* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, September 3, 2012

Judges 10-12: When Breaking an Agreement Might Be a Good Idea

A couple of leaders get a mention after the wicked Abimilek meets his end, but the next judge of the Israelites that gets any real attention is Jephthah.  His story is a reminder that sometimes people are going to base their actions on personal prejudices rather than a person's capability.  Even though there is some debate about how literally to interpret a vow that Jephthah makes, there is something to be taken from the story regarding the agreements we make.

The story of Jephthah is another tale of an unlikely savior.  He isn't a southpaw or a woman, but he is a bastard.  When his legitimate half-brothers thought he posed a threat to their inheritance, they sent Jephthah away.  Then, when there was a threat from the Ammonites, they wanted him to be commander-in-chief of the tribe of Manasseh.  He was understandably suspicious, but with the agreement that he would be put in a position of power if he was victorious, he set his sights on turning back the Ammonites.

His initial diplomatic message to the Ammonite king suggests that either Jephthah had a sketchy idea of Israelite history or he was trying to pull the wool over the Ammonite's eyes.  Or perhaps the writers of Judges and the writers of the book of Joshua were working from different historical perspectives for different purposes.  Whatever the case, Jephthah's version of history isn't the main point to his message.  His primary thrust is, "Our god gave us this land.  Be happy with what your god gave you and stop trying to take our land."  Since the history is a bit fuzzy, there isn't a great deal to be gained from considering how boldly ironic this statement is.

The Ammonite king, of course, disregards the message, battle ensues, and Jephthah is blessed by the Spirit of the Lord.  He vows to sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house if he returns victorious, and he wins the battle.  Unfortunately, the first thing out of his door is his daughter, but being a man of his word, he sacrifices her.  It isn't entirely clear what this means, since translators disagree about some of the nuance.  Obviously, sacrificing anyone as a burnt offering has never been an approved act of worship in the Israelite tradition.  The only thing that came close was Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, but in that story, God intervenes and stops the sacrificial act, distinguishing his values from the supposed values of the other gods of the area.  As the story reads, God seems to be fine with Jephthah's vow -- he doesn't intercede in any way.  But it may be that Jephthah's daughter was simply dedicated to God in some less brutal way.

Still, killing one's daughter because of a vow doesn't seem that far out of context for the behavior of the ancient Israelites.  They committed some fairly barbaric acts when it comes down to it.  When the men of a fellow tribe challenge Jephthah for not letting them in on the opportunity to claim some Ammonite spoils, these two tribes of Israel become adversarial, with the Gileadites killing an astonishing forty-two thousand Ephraimites before all is said and done.  It's perhaps a small comfort that when someone makes fun of the way you pronounce a word these days, you usually have only a bit of pride at stake.

In any case, the Israelites' view of God is different here.  Yes, bad things are punishments from God, and good things are rewards from God.  Human endeavor is given very little weight in the grand scheme of things.  It is a pervasive cultural dismissal of personal responsibility.  "If we killed all those people, then obviously God wanted us to kill all those people.  Otherwise he would have done something about it."  "If God let insects eat your crops, then obviously he was angry at you."  I suppose one could say that the Israelites were in the position of power because they could stop their worship of other gods at any time and be the kind of people Yahweh wanted them to be, but they were obviously getting something out of their decisions.  That something may have been freedom from responsibility.

When we are criticized or looked down upon because of who our parents are, or because of our accents, or because of what our leaders have said, it's important to remember that the people doing the criticizing aren't seeing us.  They are seeing a characteristic that represents a personal fear for them somehow.  When we can behave in a superior way toward something that represents fear, we think we are being courageous.  Many times we are just being bullies to people.  Other people don't deserve to be punching bags for us to work out our innermost fears in an outwardly violent way.  Whether they take the shape of judgments, prejudices, or outright hatred, our fears are ours to own.  When we recognize the symptoms of fear gone out of control, it's our responsibility to manage that fear in a way that doesn't bring harm to other people.  That becomes easier to do when we recognize our personal responsibility for our actions and beliefs.

We make all sorts of agreements with ourselves.  Some of those agreements are based on fear, but some of them are based on legitimate striving for a more satisfying, fulfilling existence.  We want to protect ourselves, or we want to give ourselves incentive or encouragement, and so we start making deals.  "If I get this job, I will allow myself to celebrate."  Or "If I lose this job, I'm going to give myself permission to get revenge."  We don't necessarily do this consciously, but we are making deals like Jephthah all the time.  If you want to think of it as making deals with God, that's fine.  At the end of the day, though, God isn't going to hold you accountable to reckless vows.  You will.  Or you will let yourself be human and realize that you can break the vows with yourself that are harmful to you and other people.

It's easy for us to dig in our heels when we think that there is some divine power looking down on us and rigidly judging what we do and think.  We think we are obligated to follow through with something because we've made a commitment, even after we realize that what we've committed to may not be the wisest course of action.  Whether you believe that the divine is within you or outside of you, the character of the divine is not unreasonable, unyielding, or unforgiving.  We often misplace those characteristics on the divine because we are unwilling to be reasonable or forgiving with ourselves.  We think that it means something horrible about who we are if we go back on our word.  Breaking the reckless, harmful agreements with ourselves actually means that we are able to learn, that we are able to be wise, that we are able to forgive.

There will be more opportunity to look at the character of the divine, and more opportunity to look at the agreements we make with ourselves.  For now, the story of Jephthah seems to be saying these three things: Verify that your information is accurate before you go to war in your life.  Deal with your fear (judgment, prejudice, hatred, ...) in a healthy way, not in a way that brings harm to you or any other person.  Examine the agreements you've made with yourself about who and how you must be, and develop a willingness to break those agreements that do not reflect the deep truth, undeniable beauty, and inspiring creativity you possess.  You are capable of creating more in your life than strict adherence to reckless vows.

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