Notes on Gideon and the God of Israel: Fire and Dew, Evening and Morning

angel-and-gideonThe account of Gideon requiring a sign from the God who has called him to rise up as a deliverer for Israel, has long puzzled interpreters (Judges 6.33-40). Gideon receives a messenger from Yahweh who calls him to action. This angel of Yahweh (6.11, 21; or “of God” in verse 20) is asked for a sign of confirmation by Gideon that he will indeed be successful in battle against the armies of the east and that it is indeed Yahweh (the god of Israel) that is calling him. Gideon prepares an offering of food, is commanded to put it on a rock. The angel  touches the food with his staff and fire flames from the rock consuming everything on it. The god of Israel has answered by fire for the man sent to destroy the altar of Baal and the Asherah pole.

He sets out in the cover of night to destroy the shrine to Baal and Asherah  that apparently is situated on his own father’s property. The people discover his act the following morning and intend to kill him. His father rescues him by arguing for Baal to be responsible in dealing with Gideon who thus receives the nick-name Jerubbaal (which is interpreted by Judges as “let Baal contend [with him]”). Yet Baal is silent against Gideon.

dewImmediately following this account, the Spirit of Yahweh clothes* Gideon and Gideon thus musters the armies of some of the northern tribes of Israel (6.34-35). Yet before he sets out to wage war, he calls upon this god to respond with a further sign of assurance. The sign is that of a wool fleece on the ground being soaked by “dew” (Heb. טָּל tal) in the morning and the ground being dry (6.36-37). The sign is granted (6.38). Then he asks for a further confirmation with the ground being wet in the morning with dew and the wool fleece being dry (6.39). The sign is granted (6.40).

The first testing of Yahweh was answered by fire. The second (and third) testing was by dew. As it turns out, both signs challenge the power of Baal as the Canaanite god who sends both fire and dew. The god of the storm (Baal Hadad) alone sends fire. Yet it is Yahweh’s emissary who answers by fire. Further, it is Baal who is so identified with the dew that in the Ugaritic literature (KTU 1.3 I.23-25) he is described as having a daughter called “Morning Dew” (tallay) which is the cognate term with the Hebrew tal in our narrative. Yet Baal is not the god who answers by controlling the dew in Judges 6.

Gideon (that is Jerubbaal) is not testing whether Yahweh can overcome Baal in battle (as if Baal were the god of his enemies, the Midianites, Amalekites and others of the east), he is testing which god has the power in the land he dwells in to act and to deliver. He is testing which god is the proper god of Israel. And it is decisively Yahweh who is god in Israel and this god alone can deliver any time of the day: evening and morning. In the morning, the citizens of Ophrah find their god Baal unable to protect his shrine. In the morning, Gideon (and the armies of Israel) find Yahweh able to control the “dew”. It was at night that Gideon destroyed the altar of Baal and build the altar of Yahweh and it was at night that Gideon shared in the destruction of the Midianite horde under the authority of Yahweh as god of Israel. Baal could not act nor could Baal rescue Israel. For the writer of Judges, Baal was the very reason for the troubling Midianites (6.1, 10). It was only in obedience to Yahweh that this community could enjoy peace in the land.

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* “clothes” might literally be translated that the Spirit puts Gideon on as clothing if one follows the normal sense of the Qal stem for the Hebrew labash.

Why Israel’s Neighbors Can’t Win

ObadiahTeaching the book of Obadiah this morning, I was reflecting on the issue of Israel and her neighbors: Jordan, The Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. According to this little book written (likely) sometime in the sixth century B.C. (though some have argued for as early as the 9th century)  “Edom” and Gilead (which is within the boundaries of Jordan; vv.18, 19), the “Philistine plains” (part of the modern Gaza strip; v.19), and “Phoenician” and “Zarephath” (in modern Lebanon) are all to be destroyed and occupied by Israel.

The normal narrative I hear in my circles argues that it is Israel’s neighbors who have set themselves to see Israel utterly destroyed and thus should not be reasoned with (or so the story goes within certain camps). It is typically further argued that these neighbors are simply always fighting and are the culprits of the angst against Israel and thus no agreement should be made with them.

This narrative fails to account for the religious text of Obadiah which declares the destruction and dispossession of Israel’s neighbors at their hands. How would that potentially affect Israel being a legitimate negotiation partner? How should Israel’s neighbors consider a people who hold as sacred a text which is primary to the institution of this people being a people and which calls for their destruction?

These were questions which arose in my mind as we reflected on this text. What are your thoughts? How have you perceived trying to work with a people whose religious text seems to call for your destruction? Can their be concessions?

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As a footnote, I understand the modern nation-state of Israel does not typically regard such texts as authoritative, though some certainly do. It nevertheless remains that this text belongs to Israel as a people.

Gog, Magog, and Premillennialism

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In a recent conversation about events in the Middle/Near East, a question was raised as to the potential for fulfillment of prophecy, specifically concerning “Gog and Magog”.

Gog and Magog have so captured the imagination that their very mention seems clouded by mystery and ready at hand to apply to nearly any particularity in contemporary geo-politics involving the modern nation-state of Israel. However, few consider the actual texts where these terms are mentioned in Scripture. Gog (the referent to the prince of the eschatological hordes) only occurs two places in Scripture (excluding the referents which point to an genealogical figure): Ezekiel 38-39 and Revelation 20.

In Ezekiel, Gog is the prince from Magog (meaning “place of Gog”). This ruler is brought by the will of YHWH to a restored Israel to make war. He is gathered with hordes from the corners of the known world (6th century BC). These two chapters are spent describing the hordes and their ultimate destruction and burial. Interestingly enough the valley of Hamon-Gog where the bodies are buried over 7 months immediately follows another valley filled with dead: the valley of very dry bones (Eze.37). That first valley was the slain of Israel, restored by the Spirit of YHWH and even restored as a united people in the land of promise. This latter valley becomes the resting place of all who would think to destroy the work of YHWH to live in peace in the midst of His people. While numerous people groups are included in this horde (including Persia [part of modern Iran]…a favorite current target of prophetic prognosticators) the intention is not to locate the people groups as all-encompassing. It seems to function more toward all those who are from far away (from the very boundaries of civilization) who would gather together against the work of YHWH (though brought by the “hook” of YHWH to the land). This is NOT intended as Ezekiel’s message against a restored Caliphate (something imagined by Muslim extremists and fear-mongering Westerners). Nor is it against any of these people groups. It is against all who would oppose the ultimate plan of YHWH to dwell with His redeemed people (Israel for Ezekiel, but inclusive of all of God’s people in the NT).

In the Revelation 20.8, Gog and Magog function as stock phrase for the opposing hordes from the four corners of the earth in an even more broad sense than Ezekiel. This is in contrast to “Gog” who was “from Magog” in Ezekiel.  Here (if one is following a sort of “timeline” of events in the Revelation) is the final battle to end all battles. This one follows the 1000 year imprisonment of Satan and the 1000 year reign of Christ. It immediately precedes the final judgment and the coming of the New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and New Earth.

Given the above passages (from a Premillennial eschatology) it should seem readily apparent that anyone attempting to discern “Gog and Magog” in our contemporary setting has no grounds. Not only do the passages not support such an interpretation (even if one is not Premillennial) given their prophetic/eschatological nature to depict things in more broad terms, but they also would not support such following the predominant western Evangelical approach of Premillennialism which would locate this war at the very end of the millennial reign (and distinguish it from the Battle of Armageddon immediately preceding the Second Coming). Meaning it would be a thousand years from the Second Coming. The face of the planet (and her empires) would be radically refashioned from the current geo-political make-up.

In brief, finding Gog and Magog in contemporary news and prognostications is biblically unfounded. We need look no further than locating it with all who ultimately oppose the rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Homeless God: A Reflection from Ezekiel

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The God of Israel is not the god of philosophic speculations….a god perfect to reason. He is not a god unfeeling and unmoved. The God of Israel is a god living with His people. Their lot is his lot. It is among them that he resides as one of them though king of all.

Thus, in Ezekiel it is not simply the people removed from the holy city…it is the God of Israel, YHWH, who himself is removed. Across the Kidron Valley resting just a moment…lingering over the abandoned home…turning at last to the north…and to the River Chebar. Israel does not go into exile without her king…the king goes along because he is her husband. Israel and her God are homeless…together…though it is not by the choice of Israel. It is YHWH who has been abandoned, yet remains the faithful husband of his rescued bride. And YHWH leads the procession.

Broken walls and smoldering homes against the background. Weeping, the train of exiles depart. But YHWH is with them…the Exiled God who would not be abandoned and does not finally abandon. The Homeless God with his homeless people…awaiting the return to a home unconquerable and unending where at last it may be said, “YHWH resides here”.

Eating Your Theology (Gen.1)

AtrahasisIn Sunday School this week we covered Genesis 1. Something that struck me was verses 29-30:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food.
And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground–everything that has the breath of life in it–I give every green plant for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30 NIV)

Whereas some have taken this as some sort of Pre-fall diet plan to get healthy (it isn’t), I realized it is making a VERY significant claim theologically. In the ancient Near Eastern stories of the creation of humans (see Atrahasis Epic), people were made to feed the gods. They did feed themselves, but only as they would “sustain the gods”. And the gods (Igigi) were said to toil hard at making food and led (by their rebellion under the toil) to the creation of humans.

In the Genesis 1, however, it is the God of Israel who feeds people and creatures alike. There is not even a mention of God eating (to be fair God is described as eating later in the canon). Now THAT is a theological claim we should not miss. This God, the god of Israel, is the one who feeds all of creation and has created in order to care for creation. And the work was not toilsome to begin with, but simply attending to the garden of God (Gen.2-3). And it was God Himself who watered the dwelling of humans and gave them freely to eat. This is the God of Israel. This is the God of the Church.

Now that’ll preach!

The Revelation of Yahweh in the Exodus: The Theological Center

Summary of ExodusI was struck by a re-reading of Exodus recently as I meditated on just what the overarching theology of Exodus might be. The Scripture that struck me most strongly was Exodus 4:22 (NET):

Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn

In light of the wider book of the Exodus, one encounters a god (Yahweh) who is able to deliver His people (His “firstborn”) from all other powers and authorities and, thus, from the gods of Egypt. This sheds light on the death of the firstborn of Egypt and thus the preservation of Israel and all who gathered in obedience in each home dedicated to Yahweh’s provision.

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There will be a great cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But against any of the Israelites not even a dog will bark against either people or animals, so that you may know that the Lord distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.’ (Exo.11:4-7 NET)

The preservation of the children of the god of Israel was a revelation of that god as true God, and the name of Yahweh as that God who had and was making covenant with Israel among all the nations. The children delivered from captivity (Exo.1-6) , preserved through judgment (Exo.7-13), passing through the waters (Exo.14-15:21), provided for in the wilderness (Exo.15:22-18:27), trembling at the mountain (Exo.19), and attending to the glorious, gracious, and holy presence of Yahweh in their midst (Exo.20-40). In all of this, and through all of this, the revelation of Yahweh as Yahweh (God of Israel) stands at the forefront…and as God of Israel, Yahweh is self-revealed as Father of Israel in every respect. Israel begins in the narrative as slaves building houses for the gods and rulers of Egypt and ends with building the tabernacle for Yahweh as sons and no longer slaves…as those brought into covenant relationship not simply as subjects, but sons of their God under the cloud of smoke and fire, eating and drinking at the table of their Lord and Father (Exo.40:34-38).

And thus at the first we read:

God answered, “I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.”

But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”

 God replied to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.

This is my eternal name,
my name to remember for all generations. (Exo.3:12-15 NLT, emphasis added)

And at the last:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh.  The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.”

Moses immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped. And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exo.34:5-9 NLT, emphasis added)