One if by land, two if by sea. Poet Henry W. Longfellow coined this phrase to describe the historic night when Paul Revere rode from Boston to Concord, warning the American patriots that British troops were advancing. Paul Revere’s ride is one story important to American national identity. It is the kind of story that tells us who we are.
Ancient Israel had a far more spectacular story to tell about their identity as God’s people. They had been slaves in Egypt, but God had miraculously rescued them by bringing plagues upon their captors and parting the Red Sea. Their story of rescue was intended to be rehearsed and retold to future generations; their deliverance was meant to inspire unshakeable confidence in God. This story should lead Israel out of fear and into obedient worship.
As we see in today’s reading, Israel failed their holy task of storytelling. They did not remember the wondrous works performed on their behalf. Instead, they told different stories—stories that described the Canaanite chariots as invincible, stories that exaggerated the fierce determination of the Canaanites to hold fast to their land. They diminished the power of the God of Israel, the God who had promised the land to them.
Neglecting the holy act of memory, Israel fell into a crisis of confidence that quickly became a failure of obedience. Though Judges 1 ends with what could be perceived as military success, they did not conquer land and its people in the way God had commanded. Instead of driving the Canaanites out of the land, they made fatal compromises, allowing the Canaanites to live among them as a slave labor force. Old Testament scholar Dale Ralph Davis describes the ending of this chapter as the Israelite “pragmatic success and spiritual failure.”
Apply the Word
We have a story just as Israel did: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We were delivered not from a foreign oppressor but from the sting of sin and death. As the apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15, our story is meant to make us the kind of people who stand firm, always giving ourselves fully to the work of the Lord (v. 58).