Today we begin the book of Judges. This book, unlike any other in the Bible, sets out to record bare history without much editorial. In other words, we will read the facts of what happened in the first years that Israel was in the land, but there is not too much comment on what was morally right and what was morally wrong outside of Israel’s idolatry. So we must set this history in the context of the Law. Israel has been given the land. God has fulfilled His promise. Now Israel needs to be obedient to the Law to keep the land and the blessings. As Moses warned in Deuteronomy, now that they are in the land, everyone cannot do whatever is right in his own eyes (Deut 12:8). The book of Joshua ended with the ominous statement that:
Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel. – Joshua 24:31 (ESV)
The book of Judges tells us what they did next…
Our story begins with the people inquiring of God who should lead Israel against the people of the land now that Joshua is dead (1:1). Not surprisingly, God calls on the tribe of Judah to lead them (v. 2). Their request for the tribe of Simeon to join them (v. 3) make sense since Simeon’s inheritance was contained entirely within the territory of Judah. However, we see immediately with the choice to let the king of Bezek live that Israel is already doing things their way, rather than God’s way (vv. 5-7). We see that the peoples of the plains were not driven out (v. 19). Neither were the Jebusites driven from Jerusalem by Benjamin (v. 21). Nor various Canaanites by Manasseh (v. 27). Nor those in Gezer by Ephraim (v. 29). Zebulun didn’t drive out the inhabitants (v. 30). Asher didn’t (v. 31). Naphtali didn’t (v. 33). Or Dan (vv. 34-35). This failure (really a lack of faith) will prove to be Israel’s undoing.
Chapter 2 begins with a visit from the Angel of the Lord. This is another encounter with the pre-incarnate Christ. He saved them and fulfilled His promise (2:1). Yet they have not obeyed Him (v. 2). Since they have not offered the proper response to His grace, He will remove His blessing (v. 3). This will play out in the rest of the book. But first, it is reiterated that the obedience lasted only until that generation passed away (v. 7). And we see that the next generation did not know God (v. 10). This was a failure of the previous generation to heed God’s command in Deuteronomy 6:1-12 (see also Deut 4:9).
And we see the result: idolatry. Verses 12-13 tell us that Israel breaks the first and second commandments by serving the Baals and the Ashtaroth (Canaanite fertility god and goddess which have been discussed previously). So God turned them over to temporal punishment by removing His favor for a time (vv. 14-15). But God would again direct His grace towards His people and would deliver them by the hands of the judges (v. 16), for Israel to just start the cycle of faithlessness again (vv. 17-19). This is the pattern that replay throughout the book. And in verses 20-23 we see that God sovereignly leaves the nations left in the land to “test Israel” (v. 22), and we even see that this was why God did not drive them out in Joshua’s day (v. 23).
Chapter 3 begins with further details of the peoples God left in the land and why. And we see that even when God executes temporal punishment for His people, behind it lies even more grace. God wants to give this generation an opportunity to see God win them victory like the previous generation (3:1-2). Verse 3 includes in these nations that were left the five lords of the Philistines (all within the territory of Judah, if you’ll remember). These Philistines will become the most painful of the thorns in Israel’s side. We see in verse 4 once again that these nations were left to test Israel’s faithfulness. And in verse 6 we see that Israel did what God commanded them not to do in Exodus 34:11-16.
Verse 7 already provides the second refrain of “Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” We will see that same refrain often. And every time, we will see that God raises up a judge to deliver Israel (v. 9). The first of the judges is Othniel, the brother of Caleb whom we met in Joshua 15:17. He is of the tribe of Judah, again pointing to the prominence of that tribe. Note that Othniel is a Godly judge, who is married to an Israelite. We will see that even the character of the judges gets worse as the story moves along.
And the cycle continues. In verse 12, we have our refrain again, and in verse 15, God’s provision again. This time the judge is Ehud, a left-handed man of the tribe of Benjamin* (v. 15). His message from God (v. 20) is one of deliverance for God’s people against their enemies. And Ehud leads the people in victory against Moab (vv. 29-30).
Chapter 4 introduces us to another judge. We see in 4:4 that Deborah was judging Israel. This fact has been misconstrued by many, and they say that Israel was so lost at this point that men who should be leading the nation weren’t. But there is a progression of depravity in the book. We have not reached the lowest point yet. What we really see here is that though God calls men to lead the family and to lead the church, that women in authority in other spheres, such as the political world, are not excluded.
As a prophetess, Deborah prophesies to Barak that he is to lead the attack against Israel’s oppressor, Sisera (vv. 6-7). She also prophesies that a women would be the one to gain the victory (v. 9). In verse 14 we see that it is God that is truly providing salvation and Who will win the victory. In verse 11, we see a mention of Heber moving away from the rest of the Kenites. In verse 17, we see that even this seemingly insignificant fact is part of the salvation plan of a sovereign God. And Jael fulfills the prophecy of Deborah (vv. 21-22). Verse 23 tells us that this victory was the provision of our sovereign God. Verse 24 tells us that God sovereignly won the victory through His people.
And as we will see, the cycle continues…
*The name Benjamin in the Hebrew means “son of the right hand.” The text doesn’t actually say “left-handed” but “bound of right hand” – this is perhaps a cosmic commentary on the the tribe of Benjamin that shows that tribes deterioration even as compared with the rest of Israel.