Chapter 8: From Joshua, through Judges to Samuel
We have begun to set the scene for the emergence of the prophets en masse by considering the origins of everything in Chapter 4, the giving of the Law and the establishing of the Covenant between God and His chosen people, Israel, in Chapter 5 and, by way of diversions, albeit important ones, reflecting on false prophets in Chapter 6 and women prophets in Chapter 7. During all that period, the one prophet to emerge that is usually seen as especially significant is Moses. If prophets really came into their own and were there throughout the duration, it was during the period of the Kings, which we will soon get to. Before that, we need to consider the period preceding, following on from the death of Moses.
The transition between Moses dying and handing over the baton for leading the people to Joshua was relatively smooth. We read at the end of the Pentateuch: “And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day. And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the Lord commanded Moses. And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, In all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel” Deuteronomy 34:4-12
And then onto the Book of Joshua, which is about possessing the Promised Land: “Now after the death of Moses the servant of the Lord it came to pass, that the Lord spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses’ minister, saying, Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel. Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses” Joshua 1:1-3. We had already come across Joshua when the Israelites fought their first major battle under his generalship (Exodus 17), as Moses’ servant during the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 24) and as one of the twelve appointed to spy out the Promised Land (Numbers 14).
God had His hand on Joshua from the outset: “Be strong and of a good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land, which I sware unto their fathers to give them. Only be thou strong and very courageous, that thou mayest observe to do according to all the law, which Moses my servant commanded thee: turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that thou mayest prosper withersoever thou goest. This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success. Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” Joshua 1:6-9. From what we read Joshua obeyed and God blessed him.
While Joshua strikes us as more a leader and general than a prophet in the sense of foretelling the future, we note throughout the time Joshua led the people, God was telling Joshua what he needed to do and what would happen as a result of obedience (e.g. conquering Jericho) and also of disobedience (e.g. routed at Ai due to there being sin in the camp – revealing as if the Israelites needed to be reminded that God is a Holy God and cannot be disregarded or treated with contempt). What takes up much of the rest of the Book of Joshua is news of various conquests and dividing up of the land among the tribes of Israel. And to reinforce the message of the Blessings and Curses, discussed in Chapter 5, these were recited once again in Joshua 8, in fulfilment of what Moses said should happen: “And it shall come to pass, when the Lord thy God hath brought thee in unto the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt put the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal” Deuteronomy 27:4.
After a period of relative peace, and given what had happened prior to Joshua becoming leader and after a period when the people were mostly obedient, Joshua gives his farewell speech, just as Moses did, before he died (Joshua 23, 24). The theme of blessing when the people obeyed and cursing when the people disobeyed was his central message. The section begins: “And it came to pass a long time after that the Lord had given rest unto Israel from all their enemies round about, that Joshua waxed old and stricken in age. And Joshua called for all Israel, and for their elders, and for their heads, and for their judges, and for their officers, and said unto them, I am old and stricken in age: And ye have seen all that the Lord your God hath done unto all these nations because of you; for the Lord your God is he that hath fought for you”.
It is notable there is no succession in leadership given, other than a sort of leadership we will discuss when we come to the Book of Judges, other than offices given here, and significantly it was always God’s intention that He would be Israel’s king and what mattered was keeping the Covenant (discussed in Chapter 5). The choice before the people was a simple one: either obey or disobey. The people agreed to obey and the covenant was re-established with this new generation. So Joshua dies. Much of the Old Testament is about how each succeeding generation obeyed the covenant, and the message of future prophets were often to do with dealing with the consequences of disobedience.
Which brings us to the Book of Judges. The term “judge” is a misnomer. These might be best seen as trouble shooters, raised up when Israel were oppressed by an enemy within the land they occupied and invariably as a result of disobeying the covenant they had agreed to at the end of the Book of Joshua. They were a rather diverse bunch but, from what we can make out, all were raised up for a purpose. This title is assigned to twelve persons in the Book of Judges: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon and Samson plus a least one more: Samuel, discussed in the Book of Samuel and as far as authentic prophets goes the only one considered at length in this chapter, although one of the judges, Deborah, was a prophet too, discussed in Chapter 7.
While Joshua won many notable victories among the Canaanites, he did not succeed in driving them all out or subjugating them, which we should bear in mind God commanded because of their evil ways – they worshipped false gods, indulged in sexual immorality and did terrible things like child sacrifice and perpetrate other atrocities. We find at the start of the Book of Judges, the Israelites carrying on where Joshua left off but that soon stopped. Not only were the Canaanite inhabitants left alone but the Israelites sought to reach some accord, including inter-marriage and adopting their wicked ways. Much of the Judges is about what happened as a consequence: it led to the Israelites being oppressed and subjugated by the inhabitants of the land, them crying to God for rescue, God raising up deliverers i.e. Judges, followed by a period of peace; but the cycle continued with new Judges and new oppressors, over and over again.
The Book of Judges discusses what happened under the judges at various lengths. For our purposes, we will cite three: Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, partly because a lot is written about them and what they did. None of them can be classed as prophets but all of them were anointed by God to deliver His people and in their particular ways their action might be regarded as prophetic. All were very flawed and seemed unlikely choices, with all having sad endings brought about by their own disobedience, which the accounts do not gloss over. But all were used by God and, under their leadership, the people experienced deliverance and a period of peace. Gideon was ironically greeted by an Angel as “a mighty man of valour” (when he was hiding from the enemy) and with some reluctance and a whittled down army defeated the Midianites. Jephthah was rejected by his brethren who later turned to him to deliver them from the Ammonites, which he did. Samson was a Nazarite, whose strength that was down to his long hair, which he used to bring victory over the Philistines. And while God used all three men, they all fell in later life, and serves as a warning.
Besides Deborah, the only reference to prophets in the Book of Judges was a little prior to Gideon being called “And it came to pass, when the children of Israel cried unto the Lord because of the Midianites, That the Lord sent a prophet unto the children of Israel, which said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you forth out of the house of bondage; And I delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians, and out of the hand of all that oppressed you, and drave them out from before you, and gave you their land; And I said unto you, I am the Lord your God; fear not the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but ye have not obeyed my voice” Judges 6:7-10. He comes into the unknown prophet category and is perhaps the first example we can cite, to be discussed further in Chapter 11, and teaches us about the paradigm later prophets operated, and God maintaining His keeping and concerns of His covenant people. While for the purpose of this Book, knowing about the lives of the prophets may be of particular interest, as far as the Bible is concerned their message was more important than the messenger.
While prophets seemed to pop up all the time under the kings, that was not so in this period between Moses death and the appointing of the first king of Israel – Saul. We learn at the time God began to speak through Samuel the prophet: “And the child Samuel ministered unto the Lord before Eli. And the word of the Lord was precious in those days; there was no open vision” 1Samuel 3:1. Centuries later, after the death of Malachi, we experience a further period where there was no obvious prophetic voice, until John the Baptist. While one might surmise why this was the case, it should be always borne in mind that God was always about keeping His covenant with His people and the issue we are faced with was His people were unwilling to keep their covenant with God. This can be seen as we survey the Book of Judges and the early chapters of Samuel.
Judges ends with the phrase, repeating an earlier observation: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes” Judges 21:25. With that depressing note and before moving onto the Book of Samuel (one book in the Hebrew Bible, two in the Christian Bible) we should refer to the Book wedged between Judges and Samuel – Ruth, which in the Hebrew Bible, and appropriately so, is part of the Book of Judges. What God intended for His people can be seen in Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite (often seen as enemies of Israel) woman who left everything to accompany the widowed mother of her deceased husband back to Israel. There she meets Boaz and marries him and becomes a direct ancestor to David and Jesus. What can be said about Ruth and Boaz is they are examples of how God wanted His people to be, including those who were not born Israelites, and of God’s favour on such. It marks a refreshing contrast to a lot of the disturbing narrative we find in Judges.
So what can we say about Samuel? Much of his coming into being and his early life was due to a praying mother, Hannah (discussed in Chapter 7). She was barren; she prayed for a child; God gave her Samuel; she gave Samuel back to God; God gave Hannah more sons. Samuel lived much of his life in and around the Temple under the mentorship of Eli the Priest. It was as a boy God spoke to Samuel, and it was words of judgement, which he reluctantly relayed to Eli, and which came to pass. From then on, we read: “And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him, and did let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan even to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established to be a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again in Shiloh: for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the word of the Lord” 1Samuel 3: 19-12.
Samuel rose to prominence while Israel was in conflict with their old enemy, the Philistines, with their fortunes being linked to their attitude to God. A time of peace followed a time of conflict, with Samuel judging wisely and the people following his godly counsel. There came a time as he grew old when Israel demanded a king, not helped because Samuel’s sons who he elevated as judges were ungodly (and a blight on Samuel’s character), and despite Samuel trying to dissuade the people, God told him to accept their request as part of God’s will. This led to Samuel to seeking out and anointing Saul as king, who he sought to guide and encourage under God. Saul began well but ended badly as he went against what God said and reaped the consequences. The tragedy was that while had all the natural qualities for a king and would have been the people’s choice, Saul thought he knew better than God, even though for a time with God’s help he was victorious in battle. When he was told to utterly destroy the Amalekites (1Samuel 15), he failed to do so, and this triggered his downward spiral.
While Saul would not be regarded as a prophet, following him being anointed as king we get a glimpse on what could have been when what Samuel said after he was anointed soon came to pass: “And the Spirit of the Lord will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. And let it be, when these signs are come unto thee, that thou do as occasion serve thee; for God is with thee” 1Samuel 10: 6,7. After he had fallen from grace and while he was pursuing his, rival, David, we find: “the Spirit of God was upon him also, and he went on, and prophesied” 1Samuel 19:23, teaching us the gift of prophesy may be given by the giver unconditionally, as He wills.
Because of Saul’s disobedience, God chose another king, David, to replace him and the man sent to anoint him was Samuel. A lot more could be said about David, described as a man after God’s own heart (1Samuel 13:14, Acts 13:22), including David as a prophet, but that will have to wait. We end this chapter by considering Samuel’s farewell speech as an old man. While some of his speech seemed to be self-congratulatory over the way he had acted in the past, he gave sober warnings, much as Moses had done, on the consequences of straying from the Lord and which we will see under later kings were to come to pass, as well as on a more positive note how great and wonderful were His intentions:
“Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and, behold, the Lord hath set a king over you. If ye will fear the Lord, and serve him, and obey his voice, and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall both ye and also the king that reigneth over you continue following the Lord your God: But if ye will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then shall the hand of the Lord be against you, as it was against your fathers. Now therefore stand and see this great thing, which the Lord will do before your eyes … For the Lord will not forsake his people for his great name’s sake: because it hath pleased the Lord to make you his people. Moreover as for me, God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you: but I will teach you the good and the right way: Only fear the Lord, and serve him in truth with all your heart: for consider how great things he hath done for you. But if ye shall still do wickedly, ye shall be consumed, both ye and your king” 1 Samuel 13-16, 22-25.
What we can conclude is Samuel was one who heard directly from God. While it might be argued he had weaknesses e.g. his nepotism, he was mightily used by God to effect the transition from Judges to Kings, including anointing and mentoring the first two kings of Israel, guiding the people aright. We might also want to give credit to his praying mother for what he was to become. Like all prophets, as one finished his work, new ones were raised to replace, and often there were marked differences in character and circumstances. But as Charles Wesley observed: “God buries His workmen but carries on His work”.