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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Gideon in Judges and Hebrews - A Contradiction?

A number of you have asked recently about an apparent contradiction between the way Gideon is portrayed in the book of Judges and the way he is portrayed in Hebrews 11.  This is a great question, and since more than one of you have asked, it is reasonable to assume that there are others who have the same question.  So let’s look at this.

Those of you who have been with us from the beginning of Judges are aware of its less-than-flattering pictures of some of the judges.  Barak was seemingly a coward, unwilling to obey the Lord’s command to deliver the people of Israel from Sisera unless a woman went with him (4:4-10).  Gideon was a fraidy-cat-turned-tyrant, bent on seeking his own glory rather than God’s (6:11-8:28).  Jephthah, we will see, murdered his own daughter in accordance with a hastily made vow (11:29-40).  Later, he went to war with his own countrymen, slaughtering 42,000 of them (12:1-6).  Sampson was an undisciplined brute, who broke every tenet of his Nazirite vow, and whose inability to say no to forbidden women resulted in his tragic demise (13:1-16:31).  Not the kind of fellows you want courting your daughters.

But if you read Hebrews 11, the so-called “Hall of Faith”, you might wonder if there were two sets of these guys.  After reciting a long list of faithful works of many Old Testament figures, the author writes this, beginning in v32:

And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets-- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight (Heb 11:32-34).

Huh?  It would be easier to handle if the author had instead mentioned the earlier judges, Othniel, Ehud, or Deborah, but he only includes the worst judges.  Can it be possible that the Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah in Hebrews 11 are the same Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah found in Judges?  Or do we have a bona fide contradiction? 

First of all, let me explain what would be required for there to be a genuine contradiction.  If Judges asserted that these figures never exercised faith or if Hebrews 11 asserted that they never did anything sinful, then we would have a contradiction.  For Judges to show that they were sinful and Hebrews to show that they demonstrated faith is no contradiction.  Otherwise, you and I are walking contradictions.  Nevertheless, let’s see why the two books don’t present the same sides of these guys.

Authorial intent is the key.  What did the divine author of both books intend to teach by what was included in each text?  Let’s start with the book of Judges.  There are two parallel themes running through the book – the Canaanization of Israel and God’s determination to save His people.  The Canaanization theme shows the moral and spiritual deterioration of Israel during the judges period.  With each judge cycle, the people become more and more steeped in their idolatry and apostasy.  As we’ve seen, the judges themselves also show this progression. 

So what is the point of this portrayal of deterioration?  To show that man needs a Savior.  (The other theme – God’s determination to save – points to the fact that God will provide such a Savior.)  In accomplishing this intent, the author included only those stories that would contribute to the development of those themes.  Further, He told those stories in such a way as to highlight the elements of each story that would maximize that message.

Does that mean that what Hebrews says about these guys is not a contradiction?  Did they demonstrate faith?  Yes, each one of them fought in the deliverance of the people of Israel, acts of implicit faith (4:9-10, 14-16; 7:1, 15-23; 11:32; 14:4, 19; 15:7-8, 15; 16:28-30).  The reason that the author did not make more of this or even include some of the very positive things that these judges did is because doing so would not contribute to the overall themes.  Worse, including those things would make the point extremely difficult to recognize, defeating the purpose of their being written in the first place. 

For example, what if between the stories of Gideon flogging the Succothites and taking revenge on the kings of Midian, the author included a heart-warming story about Gideon rescuing a litter of blind puppies?  (Pretend for a second that Gideon actually did this.) First of all, it’s irrelevant.  Second, it would confuse the point.  The author only chooses those episodes that serve the overall theme. Interpreters of the Bible should be thankful for this – its makes our job much easier.

Now, what is the authorial intent in Hebrews 11?  To show the Canaanization of Israel or God’s determination to save?  Not at all.  The intent is completely different.  Following the magnificent exposition of the superiority of Christ in Hebrew 1:1-10:18, the author then moves to exhort the reader to faith and perseverance11:1-40 contains a series of examples of faith and perseverance in the lives of Old Testament figures.  11:1 begins the chapter: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.  The OT figures are then described as acting in accordance with their certainty of a future reward (11:13-16, 26).  The point is then summed up in 12:1-2:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:1-2 ESV)

Thus the author uses the faithful acts of OT figures to exhort the NT believer to run the race with endurance.  They persevered based on a mere shadow of the things promised – how much more ought we to persevere who have received the full revelation of Jesus Christ?

So, just like in Judges, the Holy Spirit inspired the inclusion of only the material necessary to make that point.  This is illustrated not only in the omission of any negative material about these four judges, but also that of the rest of the people mentioned in the Hall of Faith.  Noah was a naked drunk (Gen 9:20-27); Abraham was willing to sacrifice his wife’s purity to save his own skin (Gen 12:10-13); he and Sarah chose a sinful human solution to their problem of childlessness (Gen 16:1-3); Jacob deceived his father and stole his brother’s blessing (Gen 27:1-46); Moses was a murderer who later disobeyed God and forfeited his entrance into the promised land (Exo 2:11-12; Num 20:6-12); and David committed adultery and tried to cover it up by committing murder (2 Sam 11:1-27).  Why not include these facts in Hebrews 11?  The ESV Study Bible note for Heb 11:2 provides a great answer:

“The author does not focus on [these figures’] failings, since his goal is to positively illustrate what faith looks like...”

This might prompt a question: Is it legitimate for a biblical author to present a certain figure a certain way for a certain purpose in one book but to use the figure differently in another book?  Isn’t this cheating?  No, these are just different, but completely true snapshots of the same life.  Suppose I want to illustrate to someone the depravity of man using examples from my own life.  I could trot out such snapshots from here until the Lord takes me home, without ever mentioning a single Christ-like act that God has graciously worked through me.  To do so would not be dishonest in any way.  All of those snapshots of my depravity were actual episodes in my life that serve to demonstrate the potential for evil in the human heart.  It all comes down to the particular message I am trying to demonstrate. 

One might wonder why in our Judges sermon series I have not spent time dealing with Hebrews 11 or trying to marry the two texts.  The short answer is that when studying or preaching a certain text, the object is to be faithful to the biblical author’s intent for that text.  If I read Hebrews 11 into every episode regarding Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah in Judges, I am going to skew the author’s intent.  The reverse is true as well.  We shouldn’t read Judges into Hebrews 11.   

That is not to say that we can’t or shouldn’t interpret Scripture with Scripture.  It is simply to say that to do so accurately, we must take into account the authorial intent behind each text.  When we do that, a multitude of Bible “contradictions” disappear.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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