Who Speaks For God

1 Samuel 8:1-22

 

Samuel is watching his world fall apart. Samuel is a prophet and a judge of Israel. As a judge he was the arbitrator of the Hebrew people’s relationship with God.  Both as a prophet and a judge he spoke for God. But now the people do not want a judge advising them. They want a king – like everyone else around them.

When the Hebrew people invaded Canaan they encountered the native tribes in Canaan such as the Philistines, Perizzites, and Jebusites. When Moses died (God did not allow him into Canaan), Joshua took over the command of the Hebrew people. Under Joshua they were united and were able to occupy a portion of Canaan. But Joshua died before they occupied the entire land.

After Joshua died, the Hebrews decided that each tribe would be responsible for the part of Canaan assigned to them. Therefore it was each tribe’s responsibility to conquer whatever Canaanite tribe was native to their particular plot of land. And the story of how this played out is the content of the Book of Judges.

The Book of Judges is a story of the Hebrew people failing to stay true to God and the commandants given to them through Moses. Instead of successfully conquering the native people they succumbed to their culture and mixed what God had taught them in with the Canaanite way of living and worshipping.

In many ways it is not unlike our modern era, where there are people who will call themselves Christian but have succumbed to the hedonistic and greedy allure of our society. And all of us at one time or another have succumbed. Just as the Canaanite society was alluring, so is our materialistic society.

The Canaanites religion was the religion of Ba’al and was polytheistic believing in many gods. Their gods were graven images worshipped in specific locations. Their worship was a matter of appeasing the god and to manipulate the god into supporting them or doing something for them. The offerings to the god were the price paid to have the god to do this or that.  The price may include sacrificing one of your own children.

The Canaanite society also was a tyrannical monarchy where the king was absolute and was king by virtue of having the support of a powerful god. In effect, the king represented this powerful god and rule at his own will. And in this society women would have had no say in how society operated. Further, the wealthy of this Canaanite society would have no doubt owned slaves.

The teachings of their religion were the customary teachings of the whole region around Canaan. The wealthy were wealthy because the gods were pleased with them. There was no teaching of grace or love. Greed was acceptable. Self-centeredness and selfishness would have prevailed. One’s personal life did not include the personal presence of a god … there was nothing personal about their graven images.

But when the Hebrews invaded Canaan under the leadership of Joshua they brought a completely different religion. They rejected graven images and multiple gods. The God that came with them was invisible and immaterial.  Human sacrifice was not practiced (remember God holding back Abraham from sacrificing Isaac). And their society was far more egalitarian – even women could speak out. In the book of Judges, Deborah was a judge and a prophet. Indeed, the Bible is full of named women who were critical to God’s efforts to bring us into a loving relationship with God.

And unlike the Canaanite gods, the God of the Hebrews could not be manipulated or coerced by anything, including offerings. The offerings the Hebrews gave and we give to this day are thank offerings and repentance offerings which would be used to support the priests and the poor … no one was killed.

And unlike the cruel inflexible gods of the Canaanites, the God of the Hebrews was forgiving and loving. In Judges the Hebrews time and time again strayed from God and God time and time again raised up a leader to save them … God cared so much for them that God didn’t give up on them … even after they asked for a king.

But as the generations came and went among the Hebrews in Canaan, the reality of this invisible God began to fade. The generation that entered Canaan with Joshua were eye-witnesses to the power of God: the coming of the 10 plagues in Egypt, the opening of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and finally the entry into Canaan.

But as the generations passed, this history became just a story, not part of their reality. Canaan was their reality. Canaan is where they lived and had their lives. Egypt was a strange land of which they had no experience. The gods of the Canaanites were part of their reality. Unlike the teachings of their prophets and judges, you could see the gods of the Canaanites. And there was more than one … you could chose which one was favorable to you.

Further their Law, the Torah, demanded a strict style of living. Yet all around them was loose living … why should they follow some invisible God with no name in such a restricting living, when Canaan offered such a pleasurable and immediate life. The allure of Canaanite society was great, so great that even the judges succumb to it. In Judges we read where the Judge Gideon sets up an altar that becomes an idol. And in our passage from Samuel we read that Samuel’s sons are greedy and corrupt.

Again we can see this same dynamic in our own story where for many people Christianity is old-fashioned, irrelevant, and just so many stories. It isn’t part of their reality.

And what we read in Judges and Samuel is just the tip of the iceberg of the Canaanite religion. Their religion was a tribal religion where strangers and even neighbors who differ from the tribe were looked on with suspicion and often considered as enemies. The tribe would be suspicious of people whom they do not understand and whom do not practice their life style. In a fashion they reacted like some people in our own country who believe that immigrants are undermining our society, and therefore these different people are dangerous and therefore the enemy. Further, to the Canaanites, these enemies would be identified with the life styles that the god has vanquished (consider homosexuality) and therefore are evil as well as being strange.

In their religion order is preferable to uncertainty and chaos. The enemy is the agent of chaos and is unpredictable. The enemy is sent to destroy the tribe. Peace can only come through war and the defeat of the enemies. Therefore a tribe or nation must always be strong. A weak tribe can expect no security. And the reality that the Canaanite religion taught was that chaos and uncertainty finally cannot be defeated permanently. It must be vanquished over and over again.

This is the world that the Exodus Hebrews invaded. They came into this land as strangers in a strange land. And to the Canaanites they must have been the strangest of all, and therefore the most threatening, because they brought with them no graven images and believed in a single invisible, immaterial God. Had they brought an idol, it could have integrated into the Canaanite religion and they could have been absorbed eventually. But instead they brought a very alien God. Indeed God was the antithesis of Ba’al.

Where Ba’al is a cold, heartless god, the unnamed God of the Hebrews was personal, available to anyone, not just to the priests. Indeed even a Hebrew woman could call upon God and God would respond to her.

And they brought this very strange and threatening notion that the people – the tribe – must care for the least among them. Ba’al does not care one iota for the starving, the ill, and the homeless. They are no good to Ba’al. But God does care about them – the age will come when God will tell us that it is our care for the least among that establishes our faithfulness.

And it goes even further, inasmuch as the Hebrews were told to treat strangers among them with justice and respect and not presume that they are enemies just because they are strangers.

And most of all, unlike Ba’al, God is forgiving – over and over again.

But now that the people were integrating into the Canaanite society, they were ignoring, probably even forgetting these unique and powerful expectations of God. They were tired of the constant fighting with the Canaanites and even among themselves. They were tired of being different. They were discouraged by the ultimate ineffectiveness of the Judges. They were no longer interested in being an Exodus people with a revolutionary God. They wanted to be like all of the other people around them. They wanted a King – a King who would make everything right. They were done with trusting God – it was too hard.

And so the first book of Samuel unfolds.

But having gone through all of this, so what? What does this have to do with us in the 21st century?

Well, the old Ba’alist religion never went away. It’s still with us. It’s often disguised as Christianity or Islam or even Judaism. But it’s there.

In this present age, it has once again become acceptable to reject the stranger among us. It has once again become acceptable to ignore the least among us – or even cut them off from what little help has been given to them. It’s become acceptable to not be forgiving.  Indeed, our society has become small-minded and mean. We have forgotten how to rehabilitate people who have run afoul of the law. We have forgotten that most of us descend from immigrants. We have also forgotten how our ancestors treated the native peoples and how they kidnap other peoples to bring here into slavery. We have forgotten the civic square where all of our neighbors come together to work together hand in hand.

And for a believing Christian the most heart-breaking is that there are many who call themselves Christian and yet support this Ba’alist belief. Many of these are in high office and subscribe to self-centered and selfish teachings instead of the teachings of Jesus.

So how do we avoid being swallowed up by this Ba’alist beliefs?

Be vigilant. Be always faithful to the teachings of Jesus, no matter how irrational or unreasonable they seem. A (so-called) Christian preaching war or the destruction of so-called enemies is not preaching Jesus. A “Christian” preaching budget cuts at the expense of the least among us is not preaching Jesus. A “Christian” whose preaching is not based on the Great Judgment or the Sermon on the Mount or the sacrificial selfless life of Jesus, is not preaching Jesus.

Beware of their influence on our society. As Jesus-centered Christians we must live in resistance to their ignorance or their intentional ignoring of Jesus. We must, as much as we are able, to live as Jesus taught us even if it means living contrary to society. We must not succumb to the idols of society or the kings of society. We must remember that the invisible God with no name is our beacon of light and it is to that God that owe allegiance first and foremost.

 

Think about it …

God’s grace and love be with you …

Amen.