Missing the Mark

Have you ever tried to take on a big task all by yourself. In almost every case it is easier to tackle big things with help than it is to go it alone. The same thing applies to our relationship with God. When we try and go it alone in life, we are setting ourselves up for a much harder road than is necessary. But we don’t always believe that’s really the case. Fortunately, there are several great examples from which we can learn this important truth. One of those is the book of Judges…all of it. Starting today and for the next few weeks, we are going to walk through this intriguing and sometimes disturbing little book as we see over and over again that life is better when we walk it with God. Thanks for joining me as we go.

Missing the Mark

How many of you remember where you were on January 28, 1986? Like or comment if you do. I’ll confess that I was four and I really don’t remember much of anything prior to my 5th birthday, but I’ll bet some of you who are not all that much older than I am do. I’ll bet you remember very clearly. And just to prove my point, what happened on that date? Post your response in the comments. Some of you knew immediately. Just before noon local time, a space shuttle called the Challenger was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida. While that’s always exciting, this launch was special because it was the first of the now-infamous Teacher-in-Space program. Christa McAuliffe, a history and English teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, had been selected from more than 11,000 applicants to the program in 1985 and here, just a few months later, she was making her debut. But the excitement quickly turned to shock and then horror as 73 seconds into the flight the Challenger exploded, killing McAuliffe and the six other crew members on board with her.

After a period of national mourning, people naturally began to demand to know how this could have happened. President Reagan quickly assembled a group to investigate. The group became known as the Rogers Commission after its chair, William P. Rogers, a former U.S. Attorney General (under Eisenhower) and Secretary of State (under Nixon). What the Rogers Commission discovered after a lengthy investigation was that the explosion was caused by a faulty O-ring. The O-rings were rubber seals that were supposed to protect the solid fuels in the rocket’s main boosters from the super-heated gases on the outside. Due to a design flaw that occurred as many as ten years before the accident, the O-rings in use by NASA at the time tended to lose some of their structural integrity in low temperature settings—like those, say, of a late January morning—resulting in an ineffective seal. The final result is that while the faulty seals had been used without incident for several years, on this particular occasion, the conditions were just right for them to fail. And so, when the rocket launched and the gases on the outside heated up to a sufficiently high temperature, they bypassed the O-ring seals, ignited the solid fuels in the boosters, and the rest is history.

Now, while we could certainly shift the blame here around to all kinds of different places—and indeed it was in the years following the tragedy as happens with any major, national tragedy as we are seeing now—in the final analysis, it was a small error in judgment in 1977 that blew up—literally—in the faces of those who made it ten years later. When we don’t do things right, there are always consequences. Sometimes those consequences may not manifest themselves until later…much later even…but they always eventually do come to the light. The Challenger disaster played this truth out on a very large and very public stage, but more often than not, it comes in an entirely smaller and more intimate package—our lives.

The reason for this has its foundation all the way back in the very beginning of humanity in Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the Garden of Eden by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in direct contradiction to His instructions to not eat from it. One of the things that lies at the heart of what they did then was their intention to try and do life on their own. They wanted—because Satan had convinced them of such—to be “like God” by knowing what He knows. They had forgotten, of course, that they were already more like God than anything else in the whole of creation as they alone were created in His image. But then, that’s how Satan works. He convinces us to want something we already have and to put our desire for that above our desire for God.

In any event, they wanted to do life on their own. Still today, the heart of our rebellion against God is that we want to do life on our own. We try and do it all the time. We try it in a thousand different ways. Without exception, though, every single one of these attempts ends in failure. But the real problem here is that we don’t always or even often see that failure until it’s too late. Because of this, we keep right on going it alone in life, blissfully (or not so blissfully) unaware of the shoe that’s just waiting to drop when the time is right.

Fortunately, the Scriptures have some good reminders for us that going it alone when it comes to our relationship with God is not a neutral proposition. It’s not something that we can take or leave depending on how we feel at a given moment. It’s something that is central to who we are as followers of Jesus. If we leave it behind, we leave behind our one abiding source of life. Well, just like disconnecting from your shuttle base on a spacewalk will result in a tumble into nothingness, disconnecting from your source of life in this world will result in disaster every time. But still, that disaster usually comes slowly enough that in any given moment we don’t really believe it’s coming. Thus, we need these Scriptural reminders that this particular path never works out well for us. One of the best of these is found in the narrative of what happened to the people of Israel after Joshua, Moses’ successor, died. It’s called the book of Judges and for the next few weeks in a new teaching series called, Going It Alone, we are going to take a look together at this gripping set of stories about a people trying to do just that.

In order to get into a book like Judges, though, we need some background. We need some background and also a framework to give us a context from which to interpret and understand what we are seeing. The book of Judges describes a period of Israel’s history between the initial settling of the land of Canaan and the beginning of the series of monarchies that would carry them to eventual conquests by Assyria and Babylon. Now, keep in mind that when we get to the beginning of this period of Israel’s history, while they had been free from Egypt’s rule for roughly two generations, they still really didn’t have a clue how to be a free nation. As you read through the story, you see that God was very much holding their hand the whole time. He gave them strong leaders in Moses and Joshua. Through Moses He gave them a law that spelled out pretty clearly what it was going to take from them in order to live with the gift He was giving them. Through Joshua, He led them militarily in conquering and driving out the people groups currently living in the land so their new homeland was free from enemies who sought to do them harm both externally and internally.

Now, as a quick aside here, not a few folks struggle with this part of the Bible. In fact, more folks struggle with this series of stories than with just about anything else in the whole of the Scriptures. The reason is simple: the thought of one nation aggressively taking land from another and killing many of their people in the process sounds terrible to us. That type of territorial expansion is what sparked World War II. But there are three things to keep in mind in order to help us make a little better sense of it. First, we have to get God’s character right. The God revealed in the pages of Scripture is 100% loving and 100% just. He always does what is right and His actions are always liberally tempered with love. If we come across something in the Scriptures that seems to paint God in a different light, the most rational conclusion is that we are getting something wrong in how we are reading and understanding it, not that God has character problems or even that there is a problem with the Scriptures themselves. That should be a baseline assumption for all of our Scripture reading, but especially in parts like this.

Second, the peoples living in Canaan when the Israelites arrived were not poor, innocent victims to Israel’s brutality. They were unbelievably evil in their own right. They were okay with child sacrifice and practiced it often. They used and abused women—and men—in all kinds of awful ways. They were brutal with one another and with themselves. They were incredibly unjust in all their dealings. What’s more, they had been that way for a long time. God had declared to Abraham more than 400 years prior to this that the people of Canaan were going to be judged, but, because He’s a God of mercy, He was going to give them more time to get themselves straightened out in order to avoid that fate. By more time He meant more than 400 years. If anything, God waited way too long to put a stop to their evil, wouldn’t you say? And that He happened to use Israel to bring this judgment says nothing about them at all. It is merely a reminder of the fact that God uses whoever He will to accomplish His purposes of mercy and justice. He would later use Assyria and Babylon to bring justice to Israel for their many long years of grievous sins. In this case, the people of Canaan had been shown mercy for more than 400 years and were now facing justice for their many, many sins.

Third, this kind of warfare was entirely commonplace back then and no one would have thought it morally problematic at all. We need to be careful in reading our moral assumptions back on them. We know a great deal more about God and His ways now than they did. We recognize that the kinds of things they were doing aren’t necessarily good. But sometimes, God works in peoples and cultures where they are in order to bring them a step or two forward rather than expecting them to miraculously behave like people hundreds of years removed from them morally speaking. Now, this looks awful to later peoples and cultures who understand Him better, but it is a testament to the patience of God in bringing us from where we are to where He wants us to be. Rest assured, should our Lord tarry, we wouldn’t want people living 4,500 years from now to judge us on the basis of their moral assumptions. Such judgment wouldn’t be just. Thus, God doesn’t judge that way.

Getting back on track, though, God had done all of this different handholding for the people to get them to where they were: moving into the land He had been promising them for nearly half a millennium. But, have you ever tried to hold a child’s hand when he was excited to go somewhere? How long did that last? Yeah…not so long. One time when we were in Kansas City visiting my folks, we made a trip to Target. Actually, not living near a Target now, we make multiple trips there every time we visit…usually one per day. No wonder those trips are so expensive! In any event, Micah and I were the last out of the van on this particular occasion and Mimi and Grandpa were ahead of us almost into the store. By the time we got to the street separating us from the store, Micah was not interested in holding my hand anymore. He was pulling away as hard as he could and yelling at me the whole time. He wanted to run on ahead and catch up with his grandparents and was thinking about nothing else, least of all the possible consequences of taking off across a busy parking lot by himself.

God’s handholding got the people successfully into the land, but once there, they pulled away. Then things started to go downhill…quickly. It mostly started when Joshua died. If you have a copy of the Scriptures nearby, find your way to Judges 2 and check this out with me starting at v. 6: “Previously, when Joshua had sent the people away, the Israelites had gone to take possession of the land, each to his own inheritance. The people worshiped the Lord throughout Joshua’s lifetime and during the lifetimes of the elders who outlived Joshua. They had seen all the Lord’s great works he had done for Israel. Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the territory of his inheritance, in the Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.”

In other words, as long as Joshua or somebody who was alive when Joshua was leading the people was alive, the people still clung to God’s hand. But those folks didn’t live forever. Eventually they died. And it became clear that while they served to keep the people on the right track by their leadership and the power of their stories, they were not so successful when it came to actually passing their faith on to the next generation. Look at v. 10 now: “That whole generation was also gathered to their ancestors. After them another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works he had done for Israel.”

And for my Bible scholars who are tuned in right now, that verse may sound kind of like another one that comes a bit earlier in the Scriptures. Way back at the end of Genesis, Joseph, the son of Jacob, served as the second-in-command over all Egypt. During his tenure, his father, Jacob, and the rest of the family joined him there and flourished in the land Pharaoh provided for them. But then Joseph died, and we have this in Exodus 1:8: “A new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” What comes next is about 400 years of misery for the people. The very misery, in fact, that God’s rescuing them from had led them to where they were now. Well, after Judges 2:10 comes a long period of history for the people of Israel that did not go well for them. They forgot. They forgot who the Lord was and what He had done for them. They forgot how He called them to live. They forgot the advice—commands really—He had given them to help them live along those lines.

Now, you couldn’t tell at first that this had happened. Memories sometimes take a few years to drain away. Indeed, jumping back to Judges 1:1 we see this: “After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the Lord, ‘Who will be the first to fight for us against the Canaanites?’” So here at least it looks like things are going to continue just like they were when Joshua was alive. The tribe of Judah got the nod and so they teamed up with Simeon to continue the task of clearing out the Canaanite people still remaining in the land that had been given to them. The next several verses detail this happening.

But then in v. 19, we see this interesting little note: “The Lord was with Judah and enabled them to take possession of the hill country…” So far so good. Then there’s this: “…but they could not drive out the people who were living in the valley because those people had iron chariots.” So, what’s this mean? Well, at the time, not very much. Judah got some land to call their own which is what God wanted them to do, but were not able to secure all of it. Seemingly no big deal. Now, sure, there was this thing God had said about driving the Canaanite peoples completely out of the land and not leaving any of them to remain in it, but if Judah had enough land to spread out and live comfortably, what would it matter if they didn’t quite follow all of God’s instructions? One time does not a pattern make.

But you see, that’s just the point. It wasn’t one time. After v. 19 we come to v. 21: “At the same time the Benjaminites did not drive out the Jebusites who were living in Jerusalem. The Jebusites have lived among the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day.” Okay, but that’s still just two tribes out of twelve. Surely the others fared better. Didn’t they?

Yeah…not so much. The tribe of Joseph went to take Bethel, got help from a local with the promise of leaving him alone, and he went and built another city for himself that remained in the land. Then we get a whole succession of slips starting in v. 27: “At that time Manasseh failed to take possession of Beth-shean and Taanach and their surrounding villages, or the residents of Dot, Ibleam, and Megiddo and their surrounding villages; the Canaanites were determined to stay in this land [you think?]. When Israel became stronger, they made the Canaanites serve as forced labor but never drove them out completely. At that time Ephraim failed to drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived among them in Gezer. Zebulun failed to drive out the residents of Kitron or the residents of Nahalol, so the Cananites lived among them and served as forced labor. Asher failed to drive out the residents of Acco or of Sidon, or Ahlab Achzib Helbah, Aphik, or Rehob [those place names are as hard to type as they are to say, by the way]. The Asherites lived among the Canaanites who were living in the land, because they failed to drive them out. Naphtali did not drive out the residents of Beth-shemesh or the residents of Beth-anath. They lived among the Canaanites who were living in the land, but the residents of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath served as their forced labor. The Amorites forced the Danites into the hill country and did not allow them to go down into the valley. The Amorites were determined to stay in Har-heres, Aijalon, and Shaalbim. When the house of Joseph got the upper hand, the Amorites were made to serve as forced labor.”

So, what is all this beyond a litany of one of those lists of hard-to-pronounce names that make us not want to pay any attention to it? Remember the failure of Judah and Benjamin to completely clear out their land? Yeah, it went beyond just them. Every single one of the tribes failed to do what God had commanded them to do. Sure, they conquered the peoples of the land—God had promised He would help them do that—but enslaving them wasn’t God’s command. God’s command was clear back in Deuteronomy 7:2: “…and when the Lord your God delivers them over to you and you defeat them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.” Now, again, we can talk about the difficulties here another time, but God gives a pretty specific reason for this command a couple of verses later and it is pretty prescient. Check this out: “…because they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will swiftly destroy you.” In other words, “If you don’t get rid of these guys and their influence in its entirety, you’re going to regret it. It’s going to come back and bite you in the tail.”

Well, the people did exactly what God said they shouldn’t do. They conquered, but they did not destroy. They did not remove. They did not cleanse the land of the evil influence of these folks whose land God had given to Israel in part as a judgment for their grievous and incorrigible sins. Remember that generation who “rose up who did not know the Lord or the works he had done for Israel”? The children of the folks who didn’t follow God’s command to completely destroy the Canaanites and to entirely exterminate their influence from the land? Guess what happened with them. Flip over to Judges 2:11: “The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. They worshiped the Baals and abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed other gods from the surrounding peoples and bowed down to them. They angered the Lord, for they abandoned him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths. The Lord’s anger burned against Israel, and he handed them over to marauders who raided them. He sold them to the enemies around them, and they could no longer resist their enemies. Whenever the Israelites went out, the Lord was against them and brought disaster on them, just as he had promised and sworn to them. So they suffered greatly.”

In other words, they insisted on going it alone and as a result, they paid the price for it. God told them what would happen if they didn’t do what he said…they didn’t do what He said…and all the bad things He said would happen, happened. And so began a pattern that would last somewhere between two and four hundred years during which time the people would try and go it alone, God would allow them to face the consequences of this decision, they would come to their senses and cry out to Him, He would take pity on them because of His great love for them and rescue them, and then once everything settled down they would try yet again to go it alone, starting the pattern all over again. Yet each time they would leave the boundaries of their relationship with God, they would go a little further afield. And each time they returned to His gracious arms, they wouldn’t come back quite as close as they had the last time.

Eventually their turning and going it alone bore bitter fruit. It bore bitter fruit whose seeds would fall and germinate and eventually grow roots that would poison the land until God finally had enough and used another nation to do to them what He had used them to do to the Canaanites. And while there are perhaps many lessons that could be drawn from all of this and there will be many more to come from the rest of the book of Judges, there is one that stands out very clearly at this point in the story: Disobedience always has consequences.

Disobedience always has consequences. Always. Sometimes those consequences may seem far removed, but they will always come. This is what happened in the Challenger disaster. One error in judgment, one attempt to go it alone, led to another and then to another and then to another until the payment finally came due. This is what the people of Israel found. They did not entirely remove the influence of the Canaanites from their midst and so just as the Lord said, it eventually poisoned their hearts. They tried to go it alone. It was too hard to do what the Lord commanded. They got to a place of stability—one of those respites God gives us along the journey where we are to renew our strength for the next leg—and instead of moving forward again after a time, they settled in and called it home.

As we have traveled over the years to go and visit family, occasionally we have to stop for bathroom breaks. Sometimes, the easiest place to stop is at a rest area. Some of the rest areas we have found along the way have been really nice. They have clean bathrooms. The snack houses are well-stocked. There is plenty of space to run around and play. We even stopped at one that had a Vietnam War Memorial on the grounds. We get the few things we need and finish the trip in much better spirits than we were before the stop. We need the respite. But, what if we arrived at some particular rest area and then refused to go any further? What would you say then? It would be crazy, right? Do we even need to make a list of all the things wrong with that idea? We wouldn’t have access to all the nourishment we needed, there wouldn’t be anywhere good to sleep, we would be separated from the community we need to sustain us, we would be forever short of our intended destination and all the joys that held for us, and on and on it goes. Our command, if you will, is wherever we are heading. Disobedience would have consequences. Disobedience always has consequences.

So it goes in our lives. God has set you on a path. Some of you know what that is in a fair amount of detail. For others it is a little hazier. But whether the specific destination is clear or not, the character expectations for the journey are crystal clear. And character created by faithfulness is what will get you where you want to go. If you disobey those commands, though—even in ways that seem entirely insignificant at the time—there will be consequences. Disobedience always has consequences. But—and here’s the good news—obedience does too. What’s more, because of the gracious spirit of our God, those good consequences tend to come faster and can even erase the consequences of disobedience before they have a chance to take root. So choose obedience. Disobedience always has consequences. They may not come quickly, but they will come. They may not come until your kids or grandkids have to pay the bill, but why do that to them? Over the next few weeks, we will see how this played out for Israel. Let’s learn their lessons so we don’t have to experience them for ourselves.

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