As much as any book in the Bible, the book of Judges tells of how patient God has had to be in order to stay with human beings in our craziness. The book of Judges tells of how patient God has had to be to remain faithful to the healing strategy of bringing salvation to the human race.
Somewhat surprisingly, Judges is a depressing book, a story mostly of failure. Most of us have some familiarity with a few of the famous characters – Samson and Deborah, for example. However, the last verse in the book basically summarizes the message of the book as a whole: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25).
The book of Judges tells of the early years of Israel’s nationhood. This is following their settling in the land of Canaan after the journey through the wilderness. During the time of Judges, Israel was an association of twelve different tribes. They had no permanent, central leadership. They weren’t one state, but a group of separate, associate states. However, every once in a while they faced a huge problem as a whole – usually some kind threat from the Canaanites. At these times, temporary leaders arose and led Israel to victory, ensuring the nation’s continued survival. These leaders were called “judges.”
After several generations, this approach to nationhood proved unacceptable to the people. They petitioned God for a king. First Saul and then David became kings, and for several hundred more years Israel had a king. The nation became unified, more centralized.
In the book of Hebrews, several of the judges were idealized as people of great faith. “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah [all judges], of David [the king] and Samuel [the last judge] and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Heb 11:32-34).
However, after looking a bit more closely at the book of Judges itself, I am impressed with the lack of heroes in that book. The picture in Judges is one of chaos more than harmony; violence more than peaceful co-existence; rampant selfishness and tribalism more than a healthy, faithful community.
The Old Testament story follows the fortunes of the Hebrew people after God’s calling of Abraham. God called Abraham as the father of a people who would know God and be a blessing to all the families of the earth. We may feel impatient in reading this story. The people were given so much – liberation from slavery, the Law, the promise land, words from God through various prophets. But they could never seem to get it quite right.
We see this clearly in Judges. The people are in the land and at peace at last. But they almost immediately are tempted to worship false gods. They bicker among themselves. Their trust in God wavers, and so does their willingness to follow God’s ways. However, they also face outside threats from the Canaanites, and for a while at least, God continues to rescue them. The people repent – but only for a short time. Then they turn from God again. The cycle repeats itself.
God’s patience is amazing. God stays with the people. The book of Judges ends with a longing for the order a king might bring. God would prefer the people not to go the way of kingship but gives in to the people’s wishes. However, the same pattern is still repeated – God’s blessing followed by unfaithfulness. Still, God does not give up on the healing strategy. God continues to work to bring salvation.
The key issue in the overall story of God’s involvement with human beings is one of identity – who are we? How is our identity established? How confident can we be of who we are? The focus in the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, is on identity as gift. We are people given life by God. Abraham and Sarah were nomads with no hope of having children. God promised them a future and gave them a child. Moses was exiled from his people, who were slaves in Egypt. God called Moses and empowered Moses to bring the people together and gave them freedom from slavery. Then God gives them the Law and God gives them the promise land.
The people of Israel, then, found their identity as people who trusted in God’s mercy, people who were called to live peaceably and justly in light of that mercy. However, this was always a struggle. By the time of the stories in the book of Judges we see pictured a people with a loss of identity. “They all did what was right in their own eyes.” They show confusion, disorder. Little or no trust; little or no mercy; little or no peacableness.
In The Book of God: A Response to the Bible, Gabriel Josipovici characterizes the book of Judges as portraying a disruption of rhythm. The previous books in the Bible – Genesis through Joshua – certainly contain their share of acts of violence, their share of lack of trust in God, their share of people in conflict. There is a sense, in the earlier books, though, of things generally moving in a positive direction, with a certain rhythm. The ways of God are difficult, but things do tend to work together for good.
Judges, however, doesn’t really have any such optimism. The main sense in the book is of dislocation, disharmony, disunity. The basic movement of the book is steadily toward chaos. The book begins with the death of Joshua at a ripe old age, in the context of widespread success. After that, the experience of death is one of death as premature, often gruesome, even sinister. People get stabbed in the stomach, have nails pounded in their heads, are crushed by collapsing buildings.
The height of disorientation in the book is the story of Samson. Samson is a judge, but he is an unknowing judge. He shows only self will. He shows no sense of connectedness with God, no sense of connectedness with Israel’s traditions or Israel’s future. If he sees a woman he wants, he goes and gets her. If people or animals bug him, he kills them. Finally, he enters the trap of falling in love with Delilah, who works as a spy for the Philistines, Israel’s enemies. Samson’s eyes are gouged out, underscoring his total lack of insight. He, in the end, kills thousands of Philistines in a kind of suicide mission. Samson is one of the few biblical characters who kills himself – a terrible sin in Israel’s moral perspective.
Another example of the chaos here is the story in Judges 19, which parallels the story of Lot and the angels in Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 19. However, in Genesis 19, when the people of the town come to Lot’s house asking to abuse Lot’s guests, the angels strike them blind and allow Lot and his family to escape. Here in Judges, the guest is a Levite priest, one of Israel’s “holy people.” When the people of the town come to abuse him as a guest, he pushes out his woman and lets them abuse her all night. The Levite goes out the next morning, seemingly unaware of the likely effects of the abuse. He’s surprised when the woman is dead. We are shocked by his callousness, his utter lack of holiness. What follows is even worse – an all out civil war fought for revenge.
In these stories, people take to protecting only narrow self-interest. The book ends up with chaos reigning. Israel has just fought a civil war. Again the words, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25).
So, it’s little wonder that Israel turned to a king to provide order. And, with David, they received at least a glimpse of what a king trusting in God’s ways could offer. David certainly offered them a person who knew himself; David spoke honestly and deeply, accepted the consequences of his actions, and deeply empathized with others. We will look more at David and what follows in our next several chapters.
For now, though, we can ask what we might learn from these stories from Judges. I want to mention three main points – (1) The first point is that living faithfully is a struggle, no matter how gracious God might be to us. (2) The second point is that God remains patient even as God’s people struggle with faithfulness. (3) And the third point is that, ultimately our job in life is to respond to God’s long-suffering love for us by letting that love transform us into loving people ourselves.
It is said that one of the two worst things in life is never getting what you want – and the other worst thing is getting it. The children of Israel crossed through many waters to make it to the promise land. But they finally made it, when God displayed power on their behalf time and again. But once they got to the land, their work only began. And, as we read the book of Judges, we realize just how difficult that work was. It was the work of living in harmony with one another and in faithful relationship with God.
The Bible tells us of the struggles people have in real life with following God’s will, with trusting in God, with finding genuine peace. But even more, and this is where the Bible is so crucial for us, the Bible tells us of God’s faithfulness, patience, and long-suffering love.
God’s healing strategy began several thousand years ago when God called Abraham. The story in the Bible, and certainly the story over the past 2,000 years since the last books of the Bible were written, is one ultimately of a God whose love will not let us go. That is certainly at the heart of the message of the book of Judges. It’s a depressing book, but it is part of the story of God’s faithfulness. In a sense, the discouragement of the stories in Judges can heighten our encouragement. Even in those bad times, God’s love is not quenched.
So if we learn from Judges that living faithfully is a struggle, we also learn that God remains patient. God’s love continues.
We don’t read a lot about love in the book of Judges. That is why we need to read it in the context of the rest of the Bible. We Christians read Judges, and the rest of the Old Testament, in light of the story of Jesus. The Gospel, the good news, in the book of Judges is the news that God remains patient. God remains faithful even when God’s people are unfaithful. It is God’s patient, long-suffering love that is our hope. This patience means that God will stay with us, encouraging us to grow, gradually, grudgingly, into people who know at least a little bit better God’s ways of mercy and compassion.
So, the book of Judges serves as an important transition document as well as a part of the puzzle concerning how the experience of Israel living as a nation state simply did not work out as a conduit for the embodiment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. In touching on these themes, and when read in the context of the rest of the Bible, Judges actually serves to underscore the persevering love on God in furthering the promise.
Judges helps us understand the choice Israel’s elders made as recounted in 1 Samuel to ask God for a human king. The decentralized, tribal-focused organization of the people of the promise seemed to foster the chaos of disharmony, selfishness, even, ultimately terrible fratricide that threatened the leave the promise in ruins.
Ironically, in terms of the broader story, the exodus and conquest, portrayed in the context of an anti-empire, an anti-king-centered politics, turned out to lead directly not to Israel serving as an agent of transformation in relation to all the families of the earth but instead to Israel being transformed into the pattern of the empires and nations power politics and all.
The period of the judges turned out to be a kind of crossroads. The decentralized, tribal-focused organization carried promise of being an alternative way of being a nation state. Without a human king, Israel seemingly had the potential to actually order their common life around Torah with God as their only king. This decentralized structure contained the potential of devoting social capital to the well-being of the larger community and not the enhancement of the power of the human king and his regime.
In the immediate context of the story of the judges and what directly followed afterwards, we may see this failure to thrive as a decentralized, Torah-centered nation-state as a tragedy. And surely it was. Nonetheless, as we read the story as a whole, drawing our interpretive keys from the message of Jesus, we may perhaps conclude that the lesson to be drawn from the judges experiment reinforces the larger story’s conclusion that the promise to bless all the families of the earth simply cannot be fulfilled with the agency of the nation-state as central.
The shift, though, is not from a hope of this-worldly blessing toward a hope for next-worldly blessing. Rather, the shift is from focusing the hope on centralized political structures toward focusing the hope on counter-cultural communities that in some sense transcend and operate independently from the nation-state.
We may continue to reflect on whether in principal the nation-state is eliminated altogether as an agent of the promise and on whether it may at least play a secondary role, a role whose fulfillment still encourages attempts from people of faith to work for good within its structures. Nonetheless, the story itself in its overall message concludes by challenging followers of God to seek to bring healing irrespective of nation-states.