The Negotiator

It’s very easy to read the Hebrew Scriptures about characters from the Late Bronze Age, and be prejudiced about their intelligence and sophistication.  It’s one of the ways we read into a passage assumptions based on our own culture and practice.  The author of Judges, and Jephthah the judge, are two such people for whom I am guilty of prejudice.  But I’m learning…

Then Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and chief over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.  Now Jephthah sent messengers to the king of the sons of Ammon, saying, “What is between you and me, that you have come to me to fight against my land?” (Judges 11:11-12 NASB)

Jephthah is an outcast.  And those who cast him out brought him back to be their leader, all he had to do was defeat the “Sons of Ammon”.  The Sons of Ammon are like the Sons of Israel, in that they are descendants from Abraham’s family (actually Lot, Abraham’s nephew).  Because of this familial association, Yahweh has defined boundaries with Israel and how they interact with Ammon.

Where my prejudice begins is in my assumption that the people of the Late Bronze period in Canaan weren’t literate.  So far, we’ve run across two instances where that wasn’t true, one where even a youth can write, and Gideon can read it.  It’s not as uncommon a practice as I thought.  And now we have Jephthah, a rogue surrounding himself with vagabonds, who now recounts the specifics of the history of his people entering the land, and the relationship with Ammon.  That’s a lot of detail to remember.

From verses 15 through 27, Jephthah replies with a detailed history of why the King of Ammon is wrong to claim the land between the Arnon and the Jabbok, two prominent rivers feeding the Jordan Valley from the east.  This region wasn’t Ammonite, it was Amorite, and there is an important distinction.  While the Ammonites were “family”, the Amorites were not.  The Amorite king, Sihon, attacked Israel, and was defeated.  Israel took that region from this Amorite king.

The important things here are that 1) God had set apart Ammon as family, and Jephthah still honors that position of God, and 2) Jephthah remembers these details from 300 years of Israelite history.  He negotiates with Ammon because God wants Israel to treat them better than the Canaanites, and Jephthah does.  Some commentators will criticize Jephthah for being wordy, or sending so many messengers, or other details of his negotiation tactics, but they, too, are prejudiced.

The writer of Judges has an audience among the people of Judah’s kings, and it is they who need read this negotiation.  For whatever reason, this detail helps them understand better their relationship with Yahweh.  Jephthah is represented as faithful.  God honors him, and he’s honored among the people of Israel, right up through Hebrews 11, where he’s listed among those having lived by faith.

But to be that negotiator, Jephthah has to be able to read, write, and be educated about his heritage to a very high degree.  He didn’t find a book while cleaning the Temple in Jerusalem.  He didn’t discover a lost scroll, or find a scrap of some historical record in a jar.  Jephthah knew the story already.  He knew the history from hearing it or reading it.  And clearly, he knew it well.  He knew the details, the order of events, their significance, and from that, what God wanted him to do in this situation.

And therein lies the value of such study, searching Scripture, sifting through narratives and poetic lines and prose, all to learn what God would have us do in a given situation.  Like Jephthah, we study before we encounter the situation.  Then, when the situation arises, we’re already prepared.  We study, seeking the purpose and character of our Master, so we too will be able to act according to His character and desires.  We’ll know Him so well, we’ll know what He would do in a given situation.

But knowledge without experience leads to destruction.  We need to add to our study time in prayer.  We need to spend time listening to our Master, prayerfully seeking His face, so that we will be able to discern His Spirit from the other spiritual noise around us. Prayer and study combined into a daily practice opens us up to the presence of our Master.  Let’s be characterized by the mindset of Jesus.

What’s your view through your hole in the fence?


Open Minded

While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be to you.” (Luke 24:36 NASB)

Now He said to them, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”  Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  (Luke 24:44-47 NASB)

Understanding is elusive.  The moment it is achieved, awareness of more that is unknown accompanies it.  The more you know, the more you know how much you don’t know.  Bible study is like that.  There’s always another question.  But there are two things from this encounter with Jesus that help.  In fact, they are what make Bible study possible.

The most obvious is that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures”.  He opened their minds.  It was something that happened to them.  They didn’t simply “have an open mind”, their minds were opened.  So, understanding of Scripture comes from God.

If this is truly and experience we can have, then there’s no room for pride in what we find.  On the other hand, it’s very common to focus on what God shows me, when it’s not about that either.  That’s a Western Cultural problem of a self-centered focus and paradigm.  It is more true, or more often true, that God will use His people to help deepen and broaden our understanding of Scripture.  And in that sense, what He shows us is not just for us.

The other, less obvious, thing which helps our understanding of Scripture is Jesus’ statement when He first arrives:  “Peace be to you.”  Peace, or the traditional Jewish greeting of “Shalom”, is what Jesus says.  This peace isn’t the absence of strife.  This peace is a wholeness of being.  Peace is not being divided in purpose, or fractured in spirit.  It is more than serenity, or, perhaps, it is serenity divorced from the circumstances, immediate or remote.

When the peace from Jesus characterizes us, then study of Scripture is much easier, and more effective.  Sometimes, in order to regain this peace, prayer must replace the time spent in study.  In other times, the peace enabling study drives us to pray.  In either case, this peace of God is tied inexorably to prayer.  Jesus shows up and brings peace.  If we want Him to “open our minds”, then we must be in His presence.  The surest way to know that we are in His presence is to sense the fruit of His Spirit, one of which is peace.

Years ago, my Master called me His servant, but also His “knight”.  Later He revealed to me that, as His servant and knight, I am to wait, worship, and walk before Him.  It sounds simple, but consider that a knight is called to strife, yet to be in His presence instills peace.  In order to walk before Him, I must live prayer.  The result of this is a life characterized by peace.  This peace, which should characterize me, is the context in which I fight as His knight.  The only reason this sounds contradictory is that we have different definitions of peace and strife from God’s definitions.  The challenge is let Him redefine my understanding of both.

As you study, what view of God do you gain through your knothole?

On a Side Note: Knowledge of Good and Evil

The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed. Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Gen. 2:8-9 NAU)

Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (Gen. 2:15-17 NAU)

Of all the things that make up the “fall of humanity” it’s the knowledge of good and evil as a definition of “death” that seems to set the most definitive boundary.  What I mean is that the choice to be made was between life and its opposite (the two trees).  But rather than simply use the word death, God defines that choice as the knowledge of good and evil.  Therefore the opposite of life is the knowledge of good and evil.

For most of us, the word “evil” has become associated with a moral quality.  Something evil is morally so, as an element in the philosophical category of ethics.  There’s a cultural language issue that I believe obscures the point here.  While it seems clear that God is interested in defining death for Adam and eventually Eve, this definition as “knowledge of good and evil” is linguistically tied to our philosophical category of ethics.  I don’t believe it really belongs there, at least not as the term “evil” is traditionally used in the category.

The words for this tree in Scripture are “tov” (good) and “ra” (evil).  The problem of rendering these words into English are cultural.  A better rendering of ra in almost every instance is “bad”.  In Hebrew, ra is as flexible, if not more so, than our use of bad. Even in idiom or slang, they approximate each other.  The reason is that the meaning of these words is not only arbitrary, but very contextual. Something bad for one person can be good for another.  It depends on context of both affected parties.  This can also be said of ra.

In Amos, the prophet asks, “Can ra befall a city, and God has not done it?”  Well, obviously, if this refers to moral evil, we have a problem in our understanding of God.  Clearly the reference is to a calamity of some sort, either human or natural which harms the inhabitants.  But the point I’m making is that this word is used as a quality of something which God does, and therefore, even though causing suffering, can’t be seen as morally wrong (it’s God, He’s not morally wrong).  Therefore ra cannot be seen as a moral ethical element of the ancient Hebrews or as a moral quality in their understanding of God (a Hebrew theology).

The word ra belongs to a qualitative description based on the perception or point of view of the observer.  So, when I call something ra, that same thing might be described by another person (with another point of view) as tov.

Now, back to the tree.   The tree of death was called the knowledge of good and evil or tov and ra.  So what was the choice?  Life on the one hand or the knowledge of these arbitrary categories on the other?  How is the knowledge of these arbitrary categories death?

The answer is in the alternative.  The alternative to the personal knowledge of good and evil is the acceptance of God’s definitions of good and evil.  In other words, the choice in the Garden was between life (relationship with God) or death as “defining for ourselves what is good and evil”.  So the more we understand good and evil as God does, the more we begin to reverse the choice.  This is not to minimize the other elements in the deception or temptation, like becoming like God, and so on.  But death was brought about in that day in the choice between defining good and bad for themselves or continuing to accept God’s definitions of those things.   One is life, the other death.

So, as Moses said to the people, “Choose life!”  Study Scripture to understand God’s definitions, and live those out.  Inherent in this charge is the lordship of Jesus in our lives, the belief in His resurrection, and the rejection of our personal definitions of good and bad.  All these things are part of God’s definition of good and bad.  As is our submission to His definition of these in our lives.  Let Him “spin-doctor” the events of our lives rather than do it ourselves or let the world do it for us.  That’s the process we follow to reverse the choice our ancestors made in the Garden.

So what do you see and learn among the trees in the Garden?

Satan As A Worthy Opponent – Part 2

Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “ What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.” For He had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. For it had seized him many times; and he was bound with chains and shackles and kept under guard, and yet he would break his bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert. And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They were imploring Him not to command them to go away into the abyss. (Luke 8:28-31 NASB)

Previously I pointed out that this passage illustrates that there are spiritual forces which can resist even Jesus. In that entry I suggested some defensive measures to take to help protect ourselves against spiritual attack from the spiritual forces at war with us.  But I believe Ephesians 6 can be understood to mean that Paul tells us the battle is also offensive in nature.  So now I want to explore a protracted offense.

Continue reading “Satan As A Worthy Opponent – Part 2”

Netting Disciples: Second, Capture Their Attention

And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat. (Luke 5:3 NASB)

Simon was someone people followed.  They didn’t follow because he was perfect or kind or smart.  They followed him because he led, even if it was to nowhere, it at least had a direction.  He was driven, relentless, ambitious, and tough.  Those qualities may have made him difficult to follow, but the fact that he had a direction to go and seemed to know how to get there made up for it.  He may have been wrong, but never seemed aimless.  People like that sort of certainty, it’s comforting.  So Jesus knew that to ‘net’ the others, He had to first net Simon.

Continue reading “Netting Disciples: Second, Capture Their Attention”