Have a look at this image, have a good look. What do you see? Do you see a number?

If someone said to me “Joshua, I will give you 50K if you can tell me what number is in this image”, I would have had to randomly guess a number in the hope that I was correct. You see, no matter how hard I have looked at this image, no matter how much I will myself to see a number, I cannot see it. Even when people tell me what the actual number is, I still cannot see it. The reason is that I have a form of colour blindness where my colour vision is shifted towards the red end of the spectrum resulting in a reduction in sensitivity to the green area of the spectrum. In other words, I cannot see green very well. The problem is not the wiring of my brain (though some may think otherwise), but it is do with my eyes themselves. I will not bore you with details, except to say that my eyes are missing certain receptors, which means my eyes can’t pick up certain waves in the colour spectrum. However, this doesn’t affect me too much in everyday life (except for buying bananas that are ripe). The reason? I am not aware of it.

Yet there is a type of blindness that, unlike colour blindness, all of us are susceptible to acquiring — cultural blindness. It is the inability to detect the currents, morés, and values of our culture, the inability to discern them in light of God’s Word and the inability to see if they are influencing us.

Recently in our parish, we just finished a series in Judges and this concept of cultural blindness was really brought home to me with the example of a Judge named Jephthah. Jephthah is one of those Old Testament figures whom, I suspect, is not that well known. He is certainly not one of those figures that you’ll likely hear about in a ‘Kid’s Spot’ in church (unlike Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon). In case the name does not ring a bell for you, his tragic account can be found in Judges 10:6-12:7.

When we are first introduced to him, God’s nation of Israel is in a real mess. They had displayed a cascade of failures, both morally and spiritually, and Verse 6 of Judges 6 really brings this home:

The people of Israel again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Syria [Aram], the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines. And they forsook the LORD and did not serve him.

Th people of Israel had not only done evil in the sight of the Lord and committed spiritual adultery, but they had done it time and time again. They not only flirted with worship of Baal, but also of the Ashtaroth (the male and female gods of the Canaanites), the gods of Aram, Sidon, Moab, Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. They had taken on the worship of every ‘god’ of the nations that surrounded them rather than worshiping Yahweh. Their failures were recorded here and testify that they had gone from bad to worse. (It’s interesting, and certainly disheartening, to note that they were in bed with the god of Aram, considering that God used the nation of Aram to punish Israel back in Chapter 3. God had even raised up Othniel to save Israel from Aram, but only a few generations later they had decided to worship the false god of Aram!)

Israel had sunk so low, that verse 7 states:

they forsook the LORD and did not serve him

Forsook is a word that we don’t use much these days. However, the usage here certainly shows the gravity of the situation. Being the past tense of the verb, forsake; by Israel having ‘forsook’ God, it meant they had renounced, abandoned, deserted, and quit on God. Israel, being God’s people, living in God’s place, living under God’s rule, had effectively said to God as a nation “I quit” — “I’m done”! It was like a wife saying to their faithful husband, who has devotedly loved them, “I’m leaving!“.[1]Similar to the language used in Hosea and elsewhere.

Israel’s rebellion against God stood as a massive indictment against them — and God, in kind, hands them over to two nations: the Philistines and the Ammonites. However, despite this — God is still gracious towards them (outrageously so!) by sending a deliverer,  a man named Jephthah.

When Jephthah arrives on the scene, Israel is desperate. So desperate, in fact, that they had no other choice than to turn to this warrior who had a questionable parentage, hung with losers, and was driven out by own family. To cut the story short (although, you should read it!), Jephthah gave the oppressive king of Ammon a theology and history lesson and then goes out to fight him.

So far, it seems that Jephthah is a ‘good’ guy. He lives by the truth, and we read in verse 29 that the Spirit of Yahweh was upon him as he goes off to fight the Ammonites. However, in his zeal, we see Jephthah plant a seed which will eventually blossom into a tree of tragedy, when, in 11:30-31, he:

made a vow to the LORD and said, “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whatever comes out from the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace from the Ammonites shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.”

Now, the question must be asked here — why did Jephthah, an Israelite, make such a vow? Particularly considering that God had already promised to grant victory prior to the vow being made. So why did Jephthah do it?

I suspect it was because of cultural blindness.

Jephthah was so used to the traditions of those around him, that he was blind to how God really desired worship. Instead, he bought into an idea that for God to act in a way that was beneficial or favourable, one needed to offer a sacrifice to Him. Thus the greater the sacrifice, the greater the favour — and there was no greater sacrifice than a human life.

The consequences of his cultural blindness are both tragic and horrifying! It was a foolish vow that Jephthah should never had made, and we read the next tragic phase of his vow in verse 34:

Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah. And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances. She was his only child; besides her he had neither son nor daughter.

We almost want to step back in time, go there, and say to him “Don’t do it. Confess your foolishness to God, break your stupid vow, save your daughter’s life. Your vow is useless, it won’t sway God who was always going to grant you victory and save Israel.”[2]See 10:16 and 11:29; God had already decided to save Israel, for he could not bear to see Israel suffer. And in v.29, God’s Spirit was upon him.

Yet, he went through with the sacrifice.

Jephthah’s blindspot was massive, and it resulted in a fatal mistake.

Now it’d be relatively easy to write-off Jephthah and think that we’re above making such absurd decisions. However, Jephthah’s account holds a challenge for us as well. The tragic example of this, little-known, Judge serves as a reminder that God’s people should never underestimate the effect that culture has on us.

By and large, culture can, and does, have a bigger effect on us than the Bible — and this results in us having blind spots. Ideas and thoughts which are more shaped by the culture than they are informed by the Bible — and sometimes we treat such ideas as if they are from the Bible. Such blind spots can be difficult to remove — why? Because we can’t see them.

However, that does not mean it is impossible to remove them. By the relying on God’s Word and the Holy Spirit, which together act as a lens and scalpel, they enable us to both identify those cultural cataracts, and remove them. The more that I have meditated on God’s Word, and been illuminated by the Holy Spirit, I more that I have seen many such blind spots in myself that needed to be targeted and destroyed. These blind spots come in all shapes and sizes, and are often things which our culture deems as ‘normal’. They could be certain cultural traits, morés, or ethics — external behaviours or internal attitudes — but an examination of God’s Word shows them to be what they truly are: sinful.

cataractsNow, upon reading the words above, many people would say ‘amen!’ or ‘Yes, what you’ve said is true but obvious!‘. However, we really do need to recognise that we are a product of our time and place, and subsequently, we don’t always view our culture objectively nor do we always scrutinise our culture through the lenses of Scripture. We should, but we don’t always do it. Just as actual cataracts block sight, such cultural cataracts block our spiritual sight, blinding us to the truth of God’s Word, and to how we are to live our lives in accordance to it.

Jephthah was a Judge. He had God’s Word, he knew God’s law. God had even made himself known to Jephthah — proving that he was not like those pagan ‘gods’ which surrounded Israel. Yet Jephthah was still blind. He was unable to see how God was unlike how the pagan worldview portrayed divine beings. He could not discern his culture in light of how God had revealed himself, and just like the pagan kings around him, he was blind to the truth of God’s Word.

There is a term coined by the Protestant Reformers which is:

Semper Reformanda

It means ‘Always Reforming’. The Reformers used this term because they, rightly, believed that the church should always be reforming its doctrine and practices in light of Scripture. Whilst, it was focused on the church, this concept also applies to the level of the individual — to you and to me.

Particularly, are we Semper Reformanda?

Are we constantly reforming our doctrine and practices in light of the Scripture?

If we are not, then we risk our spiritual vision diminishing — until, possibly, we have no sight at all.

We should always be striving to look to God’s word in all things — particularly in the removal of those cultural cataracts. So how is your vision? Do you have perfect, twenty-twenty, vision? Or do you require radical surgery?

References   [ + ]

1.Similar to the language used in Hosea and elsewhere.
2.See 10:16 and 11:29; God had already decided to save Israel, for he could not bear to see Israel suffer. And in v.29, God’s Spirit was upon him.