This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectonary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
WORLD REMEMBERS START OF WORLD WAR 1
25 It happened the same night, that Yahweh said to him, “Take your father’s bull, even the second bull seven years old, and throw down the altar of Baal that your father has, and cut down the Asherah that is by it; 26 and build an altar to Yahweh your God on the top of this stronghold, in an orderly way, and take the second bull, and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.”
27 Then Gideon took ten men of his servants, and did as Yahweh had spoken to him: and it happened, because he feared his father’s household and the men of the city, so that he could not do it by day, that he did it by night.
28 When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the Asherah was cut down that was by it, and the second bull was offered on the altar that was built. 29 They said one to another, “Who has done this thing?”
When they inquired and asked, they said, “Gideon the son of Joash has done this thing.”
30 Then the men of the city said to Joash, “Bring out your son, that he may die, because he has broken down the altar of Baal, and because he has cut down the Asherah that was by it.” 31 Joash said to all who stood against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you save him? He who will contend for him, let him be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because someone has broken down his altar.” 32 Therefore on that day he named him Jerub-Baal,+ saying, “Let Baal contend against him, because he has broken down his altar.”
33 Then all the Midianites and the Amalekites and the children of the east assembled themselves together; and they passed over, and encamped in the valley of Jezreel. 34 But the Spirit of Yahweh came on Gideon; and he blew a trumpet; and Abiezer was gathered together after him. 35 He sent messengers throughout all Manasseh; and they also were gathered together after him: and he sent messengers to Asher, and to Zebulun, and to Naphtali; and they came up to meet them.
36 Gideon said to God, “If you will save Israel by my hand, as you have spoken, 37 behold, I will put a fleece of wool on the threshing floor; if there is dew on the fleece only, and it is dry on all the ground, then shall I know that you will save Israel by my hand, as you have spoken.”
38 It was so; for he rose up early on the next day, and pressed the fleece together, and wrung the dew out of the fleece, a bowl full of water.
39 Gideon said to God, “Don’t let your anger be kindled against me, and I will speak but this once. Please let me make a trial just this once with the fleece. Let it now be dry only on the fleece, and on all the ground let there be dew.”
40 God did so that night: for it was dry on the fleece only, and there was dew on all the ground.
I wouldn’t be surprised if readers of this blog wonder what on earth I’m doing, on the day the world remembers the outbreak of the 1st World War, foutering about with a text from many centuries BCE, which contains a daft story about altars and fleeces. I admit there are probably biblical passages of more direct relevance than this old story. Neverthless it has the smell of a good folk-tale and may therefore have more relevance than one sees at first sight. In any case it is one of the passages the Common Lectionary gives me today and I’ve committed myself to using what I’m given.
1. This is a story about Gods -false gods and the true God. The book of Judges is an edited version of old stories that reflect a time in Israel’s history when it was a loose confederation of tribes which ocasionally were directed by “judges” that is, charismatic leaders associated with Jahweh, the God of an ancestors who had “brought them up from the land of Egypt”. The point of these stories is to show how the true God challenges and assists his people in their struggle against other tribes on the one hand and their own idolatries on the other. The assumption of the narrator is that the true God can actually accomplish something whereas the idols can’t. This is a persistent theme of Jewish polemic against the gods of the gentiles. “If he (Baal) is a God let him contend for himself!” Joash’s words make nonsense of the anger of Baal worshippers. What use is a God if he needs human protection?
2. Nevertheless, the true God choses to work through a human witness. Of course, Jahweh might choose to act on his own, in anger or compassion, but the faith exprsssed in the Old Testament is that he has decided to work through human beings and has chosen the tribes of Israel for this purpose. Gideon, son of Joash has responded to Jahweh God’s prompting by a classic act of faith: he has destroyed idols. In a world where by and large people were tolerant of other people’s religious habits, – surely it doesn’t matter who they worship; we have our own Gods – the iconoclasm of Yahweh worshippers strikes a discodant note. This intolerance is at the very heart of the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A moment’s thought will lead to the conclusion that it is a dangerous conviction unless it is used with wisdom. It does however raise an important question about any historical event: who or what are these people worshipping?
3. Gideon believes that Jahweh is the true God, but he wants reassurance that he’s not buying a pig in a poke. So he “tests” God by laying out the fleece. Compared with some of the more dramatic tests of God’s efficacy in the Bible- such as Elijah’s demands on Mount Carmel for God to send fire from heaven- this a homely enough demand. God goes along with Gideon’s hesitation because he is leading him into situations where he, God, will test Gideon’s trust to the limit. The charismatic leaders of Israel often imagine they are testing God while God is already preparing to test them. God has plans of which human beings know nothing.
We should not be deceived into thinking that the God of such stories is intended as a direct representation of Israel’s God. On the contrary, Israel finds her God by telling and re-telling, interpreting and re-interpreting such stories. If we think of them as graphic novels, manga theologies, we’ll be nearer the mark.
In relation to the outbreak of war in 1914, we can usefully ask the question: who or what are these people worshipping? One answer is that that all the great powers were worshipping their own national identities. They were tied to idols of nationhood, of history and destiny, which led them into decisions which were irrational and self-destructive. In Wilfred Owen’s great poem on Abraham and Isaac, the angel asks him to offer the ram of pride instead of his son….
“but Abraham would not and slew his son
and half the seed of Europe one by one.”