Introduction to lesson four:
The ancient land of Israel is a testimony, evidence if you will, of the greatness of what God did in that country. A testimony of the truth that we find in the pages of the Bible.
The Bible speaks often, of a great civilization called the Philistines. The Philistines lived out on the coastal plain powerful and cultured. The Israelites at the time of the judges, lived up in the hills. Almost as if afraid to face that Philistine culture. In-between the two, several valleys which connected those mountains with that coastal plain. Beth-Shemesh, one of those ancient tells stands as a guard house, between the people of the coast and the people of the hills.
Welcome to Tell Beth-Shemesh, as we call it. We’re sitting on another one of these huge mounds that made up of several layers of civilization. You’ll notice on this one there’s some recent excavation. So you can see how archeology is being done. They’ve found some enormous defensive structures here, in the area we are. And a huge work area here below, probably an olive processing area. So this was an active on going city. Probably in the area of the Iron Age, late Iron Age, probably in the time of Recoboam, or shortly after, about 920, shall we say, BC. So that kind of gives you the setting.
The town of Beth-Shemesh is called Beth-Shemesh, because “Beth” means house, “Shemesh” sun. So the house of the sun. If we go to the west here, we go to the coastal plain, and it’s not every far, three, four, five miles down this valley, you would be out in that broad coastal plain where that main road ran from the eastern empires and the western empire. If you go to the east of us, in this direction, very soon you would be to the Judea Mountains. I can see the tops of the Judea Mountains there, behind where you are. You can just see there in the distance going on up to 3,000 feet and more. And that’s in Bible times, at least in the Old Testament, where most of the Israelite people lived.
Around us, the Shephelah, the low foot hills that separate those two. And we can actually say, if you look particularly here in this direction you can see where some of those foot hills are that then separate the mountains from the coastal plain.
Now there are places where broad valleys come up from the coastal plain, through the Shephelah and even some instances, into the Judea Mountains. And what that does then, it is gives you access back and forth. If you live in the mountains and you want to come down to the coastal plain, this is the place to go. If you live on the coastal plain and you want to come up into the mountains, this is the place to be. So a place like this is very, very significant for the strategy of this area because it separates, it guards the mountains if you will, or from the perspective of the people down here, it guards the entrance to the coastal plain. So this place was often battled over, often mentioned in the Bible. So that’s our geographical setting.
We’re in the Soreq Valley. This particular territory, right here in the Shephelah and out into the coastal plain is the possession of the tribe of Dan. A very small tribe, probably the smallest of the twelve tribes. The tribe of Dan was given this in the book of Joshua as their inheritance. That was where they were placed. However, for whatever reasons, the tribe of Dan was never able to, or never chose to push the Philistines away.
But one of the aspects of the faith lesson I want to talk about in a few minuets is the fact that when God gives them a role He wants them to carry out, failing to carry it out creates problems. And the tribe of Dan, for whatever reasons, was unable to carry out their task of subjugating this particular area, and pushing the Philistines away.
Now relate that to yourself. When God calls you to a particular task in a particular place, it become important to carry out your calling, whatever that calling is. And it becomes really important to carry it out fully. If there is some aspect of our life that we don’t bring under the dominion of God’s value system of God’s way of life, we jeopardize our whole mission. It doesn’t do any good to be distinctively committed to God in part of our life, and then let the rest of it go. And that we see here. The tribe of Dan left the Philistine presence, and that created problems for a long time for the Israelite people.
Historically now, the Philistines live out here on the coastal plain to the west. About 1,100, or a little earlier BC, there was a migration of people coming from the Aegean world. From the area we call Greece.
They migrated along the Mediterranean world, all along, down the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, here on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. Several groups of those Aegean people, known in history as the “sea people”, the people who came from the sea, settled along the coast of Palestine, the coast of Israel here. The ones who settled here apparently became what we know to be the Philistines. Over here we had the Philistine cities Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza and Ekron. More inland, we call that Tell Mikna today, and that’s only about three miles from here. They settled in kind of city states.
A very important detail you ought to know about the Philistine people that lived out here on the coastal plain, is that they were the sophisticated culture of the day. The Philistines had technology. The Philistines had iron. We’ll talk about iron later, suffice to say now it’s something the Israelites didn’t have. The Philistines had an olive processing business that was incredible. In fact they might have processed more olive oil in those Philistine cities than is processed in the country today. Now that’s an important detail to keep in mind. Don’t think of it like the Israelites had it all together, and they have this fine sophisticated culture, and the Philistines are barbarians. Look at it as exactly the opposite. The Israelites were the unsophisticated folk, the people who didn’t really have it all together, and living down here on the sea coast are these very sophisticated cultured, developed Philistines, and how that attractiveness to the Israelites created problems. Because these Philistines who lived out here to the west also had a religion that was very contrary to the one of the Israelites. They worshiped the gods of fertility.
In some cases the god was called Dagon, who apparently was the grain god, the god who provided the rain. As you can see by the flat land here, the wheat and so on was dependant on the rain and so they worshiped the grain god.
Not very far from here at Ekron, they worshiped a fertility god who was named Beelzebul. Baal-zebul or Beelzebul meant “Prince Baal.” And just to show you that confrontation, the Israelites nick-named him, changing the Hebrew name a little bit, Baal-Zebub, we say Beelzebub. And Baal-Zebub meant “Lord of the Flies.” Like maggots and death and filth and garbage. So they nick-named him the Lord of the flies, he’s mentioned several places in the Bible.
Jesus later to the north of here, uses that word, Baal-Zebub, Beelzebub we say, to refer to the devil.
So what’s going on here people is not some little thing, but very critical to the very thing that God is doing in this place, in this country. The Bible picks up with that in the book of Judges chapter 13, and the Bible says it like this, “The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, so the Lord delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years.” So the Israelites were drawn to the culture, they were attracted to its religion, they were attractive to its life style, they were attracted to its technology, and to many other things. And they bought into it. So God basically turned them over to philistine domination for a forty year period.
“Now a certain man of Zorah,” (we can say over here is a settlement known as Zorah, so if you can imagine Zorah is a little settlement. I’m not saying that it’s that one, but maybe up on the hill beyond a ways,) “a man of Zorah, from the tribe of Dan, had a wife who was childless.” And you know the story, “an angel of the Lord appeared to this man and said, ‘you’re going to have a child. Now see to it that this child becomes a Nazirite.’” Now a Nazirite according to the Old Testament was someone who didn’t drink wine, who didn’t touch, or come into contact with an unclean or dead thing, dead body. And was also a person who didn’t cut its hair.
Now those particular things where not so much moral things, but what they did is they set the person up as being some strange, somebody differently, someone unique. You didn’t cut your hair, but most Israelites trimmed their hair. You didn’t drink wine, but everybody drank wine, that was the beverage. You couldn’t eat meat, and that made you very odd in this culture. Now the point of that was not that there was anything sacred about those things, but it was a faith lesson.
It was a visual aid where God said, “You do those things to be different, so that when people see you, they will understand that they have to be different.” Different from what? Different from the culture that they lived in.
So Samson is called to be an example of being different, being unique, being set apart as a Nazirite. “He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Lord began to stir him while he was in Marriba-Dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol.”
Now I want to say two things about that. The word there, “with Dan”, Marriba-Dan, means the tent or the camp, the tents or the camps of Dan. Which probably indicates that the people of Dan were so primitive yet at this point, that they didn’t even have a city to live it. They were living in tents, they were living in a camp. They were more like Bedouin then they were like civilized people. That gives you a contrast between the Philistines and the Israelites.
And the other things is that if Zorah is over here on this end of the ridge, and Eshtaol is over there on the other end of the ridge, so as you look out here today, you can honestly say that someplace between there and there, the Spirit of God began to stir in Samson, and he began to feel his calling.
So somewhere not far from here he lit the foxes tails on fire. And you can see them running through the wheat fields. Somewhere near this place Samson also took the city gates and carried them up, all the way up into the mountains at Hebron. There he stood them against a tree. For 45 miles he dragged those city gates through here.
Unfortunately however, he’s not particularly effective in his calling, for a specific reason. First of all it says, “Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman.” And so begins the story, and the problem of Samson, when he goes down to the Philistines constantly and rather than being in confrontation with them, Samson ends up, being a person who participates in exactly the culture that he is called to confront.
Now I would like to add that to the faith lesson. Samson’s failure was not simply that he drank wine, and got his hair cut and he touched a dead body. Those things were simply indicative of the fact that Samson failure was he began to participate in exactly the culture value system that he was suppose to be confronting.
And it’s impossible for us to live out this God centered existence, in confrontation with the cultural values that we live with, with which we disagree, if we participate in the value system that we oppose. And I think one of the great failures of the Christian faith, and the Christian community is its tendency to adopt the cultural values and the life style values of the very culture that we are suppose to be distinct from.
Now you know the story. He goes down this valley to the Philistines. He meets with their culture, he begins to participate in it, particularly in the life style of Delilah. He breaks all three of the commands. He goes down and he kills a lion, with his bare hands, the Bible says. To that point Samson had been destroying other people and things with instruments, like the jaw bone of a donkey. By touching the dead body of that lion with his hands, he’s come into contact with a dead body, number one. He has a wedding party. And the Hebrew word there indicates that the party he went to, in connection with that marriage, is a drinking bout, and orgy. So he breaks the second standard. Which is don’t participate in the drinking. And then of course Delilah gets him and finds out the last secret of his strength, and gets Samson to get his hair cut. And now suddenly he’s weak.
When he lived a life style that was completely separated to God’s values, he was affective. When he compromised with the value system that he represented, he lost his power. That people is as practical for you as it was for Samson. By being born in the Shephelah, Samson had a task. What’s his task? Well, his task is to be a part of this confrontation, between the culture of God, if you will, and the culture of the world. To be born in America is like being born in the Shephelah. Because America it seems to me, is in some sense on the cutting edge of where cultural values are happening. And the cultural battle over right and wrong, good and evil is happening, in my opinion, in western culture. In the media, and in all of these other things. And to be born in America is to be born at the point where that battle is happening, right now. And I want you to think of yourself. You are Samson in a sense, born in the Shephelah.
About 20 miles north of here, after the time of Samson, Samson had been dead already a long time, there’s a shrine, near a place called Shiloh.
Now in that place and I’m talking back near the time of the judges or shortly there after, is the Arc of the Covenant. And the priest who is ministering, kind of the high priest, if you will, is a man named Eli. The Philistines are already now up in the mountains, and there’s a battle up there, up in the mountains between the Philistines and the Israelites. They’re up on the plateau there, and they are jeopardizing the very plan of salvation, in a sense, that God is at work doing. Eli decides, against his better judgment apparently, to send the Arc of the Covenant into battle. The Israelites had not been living out their distinctiveness, and they had not been willing to confront their culture, but somehow at the last minuet, they think, “Maybe God will rescue us? Let’s get Him into this thing!” So they run back to the tabernacle, the shrine, they take the Arc of the Covenant, they go into battle and the Arc is taken.
And it ends up out here on the sea coast in the Philistine cities. And things began to happen. You remember the story. The Philistine god Dagon falls over and he ends up flat on his face, his head falls off, and he’s bowed down to the Arc of the Covenant in the temple. So the Philistines are thinking, “Hey maybe this God is more than we realized.” So they send the Arc of the Covenant to Ekron. And they have all kinds of problems. They develop tumors and they have a plague of rats, which probably those two things went together. Finally they decided, “Maybe we out to send this Arc of the Covenant back. Maybe this god thing is bigger than we realized.”
So this is how they say it, “Get a cart ready with two cows that have calved but never been yoked, hitch the cows to the card but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the Arc of the Lord and put it on the cart and in a chest beside it put some gold objects that we’re sending back, send it on its way, but keep watching it. If it goes back up to it’s own territory, towards Beth-Shemesh, then we know that the Lord has brought this great disaster on us.’ They placed the Arc of the Lord on a cart, with the gifts in it, then the cows when straight up towards Beth-Shemesh, staying on the road, lowing all the way, they did not turn to the right or the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the boarder of Beth-Shemesh.”
Now where is that? Well let’s set a couple of things. When you have a city like this, when you look around, obviously there’s not a huge amount of farm land. So where you have nice farm land, you farm. If you look along the left hand side of this valley, way in the distance, almost at the base of that hill, you see a road. That’s probably about how it was. The Philistine cities are out there, so we can imagine that cart coming down that road and the Philistine rulers coming this far, “Lets find out if it is God causing this, or if we have another problem.”
“Now the people of Beth-Shemesh were harvesting wheat in the valley, and when they looked up they saw the Arc, and they rejoiced at the site. The Arc in the cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth-Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. People chopped up the wood of the card and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering.” (I always felt bad for those cows, they did exactly the right thing, and when they got here they ended up getting slaughtered as a sacrifice.) “The Levites took down the Arc of the Lord, together with the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth-Shemesh made burn offerings and sacrificed to the Lord. The five rulers of the Philistines saw all of this and returned that day to Ekron,” About three miles down this valley here, “And the large rock on which they set the Arc of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-Shemesh.” 1 Samuel 6.
And now you have a standing stone again. And now when people saw this large rock they could say, “Wow, what happened here.” And you could say, “Well, let me tell you about what God did.”
I really understand what happened to Eli, because it’s so easy for me to compromise with the value system of the culture, and not be very effective in my Christian walk. And then at the last minute to say, “God, I blew it, come and help me.” And that kind of “use” of God in the face of my unfaithfulness, isn’t going to work.
It’s not that God won’t rescue you in time of trouble, but I’m saying that if I refuse to be faithful to His lifestyle and value system, to ask Him to bale me out at the last minute just doesn’t work. When you retain a commitment to God and live in close relationship with His value system and His ways, committed to Him, He works through you. You can have powerful impact in what you do, in little ways and big ways. You can be the standing stone that represents the power of God. When you compromise that by not being distinct, you compromise your witness, your compromise your ability to make an impact. If you live by the value system of the world that you are distinct from, you will compromise any opportunity to make an impact.
And Samson’s problem was not that he got his hair cut, Samson’s problem was that he was not willing to remain distinctly committed to being committed to his God, and his God’s way of life.
So fortunately for us, this Beth-Shemesh doesn’t only represent cultural compromise, and ineffectiveness. But this place of Beth-Shemesh also represents: God is still the one that’s at work. And so somewhere here in this valley is a large rock, which stood for them as a reminder that no matter how unfaithful they were, God was still going to work it out according to what He had planned and He had going.