History (part 1) – Tribes Become a Kingdom
We pick up the story with Joshua, who succeeds from Moses as leader.
- The Israelites are on the brink of the promised land.
- Joshua sends in spies to check out Jericho (Joshua 2).
- Following their good report, the Israelites cross the Jordan river (Joshua 3) – it’s a hugely important moment: crossing this river means “we’re going in” – victory is on the way; we’re about to become God’s people, overcome our enemies, and dwell in our own land.
If we wonder why it’s so significant that Jesus was baptised in the river Jordan, it’s partly because of this story – he was taking his people back to a new beginning, and about to achieve a victory over his enemies (but not the enemies of this world) and to make a new people.
So against all odds, Joshua leads his people into successful battles against Jericho (chapter 6, where trumpets are blown and walls fall down) and various enemy kings (chapters 8–12).
The second half of Joshua tells how the conquered land is divided up between the Israelite tribes, and the book ends with a renewal and reaffirmation of the covenant between God and his people (which was first made with…Abraham, reiterated to Isaac, then Jacob, then at Sinai when the commandments were given, and again here, once they’re in the land).
Throughout the Old Testament God’s people constantly recall and reaffirm their covenant relationship with him, in order to be thankful, and as a way of remembering who and what they’re called to be. Every time we celebrate Holy Communion we’re doing the same thing.
In Judges, things start to go downhill. Israel is leaderless; the conquest of the land is not completed – the task is unfinished, and they’re frequently attacked by enemies, they lose focus and turn to other gods.
So God raises up leaders (“Judges” – hence the title of the book) to lead them, and today’s first reading summed it up perfectly:
- the Israelites turn from God,
- they’re attacked,
- they return to God crying for help,
- he gives them a leader,
- the leader saves them,
- but they turn from God, and the cycle starts again.
And that pattern is repeated all through the book of Judges. It’s the one book in the Old Testament that makes me want to bury my head in my hands when I read through it! But it reminds us of an important lesson – that any of us can become trapped in our own cycle of giving up on God, then falling into sin, becoming slaves to that sin, calling on God for help when we’re stuck, and God helping us…. The Israelites were locked into this cycle but could have broken out of it if they’d helped each other more and maintained their daily walk with God.
There are 12 Judges who lead Israel in this book (chapters 3-16). Of them all, we probably know Gideon and Samson best. It was Gideon (chapter 6) who tested God with the fleece. “Hmm, God has said he will rescue Israel through me, but I’m not sure I believe him, so, here God – I’m going to put this fleece out, and if it’s wet in the morning, I know you really will.” Sometimes we know God has called us to do something or go somewhere, but we take a convincing again and again, and we struggle to trust that God knows what he’s doing.
The Judges are a colourful bunch of people: charismatic leaders, with the right gifts for the right circumstances, but violent, not always likeable, nor moral, and certainly not good role models. And Judges ends with some awful and graphic crimes committed by the tribes of Dan and Benjamin, who get severely punished by the other tribes as a result. The last verse in the book (21:25) is telling: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel, all the people did what was right in their own eyes.’
From this point there’s a desire for a good and holy King who will lead them with integrity and power… and that’s a hope that will not be properly fulfilled until the New Testament, when a young man called Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey…
Joshua and Judges are filled with war and violence. Let’s remember that just because such things are in the Bible, it doesn’t mean they’re being endorsed by God as good models to imitate!
With Ruth, however, things are different.
This is an uplifting story from the time of the Judges. Four chapters tell the beautiful story of how Ruth (a Moabite – not an Israelite) leaves her life behind to go and support her mother-in-law, after all the men in the family sadly die. It’s a story about commitment, compassion, loyalty, and putting the needs of another before our own.
Ruth meets Boaz, an good Israelite, they’re happily married, and the books ends with an important detail: that Ruth is the great-grandmother of King David.
Ruth was a Moabite, an ‘outsider’, but what this book teaches us (quite radically, when compared to Joshua and Judges) is that God is for all people everywhere, that among the people of Israel all should find welcome, blessing and the joy of knowing their God. That is what should happen when other people / ‘outsiders’ find themselves among us as the people of Christ.
1 Samuel is full of very important events. Hannah is distraught because she cannot have a son. She prays, soon conceives, and celebrates in a wonderful song (chapter 2) very similar to Mary’s Magnificat in the New Testament. Hannah’s son, Samuel, stays at the tabernacle to serve under the priest Eli (something like an altar boy). It’s here that he learns to hear the voice of God, and he becomes the last judge of Israel.
(chapter 8) Israel asks for a king. Samuel worries about that; he thinks that once they make someone a king, the power will go to his head, he will amass treasures, and lord it over his people. The next 5 books of the Old Testament will show how right he was.
So Israel’s first king is Saul. He starts brilliantly, but goes downhill quickly, taking the law into his own hands, acting rashly, and ignoring what God has asked him to do.
Samuel looks for a better person to be king, and God points him to David (chapter 16), which comes as a surprise to everyone, because David is a humble shepherd boy.
(chapter 17) Israel are under threat, still, from the Philistines, and their champion Goliath is terrifying – nobody wants to fight him. But along comes David, and fells mighty Goliath with a slingshot. Suddenly, the Israelites are free. Saul is deeply resentful, and spends the rest of 1 Samuel trying to hunt him down in the wilderness, but often regrets it. He’s a very troubled man. Finally, he dies in battle right at the end of 1 Samuel, and David is free to pursue his calling.
2 Samuel begins with David’s triumphs:
- he defeats the Philistines,
- he takes Jerusalem, and makes it the capital of a new united Kingdom incorporating all the tribes of Israel.
- Then he leads the Holy Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem in a huge celebration, dancing before it in nothing but a loincloth. His wife thinks he’s ridiculous, but he makes a comment about how unrestrained he is in his worship of God, which I always find compelling and challenging.
Then God makes a covenant with David (chapter 7), promising that he will always have a descendant on the throne, who will build the temple and will be the son of God (in Old Testament, ‘son of God’ meant the King). Because of all these triumphs, David would always be the model King in Israel’s memory. Every king would be judged against his standard, and for a thousand years after him, into the early days of the New Testament, God’s people are desperately hoping for a king like David.
Things couldn’t get any better for David. Which is perhaps, sadly, why it all starts to go wrong. He sees Bathsheba (chapter 11), gives into temptation, and sleeps with her, arranging for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. The power has gone to his head; he thinks he can do what he likes. But Nathan the prophet rebukes him and he’s distraught. David repents and writes a beautiful Psalm 51 – which is used in our liturgy a lot throughout Lent.
David is repentant, but now has to live with the consequences of his actions. His family is troubled, divided, and his son Absalom goes to war against him and seizes the throne. So David is on the run (again) for a while until Absalom is killed in battle (chapter 18) and David returns home, but distraught, because of the tragedy of it all.
2 Samuel ends with David consolidating his power and taking a census, ready to hand over to his heir, but not before offering worship to God (chapter 22), making peace with him and thanking him for all his blessings.
David’s life shows us that however full of mistakes our life might be, and however challenging it might be to live with their consequences, God is always ready to work with us to move things forward for the better, and is always there should we choose to turn back to him.
Sermon given by Rev. James Pettit on 28th June