by Alyssa Robinson
At the root of humanity, we are tribal. We establish both figurative and literal borders to separate ourselves and create safety. We label individuals or groups who don’t look or live like us as dangerous. Then, we identify a common enemy to rally our community for a specific cause or action. This pattern endlessly repeats in history, on the evening news, and even in our daily conversations. It’s the classic “us vs. them” mentality.
But separation isn’t enough; we also want to claim righteousness. We want to claim God as our own. In my dualistic mindset, when I hear things like “God is on our side” or “God bless America,” I make assumptions about the intent behind the words.
- If God is on our side, that means God is against someone else.
- If God blessed America, that means that God withheld blessings from other countries.
- If I have God’s approval, then people who don’t share my values don’t have God’s approval.
This is all human error, of course, and it’s an ancient human error. The book of Judges elevates this error to new levels.
Judges is a controversial text. Some Bible scholars have questioned the validity of its inclusion in Scripture because it includes:
- Graphic depictions of violence (such as the slaughter of seemingly innocent people by the command of God)
- Heroes who are anything but role models (while seemingly under the control of the Holy Spirit, they engage in deceit, lies, mockery, and self-centered behavior)
- Illicit sex and sexual innuendo
- A degrading depiction of women
- A writing style that seemingly includes exaggeration or fabrication
Are you hooked, yet? The reasons some people think Judges shouldn’t be included in Scripture is exactly why I love that it is included; our humanity is on full display! The writer doesn’t gloss over the ugliness of our selfish desires to paint the Israelites as infallible chosen people. In fact, the two stories we’re going to explore today start with the same sentence, “The Israelites again did what is evil in the Lord’s sight.”
Let’s talk about the stories of Ehud (Judges 3:12-23) and Sisera (Judges 4:12-23).
If you’ve been following along in the Life+God Podcast series and recent blog posts, you know that the Hebrew Bible was written as a history of the Israelite people. These are God’s chosen people, uniquely selected to worship only God and proclaim God’s truth throughout the world (Deuteronomy 7:6-11). We also learn about the enemies of the Israelites, like the Ammonites, Moabites, and Canaanites. The Jewish writers painted detailed stories to explain why these groups of people were wicked and cursed by God.
But Judges flips the script on us. In the two stories we’re exploring today, God is on the side of the enemies of Israel. In the story of Ehud, God strengthens the king of the Moabites against Israel. In the story of Sisera, God sold the Israelites into slavery of the Canaanites. What’s that about?
Speaking of flipping the script, check out this week’s Life + God Podcast episode about a progressive Canaanite woman who used the system to break the system, Tamar. You can listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.
So I immediately ask myself, “Whose side is God on, anyway?” I imagine the Israelites must have been asking themselves the same question.
Let me summarize these stories for you, although I strongly recommend you read them for yourself. This is a Game of Thrones level drama!
Ehud (Judges 3:12-23)
In the story of Ehud, the Israelites did “what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” and so God strengthened the Moabite king. This king defeated Israel, and the Israelites served under his vicious reign for 18 years. The Israelites then cried out to God, and God raised up a deliverer, Ehud, to defeat the king. Ehud put a scheme together to sneak into the king’s chambers, assassinate him with a double-edged sword, escape, and then sound the alarm for the Israelites to rise up. His plan worked. The most interesting part of this story is the description of the king’s death, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. Please read it!
Sisera (Judges 4:12-23)
This story starts at the beginning of chapter four with, “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” This time, God sold them to the Canaanites. Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army and, with his full military power, cruelly oppressed the Israelites for 20 years. The Israelites cried out to God for help, and God raised up Deborah, a prophetess, to lead the Israeli army and defeat Sisera, which happened! Sisera’s army was defeated and he ran away to escape his fate. He took shelter in the tent of a woman named Jael, and she murdered him in a very unique way. Again, read it for yourself. I can’t do it justice.
I don’t believe I worship a fickle or petty God, but seeing God switch allegiances like that in Scripture rubs me the wrong way. I thought the Israelites were chosen. I thought God made a covenant with them. What gives? And also, what about the Moabites and Canaanites? Did they know that God was helping them or were they unaware? How did they feel when the Israelites cried out and God immediately deserted them?
The only way I can reconcile this shift is to remind myself that Scripture is not literal. It is the history of a people written by those same people at a time I’ll never fully understand. If they were suffering as a people, the only explanation they had was they displeased God and God switched sides. It’s such a human understanding of God that we still get caught up in today. For example, I still hear people present natural disasters as God’s wrath on sinful people. We project our own thoughts and behaviors onto God to try to make sense of the suffering that surrounds us. So I think it’s important to keep our humanity in mind when reading these stories.
So what can we learn? How does it apply to us today? I don’t think it’s that God takes sides or that when we call out, God comes to our side to defeat our enemies. In this week’s Life + God Podcast episode, Pastor Daniel claims that God is always on the side of the outcast or underdog, and maybe that’s true. But what’s really sticking with me is the amount of time it took the Israelites to cry out to God. In the first story they waited 18 years, and in the second story they waited 20 years. I wonder how many different strategies they tried to implement to save themselves before finally crying out for help. I haven’t sat on a problem for 20 years (only because I’m not old enough to have done that yet), but I’ve found myself in plenty of situations that I tried to fix myself.
When my marriage was ending, the last thing I did was cry out to God. I tried couples counseling, I tried convincing my husband to stay, tried reaching out to his friends for help, changing myself and the way I engaged in the relationship, and I tried exercising and dieting to make myself feel stronger and more attractive. I read self-help books and endless marriage articles. None of it worked. Then I cried out to God, and my marriage ended in divorce.
When I finally stopped trying to fix things on my own, I was able to see clearly that God had a life of abundance in store for both of us, separately. I was able to step outside the cycle of denial and anger that had consumed me. God was with me, and God was with him. My life is more beautiful now than it ever was when I was married, and I hope the same for him.
Was God on my side or on my ex-husband’s side? Yes. Did I let my own human emotions get in the way and ask why God was doing this to me? Also, yes. Maybe that’s the question the Israelites were trying to answer, “God, why are you doing this to me?”
But when they cried out for help, God was there. When I cried out for help, God was there. Hopefully as I get older and wiser, I’ll stop taking so long to cry out to God and remember that God doesn’t take sides. God is goodness and mercy. God is abundance and peace. There is plenty of God for all of us to overflow in God’s love. God’s love is not limited or withholding. God’s love is expansive beyond our imaginations. We just need to get out of our own way and let ourselves and the people around us be loved by God.