Read the passage here.
Today, we are beginning our look at the book of Judges. Like the book of Joshua, which immediately precedes Judges, we’re going to move through this quite quickly, focussing mostly on just a few of the major stories. And like Joshua, because we’re moving through it quickly, we’re going to use today to essentially focus on introductory matters. So with that, let’s take a look at our passage today.
I don’t know how many folks have read through the entire book of Judges. If you haven’t, you should because it’s a really interesting read – unlike some of the books we’ve read in the OT, Judges is pretty much non-stop action. Even if you haven’t read the whole book, most people (I think) are familiar with the story of Samson and probably most people are also familiar with the story of Gideon. These are both characters we find in the book – Samson and Gideon (along with several others) are judges. What we are going to try to do is put these stories in the context of the on-going history of Israel. Which is to say, we’re going to try to put these stories in the context of the on-going history of God’s redemptive work in creation and in history.
Now the passage that we read today, Judges 2:6 – 3:6, serves essentially as the introduction to the rest of the book. We see at the beginning of our passage (from 2:6), the same matters that we saw at the end of Joshua – that is, the twelve tribes of Israel receive their portions of the inheritance (parcels of land in Canaan), and then Joshua dies. This tells us quite clearly that what we are reading is the continuing history of the people of Israel.
Now if you do happen to read the entire book, it’s worth noting that the previous chapter also serves as introduction. Chapter 1, like our passage today, begins with the death of Joshua (it’s also worth remembering that Joshua began with the death of Moses – We saw that Joshua picks up and carries on the mantle of Moses, something that is sorely lacking in Joshua).
Now, in considering Chapter 1 versus Chapter 2, some have argued that this is evidence of two different sources (two different accounts or stories) being brought together. (To clarify, Chapter 1 begins with Joshua having died; Chapter 2 begins with Joshua still alive – if only for the space between sentences.)
We’re not going to get into discussions of sources or editors – I think such discussions are important and necessary, but we ultimately have to deal with the text that we have before us. At any rate, one interesting observation that has come out of this whole discussion is the interpretation that Chapter 1 (to 2:5) gives us an overview of what happens to the Israelites after Joshua’s death from a human perspective, and 2:6 – 3:6 (our passage today) gives us an overview of what happens to the Israelites after Joshua’s death from God’s perspective.
At any rate, that’s a pretty long way of reiterating the point that our passage today is introduction to the rest of the book – what happens to Israel after Joshua?
This (what happens to Israel) is precisely what we discover as we continue reading from verse 10:
10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.Judges 3:10-15
In short, we see that the Israelites failed in precisely the way that they swore they would not at the end of the book of Joshua. If you recall, during Joshua’s final address to the Israelites, during the renewal of the covenant, he tells Israel:
Jos. 24:14 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! 17 It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes.Joshua 24:14-17
Now continuing on to the next verses, we read:
16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.Judges 3:16-19
So, because the Israelites found themselves in distress (even though this was a result of their forsaking God), if and when they cried out to the Lord, God raised up judges who would deliver the Israelites from trouble. Now, the term “judges” does not seem to have a judicial role (at least not strictly or solely speaking) – in other words, we shouldn’t have in mind the judge of a legal proceeding. Rather, the judge was more of a tribal leader. In the book of Judges, we see this usually (though not exclusively) in a military context and especially in the particular role of deliverer. As we read in these verses, judges were apparently raised up during particular times of strife or difficulty for Israel.
So, this whole thing is going to give us the essential structure of the first major part of Judges. From our passage today to the end of chapter 16, we will see a repeated pattern:
- The children of Israel do evil in the eyes of the Lord. Now this evil isn’t specified in the individual stories, but we get the gist from this introduction – they forsook the Lord God.
- This evil results in oppression at the hands of a foreign power.
- The Israelites cry out to the Lord
- The Lord raises up a deliverer (judge), who delivers Israel.
- There is then a time of peace in the lifetime of the judge. (But then the cycle repeats itself)
This is what we see in the stories of the judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. It’s a cycle of repeated apostasy and deliverance.
Now it’s worth noting that the book also mentions several so-called ‘minor judges’: judges that are mentioned by name but without an accompanying story. In total, the book mentions 12 judges, which we should recognize as symbolic of or related to the twelve tribes of Israel.
So again: Over and over, the Israelites sin, forgetting and rejecting God, turning to the gods of Canaan instead. And as they cry out to God, over and over He delivers them. Or, to put it the other way round, over and over again God demonstrates His covenant faithfulness, delivering Israel. Yet, over and over again, they reject God and turn to their own ways.
In Judges, this cycle keeps repeating itself. But it’s not a static cycle – that is to say, it’s not that Israel repeatedly finds themselves back at their original starting point. Rather, what we see in Judges is a degenerating or devolving cycle – it’s not a circle, it’s a downward spiral. When we look at the stories from Othniel to Samson, we see a devolution from a judge (Othniel) whose deliverance of Israel seems quite straightforward, to Samson whose character, faithfulness, and even success are highly suspect. In other words, what we see in these cycles of stories is that the situation in Israel is getting worse and worse.
Following the stories of the Judges, the next major section sees a different pattern. Rather than the cyclical pattern of stories which highlights chapters 3-16, in chapters 17-21, Israel’s situation is described through the refrain, “17:6 In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” (cf. 21:25, which forms an inclusio; and 18:1, 19:1, which provide short form refrains)
Now we’ll talk about that in further detail later on, but essentially, at very the end of Judges, all of Israel joins together to destroy the tribe of Benjamin (that is, one of the twelve tribes of Israel).
In other words, by the end of the book, at the end of this pattern of increasing rebellion and failure, Israel as a nation, as a people is fractured. In yet other words, things are kind of as bad for Israel as they have ever been.
Now this brings us back to our immediate text for today which tells us:
19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. (This points out the downward spiral we talked about. And then…)
20 Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant I ordained for their ancestors and has not listened to me, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. 22 I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the Lord and walk in it as their ancestors did.” 23 The Lord had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua.Judges 3:19-23
Now we’re not going to overly parse these verses – the main point that I want to make is that Judges ultimately shows us what happens when Israel forgets or rejects God. It shows us what happens when they break the covenant. Essentially, using the language and framework that we’ve used befwore, when Israel refuses the new life in God, when they refuse the kingdom life choosing instead what seemed right in their own eyes, they get exactly what they choose.
Now you might have gathered that Judges is actually a pretty bleak book. Both Deuteronomy (the conclusion of Moses’ leadership) and Joshua (the conclusion of Joshua’s leadership) end on a pretty positive note (notwithstanding the warnings to keep covenant with God). In the one, Israel has traveled through the wilderness and is on the cusp of the promised land. In the second, Israel has begun to settle in the promised land, each tribe having received their inheritance. By comparison, Judges closes with Israel in a pretty dire place (and shows us how they got there). So as we close, there’s a few concepts that I’d like us to keep in mind as we read through the book of Judges.
Firstly, I think the overarching warning is the importance of being faithful to God. To put it in terms of the Pentateuch, it is the urging to continue to keep covenant. Or, to put it in the words of Joshua, we must continue to choose God.
Now, regarding this, I want to return quickly to the verses that we’re looking at today. Specifically, at the beginning of chapter 3, we read:
3:1 These are the nations the Lord left to test all those Israelites who had not experienced any of the wars in Canaan 2 (he did this only to teach warfare to the descendants of the Israelites who had not had previous battle experience): 3 the five rulers of the Philistines, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, and the Hivites living in the Lebanon mountains from Mount Baal Hermon to Lebo Hamath. 4 They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses.
5 The Israelites lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 6 They took their daughters in marriage and gave their own daughters to their sons, and served their gods.Judges 3:1-6
Now depending on how you read these verses, you may agree that they fit in with the rest of our verses as part of the introduction. However, it might equally be said that they belong with the following verses (that is, part of the next section).
But what I want to pay attention to is verse 4, which reads: 4 They were left to test the Israelites to see whether they would obey the Lord’s commands, which he had given their ancestors through Moses.” Now, in short, OT scholar Bruce Waltke points out that one of the things that we’re seeing in Judges, as highlighted by this verse, is that each generation has to choose for themselves (again, using Joshua’s language) whether they will serve the Lord. In the book of Joshua, we read that the land of Canaan had been conquered and settled, but we also know that it was not completely so – there were still Canaanites in the land. What Waltke points to is that this generation, and every generation essentially, has to continue to “take the land,” if you will. That is, every generation has to claim of take hold of the promises of God. It isn’t inherited just because of the work or faithfulness of the previous generations.
What we see in Judges is precisely the failure of the next generation of Israel to do so. And we see the consequences of their choice to reject God and to serve other gods.
However, the second thing to keep in mind as we read Judges is that in spite of the Israelites’ lack of faith, God remains faithful. What we see is that, though the Israelites continually and progressively do evil in the eyes of the Lord, God repeatedly raises up a deliverer and reminds the people of His faithfulness, He reminds the people of His covenant promises.
Related to this, we might consider the notion that God can and does bring about His purposes through imperfect (and sometimes grossly imperfect) vessels. In the characters of Barak (who is part of the story of Deborah), Gideon, Samson, and etc. we see human beings who are full of skepticism, reluctance, and outright sinful behaviour. Yet God still works His redemptive purposes through them. Though human beings are fallen and broken, God is still and ever faithful.
The third thing to keep in mind as we read Judges is not actually part of the book of Judges. When we concluded the book of Joshua, we noted that it was tempting to see the story as finished. The Israelites had begun to settle in the promised land, presumably the fulfillment of the covenant promises God had made to Abraham. And yet we know that the story is not finished. Indeed, we see vividly in the book of Judges that the story is not finished. When we read the book of Judges, indeed it looks like the story is broken. As I said, it can be a pretty bleak book. And if it were the end of the story, it would be bleak indeed.
But it’s not. It’s not the end of the story because God is still working. God is still working towards to His purposes in spite of the sin, in spite of the rebellion, and in spite of the apathy of the people. As we read the book of Judges, what we see is a lot of human failure. But God’s purposes don’t depend on human effort, they depend on the grace, the sovereignty, and the power of God.
What we see in the book of Judges is how bad things can be when we leave God out of it. What we see in the book of Judges is how low human beings can sink. Yet what we know because we know the story of the bible is that God cannot and will not be thwarted. What we know is that God’s grace wins out in the end.
So God doesn’t leave it up to us to establish His kingdom. Make no mistake, we get to participate in it. We can know the blessings of it, the fullness of it, the wonder of it.
But not because we accomplished anything. But because God stepped into history, broke through our fallenness, defeated the powers of sin and death and made and makes a way for us.
And God is working still. Though the work of salvation is completed, once for all, in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, He is still working in us and in this world. He is still teaching us, shaping us, and drawing us further into what it means to be a people of the Kingdom.
And so, we pay attention. We pay attention to the Word, the scriptures. And we pay attention to the Spirit, who is at work in us. And we pay attention to each other. That we all may grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, Jesus Christ.