By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the fifth sermon in a series called “The Story of the Bible: A Hot Mess and a Healing Journey.”
Scripture excerpts from Judges, Samuel and Kings
In the sermon today we have another great sweep of scripture to cover: Judges, 1 and 2 Sameul and 1 and 2 Kings. In the Hebrew bible these books are known as the former prophets and they are understood to be a theological commentary on the events leading up to destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC and the Babylonian exile.
These books explain why things happened the way they did. They are not a historical account. I’ve also realized in writing this sermon that I’m reflecting less on specific prophets and specific kings, and more on the scope of these prophetic books and how they reflect on the transition of Israel, from a tribal confederacy to a united and then divided monarchy.
So what do I mean when I call these “prophetic books?” They are not prophetic in the sense of predicting the future or calling for a particular kind of justice (as individual prophets are known to do). The prophetic canon (meaning group of writings) according to Walter Brueggemann “is literature that articulates Israel’s faith and practice in the rough and tumble of historical reality… What is prophetic is the capacity to reconstruct all of lived reality—including the history of Israel and the power relations of the known world of the ancient Near East—according to the equally palpable reality of the rule of YHWH.”
When reading these books there are so many questions we can ask, and the ones I’ll wrestling with in this sermon are, “What are the writers communicating about this divine being, YHWH, who has delivered the people from Egypt? What are the writers communicating about this group of people who have covenanted with YHWH?
So in this sweep of scripture we have story after story of people who are struggling to stay true to the covenant they have made with YHWH. We know from last week’s story that they are struggling in their coexistence with the surrounding peoples who are not covenanted with YHWH.
One illuminating article I read in preparation for the sermon is called, “A Latin American Perspective: The Option for the Poor in the Old Testament” by a Nicaraguan and a Brazilian theologian, Pixley and Boff. They spend time unpacking the words that are repeated many times in the text, “I am YHWH your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no gods except me.”
This divine being called YHWH is someone who liberates slaves and sides with the oppressed. YHWH is god of the slaves. And a big problem once the people are settled in the land is that they are worshipping other gods. Pixley and Boff put it in these words, “any god who has not brought you out of the house of slavery cannot be your God.”
Their restating the terms in this way, clarified for me that the story is not just saying “be faithful to YHWH because YHWH is better than the other gods.” Like a parent saying, “just do it because I said so.” It’s saying, “this specific god specially liberated you…set you free… heard your cries… and can you say that about these other gods?! They did not liberate you from slavery.”
In these stories YHWH is characterized as being angry about the people doing what is evil in YHWH’s sight… In the sweep of text for this morning that phrase that the people did was evil in the sight of the Lord comes up at least 38 times. But in addition to being angry, YHWH is also patient and tries different ways to help the people be faithful.
This includes the judges that rose up to lead and protect the people.
One of the powerful judges was a woman named Deborah, known for her wisdom and named as the mother of Israel in an epic poem in Judges 5. Brueggemann writes that “the poem functions as a great testimony to the way in which Israel’s life is guaranteed and protected by YHWH.”
However the book of Judges ends in a hot mess, Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did was right in their own eyes.” It got so messy and violent and chaotic that the people were serious they needed a king to protect them.
Biblical scholars note that within the text there is a both pro-king case being made, as well as one opposed to Israel having a king. The pro-king case was probably written closer to the event narrated, when it may have seemed there was no other way to create order in society and be protected from adversaries as the tribes were becoming more urban and the iron age was dawning. As far as the anti-king perspective, it is thought to have been a later source, following the experience of the kings and seeing human kingship as an act of defiance to the kingship of YHWH.
Brueggemann reflects, “It is credible that some social interests stood to benefit greatly from centralized authority that would govern economic and political as well as military life. By contrast, some segments of the community would perhaps see the same move toward monarchy as a return to the concentration of power among urban elites, the very ones who have dominated the Canaanite city-states that early Israel has so vigorously opposed.”
He continues, “the anti-monarchial source, likely reflective of peasant consciousness in a segmented society that kept communal decision-making quite local, viewed the newly affirmed king as a “taker” who would confiscate the wealth and legacy of the peasant community.”
It also makes sense to me that this god of the slaves would have no interest in kings, on principle. This is a god who rescued the people from an oppressive king, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt.
With this in mind, let’s here the words from Samuel 8 when he responds to the people’s pleading for a king.
So they get their kings and the story unfolds with Saul, who doesn’t last very long, and then David, who is described as a man after God’s own heart, but fails in some very significant ways, and then Solomon who really takes the cake as a self-aggrandizing, resource-extracting, unfaithful to YHWH kind of guy.
After Solomon the kingdom splits into two, the kingdom of Judah and the kingdom of Israel and it is very hard to find more than a handful of “good” kings in the centuries leading up to the Assyrian destruction of Israel and later the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (in Judah) and the exile.
During this time there are prophets who challenge the kings and all the people to faithfulness. They are concerned about the worship of other gods, about empty religious practices, about accumulation of wealth which was born of exploitation… they were a reminder of the covenant that Israel had made with YHWH. They were calling the community to remember those commitments, to remember that they were a people liberated from slavery by the god of the oppressed.
And as the stories of the kings and prophets draw to a close (in this telling of the Former Prophets), and the exile begins, the text makes clear that the land of promise was not given to the people unconditionally. Rather it was a land grant that required their fidelity to YHWH. It was something they could lose and they did.
2 Kings 8:8-12
Curiously, not everyone was taking into exile. Could it be that the writers were communicating that the poor of the land were not punished in the same way as the rich and powerful? It would make sense that this god of the oppressed would differentiate between the people in this way. Whether in exile or not God’s steadfast love is with them.
Brueggemann writes, “the prophetic canon that testifies to YHWH’s governance of past, present, and future is an offer of a counter world, counter to denial and despair, counter-rooted in YHWH’s steadfast purpose for a new Jerusalem, new Torah, new covenant, new temple… all things new.”
May we continue to be disturbed by this god of the slaves, who demands faithfulness in a world that profanes the sacred and abuses the poor and extracts all that it can from the earth. When the prophet Jesus said “blessed are the poor” he was not being sentimental but rather speaking to the reordering of society according to the god of the slaves. In the kingdom of God, as he called it, the least are the greatest and the oppressed are released from bondage. Power does not come in the form of wealth, but in a divestment from systems of exploitation and a dependence on God, recognizing our need and our vulnerability.
So may we continue to be disturbed by this god of the slaves.