Dan: Against the odds
Who is Dan? He is the son of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid. He is therefore the son of an outsider and to him Jacob says, ‘Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel’ (Gen. 49:16). It’s a play on words, for Dan means ‘judge.’
So what does Jacob mean? He could mean that although Dan is the son of a slave girl, he nevertheless has a legitimate share in his father’s inheritance and therefore a share in the Promised Land. A more likely explanation however, is that Dan’s actions will carry significance for the whole nation. In judging his people, he will establish justice; by bringing in a verdict, he will vindicate God’s people. Put simply, Dan the outsider will bring blessing to all.
But it is the manner of his victory which is so intriguing. ‘Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a viper by the path that bites the horse’s heels so that his rider falls backwards’ (Gen. 49:17).
It is a vivid picture. In battle a war horse and his rider were to be feared. Over open ground against a retreating foe, cavalry could be devastating and even today, a score of mounted police can control a hostile crowd. The contest is unequal. But Dan is able to change the momentum of the contest and shorten the odds. Like a viper he waits unseen and with a serpent’s guile, when least expected, he strikes at the horse’s heels. And of course in that moment as the horse rears up to unseat his rider, the initiative is with Dan. Against the odds, Dan is able to strike the first blow against a superior enemy. It’s the language of guerrilla warfare. Dan will turn the tide. He will begin the deliverance of the nation, paving the way to ultimate victory.
Jacob’s words fulfilled
The most famous son of Dan was a judge by the name of Samson. The man who ‘shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines’ (Judg. 13:5). In Samson’s day the Philistines dominated at will and Israel had all but surrendered. Indeed, in Judges 15 the leading tribe, Judah, had abdicated its responsibility and was actively collaborating with the occupiers. Things looked impossibly bad. The rider on his horse dominated at will. But against the odds Samson turns the tide. For 20 years he conducts a one-man holy war against the Philistines. They can no longer move freely. They do not know where he will strike next. The tide is turning! But it is Samson’s final act that truly unseats the rider.
Having fallen under Delilah’s spell, Samson’s hair is cut, breaking his Nazirite vow and therefore his consecration to God as Israel’s saviour. In this sense the Lord leaves him and he becomes weak like other men. He is captured, blinded and finally paraded by the Philistines in the temple of their god, Dagon. Samson the carnival clown, blind and stumbling before the mighty Dagon. The horse and his rider seem unstoppable. But when least expected, this son of Dan strikes with devastating results.
With the temple filled to overflowing and Philistine establishment seated in the front row, Samson finds himself next to the supporting pillars. He is in the one place, on the one day, when he can deliver Israel and he knows it. So he prays ‘O Lord God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes’ (Judg. 16:28). He knows that without his eyes he cannot fulfil his calling as Israel’s saviour and so in effect he says, ‘Lord strengthen me in my blindness, that I might by this one final act achieve such a victory, as could not be achieved in another 20 years with two eyes. Let me deliver Israel. Let me be the saviour I was appointed to be.’ And when the Philistines least expect it the serpent strikes (Judg. 16:29-30).
The Philistines never recovered. The rider was unseated and the tide was turned. And what started with the strike of a serpent, was finished a generation later by a man of Judah, David, whose first public act was to slay the Philistine champion and by the end of David’s reign the Philistines are history.
Do you stand alone?
In the family, or at work, or at school are the odds against you? Are you one against the many and the momentum is with the Philistines, who dominate at will? Furthermore, have many of God’s people settled down to peaceful co-existence with the world? Well maybe you’re a Danite! An outsider but wise as a serpent and waiting for God’s timing. What then is the vital ingredient for a son of Dan? Samson’s crowning work comes when, with a holy violence, he renounces all, even his life, and fully embraces the Lord’s calling. Jesus said, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life’ (John 12:24-25). Only by dying to self can we bear fruit. Only in our death can we know victory.
So if we are to strike a blow that turns the tide, we must renounce self and embrace Christ, indeed he must become our life. We can’t fight this battle with one hand behind our backs, we must give all for Jesus. Who knows whether you will find yourself in the right place at the right time and God will say, ‘Now is the time’ and against the odds and contrary to expectations you will strike the first blow? Maybe it will be a timely meeting, or an act of kindness which catches your enemy out, or a wise word spoken for Jesus and the rider is unseated. Of course another may complete what you begin but your witness for Jesus played the key part.
Another side to Dan
If only our account could end there. There’s but a step between wisdom and cunning, between shrewdness and deceit. Dan can make the breakthrough against the odds or like the serpent in Eden, undermine everything.
What happened to the tribe of Dan? Their inheritance in the Promised Land was to the south and west and there the godly Danites remained. However, finding the land hard to possess, many of the tribe abandoned their inheritance and in disobedience to God, migrated north looking for something easier (see Judg. 17-18). The chapters are beautifully crafted and carry deliberate echoes of the exodus, the sending out of the spies and the conquest of the Promised Land. Only this is a false exodus, with false spies, leading to a false conquest, to set up a false priesthood, in a false sanctuary, worshiping a false god. The whole thing is a deceit. Dan slaughters an innocent people, to establish an idolatrous cult which will undermine the whole nation. There’s another side to Dan – a deceitful serpent with a lethal bite.
As believers, those qualities which, under God, achieve a breakthrough for the Kingdom, can, if unsurrendered to Jesus, undermine everything. Is there something of the serpent about us? In our church, do we love intrigue? Do we manipulate? Do we speak with a forked tongue? Do we strike unexpectedly? Are we to be trusted? Do we know ourselves?