Last week I rediscovered good news together with inmates in the call of Gideon in Judges 6. We began by reading Judges 6:1 with four men, in what would become one of the most unforgettable jail bible studies of the past 25 years.
“Then the sons of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord gave them into the hands of Midian seven years.”
I describe how the sons of Israel were God’s chosen people, but according to Judges 2:11-12, they were worshipping other gods and rejecting the one and only God—which was what was considered evil in the Lord’s sight.
“Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals, and they forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them.”
“There were lots of higher powers that people prayed to back during the time of the Judges,” is there still some of that going on today?” I ask.
“Yeah, there’s money, drugs, casinos, all kinds of things, and even other gods” someone says, and I add in political leaders, parties, nation.
At this point in the discussion the jail nurse shows up with meds, and three of the four men excuse themselves, telling me to wait as they’ll soon be back. I chat with a young black man with dreads from inner-city Chicago, who tells me he’s never been into God. I invite another older black guy over who’s busy writing in his journal. Soon the others return and we continue with a larger group. A Mexican American guy who’s just come out of the shower joins us at the table right across from me.
“So let’s check out more closely what God actually does here?” I suggest. “Can we re-read Judges 6:1 and see if God punishes them for doing evil?” I ask, trying to bring the others into the story at the same time.
The men expect re-reading Judges 6:1 will confirm the common view that God punishes offenders.
But they have no trouble seeing that the Lord’s “giving the people into the hands of Midian seven years” is like letting them experience the consequences of their actions.
“It’s like if you drink a fifth of Vodka, you’ll have headache,” right? Does God give you a hangover?” I ask.
Everyone agrees that God doesn’t give you a hangover. But maybe God lets us experience the consequences of drinking too much, so we’ll maybe learn from the pain and avoid worse troubles in the future.
In this case, it is the Midianites, not God, who punish them—like prosecutors, judges, the State of Washington, Department of Corrections probation officers, bill collectors and addictions punish our jail population now.
We read in the next two verses how the “power of Midian” gained the upper hand over Israel, causing them to make hideouts in the mountains—caves and strongholds.
“Have any of you ever been a fugitive, having to hide out from law enforcement or enemies?” I ask.
A number of men reminisce about alluding law enforcement or people to whom they owed money, hiding out in the mountains or in far-flung corners of our county. But here they are, finally caught. We read on about more foreign details: how the Midianites came on their camels like locusts, raiding their crops, stealing their sheep, oxen, donkeys– devastating everything they’d labored for.
Let’s see what happens next, I suggest, inviting someone to read Judges 6:6. Someone reads:
“So Israel was brought very low because of Midian, and the sons of Israel cried to the Lord.”
“So what do the people finally do?” I ask.
“They cry out to God, like a lot of us to here in the jail when we’re in trouble,” someone says.
“But that’s being a hypocrite, he continues. “You can’t just cry out to God when you’re in trouble and expect him to help you. You gotta be serious about him all the time,” he says, stating the common view.
“Well maybe we can, and it’s okay,” I say. “Let’s see what God does, whether he gets down on them, judging them or calling them hypocrites.”
Someone reads Judges 6:7-9
“Now it came about when the sons of Israel cried to the Lord on account of Midian, that the Lord sent a prophet to the sons of Israel, and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘It was I who brought you up from Egypt and brought you out from the house of slavery. ‘I delivered you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hands of all your oppressors, and dispossessed them before you and gave you their land.”
We talk about how in response to the people’s cries God sends a prophet- a fellow human being who speaks for God. I ask the men what the Lord is like based on what the prophet says about him.
People’s hearts seem to warm towards God as they see that he only talks about how he’s saved them from troubles in the past, liberating them from their oppressors and even giving them their land.
“Have you ever been saved from a near-death experience?” I ask. People nod and they all have stories. “Maybe it was God who saved you. Let’s check out Judges 6:10 and see what God says next.
”And I said to you, “I am the Lord your God; you shall not fear the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But you have not obeyed me.”
I share how word-for-word the Hebrew does say “but you didn’t obey, but rather “but you didn’t listen to my voice.” I ask if any of them have had impressions that they shouldn’t do this or that—which they paid attention to and avoided trouble—or ignored and suffered the consequences.
“Yeah, I mostly have ignored God’s voice,” one of the men confesses. “A lot of us have,” he said, including the others, who didn’t deny it. “And that’s why we’re here,” he concluded.
We read on in Judges 6:11, how the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak tree while Gideon is harvesting wheat in the wine press—out of sight from the Midian raiders. Someone reads verse 12, which states the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him: “the Lord is with you, O valiant warrior.”
I continue talking about how the angel of the Lord, God’s messenger, isn’t judging Gideon or anybody, but the opposite. The angel comes in humble, sitting under an oak tree where he’s working. The angel calls him out for his positive qualities- affirming him as a courageous warrior. Let’s see how he responds.
“Then Gideon said to him, “O my lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all His miracles which our fathers told us about, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has abandoned us and given us into the hand of Midian.”
I ask if any of them have ever felt like Gideon, wondering where God’s been during hard times, blaming him for abandoning them.
“Yeah for sure,” says the guy to my right. God did nothing to keep my uncle from dying. And now another uncle just died.”
I share how Gideon’s words are a kind of prayer called “complaint,” which we can do. They were leaning in at this point in the Bible study, and two new men had joined the table and were getting up to speed. Let’s see how the angel responds to his complaint, I suggest.
When one of the men read Judges 6:14, it looked to me like darts were going into hearts.
“The Lord looked at him and said, “Go in this your strength and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian. Have I not sent you?”
I looked around the table and could feel we were at a critical point. “Here the angel puts it back onto Gideon: “you’re the man to liberate the people! Have I not sent you?”
Right at this moment I could feel excitement around the table. Then suddenly the Mexican American man who’d been leaning into the discussion’s eyes rolled back into his head and he let out a cry, rising up and flying backwards, hitting the cement floor behind him full force. When I saw him laying there convulsing, I ran to him and held his head, speaking healing and freedom over him in Jesus name. The man continued to convulse, and inmates began yelling for the guards and pounding on the doors of the cell block, screaming for help.
I continued to pray, until six or seven guards came bursting in, yelling for the inmates to go into their cells and shut their doors, and telling me and another man who was helping him to get away from the man. By the time the correctional officers had gathered around him his convulsions were mostly over and he was opening his eyes, but blood was coming out of his mouth.
Faces were plastered to the cell windows as an officer ushered me out. I offered to go to accompany the man to the hospital, but they wouldn’t let me.
The following Thursday I led another Bible study in the same cell block to inmates in the upper tiers. One of the men from the lower tiers where we’d had the eventful Bible study asked me what Scripture we’d been reading when the guy had the seizure, and I passed him a photocopy of Judges 6. He looked like he was afraid to read it, but said he wanted to.
A week later this past Sunday morning I was able to have a one-on-one visit in the jail with the man who’d had the seizure. He told me that he’d never had a seizure before, and that at the hospital the doctor had said he was lucky to be alive, since his scull was fractured and he had internal bleeding. As I listened to him, “Santa Muerte” the Mexican occult figure (Saint Death), kept coming to mind.
“Do you have any experience with the Santa Muerte? I asked.
“How did you know that?” he asked me.
“I told him I didn’t know, but was only asking as the name kept repeating in my head.
He told he that a few weeks before while in the jail he’d gotten desperate and had called a woman who’s really into Santa Muerte, asking her how he could pray to her. He recounted how she’d told him he needed to be really serious about it, and suggested he get on his knees every night at midnight and pray. He’d been doing that for a week or ten days before the eventful Bible study.
I asked him if he felt he had a call on his life, like Gideon—to be a liberator of his people. He told me that he did, and that before he was arrested he had led a change group that included Bible study and conversations about God. As we talked he became convinced that there was a direct connection between what had happened and his praying to Santa Muerte. He shared how this experience was a real wake-up call, and he wanted to know what I thought he should do.
I told him about how Jesus had conquered the power of death, which is called the last enemy in 1 Corinthians 15:26. Praying to death is like praying to Jesus’ enemy. He felt convicted about this and agreed to confess this as sin, ask Jesus for forgiveness, turn towards Jesus and renounce Santa Muerte. He prayed a beautiful prayer of surrender and we prayed for his pounding headache to go away.
I am amazed at how relevant the book of Judges continues to be, as people continue to come under the power of false gods today, and Jesus continues to recruit today’s new Gideons into his liberation movement.