STUDIES IN JUDGES No. 2
June 6, 2004
As we begin reading the text of Judges, remember what we said last Lord’s Day evening about the structure of the book. It begins with a prologue in two parts: 1:1-2:5 and 2:6-3:6, each part introduced by reference to the death of Joshua. The first part narrates the successful and unsuccessful efforts of Israelite tribes to take possession of the land; the second part provides the narrator’s summary interpretation and judgment of that history. If the first part is an historical summary, the second part amounts to “a theological lecture by the…author setting out his interpretation of the history of the judges’ period.” [Wenham, Story as Torah, 54] Very clearly, all of this early material is meant to set the stage for what comes after. It introduces the life-setting of the rest of the book, the problem that the judges must address one by one.
The prologue begins by surveying the efforts of various tribes to capture the territory that Joshua had assigned to them in the division of the Promised Land. The NIV’s section title “Israel Fights the Remaining Canaanites” is misleading. It gives the impression that the verses that follow describe only events that follow those reported in the book of Joshua. But, in fact, 1:2-2:5 seems largely to be a recapitulation of the report of the initial conquest that we find in Joshua. Some sections in chapter 1 are nearly verbatim repetitions of material in Joshua. Of course, some of the narrative reported in Joshua may concern events that happened after Joshua’s death. But, in any case, the narrative that leaves off at Joshua 24 is not explicitly picked up and continued until 2:6. But there is this difference between Joshua and Judges. While Joshua highlights the successes that Israel had in taking possession of the Promised Land, Judges 1 highlights the failures instead. By the time of the judges it had become clear that the early promise of the conquest had been squandered and that Israel would pay a steep price for failing to drive the pagan peoples out of the land. This is not the only place where you get an early and positive account of developments that are later seen to be short-lived and deeply disappointing. The revival in Judah under Josiah, which Jeremiah greeted so warmly, is a case in point. It held great promise at the first but came to nothing at the last. We might give this section the title: “Israel’s failure in the Holy War.” [Block, 76]
Now we have before us a long reading with the need for a good bit of comment. I’m sorry for that, but it is a single unit and, I thought, we need to read it as a single unit.
v.1 “Israelites” is literally “sons of Israel.” The term “Israel” is found more often in Judges than in any other OT book. This indicates the author’s concern for the people of Israel as a whole and not simply the various tribes whom he will mention in his history. Canaanites is a collective for the various peoples that inhabited the land at this time, peoples who are mentioned by name later in this chapter: Perizzites, Jebusites, Hittites, Amorites, and so on. But it also functioned as a more specific term for the inhabitants of the lowlands of southwest Palestine and is used that way, for example, in v. 4. As a collective the term included the land and peoples of Palestine west of the Jordan River, and to the north, encompassing modern Lebanon and parts of south-western Syria, as far east as Damascus.
In those days Israel would have consulted the Lord by means of the high priest’s use of the Urim and Thummim, probably a form of casting lots that God had authorized as a means of discerning his will. This was holy war and required the destruction of peoples. It was necessary to know that one was doing God’s will.
v.2 The author begins with Judah. He has structured his summary of the conquest to reflect the moral and spiritual decline evident in the rest of the book. He begins with the more positive example of an Israelite tribe taking possession of its allotted land (Judah) and ends with the most negative (Dan). More than that the principle according to which he organized his material is geographical not chronological, moving south to north. Judah is the southernmost tribe, Dan the northernmost. Interestingly, in the account of the judges themselves, the same south to north direction is generally followed: Othniel (Judah); Ehud (Benjamin); Deborah (Ephraim); Gideon (Manasseh); Samson (Dan).
v.3 By the time of the census taken in Num. 26, Simeon was far the smallest tribe in Israel. As a result, according to Joshua 19:1-9, Simeon’s allotted territory fell within that of Judah. Later in v. 17, the men of Judah make good on their promise to their brothers in the clan of Simeon.
v.5 Adoni-Bezek is taken by the NIV as a personal name. It is just as likely, if not more so, that it is a title: “Lord of Bezek,” that is, the leader or ruler of the city of Bezek.
v.7 The man himself sees it as divine retribution for having done the same thing to others. In other words, the severe punishment he received was no more than what he had done to many others. Almost certainly we have here the first hint of trouble ahead at this point. There may be irony intended in the fact that it is this Canaanite lord who speaks of the Lord requiting the behavior of men, something that the Israelites should have understood far better than any Canaanite. The fact that the author has the pagan lord say this implicitly suggests that the Israelites had forgotten it. What seems to be clear is that the Israelites have already adopted a Canaanite tactic. Apart from the fact that they spared Adoni-Bezek, who was clearly under sentence of death with the rest of the people – why did they let him live? According to instructions the Lord had given them in Deut. 7:1-2; 20:16-17, they were to leave no survivors – instead of looking to the Lord for guidance, they were taking their cue from the Canaanites as to how to treat captives.
v.8 In Joshua 15:63 we are told that Judah could not dislodge the Jebusites from Jerusalem and that they continued to live in the city for several centuries. That point is made in this same chapter in v. 21. There we are reminded that Jerusalem was in Benjamin’s territory, not Judah’s. Perhaps the attack described here was more of a raid than a conquest. Indeed, if you remember, it was David that finally conquered Jerusalem for good and made it not only an Israelite city but his capital. The conquest reported here may best be understood to be partial – perhaps the city is meant and not the citadel – and short-lived.
v.10 Hebron lies 19 miles south of Jerusalem. We have the report of the conquest of Hebron and Kiriath Sepher or Debir in Joshua 15:13-19.
v.15 Achsah is unhappy with the inadequacy of the land her father gave to her husband. It was desert and lacked an adequate supply of water. So her father grants her sources of water. This is also reported in Joshua 15.
Readers have long wondered what the purpose of this anecdote is. Perhaps more likely is the author’s desire to have, at the outset of his history, a description of normal and positive social relationships [Block, 94]. This is one of the few accounts in the book in which all the characters are cast in a favorable light. And Caleb, of course, is a man of the older generation, of Joshua’s generation. He was one of the 12 spies, you remember, one of the two who brought back a favorable report and urged the nation to pursue conquest counting on the Lord’s provision. As a reward for his faithfulness, he was given Hebron as his inheritance. Having taken his own city, the fact that he urges the capture of a nearby city shows his interest in seeing the conquest move forward. “By offering his daughter as a reward, he not only expresses his commitment to the agenda but also ensures a noble husband for her.” [Block, 95] Achsah, herself, is portrayed as a respectful daughter but also as a shrewd and resourceful woman. She gets what her family needs but observes all the proprieties along the way. In other words, this is a picture of faithful covenant life, the backdrop against which will be painted the decline of Israel into Canaanite life, including the brutal mistreatment of women. Her marriage will stand in contrast to those mentioned in 3:6 between Israelite sons and daughters and those of the Canaanites. She also anticipates some other shrewd women who play important roles in the narrative that follows, putting Israelite men somewhat to shame.
Of course, Othniel is the first of the judges to be named. We will read about him in chapter 3. So this short anecdote is also an anticipation of what is still to come.
v.16 This settlement of the Kenites fulfills the promise Moses made to them in Num. 10:29-32. This was the reward for the help they gave Israel in the wilderness. The Kenites will reappear in 4:11, 17ff. and so this note introduces them to the reader. This sort of foreshadowing, both with Othniel and with the Kenites is a very typical technique in Old Testament narrative. It serves to connect the narrative together and make of it a single inter-connected account.
v.17 The Canaanites in the same area got very different treatment. The term “totally destroy” is herem, a technical term referring to the total destruction of the Canaanites that God had required of Israel.
v.18 These are the towns along the coastal plain where the Philistines would soon settle.
v.19 It may seem as if Judah could do nothing about these iron chariots and so there was a legitimate excuse for Judah’s failure to drive out the people of the plains. But in Joshua 17:16-18 Joshua had already told the people not to fear the iron chariots; the Lord would give them victory. What is more, in 4:13-15 we discover that these same iron chariots were no obstacle to Barak. The Lord was with Judah, we are told, but because the Lord was with Barak Israel defeated Sisera with his 900 iron chariots. Judah’s faith in the Lord failed and she allowed pagan peoples to remain in the land because of their chariots, as if the Lord were not able to give Judah victory over a well-equipped army. The author expects us to know this other material and immediately to recognize Judah’s failure of nerve and failure of faith. He doesn’t tell us that Judah was betraying cowardice, but he shows us that she was.
v.20 This statement corrects any misunderstanding arising from the statement in v. 10. It was Caleb, in particular, who conquered Hebron. Now the summary of Judah’s conquests and failures is complete and we move to the other tribes. Now the record is even more replete with failure and the tone more pessimistic.
v.21 This is also reported in Joshua 15:63.
v.22 Remember the “house of Joseph” was the two tribes Ephraim and Manasseh. Here the reference is to Ephraim. Manasseh is mentioned in v. 27. Once again we are told that the Lord was with Ephraim. They had all the help that they needed to conquer their enemies.
v.26 There is a great difference between this case and that of Rahab and the destruction of Jericho. This man from Bethel makes no confession of faith in Yahweh as Rahab had made. The men offer the man a place in the community of God’s people without requiring faith on his part. This seems clearly to be contrary to God’s instructions and unnecessary in any case as the Lord would have given them victory without this ruse. The informer does not become a part of the Israelite community as Rahab did. And, worst of all, when the city is conquered the man is allowed to move to another part of Canaan and build another city and give it the same Canaanite name! So Bethel, or better Luz, was not really destroyed; it was merely moved, and the Canaanite remained in the land. While the physical Canaanite town is obliterated, the spiritual Canaanite town remains. The informer did not become an Israelite; he remained quite decidedly a Canaanite at heart. The fact that the name of the city remains “to this day” indicates that it is not only the man and his family who survived, but the culture of the place. The town retains its Canaanite name and its Canaanite character.
v.27 What follows is a list of places from which the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanites and so in how many places the Canaanites continued to live among the Israelites and vice versa. The point is that the radioactive influence of the Canaanite culture was still very powerful after Israel settled in the land, precisely what God had forbidden them to allow to happen. Co-existence with the Canaanites was precisely what was to be prevented at all costs! The fact that the Canaanites were oppressed by the Israelites would not prevent Israel from being influenced by their culture! The description moves north as it goes. Some of this material is also found in Joshua.
v.35 The Amorites were, by and large, in the highlands; the Canaanites in the valleys and coastal regions. However, like Canaanite, it is a term that can be used more specifically or more generally. It is not entirely clear that this narrator doesn’t largely use the terms Canaanite and Amorite interchangeably.
v.36 Now this is the sort of statement that would often have been taken previously as extraneous detail. However, it is far from it. It is a powerfully sarcastic comment on what has just been said. Aijalon is in the territory of Zebulon, as we read in 12:12, that is, due west of the Sea of Galilee. So Aijalon is in the northern part of Israel’s territory. (Mt. Heres and Shaalbim are harder to identify, though it is thought that the latter was near Aijalon. So these are places in the north.) The Scorpion Pass runs from southwest of the southern end of the Dead Sea northwest toward the hill country of Judah. In other words, at the southern end of Israelite territory. Therefore, the statement amounts to a sardonic comment that, while the Amorites were to have been driven out of the Promised Land, in fact Israel was now living in Amorite or Canaanite territory! It is a sarcastic way to highlight the burden of the previous verses, viz. that Israel was now co-existing with the Canaanites in the land that was to be theirs alone.
2:1 Now comes God’s own interpretation of the events that were described in chapter 1. Chapter 1 is report (with the narrator’s subtle interpretation woven through it); now comes plain-spoken interpretation.
Now “angel” means literally “messenger.” The term is used of human messengers in the book of Judges. Some have supposed that we have a human prophet here. The NIV takes it to be a supernatural figure, a messenger from heaven and, all things considered, that may well be correct.
The mention of Gilgal is not explained. But Gilgal is where the conquest of the Promised Land began, if you remember; where Joshua first met the angel of the Lord who appeared to him before the battle for Jericho: and where Israel was circumcised after first entering the Promised Land. Perhaps the angel’s coming from Gilgal is a reminder of how wonderfully the conquest began and so a reminder of how poorly Israel had done latterly.
The messenger begins by reminding Israel of how God had led her in conquest before and of the promise of his faithfulness to her. He made a covenant with Israel and brought her into fellowship with himself. He took the initiative and did what Israel could not have done. It is always “my covenant” when God speaks, never “our” covenant. God is sovereign in the matter of salvation.
v.2 But God also required certain things of his people. The requirement to destroy their altars harks back to commands in Exodus and Deuteronomy.
v.3 There is a question as to whether the beginning of v. 3 should be translated, “Now, therefore, I tell you…” or “And I also said…” That is, whether the Lord is here announcing punishment or reminding Israel of his past warnings. The Lord had said, in Exodus and Deuteronomy and, most recently, in Joshua 23:13, that if his people were unfaithful to him, he would not drive the Canaanites out before him.
v.5 The people’s response is impressive. Their repentance seems genuine. Unfortunately events will prove it shallow and short-lived. We have seen this before in Israel’s history and will see it again – a worldly sorrow for consequences that does not produce real and lasting change in conduct.
Now I hope that reading the text with all of that commentary has left you with the impression that the narrator intended to leave. The catastrophe that is to come stemmed from Israel’s accommodation to the culture around her, her refusal to heed the Lord’s warning about the corrosive effect of Canaanite culture and her failure to separate herself from that culture by driving the Canaanites out of the land. The effect would be not that the Canaanites would become more like the faithful Israelites but that the Israelites would become more and more like the Canaanites.
Now, it will give us some perspective if we remember what is known of the Canaanites and their culture. Though we think of them very negatively because of the Bible’s strongly antagonistic view of their religious and moral life, they were an accomplished and sophisticated people. It may surprise you to learn that we owe to the Canaanites our alphabetic system of writing. “Caught between the cumbersome writing systems of Mesopotamian cuneiform (wedges) and Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Canaanites invented a simplified form of writing that was destined to become the predominant means of written communication – the alphabet.” What is more, they used their writing system not only for political and commercial purposes, but to produce a body of literature that left its imprint even on the Bible.
The Canaanites were exceptional engineers, building great fortified cities; they were gifted artisans, creating beautiful jewelry – earrings, pendants, bracelets, and rings – from gold and silver, using sophisticated techniques such as engraving, filigree, inlay, etc. Canaanite craftsman carved ivory and bone for inlays in decorative furniture. Their metallurgists cast bronze mirrors, daggers, swords, and tools. Their iron chariots, mentioned in 1:19, was an indication that they were more technologically sophisticated than were the Israelites at that time. Potters produced graceful yet practical pottery as well as larger vessels used to ship grain, wine, and olive oil by caravan or by sea. They were prosperous merchants and well-used to luxuries brought from other parts of the world. [The above from K.N. Schoville, “Canaanites and Amorites,” Peoples of the OT World, 176-181]
The Bible shows itself impressed with little of this. What is interesting to the Lord and the biblical writers is the wickedness of this people. They were idolaters – as were all ancient Near Eastern peoples – but notoriously wicked. As we read in Deut. 12:31, the Canaanites do all manner of detestable things the Lord hates, “They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.” It was for this reason that Israel was commanded to exterminate them. All the more after the pogroms of the 20th century, that requirement can trouble the Christian conscience. How can God command his people to destroy another people? How can that be right? However, it is well for us to remember that God commanded their destruction only because of their great wickedness. Israel was only the instrument of God’s own justice and judgment! What is more, we must remember that God had required Israel to wait hundreds of years to possess the land he had promised them precisely because of his patience with these peoples – the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full. It is not as if God rushed to judgment. And, finally, the sinister effect of Canaanite culture, never really purged from Israelite life, led at last to the violent destruction of the Israelites themselves, men, women, and children, first at the hands of the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and then at the hands of the Babylonians in 586. Fact is, whether God does it directly or uses human means, wickedness such as characterized Canaanite life always leads to destruction and death. God will not be mocked. Whatsoever a man sows, that he shall also reap. And we see that truth writ large as much over the world today as ever it was twelve or thirteen hundred years before Christ. If we could look into hell for just a few moments, if we could see what came of that Canaanite influence, we would understand in a moment the ferocity of God’s wrath against them.
It is absolutely characteristic of the Bible to ignore the cultural or political achievements of a people and to concentrate on its moral and spiritual life because that is what determines God’s judgment of a people and their eternal destiny. Ahab was a major figure on the stage of Near Eastern imperial life in the 9th century. He led a consortium of kings in battle against the Assyrians at Kharkar in 853 and won a decisive victory. The Bible does not even mention this triumph. It is interested in Ahab’s idolatry and the injustice of his reign.
Well, think of our situation today. We also live in a technologically advanced culture that dazzles us with its scientific and commercial achievements. And we very much do live among this culture. We are a part of it. And its wickedness, though now very familiar to us, is almost impossible for us any longer truly to appreciate. A culture so devoted to its gods of sex and money that pornography, abortion, and gambling are now not only accepted but publicly embraced, judicially defended, and supported with tax revenue. We can send human voices digitally through the airwaves or a landing craft to Mars – for our day about as sophisticated pieces of technology as was the iron chariot or the strong but thin-walled ceramics that required a very fast potter’s wheel and firing at high temperature in Canaanite days. A Mars probe is certainly nothing compared to the invention of the alphabet! But we too sacrifice our babies to our gods in ways as fully barbaric as anything the Canaanites knew. Justice David Souter reminded us in a recent Supreme Court ruling against partial birth abortion that the fact that the procedure was so grotesque as to turn the stomach of a normal human being was no legal argument against it, as abortion itself is a barbaric procedure – chopping up a live baby in its mother’s womb – and we’ve been comfortable doing that for a generation now.
We, of course, have no command to exterminate the pagan people around us. We must live with them and among them. But we are in just as great a danger from the Canaanites around us as ever the Israelites were in the Promised Land. Their failure to drive out the Canaanites is our failure to keep ourselves unspotted from the world, as James puts it (1:27). The place for the ship is in the sea, but God help the ship if the sea gets into it. And that is true whether we are talking about the individual Christian or the church as a whole. But it is not easy to be, as Paul says, in the world but not of the world. It is a matter of a thousand temptations day after day in which we are called, in our own way, to be faithful to God’s covenant, to heed his word, to count on his power on our behalf, and to drive out the Canaanites before us.
John Newton tried to express the Christian mind about the world – taking world as the unbelieving and wicked system and culture around us – by saying, “a Christian in the world is like a man transacting his affairs in the rain; he will not suddenly leave his client because it rains, but the moment the business is done he is off.” Charles Simeon said something similar: “Let your rule be – go into the world as a doctor into an hospital, in the path of duty; not liking the place, not lingering long in it, but glad when you can get out and breathe pure air again.” [Both cited in H.E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 202]
You know very well some of the places where the world has got a grip on you and where you are, as it were, cohabiting with the Canaanites. You know very well how the wealth, or the sophistication, or the sensuality, or the religious and philosophical outlook has beguiled you. There may be ways in which you are still largely unaware of this culture’s influence on you, but you are aware enough of some of those influences and how powerful they have been.
What this text at the beginning of Judges reminds us, and reminds us powerfully, is that this boils down to a choice between God’s covenant and the Canaanites. You cannot have both; you must choose. You may think that you can be faithful to God and make peace with the Canaanites, but they will absorb you and your children in due time and, all your protests to the contrary, you will finally be more a Canaanite than a Christian. And, it reminds us also of this: if there is not a driving out going on; if you are not repelling them and their influence all the time; then you are being absorbed by them whether you know it or not. And it will not matter if you come into this house and shed tears and offer sacrifices. Your life will speak for itself. You have given the Canaanites a place when God forbade you to do so. You have been spotted by the world, as James says, and the rest is only a matter of time.