Opening The Old Testament
Searching for God in All the Wrong Places: Reflections on Isaiah 9:1-4
Finally, in the light of the oppression of the Midianites, YHWH calls on the unlikely Gideon to rise up and defeat them. He does not do so by raising a huge army to confront them in battle, though he does first, according to the tale, amass a large force of soldiers. But through a comic series of cullings, the army is reduced from a mighty force to a puny band of three hundred or so, armed only with torches and trumpets! But with the magical help of YHWH, these three hundred trumpeters and torch-bearers in fact defeat the Midianites who are miraculously forced to kill one another in a vast slaughter. As a result, the Israelites are freed once again from an external foe by the will and power of YHWH; the victory has little to do with them at all. The moral of the story is: trust in YHWH for victory, for with torches and trumpets alone you are by yourselves toast!
Yet, how far from our contemporary lives is this story! The U.S. has the most powerful military in the history of the world, and though we do indeed still have trumpets and the modern equivalent of torches aplenty, we most certainly do not rely on them for our victories; cruise missiles, drones, and assault weapons will do quite nicely, thank you. We clearly do not rely on YHWH when we fight our battles, however much we pray before we head off to the slaughter. We simply cannot, in short, identify our modern selves with these ancient Israelites, waiting for the mystery of God to give us victory.
How then are we to adapt this ancient poem to our modern experiences? I wonder if we may in fact be like the ancient Israelites after all? Oh, not in our trust in YHWH to bring light in our darkness, not in our trust in God to bring us victory over our perceived enemies. We are rather more like those whom Isaiah describes in Isaiah 8:19, "consult(ing) the ghosts and the familiar spirits that chirp and mutter," looking for "the dead on behalf of the living for Torah and instruction," rather than for the living God. I do not mean by this claim that we are all devotees of necromancy or spiritualism. No, our modern ghosts and spirits are the vain trust in military power, in economic might, in social class that ensures comfort and ease in the midst of a world of pain and suffering. We are those who "turn our faces upward or who look to the earth" (Is. 8:21-22) to find empty truths, rather to open ourselves to the demands for justice and righteousness issued again and again by God.
It is to those people, we who strain to hear chirpings and mutterings rather than the hard truths of shalom for all, who are "walking in darkness" and who desperately need the light of God, whether they know they do or not. When Isaiah speaks of God's removal of our "yoke, the bar on our shoulders, and the rod of our oppressor," he cannot mean for us the defeat of our "enemies," communism or terrorism or the end of an oil-based economy. YHWH's light must shine on those of us who still search for external enemies, who divide the world into us and them, who claim for ourselves the title of God's chosen.
On us has God's light shined in the face of Jesus, and that light bids us to seek the enemies of poverty and injustice, not some contemporary Midian who would remove our golden status as the chosen people of God. America is finally not the light of the world, a "nation set on a hill." God is the light of the world, and for those of us who are Christians, that light comes most powerfully in the face of Jesus. In that face we see God, the God of all people, who wills shalom for all, not just for some chosen few.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.