

God’s grace can seem unfair especially in the old testament because it is poured out on chosen people who are in stark contrast to the unchosen.

This choosing is the meta story of how grace became available to all. Today whoever chooses god is chosen.

Some ideas about grace that weave through this story. 

God knows we are corrupt, works through it, but it is our fault. The priest’s corrupt sons are cheating on God by taking the prime cuts of sacrificial meat for themselves, and using their position to sleep with women. God prophesies their fall and death because of their evil, but they are responsible for it. 

Reversal – Samuel’s mum sings a joyous song at the start of the chapter. Grace for her has been the experience of the barren becoming fertile. She extends this in her song to the poor becoming rich and the low becoming high.

All the while Samuel grows both physically and spiritually and is admired by all. He is the embodiment of god’s grace. 

I am so dry father, help me remember your grace.

Judges 20

Civil war follows the humiliation and death of the Levites wife in the last chapter. The tribes meet and unite against Benjamin. They refuse to disavow the act. Many thousands of Israelites die.

They consult God as to how to run the attack. I think we’re are arriving at the end of judges. God has barely appeared for a while now.

Judges 19

I remember this chapter from reading it as a teenager. One of the most truly shocking chapters in the Bible. 

This time i see the pattern more. The decline that led here. Samson was the most faithless judge, ironically a man god made strong defined by his weaknesses.

Then the story of Dan, showing how deeply the Israelites had forgotten their nationhood and their religion.

This is rock bottom. The ultimate failure of the nation to live as god’s promised people.

A Levite travelling with his son and his sons wife/concubine chooses to push on and stay in an Israelites town in hope of hospitality. He gets none until another person originally from his region finds him. Tribal affiliation gone. 

At nightfall men in the town want to gay gang rape the son. To avoid that his host offers his virgin daughter and the concubine. They take the concubine who they rape and abuse til death. 

The sons behaviour, surrendering his partner to them, is as ignoble as the mob.

In death she is dismembered into 12 and distributed to each of the tribes to say “what have we become?”

Israel’s decline is completely and unsparingly told to us. There is no sugar coating in the “good book”. Left to our own devices our race is capable of the most horrific evil. Atheists will say religion is to blame, but I think that’s wishful thinking. Israel shows us how religion can’t fix the darkness in our hearts, but I don’t think it’s the source of it.

We need a saviour, imho.

Just read the most fantastic discussion of this chapter here:

She reminded me that genesis ends with a similarly shocking story, but there there is some divine intervention. The woman here is left with no protection.