Judges: God uses the weak and unexpected

We’ve been looking at the book of Judges in our studies at Campus Edge. The book of Judges is strange and violent, and it’s not always clear how these ancient stories apply to our lives today. Yet, the book of Judges is clear in telling us that God raises up judges from the weak and imperfect and uses them to save the people of God. The judges do impossible things: Samson killed hundreds with the jawbone of a lion. Barak took on 900 iron chariots and Jael killed the army commander with a tent peg, Gideon took down an entire army with 300 men blowing trumpets, smashing jars, and yelling at the top of their lungs.

Knowing our own weaknesses, we are encouraged by how God uses those imperfect people, people like Samson, Gideon, Barak and Jael. After all, if God can use these people, then God can use us despite our own weaknesses and incompetency.

The challenge, though, is that we often move from gratitude that God can use to us to focusing on all that we have done: we tend to become the hero of our own stories. While Judges proclaims loudly that God uses the unexpected people, it’s helpful to remember that most of the time that unexpected person isn’t me.

Why talk about difficult topics?

The studies in the second half of the spring semester focused on difficult topics in Christianity and the Bible. As many people avoid these conversations because of potential conflict, it’s not always obvious why we should talk about these things. Yet, studying these difficult topics can help us love God and those around us. Reading the Bible carefully, as well as listening to those around us, makes us aware that knowing and understanding the Bible isn’t easy. How could God command the Israelites to destroy all the Canaanites when they went into the promised land, an act that people today would consider genocide? Why would a caring, all-powerful God allow people to be attracted to people of the same-sex if it’s sin to act on those feelings? What about gender dysphoria? Hell?

These are hard questions that many struggle with. Not talking about them doesn’t make the struggles go away; in fact, it often makes it worse and may even cause people to question faith. Looking for answers to these difficult questions allows us to use our God-given intellect to know God better. At the same time, sometimes the answers are unclear, as witnessed by how differently Christians address these questions. The Bible also seems to suggest (in the book of Job) that as mere humans, it is not our place to understand all things. So sometimes the questions do not need to be answered so much as they need space to be voiced. When address the problem of suffering, Mike Wagenman, a campus minister at University of Western Ontario, notes that sometimes it’s not about answers so much as providing a “listening ear and open heart” in the middle of the pain and the struggles.

How historical is the resurrection?

We’ve been talking this last semester about difficult topics in the Bible, and one of the topics has been how historical certain events in the Bible are.

One event that presents a challenge to our understanding of how historical the events in the Bible are is the flood. After pointing out that “a global deluge does not fit the evidence,” we have, Andy Walsh at The Emerging Scholars Blog suggests that

“perhaps the Flood narrative is about a regional event or is meant to convey truth about the kingdom of God but not necessarily the history of Earth. I do recognize that once one heads down that road, it shifts the boundaries around what parts of the Bible to consider history. Thus some prefer to stick with a more traditional interpretation, in part to preserve the interpretation of other passages, and instead focus on finding clever solutions to the practical challenges a literal Ark presents.”

Walsh captures well the challenge of questioning the historicity of one event in the Bible: how does one then determine which events really happened and which ones didn’t? How does one not get to the point where one even questions if the resurrection really happened, even though belief in the resurrection is a fundamental aspect of the Christian faith (see 1 Corinthians 15)?

It’s thus reassuring to hear that there is a lot of corroborating evidence for Jesus’ life and death, alongside of evidence that the disciples and early church believed that Jesus rose from the dead and that this belief deeply changed how they lived (and died). Gary Habermas highlights some of this evidence in a recent article. While he acknowledges that this evidence “does not prove that the resurrection happened, it does indicate that the disciples thought that it had occurred. Further, these believers were the only ones in position to know whether or not they had seen Jesus alive after His death. That they were willing to die for these experiences is certainly significant in that it shows that they were utterly convinced of these facts. That goes a long way towards providing the best explanation of what actually happened.” Thus while one cannot prove without a doubt the historicity of certain events in the Bible, it is reassuring to be reminded that it is still reasonable to believe in Christ’s resurrection.

Worse than the nations around you

Ezekiel 5:6-7 says that Israel has been worse than the surrounding nations. Such an accusation seems strange, as it doesn’t seem merely to say that Israel was worse in not obeying the special laws that God gave them, but instead that Israel was objectively worse than those around them. How is this possible?

First, Ezekiel 16 and 23 provide a rather distressing picture of God’s accusations of what happened: Israel had rejected God and run after other gods. In no nation would it be appropriate to reject your own god.

Secondly, there is something about religious systems that allow for a certain type of abuse. The beginning of 1 Samuel speaks of how Eli’s sons, priests, were taking advantage of their religious positions to take the best meat and sleep with the women serving at the temple. In light of what we know about power (cf #metoo and #churchtoo movements) the sexual favors were most likely not consensual. All of the abuse scandals within the church show us how easy it is to turn a blind eye when we believe that good people wouldn’t do that sort of thing. So the words ‘you have been worse than those around you’ are distressingly applicable not only to the Israelites in Ezekiel’s time but also to the church today.

On top of this, many people who are not Christians have a distressing image of Christians as being judgmental and unloving, especially to LGBTQ+ folks. In other words, we are perceived as being worse than those around us.

The book of Ezekiel is trying to get the attention of the people of Israel so that they realize how bad they really are. What will it take for Christians today to recognize our own shortcomings? Furthermore, what actions can we as Christians do to help believe that we are not worse than those around us? Those are the questions that our study of Ezekiel left us with, questions that are not easy to answer.

Applying Ezekiel to today

We’ve started a study on Ezekiel. The stories in Ezekiel are fascinating and peculiar, and so it is a joy for me to talk about what is going on in the text.

However, the strange-ness of the text makes it difficult to see how the text might apply to our lives. Going out and being like Ezekiel is not exactly an option: in the first five chapters, Ezekiel eats a scroll, is told to lie on his side for more than a year, create a mini-enactment of a siege, and run around the city hacking at a chunk of hair with a sword. Doing any of these things today would more likely result in somebody wondering what is wrong with you than having people assume such actions are God’s way of speaking today.

And yet, there is something to the startling nature of Ezekiel’s actions. They make people wonder (cf. Ezek 24:19). When we think about applying Ezekiel to today, the question we’ve been asking is what sorts of actions (or even words) we can do that would make people wonder about who God is and what it might look like to follow God.

Perhaps, as in the book of Ezekiel, it will appear as if those around us do not hear us. Yet, “whoever would serve as the messenger of God must recognize that the calling is not to success but to faithfulness.” (Daniel Block, Ezekiel 1-24, 131). In light of this, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we are not radically changing the world or bringing more people to Jesus. At the same time, we can trust the Spirit is working in the world around us (including the university) and that people will indeed ask us who God is and what faith and spirituality look like.

God who cannot be seen, known, or spoken about properly

Our discussions on Lauren Winner’s Wearing God and who God is have led us to recognize that despite being the God who sees us (and who we see), we can never see God fully. It is like Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle where “the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.” In relation to God, Winner describes what that might look like: “I cannot describe God in the same way that I cannot describe a picture I am holding millimeters from my eyes – the picture is made strange and unknowable not because it is distant but because it is close.” Winner, Wearing God, 235.

She notes further that:

“God is boundless and perfect; human language is precarious and contingent and decidedly small. Perhaps, say some philosophers, the only true things you can say about God are what God is not – God is not unjust, God is not finite- because to say anything positive is to limit a limitless God. To speak about this boundless being with our pockmarked words might be insulting, or deceiving, or just plain false. Maybe we would come closer to telling the truth if we said very little, or nothing at all.” Winner, Wearing God, 228.

But since I do need to speak of God and definitely want to speak to God, I appreciate Winner’s wisdom in how to go about doing that:

“It is only through prayer that I become able to speak about God at all; it is only in speaking to God that I can say anything about I remember this morning how prayer is first and finally a confession of dependence on God, and it is that confession alone that drains my speech of the power and argument and self-assertion that speech usually implies.” Winner, Wearing God, 234

God as laboring woman

While there were many images in Winner’s book, Wearing God, that helped us grow in our understanding of God, the image of God as laboring woman (or nursing mother) wasn’t one that many people at Campus Edge could appreciate. This is probably due to the fact that most people at Campus Edge do not have children; yet, it is likely also due to the fact that birth and nursing are often hidden away from most people in Western society.

At the same time, through imagining God as a laboring woman with all of the messiness of birth, we recognized that we have often sanitized aspects of God. We sanitize how easy redemption was, including death on the cross. Should we not have the same unease with the picture of Jesus on the cross as we do with God as laboring woman? As Winner points out:

“The Crucifixion has become so sanitized in my mind, so normalized and familiar, that thinking of it does not shock me or disturb me or really produce much reaction at all, because I, along with much of the church, have turned a bloody state punishment into nothing more or less than tidy doctrine.” Winner, Wearing God, 154.

How does evolution affect the image of God as Creator?

Steve, one of Campus Edge’s board members, has spent a lot of time pondering how evolution affects our understanding of God. Two pieces of work that he has written explore how evolution can point to God’s power and awe-inspiring work.

He put together a blend of the words of David (Psalm 8 and 104) and Darwin, which is titled “Psalm 1859” (Darwin’s The Origin of Species was published that year). This was published by BioLogos as part of a two-part blog post about his trip to an evolutionary biology conference in the Galapagos Islands a few years ago. Part 2, which includes Psalm 1859 at the end, is here: http://biologos.org/blogs/archive/evolution-and-faith-in-latin-america-part-2. He borrowed directly from Psalm 8, Psalm 104, and The Origin with my point being that Darwin expressed the same wonderment at creation as did the Psalmist.

A more original piece that he wrote considers the past, present, and future of God’s creative work and our role in it: http://godandnature.asa3.org/poem-the-new-plant-and-animal-kingdoms-by-steve-roels.html.

God who provides

As much as I believe that God provides, I find it hard to live that way. Even if I believe that Jesus is the bread of life, I treat him a lot like I treat bread: as an extra to a meal, instead of being the basic sustenance of life.

I am tempted, like Sara in Genesis, to trust my own efforts in making sure things work out the way I want them to (especially if God hasn’t seemed to be providing). It’s hard not to want to take care of things myself – as our society values our ability to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

The chapter on bread and vine in Wearing God by Lauren Winner does a very good job in helping us explore how our mixed relationship with bread can help us see how we often have a mixed relationship towards God’s provision. Winner’s quote of Patrick T. McCormick captures this well:

“What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others? Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on those tables?” (Winner, Wearing God, 113)

Those of us who are able to provide for ourselves – and most graduate students are in this category, even if they are in the lower income range – have a vague sense of God’s provision, at least for our physical needs where that provision comes several steps removed from the food that is on our plates. This provision is less removed when it comes to our emotional well-being, especially amid the stresses of grad school.

Participating in the Eucharist, with its small quantities that can not physically feed us, provides an opportunity to see God’s provision anew:

“In the Holy Eucharist, we take a miniature sip of wine and small bite of wafer, and we call this God’s abundance. I believe by regularly proclaiming that God’s abundance can be found in something small, we are gradually retooling our understandings of what is truly necessary for life.” Winner, Wearing God, 102-3.

When we remember that the God who provides does not always provide as we want or expect, I believe we are more able to live fully into the belief that God does provide. More so, this provision is not just for me, but especially for those whose idea of bread as sustenance is not gourmet bread but Wonder bread that is cheap and readily available or corn tortillas or rice that almost fills the stomach when there is little else.

Whose image of God fits? Sara’s or Hagar’s?

Genesis 16 presents several images of God. One is that of Hagar, who calls God the one who sees her. The other is that of Sara, who speaks the following way about God: ‘The Lord has kept me from having children’ (v. 2) and ‘May the Lord judge between you [Abraham] and me (v.5).’ 

The contrast between the images of God held by Hagar and Sara continues in how each woman’s son is named. The name of Hagar’s son – Ishmael – means God hears, while the name of Sara’s son – Isaac – means laughter. In Genesis 16, God hears and responds to Hagar’s desires – seemingly without Hagar needing to tell God what they are. Sarah’s desires, however, are left unheard: God has kept her from having children. It is as if a cruel joke is being played on Sarah; her laughter (Gen 18:13) and that of Abraham (Gen 17:17) hopefully mark the beginning of their being able to see the good in God’s joke of giving them a son when it seemed impossible.

Hagar, who has been used and hurt by God’s people, is the one who has the understanding of God that we would want: God who sees us and whom we see; God who comes after us and finds us; God who gives us our desires before we even ask them. Yet, sometimes our experience of God does not look like that: as in Sara’s situation, sometimes God seems distant or present only through a lack of action. While the end of Sara’s story gives us hope, as does God’s reaching out to Hagar, this does not nullify the abuse and challenges Hagar faced nor the many years of difficult waiting that Sara faced (without any guarantee that God would ever hear).

Whatever image of God we have and whatever extent we feel seen and heard by God, we should be careful in how we judge another person’s image or experience of God. The story of Hagar and Sara shows a bit of the range of the experiences people can have with God and how this then complicates their relationship to and understanding of God.