Exclusively published to the Touchstone website each week, these Daily Reflections are brief commentaries on the lectionary readings contained in the St. James Daily Devotional Guide. The reflections are penned by Patrick Henry Reardon, editor of the Daily Devotional Guide and a senior editor of Touchstone. Father Reardon provides here a very brief directional clue for one of the texts each day. Long-time readers of the Daily Devotional Guide will find these reflections an additional help to their reading of Holy Scripture which they can print and keep with their Guide.
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Sunday, September 11
Judges 13: Up till now, whenever the Book of Judges spoke of the political oppression of the Israelites, the text invariably went on to say that Israel repented and turned to the Lord. Not here, however. There is no mention of repenting or turning to the Lord. Israel no longer has the ability even to repent. Israel has hit rock bottom, and all human hope is gone verse 1).
In this chapter we observe that God speaks to the woman first, not Manoah (verses 2-7). Earlier, we recall, God spoke first to Rebekah, not Isaac (Genesis 25).
The message of the angle to Manoah's wife touches on the biblical theme of the barren woman (cf. Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, et aliae. The introduction of this theme continues the note of despair with which the chapter began.
We bear in mind that all three of the “permanent Nazirites” in the Bible (Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist) were born of seemingly barren women. Each of these mothers is a kind of new Eve, receiving God's promise in the midst of her own sense of inadequacy.
The second visitation (verses 9-10) reinforces the fact that the message was for the woman. The angel 'deliberately' appears when Manoah is absent. When questioned by Manoah (verse 12), the angel responds that he has already said all he has to say-to the woman! (verse 13) Manoah is the nervous questioner, but all the needful information had already been conveyed in the first apparition. There is nothing to add. The angel simply repeats what he had said before, and this time with less detail (verse 14).
The angel is not going to explain himself. He was sent to earth to convey a promise and a command, not to give a news flash. He was proclaiming God's plan of redemption and man's place in that plan. The salvific initiative is God's. The proper response to the message is obedience, not curiosity for more details.
Manoah, that is to say, is like the rest of the Israelites. None of them have been serving God and seeking His will. But now that God proposes a plan for deliverance, Manoah is full of questions and curiosity. He wants a more active role in the plan. There isn't one. God does not need Manoah. God is not intere3sted in Manoah's questions and curiosities.
Manoah is a curious combination of audacious, inquisitive, controlling, and superstitious. Only such a man will get out of line with an archangel. (Compare Zachary in Luke 1)
Manoah is also not a quick learner (verses 15-23). Having heard the Lord's message, he now wants to deal with the Lord's messenger. Manoah is spiritually insensitive. Indeed, given how dangerous it can be to deal with the biblical God, Manoah is let off pretty easy. He is not struck dead like Uzzah!
But what does Manoah accomplish? At the end of the scene he knows no more than he did at the beginning. God had given as much information as was required. This second apparition of the angel served only to point out Manoah's limitations more clearly.
Manoah's attitude was not unique. On the contrary, he was typical of his own culture, which was shallow, audacious, recklessly inquisitive, and deeply superstitious.
In these respects, Manoah's inherited religious culture was a great deal like our own. Our own culture too knows very little of the biblical God. It is highly subjective, pretentious, and insensitive to the presence of holiness. It craves quick and easy answers to deep and impossibly complex questions. It is a generation disposed to wear its shoes at the Burning Bush. And what does God do with such a generation? He sends someone like Samson to knock some heads together.
The name Samson (verse 24) is a derivative of shemesh, meaning “sun.” Indeed, Samson resembles the sun as described in Psalm 19: “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; he rejoices as a giant to run his course.” The very next chapter will describe Samson as a bridegroom. In fact, after strong man, bridegroom is the description of Samson most easily remembered.
Monday, September 12
Judges 14: It is significant, surely, that all three stories about Samson have to do with women. His addiction to women is Samson's tragic flaw. It would be easy enough to blame the women, I suppose, but tht would be missing the point. The problem is Samson's.
This first story about Samson (verses 1-4) concerns his projected marriage to a Philistine woman, and we recall that the previous chapter began by describing Israel's bondage to the Philistines. Samson's fascination with this Philistine woman, then, symbolizes Israel's fascination with the surrounding paganism, a fascination that in each case leads to blindness and death.
As a consecrated Nazirite, Samson represents Israel's higher calling to dedication to the true God in true worship. His failure to live according to that higher calling is symbolic of Israel's failure.
Samson's parents mention that Israelites are not supposed to marry pagans, but the inspired author speaks of God's own plan, even in this deviation from the Law. All of Samson's career, including his sins, will be under the influence of Divine Providence. Through all of it, God will bring good out of evil.
A strong man, but also a very weak man, Samson is an ironical figure. Ultimately his victory over the Philistines will involve both his weakness and his strength.
The blindness of Samson, however, begins very early in the story. In a sense, indeed, Samson starts out blind, long before the Philistines gouge out his eyes. Through this whole account Samson seems to be walking in the darkness. No matter. God knows where the story is going.
The story of the lion (verses -9) invites a comparison between Samson and David., both of whom fought against Philistines. The latter are symbolized in the lion. David, before he killed the Philistine Goliath, first killed the lion. Samson, before he takes on the Philistines, kills a lion with his bare hands.
This is why the Spirit of the Lord came down on Samson, as the Spirit of the Lord will descend on him in the next chapter. The roaring of the lion will be matched by the shouting of the Philistines. Samson will tear the binding cords apart, just as he tore the lion apart.
The killing of the lion, then, symbolizes Samson's vocation. Indeed, Samson's own tribe, Dan, was liked to a lion: “Dan is a lion's whelp that leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22).
Once the lion is dead, the bees build their hive in its carcass. This symbolizes the Holy Land itself, flowing with milk and honey. What is this honey? It is the tasting of God's Law, which the Psalter describes a sweeter than honey. This honey is the fruit of Samson's victory over the lion. It is the result of his combat with the lion.
Samson will use this incident to stump the Philistines. That is to say, he perceives the incident to involve a riddle, or mystery. There is a mystery in the lion and the honey that lies beyond the comprehension of his enemies.
The honey in the carcass is symbolic also of Samson himself, who will be victorious in his defeat. Sweetness will come from his death.
Samson's first contest with the Philistines (verses 12-14) will not be a test of muscles but of brains. He will attempt to outwit them, as Moses had done with the Philistines.
Alas, Samson the riddler does something not very bright. He is deceived by the woman, and this is Samson's first experience of betrayal. The real treachery, on the other hand, comes from Samson's own emotions. He loses control. He is betrayed by his feelings. Had he maintained control over his emotions, the woman would never have deceived him. The man who cannot control himself can hope to control nothing else.
The wedding feast ends badly.
Tuesday, September 13
Judges 15: To put the era of Samson into perspective, it is useful to consider him along with two other biblical characters, Samuel and Obed. According to Judges 13:1, Israel was in bondage to the Philistines for forty years, a bondage that ended at the Battle of Mizpah in 1 Samuel 7. In that chapter we learn that the Battle of Mizpah was twenty years after the Battle of Aphek, when the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and briefly held it. It was right after the Battle of Aphek, e recall, that Eli died. These facts give us a basic chronology with which to work.
If Samson was born at the beginning of the Philistine enslavement, and if we put his marriage at about age twenty, then the marriage of Samson took place about the time of the Battle of Aphek and the death of Eli.
It was while Samuel was growing up, then, that Samson judged the tribe of Dan, and it was Samson's weakening of the Philistines that prepared for Saul's victory over them at the Battle of Mizpah in 1 Samuel 7.
Someone else born during the lifetime of Samson was Obed, the grandfather of David. Obed himself, we recall, was something of a “miracle baby,” in the sense that God used a special providence to arrange for his birth.
During the period of Samson, then, the Lord was already mightily at work to provide for Israel's future. He did this by sending the world three special babies in rapid succession: Samson, Obed, and Sanuel.
Even as Israel was on the point of death and annihilation, the Lord of history was providing three little babies to oversee its renewal and rebirth Resurrection would come out of death and judgment. Blind Samson to blind Eli, but God sees the future.
With respect to Samson's own decline, the present chapter encourages us to trace it through a succession of animals: from lions, to foxes, to asses.
Wednesday, September 14
Judges 16: On this Feast of the Holy Cross, we will confine our comments to the symbolic relationship of this text to the Passion and Death of our Lord.
The Philistines never knew when to quit (verses 21-31). We must not fail to observe here the parallel between the capture of Samson and the capture of the Ark in 1 Samuel 5. In both cases, the stories describe a battle between Israel's God and the Philistine god Dagan. In each case Dagan is humiliated by capturing more than he can handle. In both cases his apparent victory is the condition and cause of his defeat. DAgan captues more than he can hold.
Both of these instances are types and foreshadowing of the Christian salvation, in which Death takes captive the Victim on the cross but cannot hold Him. The apparent victory of Death is the cause and condition of the overthrow of Death. Dagan and Death are the same thing.
Samson is also a type of Christ, of course. Both are sold for silver, both are betrayed with a kiss, both die with a prayer on their lips, both bring salvation by dying. Indeed, both Samson and Jesus are mocked in their blindness: “And having blindfolded Him, they struck Him on the face and asked Him, saying, 'Prophesy! Who is the one who struck You?' And many other things they blasphemously spoke against Him” (Luke 22:64).
Thursday, September 15
Judges 17: The final five chapters of Judges form a sort of appendix, to show how bad thing had become just prior to the rise of the monarchy. It was a period of great decline, and these stories serve to explain why Israel at last decided to want a king to rule over them. Israel's lack of a king is mentioned five times in these five chapters.
Indeed, we perceive a decline even in the quality of the judges themselves. The list had started with the heights represented by Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon, declining gradually to the depths of Jephthah and Samson.
The present chapter begins an account of the failure of the Levites, on whose ministry the spiritual life of Israel depended so much. These were the spiritual guardians of the people. The apostate Levite introduced in this chapter was, in fact, a descendent of Moses!
We also see in this chapter the moral failure of a mother. When we began with the book with Deborah, “a mother in Israel,” we hardly expected things to end so badly.
If we compare this story with the Bible's earlier idolatry of the Golden Calf, we see a decline from gold to silver. Even the idolatry is cheaper. Everything is declining!
The Levite described here is very typical of a certain kind of clergyman, who fails in his duties as a pastor because he finds it more profitable to become the domestic chaplain of a wealthy family. It happens all the time. We may contrast this Levite with the zealous Phineas.
Friday, September 16
Judges 18: The Danites migrated north to get away from the Philistines (verses 1-6). These men, we must understand, were quitters, unwilling to fight for their proper inheritance. They sought and accepted the counsel of a man that was not qualified to give counsel. They already knew what they were supposed to do, but they wanted a “second opinion.” The Lord had said, “Go, conquer the land that I will give you,” but they wanted an easy out, after finding that the task was more difficult than they supposed. Consequently they sought out a teacher who would tell them what they wanted to hear.
This should not surprise us, because we already know that this Levite's own ministry has already been based on compromise and half-measures. He was not, after all, even authorized for the ministry he has undertaken. He is a false teacher, who pretends to speak for God.
The Bible is full of criticism against false teachers and false prophets. They are chiefly to be recognizes by certain traits :
First, they like to please people. They have no authority beyond their ability to please people. Their authority is based entirely on their popularity.
Second, Because they want to please people, they tend to say what people expect and want them to say.
Third, if challenged they appeal to their success.
The situation was described by the Apostle Paul: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:2-4.
The Danites, who had insufficient courage to fight the Philistines, are quite prepared to invade a small defenseless people, who lived in an unwalled city (verses 7-21).
The Danites, that is to say, in addition to their other shortcomings, believed in cheap grace. They wanted the blessings of the covenant without the cost of the covenant.
Just as the Danites robbed somebody else's land, they absconded with somebody else's gods. Indeed, they wanted only such gods as they could control. Those were gods worthy of their cowardice.
They also discovered a clergyman who was worthy of them, a quisling that would do their bidding and tell them what they wanted to hear. This nameless man was a nobody, a clerical non-entity, a hierarchical cipher. Because the price was right, he went along with them.
Man-made gods, however, tend not to be very loyal to their makers. They are disposed to take on a life of their own. The declare their independence, as it were. Micah learned this the hard way.
The city of Dan became a center of idol-worship. Jeroboam I would eventually erect there one of his two golden calves.
Saturday, September 17
Judges 19: We come now to a horror story, a nightmare. There is a growing sense of darkness, beginning with physical darkness and going to moral darkness. The unfortunate woman is thrown out into the dark, where she is gang raped all night long. After enduring unspeakable brutality, she dies at daybreak.
There is a great irony, of course, in the fact that the Levite did not want to spend the night among pagans. He wanted to sleep secure, surrounded by his fellow Israelites. He lengthened his journey for this very purpose.
We must bear in mind that this is not a story about pagans. All the characters in this account are children of the covenant.
Gibeah, however, has become as bad as Sodom. Indeed, there are striking parallels between this story and that in Genesis 19.
There is also the cruelty of the Levite himself, who abandons his wife (for “concubine” in context means only a wife of inferior rank) to the cruelty of the mob. He has clearly not forgiven his wife for her infidelity. He is morally worse than she. This compromised individual is no man of God.
It is instructive that Hosea is the only prophet ever to mention this distressing incident at Gibeah, and he does so three times (5:8; 9:9; 10:9). Obviously Hosea, who also was married to an unfaithful wife, thought a great deal about this story and its potential lessons. Indeed, Hosea's own treatment of his wife is a fruitful matter of contrast with the behavior of the Levite in this chapter.
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