“What is freedom?” I asked, looking at the distinguished Council.
Boaz spoke up first. “It is the full ability to worship God without restrictions.”
“That is very true,” I said. “Are those restrictions internal or external?”
“Both,” he replied thoughtfully. “When our fathers were in Egypt, Pharaoh prevented them from going into the wilderness to worship God. Thus, God sent ten plagues upon them. However, while our fathers were in the wilderness, they worshiped the golden calf. It seems that it was easier to come out of Egypt than for Egypt to come out of them.”
I was delighted at his answer. “You are a blessed man, Boaz. Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but our Father in heaven. Which slave master is more powerful, the external or the internal force?”
“I believe the internal slave master is more powerful, because it is more difficult to recognize. If the enemy remains hidden or secret, how can we fight against it?” he said.
“You are wise beyond your years,” I said. “But I must ask another question. Is there a link between these two enemies? Does one cause the other?”
“Yes, I believe so,” Boaz said again. The other chiefs, along with Eli the High Priest and Ibzan, the Judge from Bethlehem, listened intently, but silently. “I believe that this question is directly related to the link between iniquity and sin. Iniquity is the inner cause of all outward sin. So iniquity, which is ingrained in human nature, is the idolatry of the heart which gives rise to one’s acceptance of foreign gods that men worship openly.”
“What did Moses prophesy about the hearts of the Israelites? I asked again. “Was he impressed with Israel’s righteousness?”
“No, not at all,” Boaz said quickly, and all of the chiefs nodded in agreement. “In his last words to Israel, he spoke words that would bear witness against the people, saying in the law, ‘I know that after my death you will act corruptly and turn from the way which I have commanded you; and evil will befall you in the latter days, for you will do that which is evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking Him to anger with the work of your hands.’ 31 His words prophesied great warnings to His people. He warned that Israel would be brought low and be ruled by other nations if the people did not experience a change of heart.”
“How, then, has this worked out for Israel?” I asked again. “Did his warnings come to pass?”
Ibzan, who, he told me, had known young Boaz since birth and had mentored him as he grew, then spoke up, being familiar with Israel’s history. “Yes, we have had five captivities in the past 250 years. We have spent more than 70 years in captivity. We now face the possibility of another captivity, which no one wants.”
“So the real question,” I said, “is this: How does one maintain freedom? It seems that if you could identify the causes of each of the five previous captivities, you might be able to prevent a sixth. If you are now facing another captivity, then is it not reasonable to conclude that there is a problem of corruption within Israel itself?”
“It is difficult,” Eli interjected, “to keep from being tainted by the idolatrous practices of the nations that surround us and are even within our borders. Surely God would understand this. I pray daily for Israel, and I appeal to God to destroy our enemies, so that we will no longer be tempted by their false gods. Our fathers failed to complete the work of casting these idolaters out of the land. The solution is clear, then. We ought to finish the war that God commanded us to do to inherit the land that He promised to Abraham.”
“If you were to accomplish your goal,” I responded, “would this resolve the problem of iniquity within the heart of Israel? If there were no more Canaanites or Philistines or Ammonites to influence and tempt Israel, would this resolve Israel’s heart problem?”
“It would certainly help,” Ibzan said, coming to Eli’s defense. “However, the ultimate responsibility certainly lies with Israel alone.”
“Do you agree, then,” I asked, “that temptation only brings out the iniquity that already resides in each heart? Has not God left many Canaanites in the land to test your hearts, 32 much like He tested your fathers in the wilderness with a lack of food or water? Moses did not blame these foreigners for Israel’s heart problem. Even Aaron himself fashioned the golden calf for them to worship, and the people even claimed that it was the god who had delivered Israel from Egypt. 33 God Himself told Moses that the people had corrupted themselves. He did not blame the Egyptians.”
“What are you saying, then?” Ibzan asked. “We are gathered to discuss how to destroy the power of the Philistines, not to tell our own people how to worship God. It seems that you are diverting our attention from the real problem at hand.”
“This has a direct bearing on the present problem,” I answered. “You believe that God should judge the Philistines because they are an idolatrous people. You should be careful about judging others when Israel has the same problem with idolatry. Do you not know that the law of equal weights and measures tells us that in the way you judge, you will be judged? 34 Does it not mean that by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you as well? If it is your determination that idolatrous nations should be destroyed, then God will destroy Israel, based upon your judgment. The law demands equal justice for all, whether they be Israelites or aliens.”
“But,” Ibzan said, “we have an altar by which sin can be expiated. If we have a spiritual problem, it is up to our High Priest to deal with that at Shiloh. Eli, like his father before him, has been faithful to offer sacrifices twice a day for Israel.”
“That is true,” I responded, “but did the sacrifices of Uzzi, Eli’s father, prevent the Ammonite captivity that has so recently ended?” I asked Ibzan. “If the sacrifices were so effective, how is it that Israel has been subjected to five captivities? Which of your High Priests failed to make proper sacrifices?”
Ibzan remained silent, caught in his own words. He could not blame any of Israel’s High Priests without seeming to blaspheme God’s anointed ones, but neither did he believe that those High Priests failed to make the proper sacrifices. It was obvious that the prayers and rituals in Shiloh were insufficient to prevent another captivity, even though they were commanded in the law of Moses.
“If a man sins and then brings a sacrifice to Shiloh, but he does not repent of his sin in his heart, will that sacrifice expiate his sin?” I asked. “God prefers mercy to sacrifice. 35 He desires the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. Sacrifices are good, but other offerings such as mercy and compassion have greater value in the eyes of God.”
The Chief of the tribe of Dan then spoke up for the first time. “The work of the High Priest is purely a spiritual work,” he said. “We cannot expect him or his work to protect us from the Philistines. His job is to please God, and his sacrifices are to show God that we are His people. As long as we are in right standing with the God of Israel, He will assist us, in any way that He can, in our battles against our enemies. But He expects us to make an effort to remain free. We must put dust on our feet to make our prayers effective.”
It was plain that he and some others were determined to put the blame upon their external enemies, rather than upon the great internal enemy. But I could hardly blame them, for they had heard no teaching on the distinction between the old flesh man and the new creation man.
As Old Covenant believers, they did not know that religion and true spirituality were very different ways of life. Yet even with their limited revelation, they should have known from Moses’ writings that their captivities were caused by their own violation of the covenant and was not due to the great strength of their enemies.
“Let me ask you a basic question,” I said again.” What is the reason God brought you into these captivities in the past 250 years? Was it because the idolatrous foreign nation became too strong, or was it because Israel violated its covenant with God?”
They looked at each other and then at the High Priest, who said, clearing his throat, “Moses told us that when Israel violated the covenant, then our enemies would become the head, and Israel would become the tail. 36 All captivities, then, must come from Israel’s iniquity, rather than from the strength of our enemies.”
“What, then, does Moses say in regard to the solution?” I asked again, wanting to press the issue further.
“He says,” Eli answered, “that if we walk in His statutes and keep His commands, then He will grant peace in the land. If our enemies attack us, five Israelites will chase a hundred, and a hundred of us will chase ten thousand.” 37
“Do you really believe this?” I asked. “If you go to war without first repenting to remove the problem, can you achieve victory? Would you, Ibzan, want to lead an unrepentant army of Israelites into sure defeat?”
“No, that would be foolish,” Ibzan admitted, and Eli shook his head as well. The elders listened intently, looking to Ibzan for military leadership and to Eli for spiritual leadership.
“Then,” I concluded, “perhaps you should be meeting here, not to discuss war plans, but to draw up a decree of repentance to send to all the cities of Israel. Once you have completed a time of repentance, then he who wears the ephod can receive instruction from heaven to tell you how to proceed, whether it is to make war with the Philistines, or to submit to them, or even to seek another path.”
“That is wise counsel,” Eli said. “Let us send letters to every city and community and declare a day of prayer and fasting. Command all Israelites to put away idols and to return to the laws of God. Then we will meet again to hear the word of the Lord.”
The elders agreed unanimously, and the meeting ended. By this time wood had been gathered and water hauled by three Gibeonites who served the tabernacle at Sihloh, 38 and a meal had been prepared by the women at the base of the hill, where they had been roasting three lambs to feed the elders. All descended to the camp to eat together in fellowship.
- Deuteronomy 31:29
- Judges 3:1, 4
- Exodus 32:4
- Leviticus 19:33-36; Matthew 7:1, 2
- Hosea 6:6
- Deuteronomy 28:44
- Leviticus 26:8
- Joshua 9:27