The Lord said to Gideon, “You have too many men. I cannot deliver Midian into their hands, or Israel would boast against me, ‘My own strength has saved me.’” Judges 7:2
Life is mostly about understanding how little you know about power.
About four-thousand years ago, people started moving. This is notable because, by the oft-poetic account of Genesis, most of these people had never moved before. A fertile valley on the Persian Gulf was the two-hundred-year’s home of virtually everyone who descended from the inhabitants of Noah’s ark. Little did they know how true their coming disruption would foreshadow the story of the Jewish people. And even less could they fathom how closely their disappointment would relate to our lives in modern times.
Mesopotamia was prodigious, comfortable, familiar, unified, autonomous, and increasingly renown—all the hallmarks of power. As a spectacle of that power, the people began construction on what would later be called the “Tower of Babel”, a spiraling staircase into the heavens. But God intervened. The thriving nation that originated from the small band that exited the ark on Mount Ararat was forcibly segregated into multiple language groups and nations, none of which would ever permanently exercise dominion over the Earth.
Because they had all the things that make people feel powerful, and the creator of the universe (not to mention Babylonia) from the very beginning has demonstrated nothing but a sheer obsession with impressing in our minds that we aren’t at all powerful like we think we are—that we are utterly dependent upon some Being that we have never seen before. This is the truth; and while I don’t know exactly why it’s so important that we ascent to that truth, it appears important enough that God allows us to be subject to considerable pain learning it. There is something mysterious in the air around us.
My experience having taught in depth on the Old Testament is that most modern-day Christians treat it as merely a long text that pointed to the coming of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong, God did point the way to the coming of Jesus, and in compelling ways. But there’s a lot more to the Old Testament than prophecy about the messiah and about a cumbersome law we no longer follow. If the whole point was Jesus, it would have cost many fewer human lives to skip all the Old Testament’s war, destruction, genocide, and terror and just go straight to the love and mercy stuff.
Jesus actually is a comparatively small function of the Old Testament. Yes, you read that correctly.
Because for every prophecy about Jesus, another theme gets ten times as much treatment. The Old Testament is the story, told in the context of a different covenant, of how God teaches his people to rely on him. The way God taught a nation of Hebrews living on the easternmost banks of the Mediterranean Sea is the same way God teaches every one of us today. The story of the Jews is your story. While our covenant involves spiritual things as opposed to physical things, and while our covenant is eternal rather than temporal, we learn the basic truths of the real but invisible spiritual world through the physical and observable stories of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is almost entirely about the true nature of power.
Among the early migrants from the tower of Babel was a man we know as Abraham (who’s name then was Abram). Abraham moved from the Tower of Babel as a youngster and settled with his father in the land of Harran for about seventy years. Despite the early disruption in his life, things were becoming comfortable again. Then God told him to leave everything: his extended family, his land, his people, his familiarity, his safety—everything that rooted him. God not only told him to leave, but, in a time when the Earth couldn’t have been mapped very well, didn’t even have the courtesy to tell him where he was going. Abraham left his life’s worth of sweat, toil, and reward because of the command of an unknown and invisible god (Abraham and his family, like everyone from Mesopotamia had many carved gods).
Power is control. We exercise power when we conform our surroundings in accordance with our will. We lose power when we are put in unfamiliar situations. The less predictable the outcome, the less power.
And because we all want power, familiarity becomes an obsession for most people. God wanted Abraham to know unfamiliarity. Again, I don’t understand the power and role of faith in the spiritual world—mostly because I don’t understand the spiritual world—but I do understand that all the rewards of that power require aligning yourself to a faith that makes no sense. The rewards for Abraham were coming, though they took awhile.
God stopped Abraham in Palestine and made a great promise there—that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. Keep in mind, Abraham was almost eighty-years old and childless when he received this promise. And his wife, Sarah, was much too old for children. So, given these obstacles, Abraham did what any even-headed and rational man would do in that situation—have sex with his wife’s servant girl, Hagar (because what could go wrong with having sex with your wife’s servant girl?). Hagar indeed had a child, Ishmael. However, as Abraham would find out, the child was not the one through whom the promise would be carried out. Ishmael and his descendants became a nightmare for the Hebrews. And as if it had to be said, Abraham’s relationship with his wife seemed to suffer for the next decade.
However, after years of agony following Abraham’s decision, Sarah was empowered to do the impossible: She gave birth to Isaac, culminating twenty years of waiting on God to fulfill his promise.
Abraham initially pursued a desired outcome by the only means that made sense to him. He hadn’t yet learned to let go of the seductive power of the familiar. God put Abraham, and so today puts us, through the unfamiliar in order to demonstrate the powerlessness and frustration of the cause-and-effect world around which we naturally base our decisions. God says to each of us today “I am bigger than your scientific mind.” (disclaimer: this is not an article against science)
But God was really was just warming up.
Fast forward several generations. Joseph, the youngest of twelve sons of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, had two specific dreams, both of which suggested that his family was going to serve him in the future. Of course, in a primogeniture society such as his, this was ridiculous. The youngest child would inherit next to nothing and be charge of next to nothing. Further, Joseph’s brothers sold him as a slave to an Egyptian. Then he was put in jail by his master’s wife on false sexual assault charges.
Joseph, who while enduring the lowest time of his life, by the direction of God was then abruptly made second in command of all of Egypt. In his position, he effectively staved off the effects of a regional famine and later was able to humiliate this brothers who came to Egypt in search of food.
Joseph is an example of how God defies the human instinct to pursue status as a means of empowering ourselves. We go so out of our way to liked, to be admired, and thought well of, mostly because of its utility in obtaining what we want. So God, of course, picked the most unimportant person, put him in the most humble and humiliating of circumstances, and then elevated him to the top. For me, the following New Testament verse, among many others, comes to mind:
“God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” Paul’s First Letter to Corinth
Joseph died and so did Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s successor took the Hebrews captive and made them the slaves of the Egyptians for what would end up being recorded as five-hundred years. This was the first of three liberations in the Bible. More on this below.
God inflicted the famous “ten plagues” on the Egyptians before the Egyptians finally freed the Hebrews. God chose Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, but sometime after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind (or rather, his mind was changed for him) and sent his soldiers to trap the Israelites against the Red Sea. The Hebrews, perhaps understandably, began to blame Moses. Moses, however, who had experienced God in the wilderness, reached out to God. And God split the waters, which allowed the Hebrews to cross on dry land. Of course, the waters violently rushed back once all the Egyptian soldiers reached the sea floor.
The Hebrews on the banks of the Red Sea demonstrated something that is probably familiar to everyone in some unique way. You free yourself from something that enslaves you, but it pursues you and traps you again. And, overpowered like the Hebrews, you see no option but surrender. God, however, speaks loudly through this story: “You aren’t trapped at all. I am more powerful than the thing you believe is trapping you. I am more powerful than your chains and I am your way of escape.”
Joshua led the Hebrews after Moses’s death, beginning the controversial war section of the Bible. This is where many non-believers claim a contradiction in the love and non-violence of Jesus that would come later—from where many non-believers decide not to believe. Christians pay too little attention to this part of the Bible to our detriment, because the concerns of non-believers are genuine. Let’s be very real: God ordered genocide. Men, women, and children—combatants and noncombatants—all were put to the death by the order of God. It was genocide.
I have more to say about this later in the article. Keep reading.
Jericho was a major impediment to the Hebrews obtaining the nation in Palestine that was promised Abraham. So, God had Joshua organize the Hebrews, but not according to the most tried-and-true military logic. The Hebrews were to march around Jericho, which was fortified by high walls, once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. On the seventh day, after the seventh lap, they were to simply shout. Yes, just shout.
So they went about it. And on the seventh day, God caused the walls to come down. Pay close attention to what God says:
“I have delivered Jericho into your hands”
No kidding! No one could brag about conquering Jericho. There would be no stories about brilliant military planning and execution. No, they simply marched and yelled. And God showed his power.
Gideon has a similar story. During his time, the Israelites had become subject to the much more powerful nation of Midian, who treated them oppressively. Gideon was not exactly a fearless warrior. Yet, God’s messenger bluntly instructed him to lead the Israelites against Midian. He even addressed Gideon as “mighty warrior.”
Gideon assembled an army of thirty-two thousand, but God told him that he had too many. So twenty-two thousand were sent home—an incredible act of faith against such a vast Midian army. But, God wasn’t satisfied. So more were sent home. By the end of the purges, only three hundred soldiers remained.
Against an army described as more numerous than the “sand on the seashore”, the battle plan was simply to blow trumpets, burn torches, and smash pottery. This was the ultimate of vulnerability. Yet, according to the account in the Old Testament, God caused the Midianites to turn on each other out of fright from the startling noise. In the end, the Israelites didn’t have to fight; the Midianites had defeated themselves.
Sometime after Gideon, Philistia met Israel for war. Among their number was a giant man named Goliath. The nine-foot tall man announced that the Philistines would become the servants of the Israelites if an Israelite were to beat Goliath in one-on-one combat. The combatant? Young David, the shepherd boy who won the battle and would soon be made king of all of Israel.
Sometime into King David’s reign, David decided to conduct a census in order to know how many Israelites were on hand to fight. Strangely, the text says that David was conscience stricken as soon as he got the census numbers. And immediately thereafter, God sent a plague on Israel resulting in roughly seventy-thousand people dying. I found this whole thing strange at first. You can read the whole law and not find anything to forbid taking a census. The words “Thou shalt not take a census” simply do not appear.
So why was this such a big sin? Well, ask yourself: why was the size of David’s army relevant? It was never relevant before. Re-read Gideon’s story if you don’t believe me. So, the fact that David was concerned with the size of his army tells you all you need to know about David’s faith at that time. And so, because of the collective nature of the old covenant, lots of people died.
Are you seeing a pattern? First, God’s power is greater than our earthly conception of power. None of those stories make sense: Joshua defeated Jericho by marching around it; David, who had barely hit puberty defeated a nine-foot tall warrior; and Gideon an insecure man with an army of three-hundred defeated a Midian army of hundreds of thousands. Absent the power of God, no one would do these things. Second, tapping into God’s power requires us to forego our Earthly conception of power. When we talk about faith, this is what we’re talking about. Again, no army with any hope of winning a battle would do what Joshua and Gideon did; no teenager would be sent to fight a giant like Goliath; and no military strategist would go to battle without knowing his troop count. But they did so in reliance upon an invisible and nonsensical power. When they did these things, they saw God work.
I’m skipping a whole lot, but the cycle of mistrust and destruction followed by deliverance continued. Sometime after David’s reign, Israel was split into a northern kingdom (called “Israel”) and a southern kingdom (called “Judah”). Assyria, one of the most oppressive nations in recorded history, conquered Israel in the 8th century BCE and Babylon conquered Assyria and Judah in the 6th century BCE. Babylon, having consolidated its conquest, sent the Jews all over the Babylonian empire, the first diaspora since the Tower of Babel 1,500 years prior.
The importance of the second diaspora is that the entire Jewish paradigm was thwarted. The Jewish law is fixated on and the Jewish mindset is obsessed with access to the temple in Jerusalem. While complicated, the law was really just a codification of the means by which a person would remain “clean” so as to be able to enter the temple, where God resided. The diaspora then literally separated God from his people.
The people of God, utterly helpless as slaves, ironically were restored to their place in Jerusalem when King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon. Three-hundred years before King Cyrus, a polytheist, was born, the prophet Isaiah identified Cyrus by name and said that God would “make all his ways straight.” Cyrus is famous for his universal declaration of human rights, which was the most far-reaching compilation of rights the world had seen at that time. In executing his declaration, Cyrus allowed and even financed the Jews to return to and rebuild Jerusalem.
What the Jews could not do for themselves some foreign pagan king did for them instead. Once again, no one would ever be in a position to take credit or boast for their redemption.
[N]ot all who are descended from Israel are Israel. . . . [I]t is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. Romans 9
We have everything in common with these stories. The spiritual warfare you fight is the physical warfare they fought. The terrible carnage of the Old Testament teaches us how we can win against sin, which, make no mistake, is more powerful than you are.
We are like those Mesopotamians who were frustrated despite their pride and determination.
We are like Abraham who was forced to give up the power that comes through familiarity.
We are like Joseph who was made powerful despite his low status.
We are like the Hebrews leaving Egyptian slavery when, despite how powerless we may feel to overcome it, we are rescued by God.
We are like Joshua when God orders us to do something that makes no sense.
We are like Gideon and David when our understanding of size and numbers is made meaningless. We are like them when we become more powerful by becoming more vulnerable.
We are like the nation of Israel when, like the Mesopotamians with their tower, our faith in our own power frustrates us. We are like the nation of Israel when our sin separates us from God.
We are like the nation of Israel when God rescues us despite how little we trust in his power. God rescued the Hebrews from Egypt, the first liberation. He rescued the Israelites from Babylon, the second liberation. He rescues us today from sin, the third liberation. These are the three liberations I promised above.
I also promised a discussion on the genocide in the Old Testament. You are like the nation of Israel, who had to destroy everyone in a conquered place in order to keep the small remnant of survivors from infiltrating the Israelites and corrupting them. When they didn’t do this, and when they later intermarried with foreigners, the result was always that their hearts were turned to other Gods. This is a harsh lesson, but its the perfect illustration of the power of sin.
Make no mistake: sin is a spiritual power that we can’t overcome, even in small amounts. Sin always comes in and grows. And so we have to be ruthless in allowing God to defeat it, just as the Israelites had to be ruthless in allow God to defeat foreigners who would and did turn their hearts away from the requirements of the covenant that existed at the time.
As you can see, the story of the Israelites is your story. You have everything in common with them. And yet, the Old Testament is so neglected in our churches. We put our power in our finances, our government, our status, our comfort zones, our reputation, and our intellect.
God is more powerful than each of these.