Introduction to Judges
Introduction to Judges
The book of Judges frames God as a sovereign victorious king. Judges takes us back to the promised land before the age of kings. After Joshua led God’s people into the promised land, they lived under a series of rulers God raised amongst them in times of need. The ancient near east was a cruel place of fragmented warring tribes. Conflict was a constant threat to God’s people. They had entered the promised land and gained a foothold, but had not yet taken it completely. Aside from the various threat from other peoples and kingdoms, the Israelites struggled through multiple threats from within. They continued to struggle with idolatry, infighting and lack of leadership. The book of judges tells a story of God’s people faced with constant obstacle danger and struggle, leading to God overcoming all things to win victory for his people and show them his grandeur and majesty.
Why do we call the book Judges? The stories within the book are centered around people that God rose up to lead Israel. The word “Judge” in this context is derived from the Hebrew verb sa-pat. The word can be translated more literally as “to rule.” The word can connote a single act of rule or deliverance, or (probably more accurately in this case) a series of acts from a governing person or body. The book of Judges tells us of the deeds of the leaders of the people of God from the 1300’s-1050 B.C. However, these leaders are not the focus or main character of the book. God lies at the center of the book, his actions and faithfulness to the covenant He made with his people drive everything that we read about. These leaders of Israel acted as the spokesman for God and led the people through tribulation. The people of Israel were not yet a fully functioning nation or kingdom as we would see them become under David and Solomon. While the people were certainly united ethnically and religiously, they at this point politically were resembling more of something like what was seen in the 7th century in Western Europe. While the people were brought together by the worship of God, they were geographically spread out over the new territory given to them by God and lacked central leadership and an effective infrastructure. This spread out nation lead to obvious obstacles that we see the judges overcome: from disunity of the people to invading armies, Israel is at a unique point in it’s young life-one nation religiously, but in some ways, still a tribal collection of sects and families politically.
The authorship of Judges is largely disputed and the majority of conservative scholars are unwilling to assign the authorship of Judges definitively to anyone. Some attribute the book to the prophet Samuel, while others believe that it is a compilation of oral history and the “p” source of early Israelite history that was put together while the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. Judges is a historically significant book because there are so few records of life in the near east during this period of history. While it is difficult with any real certainty to assign the authorship of Judges to a particular author, this does not take away from the inspiration and authority of the book. This is still a trustworthy revelation from God that should direct our understanding and obedience. The Middle East holds a written history that stretches back farther than almost any other region of the world. Written historical records go back to approximately 3200 B.C. Before the Israelites entered the promised land, there was over a millennia of other civilizations in the area. The cities of Babylon and Ashur were long urban and cultural centers of the fertile crescent and major cities of the empires of Hammurabi and the old Assyrian empire. Akkadian was the dominant language spoken by these people groups and most of the inhabitants of the fertile crescent. The exception was the Persian people who lived in modern day Iran, who were members of the Indo-European language family. The two major regional powers of the period were (obviously) Egypt, from whom the Israelites had escaped in the book of Exodus, and the Hittite empire.
The promised land is specifically the strip of land in what is now Syria-Palestine-Israel. This area of land was, as described in scripture, desirable because of its fertile land that could be cultivated for farming and its proximity to the ocean. This land had numerous names assigned to it by the bronze age documents we have. Early Egyptian documents call it Retenu, Akkadians referred to this land as Hurru and the Hittites whom inhabited the land when Joshua brought the people into it called the land Canaan and Hatti. The promised land of Palestine can be divided into 4 major regions. The coastal plain of the Phoenician coast, Galilee and the central hill country, the Jordan valley and the Trans-jordan highlands. This land was an interest of almost every nation at the time of the book of Judges. The middle bronze age saw the land of Palestine under the control of the Egyptian empire while it was at its height. As with many empires, instability, succession and its challenges, and foreign attacks broke down the reach of the kingdom of Egypt. As the bronze age closed and the iron age began, the empires of Egypt and the Hittites had began to dissipate. Urban centers decayed and people moved into the countryside. The region of Palestine itself was not the cohesive political entity it once was during our period of history. Remnants of Egypt, the Hittites and Mycenaeans began to settle and regionalize the Phoenician coast and the land of Palestine as a whole. It was this fragmented land that God had called the Israelites to conquer and possess, and would later deliver to them.
God relentlessly offers his grace to people who do not deserve it, or seek it, or even appreciate it after they have been saved by it. The book of Judges is not about a series of role models. Though there are a few good examples (eg: Othniel, Deborah), they are early on in the book, and do not dominate the narrative. The point is that the only true savior is the Lord. Judges is ultimately about grace abounding to chief sinners. God’s grace will triumph over the stupidest actions. God wants lordship over every area of our lives, not just some. God wanted Israel to take the entire land of Canaan, but instead they only cleared out some areas and they learned to live with idols in their midst. In other words, they neither wholly rejected God nor wholly accepted Him. This halfway discipleship and compromise is depicted by the book of Judges as an impossible, unstable compound. God wants all of our lives, not just part. There is a tension between grace and law, between conditionality and unconditionality. We find in Judges a seeming contradiction. On the one hand, God demands obedience because He is holy. On the other hand, He makes promises of commitment and loyalty to his people. Will His holiness and His conditional commands (Do this and then I’ll do this) override his promises (I will always be with you, no matter what you do), or will His promises override His commands? Put it this way— are His promises conditional, or unconditional? Judges is crucial, in that it shows that neither answer to that question is right. Nearly all readers of the Old Testament take a “liberal” view (Sure, God will always bless us as long as we are sorry) or a “conservative” view (No, God will only bless us if we are obedient). Judges leaves us with a tension— that both are true, but neither are fully true— and it will not resolve the tension. But it is that tension that propels the narrative. Only the New Testament gospel will show us how the two sides can be, and are, both true. There is a need for continual spiritual renewal in our lives here on earth, and a way to make that a reality. Judges shows that spiritual decline is inevitable, and spiritual renewal then becomes the continual need. We will see a regular, repeated decline-revival cycle. Some of the elements in this renewal include repentance, prayer, the destruction of idols, and anointed human leaders. Renewal happens when we are under the right master/ruler; slavery occurs when we are under the wrong master/ruler. Judges is the best book in the Old Testament for the understanding of renewal and revival, while Acts is the best place in the New Testament. Watch, though, for the way that the revival cycles in Judges become weaker and weaker as time goes on, while in Acts they grow wider and stronger. We need a true Savior, to which all human saviors point, through both their flaws and strengths. As we noted above under #1, the increasing magnitude of evil and brokenness in the narrative points us to our need of a savior, not role models. But the decreasing effectiveness of the revival cycles and the decreasing quality of the judges point us to the failure of any human savior. The judges themselves begin to point us to someone beyond them all. In Othniel we learn that God can save through all, in Deborah that he can save through many, in Gideon that he can save through few, and in Samson that he can save through one. God will save by sending the One. God is in charge, no matter what it looks like. The most pervasive theme may be the easiest to miss! God often seems almost absent from the scene in Judges, but He never is. He works out His will through weak people, and in spite of weak people. His purposes are never thwarted, regardless of appearances. The mills of God may grind slow, but they grind exceeding fine.
Keller, Timothy (2013-08-06). Judges For You (God’s Word For You) (Kindle Locations 77-82). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.
TO PUT IT MILDLY, Ehud comes as a bit of a shock after Othniel. Othniel was an ideal figure— well-connected, heroic, upright, the kind of man we can understand God choosing to lead Israel. Now, straight after him, we have a devious assassin, also chosen by God to save Israel (vv. 15, 21). That’s disturbing. It’s not the only disturbing thing in Judges, of course. The whole book is disturbing. It’s a very violent book, about Israel doing “what was evil in the sight of the LORD” again and again and suffering the consequences. It’s about a dark period in Israel’s history that makes pretty uncomfortable reading. Of course, it’s no bad thing in itself to be disturbed. The fact that people do evil should disturb us, especially when they are God’s people. So far, though, it’s been the rank and file who do evil. The leaders, Caleb and Othniel, have been exemplary. Now we have a leader who is devious and whom God apparently approves of. That’s even more disturbing. God’s own integrity seems to be at stake here. This is not unique to the Ehud story. From here on in Judges, most of the people God uses to rescue Israel use methods that are morally questionable. Consider Jael, for example, or Jephthah or Samson. But the Ehud episode is not simply one of a kind. There is something uniquely disturbing about it that we will become increasingly aware of as the story unfolds. We will find ourselves laughing, but feeling uncomfortable in doing so. What is especially disturbing about this story is its humor.
Webb, Barry G. (2015-11-30). Judges and Ruth (Preaching the Word) (p. 75). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Ehud should not be a hero. He didn’t check any of the typical boxes that “good person” of the day would check. However-God still used him to save his people. Here’s the big idea: God uses us despite our talent, not because of it. You aren’t more or less qualified to be used by God because of who you are. You are qualified to be used by God because of who he is.
Enter “Deborah, a prophetess” (v 4). As a prophetess, she preaches and teaches the word of God we see her doing this in verse 6: “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you...”). And she is “leading Israel” (v 4)—” she held court.” This is not a queen’s court; rather, it is an actual courtroom, where Israelites would come to have their “disputes decided” (v 5). Clearly, she was recognized as a wise counselor and judge, and people came to her to settle all sorts of social, legal and relational cases. In this way, Deborah is very different from all the other judges, before and after her. She led from wisdom and character, rather than sheer might. Where Othniel “went to war” (3: 10) and Ehud made his assassination plan (3: 16), Deborah counseled and guided the people. So she comes closest to being a godly leader of the people, instead of simply a general. She was a judge who led beyond the battlefield. In all this, we are reminded that God’s chosen leader does not simply rescue, but also rules. Deborah was in this sense the greatest pointer to the monarchy and even the Christ, who can bear the government on his shoulders, and is called “Wonderful Counselor ... Prince of Peace ... establishing and upholding [his kingdom] with justice and righteousness” (Isaiah 9: 6-7).
God uses Deborah’s wisdom and character. We live in a culture that can sometimes scoff at, or mock Godly wisdom. Godly wisdom is countercultural, but we shouldn’t shy away from it. In our wisdom and obedience, God moves powerfully in the world around us. Deborah’s Godly character transcends military ability, strength or wealth. As we mature in our faith, our ultimate goal should be to reflect the character of God to the world around us.
GREAT MEN AND WOMEN OF GOD are not made in a moment. None of us is born one; we start with a gene package inherited from our parents, who were deeply flawed human beings like ourselves. We also inherit an inborn sinfulness from them that has its ultimate source in Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God at the dawn of human history. This does not mean that we are absolved of responsibility for our own wrongdoing. When King David, struggling to come to terms with the enormity of his own moral failure, said, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51: 5), he was not trying to shift the blame to his mother. His particular sin was his own, but his vulnerability to it was something he shared with all other human beings. It was a characteristic of the whole environment he was born into, where “death reigned . . . even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam” (Romans 5: 14)." This was the world, and the Israel, that Gideon was part of. And as we will see, there is nothing in either his family’s conduct or circumstances to suggest that they were any better than others. How can a man of God be fashioned from such beginnings? Not easily, is the short answer, and not without a great deal of patient, persevering work on God’s part.
Webb, Barry G. (2015-11-30). Judges and Ruth (Preaching the Word) (p. 133). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
We, like Gideon, are in repeated need of assurance. He cannot sustain his direction of energy without repeated lessons and lots of confirmation of God’s presence, guidance and power. When we see the narrative “telescoped” as it is, the impression is that Gideon is very weak. He needed the angel to burn up his offering, two miraculous fleece episodes, and this Midianite dream and its interpretation, before he would attack! But if we think of our own spiritual history, we will see the same thing. We often think: I’ll never forget or doubt God again— and then very soon become indifferent or anxious once more. How many resolutions to live radically for God have we made that we have not kept? We aren’t any different from Gideon. We rarely relax and trust him. No matter what God does for us, our hearts are quite stubborn and find it very hard joyfully and confidently to trust and live by his promises. We need God’s ongoing assurance and reminder that he is with us and for us. How does God assure us? First, he assures us through his word— directly to Gideon (Judges 7: 9-11), through his inspired Scriptures to us. When we read his word and especially his promises, we often find that the Holy Spirit comes and makes the promises both real and sweet to us.
Keller, Timothy (2013-08-06). Judges For You (God’s Word For You) (Kindle Locations 1181-1185). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.
God doesn’t need our strength. We can quickly look at the world around us and box ourselves into being at the mercy of what we can see. For example, Gideon’s shrinking army. Why would God ask him to use less men? God was teaching him something. God is greater than our strength, numbers, money, etc. Ultimately we see God is trustworthy to save us because He is powerful enough to save us.
GIVEN THE HEAVY BLEND of passion, heroism, and tragedy it contains, it is not surprising that the Samson story has attracted the serious attention of great creative artists. No one can view Samson and Delilah (Rubens, 1577– 1640) or Samson Killing the Lion (Léon Bonnet, 1833– 1922) or hear Handel’s impressive Samson oratorio (1740) or read John Milton’s epic poem Samson Agonistes without being aware of both the creative power of the artists themselves and the greatness of the Biblical narrative that inspired such endeavors. Handel’s oratorio was composed in the same year as his Messiah, and Milton’s poem followed hard on Paradise Lost, and the treatment in both cases shows that they did not regard the Samson story as a piece of comic relief after the treatment of nobler themes. They took Samson seriously, and the author of Judges clearly means us to do the same. That is not to say that the story has no humor in it. The sight of Samson bursting out of Gaza at midnight, for example, like a crazed orangutan escaping from a zoo, taking the gates with him, is a moment to be relished— especially since the joke is on the Philistines. But beneath all the surface chaos and mad careening here and there of the wild-man hero there is a steady building toward a predetermined end of profound theological significance. Sam- son is God’s man, as Israel is his people, and neither he nor they can finally escape their destiny. Samson may be a testosterone-charged male behaving badly, but he is also much, much more. More space is devoted to him than to any other judge. 1 He alone has his birth and destiny announced in advance by a divine messenger, and in his story the whole central section of the book is brought to a resounding climax. The Samson story as we have it in Judges has two main parts. First, in chapter 13 we have an account of the circumstances leading up to his birth. Then in the next three chapters we are given a fairly detailed account of his adult life, climaxing in his dramatic death at the end of chapter 16. Samson is an enigma, with such contrasting aspects to his role and character that it is impossible to do him justice in just one treatment. So we will consider him from two complementary perspectives— first as savior, focusing mainly on chapter 13, then as saint and sinner, focusing mainly on chapters 14— 16.
Webb, Barry G. (2015-11-30). Judges and Ruth (Preaching the Word) (pp. 201-202). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
Samson is an interesting character in scripture … he sins, a lot, and God still uses him. Here’s the big idea for this passage of scripture: God’s plan is not dependent on our perfection, but on His power. We can’t change God’s plan, and we are who we have been called to be regardless of our mistakes. Samson messes up, but God still uses him. Again, the resounding message throughout this book is highlighted: God is powerful enough to overcome anything, and in His power, He saves His people.