The book of Judges is a colorful collection of Israelite hero stories, proclaiming the champions who rose up and saved the day at various points in time when the Israelites were oppressed. It's a kind of Hall of Fame in one respect, but for the rank and file Israelites it winds up being a Hall of Shame as well. These champions are only necessary, according to the narrative of this collection, because the Israelite people fall away from their faith and God punishes them by allowing foreign powers to conquer them. Over and over again. Beyond its narrative cohesion, there is something to be learned from this cycle of falling away from the cultural religion, being subjected to the rule of a foreign king, and being rescued by a hero anointed by God into a time of peace before falling away from the cultural religion once again. Each hero's story also has a spiritual lesson or two for us.
Judges 1 seems like a bit of housekeeping. "Here is how the Israelites finished up with the work that Joshua started." The Israelites are still committing some brutal acts, burning down cities and killing everyone there except for their spies. As before, those peoples the Israelites don't wipe out are made into slaves. Some of the atrocities are justified because the "victim" is literally getting equal justice for what he has done to others, as is the case with Adoni-Bezek. On the one hand, it means the the Israelites are really no better than any of the people they're conquering, since they're willing to commit the same acts of torture and maiming. On the other hand, the Israelites are morally above the cultures around them, since they are the agents of justice.
Chapter 2 really seems to be the beginning of the story, a sort of proper prologue with an angelic proclamation and an outline of what the book is all about. We'll talk more about the cycle of disobedience, punishment, rescue, and peace in a moment. Chapter 3 gives us a sense of what these hero stories are going to be like. The Israelites start worshiping the local gods and forget about their strict cultural religion, God gets angry and "sells them" into the hands of a conquering king, the Israelites cry out for God to rescue them, and God raises up Othniel, who goes to war (presumably with an army behind him), and the land has peace until Othniel dies. This is the template from which all the stories are based -- a sort of generic hero tale from which the other judges' tales improvise.
Take the story of Ehud, who was left-handed. Being left-handed was not seen as culturally appropriate, much less as a blessing. People who couldn't use the proper hand for things were seen as cursed or stupid. And then along comes Ehud. The Israelites fall away from God, God gets mad, foreign king conquers them, and the Israelites cry out to God. So God chooses as their deliverer this left-handed nobody with a little dagger. But because no one expects a weapon to be drawn with an attacker's left hand, he catches fat King Eglon by surprise and kills him. Then, there is the humorous and embarrassing bit about the servants not wanting to check on the king because they thought he was just on the toilet for an extraordinarily long time while Ehud made his escape.
Ehud displays some qualities that the Israelites admire. He uses what seems to be a disability to his advantage, he is sneaky and "underhanded" in order to win a victory for the greater good of his society, and he is clever enough to get away with it. Ehud may not be a historical figure, or his tale at least may be elaborated considerably for effect, but there is still spiritual value to the story. We have a tendency to look at our own failings (and to notice the disabilities of others, too). We notice more what we are challenged by than we give credence to our capability. This perspective hinders us from seeing possibility. We get so caught up in thinking about our scarcity that we fail to notice our abundance. If we choose to see every quality as a potential advantage, we stand a much greater chance of seeing our capability and creating meaningful and satisfying lives.
We also stand a better chance of seeing the capability of other people. When we focus on other people's disabilities or failings, we create an image of them that is less than a fully able human being. By adopting an attitude that left-handedness is just a different way of achieving the same goal, and in some circumstances perhaps an even better way of achieving the same goal, our perspective can shift just enough to see the divinity in other people. When we acknowledge the value of every person and start from that angle, we are better able to see abundance.
That doesn't mean that we should be finding clever ways to kill people we don't like, as Ehud did. It's a story, like Paul Bunyan or Hercules or Jason and the Argonauts. It's from a culture that focused on genocidal behavior as an acceptable way of gaining property without having to build it all from scratch. We have to look beyond the actual behavior of the judges to get the spiritually meaningful bits that apply to our own lives. This is sometimes difficult. Poor Shamgar is something of an afterthought. "Oh, yes. This other fellow was also quite good."
But what about the whole structure of the book? Sure, we can look at Ehud and say, "Wow, I shouldn't focus on what I can't do as well as everyone else. I have my own set of strengths." We can feel really good about ourselves for the moment, and maybe about other people too. And then what? How do we relate to the larger-scale cycle of behavior that forms the basis of all these hero stories?
I'll start by saying that we should not start looking for the equivalent of judges in our own culture or sub-culture. Competent leaders should be acknowledged, sure. As Tina Turner sang in that Mad Max movie, though, we don't need another hero. There is no god watching the earth or any portion of it and deciding whether or not to give people over to foreign powers based on their level of worship. And there is no reason to think that if we just obey the dictates of a particular church and follow the rules that our lives will be peaceful and happy. There are two big lessons in this cycle, however, that can make a big difference in how we look at our opportunities to create satisfying lives that have a meaningful impact in the world. The first lesson is about God's behavior in the story, and the second lesson is about the Israelites themselves.
God doesn't learn very quickly. He really loves this girl and even though she keeps sleeping around and ignoring him, he keeps coming back like a lost puppy. Sure, he'll get mad and let her get herself into serious trouble, but he always shows up to rescue her before things get really out of hand. It is the very picture of codependency and insanity. He keeps doing the same thing for the Israelites, expecting them to behave differently, and then getting really angry when they don't change. He doesn't change his expectations or redefine his relationship with them (not yet at least) even though it's apparent that they cannot live up to what he wants in a relationship. Perhaps the only reason he keeps going back to them is because he knows that his standards are so unreasonable that no one would be able to live up to them, so he settles for being angry at the same folks instead of branching out and being disappointed in different people.
In the Christian version of the story, God eventually learns. The New Testament is the Christian impression of what a different sort of relationship might look like. God isn't as interested in being angry about his girl not living up to his unreasonably high standards. It's still a relationship of co-dependency, but God accepts the limitations of the people he loves a little bit better. Neither version is an ideal template for human relationships, even though we engage in codependency more often than we would like to admit. Examine whether this looks like a pattern in your own life and be willing to address it, even if it means seeking some outside assistance in breaking habits that have been ingrained over a long period of time.
Learn from God's frustration. Saving people over and over again doesn't acknowledge their freedom or capability, and it assumes an unrealistic responsibility for someone else's well-being. Start from the understanding that every adult is personally responsible for their own actions and beliefs. Yes, parents have some responsibility for their own children's safety. We're talking about adults here (although personal responsibility is a phenomenal thing parents could teach their children). Yes, we sometimes place our safety in the hands of an experienced guide when we hike off into unfamiliar territory. We aren't talking about choices we make in special circumstances. If you're looking for excuses not to be personally responsible for your decisions, just stop. And if you're making allowances for someone else to abdicate personal responsibility, you aren't doing anyone any favors. Our ability to create, our ability to fully acknowledge the truth and beauty within every person, our ability to be inspired -- these are compromised when we are unwilling to take personal responsibility for our beliefs and our actions.
Which is just another way of saying that our relationship to the divine within us is hampered. Even when we are ready to admit that there is no higher intelligence watching over our lives from the outside, arranging things that we don't control on our behalf, blessing the good people and punishing the wicked people -- that doesn't guarantee that we are able to fully tap into the wisdom we hold within. We may look to our truest, most noble selves in times of great catastrophe, whatever that looks like in each person's life, but it's much easier to go on autopilot most of the time. Until we find ourselves once more in an out-of-control situation and we look for something to save us from our own decisions. It isn't a healthy or satisfying way to live -- being unconscious until there is something traumatic to worry about.
Our divine selves do not want sacrifice or selflessness from us. Our divine selves are simply the truest manifestation of who we are as human beings. There is nothing judgmental at that deep level. The judgment comes from the lies and fears that hide our deepest selves. You know what you want your life to look like. You know what matters most to you. Beneath the fear and the fear and the older fear and the fear you forgot about, and beneath the lies about yourself and the lies about other people and the lies about how life is supposed to be, you know. It seems vulnerable to unwrap all of those snug fears and lies and look beneath them, but it is at that core that your true strength lies. It seems dangerous to look that deeply into yourself, but it is the safest thing in the world. That clarity is the key to creating and inspiring.
The Israelites may not have really known what their god wanted from them. They may have gotten the impression that he wanted them to be miserable. He did have a lot of rules and he did threaten some extreme punishments. Maybe their god didn't really know how to express what he wanted. Whatever the case, they were afraid of the authentic divine and they chose something more appealing. Simpler. More fun. Less frightening. Who knows. The divine is not something to be feared. The whole thing about divine reward or divine punishment is a bit of a misstatement. When we are in tune with our innermost selves, the results are absolutely satisfying and fulfilling. That's the reward. When we rely on the lies and the fear to dictate our actions, our lives are frustrating, shallow, and painful. That's the punishment. To be completely honest, sometimes life is legitimately frustrating and painful. It's just that when we are in tune with our innermost selves, we know what to do with that frustration and pain.
So, recognize your strengths, and recognize that what you think of as weaknesses may actually be strengths in the right circumstances. Be aware of codependency, and make the necessary changes regarding personal responsibility to honor your self and the people around you. You are responsible for your beliefs and actions. Other people are responsible for their beliefs and actions. Stop being afraid of what your divine nature wants for you. It's you. You are you. Let yourself be yourself. The cycle of fear and distrust and miraculous rescues does not have to be a theme in your life. Know yourself at the deepest level possible, and you will find strength and peace and beauty and inspiration and truth. It may take a little work. It is so worth it.