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Judges 21: Stealing Wives & Israel’s Leadership Void

At St. John in Seward, the Heritage Room Study recently completed a series on the book of Judges. Yes, that’s right, we dug into the Old Testament. (Jerry Pfabe said he’d kept the notes around for thirty plus years.) Last Sunday, we had an interesting discussion on the end of the book

When I was a kid, I always thought the ending of Judges was odd. The Benjamites couldn’t marry their fellow Israelites because of their injustices, so they went off and stole wives from a foreign country. The main thing I remember was the last verse. ” In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25 ESV) The Benjamites kidnapping the daughters of Shiloh didn’t really sound  that bad, but of course, a lot of things don’t sound as bad after you read about Israel annihilating the Benjamite women, children, and livestock. So when Dr. Pfabe compared what the Israelites did to human trafficking, I reconsidered the story in those different terms.

“Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Kind of sounds like the modern slogan of whatever is true for you is true. But one thing that comes through in the whole story is no one is leading Israel in the campaign against Benjamin. You can’t always fault people for not having great leadership in front of them, although it doesn’t absolve the from personal responsibility either. Israel may have had the Moses and the books of the law, but they didn’t listen to them.

That’s probably why I don’t fault the Benjamites that much for stealing daughters away from Shiloh, and taking them away from their families. May be if Israel had good king or judge, that leader would have gone around Israel and taken up a national offering to pay the dowries for the Benjamites to marry wives from another neighbor. But instead, they took the more expedient route.

Still, their world was much different than ours is today. Remember, Lot’s daughters slept with their father to continue their line (and so created two of Israel’s worst enemies, Genesis 19). Letting the Benjaminites die off and loosing a tribe of Israel was so heartbreaking to the rest of the nation, they compromised their own plan. Keeping the family together is important, even at the expanse of breaking up someone else’s family.

But at least the men who wrote the Old Testament were honest enough to include Israel’s flaws. Prof. Moulds noted this at one of St. John’s studies on Leviticus, that while Israel’s neighbors were writing long books with nothing but praise for their kings, Israel’s priests and prophets constantly condemned their own people, which undoubtedly (aside from divine inspiration) helped the Scriptures endure down to our day.

We don’t know hat happened to those girls. Personally, I hope that many of them went on to lead, long happy lives, and become good wives and mothers. Of course, I’m being really optimistic, but that’s just my hope, that even though these guys treated them poorly at first, they repented, and treated them better.

Isaiah Study Part 2: Forgiveness for Man in a Broken World

The key point that I’ve learned about Isaiah was from Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller, who said in an Issues, Etc. interview on the book, where he said that the book was mostly just the preaching of law and gospel, which opened my eyes to a different view of the text. Before that, when I turned to the prophets, I always read their books like psalms, songs that happened to be about judgment. As I studied, I read the book as speeches declared from a pulpit, and it brought a different flavor to the writing. Too often, I would look at the psalms as five or six key verses that I’d carry around, a song of praise, and when I’d take that attitude to a prophet, I would end up only taking away “Though your sins are like scarlet…” or “Do justly, love mercy,…” and not that those aren’t important verse. But I was leaving on the table all that was in the book: condemnation of sin, and love of the savior.

To clean-up something from the previous post, let me also say that, the Saduccees and the Pharisees would not have been keen on passages that denounced the temple so stringently, as I noted in my previous post.

Isaiah moves his call to something a little more specific: what Israel needs to do. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”(Is. 1:16-17 ESV). This the final proof, the sign of Israel’s unbelief: how they are treating the poor in society is a sign of their lack of faith. But while Israel needs to take care of the widows and orphans, it is just as an important that they have right standing.

This is where the church needs to make a clear distinction: while we must take up the cause of the fatherless and the widow and the fatherless, our salvation does not lie in such things. In lies in our redemption that Christ has given us, which Isaiah is about to describe.

Isaiah 1:18 is one of the signature verses of the book, and unique in that does not explicitly mention Christ. But it does state what Christ does for us, and we should consider it closely, noting several things.

First, notice how the train of Isaiah’s sermon shifts. He spends the first sixteen verses giving commands and making declaration (“Give ear, O earth” [v. 2]; “Your country lies desolate” [v. 7]), but in verse 18, he know says, “Come, let us reason together”. This is not thinking together, as our language might indicate, but God coming to judge Israel, in its finality. As Paul E. Kretzman notes in his commentary, this sentence is passed without the consideration of how man feels about it. God has already made this decision, in the garden with Adam and Eve: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”. Man is forgive in his sight, in spite of his sin.

But the Isaiah goes on to remind Israel that just because God has forgiven them, they do not have a license to mess around. In verses 19-20, he uses the blessings and curses format that is common in Deuteronomy, when Moses makes his farewell sermons to Israel: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword.” It is the same choice that has always been before Israel: accept God’s blessing and covenant, or be subject to his judgment. It is the same choice we face every day, and thanks be to God, we have an advocate that stood in our place, Jesus Christ.

Isaiah Study Part 1: God’s Prophet Gets to the Heart of the Matter

When I volunteered to take over the leadership of a proposed young adult Bible study at St. John, I got a little more than I asked for. I naturally thought of Isaiah because I hadn’t studied it in depth. When I took Old Testament in college, I was all wore out by the time we got to the prophets, and we didn’t spend much time on Isaiah. Isaiah is well known because of how often it is quoted in the New Testament, but as I have gotten into the text, I have found so much more there.

Isaiah comes to Israel at a time not unlike our own. Dr. Luther notes, that while Isaiah 1:1 puts the prophet himself It was 190 years since the split of the two kingdoms, even longer since the time of David. In the intervening years, most of the kings of Judah have been good, although there was still incense being offered in the high places. Judah probably puffed up its chest during these two hundred years. After all, they had the temple and a Davidic king, and their cousins to the north were involved in mass idolatry and constantly changing monarchs. It would have been easy for Judah to be lulled into a false sense of spiritual security.

But even still, they didn’t do all that God had commanded them. Dr. Stephen Stolhmann, my Old Testament professor, told our class that, given how exuberantly the Passover was celebrated in Hezekiah’ time, it likely wasn’t celebrated that often.

And this is how Isaiah come to Israel: in the first chapter, the prophet laments, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Is. 1:3 ESV) The notes in the Lutheran study Bible make the interpretation clear: even animals have natural knowledge of who their masters are, in spite of their limited brains. Israel has a book of the law, the whole thing spelled out in front of them. They read it, and they have no clue what it means because their consciences have been harden.

And it is from this point that Isaiah moves on to Israel’s source of security: their temple worship. “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” (Is. 1:13 ESV) This to me is the real art of Isaiah 1:2-20, the prophet denouncing the people who are trusting the means over the messenger.

Here we must note an important distinction: while the means of grace God gives can save us, it is merely an unworthy mask to what is truly behind us. I remember an Issues Etc. interview (sadly, the name of the guest escapes me), where the pastor noted that Jesus, while critical of the Pharisees’ behavior, he does observe the temple rituals and festivals, because of its position. But while those means are good, they are just that: means. God’s grace and favor is something else.

This situation presents itself in many ways in our modern society. There are religious sects, such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who claim Christ, but add to the teachings of Scripture. These bodies have amassed quite the following and public fascination, and the secularist like to lump them in with the true church, but the scripture makes it clear what they are.

And even in our own church, there are those who go to church every Sunday, but who often go off and serve other gods. We must guard our hearts, so that we do not allow sin and such contempt to creep into them, and run constantly to our Lord and Savior for his forgiveness and mercy. Amen and Amen.

Isaiah and Jesus: where the Pharisees and Sadducees Missed the Boat

There are two points I’ve learned about how to read the New Testament that give me a greater understanding of the text. The first, I learned from Pastor Arnold Jurchen in Bible study at Holy Cross Lutheran church in Goehner, Nebraska. The second I recently read in the Lutheran Study Bible’s introduction to the prophets, and will be a key point in the upcoming study I’m preparing for the book of Isaiah.

In that Bible study, Pastor Jurchen addressed the issue of why the Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t believe that he was the Messiah. He said that Jews in the Old Testament laid out two Messiahs: one was the suffering servant, the other was the eternal heir of David. From that, it’s pretty easy to determine who the Jews wanted to believe in. The point from the Lutheran study Bible heightened that point: the Sadducees, Pharisees and other religious leader held the Books of Moses as authoritative over the prophets, or at least as more important than the prophets. That shocked me when I read it, but in a way that made sense.

At the time of Jesus, the Jews, after generations of struggle, had gotten a temple, and some measure of control in Jerusalem. With their nose up to the Romans, the teachers of the law said to themselves, “Listen, the previous generations really screwed up. We’d better observe the law of Moses to the hilt. Our fathers didn’t, and they themselves shipped hundreds of miles away from God’s promised land. If we return in repentance and keep the temple law, eventually, we’ll get the Rambo Messiah who’ll kick out the Romans.”

But they forgot a couple of things: one, God works in spite of our failings. In Isaiah 1:12-17, God bemoans the sacrifices that Israel was offering up, and tells them to concern themselves with social justice. Even though Isaiah and the other prophets proclaimed God’s judgment, they proclaimed his forgiveness for those who repent (even in exile). When you go to the New Testament, you see Jesus healing the widows’ son and feeding large crowds, caring for the needs of lesser people. When you read John 7-8 (Jesus at the Feast of Booths) and see the dialogue, it’s clear that the Jews want to use their allegiance to Moses (“we are Abraham’s children”), but if you read Isaiah, you see that claiming Abraham isn’t valid if you are persisting in sin. The answer wasn’t to reestablish the temple which could be destroyed again (and was); the answer was to look to the hope that, in repentance and faith, God would send His Messiah.

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