Judges—The Cycles of Human Behavior
Judges 21:25 sums up the plight of the human race, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. It is fitting that the book of Judges ends with this as its last summary statement since Judges has six major cycles of the people of Israel falling into idolatry with the result that God had to discipline them. After the severe discipline the people had contrition and returned to the Lord, but this book of the Bible is primarily about how Israel repeatedly turned away from knowing and obeying God to do what was right in their own eyes. We will see that in spite of what people think, the Bible is not about following good moral examples. It is blatantly clear in the Bible that people are incapable of that on their own. Religious people today act like the Bible is a “Book of Virtues” and virtuous people, but it is not. It is a book about God’s patience, mercy, and justice. God is patiently allowing people to go their own way, but God is just in raising up or allowing discipline against people in order to bring them to their senses. There is only one hero in the book of Judges, and that is God.
There are at least four major reoccurring principles in the book of Judges:
- God faithfully offers forgiveness and mercy to undeserving people. These people are not role models.
- God is serious about the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before Me”. God tends to be more patient with the other moral sins, but idolatry is a game changer.
- People need help in repenting, and they need help in being saved. God provides discipline to move them to repentance, and God provides the savior to deliver them.
- God is sovereign in spite of His people’s circumstances. He is always working no matter how bad things may seem.
Introduction to Judges
The “judges” that God provided give this book its name, but they are much more than judicial arbiters. They are deliverers, leaders, and saviors. Their role is to lead the people against their oppressors and then restore the people to the one true God. Their leadership was usually tribal, and they did not lead all the tribes as Moses and Joshua had. Each judge seemed to symbolize a corresponding weakness in Israel. For instance, Gideon had a lack of faith, and Samson was incredibly selfish and immoral. One group of judges was able to return Israel to righteousness–Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, and Barak, while an out-group of judges had disturbing weaknesses and moral failures–Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. The author of the book of Judges is thought to be Samuel who wrote many years later during the reign of King Saul. When it was written, the Jebusites still held Jerusalem (which was later taken by David when he was king), and in Judges 17:6 the author looks back before the reign of King Saul and says “Israel had no king then”. Samuel was not only writing about the history of how they got there, but was delivering the message of the consequences of disobedience to God. The theme revolves around the “Canaanization” of Israel, meaning how the depraved Canaanites influenced Israel negatively. For us, it is a complete picture of human depravity. The period known as “the Judges” began with the death of Joshua about 1375 BC, and ended with the coronation of King Saul about 1050 BC.
Cycles of the Book of Judges
From Judges 3:7 through Judges 16:31 we can trace six major judge stories with six cycles. The cycles begin with Israel doing evil and falling into idolatry. Then to discipline them, God gives them to oppressors who maraud, loot, and kill. Israel has to serve the oppressors until Israel cries out to God for help. Then God would raise up a deliverer (judge) to help Israel. The oppressor would be subdued, and then Israel would have rest. The problem is that the deeper you go into the book of Judges, the less consistent the Judge cycle is. By the time of Samson, the part of the cycle where Israel cries out and repents is all but gone. There is a progressive degeneration in the relationship of God and Israel throughout the book.
Judges 1-2, a Double Introduction
Judges 1 introduces us to the general success of the tribe of Judah, but the increasing failure of the other tribes, especially Dan who has basically given up to the Canaanites there in Dan’s allotment. As we know from the preceding book of Joshua, the land was given by God to Israel and parceled out to the tribes, but each tribe had to fight to displace the Canaanites in that area. The tribe of Judah was the most successful but in Judges 1:19 even Judah backed away from the Canaanite chariots in the valley. Judges 1 was written from the point of view of the Israelite people, but Judges 2 was written from the point of view of God. In chapter one the people were saying “we could not drive the Canaanites out”, but in chapter two God answers “You would not drive them out”. God’s analysis makes it clear that the real problem is not the chariots, but their lack of faith and their greed in wanting the cheap labor that the Canaanites provided. As the people just responded pragmatically to the appearance of the situation, it took less effort and made more economic sense to just leave the Canaanites there. The people having made that determination, there would be a tension in the rest of the book of Judges. Would God give up on Israel? How would God respond? Would He turn a blind eye? If not then how severe would the discipline be? Frankly, this has always been and always would be a tension between God and the human race until God resolved it at the cross of Jesus.
Judges 2– You Have to Serve Somebody
In the midst of all this spiritual compromise, God showed up.Theologians call this a theophany, and here in Judges 2:1-5, God spoke to Israel. We don’t know how or in what form, but God made it clear that He had always been gracious and faithful in delivering Israel from Egypt and all other enemies. God had given them promises that He had always kept, and God gave them clear instruction that they had agreed to keep. Nevertheless, they had not obeyed and not kept their part of the covenant. Therefore, God would use their own sin against them, to discipline them. The Canaanites would be “a thorn in your side and their gods will be a snare to you”. Clearly God was giving them yet another prohibition against living amongst the evil Canaanites and against idolatry. At that point the people made a big show of weeping, and they made religious sacrifices to the Lord, but we the students are wondering just how sincere and heartfelt it really is. The good news for God’s faithful servant Joshua was that the people did serve God for the rest of Joshua’s life, but Joshua died in Judges 2:8 at the age of 110. Unfortunately, the next generation “did not know the Lord”, and didn’t care about all the work God had done for them. In Joshua 2:11 we read that Israel even served the Baals, and they forsook the God of their fathers who brought them out of Egypt. Who were these Baal guys, and what was the attraction?
Baal comes from a Semitic word meaning Lord. He was the Canaanite god of agriculture, and the supposed giver of life and fertility. All the farmers and owners of livestock depended on Baal. He was in charge of the rain and the weather. They worshipped Baal in many ways including sacrifices of animals and even infant humans. They indulged in religious prostitution, bestiality, and human sacrifice. The Canaanites had an entire pantheon of gods, but Baal was the chief. I’m guessing the attraction that lured the Israelites away from the one true God was the promise of good weather, a high yield on the crops, and fertility for their livestock. In addition, it gave each town and vocation a god of their own choosing, a god they could control and quantify, and a god they could fashion idols of in order to give shape and identity to it. Another attraction was a lot of sex, orgies, and sexual perversion.
God Tested Israel, Judges 2:20-3:11
After Israel had left the Canaanites in the land in spite of God’s command to drive them out, the anger of God burned against their disobedience and idolatry. Therefore God would no longer bless them by helping Israel against the Canaanites. Even though Israel intermingled and intermarried with them, the Canaanites would be a thorn in Israel’s side, but God would not help them this time. In fact God would use the Canaanites to “test” Israel. When Israel failed the test, God sent the Mesopotamians to oppress Israel. God did not force the King of Mesopotamia, he already wanted to invade and take their stuff, so God just allowed it for His purposes to get Israel’s attention. The text uses the image of God “selling Israel” to portray that since Israel would not serve God, they would have to serve a tyrant for 8 years. Thus the cycles in the book of Judges was begun when the sons of Israel “cried out to the Lord” and God responded by raising up a deliverer, Othniel to help them. Othniel raised an army, Othniel was led by the Spirit of God, and God gave the Mesopotamians into Othniel’s hands. Othniel is unique amongst the judges in that his portrayal is the only one that lacks character flaws. All the other judges had flaws that parallel the flaws of the tribe they come from. This is interesting since typically no one has heard of Othniel, but everyone has heard of Samson, who was the most flawed of all the judges. Therefore I ask you, “What are the implications that the worst judge is the best known, and the best judge is the least known?”
Judges 3:12-30, Ehud the Left Handed Gun
After Othniel delivered Israel, the land had rest for 40 years, but the next generation then repeated the failures of the past. Again they forgot about the one true God and did evil in the sight of God. We see a cause—effect here “so the Lord strengthened Eglon king of Moab against Israel”. It appears that Eglon was able to subjugate the tribes of Reuben, Judah, Ephraim, and Benjamin and made his base in what had been Jericho. King Eglon ruled over this area of Israel for 18 years until “the sons of Israel cried out to the Lord”. God then raised up another deliverer from the tribe of Benjamin whose name was Ehud, and his primary qualification was that he was left-handed. Part of living under King Eglon’s thumb was the payment of “tribute” money, which was simply extortion. Ehud was sent to deliver the tribute to King Eglon. The palace guards assumed that Ehud was right-handed like everybody else, so they only searched where a right- handed guy would keep his weapon. Ehud had a custom made dagger strapped to his thigh under his clothing. After the pay-off, Ehud told the King he had secret information from God to give him, so the King sent everyone else away. Eglon was obese, and Ehud would use this as part of his escape. While Eglon was distracted by Ehud’s right hand, he pulled out the dagger with his left and plunged it so deep into his great girth that the handle disappeared. King Eglon was seeking a secret oracle from the gods, but instead he got the true God’s secret sword. In verse 22 there is a play on words about refuse that came out when the sword came into Eglon. The outside soldiers must have smelled it and thought he was going to the bathroom, so they did not enter until much later, thus giving Ehud plenty of time to escape. The Moabites were subdued and pushed out of Israel, and Israel had peace for 80 years. Ehud’s deceptive and murderous ways are not exactly a great example for us today as to how to represent God, but the positive message about Ehud is his willingness to risk it all for the Lord. I’m sure that Ehud’s deception was not God’s preferred way to save Israel, but God did raise up Ehud who was willing to step up to the challenge to rid Israel of the evil Moabite king. In many biblical stories God raises up imperfect people to execute His judgments on far worse people.
In Judges 3:31, we read a one verse story of another judge, Shamgar who God used to strike the Philistines with a strange weapon (an oxgoad) and save Israel. We are not told how long after that they had peace, but we get the idea that Israel’s next apostasy is right around the corner, and God will have to save them again.