STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 1
May 30, 2004
I have wanted us to study Judges for some time now, ever since I learned that studies of the book were available that exploited the new literary methods of Old Testament narrative interpretation. By “narrative” I mean the historical accounts of the Old Testament. And by “literary method” I mean the new insight into the way that the writers of OT history teach theology and ethics in and through their accounts of what happened. You remember from our studies of both Genesis and Samuel that a new school of interpretation has emerged over the past twenty years or so that has shed wonderful new light on the way in which the OT narrators, the writers of its history from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, convey theological truth by the way in which they present their material, by the literary shape of their narrative. We discovered, for example, that much of the “lesson” of this material, much of what the author intends to teach his readers (and so, for us, what the Holy Spirit intends to teach us through the author of the biblical book), he conveys not directly and explicitly, but indirectly.
That is, as our own Phil Long, who used to teach at Covenant Theological Seminary but now teaches at Regent College, puts it in a fine article on this new approach to interpretation, the author is likely to teach scenically, that is, he will communicate his theology and his ethics, what he wants us to believe and how he wants us to live, more by showing than by telling; the author is also likely to teach succinctly, that is he conveys the points he wishes to make with the fewest possible words and, therefore, by making every word he uses of real importance (that is, there is almost nothing in these narratives that isn’t really important to the author’s purpose and if we think that he is simply padding his story or adding some color we are likely to have missed his point); and finally, that the author is likely to teach subtly, that is, he is conveys his point through a variety of narrative techniques rather than coming right out and telling his readers what he thinks about this or that or by adding at the end a list of lessons he wants us to learn from the account he has written. There is precious little commentary by the author. He writes his history so that it speaks for itself.
If you remember, for example, when we took up the narrative of Saul’s reign we learned that the author, by telling the story of that reign in the way in which he told it, gave us a very explicit explanation of Saul’s failure as a king. Most Christian readers of 1 Samuel have wondered why God was so unforgiving in Saul’s case and so peremptory in rejecting Saul as king, when, so it seems to us, he didn’t commit sins as grievous as David would later commit and seemed, upon committing them, to be sorry for what he had done. But when we read Samuel more closely, paying attention to the literary artistry of its author and noting the way in which he constructed his narrative, it became clear to us that the author had, in fact, scenically, succinctly, and subtly revealed to us almost from the very beginning of his account of Saul the king that Saul was an unbelieving man. His problem was not that he committed this sin or that. His problem was that he did not have faith in God. The sin that resulted in his rejection as king was only the culmination of Saul’s demonstration of his lack of faith in God.
Or, in Genesis, you may remember, we noted how, contrary to what most of us had been taught in Sunday School, while Joseph is a great man and man of true faith, Judah is the real hero of the last long section of Genesis, the story of Joseph and his brothers, and Judah is the real interest of the narrator. He is the one whose character changes the most dramatically for the better, he the one in whom the grace of God shows itself to have been most mightily at work, he the one whose faith and love finally bring deliverance and healing to the family. It is Judah who is the real Christ figure in the history, not Joseph, and so it is Judah who is rewarded with the honor of becoming the progenitor of the Savior of the world. But none of that is explicitly said by the narrator; it is rather shown by the way in which he tells that great story. It is the message, the lesson, the instruction that comes to us out of the structure of the narrative and of its literary qualities.
Well Judges is another book that has been put under the microscope with these new insights into the OT’s literary artistry in mind. And as soon as I knew that I wanted to study it more carefully and preach it to you. I was sure that we would come away from our study having learned that Judges, like Genesis and Samuel before it, bristles with new meaning and with the lessons of Christian faith and life taught in scintillating ways. And now that I have been reading for some time some of these new studies I am the more sure of it.
Just remember what you know about the book of Judges. It isn’t the place we very naturally think to go to find deep wisdom for living our lives day by day. In fact, the book seems, in some ways, a disappointment. Every honest reader of the Bible has both scratched his head about its prominent characters – Jephthah, Gideon, Samson and the rest – and wondered what in the world he is to take away from some of the rest of its narratives – for example, the story about Micah and the Levite from Bethlehem and the other Levite and his concubine. The heroes of the book do some good but most of them are also buffoons. The people of Israel never seem to learn anything from their experience. The books ends with them as stupid as they were at its beginning. After the wonderful promise of the conquest of the Promised Land under Joshua we find the people deserting the Lord and, as punishment, repeatedly suffering oppression at the hands of the people around them, Moab or Philistia or Ammon or, even, at the hands of other Israelites. There seems to be on every hand a spiritual disintegration and the book ends with a dismal account of a civil war between the tribes of Israel. And, what we have now learned to notice is that hardly ever in the book does the author come out and tell us what we are to learn from all of this. He shows us a good deal, but he doesn’t explain in his own words what all of it means. But, I think we will discover, he shows us what it means.
Here is how one modern scholar describes the situation we face as readers of Judges.
“…most of the stories in Judges seem to be told to shock the reader or at least make the reader ask himself or herself about what the characters in the [stories] ought to have done. In other words the narrative embodies a set of values and ethical norms that the reader must somehow tune into if he or she is not to read the stories against the grain, i.e. in ways that are contrary to the message that the author intended to convey. But when a story is telling of action that the author disapproves of, it may often be very difficult to know what he thought ought to have been done, what canons of behavior he is implicitly measuring his characters’ deeds by. In a close-knit culture like ancient Israel where there was a much higher degree of agreement between its members about religion and ethics than there is in modern secularised and pluralist societies, there was correspondingly less reason to spell out authorial norms and values, because the reader was very likely to share them.” [Gordon Wenham, Story as Torah, 45]
There is no doubt at all that Judges, like the rest of the narrative of the Old Testament, is “preached history.” The author, whoever he was, is not simply recounting events. He is intending to teach the people of God the lessons of faith. For example, it has long been noticed that there is a close connection between the book of Judges and the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy there is much emphasis placed on the importance of God’s people keeping his commandments and upon the warning that disobedience will lead to the Lord’s displeasure and thus to his judgment. And this is the message of Judges over and over again. Repeatedly Judges begins its account of the career of one of the judges by saying that “the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, forgetting the Lord their God, and worshipping the Baals and the Ashtoreths” [a formula that appears in various forms 7 times in the book]. Therefore, we read, the anger of the Lord burned against Israel and he gave them into the hands of some enemy. Now Israel should have known that this would have been the consequence for their idolatry.
For example, in Deut. 17:2 we read:
“If a man or woman living among you in one of the towns the Lord gives you is
found doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your God in violation of his covenant
and contrary to my command has worshiped other gods…
And there follows an account of the punishment that must follow for such infidelity. In Deut. 28:15ff. we read:
“However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today….The Lord will cause you to be defeated before your enemies.”
Well, in Judges, over and again we read, as we read first in 2:11-14:
“then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist.”
In other words, Judges relates the fulfillment of the warnings of Deuteronomy. The bulk of the book, from chapter 6 to chapter 16 consists of a series of cycles of Israel’s sin, her conquest by a foreign power, national despair, the people’s repentance and crying out to God for help, and the Lord, moved to pity, supplying a military leader or judge to deliver them. Close analysis of the wording with which the author frames his accounts will show, as we will see, that the author is conscious of what the Lord had said in Deuteronomy and sees Israel’s history as a confirmation of the Lord’s warnings and promises that we read there. Judges is about breaking the covenant, about what happens when God’s people do so, and about what must be done to restore relationship with God.
Another of Judges grand themes, to be sure, is the Lord’s love for Israel, so often tested but never exhausted; his willingness to return in mercy to her in defiance of her repeated infidelities. But there is much more. For example, that central section seems clearly not to be merely or only cyclical. There is, in fact, a downward spiral to be detected in the way the author narrates his history. Israel is getting worse as the years and the judges pass. The deterioration is finally so complete that Israel collapses into civil war. It is not only foreign powers that pose a threat to her but her own inner spiritual and moral disintegration. It is a case of God giving her over to her sins and of the consequences of those sins working themselves out in her national life. That impression of gradual worsening is provided for at the beginning of the book in 2:19, where the author prepares us for this by saying that after each judge died, “the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers…” We tend nowadays to worry about the present consequences of our sins rather than their debilitating effect upon the next generation! Judges will teach us to think in longer terms. So the message of the book is more complicated than simply the lesson that disobedience brings judgment and repentance brings deliverance. The author has more to say than that. Much more, as we will see. [Cf. Barry Webb, The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading, 30]
There are many sub-themes in the book that find emphasis in the various narratives of the career of one or the other judge. For example, we will find that again and again the Lord’s saving activity “reverses the expectations of both the characters and the readers.” The unlikely nature of each of the chosen deliverers is an important aspect of the presentation of the material in Judges as is the paradoxical nature of human experience. We think immediately of the history of Samson – such a foolish hero, so unimpressive in everything but physical strength, his sins not his virtues being, at last, the chief means by which God uses him to judge the Philistines. Or think of Jephthah who delivers Israel but brings catastrophe on his own house while doing so. [Webb, 32]
Now almost everyone agrees that we may outline Judges as follows:
1. There is first a prologue in two parts: 1:1-2:5 and 2:6-3:6 with each section introduced by reference to the death of Joshua. The first section reviews both successful and unsuccessful attempts by different tribes to capture the territories in the promised land that were allotted to them by Joshua; the second section is a review of the spiritual apostasy of the period and the Lord’s decision to leave the pagan nations in the land to harry Israel and test her loyalty to the covenant. [Wenham, 47]
2. The central section of the book, 3:7-16:31 relates a number of instances in which God punished Israel’s infidelity by giving her over to an oppressor and then, having compassion on his people, delivered them through a “judge.” More on that term “judge” in a later study. Some of the judges are just mentioned. We learn little about them. The major characters – Othniel, Ehud, Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson are treated in greater detail. As we said, not only does the nation itself seem to deteriorate as the years pass, but the judges do as well. Othniel escapes any criticism. Ehud’s may as well, though his single-handed bravery is perhaps tarnished by his association with idols in two instances. Barak’s great victory is clouded by his own faintheartedness as a leader. If Barak was fainthearted, Gideon was at first an out and out coward and his great victory is terribly tarnished by his own idolatry, his cruel vengeance upon Succoth, and his son Abimilech whose rule of Israel proved a disaster. Jephthah wins a great victory for Israel but his success is virtually forgotten in the tragic sacrifice of his daughter and the death of 42,000 Ephraimites in a post-campaign vendetta. And last comes Samson, a comic-tragic figure, appointed to deliver Israel from the Philistines, whose fascination with and attraction to Philistine girls proves his undoing. He seems motivated not by any desire to deliver Israel or give glory to God but by a spirit of personal vengeance and he dies by suicide. [Wenham, 48] What is more, though they lead Israel in military conquest against her enemies, not one of these judges has the mettle to take on the idolatry and spiritual infidelity that was causing the problem or call Israel back to the Lord. The raw material the Lord used to deliver his people was raw indeed! [Block, 40]
3. The epilogue also consists of two parts: 17:1-18:31 and 19:1-21:25, each an account of how a Levite triggers outrageous behavior on the part of other Israelite tribes and, unlike what happened before, no judge arises to deliver the nation from the catastrophe. The epilogue echoes with the refrain (found four times) “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Clearly, there is the impression that the lack of a king was a defect, an impediment to Israel’s true spiritual interest. The inadequacy of the judges by the end of the book has become painfully obvious.
Without a doubt the account of the judges functions at this other level. The book poses the question: “What kind of a leader is required to keep Israel faithful to the Lord, and to give her victory over her enemies?” [Wenham, 52] It has been thought, therefore, that Judges is simply an argument for the monarchy, written early in the development of the royal institution in Israel. But it is not quite so simple. Clearly judges such as Jephthah and Samson are not the answer to Israel’s need; but then neither is Abimilech, who is a king, and whose reign is reported in Judges in very unflattering terms. So if there is an argument for a king in Judges, it is an argument for a very definite kind of king.
There are many linkages between the sections, as we will see, but let me show you one at the outset. In 1:2 the Lord answers Israel’s question, “Who will lead us against the Canaanites?” with: “Judah is to go.” In 20:18, at the outset of the civil war, the same question is asked again by Israel: “Who shall go first to fight against the Benjaminites?” And the answer from the Lord is the same, “Judah shall go first.” The single change from Canaanites to Benjaminites very dramatically and unmistakably reveals the sorry development in Israel’s history that is the great story of the book: “The nation that began by fighting external foes ends with an internecine civil war.” [Wenham, 47] The holy war that should have been waged against the Canaanites was directed instead at one of Israel’s own tribes. [Block, Judges NAC, 37]
We will learn many things about faith and life from the book of Judges. And we will find that it is, in some striking ways, a tract for our own times. It is a book about the Canaanization of Israel [Block, 71]. We needn’t look far to find evidences of the Canaanization of the church, of Christians in our own day, or in our own hearts. Israel collapsed, we will see, because of her accommodation with the pagan culture around her. Divine judgment fell upon her because she became like the peoples of Canaan and less and less like the people of God. Judges may be ancient history but it describes the world we live in and the principles by which men stand and fall before God in this world.
Francis Schaeffer’s last public appearance before his death in 1984 was at the meeting of the Christian Press Association held that year in Minneapolis. He delivered a warning concerning what he saw as the evangelical church’s accommodation with the world. His final words were “Accommodation, accommodation, accommodation.” Then he left the platform. That will be a large part of the message of Judges.
But side by side with that warning will be the grand demonstration that God’s love for his people is indefectible and his faithfulness never fails. We will too often find ourselves in these judges and their hair-brained spiritual incompetence and Judges will teach us not to lose hope that God can and will work through us as well.