A Cautionary Tale

November 1, 2020

The Book of Judges is a cautionary tale. It recounts a dark period in Israel’s history. It begins with Israel’s failure to conquer the Promised Land completely. Because of this failure, the idolatry of the original inhabitants becomes a snare for Israel. The cycle in Judges is Israel commits idolatry, they become oppressed by their enemies and cry out to God, God raises a judge to deliver them, and eventually the cycle begins again.

The judges were military leaders who brought deliverance to Israel. That is probably not our first definition of a judge, although Deborah did in fact hear cases and dispense justice (Judges 4:4-5). Yet, the judges often demonstrate deep flaws which show them to be men of their times. Gideon makes an ephod that becomes a snare to the people and a temptation to idolatry. Jephthah makes a rash vow, but he also slaughters some in Israel who refused to help him. Sampson seems to make military victories only because of bad choices with Philistine women.

But the book ends with even darker stories. Jonathan, the grandson of Moses, helps steal an idol with the help of armed men and sets up an idolatrous worship site in Dan, which lasts “until the day of the captivity of the land” (Judges 18:30). This is followed by an account of the rape and murder of a priest’s concubine. (Should a priest have a concubine in the first place?) This incident nearly leads to the wholesale slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin.

But these dark stories are not without a point. A refrain that occurs within the books states: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25, ESV). The Book of Judges answers the question of what happens when a people wander away from God. The moral decline illustrated in Judges is a cautionary tale.

It is a lesson that it difficult for modern society to hear. Society doesn’t always want God in the public square. Society often likes its morality to be relative. “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” could be our own nation’s slogan.

But then we wring our hands when violence and crime occur. Evil, violence, and crime will always be with us as long as this age lasts. But when a society goes through a moral decline such evil will increase. This is a morality problem that statutes won’t cure. It is not that statutes are unimportant. They represent a social contract which should be based on shared values and common morality. When values and morality differ, statutes become difficult to enforce. Witness the drug problem in our country. In other words, morality and values are the deeper issue.

The safety of my person and property are dependent on the morality of the people in my community. When the moral decline becomes so great, even the authorities cannot stop what happens next. Societies can descend into anarchy. And periods of anarchy are what we see in the Book of Judges. For those willing to hear, Judges provides a cautionary tale.


Survey Says or God Says?

September 21, 2017

A recent survey involving 2000 respondents in the U.S. and Europe studied their experiences and feelings about the number of sexual partners. A part of me hates polls. Their validity depends a great deal on getting the proper sample and not having people refuse to take the poll. Further, I’m concerned that polls are used to shape opinion as much as discover it. But with those caveats in mind, what did the researchers find.

  • At what number of sexual partners do you think a person becomes too promiscuous? Females: 15.2, Males: 14
  • What do you think is the ideal number of sexual partners for a person to have in their lifetime? Females 7.5, Males 7.6
  • At what number of sexual partners do you think a person is too sexually conservative? Females 1.9, Males 2.3
  • With how many partners have you engaged in sexual intercourse over your lifetime? Females: 7, Males 6.4

Of course, you may be wondering whether respondents are telling the truth. That question was also a part of the poll. Males said they had not lied about the number of partners 58.6% of the time, and females 67.4%. If we assume that the respondents are reasonably telling the truth, we see that people are basically saying their own behavior is close to ideal.

G.K. Beale makes a great observation about our society, “Worldliness is whatever any culture does to make sin seem normal and righteousness to be strange.”* The above survey is telling us that it is normal to have multiple sexual partners and strange to limit sex to the marriage relationship between one man and one woman. But for the Christian it should never be about what the world views as normal but what God views as moral.

Paul wrote to a basically Gentile audience in 1 Thessalonians. These new Christians came out of a culture not unlike our own. What does Paul tell them?

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. 1 Thessalonians 4:3–8, ESV

God defines what is sexual immorality. He defines it in scripture as sex outside the marriage relationship of one man and one woman. Paul encourages them to abstain from the world’s passions and live lives of holiness. He warns them that God is an avenger against immoral behavior. He reminds them that to ignore this teaching is not to ignore human teachers but God himself. So, what will it be: survey says or God says?

*G. K. Beale. We Become What We Worship, p. 300.


When the Flower Withers

August 23, 2013

The statistics indicate a moral change in our society that many of us have witnessed during our lifetime. The violent crime rate in the US was 160.9 per 100,000 population in 1960. In 2011, it was 386.3 per 100,000. The divorce rate in 1960 was 2.2 per 1,000 population. It reached its high point in 1981 with 5.3 per 1,000 and in 2009 was 3.5 per 1,000. If the divorce rate has dropped since the 1980s, cohabitation (“living together”) has increased. In 1960, there were 439,000 cohabiting couples. In 2005, 4.85 million cohabiting couples were reported by the Census Bureau — up more than 10 times the rate in 1960. In 1960, out of wedlock births were 5.3% of the total births. In 2007, they were 40% of the total births.

Elton Trueblood in his 1969 book, A Place to Stand, made an important observation on the moral decline of Western culture:

Always men have broken laws; that is nothing new. What is new is the acceptance of a creed to the effect that there really is not objective truth about what human conduct ought to be. The new position is not merely that the old laws do not apply, but rather that any moral law is limited to subjective reference. While this has been the position of a few individuals in various generations of the past, our time differs in that this has suddenly become the position of millions. Some of them still have a slight connection with the Judeo-Christian heritage, but the obvious conflict in convictions will, if it continues, finally dissolve even the mild connection that still appears to exist. If there is no objective right, then there is not even the possibility of error, and intellectual and moral confusion are bound to ensue.1

Trueblood calls ours “a cult-flower civilization.” His analogy means that when people first began to cut themselves off from Judeo-Christian ethics, they initially behaved in moral ways. Like the cut-flower exhibiting life though cut off from its roots. Such life though eventually withers, and in the same way, cut from the roots of Judeo-Christian ethics, our society undergoes a moral decline.

So what does this mean for Christians and the church today? It is easy to be a bit depressed, and certainly the cultural shift is lamentable. But it does not change our mission to share the good news. In fact it means that the difference between the lifestyle of a truly, biblical Christian is going to be even more distinct from the world around us. We face a culture much more like the one that Peter and Paul faced. They saw opportunity. The good news went out into that kind of world and turned the world upside down. When the flower withers, the good news is needed all the more.

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1Elton Trueblood, A Place to Stand, p. 15.