There has been a bit of a social phenomenon that has infiltrated our TV shows, movies and stories. If anyone were to list off their favorite shows, for the most part the hero of the show wouldn’t necessarily be the classic understanding of a “hero”. Walter White, the meth-cooking murderer, couldn’t be further from Ward Cleaver, the patriarch of the Cleaver family from Leave it to Beaver. In his inaugural Oxford lecture, Professor Stephen Garrett commentates on these new “Anti-Heroes” as “at best morally ambiguous, at worst monsters.”
But how did we get here? How did our role models shift from straight-laced, wholesome, Bible-believing Americans to the grungy under-belly of society? At the beginning of the 20th Century, Modernism promised us that through advances in medicine, sciences and education, mankind was going to succeed in scrubbing the world of most of its injustices and evils. It prophesied of a time where we could forsake our needed conceptions of hell, shame and guilt, because we would have simply evolved past them. Mankind pushed God off of his throne and exalted ourselves to take the position, simply because we didn’t need deep mysteries any longer – we had figured them all out. And yet, that didn’t last very long. Columnist Jonathan Michael from Relevant Magazine notes what deflated Modernism’s balloon of optimism,
“In the mid-1940s, U.S. soldiers came back from WWII after witnessing unspeakable atrocities. Then of course there was the Korean War, the Vietnam War, student protests, two Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate, the Cold War, and the Carter-era oil crisis, among others. Not only did we see some of the worst acts in human history committed during this time, but many of our fathers and mothers experienced it firsthand and took part in their own questionable behavior. Endless cultural progress was Modernism’s empty promise, and it resulted in a deep-seated mistrust of the establishment, including it’s boundaries between right and wrong.”
And as the foundation of culture shifted, its movement was reflected in the media that it created. The Brady Bunch and Little House on the Prairie lost their connection with a culture that wouldn’t buy that anyone could be so perfect and clean cut. And what took their place was The Sopranos, Dexter and Mad Men; shows filled with such morally ambiguous main characters that you at times are appalled at what they are doing, and yet you are kind of rooting for them. Why is that?
We watch our favorite anti-heroes in the hope that the evil inside of them, as nasty as it is, gets an opportunity to be redeemed. I think that kind of story has potential to be excellent television because of the way it deals with the reality of human sinfulness and brokenness that we can all relate to. But, why am I talking about this? Because, Hollywood would like to think it is doing something new and daring with shrugging off the Victorian niceties of the 40’s, when this is what the Bible has been doing for thousands of years. If you were to take the book of Judges and turn it into a TV drama, it would slide right into these other gritty anti-hero dramas in many respects. The Bible doesn’t try and pretty up any of the characters, but displays their flaws blatantly.
Our main “hero” in this story is Gideon, but as chapter 8 shows us, we see that he is not squeaky clean. He exhibits pride, greed, cruelty, revenge-killings, explosions of anger, torture, corruption, dishonesty and sexual promiscuity. Kind of sounds like an episode of Game of Thrones, right? Gideon is not a very “good” good guy. And in chapter 9 we see how Gideon’s legacy leaves a wake of destruction and chaos in the life of his son, Abimelech.
Judges 8 and 9 speak very potently into a culture that is increasingly distrustful of the classic concept of heroes and resonates with brokenness, yet desires justice and redemption.
So, tonight I want to look at (1) The essence of sin (2) The effects of sin, and (3) The end of sin.
The Essence of Sin
As Christians, we believe in something called original sin. That means that because of Adam’s sin in the Garden, we all are born with a nature that naturally drifts towards sin (Rom. 5:12). So, sin is in all of us, Christians and non-Christians alike. This is what I think is one of the benefits of the anti-hero; he is relatable because he too is flawed, just like us – no more is there a veneer of fake perfection. However, this is where I want to draw a sharp distinction between the Bible and the world around us. The world tends to compartmentalize “sin” as something like a religious flaw, or violating some long list of holy commands. The Bible, however, describes sin as a “nature” or a power, and it is much more vast than just doing something bad. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and pastor, describes sin as
“Seeking to become oneself, to get an identity apart from God… according to the Bible, the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose and happiness than your relationship to God.”
This leaves us with a much broader and more in depth understanding of what sin is. And in our story we see sin in two ways, covertly and overtly.
- Covert Sin. In Chapter 7, when Gideon is riding into battle with the 300 soldiers behind him, he shouts out, “A sword for the Lord…and for Gideon!” (7:20). This doesn’t seem like anything sinister, but because God had reduced Gideon’s forces down to the three hundred for the express purpose of making sure the Israelites wouldn’t think “‘My own hand has saved me” (7:2), this reveals a sinful belief in Gideon’s heart. Deep down, Gideon thinks that he really does deserve some of the credit for the victory, and we will later see that this entitlement leads to more drastic sins. We see this type of innocuous sin elsewhere when the leaders of Israel approach Gideon and ask him to become the king, because they believe Gideon was the one who delivered them from the Midianites – instead of God alone. Gideon’s response actually sounds very pious, “I will not rule over, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” (8:23). But, even though it sounds very religious and the right churchy answer, notice what he did not say “It wasn’t me who delivered you – it was God. Come on guys, keep it straight.” Gideon, employing a whole bunch of fake humility, tells them that he doesn’t really want to be king (because he knows that is the right answer to give). But all of his actions after that show the exact opposite to be true:
- He takes the Crescent Moon jewelry from Zebah and Zalmunna after executing them, which signified royal kingship. (8:21)
- He takes the “purple garments worn by kings” from Zebaha and Zalmunna. (8:26)
- He accepts a large payment of money, customary of a new king. (8:23)
- The sentence “Gideon…lived in his own house” could be more accurately translated “Gideon ruled over his own house.” (8:29) (see also 9:41a)
- One of Gideon’s sons is named “Abimelech” which literally means “My father is king.”
- After Gideon’s death, there is immediate discussion as to who is going to now rule over them. (9:1-2)
Gideon says no with his mouth, but yes with all of his actions. I recently went to the doctor and found out that my body is producing three times the amount of insulin it needs to be producing (I am hypoglycemic) and the doctor told me that I need to be much more careful about my diet, especially with eating really sugary things. The next day my sister came to visit me at work and brought something she had just baked. She had taken a muffin tin, filled the muffin lining with cookie dough, then put brownies in the middle of it – so it was a cookie/brownie muffin. It was horrible. She asked me if I wanted one, and I knew that I was just told to stay away from things like this, and it wasn’t good for me, and it would be terrible if I caved the day after I was told. So, I told her “No, I do not want this.” Then reached over and grabbed one and ate it like a big dumb idiot. And it was delicious. I knew that it was wrong, but I just wanted it anyway.
So, my lack of self-control aside, this is what Gideon’s heart is doing. He knows that it is wrong, but he does it anyway. When the leaders of Israel ask him to become king because of all the good he has done, it scratches a deep soul itch he has. So, even though he is giving the right answers, his life reveals that his heart is far from believing what his mouth is saying. I wonder if any of you can relate with Gideon here; how many times have you been at the precipice of temptation, telling yourself over and over, I know this is wrong, I know this is bad, I know I shouldn’t do this – but you do it anyway. Sin is not banished away simply by “knowing the right answers”, remember it is a power that is drawing us in.
So, sin can work covertly in our life, under the surface – someone can look at our lives and it doesn’t look like there is much that is wrong. But covert, hidden sin always leads to something worse.
- Overt Sin
While Gideon is pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, he stops by a town and asks for food and supplies to help him in his chase. But the town that he stops at is scared of the oppression of the Midianites, so they don’t give him any food, fearing the repercussions if Gideon fails. In anger and frustration, Gideon threatens the leaders of the town that after he catches his enemy he will return and whip them all with thorns. (8:7) After that he goes to another town and the same thing happens, and even more frustrated and bitter, Gideon’s threat becomes more dramatic, and he promises to break down their tower (8:8). Sadly, after catching his enemy, Gideon doesn’t repent of his sinful anger and follows through on his threats, even going so far to kill all the men in Penuel (8:13-17). We saw earlier in chapter 7 that Gideon had mixed his motivations to be obedient to God, with a motivation for self-acclaim (A sword for Gideon!). This extreme outburst reveals what was functionally most important to Gideon. If he couldn’t catch Zebah and Zalmunna Gideon would look like a failure. He made his reputation his identity, and exploded in anger at the possibility of it being threatened.
When we leave sins lying dormant in our heart, at some point an extenuating circumstance will come along and rock the boat, and we will see our source of identity and happiness threatened. Maybe the idea of family is your main source of identity, and one day something may come along that threatens it (divorce, death, distance) – and you won’t just become sad, you will be seriously depressed, you won’t just be upset, you’ll be furious. We all can do that to something. What makes you snap? What crushes you? I bet you dollars to donuts, it is coming from a hidden sin, that you haven’t really confronted.
The essence of sin is looking to something other than Jesus Christ for your identity, and that can reveal itself it subtle, and not so subtle ways.
The Effects of Sin
At the end of chapter 8, we see the summary of Gideon’s life: he created some sort of cultic worship (8:27), practiced polygamy, and had a concubine (8:30). The end of Gideon’s life is a powerful testimony to the effects of unrepentant sin in a believer’s life. I do believe that Gideon was a Christian, he was clothed in the Spirit of God (6:34), and he is listed in the book of Hebrews as exhibiting great faith (Heb. 11:32).
In chapter 9 of Judges, however, we see the legacy of Gideon’s idolatry spill over into his son’s lifes, Abimelech. Abimelech is the product of Gideon’s relationship with a prostitute. Abimelech convinces his mother’s relatives to not let Gideon’s sons rule over them, and they convince the leaders of Shechem (his hometown) to support him. So, after receiving a hefty payment from the temple of Baal, Abimelech hires a group of nasty mercenaries and has all 70 brothers, save one, methodically executed in cold blood. The youngest brother, Jotham, hides and escapes the mass murder.
Abimelech is then crowned as king over Shechem, but is also described in 9:22 to have governed all of Israel. Jotham comes to the leaders of Shechem and (from a distance) pronounces a curse upon the leaders and Abimelech, pronouncing that they will destroy each other because of their cruel dealings to Gideon’s family, and then he escapes.
Fast forward three years, and God sees that Jotham’s curse comes true and sends an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem. Quickly, the leaders of Shechem lose their trust in Abimelech and begin plotting how to kill him.
Then, one night in Shechem, someone named Gaal gets drunk and begins openly talking about how the city should not follow Abimelech, but him instead. One of Abimelech’s head officers hears this, and reports it to Abimelech, who then plans a massive ambush to silence those who oppose him. Abimelech, in sneaky underhanded ways (similar to the slaughter of his brothers) wages war on the city and completely destroys it.
The Leaders of Shechem retreat to the temple of Baal in the Tower of Shechem, thinking that they will be safe in the temple of their god. But, to the fulfillment of Jotham’s curse, Abimelech burns the tower to the ground, killing all who are in it, including a 1,000 men and women.
Abimelech, drunk in some sort of bloodlust, decides that he should take advantage of his military momentum and attacks a neighboring city, Thebez (Brightness). But inside Thebez is a strong tower that can protect all of the men and women and leaders of the city. Abimelech thinks that he can brashly do what he did before at Shechem, and approaches the wooden door with fire to burn it down. But, as he draws near, an unnamed women on the roof drops an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head, and he shortly dies thereafter. After seeing their leader struck down, the armies retreat.
Phew, a long story. What do we learn from this?
- Sin destroys. You remember in Bugs Bunny cartoons where every now and then Bugs would catch a single thread of Elmer Fudd’s jacket and give one good yank and WHOOSH! His whole outfit is lying in a pile of string at his feet as Fudd stops spinning. That’s kind of what sin does to life. Sin unravels the fabric of God’s creation. In this story we see the fabric of marriage (8:30), family (9:1-5), worship (8:33), government (9:22-25), and human life itself (9:45, 49, 54) begins to unravel. The men that endorse Abimelech, quickly are plotting his dethroning, and Abimelech kills the men who positioned him into power. Relationships fall apart, societies come undone, subordinates dream of stabbing their bosses in the back, bosses stab their subordinates in the back, innocent people die and towns are destroyed. There is nothing respectable about sin. There is nothing about sin that should make us think that it is not serious. Sin is a colossal force, here to detonate our joy in this life.In Romans 8:22 we see that sin’s destruction stretches beyond individuals and has caused all of creation to groan, longing to be set right. Imagine a clock, you open up the face of the clock and there are all these interlocking cogs, churning one another along. Now, if you could imagine we were a cog in there, and wanted to have a higher place in the clock, what would happen if we popped off our axle and tried to get a higher place, but fell to the bottom? Well, for one, the whole clock would stop working, and secondly, it wouldn’t take long before you heard grinding, and grating, and splintering, and you could smell the smoke. That is like what has happened to all of creation. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22).
- Sin is never satisfied. After Abimelech destroys Shechem, for no seeming reason, he turns his eyes to Thebez and moves to attack it. His conquest for his own glory wasn’t satisfied with the destruction of Shechem, but instead it made his appetite even stronger. Sin is never satisfied with a certain amount, it always wants more. Isaiah 9:18,20, “For wickedness burns like a fire; it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest, and they roll upward in a column of smoke….They slice meat on the right, but are still hungry, and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied; each devours the flesh of his own arm.” Just like no fire ever said, “Okay, I’ve had enough wood now” so too has no sin ever said, “Okay, I am content.” It will lie to you and tell you that, but you will soon find yourself craving it again. And this time, your craving will be bigger, and what would satisfy you before, won’t satisfy you again.In the 2001 movie, Riding in Cars With Boys, Drew Barrymore, who plays a young teen-mom, is married to Steve Zahn, who plays a kind of loser drug addict who just so happened to get Barrymore pregnant, so they get married out of obligation. At one scene in the movie Steve admits to smoking pot (amidst other drugs), but says, “Look though, I’m fine! I just want to be able to smoke enough so that I am fine, not crazy or anything, just fine!” And Barrymore just shakes her head and cries, because she knows that what is “fine” for him today won’t stay that way for long. And eventually his addiction will grow more and more, till it consumes him. That is a good picture of what sin can do in any area, not just drug addictions. The acclaim that once appeased your glory idol, doesn’t any more – so you need more. The romance that once appeased your approval idol, doesn’t have the same potency – so you need more. This is what sin does, constantly stretching out you appetite, till there is no “you” left any more, just the craving.
Abimelech is a great picture of the essence of the monstrosity of sin. In the story, we see that Abimelech is a pretty nasty guy, but history tells us that many more villains have come along and done much worse things. Getting rid of Abimelech will be good, but it won’t fix the world. You see, the real problem with this world isn’t that we have a few bad eggs that are messing it up for us all, but we all are the bad ones. Abimelech is bad, but he is just the product of the real bad: Sin. Sin is the true evil, the source, the genesis of all pain and sorrow; the only reason we have villains and tyrants in the first place is because of it. In Joseph Campbell’s (who is by no means a Christian) seminal work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he describes the true, quintessential archetype of a villain as such:
“He is the monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘me and mine’. The havoc wrought by him is described in mythology and fairy tale as being universal throughout his domain. The inflated ego of the tyrant is a curse to himself and his world – no matter how his affairs may seem to prosper. Self- terrorized, fear-haunted, alert at every hand to battle back the anticipated aggressions of his environment…Wherever he sets his hand there is a cry (if not from the housetops, then – more miserably – within every heart): a cry for the redeeming hero, the carrier of the shining blade, whose blow, whose touch, whose existence will liberate the land.”
And this is where I want to draw our attention back to the anti-hero TV shows of our time. At this point, Christianity stands different from the modern philosophy (and television) of our time. The anti-heros like Dexter, Walter White and Rick Grimes all show us how horrible this world can be – much like the story of Gideon and Abimelech. But, TV today shows us that this horrible world is all there is; there is no hero coming to save the day. There is no “carrier of the shining blade” because no one is qualified enough to wield it, and if anyone says they are you shouldn’t trust them. Life is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (Macbeth). That is what the real world is like, and believing otherwise may be hopeful, but it is naive. A child hoping to find a quarter under their pillow for their lost tooth can hang onto their belief that the Fairy is real, but in time the smelling salts of reality will waken them from it. And if that is what the world is like, then we must do the best we can and try and be some sort of goodish force in the capricious world around us. The Bible, however, doesn’t play that game.
The Bible affirms that we all are in fact flawed and that this world really is horrible, but it does not do this at the expense of giving up hope on there being a flawless hero. There is a Redeemer, a true fighter of justice, a carrier of the shining blade, a true king who will return and liberate the land from the oppression of the enemy. That isn’t a fairytale; that is reality. But how can it be?
The End of Sin
The question we have as we read this story of the villain Abimelech is exactly what Campbell is talking about there, Where is the hero? Who is going to slay this monster and set the world right again? Is there any hope for our world to be free from the oppression of Sin? Our story takes us down a very interesting road.
When Abimelech draws near to the strong tower in Thebez, he attempts to destroy it as he has the previous temple, but as he approaches with fire in hand, out of nowhere, an unnamed woman drops a huge rock and crushes his skull. Game over. No glorious battle scene, no drawn out skirmish – one fail swoop, and BAM, Abimelech is done. Zoomed in on the story, this doesn’t sound like anything particularly groundbreaking, but when we connect this to the meta-narrative of Scripture we learn two important truths:
- God is our strong tower. For some reason, the narrator made a theme of towers very evident in these previous two chapters. Giving us two towers that were easily crushed by Gideon and Abimelech, but another that is described as a “strong tower” in the city of Thebez. The narrator of Judges seems to be almost comparing the Tower of Shechem with the strong tower in Thebez:
- They both are where the citizens retreat when Abimelech attacks
- They both are described as containing “Men, Women and the leaders”
- Abimelech attempts to destroy both with fire.
The tower of Shechem is, however, describe to be the center for the pagan worship of Baal, while no religious attachment is given to Thebez. If the tower in Shechem was in the center of the temple of Baal, it most likely was a ziggurat, a kind of special tower where you would make sacrifices to the gods on top. It seems like God is trying to blatantly show the futility of what those who worship other gods put their trust in. A very common theme throughout the Bible is the image of God Himself being our fortress, our sturdy foundation and our strong tower. You have to wonder if David was thinking of this story when he wrote Psalm 61,
“Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” (vs. 1-3)
Jesus Christ is the truer and better strong tower. Look, even though the people in the tower of Thebez were saved that day from Abimelech, they are going to die, eventually. Jesus provides protection from the real enemy, sin and death. You know Martin Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” opens up with A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing… gives you this image that God surrounds us and protects us, but the final line of the hymn goes let goods and kindreds go, this mortal life also, the body they may kill, his truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever. What kind of fortress is that? They body they may kill? That doesn’t seem like great protection – unless this fortress protects from another kind of death. Jesus is the fortress that protects from ultimate death. Because Jesus Christ experienced ultimate death on the Cross in our stead, we never will. When that becomes real to you, it will surround you like a fortress and be your hope. You will see how nothing else can give you that kind of security, that kind of peace, and all other promises of it will look like little piles of sticks.
- God’s head-crushing curse
Remember Jotham’s curse? Jotham pronounces judgment on the leaders of Shechem and Abimelech, that fire will spring out of Abimelech and consume them all. And, true to the curse, all members are brought to justice, but even though Abimelech was holding fire in his hand, his head was crushed, by a woman. This whole scene is reminiscent of another head-crushing curse. Back in Genesis 3:15, God pronounces judgment on the serpent through a curse, and the promise of the curse is that there will be “enmity between you (the serpent) and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall crush your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen. 3:15)
At Calvary, Jesus effectively dropped the cosmic heel of God onto the head of Satan, obliterating his power over us. He broke the ties of shame and condemnation that the enemy had over us, by paying for them with his perfect life. Look, we are all like Gideon – harboring our hidden sin, making half-hearted commitments and promises to God, looking outwardly religious, but are inwardly self-focused. We just are, we are sinners. And Satan will draw near, with torch in hand and say You are condemned and deserve to die. But remember, Jesus is the hero that comes with the shining blade, whose blow liberates the land. He crushed his head. You will forget that this week, and the enemy will try and lie to you, and like Abimelech coming close with fire in hand, he will try and destroy your hope. Crush the lie by remembering what Christ has done.
This world is bleak, it is dark and full of sin. But we have a Savior whose light outshines this present darkness, and one day he will make all things new. He will roll up evil like a scroll and burn it into ashes, till it is no more. And we will live, happily ever after.
If “Sin” is unraveling the fabric of all of God’s creation, not just people in particular, does the Gospel have any implications for the rest of creation (relationships, government, society, culture, nature, etc.)?
What is the benefit of being able to honestly admit mankind’s depravity? Or, isn’t it nicer to just believe that everyone is generally a good person?
What other things in life are tempting to turn into your “Strong Tower” other than Christ? How does God change what we hope in?