It’s not the usual Christmas cheer but it is inevitably to do with Christmas: divine justice.
You see, throughout the scriptures God had been extremely gracious to the world, and in particular, to His people. Although we read at our carols service from John chapter 1 that “the law came through Moses but grace and truth came through Jesus”, it doesn’t mean that grace was unknown in the old covenant. In fact, the old covenant was in itself a covenant of grace. We could turn to many a place to illustrate this but let me choose several more obvious examples:
Genesis 15 (quoted in Romans 5 and Galatians 3. I freely promised you, therefore…) :
He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
Exodus 20 (I graciously rescued you, therefore…)
And God spoke all these words:
2 ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 ‘You shall have no other gods before me.
Throughout the scriptures grace (unmerited favour) goes hand in hand with judgement. More recently at our staff team days we were considering such, even as far back as Eden. Grace because if they’d stayed in the garden, there would not have been anywhere untouched by sin. Ultimately that would have been hellish to continue to live there in a spoiled place forever. The temple imagery (a place of God’s presence), so popular in modern thought on Genesis 1, would be spoilt forever. Through Genesis 1-11 we see the riff of violence, judgement and grace in a continuous cycle as the people move further east of Eden.
Reading through the book of Numbers, it is hard to look past God’s relationship with His people being based on grace, given the amount of moaning they do. Moaning that resembles a questioning of the Divine character, rather than simply a few meaningless words. And Leviticus calls the people to such high standards of holiness (“be holy as I am Holy”) that no-one could have merited anything worth talking about!
So why do we get raiding parties that seem to be divinely allowed?
Well precisely because of what we’ve seen elsewhere. Grace and judgement often go together. It is God’s grace that sends raiding parties to judge unfaithful people, to call them back to His way of human flourishing:
(Judges 2) ‘I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your ancestors. I said, “I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their altars.” Yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? 3 And I have also said, “I will not drive them out before you; they will become traps for you, and their gods will become snares to you.”’
4 When the angel of the Lord had spoken these things to all the Israelites, the people wept aloud, 5 and they called that place Bokim.There they offered sacrifices to the Lord.
One generation and 4 verses later:
10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshipped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.
And so continually, although God provided local rescuers in different parts of the country despite their disobedience, the people soon forgot His gracious provision and went back to their ways. The stories of the judges are not primarily meant to point us to amazing people who we should emulate, but rather to a gracious God who used temporary means of grace to stave off those raiding parties who were the source of judgement.
It raises three big questions for us today that I can think of:
- How continuous is the old covenant with the new covenant today?
By that I simply mean, should we expect divine raiding parties (or earthquakes, tsunamis and other such) to come sweeping unfaithful nations today? Or even if God doesn’t relate so much to nations anymore (?), is their correlation to individuals? Perhaps Luke 13 (the Tower of Siloam) and the death of Jesus could be of good help to us. I’m not sure ISIS or earthquakes are specific judgements necessarily (for God’s divine justice will largely be satisfied at the cross or on judgement day), but as we do not know (God’s wrath is being revealed continuously if Romans 1 is correct), let us turn from our sin and call others to do so regardless. May catastrophes of this world keep us sharp in our spirituality. The (dis/)continuity of covenants is one that I look to learn from older, wiser heads than I, who have wrestled with the whole of scripture for many more years than I have.
2. Can God really divinely permit (and I would even dare to say ordain) human means of raiding parties and death-bringers?
For this, I look to experts in the field of old testament studies like Kenneth Kitchen who has written “On the reliability of the Old Testament“, Paul Copan who has written “Is God a moral monster?” or Paul Coulter who has more briefly addressed things online here.
3. What can we learn from the book of Judges?
Well many things. But running themes seem to be how gracious God is, how holy God is, and how actions that seem not to trouble or harm anyone, still hurt the intimacy of our relationship with God. Worshipping the gods of the nations. Inter-marrying with people who won’t help us pursue God. Not bringing up the generations that follow in the light of who God is.
But what has this to do with travel?
Well, may we not worship travel, nor relate intimately with those who do. And may we be those who bear the grace and judgement of Jesus as we travel. For you cannot bring the grace of Jesus without the judgement of Jesus. The two are tightly entwined.
(2 Corinthians 2)
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task? 17 Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.