Each month, the Big Bible Project takes a book of the Bible as a theme for posts. This series acts as a tourist information point, highlighting some of the best-known parts of each book of the Bible and drawing attention to some hidden gems which you might not have thought to explore!
The story of the judges is aptly summarised in Judges 2:10-19. Indeed, the rest of the book serves only to fill out and reinforce that simple overview. One of the most poignant verses of the Bible, 2:10 sets the scene of a people entirely lost without God. Again and again, the people disobey God and suffer the curses of rejecting him which were outlined in the Law (see Deuteronomy). They are enslaved. They cry out to God, and he sends them a judge – a Ruler – to lead them back to victory. They worship him, and then have peace under that judge. Then he or she dies, and a new generation emerges which forgets what God has done. Read 3:7-11, which is the most concise of these cycles and contains each step which is outlined above: rebellion ⇒ wrath ⇒ slavery ⇒ cry of repentance ⇒ judge raised up ⇒ deliverance ⇒ peace. This cycle comes over and over in Judges, as the nation of Israel spirals into chaos without God and sees restoration under God-ordained leadership.
Historical and literary context
The Judges ruled Israel between the conquering of the land of Canaan under Joshua and the emergence of a monarchy under Saul. The book was clearly written under the monarchy, harking back to a time of lawlessness with an implicit message of hope for life under the Kings. It is chiefly narrative in form, using common tropes and stock phrases to emphasise the cyclical nature of Israel’s disobedience and God’s restoration. For Christian believers, it teaches us of what life was like before Christ (messed up) and informs our understanding of what it means to walk as God’s people (we keep messing up, but he keeps stepping in to rescue us). Ultimately, we don’t need a new judge to be raised up every generation because Christ has won our rescue once for all.
Gideon’s Fleece (chapter 6). A beloved story of those seeking guidance and signs from the Lord; a minefield of interpretative difficulty for everyone else. Does God want me to ‘lay out my fleece’ when I have important decisions to make? Gideon seems to be a sceptic of sorts, wanting to be absolutely sure that he was obeying the word of God. There is wisdom in that, but there can also be an unhelpful obstructionism that stands between a person and a reasonable course of action in the name of waiting for a sign. As is so often the case in the Old Testament, the narrator does not commend or condemn Gideon for his behaviour, he just tells it as it is. The question of guidance, our decision-making and God’s will for our lives is a boiling hot potato. If it’s something that’s been playing on your heart, this is a key text for that discussion: get in and wrestle with it this month!
Samson and Delilah (chapters 13-16) would be firm favourites in a soap-opera version Bible. The story contains cartoonish characters with unusual strength, bitter jealousy, malicious motives, trickery, harmful heroism, self-destructive single-mindedness – and more besides. It’s a tragic tale of flawed heroes. Samson was not, by any means, a model leader. But God used him powerfully and memorably to lead his people against the enemy. We should never be comfortable with our fallenness, but at the same time we should not allow our limitations to obstruct God’s work in our lives. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” Jesus said. God does not call the finished article for his service, but instead he works through the brokenness of sinful people like Sampson. Like us.
Under the surface
No leader is adequate to save the nation for good. However good each judge is, the repentant generation dies and the next generation makes the same mistakes over again. The people wait still for a figure who will deal with their problem of sin once and for all. The final verse hints that they need a king, but as we’ll see in the books of Samuel and Kings the kings they have in mind will only ever be a shadow of the final king who sits on the throne in the heavenly realms, King Jesus. This book is a great corrective to those of us who look for powerful leadership here on Earth. Let’s rightly praise God when he raises up good leaders – and ask him to do so! – but let’s rely always and only on him whoever our leaders may be.
God never breaks his covenant, despite the repeated failings of the Israelites. They keep turning back to him so often it’s a surprise they’re not dizzy. They are painfully quick to forget what life is like without God. And before we get too sniffy about the Israelites’ short-sightedness, let’s confess for a moment the times we’ve cycled our way into sin and repentance in exactly the same way. Then remember that in those days when Israel had no king, God kept stepping in faithfully each time to rescue his people. He never gave up on his covenant to Abraham and Moses. But moreover, we now have the King that was only hinted at back then, and he broke the curse of sin and death. Praise God that our spiritual battles, though tough, are won forever in Jesus Christ.
The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. (2:7)
After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. (2:10)
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (21:5)