It Comes Down to Distance

A God’s-eye view of the book of Judges

“Six hundred men of the Danite clan, armed with weapons of war, set out from Zorah and Eshtaol and went up and encamped at Kiriath-jearim in Judah.” Judges 18:11-12

Bible passages like the one above tend to pluck me straight out of a story. The same thing happens in similarly structured history books, literature, and even movie epics. I cannot tell you a single macro-level detail from any large battle, historical or fictional, in any format. When the scale is ratcheted up to being about hundreds or thousands of people, my brain shuts down. And when the place names involved don’t ground the stories in a place I have a frame of reference for, it’s even worse. This is neither a good nor bad thing, it just is, but it is ultimately incomplete.

I have friends who are the opposite. Their brains are set to soak in these large-scale ideas like a sponge. Whereas my brain is a duck’s back, and things like large-scale battles set in entirely foreign (or in the case of something like Lord of the Rings, made-up) places are water. There are instances of similar big-picture views throughout the book of Judges (and throughout the Old Testament as a whole), so if you struggle with them the way I do, getting through these parts of scripture can be a bit of a slog.

Luckily, no book of scripture is written with only one kind of reader in mind. Maybe you get a better view of things from thirty-thousand feet, maybe when you get too into the weeds, you feel lost. Or maybe like me, you need the small details (I can still recall the jersey numbers of a ludicrous amount of NFL and NBA players of the mid ‘90s), or stories of individuals, or small groups like families, or pockets of a community, to grasp what’s actually being said. (Which is why I’ll probably never be able to make it through a relatively short outline detailing the statistics and logistics of major battles of World War II, but will happily sit through hours of Ken Burns’ The War.)

I think it largely comes down to distance. When I hear that 600 men armed with weapons set out from Zorah, the movie camera in my head zooms out into the panoramic. For some Bible readers, this may be helpful, but it makes me feel entirely removed. And when others get too caught up in minutiae, they feel similarly removed. I don’t think “at a remove” is the viewpoint God generally wants us to have. When we feel that way, as if a story is completely foreign and unrelatable, our hearts don’t engage. The reason we need the smaller, strange stories in Judges, like of Ehud thrusting his sword into the belly of Eglon, the king of Moab, losing his sword to closing folds of fat (3:15-30), or of Samson eating honey out of a lion’s carcass  (14:5-9) or his ill-fated relationship with Deli’lah (16:4-31), is to zoom us back in. To get us to see things from a different vantage point. 

In doing so, we can then see that not only are the Israelites (as a group, on a large scale) doing what is “evil in the sight of the LORD” (3:7, etc.), as the refrain throughout the book goes, but are doing the same as individuals on a small scale. In Judges, the brokenness of Israel and humankind when separated from God, is made real to us in visceral, tangible ways. Maybe we haven’t shoved a sword through someone’s stomach, but have we been cruel in our speech or thoughts toward our enemies? And, if we’re being honest, even our loved ones? Yes, we have, and in the Gospel of Matthew (5:21-26), Jesus doesn’t split hairs.

In her Brazos Theological Commentary on the book of Judges, Laura A. Smit (Calvin University), writes that “We are not invited to read the book of Judges from a perspective of distance or superiority; we are invited to see it as our own frightening story.” That Judges is a book that “serves to demonstrate with stark clarity how deep is our need for a Savior who will rescue us from the effects of our sin.” Sin that continues “to spin out in vast patterns of destruction throughout human history” which “our power is not sufficient to stop.”

Smit later notes that “the vision of Judges is never one of autonomy or radical equality but rather of radical dependence on a sovereign God.” We are not people who love submission. We want to do things our way. We want to see things our way. And we want to believe that our way is the right way. The book of Judges ends on the following variation of the previously mentioned refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25). In making scripture multivalent, multivocal, and in need of different forms of interpretation from different viewpoints, God shows us a better way. Because we are limited by sin, what is right in our own eyes is often not right in another’s, and more often than not, neither is fully right in an ultimate sense.

It is only by being in community with those we disagree with, and faithfully going to the scriptures and praying together, that we can get away from being stuck doing what is right in our own eyes, and instead hope for a glimpse of God’s perfect vision, which is both much wider and more particular than anything we are capable of on our own.

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