“The mighty men of old”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
There are plenty of common mistakes people make when they read the Bible. One of them is to make the unwarranted assumption that God approves of everything that appears in it. On the most basic level, this is easy to disprove—no one would seriously suggest that Satan’s lie in Genesis 3.4, “You will not surely die,” has God’s approval. It’s a direct contradiction of what God had just said in the previous chapter, and is used to tempt Eve into sin. Yet, there it is, in the Bible. It’s easy enough to avoid this pitfall where Satan is directly involved, but what about when the actions are performed by men and women throughout the whole book, many of whom belong to God’s chosen people?
Often the text tells us whether God approves. Cain and Abel provide an easy example: “And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard” (Ge 4.4-5). But in the absence of such a clearly stated judgement, often readers get the wrong idea. For example, due to God’s general approval of people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, they may assume everything these men did had God’s approval, unless it is clearly stated otherwise. Nowhere in the text does God mention to Jacob that his acquisition of four wives is a problem. Does that mean God is approves of polygamy? Of course not! To begin with, the pattern he clearly established with Adam and Eve was monogamy. God gave occasional hints that it was wrong, whether by his words (Ge 17.18-19, 21.12) or by the volatile family dynamics that resulted (like Joseph being sold into slavery by his half-brothers), but didn’t choose to focus on it at that time. Yet, it was wrong then, and is wrong today.
Jumping forward in the story, we come across Gideon. This unlikely and unambitious judge of Israel did a lot to clean up his nation, in terms of their oppression at the hands of their neighbors, their departure from worshipping God, and even their own internal divisions. He even shunned the great power the Israelites offered him—after saving the nation, he said, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Jdg 8.23). This is a truly rare occurrence, and the decision speaks well of Gideon. Yet, he did accept payment for his services to the nation, and while that was certainly justified, what did he do with the gold they willingly gave him? It was worth roughly a million dollars, in today’s money and at today’s prices, and that sum would go much, much farther in daily life in such an agrarian—and comparatively primitive—society. He’d be set for life, including a substantial amount to pass down to his (many) sons. Instead, he turned the whole collection into an ephod—this isn’t exactly an idol, and could have been perfectly harmless, but we’re told very briefly that it “became a snare to Gideon” because the people worshiped it as an idol (Jdg 8.27). How exactly did this “snare” him? We’re not told. But it’s an indicator that, even if the initial action was acceptable, the way Gideon handled what followed did not meet with God’s approval.
Let’s consider another example in the book of Judges, this time one of the roughest stories in the whole Bible. When the men of Gibeah demand access to a visiting Levite in order to sodomize him, it’s not difficult to figure out who are the bad guys in this story. This leaves us to assume that the people under siege inside the house are the good guys, but just two verses later, the master of the house tells the predators outside,
here are my virgin daughter and [my guest’s] concubine. Let me bring them out now. Violate them and do with them what seems good to you, but against this man do not do this outrageous thing. (Judges 19.24)
Most readers are probably still horrified at this suggestion, but often come away with the impression that, since this is coming from one of the good guys, his suggestion is somehow a more acceptable alternative to what the bad guys were planning. When we step back for a moment and assess the whole situation, it quickly becomes obvious that raping a woman is no less serious an offense than raping a man. They’re equally despicable, and suddenly it seems the story isn’t about the good guys and bad guys, but about the bad guys and the worse guys!
This doesn’t mean that everyone in the Bible is vile and depraved; it means they’re people, just like the people in the world today. Yet, we tend to think of them as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown,” to borrow from Genesis 6.4. Instead of attributing physical prowess to them, we attribute moral prowess, and that’s not accurate, or fair. These people were guilty of sins, including truly horrible ones.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore their achievements, or the relationships they cultivated with God—recognition of their faults isn’t an excuse to assert our own moral superiority. Rather, it shows that the problems we face today are not new, and reminds us that God still uses and even loves seriously flawed people. That’s good news for us, because we have many flaws of our own. Of course, you shouldn’t imitate the faults of these “mighty men.” Instead, you should take advantage of redemption in Christ, and let him take even someone as sinful as you, cleanse you, and use you to accomplish important work for his kingdom.