Archive | November, 2019

How to recover when you’ve squandered your potential – Characters: Samson, Part 5

9 Nov
Photo by Fernando Dearfer on Unsplash

Samson is an illustration of a man with unbelievable potential for good, yet who allows himself to be degraded by his lusts and revenge.  There is such a lack of desire in his life to follow God, to keep his Nazarite vow, which could have and should have guided him to lead Israel back to God.  Instead Samson’s story is not that of a godly leader, but of a flawed individual who has some amazing individual victories, and a lot more individual failures.

Like Samson, any of us can squander our potential.  We can make choices that ruin what God wants to do in us and through us.  In this third installment of our Characters series, we learned that God wanted Samson to be a godly leader. Samson had been set aside, given the gift of the Spirit of God who empowered him with legendary strength, but Samson used this gift for selfish passions.  This reminds us that we are not robots.  God gives us good gifts, but we have the choice to use those gifts for good or bad.  Consider how different Samson’s story could have been if he had used his gifts for good!

When we think about gifts, we must remember that we are made in God’s image, loved by God, and he is everything we need in life.  We can live out of the deep satisfaction that only God can give us, thus transforming our hearts to follow the ways of Jesus.  Samson, however, was constantly enthralled by anger, revenge and lust, rather than being enthralled by God. He didn’t give credence or credit to God for the gifts he’d been given, and he did not choose to use them for God’s glory.

Yet in the midst of squandering his potential, God is still a redeeming God. It was messy and far from perfect, but God used Samson to free Israel from the Philistines.  It wouldn’t last, though.  If you continue reading Judges, you’ll see how bad it gets.  Samson’s leadership did nothing to bring the people closer to God.  Sure, they had temporary relief from the Philistines for 20 years.  But the deeper issue of who they were went unchanged. The story of Israel as told in Judges goes from bad to worse after Samson.

In what ways has God gifted you? We are all made in His image. We all, whether following God’s ways or not, have attributes of God within us.  How can we use our gifts for Him?  You have time, gifts, talents. Are you using them in ways that benefit the Kingdom of God? Are you intentional in your thoughts and actions?  It will likely take sacrifice for that to happen, for you to grow in your knowledge and understanding of what a kingdom mindset looks like. Then work to follow that. It might go against the cultural flow and assumptions of how to live life. It might go against your family’s wishes for you.  But you will have the peace and joy of knowing that you will be in line with God’s ideas.  

So we should be people who practice confession, repentance, if we are not line with the lifestyle of God’s Kingdom.  We should seek to be humble and teachable, even when you are on the heights. 

Think of the example of President Jimmy Carter who has taught Sunday school for decades, and who has spent years serving with Habitat for Humanity, even now into his 90s. 

Think of the example of Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl winning coach, and who has committed to All Pro Dads and other ministry.

Even on the heights it is possible to be humble. Even when we have gifts that give us laud and attention, we can use them for God’s glory. What gifts has God given you? How will you use them for his Kingdom?

When God leaves you (and what to do about it) – Characters: Samson, Part 4

7 Nov
Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

How close do you feel to God? Do you know if he is a part of your life? Is it possible that he has left you? Today we read that God leaves Samson. Yes, you read that right. God leaves Samson. Is that wrong of God? Is God allowed to do that, based on the character of God himself? What is going on?

In the previous post, we learned about the devastating blow Samson dealt to the Philistines, the people who had occupied and ruled Israel for 40 years. The conclusion of that part of Samson’s story, as told in Judges 15, was that Samson led Israel for 20 years. In Judges 16, the writer of Judges fast-forwards to the end of those 20 years.

We read that Samson goes to Gaza, which is another Philistine area.  As we have seen in this series of posts on Samson’s story, it seems he loves to spend time around the enemy, doesn’t he? In Gaza he spends the night with a prostitute.  In so doing, Samson again shows no concern for God’s law.  I say, “again,” because he has been playing fast and loose with God’s law numerous times in the account.

The Philistines hear that Samson is in their town.  They surround the house where he is staying, and they wait, planning to kill him when he leaves the next morning. But Samson awakes in the middle of the night and slips away, though not before ripping their town gate from its foundation and carrying it away to the top of a hill.  I guess he just loved to mess with the Philistines. 

Sometime later, the writer of Judges next tells us, Samson falls in love with a woman named Delilah.

The Philistines come to her secretly, hoping to entice her to conspire against Samson.  Five Philistine rulers each offer her a huge amount of money to learn the source of Samson’s strength and tell them. For 20 years they have been not been able to unseat him, and they are at their wits end.  Delilah agrees to the scheme, cluing us in to the kind of woman she was: a massive bribe was enough for her to betray Samson.

She asks Samson for the source of his strength.  He lies to her, and she, believing him, tells her co-conspirators, and ties Samson up one night, thinking she is trapping him in his sleep.  When the Philistines come to grab him, he easily breaks the bindings and is free, and the Philistines scatter.  This goes on multiple times. 

It would be obvious to Samson that Delilah is betraying him. Why does he stay with her? Why did Samson not at least ask Delilah, “Why are you doing this?”  Instead, he just goes along with her schemes, lying to her each time.  Why?  Maybe he just arrogantly thinks he can toy with her and nothing will ever happen to him.  He has been undefeated for two decades.  Perhaps it was like a game for him.

After multiple rounds of this bizarre game, Delilah is frustrated. She has dollar signs in her eyes, and Samson is blocking her ability to collect on the bribe! Finally, though, in verse 15 she plays on his emotions.  She tells him that in a loving relationship, they should be totally open.  A good argument, isn’t it?  On one level, she is right. In a healthy, trusting relationship, there should be no secrets. She nags him day after day, until the writer tells us Samson was tired to death, and he divulges the source of his strength, his hair that had never been cut since birth. (That would be some world record length hair, I would guess, right?)

Think about this with me a minute. What should Samson have done?  Well, he shouldn’t have told her the source of his strength.  But shouldn’t he be honest with her?  Yes, except that the reality is that he shouldn’t have been in with her in the first place.  The text never says they were married, so Samson was in another inappropriate sinful relationship.  Yet we can go back further, he shouldn’t have been in any of those bad relationships, and he shouldn’t have been so arrogant and prideful.  We could go back further, he should have followed the Lord’s way all his life.  He had allowed his life to go so far beyond what God desired.  The reality is that there is something deeply wrong inside Samson.

Finally he gives up the truth to Delilah.  Was he being flippant or arrogant, thinking he had defeated the Philistines for years and so there was no way he would lose?  Was his arrogance deceiving him about his ability to keep winning?  Could be. 

I suspect he was self-deceived by his arrogance.  The source of his strength was not truly his hair, but God.  When he disobeys God, he is showing his disrespect and arrogance, and ultimately his self-deception about the source of strength.

Delilah has a man come shave off the seven braids of Samson’s hair one night while he was asleep, and in verses 19-20 we read that his strength left him, but more importantly God left him, and Samson had no idea, blinded by his arrogance.  From birth God had set Samson up to be a great leader of his people, and now things have degraded to the point where God leaves Samson, and Samson is not aware of it. What a sadness.

The next day, his strength gone, God done with him, the Philistines capture Samson, gouge out his eyes, and imprison him, where the Philistines put him to work turning a stone wheel for grinding grain.

The story concludes at a Philistine banquet to their god Dagon.  It’s packed in the temple, with 3000+ people there.  They bring Samson out to entertain and he performs for them.  But standing by the load-bearing pillars of the temple, he offers a prayer to God, pushes over the pillars and kills all the Philistines in the banquet, and killing himself.

A quick read can leave us mistaken thinking that Samson has finally returned to the Lord and is sacrificing his life on behalf of his people. But look closely at Samson’s prayer. Yes, he is reaching out to God, and that is good. What he says, though, is that he wants revenge on the Philistines for gouging out his eyes. Once again, Samson war is lonely, bitter and vengeful. Never in his entire life do we read that Samson is concerned about following God’s ways, or that Samson wants to lead Israel back to faithfulness to God. Never do we read that his war with the Philistines is anything but one man with a superpower, drenched in anger and revenge, controlled by his passions. In the end, God left Samson.

The story of Samson is serious caution for all of us. Is God with you? Would you know if he left you? What should you do to find out? Examine Samson’s life, first of all: his lust, anger, revenge, deceit, foolhardiness. Does that describe you at all? If you’re like Samson, the problem is that you wouldn’t even know it. He had very little self-awareness. So who in your life can tell you the truth about yourself? Maybe you need to see a professional counselor, asking them to be honest with you.

Second, nurture a warm heart to God through spending time with him. Samson seems not to have done much to build his relationship with God. Learn to pray, listen to God, meditate on his word, fellowship with other Christians in a church family. Serve him.

These are all ways to avoid the self-deception of Samson, and the destruction that can follow in the wake of the self-deceived.

Anger, Revenge and War – Characters: Samson, Part 3

6 Nov
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

Anger can lead to awful revenge. Revenge can escalate to retribution. Warring parties can strike at each other, over and over. We see this in conflicts between nations and ethnicities. Political parties unwilling to see one another in any way except negatively. Husbands and wives that fall apart in nasty divorces. Friendships taking sides. Churches split.

In this series of posts, we are learning the story of one of ancient Israel’s most famous characters, Samson, and as we’ll see, it is a story of anger and revenge. After a birth and childhood (Judges 13) that was wonderfully ordained by God, which we learned about in Part 1, Samson makes some choices that are decidedly ungodly (Judges 14), as we saw in Part 2. The writer of Judges has just told us that Samson lost a bet with Philistines who attended his wedding feast. We pick up the story at the beginning of Judges 15.

Imagine you are Samson’s new wife’s father. You hear that her Israelite husband has just killed 30 of your Philistine people in order to pay up a ridiculous bet.  Think about that.  One man kills 30 men.  I wonder how that happened. One man is no match against 30 men.  The 30 will always win.  An extremely talented soldier might be able to handle 2-3 in a fistfight.  But 30?  Or maybe Samson didn’t face all 30 at the same time. Maybe like Batman he took them out covertly one by one? We don’t know.

Either way, when the Spirit of Lord came upon him, Samson is no longer an ordinary man.  This is brutal stuff we’re talking about here.  It is war.  And war is ugly and awful.  If you are the father of that Philistine girl, you would not want her marrying the man who just killed 30 of your people.  That’s like allowing your daughter to marry a mass-murderer.  Or allowing your daughter to marry an enemy super soldier. Nope. Not going to happen.  So Samson’s father-in-law gives his daughter to one of the Philistine guys at the wedding.

Bold move, right?

That means Samson’s marriage is over 7 days after it began, because he committed a mass atrocity.  Again, this leaves us scratching ours head about Samson.  He clearly has deep inner issues. And we’re only just getting started in his story.

Like I said, this was the beginning of war.  In Judges chapter 15 as the story continues, things go from bad to worse.  Samson goes to find his wife, as he would.  He doesn’t know that his father-in-law gave her away to another man, and Samson believes he is married. At the house, his father-in-law tells Samson that he gave Samson’s wife away, but he says Samson can have her younger sister, because apparently she is more beautiful anyway. 

What?  That’s a very odd offer.  He won’t give away one daughter, but he will give away the other?  Was he afraid of Samson?  It’s crazy.  This gives us an indication, perhaps, of what Philistine society was like. Still, it seems like an awful offer, especially from the viewpoint of the younger daughter!

Considering what we know of Samson thus far, how do you think Samson is going to respond to the news that his Philistine father-in-law gave away Samson’s wife?  Think Samson will be calm, level-headed, answering, “Yeah, I didn’t want her anyway…she betrayed me…Ok, I’ll take the sister.  Thanks.”?  Nope.  Not even close.

Samson is angry!  Get this.  He catches 300 foxes or jackals.  Not one or two.  300.  300?  That alone raises so many questions.  How?  Just how?  Where do you get that many?  How long did it take?  Where did he keep them once he caught them?  I can hardly imagine the logistics of this. 

Then he makes a 150 teams of two foxes, tying them together by their tails, attaching torches to their tails, and he sets them loose in the Philistines’ grain fields, vineyards and olive groves.  This is scorched earth warfare in the ancient world.  From a military perspective, I have to admit that it is very strategic.  The resulting fires would have caused massive economic devastation to the enemy.  If you can’t feed an army, that army can’t fight.

The Philistines find out that it was Samson who burned their fields, and guess what they do?  Run away defeated?  Nope.  They murder his wife and her father, which are their own people!  Who knows?  Maybe they blamed the father-in-law for handling things poorly. 

Will that calm things down?  Maybe it would calm some people or make them scared.  You often hear about that kind of thing in movies, right?  People threaten to kill your family to scare you, quiet you, get you to run or stay away.  But this is Samson we’re talking about.  Look at Judges 15:7, where we read that he is now even angrier than before.  He says he will not stop until he gets revenge on them, and that is exactly what he does slaughtering many of them.  The war is escalating.

The Philistines respond by mustering an army to get Samson.  They ride out to Judah, one of the Israelite tribal areas, where Samson was staying in a cave.  The men of Judah are really concerned about this troop movement of the Philistines.  Remember that the Philistines have been ruling them for 40 years.  This was a menacing move on the part of the Philistines, and the men of Judah could easily be thinking that the Philistines had come to make trouble, especially when you consider the devastation Samson has just done to them.  But the Philistines say, “No, we’re just here for Samson.”  The men of Judah, then, gather together a force of 3000 men to capture Samson.  That’s a huge number of men.  Apparently they knew that Samson was a force to be reckoned with! 

They find him and agree with Samson not to kill him, but just to tie him up and hand him over to the Philistines.  They do just that, and when they deliver him to the Philistines, the Philistines rush toward Samson with a war cry.  They are filled with revenge.  What happens next is unparalleled. 

The Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson again.  He breaks free of his bindings, picks up a jawbone of a donkey, and uses it as a weapon, again breaking his Nazarite vow not to touch dead carcasses.  Samson doesn’t care, and he uses the jawbone to strike down 1000 Philistines!

I wonder what that looked like.  He must have been moving so fast and so forcefully, empowered by God, that he was a blur of supernatural power, mowing people down.  No arrows, no slingshots, no swords, no armor, nothing could stop him.  It didn’t matter if they encircled him with a 100 men.  Nothing they could have tried would have worked.  My guess is that they tried many tactics, but nothing was stopping Samson.  After losing 1000 men, my guess is the Philistines gave up and retreated.

Throughout the story of Samson, the body count numbers have been increasing, haven’t they?  We are way, way beyond the killing of a lion.  This is now all out war, and Samson, all by himself defeats an army of the Philistines.  It is an astonishing feat of individual victory.  For the first time in 40 years, Israel is free from Philistine rule.    

But look at verse 18.  Imagine the physical toll it took on Samson to be a soldier fighting all by himself.  Yes, the Spirit empowered him.  For sure.  There is no other explanation.  But we also learn he is thirsty.  That is an understatement!  He is thankful for the victory God gave him, but he is also impatient and gruff with the Lord.  God opens the place making water pour forth, and Samson can drink.  Still, Samson clearly shows his immaturity and disrespect for God.

As the chapter concludes, we learn that Samson leads Israel for 20 years. But as we did in Part 2 of this series, we have to ask what we are learning about Samson. Though he has amazing victories over the enemies of Israel, empowered by God, the victories are completely individual. Samson isn’t leading the nation back to God. He is just getting revenge, flowing from his anger. Israel is free, but are they moving in God’s direction?

So far Samson’s story has been one of moving away from God, fueled by a vicious anger and revenge. Samson’s story continues in the next post. Perhaps Israel’s newfound freedom will see Samson lead them to God. What about you? Is there any anger and revenge in your life? What would it look like for you to move in God’s direction?

How the godly fall – Characters: Samson, Part 2

5 Nov
Photo by Peter Forster on Unsplash

A fall from grace. Maybe you’ve experienced it. Or maybe another’s fall has affected you. There have been a number of high profile such failures, and countless more lower profile examples that don’t get reported in the news. No matter the situation, they impact people deeply, leaving us wonder, “How did that happen?” Parents split up. A pastor commits an atrocity. A friend betrays you. Sometimes we fail ourselves, when we don’t live up to our own expectations. How does this happen? And where is God in this? As we continue the story of our third character, Samson, in our current series, we find the answers are sometimes far from easy.

In the first post in this series on Samson, everything surrounding his birth and early years is amazing.  God has intervened, even before Samson is born, setting him up to be a powerful, godly leader. Perhaps most significantly, we learned that the Spirit of the Lord came upon Samson, a very rare occurrence for ancient Israelites, and a clear indication that God had high hopes for Samson.

Then we come to Judges 14.  Look at verses 1-2.

Huh?  Samson goes to get a wife from the Philistines? That’s the enemy, remember.  Worse, Samson isn’t just making a bad decision in fraternizing with the enemy, he is breaking God’s law.  Both Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:3 forbid the Israelites from marrying outside of their own people.  What is going on here?  Has something happened in Samson’s life between chapters 13 and 14?  After setting us up for Samson to be a godly deliverer, the writer now has us scratching our heads.  Unless, Samson isn’t going to be the hero we thought. 

As we continue reading in chapter 14, Samson’s parents are disappointed, and they push back, trying to get him to obey God’s law. Samson is having nothing of it, basically demanding that they get the Philistine woman for him to marry. 

Then the writer curiously tells us in verse 4 that, “this was from the Lord.”  Again, we readers could really be confused by this.  Is God condoning sin?  Or is there another way to look at this?  At this point in the story, there are no answers to these questions.  As Samson’s story unfolds, however, the writer will lead us to some answers.  For now, suffice it to say that even though Samson is a flawed character, God is still at work. Let’s continue the story, and what we discover is that the Spirit of Lord comes upon him twice in this chapter, showing God’s presence in his life.

The first occurrence is in verse 6, when the Spirit of Lord comes on Samson to protect him, as Samson kills a lion that attacked him.  That alone is astounding.  He kills a lion.  With his bare hands.  It is okay to think, “That’s not normal.”  Lions kill people.  Not the other way around.  Something is going on with Samson.  We know what is going on: the Spirit of the Lord is on him.  Essentially Samson has a superpower. 

Days or weeks later he passes by the dead lion, and he notices that it has honey in its carcass. Samson not only eats it, but he also gives some to his parents to eat.  This might seem like a random detail, but it is important at this stage in the story.  In the first post, we learned that God wanted Samson to have what was called a Nazarite vow for life. There were three main rules a Nazarite would follow, as they were specially dedicated to God: no alcohol, no touching dead things, and no cutting their hair. Also God’s law forbade any Israelite from touching a dead carcass, let alone eating from it.  So Samson not only broke his vow to God, he also brings his parents, though unwittingly on their part, into breaking a law.  What does this tell us?  Just as he was flippant with God’s law by marrying a foreign woman, here again he shows disregard for God.  Take a pause with me and let’s consider what we are learning about Samson thus far. We have a guy with super strength, but he seems to disregard the source of that power, God’s Spirit, as he is repeatedly trampling on God’s law.  This is not a good pattern; it’s called biting that hand that feeds you. 

Then we come to the wedding feast, which was a typical seven-day-long drinking party.  Again we need to remember his Nazarite vow: no alcohol.  The text doesn’t tell us that he drank, but at a seven-day long party that would normally feature alcohol, and knowing Samson’s proclivity for disregarding his vow, it seems highly likely to me that he drank. 

I think this is especially likely when we consider the ridiculous drama he gets into with his new bride and her people.  30 Philistine men were given to Samson as companions, and some scholars speculate that these men were there to protect the proceedings from Samson.  Perhaps they were a kind of security detail, making sure Samson stays in line. 

So Samson proposes a riddle to them.  If they could solve his riddle by the end of the feast, he would give the men 30 sets of clothing and 30 linen garments or capes, but if they can’t figure it out, they would have to give Samson that much clothing.  Here’s the riddle:

Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet.

Judges 14:14

Do you know what Samson is talking about? Samson clearly thought no one would figure it out.  And it seemed for a while like he was right.  Actually, he was right. There was no way anyone was figuring it out, because it was about the honey in lion that he had previously killed.  It’s cool that the translators made his riddle rhyme in English, but is it even a riddle?  It is more like an impossible guess. How could the Philistine men ever know what he is talking about?  They can’t know and they are frustrated about that, so these men start going behind Samson’s back, trying to get his new bride to help them.  She is one of them, a Philistine.  Will she be loyal to them or to her new husband who is an Israelite, enemy of the Philistines? 

His new bride cries the whole seven days of the wedding feast because Samson won’t tell her the answer to a riddle. Finally, after she begs him repeatedly, he divulges the meaning of the riddle. With little time left before the feast is over, she gives the answer to her people.  They in turn tell Samson the answer, and he is angry, because now he owes them 30 sets of clothing. 

At this moment, Samson’s story shifts into darkness.  It is also at this moment we learn of the second time the Spirit of the Lord comes on Samson in this chapter, but this time it is not for protection like it was with the lion.  This time he travels to a Philistine city, Ashkelon, where he kills 30 Philistine men and strips them of their clothes to pay up.

Samson’s war with the Philistines has begun. While it might seem like God has given Samson a victory over Israel’s enemies, we’ve also watched Samson begin a fall from grace. Yes, he struck a blow to the enemy who had been ruling over Israel for 40 years. Yes, God empowered him. But Samson actions were dark, betraying his vow, acting in anger and disregard for God. These are warning signs.

Perhaps you’ve seen that pattern in yourself or in others around you. The slow fade into darkness. The lack of concern for what might seem like small things, little lies, selfish purchases, and the like. These actions often reveal a direction of life, and that a larger fall could be coming.

As God is gracious with Samson, not abandoning him even when he disregard’s God’s law, God is gracious with us. Merciful. Patient. Return to him before the fall. Confess and repent. Will Samson? Will you?

No matter how bad it is, there is hope – Characters: Samson, Part 1

4 Nov
Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

What gifts has God given you?  Sometimes we call them spiritual gifts.  Or it could be our personal abilities.  Our aptitudes. Things we are good at.  Could be working with our hands.  Thinking.  Art.  Communication.  Leading.  There are many such gifts.   Have you ever wondered if you’re using those gifts the way God wants?

Or maybe you are concerned you’re not using those gifts how God wants.  Maybe you’re wondering if you’ve messed up in life and God has passed you over.  In our quiet moments we can wrestle with those kinds of thoughts, can’t we?  I know I do.  When Michelle and I came home from one year as missionaries in Jamaica, I wondered if we had just ruined something.  I knew intellectually or theologically that God isn’t like that, but the thoughts were there for sure.  The dark thoughts.  The fears that we had squandered something.  Maybe you’ve wrestled with those thoughts too.  In this week’s series of posts, I believe you’ll find some hope.

A few weeks ago we started a series titled Characters. It is about people in ancient Israel that are generally considered to be heroes, but when we read their stories closely we find them to be broken or flawed people who really struggled.  And yet God still uses them.  There is hope for us in that. 

So far we have met Jacob, and his son, Joseph, two of the patriarchs of the nation of Israel.  Their family moved from Canaan (which is modern-day Israel) to Egypt. Eventually tboth died, but their family grew into the nation of Israel, still living within Egypt.

The new King of Egypt, the Pharaoh, feared their growth and enslaved the Israelites, resulting in a slavery that lasted 400+ years.  But God raised up a deliverer, Moses, who led the nation in an exodus from Egypt, headed back to their ancestor’s original home in Canaan, which they called the Promised Land.  When Moses died, Joshua became the leader of the nation.  Under Joshua’s leadership, the nation fought the conquest of Canaan and eventually settled in the Promised Land.  Moses and Joshua were strong leaders who kept the nation faithful to God, but after Joshua passed away, the nation struggled. 

We pick up the story in Judges 2.  In this chapter the writer describes a cycle of sin the nation of Israel went through.  Verses 16-19 give us a summary of the whole book of Judges: sin, punishment, God’s redemption through a leader/judge, and freedom…until the people start sinning again. The cycle would happen all over.  Imagine how God must have felt watching his people turn their backs on him.  Yet he is a faithful God, raising up judges to rescue them. Again, do you see the hope for the flawed?

This week, we’re going to meet one of those judges: Samson.  Turn to Judges chapter 13.  By chapter 13, there have been numerous judges, as Israel has gone through many of these cycles of sin, punishment, judge, and salvation.  We don’t know how many years have gone by since the days of Joshua, but it could be hundreds of years.  What has happened in those years is a gradual spiritual decline in the nation.  A nation that has moved farther and farther from God.  Sound familiar to your nation? 

In chapter 13 we are at the beginning of another cycle of sin.  Verse 1 tells us that the people did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and he delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years!  Who are the Philistines?  They are a pagan people, living mostly along the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the arch-enemies of the nation of Israel. 

Into this national situation, Judges 13 tells the fascinating story of the birth of the next judge, Samson.  The basic details are in verses 1-5.

Already in these opening verses, we see God entering the story to be the faithful, redeeming God that he is.  How do we see this?

First, he is going to give a childless couple a baby.  That happens a lot in the Bible, right?  So often, in fact, that should tell us something about the kind of God he is. He brings hope!

Second, if you read the whole chapter you’ll find that Samson’s parents are decent people.  His dad Manoah seems a bit comical, bumbling.  His mom seems a lot more stable and possibly even more faithful than his dad.  But these aren’t paragons of godliness.  God is gracious.

Third, an angel shows up.  When angels show up, we should take notice.  How many times did angels show up to announce the birth of the previous judges?  I’ll let you research that on your own.

Fourth, there are special vows that God declares must happen in this pregnancy and baby.  Samson’s mom needs to take uncommon measures during her pregnancy: no alcohol, no unclean food.  And what’s more, her son will be a Nazarite for life.   

“Nazarite” is from the Hebrew word that means “separated” or “dedicated,” as the angel indicates about the child in verse 4.  It was a vow that people could choose to take.  But God wanted this child to be born as a Nazarite, and to live that way his whole life. As a result there are some specific rules the child will live by: no alcohol, no touching dead bodies, and his hair is never to be cut. 

Fifth, look at verses 24-25. The chapter concludes with the birth of the child, whom they name Samson, and we learn that the Lord blessed him and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir in him.  That phrase alone is a very rare description for people in the Old Testament.  The Spirit of the Lord only came upon a few people.  Samson was one of them. 

The account of Samson’s birth sets the stage for Samson to grow up to be a mighty man of God.  Think about what we have seen.  His parents were decent people, perhaps especially his mom.  God miraculously gives Samson to them.  Samson is set apart from birth in this special role called a Nazarite.  And the Spirit of God is on him.  Add that all up, and you have all the raw material for Samson to be a dynamic man of God.

In fact, it almost gives us the idea that he could be the one to bring the nation back to the place where Moses and Joshua had taken it.  We even get a hint of that from the angel’s words that Samson would begin to deliver the nation from the hands of the Philistines. 

Everything surrounding Samson’s birth and early years is amazing.  This is a reminder that God is a bringer of hope. If it seems like your life is too far gone, too messed up, know that when it comes to God, there is always hope.

How one family’s drama was healed – Characters: Joseph, Part 5

1 Nov

In this Characters installment, we have been following the family drama in the life of Joseph, one of the patriarchs of ancient Israel. His is a story of extremes. Joseph lost his mother in childhood, but was his father’s favorite. His father loved him, but his brothers hated him. He had dreams from God about how he would rule over his brothers, but they sold him into slavery. Purchased as a slave by an Egyptian official, Potiphar, God was with Joseph, and he rose in favor with Potiphar, but was treated horribly by Potiphar’s wife. So Potiphar has Joseph jailed, but there rises in favor with the warden. When he interprets the king’s dream, through God’s empowerment, the king releases Joseph from prison and makes him second in command of all Egypt. Finally, it seems Joseph’s fortunes are settling into a good extreme. Then his brothers show up in Egypt, but now they don’t know Joseph is the governor. Shocked, emotional, Joseph throws them in prison, but eventually shows them a courageous act of mercy, giving them the grain they had come to purchase because the land was in a severe famine.

What happens next?

We learn in Genesis 43 that back in Canaan, Joseph’s brothers and father and family have eaten all the grain Joseph sent back with them. The famine has not let up, and they need more food. That means another trip to Egypt. But Joseph has thrown his family into turmoil because he said that if they come back to Egypt they must bring their youngest brother who had remained behind on their first trip.  You know who that other brother was?  His full brother Benjamin.  You can imagine that Joseph would really want to see Benjamin, the only brother with whom he shared both mother and father.  Their father, Jacob, however, loves Benjamin deeply, as he was Jacob’s only remaining connection to their mother, his wife Rachel whom he loved more than his other wives.  Jacob, for this reason, had not allowed Benjamin to go on the first trip to Egypt to get food.  Now Joseph has forced his hand, so Jacob concedes and sends Benjamin.  That brings us to Genesis 43:15. 

There we learn that once his brothers arrive in Egypt Joseph now invites them to his house. When Joseph sees his brother Benjamin, once again he is overwhelmed with emotion and has to leave the room.  When he finally composes himself, they have dinner together, but remember that his brothers still have no idea who Joseph is. They think he is just an eccentric governor of Egypt, who also holds their fate in his hands, because he is the one who can approve their purchase of more food.  Still toying with them, as he did on their first trip, Joseph seats them in order of age, which they think is an astounding coincidence.  He also gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others!  I bet Joseph had a hard time keeping from laughing as he watched them talking about this.

Joseph’s trickery continues through all of chapter 44, where he contrives to make it seem like they were trying to steal from him, and they are more distraught than ever.  Some scholars believe that in playing all these games with them, Joseph is shepherding his brothers to repentance.  Maybe.  It’s hard to know.  He plays quite an extensive ruse on them.  The games reach a high point at the end of chapter 44 when Joseph, having set them up as thieves, declares that their punishment is that Benjamin must stay behind, while the rest return to Canaan.  His brother Judah makes an impassioned plea for himself to stay behind in prison rather than Benjamin.  Perhaps that humility and sacrifice in Judah was the turning point for Joseph.

Turn to Genesis 45:1-8, and read Joseph’s amazing response.

Joseph can’t handle the ruse anymore.  He explodes in emotion and reveals himself as Joseph, the brother they sold into slavery 20 years before.  His brothers are terrified and shocked.

But as Joseph keeps talking, he describes the events of the last 20 years in a surprising way. He could be bitter, angry, and vengeful. Instead he says that God sent him into Egypt ahead of them, to save their family.  Joseph looks at all the years of pain and suffering and sees God’s faithfulness. 

Even in deep family drama, there is hope and redemption and forgiveness possible.  Even through the worst circumstances, even through our bad choices, God can and does use us when we make ourselves available to be used, like Joseph, to see our pain through God’s eyes.

Genesis 45 concludes in a beautiful fashion.  Look at verses 12-15.  The brothers are all reconciled, and what’s more, Joseph and the King Pharaoh invite Joseph’s whole extended family to move to Egypt and survive the famine.  And that is what happens.  Their father Jacob, now called Israel, moves his whole family to Egypt. 

Fast forward with me to Genesis 50:15.  The years have gone by and Joseph’s father Jacob has recently passed away. Joseph and his brothers keep Jacob’s wishes that they return his body to Canaan.  After doing so, they return to their homes in Egypt.  With Jacob dead, though, Joseph’s brothers fear that Joseph will now finally take revenge on them for what they had done to him all those years before.  Look at Joseph’s response in verse 20.

Amazing.  He continues to see God at work.  All these years later, the wounds of the past are healed.  Sometimes it takes time, repeated affirmation, especially when the wounds are deep.  Forgiving 70×7 as Jesus taught in Matthew 18 can mean that we have to forgive an offense multiple times because the hurt just keeps coming back.

There were many ups and downs in Joseph’s life.  Trials, temptations, jail-time. But when he was close to God, though the circumstances didn’t necessarily change, he clearly saw God at work. 

God is at work for redemption of what is broken.  Even when we are wounded and feeling lots of deep emotion about pain that people have caused us, we can pursue healing and reconciliation. That’s what God specializes in.  Maybe it seems like God isn’t there.  It can often feel that way.  Keep pursuing him. 

What is broken in your life that you need to take a step toward healing?