Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Improving Community

In the book of Judges our lessons have shown how four factors of a vicious cycle tend to be present. (1) The people would fall away from serving God; (2) the enemy would oppress the Israelites; (3) the people would pray for mercy; and God would appoint a judge to deliver them.

Last week our lesson focused on Gideon a/k/a Jerubbaal, of the half tribe of Manasseh in the Promised Land, who was called by God as a judge to deliver the Israelites from the hand of the Midianites. (Judges 6:1-8:35) With God as his guide, he obediently followed His instructions and the Israelites won miraculously. Gideon refused the request of the people that either he or his sons rule over them. All honor was to go to the Lord. Unfortunately, upon his death, one of his sons (a son of a concubine) decided he wanted to be king. Abimelech, with his mother's assistance, conspired with certain men in Shechem, a city in Manasseh, to accomplish his purpose. Knowing he was family and remembering the warfare tactics used by Gideon, Shechem forgot about God and assisted Abimelech by giving him money. Abimelech went to his father's house in Ophrah and killed all seventy of Gideon's sons, but one. Jotham hid and ran away. Shechem appointed Abimelech as king of Israel. Upon learning of the appointment, Jotham pronounced a curse upon Shechem and Abimelech (Judges 9:7-15). Abimelech had not been appointed either a judge or king by God. He did not serve God, but God allowed Abimelech to rule for three years as a self-appointed king. Then dissension began and the curse that Jotham prophesied was fulfilled. The people in Shechem had served other gods aand over 1,000 men and women were killed. They believed their gods would deliver them when Abimelech came to destroy them. (Judges 9:1-57) As Gideon had said, (Judges 8:23) '...the Lord shall rule over you.'

Not much is written in Scripture about the next two judges, but they must have been raised up by God. Tola, from the tribe of Issachar, had moved to the tribe of Ephraim in order to be more centrally located for all the twelve tribes. He served for twenty-three years after he restored the people to God following Abimelech's reign. (Judges 10:1-2) It is unknown how much time lapsed between the rest the people enjoyed under Tola before the vicious cycle began again and God appointed Jair (Judges 10:3-5). It is known that Jair, a Gileadite of the half tribe of Manasseh on the east side of the Jordan River, served as judge for twenty-two years.

Upon the death of Jair, '...the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord'(Judges 10:6a). But they were not simply serving the idols of one nation. They were serving Baal, Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria, the gods of Zidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines. (Judges 10:6b) It is most probable they were paying an offering and/or tithes to each of these gods. They were serving every god in the area except the true and living God. The Lord responded by placing them under the stern rule of the Ammonites (Phase 2 of the vicious cycle). The Ammonites were descendants of Abraham's nephew, Lot, through incest with his youngest daughter. They remained under the Ammonite rule for eighteen years. (Judges 10:8). During that period the Ammonites crossed over the Jordan River and fought the Judah tribe (largest), Benjamin tribe (smallest), and Ephraim tribe (close to Jericho). (Judges 10:9) Our lesson this week focuses on Judges 10:10-18.

We are looking at a mountaineous region area of land east of the Jordan River known as the land of Gilead. (Numbers 32:1) As a whole, it included the tribal territories of the children of Reuben, Gad, and the eastern half of Manasseh (Numbers 32:40; Deut 3:13). '...the children of Israel cried unto the Lord,... We have sinned against thee, both because we have forsaken our God, and also served Baalim' (Judges 10:10). This was phase 3 of the vicious cycle. They prayed for mercy, but was it sincere? They had experienced the vicious cycle so many times, were they performing ceremoniously? The all-wise God knew they were serving more than one idol. Could it have been that they sought to mislead God about all the other idols they had been serving? Were the people trying to make a "deal" with God, hoping He would deliver them while permitting them to keep their favorite gods? No chance. God will have no other gods before Him. (Exodus 20:3,5a) You can't bribe Him. (Deut 10:17)

And the Lord responded to the children of Israel's plea for mercy. It is unknown whether He sent a messenger or a prophet, but He responded. He reminded them of the many other times when they were oppressed, cried to Him for help and He had delivered them from enemies, such as the Egyptians, Amorites, Ammonites, Philistines, Zidonians, Amalekites, and the Maonites. (Judges 10:11-12) He had never forsaken them and 'Yet ye have forsaken me, and served other gods: wherefore I will deliver you no more' (Judges 10:13). Perhaps they said God would deliver them because He promised never to forsake them. (Deut 4:31) God's negative answer to their insincere prayer for mercy, however, was not forsaking them. It was a wake-up call to their community for repentance to Him by abandoning them to the gods they served. 'Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation' (Judges 10:14). The Lord knew the children of Israel had paid their tributes to their idol gods because they believed they had divine powers. They were now to count on their gods for protection.

The children of Israel had never had a negative answer from the Lord when they cried for mercy. They were truly convicted, had to come to terms with their sins, and admitted they deserved some punishment. They prayed a sincere prayer that the punishment would be something other than continued oppression by Ammon. In support of this plea, the Israelites ...'put away the strange gods from among them, and served the Lord: and his soul was grieved...' (Judges 10:16). They had improved their community and truly served the Lord. The result of this new course of action drew a different response from God. God still loved His people, and it grieved Him to see them in misery - especially after they were now freely serving Him from their hearts.

The Lord's latest response to Israel at this time was to direct them to move ahead with plans of a military confrontation with Ammon. All they knew was that '...the children of Ammon were gathered together, and encamped in Gilead...'(Judges 10:17a). They had no battle plan nor did they have a leader. But they had '...assembled themselves together, and encamped in Mizpeh'(Judges 10:17b) awaiting the confrontation according to the Lord's instructions. The Gilead tribes had got together and agreed that whoever could lead them successfully against the Ammonites would be recognized as leader over all who lived in Gilead. Then they sent out an invitation and waited for God.

Little did they know their hero would be Jephthah, of the tribe of Manasseh and a mighty man of valor, but the son of a prostitute (Judges 11:1). He was disinherited and driven from home to live in exile. But he was summoned back by the elders of Gilead to be their captain in the army against the Ammonites. 'And Jephthah said unto the elders of Gilead, If ye bring me home again, to fight against the children of Ammon, and the Lord deliver them before me, shall I be your head?' (Judges 11:9) The elders responded positively to Jephthah's question. The Spirit of the Lord guided Jephthah in his dealing with the Ammonites, first judicially regarding a treaty, then in conquering them in war because their hearts were hardened. He was chosen of God (unlike Abimilech). Once the people prayed a sincere prayer (phase 3) and improved their community as evidence, the Lord had a Judge ready for them to be delivered (phase 4) from their oppression. Jephthah served God and the community six years.

Written by Deborah C. Davis

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