GOD’S WORD FOR YOU
6 The people of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD gave them into the hands of the Midianites for seven years.
This verse is very similar to Judges 4:1, except that there is no “once again” (ve-yosephu, וַיֹּסִפוּ) as there is there in chapter 4. The Medieval Jewish Rabbi Rashi (1040-1105) comments (quoted in Daniel Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic Bible):
“Until now it was said (above 3: 12, 4:1), “and they continued to do,” because one sin was piled on another sin, but with this song (ch. 5) they were forgiven for all they had done and it was as though now they were beginning to sin.”
This is a misunderstanding of the relationship of sin and grace. First, there is no proclamation of forgiveness for Israel’s sins in Judges, there is only rescue sent by God to deliver the people. This deliverance throughout the book was done to present the gospel of God’s loving protection in a tangible way so that the people would ask for pardon and deliverance. But there was no such plea for forgiveness—there were only repeated pleas for help.
To understand this is to understand the chief problem of Judges: Why did the Lord keep permitting the people to fall into the hands of their enemies? Don’t we all keep sinning? Don’t we all deserve to fall into the hands of the Midianites—or whatever ‘-ites’ there are in our day? Certainly! If we think we are any better than Gideon’s Israel, we had better look into the mirror of the Law fast and see the filth and slime that cover us every morning, noon and night time. We keep turning to Christ in repentance, and his love covers us. The only thing that’s different about us is Christ—not anything inside of us. We deserve no better, and we should fall on our faces to thank God that we have not received worse up to now.
2 The power of Midian was very oppressive to Israel. So because of this the Israelites made hiding places for themselves in the mountains, caves and strongholds.
Midian, it is generally agreed, was the land to the east of the eastern arm of the Red Sea (the right-hand side of the Sinai Peninsula). The Midianites were descended from Abraham by his second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-2; 1 Chron.1:32). It was a group of Midianites who sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:36), but it was also among the Midianites that Moses found his wife (Exodus 2:16-21).
The oppression of Midian will be explained in verses 3-6. Israel’s response is described here. The people simply hid whenever the Midianites showed up. The Hebrew word minharoth is not exactly certain. The formation of the word, min “from, out of” a nahar “river” would suggest a hollow carved out by a river—a gorge or cave. The way the word is used here suggests that the places were used as hiding places, and so this is the translation I have chosen. Mountains and caves are clear enough, but what were these strongholds?
A massad was a high, inaccessible place, easily defended from attackers (it’s the root word of the famous Dead Sea fortress Massada). David and Jeremiah use this term and related words like sether (“hiding place”) and mahseh (“shelter”) to describe the way God looks after his people: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1); “O LORD my strength and my fortress, my refuge in time of distress…” (Jeremiah 15:19). God is our Mighty Fortress, our trusty Shield and Weapon (Luther). He is our Hiding Place (Ps 32:7; Isaiah 4:6). Any other shelter is a lie and a deception, as Isaiah said: “I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place” (Isaiah 28:17).
3 Whenever the Israelites planted seed the Midianites and Amalekites and other people of the East would invade and attack them. 4 They would make camp and destroy the crops (even all the way to Gaza) and they would leave nothing for Israel, not a sheep or an ox or even a donkey. 5 For they would invade with their livestock and their tents, as many as a swarm of locusts. Neither they nor their camels could be counted. They laid the land waste whenever they invaded. 6 So Israel was brought down very low because of Midian, and the Israelites cried to the LORD for help.
This Midianite oppression was like a tide that came and went each year. At first, Midianite raiders came into Canaan, perhaps because of famine or war in their own land (but all of this was the hand of God at work). They stole, and they got away with it. Israel still had no real skill in bronze working. Most of the metal used in Israel was taken as the spoils of battle, and therefore when the rest of Canaan was well into the Bronze Age or the Middle Bronze Age, Israel was really still in the Stone Age. So Midianite raiders had little resistance. The next year, more Midianites came, and the crops were annihilated (stolen). Sometimes they came alone, and sometimes they were joined by Amalekites or “other people of the East” (a term meaning the many nomadic tribes of the Arabian desert and the Sinai peninsula). In came the tide of Midian, and Israel’s crops and animals disappeared. But out they would go again when the weather changed, and the people would plant, and barter, and trade—until the tide came back. The people of Judah, Simeon, Manasseh and the other tribes would scurry up into the hills to find their minharoth holes and caves, until the tide went out again. This went on for seven years, and the people remembered to cry out the LORD for help.
Someone might ask, why didn’t they ask for help sooner? This isn’t the question. The real question is, why did they only cry out for help; why weren’t they crying out for forgiveness? Left to themselves, without leadership, Israel was slipping away from their faith. They didn’t understand the teachings of Moses anymore. They didn’t tell their children about repentance and the forgiveness of sins. God was allowing them the opportunity to examine their plight and their sinful lives, but all that they were getting out of it was the vague knowledge that they needed help. May God bless us with a more certain and soul-searching knowledge that we need a Savior from our sins. If we fail to address or acknowledge our sins, we are lost and condemned. When we confess our sin, God blesses us with the gospel of forgiveness. We pray, “Forgive my iniquity, though it is great” (Psalm 25:11), and we are comforted: “You forgave the iniquity of your people and covered all their sins” (Psalm 85:2). As we confess in the Formula of Concord: “God forgives us our sins purely by his grace, without any preceding, present or subsequent work, merit, or worthiness, and reckons to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience. On account of this righteousness we are accepted by God into grace and are regarded as righteous.”
Thank and praise, serve and obey him!
Pastor Timothy Smith
Archives by Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel: http://www.wlchapel.org/worship/daily-devotion/
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul's Lutheran Church, New Ulm, Minnesota