Each Monday I try to maintain a series on this blog called "Digging Deeper." The purpose of these posts will be to "dig deeper" into the text that I preached the previous Sunday. It is almost always the case that there is more that could be said on every text that I preach at Riverview, and sometimes time constraints don't allow me to say everything that could be said about a particular text we are studying together. Invariably, some things get left on the cutting room floor. For this reason I thought it might be helpful to pick up some of those scraps on Monday and try to learn from them.
The biblical concept of holiness is one that is being lost among American Christians, much to our detriment and shame. Holiness speaks to an "other" quality. For example, God is holy. That means that he is utterly unlike anyone or anything else. He is in a class all his own. He is perfectly good and righteous, he is completely all-powerful, and his wisdom is unsearchable. And we could go on and on talking about the ways that God is holy by listing his many attributes and counting all of the ways that he is completely "other."
Since God is holy, he calls his people to be holy as well (Leviticus 11.44-45, 1 Peter 1.16). That is, God calls his people to be different, to be set apart from the rest - to be "other." In the Old Testament, in order to make his people set apart or holy, God gave them several laws that they were to obey to show the world that they were different and that they were in a covenant with the true and living God. In other words, Israel was to stand out from all the other peoples of the earth because of how they lived their relationship with the true God, and the purpose was for all the world to see that they were different - that they were holy like their God was holy. If a foreign nation interacted with Israel, they could tell that Israel was different simply by the way they lived their lives. Their holiness (their "otherness") was apparent by how they thought, lived, ate, acted, worshipped, and so on.
The opposite of holiness is what we'll call "worldliness:" an identification with and similarity to the world. In the Old Testament, God's people - who had been called out, separated, and made holy through their covenant relationship with God - began to forsake holiness when they compromised the requirements of their relationship with God and began to think, look, and act like the world. The more they looked like the world, the less holy they were. In other words, the more they looked just like everyone else, the less they looked like God, and the less they fulfilled their duty of being a representative of God to the nations.
This temptation to conform to the world and to not be "other" is one of the main problems of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges. They seem to have compromised on everything, from worship, to culture, even to the very foods they ate. Rather than being a people who have been separated for God, they were quickly turning into a people who looked, thought, acted, and lived just like everyone else - even pagans who worshiped false gods. The focus of the sermon this past Sunday was to show how this was evident in the lives of Samson and both of his parents, and to warn us from following down the same path. But there is even more evidence of Israel's tendency toward a lack of holiness that took place before the time of Samson. Israel had been sliding down the slippery slope of worldliness for generations. Indeed, as early as the time of Gideon we can begin to see that Israel doesn't look very different from all the other nations they're living with. They're even worshipping the same gods as the pagan nations, and forsaking their cultural traditions and religious laws and ceremonies that had previously set them apart.
At the end of Judges 12 we read about three of Israel's judges who ruled over Israel and, unfortunately, didn't do much to bring Israel back to the holiness that God called them to. Ibizan, Elon, and Abdon all judged Israel for a period of years. There's not much known about these guys, and you probably didn't learn about them through a flannel-graph story in Sunday School when you were a kid.
When it comes to Elon, all we know about him is that he was of the tribe of Zebulun, that he judged Israel 10 years, and that he "died and was buried at Aijalon in the land of Zebulun" (Judges 12.11-12). But with Ibzan and Abdon, there are some subtle clues in the text that show us that these two judges weren't too concerned about being "other," but instead were quite content with blending in with the rest of the world.
Since the time of Gideon, it seems that Israel's judges were not necessarily content with just holding the office of "Judge." Rather, they wanted to be king. Gideon lived as a king with a harem and had 70 sons by at least 14 women. That is not how "common" people lived. Rather, that was the lifestyle of a king. His son, Abimilech (which means "Son of the King") also wanted to be king, and murdered his 70 brothers to eliminate any competing claims to the throne. After him, Jephthah agreed to fight for Israel only if he could be its "head" (i.e. "king"). Ibzan and Abdon wanted the same. They didn't want to be just a "Judge" and represent God's justice and righteousness to their people. They wanted a bigger piece of the pie. The whole pie, in fact. They wanted to be king.
How do we know that? Daughters and donkeys.
First, Judges 12.9 says that Ibzan "had thirty sons, and thirty daughters..." Like Gideon, Ibzan had lots of kids. And to have lots of kids you need, well, lots of wives. And the only people who had lots of wives in those days were kings - at least supposed kings. And, like Gideon, this may have even included a harem with concubines. And in order to feed all of these mouths (wives and children), a person in Ibzan's position would have to have a healthy stream of resources coming in. Only a king could have those kinds of resources. Ibzan could have stood out and been holy by judging over his people with humility and justice and righteousness. But instead he wanted power, so he gathered up as many wives as he could find and had as many children as he could - 60 in total.
Furthermore, when it came time for his children to be married, Ibzan went "outside" of his people. That is, he gave his daughters in marriage to foreigners, and he brought in foreign women for his sons to marry. It's not going to be easy to be separate and different from the rest of the world when you're bringing the rest of the world in for your children to put down roots and raise a family with.
Similarly, Abdon disregarded the call to be different and instead went the way of the world. We know this because "He had forty sons and thirty grandsons, who rode on seventy donkeys..." (Judges 12.14) Not only did Abdon follow in Ibzan's footsteps of having lots of children with lots of wives (just like all of the pagan kings), but his sons and grandsons also rode on donkeys. In the ancient near-east, it was common for kings and nobility to ride on the backs of donkeys for their main mode of transportation. Abdon wouldn't let his travel in just any fashion. They were sons of the king, after all. They "deserved" to ride on donkeys. And the kicker is that they rode on donkeys - just like all the rest of the pagans who lived around them.
God called Ibzan and Abdon to be different, to be set apart from the rest, to be "other." But when it came down to it, they looked just like the pagans. You couldn't even tell that they were part of God's people.
Unfortunately, even the church has fallen prey to the temptation to be like the world. Many churches try to emulate the music, dress, speech, and multiple other aspects of the world all for the sake of being "relevant." In a very real sense, the modern American church has ceased to be "other." How do our gatherings differentiate us from the world? How does the way that we interact with people at home, school, and work differentiate us from everyone else?
Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, and like Ibzan and Abdon, and all the rest of the Judges, God has called us to be holy - to stand out from all the rest because we are like him. No, we don't live under the Old Covenant as part of the nation of Israel, so we don't follow the laws that they did, or hold the same culture or traditions. Instead, Christians are called to stand out and be "other" by following the way of Jesus: by obeying God and his word in all things, by loving our enemies, by reaching out to sinners, by helping the poor and sick and hungry. Jesus has given us the perfect example of what it looks like to be "other." By emulating his life and death we will surely stand out from the rest of the world.
God wanted Ibzan and Abdon to be different. He didn't want them to go the same way that all of the other pagan kings of their time were going. He didn't want them to ride donkeys. It's not that there was anything inherently sinful about riding a donkey, but he called his people to be different, to be other, to be holy. God calls you to be different, to be other, to be holy.
There is a tradition in Major League Baseball that when a pitcher takes the field, it is bad luck to step on the foul line. Every pitcher who takes the field makes a point of stepping over the foul line so as not to incur the bad luck that such an action brings. In his autobiography, Dave Dravecky, a former pitcher for the San Francisco Giants said that every time he took the field as a pitcher, he made sure that instead of stepping over the foul line, he mashed it with his foot. He wanted to be different. wanted to be "other." He wanted to make a statement that he didn't believe in luck. Sure, it was just a little thing, a minor statement in the grand scheme of things, but it set him apart.
Even the "little things" of holiness are important, and serve to set God's people apart in the way of Jesus from the rest of the world. And it makes a difference. We don't strive for holiness for its own sake, but we strive to be different because our God is different, and we want to be like him. We want the world to see him through us, through our holiness.
So even if you can have 60 sons and daughters, don't. God doesn't want you to. Be different. And even if your sons and grandsons can ride on donkeys, don't. God doesn't want them to. Be different. Be holy.