Sunday, June 24, 2007

Shechem, Abimelech, Baal-berith

I was reading the particularly unpleasant Judges 9 this morning, and a minor detail struck me. Most of the plot of Judges 9 takes place in Shechem.

Now Shechem comes up quite a lot in the early bits of the Bible. It was the site of a rather painful episode in Genesis 34, where the prince of Shechem rapes Jacob's daughter so some of his sons take revenge.

But it was the site of a lot of good things too. It was where God had appeared to Abraham for the first time after he reached the Promised Land (Genesis 12:6-7). It was where Jacob's family finally rejected idolatry (Genesis 35:4). It was a city of refuge, where someone could flee to to avoid blood feuds and get a proper trial (Joshua 21:21).

But most importantly, it was the site of Joshua's final speech and public farewell in Joshua 24. It was where the people promised solemnly to obey God even though Joshua said they couldn't.

Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel." And the people said to Joshua, "The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey." So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. And Joshua said to all the people, "Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God."
Joshua 24:22-27, ESV

Then we come to Judges 9. Judges is a remarkable demonstration of how God's people keep on needing to be saved, and throughout the book their saviours get less and less conventional, and morally more and more compromised, and the people cry for help less and less. And right in the middle, we get Judges 9 and the story of Abimelech. Normally in Judges, the people need saving from some foreign invaders. In Judges 9 they need saving from their own ruler – Abimelech. I could go on about the story for ages, but I just want to focus on one tiny detail.

The story is set in Shechem – the town of the covenant (covenant in Hebrew is berith), where less than 200 years before there had been a sanctuary of the LORD (Yahweh). Now, what is the main religious institution there? The temple of Baal-berith – Baal of the covenant. Their problem wasn't that they'd all suddenly gone apostate and all decided to become Muslims or Canaanites. It wasn't that there had been lots of immigration of Baal-worshippers. The temple, in the town of Yahweh's covenant, was to Baal of the covenant. It was a process of syncretism. They had blurred the worship of Yahweh and the worship of Baal. They'd taken what they knew to be true about God, and mixed it with what they wanted God to be like, or what the Canaanites around them said God was like until in the end they couldn't tell the difference between the true God and false gods.

And it struck me that there's so much danger of us doing the same. Yes, sometimes it's obvious, like when someone claims to be 100% Muslim and 100% Christian. But sometimes it's smaller. Like when we take ideas from society about what God is like and mix them up with the truth until we can't tell the difference. Does God really punish sin? Does Jesus really claim to be the only way to God? Does following Jesus really mean dying to ourselves and making ourselves nothing so that Jesus can be everything to us? Does God really value humility more than entertainment, or love more than soundness?

Are we really following the God who has revealed himself, or are we following our own ideas or someone else's ideas about what he should be like?

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