Thursday, January 19, 2017

That Wacky Old Testament (7)

How would you like to be publicly executed for the sins of your grandfather? Any takers?

There’s nothing particularly “wacky” about the events of 2 Samuel 21, which involve the capital punishment of seven Israelites for nothing more offensive than being blood relatives of the former King Saul. A story like this may raise questions in our minds about the fairness of Israel’s law, and thus the fairness of God himself.

I had two major goals in mind in introducing our irregular but ongoing “Wacky Old Testament” series: (1) to set some of the more perplexing commands and events of the Old Testament in their historical context, thus making them more comprehensible to the modern reader; and (2) to demonstrate the consistency of God’s character from Testament to Testament. It may be trendy to portray Jesus as gentle and loving, and Jehovah (or YHWH) as barbaric and bloody, but neither portrayal is exactly on the nose.

Let’s see if for once I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.

Bloodguilt on Saul and On His House

In the days of David there was a three-year famine in Israel. Once he was finally consulted, God told David, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” Saul and his family had engaged in a little ethnic cleansing, attempting to wipe out a small group of Amorites that had been allowed to live within the boundaries of Israel in accordance with a solemn, binding vow taken by Israel’s leadership way back in Joshua 9. As Joshua himself put it, the Gibeonites were “cursed” to be servants, cutters of wood and drawers of water for the house of God.

Hmm. You can curse me like that anytime.

And being in permanent servitude was certainly preferable to the alternative: annihilation to the last man. The Gibeonites read the tea leaves and were smart enough to realize that fighting against the people of God was a losing proposition, so they prudently declined to fight. Their agreement with Israel, though negotiated dishonestly, demonstrates that they both respected the power of God and trusted the word of God.

That’s an awfully good start there, and an attitude that more than a few Israelites in that day would have done well to imitate.

Second-Class Citizens

Still, the Gibeonites remained second-class citizens. Even 400 years and however many generations later, they were not considered Israelites. As they tell David, “Neither is it for us to put any man to death in Israel.” They lacked the basic rights given to Israel by God to avenge attacks on one’s family. Had they possessed such rights, the events detailed in this chapter of 2 Samuel would almost surely not have occurred. But they didn’t, and as a result were left no recourse but the justice of God.

The attempted Gibeonite genocide may have been motivated by Saul’s nationalistic zeal, but it was unequivocally wrong. It made liars of Saul’s own ancestors, who had promised the Gibeonites protection. It sent the message to the world of the day that the God of Israel’s word was unreliable. It also sent the message to the rest of Israel that the Gibeonites were fair game: after all, if the government itself was putting them to death, any Israelite with a personal grudge could feel free to do the same and assume he was doing the king a favor.

It was a situation that could not be allowed to stand.

Blood Pollutes the Land

David had not taken any steps to deal with the fallout from Saul’s genocidal impulses, so God took his own stand on behalf of the Gibeonites. He has a habit of doing that when those who trust in him are left without protection. We’re not told how many defenseless servants were unjustly murdered by Saul, but his failure to finish the job had unfortunate consequences for his family.

Since Saul was dead, David gave seven of Saul’s grandsons to the Gibeonites to be publicly hanged.

Not so great for them. Not great for their families. And to many of us, it may not seem fair.

Action, Meet Consequence

Being negatively impacted by the actions of our own family members should be nothing new to us unless we go through the world with blinders on. Here, it’s in our faces and we can’t avoid it. But the sort of “unfairness” that exists in the world as a result of sin is all around us, every minute. Actions have consequences. They seriously (and sometimes permanently) affect the ones we love. Not news, unless we’re in denial.

And sometimes we are.

No father wants to face the fact that his decision to divorce has vastly reduced the prospects of normal social adjustment for his children, handicapped them at school, alienated them from their friends as they bounced from home to home, predisposed them to fail at their own marriages or to avoid marriage altogether, and damaged their relationships with both parents. We may like it or not, but this is what studies show.

No mother wants to look at the face of her newly-born child with her thin upper lip, smooth philtrum and disproportionately small eye openings and concede, “Oopsie. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. I did that.” But sometimes, yeah, you did.

Unpleasant as it is, we cannot avoid the reality that our sins travel through our bloodlines, wreaking havoc as they go. If a story about the hanging of seven grandchildren makes that distastefully explicit, it’s still a lesson worth considering.

Saul’s sins redounded through his family. David’s failure to deal with Saul’s sins had consequences for an entire hungry nation.

Consequences, short-term or long, are one of God’s incentives to us to consider our ways as we go, rather than looking back regretfully at the end of our lives. To actively choose NOT to sin rather than inflict the results of our bad choices on our families. Yes, sadly, deterrence is a real thing, as scripture demonstrates.

Victim’s Rights

Still, we should note that it wasn’t God who commanded that these seven specific individuals die. The Gibeonites chose the method by which they would be compensated. The king chose both the number of Saul’s grandsons to die and the specific individuals whose deaths would serve to satisfy the Gibeonites. We can argue whether David was fair in his choices, but we cannot argue that God told him what to do.

God was notably silent on the matter.

We should also acknowledge that what was required here was not atonement to God but atonement to the victims. Saul, the murderer, was already dead. His blood was shed. What was necessary was that the Gibeonites be satisfied, and “bless the heritage of the Lord”. When they did, the famine was lifted.

So let’s not put the death of these men on God. What the incident does illustrate very vividly is that God is deeply concerned about the rights of victims in a way that our society is not.

The Dignity of Causality

Further, we can hardly miss the lesson that when God assigns responsibility to men, that charge comes with real-world consequences. God has dignified human beings with causality, with genuine agency. He expects us to act on his behalf to deal with the injustices that happen on our watch; if not as kings, then certainly in our capacity as fathers or elders.

Notice that God didn’t immediately send word to David to address the Gibeonite question the moment that he replaced Saul on the throne of Israel. He allowed David more than 25 years to come up with a way to make amends. David failed to resolve the matter — perhaps he even failed to consider it — and still God waited. It seems to me God is quite reluctant to overturn the decisions of those he appoints. For the most part, he prefers to allow events to take their course and men to deal with the affairs of men.

Almost like free will matters to him, if I can use that rather controversial term.

God’s reluctance to constantly interfere in the course of history is, in fact, a gracious accommodation on his part. As the Psalmist puts it:
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

He Who Did Not Spare His Son

Are you unhappy that God absolutely insists on the enforcement of covenants? (Think about that one before you answer.)

Regardless, it is evident that God takes his own rules far more seriously than we do. We don’t know if Saul’s grandsons were personally involved in murdering Gibeonites, though that would not be a stretch given the timeline.

What we do know is that the Son of God who shed his blood for the sins of the world was, in the word of the writer of Hebrews, “holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners”. He walked this world in absolute perfection. He never failed to please his Father, and nobody could successfully accuse him of sin. And yet Isaiah could say that despite this, Jehovah has “made the iniquity of us all to fall on him.”

The idea that one person might be asked to pay the penalty for the sins of others is not a new one. Let’s face it: the principle of substitutionary sacrifice is the basis for our own salvation.

We may not like the fact that our actions have consequences. Many people today don’t. In our ignorance of the true wickedness and offensiveness of sin, we may even consider God’s remedies bloodthirsty and barbaric. But if we do consider God unfair to Saul’s grandchildren, how much more unfair must we consider his dealings with his own beloved Son?

One thing about God: He’s never inconsistent.

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