Today, after dropping Moriah off at the airport, I drove back home to Grande Prairie. From Red Deer to Edmonton and even some distance farther north, the roads were great. From Mayerthorpe to Valleyview, however, they weren’t. (A strange geographical fact: it seems that the weather is almost always bad near Fox Creek. On the trip down, it was clear and sunny … except for some distance before and after Fox Creek.) The last leg of the journey was better, though: the wind had died down, the snow had stopped, and the only problem was that some of the people in the bare lanes didn’t want to go the speed limit.
I was supposed to have a dress rehearsal tonight, but it was moved earlier, so I missed it. I’ll have a practice with Jubilate, my singing group, tomorrow morning and a dress rehearsal early tomorrow afternoon, and then I’ll be in two concerts, one at 4:00 and the other at 7:00. Jubilate is helping the Grande Prairie Boys Choir and Opera Nuova with Amahl and the Night Visitors and we’re also doing a short concert before each of the two performances. Besides the Amahl stuff (we and the boys are shepherds) we’re doing Bach’s “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” Niles’s “Carol of the Angels,” Gibbons’ “Vive in Pace,” Purcell’s “Fairest Isle,” and three Hungarian folk songs.
Add to that a concert for the Festival of Carols on Monday night, a concert for the Rotary club on Friday night, and a presentation (on the social implications of the doctrine of the Trinity) for Varsity Christian Fellowship at the Regional College on Wednesday, besides my two sermons and two Bible studies, and it looks as if next week will be pretty full.
Time now to relax, drink some tea, and read before bed!
Last Thursday, November 20th, I left Grande Prairie, accompanied by Alex, and headed for Edmonton, where we met up with Dick and two more of his sons. That evening, we went out to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
On Friday, we took part in Classis Western Canada (URCNA) Fall 2003. Several aspects of that meeting were very encouraging, not least the withdrawal or defeat of some of the overtures. It was also good to be able to visit with some old friends, one of whom, like me, was also dressed like a minister.
That evening, Moriah flew into Edmonton. We visited that evening with some friends of mine in Edmonton, and then on Saturday we drove down to Red Deer to visit my family. (My sister also flew into Edmonton that Friday evening.) It’s been an enjoyable week. Last night, Moriah and I went out to see Master and Commander and enjoyed it (in my case, enjoyed it again, even though it was the second time I’d seen it in a week). I highly recommend it, and I’m looking forward now to reading the novel(s) it was loosely based on.
While here, I finished Iris Murdoch’s The Unicorn, on which my jury is still out; I’m not sure what to think about it. Now I’m reading Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill and loving it. Here are a couple of quotations from this delightful novel:
That which is large enough for the rich to covet … is large enough for the poor to defend.
He knew the secret of the passion, those secrets which make real old national songs sound so strange to our civilization. He knew that real patriotism tends to sing about sorrows and forlorn hopes much more than about victory. He knew that in proper names themselves is half the poetry of all national poems. Above all, he knew the supreme psychological fact about patriotism, as certain in connexon with it as that fine shame comes to all lovers, the fact that the patriot never under any circumstances boasts of the largeness of his country, but always, and of necessity, boasts of the smallness of it.
All long programmes, on political or other occasions, are a mistake. It is utterly an error, for instance, to suppose that because the list is long the individual speakers will make short speeches. People never make short speeches. A short speech is a rare, romantic, heroic exploit, much more uncommon than a religious martyrdom or a VC [Victoria Cross, awarded for bravery in the face of the enemy]. When people are on their legs (as they always say) you will find it very difficult to get them off their legs, except by pulling them off. I have seen many meetings — political, religious, irreligious, festive, funereal, and even financial. And I can with a clear conscience lay it down, as the outcome of all human experience, that there are in this world of ours only two kinds of speakers. There are two public orators and no third. The first is the man who is making a good speech and won’t finish. The second is the man who is making a bad speech and can’t finish. The latter is the longer. — G. K. Chesterton, “On Long Speeches and Truth,” The Illustrated London News, February 24, 1906.
I’ve been preaching through Judges and this Sunday I’m coming to Judges 16, the story of Samson and Delilah. Puzzling things happen all through the story of Samson, starting with him being moved by the Spirit (13:25) to marry a Philistine woman, a marriage which his parents didn’t understand but which was “of the LORD” (14:4).
Then, Samson defeats a lion in a vineyard, representing the Philistines in the Promised Land, and the LORD provides honey from the lion’s carcass, which Samson, moved by the Spirit, uses as a riddle at his wedding party. By the use of the riddle, he is going to force the Philistines to choose: Will they acknowledge defeat and come to him for the answer? Or will they cheat?
They cheat and Samson knows it: there’s only one person he told the riddle to. By telling his wife the riddle, Samson was forcing her to choose too: Will she trust her husband, who can rip up a lion barehanded or will she side with the Philistines against him? She makes the wrong choice.
But when she tells the Philistines the riddle, they also must choose: Will they keep oppressing God’s people? Will they despise the one who can tear up lions with his bare hands? Or will they humble themselves and turn to the LORD, the God of Samson? They make the wrong choice: “What is sweeter than honey? What is stronger than a lion?” Well, Samson is, for starters! And the Word of the LORD is sweeter than honey (Ps. 19), so they’d better start listening to Samson. But they miss the point of the riddle, reject the Messiah, and fall under God’s judgment.
The riddle in the first story about Samson sets the tone for the rest of the Samson story. There are riddles galore here. Samson’s judgment, for instance, is a riddle. Samson maintains that he has judged according to God’s perfect standard of justice, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: “As they did to me, so I have done to them” (15:11). Samson is the judge, authorized to carry out this kind of judgment. But it’s not easy to see how each of his judgments on the Philistines is eye-for-eye.
When the Philistines reveal the answer to the riddle, Samson knows that they cheated to get the answer. And so Samson cheats to give them their reward: he gets the clothes from thirty other men, whom he kills in Ashkelon. They assaulted his wife (James Jordan suggests that “ploughed with my heifer” in 14:18 has sexual overtones and could be seen as rape) and so he assaults them.
Then, when the Philistines’ treatment of his wife and of Samson leads to her being given to the best man, Samson responds by destroying the Philistine harvest. How is that eye-for-eye perfect justice? Most likely because Samson came to his wife expecting to sleep with her, but the Philistines have robbed him of the chance of having offspring, having his own harvest of children. And so he destroys their harvest.
Then things get a bit murkier. What about those three hundred foxes, tied together in pairs, with a torch between each of them? I dunno. The 150 pairs of foxes could perhaps be aimed at the thirty men who stole Samson’s “heifer”: according to the Torah, if you steal a cow, you pay back five times, and 5 X 30 = 150. Why foxes? Why this kind of judgment? I don’t know. But the details must be important or the Spirit wouldn’t have included them here.
Then the Philistines retaliate, fighting fire with fire and doing their own evil sort of eye-for-eye judgment (as they claim in 15:10). They burn Samson’s wife and her father’s house, the very thing they’d threatened to do in 14:15. She sided with them to avoid this sort of death, and (eye for eye) that’s the death she receives from them anyway. But Samson responds by killing many of them “thigh on hip” (or however that’s supposed to be translated). Jordan suggests that this means that he dismembered them and piled up their limbs, the way you would with a sacrifice. They burned up his wife and her family like a sacrifice and he chopped them up like a sacrifice. That’s a suggestion, but I’m not sure yet.
When the men of Judah hand Samson over to the Philistines, he uses the jawbone of a donkey to kill a thousand of them. Then he makes up a little song in which the word “heap” is identical in form to the word “donkey: “With the jawbone of a donkey, one heap, two heaps; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men” or “With the jawbone of a donkey, one donkey, two donkeys; with the jawbone of a donkey, I have slain a thousand men.” It’s a pun: the Philistines are donkeys slain by a donkey’s jawbone. (But why a donkey’s jawbone?)
Now I’ve come to Judges 16, where Samson, like Israel, turns away from the LORD and goes whoring after the Philistine culture, represented by two women. (Delilah may have been an Israelite, but she’s a Philistine at heart.)
What are we to make of the things Samson tells her in this chapter? Is Samson just coming up with stuff out of the blue? Is it not really significant?
In his great tape set on Samson, Samson: The Mighty Bridegroom, Jordan offers a very tentative suggestion. The answers Samson gives may be intended as riddles, as in Judges 14. Samson thinks he’s in control here, hinting at the solution to the secret of his strength, but of course he’s not in control; he’s in sin and he’s ensnared.
The second answer Samson gives is that he must be bound with new ropes (16:11). That’s what the men of Judah bound him with when they handed him over to the Philistines (15:13). Is this second answer hinting back to that previous episode? And if so, does that mean that the other two answers hint back to the other two episodes in the Samson narrative?
The third answer might be linked with the Gaza episode. Samson tells Delilah that if she weaves the seven locks of his hair into the loom he’ll be weak but when he awakens he pulls out the batten and the web of the loom (16:14). Is that parallel to Samson being trapped in Gaza and then pulling up the gates and getting out (16:1-3)? Maybe.
The first one is the hardest to connect to a previous episode. Do seven fresh (i.e., unused) bowstrings hint back somehow to his marriage to the Philistine woman and to the ties of love that bound him to her and the seven day wedding feast? That seems like a stretch.
But I do wonder if there might be something here. After all, the Holy Spirit chose to record these statements for a reason. Part of the reason is that they show us that Samson is playing with his calling.
But is there more going on here? Is Samson subtly saying to Delilah, “They tried to get me by having my wife whom I loved betray me, by having the men of Judah bind me, and by trapping me in Gaza when I was ensnared in a woman’s web, but I got out all three times?”
Here, as Jordan reminds us in his tape set, is another place where “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter” (Prov. 25:2). I’m not yet a good enough king to search out these things. But it’s fun to wrestle with them. And now I need to go and write a sermon on Judges 16.
Recently, I’ve been reading N. T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God, in preparation for preaching a series of sermons on Mark’s Gospel starting sometime early next year. I’ve waded into Wright’s work from the shallow end, starting with the books of sermons and meditations and progressing gradually to the heavier works.
In this volume, Wright make a point which might be obvious but which hadn’t actually occurred to me before. Many of the people attending conservative evangelical churches would be strongly opposed to deconstructionism, viewing its approach as a form of deadly relativism. And yet these same people often bypass careful exegesis in favour of “what this passage means to me” or “what this passage means for me,” which might be different from “what it means to/for you”: a form of radical deconstruction-like relativism!
Most Bible-readers of a conservative stamp will look askance at deconstructionism. But its proposed model is in fact too close for comfort to many models implicitly adopted within (broadly speaking) the pietist tradition. The church has actually institutionalized and systematized ways of reading the Bible which are strangely similar to some strands of postmodernism. In particular, the church has lived with the gospels virtually all its life, and familiarity has bred a variety of more or less contemptible hermeneutical models. Even sometimes within those circles that claim to take the Bible most seriously — often, in fact, these above all — there is a woeful refusal to do precisely that, particularly with the gospels. The modes of reading and interpretation that have been followed are, in fact, functions of the models of inspiration and authority of scripture that have been held, explicitly or (more often) implicitly within various circles, and which have often made nonsense of any attempt to read the Bible historically. The devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text which insists that what the Bible says to me, now, is the be-all and end-all of its meaning; a reading which does not want to know about the intention of the evangelist, the life of the early church, or even about what Jesus was actually like. There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology (p. 60; cf. pp. 54, 66).
When God, through His grace, grants us forgiveness of sins without our merit, so that we need not purchase it or earn it ourselves, we are at once inclined to draw this reassuring conclusion and to say: Well, so we need no longer do good! — Therefore, in addition to teaching the doctrine of faith in His grace, God must constantly combat this notion and show that this is not at all His meaning. Sins are assuredly not forgiven in order that they should be committed, but in order that they should stop; otherwise it should more justly be called the permission of sins, not the remission of sins (Luther, Sermons on Romans, Chapter 8, cited in Thomas Oden, Classical Pastoral Care, vol. 2: Ministry Through Word and Sacrament, pp. 149-150).