Thoughts on the Book of Judges
In the first episode of this Trilogy, I gave “Thoughts on the Book of Joshua”, where while there were a couple of hiccups along the way, the book began and ended on highs, and now we consider the Book of Judges as it tells us of some of what happened to the nation of Israel in the just over 300 years following Joshua’s death.
Sadly, the Book of Judges does not end on high. The last verse in the Book, which is a repeat of a statement made several times in the Book, concerning there being no king of Israel in those days (they lacked leaders) and people doing their own thing. There are many things to watch out for in this book, which is nominally about judges, who in effect are divinely appointed trouble shooters with flaws, yet anointed as well as being appointed by God. These were not kings as such and usually only led some of the tribes. They were usually raised up after Israel sinned, (as part of God’s judgment) were oppressed by some the inhabitants of the land they lived in (who God promised they would drive out or at least subdue, IF obedient to Him) and then upon calling on God, were delivered under the Judges. As often is seen in the OT, we note the contrast between a faithful God and an unfaithful people.
As with our Joshua thoughts, we will try to be succinct and won’t detail the content of the Book of Judges. The story bridges that gap between Joshua and possessing the land and the time of the kings (Saul onwards). It is indeed the story of inexcusable compromise, incorrigible conduct and inevitable corruption, with periods when Israel cried to God for help and He gave Israel these unlikely trouble shooters to deliver them from their oppressors and bring in a period of peace and stability, with this cycle repeated several times.
The Book starts promisingly with Israel continuing the task given to Joshua of successfully driving out the inhabitants of the land, or if not driven out bringing them into subjugation. But things rapidly began to go downhill, doing things Moses and Joshua warned them against and having to pay the price, just as God said would happen.
Not much is said about the first three judges: Othniel who led Israel to war, who was the nephew of Caleb (discussed in “Twelve more favourite Bible characters – Caleb”), Ehud who killed King Eglon and Shamgar who killed 600 Philistines – all empowered by God to rescue Israel from their enemies and bring them peace.
When asking those with a basic knowledge of the Book of Judges who are the main characters, they may well answer Gideon and Samson, maybe followed by Deborah and Jephthah. Gideon, Samson and Jephthah all had glaring flaws but God used them as He did Deborah, a woman. A lot of space is taken up telling the, often dramatic, stories of these four characters – check out here:
- Deborah and other women prophets
- Gideon – a mighty man of valour
- Jephthah, possibly my favourite Bible character
- Samson – God’s unlikely choice to deliver Israel
|5 And he went unto his father’s house at Ophrah, and slew his brethren the sons of Jerubbaal, being threescore and ten persons, upon one stone: notwithstanding yet Jotham the youngest son of Jerubbaal was left; for he hid himself.6 And all the men of Shechem gathered together, and all the house of Millo, and went, and made Abimelech king, by the plain of the pillar that was in Shechem.22 When Abimelech had reigned three years over Israel,23 Then God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the men of Shechem; and the men of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech:24 That the cruelty done to the threescore and ten sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid upon Abimelech their brother, which slew them; and upon the men of Shechem, which aided him in the killing of his brethren.53 And a certain woman cast a piece of a millstone upon Abimelech’s head, and all to brake his skull.54 Then he called hastily unto the young man his armourbearer, and said unto him, Draw thy sword, and slay me, that men say not of me, A women slew him. And his young man thrust him through, and he died. Joshua 9|
|1 And after Abimelech there arose to defend Israel Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo, a man of Issachar; and he dwelt in Shamir in mount Ephraim.2 And he judged Israel twenty and three years, and died, and was buried in Shamir.3 And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years.4 And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are called Havothjair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.5 And Jair died, and was buried in Camon. Judges 10|
While Abimelech, one of Gideons (Jerubbaal) seventy sons, had designs on being king and succeeded for a while, he was an evil usurper who got his comeuppance. Then Tola and Jair were judges.
|7 And Jephthah judged Israel six years. Then died Jephthah the Gileadite, and was buried in one of the cities of Gilead.8 And after him Ibzan of Bethlehem judged Israel.9 And he had thirty sons, and thirty daughters, whom he sent abroad, and took in thirty daughters from abroad for his sons. And he judged Israel seven years.10 Then died Ibzan, and was buried at Bethlehem.11 And after him Elon, a Zebulonite, judged Israel; and he judged Israel ten years.12 And Elon the Zebulonite died, and was buried in Aijalon in the country of Zebulun.13 And after him Abdon the son of Hillel, a Pirathonite, judged Israel.14 And he had forty sons and thirty nephews, that rode on threescore and ten ass colts: and he judged Israel eight years.15 And Abdon the son of Hillel the Pirathonite died, and was buried in Pirathon in the land of Ephraim, in the mount of the Amalekites. Judges 12|
Then following Jephthah, and to complete our list of judges, we have Ibzan, Elon and Abdon (all of which we know little).
The last five chapters of Judges do not involve Judges but tell two stories involving priests (Levites), who rather than acting as spiritual leaders in the good sense (as was meant to be), do so in the bad sense. We note a strangely modern relating phenomenon of people gravitating toward false religion and avoiding the true. Both are harrowing stories. It would be difficult to know how to tell these to Sunday School children, having the luxury of picking good bits from the likes of Gideon and Samson. In the first, the main sin was idolatry and in the second it was sexual immorality – what were to be reoccurring themes. We are reminded that God put them there for a reason, showing what happens when people turn from God. The final verse is a salutary reminder of what was taking place.
|1 And there was a man of mount Ephraim, whose name was Micah.2 And he said unto his mother, The eleven hundred shekels of silver that were taken from thee, about which thou cursedst, and spakest of also in mine ears, behold, the silver is with me; I took it. And his mother said, Blessed be thou of the Lord, my son.3 And when he had restored the eleven hundred shekels of silver to his mother, his mother said, I had wholly dedicated the silver unto the Lord from my hand for my son, to make a graven image and a molten image: now therefore I will restore it unto thee.4 Yet he restored the money unto his mother; and his mother took two hundred shekels of silver, and gave them to the founder, who made thereof a graven image and a molten image: and they were in the house of Micah.5 And the man Micah had an house of gods, and made an ephod, and teraphim, and consecrated one of his sons, who became his priest.6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.7 And there was a young man out of Bethlehemjudah of the family of Judah, who was a Levite, and he sojourned there.8 And the man departed out of the city from Bethlehemjudah to sojourn where he could find a place: and he came to mount Ephraim to the house of Micah, as he journeyed.9 And Micah said unto him, Whence comest thou? And he said unto him, I am a Levite of Bethlehemjudah, and I go to sojourn where I may find a place.10 And Micah said unto him, Dwell with me, and be unto me a father and a priest, and I will give thee ten shekels of silver by the year, and a suit of apparel, and thy victuals. So the Levite went in. Judges 17|
|27 And they took the things which Micah had made, and the priest which he had, and came unto Laish, unto a people that were at quiet and secure: and they smote them with the edge of the sword, and burnt the city with fire.28 And there was no deliverer, because it was far from Zidon, and they had no business with any man; and it was in the valley that lieth by Bethrehob. And they built a city, and dwelt therein.29 And they called the name of the city Dan, after the name of Dan their father, who was born unto Israel: howbeit the name of the city was Laish at the first.30 And the children of Dan set up the graven image: and Jonathan, the son of Gershom, the son of Manasseh, he and his sons were priests to the tribe of Dan until the day of the captivity of the land.31 And they set them up Micah’s graven image, which he made, all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh. Judges 18|
The first story involves the tribe of Dan in the North. But first there is a man who engages his own priest to oversee his idol worship. All this was taken over by Dan, who found new territory to occupy.
|1 And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel, that there was a certain Levite sojourning on the side of mount Ephraim, who took to him a concubine out of Bethlehemjudah.2 And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house to Bethlehemjudah, and was there four whole months.3 And her husband arose, and went after her, to speak friendly unto her, and to bring her again, having his servant with him, and a couple of asses: and she brought him into her father’s house: and when the father of the damsel saw him, he rejoiced to meet him.4 And his father in law, the damsel’s father, retained him; and he abode with him three days: so they did eat and drink, and lodged there. Judges 19|
|43 Thus they inclosed the Benjamites round about, and chased them, and trode them down with ease over against Gibeah toward the sunrising.44 And there fell of Benjamin eighteen thousand men; all these were men of valour.45 And they turned and fled toward the wilderness unto the rock of Rimmon: and they gleaned of them in the highways five thousand men; and pursued hard after them unto Gidom, and slew two thousand men of them.46 So that all which fell that day of Benjamin were twenty and five thousand men that drew the sword; all these were men of valour.47 But six hundred men turned and fled to the wilderness unto the rock Rimmon, and abode in the rock Rimmon four months.48 And the men of Israel turned again upon the children of Benjamin, and smote them with the edge of the sword, as well the men of every city, as the beast, and all that came to hand: also they set on fire all the cities that they came to. Judges 20|
Our second story involves the tribe of Benjamin in the South. This also involved a priest, who takes a girl as his concubine, who is raped and murdered by a group of homosexual Benjamites. The other tribes on finding out sought to avenge this evil, with the Benjamites refusing to allow those outside the tribe to interfere while doing nothing themselves to punish the perpetrators, resulting in a bloody civil war and the tribe of Benjamin almost obliterated entirely. The last chapter is a strange account of how this was avoided, with Benjamite women marrying outside the clan.
In terms of lessons learned, there are many, not least that this book (tradition has it, written by Samuel) is a warning for future generations of Israelites of what happens when the forsake their covenant with YHWH. For Gentile Christians today, we can reflect on the character of God who judges righteously but also has mercy and is not to be trifled with. While much of Judges makes dismal reading (what happens when God is shunned), it is worth considering the next book (the third in our trilogy) Ruth (part of Judges in the Hebrew Bible), which is a thrilling account of God’s wondrous dealings with Ruth, Boaz and Naomi, and that of the last judge, Samuel, who anoints two kings: Saul and David.