Thursday, December 15, 2016

Falling Down Together

The Battle of Gibeon is a perplexing episode in Israel’s history.

Let me set the stage: Saul, the first king of Israel, is dead. The nation has not formally acknowledged a new king but instead is slipping back into tribalism. David has the anointing of God, but lacks a unanimous mandate from the people. His kinsmen in Judah formally recognize David as rightful king, but that probably says less about their spirituality than it does about their sense of family loyalty.

Of course you’d want your guy at the top of the heap. Everybody does.

Dubious About David

The rest of the nation remains dubious about David. Taking advantage of the political instability, Saul’s former general Abner decides to put one of Saul’s sons on the throne of Israel. It’s a pretty standard move in a monarchy, and most of the nation is satisfied with it. King Ish-bosheth reigns over Gilead, the Ashurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin and “all Israel”. King David reigns over Judah.

You have to know that won’t last.

The situation comes to a crisis point around the pool of Gibeon, where David is notably absent. I suspect had he been on the scene, things would have gone very differently.

They Fell Down Together

Israelite General Abner says to Judah’s General Joab, “Why don’t we let the young men test themselves in front of us?” Joab agrees, and twelve young soldiers from each force meet in battle.

Here’s the remarkable part. Why don’t I just let the writer of 2 Samuel narrate?
“Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together.”
Now what do you figure are the odds of that?

A Stunning Improbability

Twenty-four young men improbably decide to employ exactly the same strategy at exactly the same moment and all twenty-four are simultaneously impaled and die together by the pool. I’m a math guy, but it doesn’t take one to see how astoundingly unlikely the whole scenario must have been.

The narrator of God’s word doesn’t call it miraculous, but if we were to acknowledge those twenty-four deaths as a sign of God’s immense displeasure in the proceedings, I don’t think we’d be going too far.

Israelite against Israelite. Brother against brother. Not God’s will by a long shot.

Dead Right

This episode triggers a battle that rages all day and results in 360 dead Israelites and twenty dead from Judah. That’s an astounding casualty ratio of 18:1, which would incline us to think God was with Judah rather than Israel: fighting for David rather than Ish-bosheth.

In fact, we know this to be true. God had initiated David’s original anointing over Israel through Samuel years before. David was walking with God, seeking his will, and had only gone up to Hebron and been anointed king over Judah because God had given him those specific instructions.

But having God on our side doesn’t mean we can always expect to get off without a scratch. Often, we are getting exactly what we deserve.

When Everybody Gets Hurt

Perhaps the episode reminds us how easy it is to find ourselves trying to accomplish the purposes of God in the absence of his Spirit’s initiative and power. “In the flesh,” as the New Testament writers are fond of putting it. Pursuing godly ends through means that are nothing more than natural energy, human strategy and carnal emotions.

Doing the right thing the wrong way.

It’s the same attitude that sometimes corrects my son in anger, rather than out of love. It’s the same mindset that confronts my brother in Christ over his sin out of suppressed jealousy rather than overflowing faithfulness. It’s the same spirit that waves a secretly-satisfied goodbye to a departing faction of church malcontents because we cannot be bothered to really give an ear to their concerns.

It’s Joab and Abner at the pool of Gibeon, and everybody gets hurt. We all fall down together.

No Less Dead

The fact that Judah was on the Lord’s side and doing the Lord’s work did not make its general wiser or nobler than Israel’s general (in fact, the opposite was the case). It did not make the bravado with which both generals sacrificed their young men pleasing to God. It did not make having Israelites at one another’s throats a good thing. It wasn’t.

Most notably, it didn’t make those twenty soldiers from Judah any less dead. An 18:1 fatality ratio might be awfully impressive to a tactician, but it provided small consolation to the men, women and children of Judah whose brothers, sons or fathers were slain on the way to a great victory.

When God’s people divide, everyone loses.

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