Book of Judges: Despair or Hope

In our Old Testament Survey class, this week we covered Joshua and Judges. Joshua replaces Moses as leader of Israel, and leads them into the promised land. While God is definitely in control of the invasion, there are problems with rebellion and sin among God’s people. But notice that while Achan is identified, all Israel is condemned:

The Israelites, however, were unfaithful regarding the things set apart for destruction. Achan … took some of what was set apart, and the LORD’s anger burned against the Israelites. (Joshua 7:1 HCSB)

That sin results in the death of Achan and his family. Some might see this as God overreacting. But is it? Consider that God had told the people all along that as He was holy,and they were to be holy. God had set apart things for destruction (under the ban) because of the influence that it would have among His people. Achan violated that ban, and in effect stole from God.

Sadly this begins a pattern among the Israelites of turning away from God, and then repenting. Joshua calls them to “choose this day whom you shall serve/worship.” This is not for the purpose of being saved—they were already saved/delivered, and that had to be God’s work. Rather, this was a call to commit to live as saved/delivered people. The choice is to select other gods to serve/worship.

[Joshua said:] But if it doesn’t please you to worship Yahweh, choose for yourselves today the one you will worship: the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. As for me and my family, we will worship Yahweh.” (Joshua 24:15 HCSB)

Notice their response to this call for allegiance:

The people replied, “We will certainly not abandon the LORD to worship other gods!” (Joshua 24:16 HCSB)

The Downward Spiral of Judges

The high point of commitment is followed quickly by the book of Judges. And the story takes a decidedly negative turn. As soon as Joshua dies, the result is obvious:

Then the sons of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals, and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed themselves down to them; thus they provoked the LORD to anger. (Judges 2:11-12 NAS95)

As we read through Judges we discover the pattern:

People in one tribe go after other gods
God raises up a nation to bring judgment on that tribe
The people of that tribe repent and cry out for God to save them
God raises up a “Judge” who delivers them

While there ares several judges that God raises up, two occupy center stage Gideon (Judges 6-8) and Samson (Judges 13-16). Gideon marks the high point among the Judges, Samson the low point. Interestingly, Samson is only one of four people in the Bible whose birth is announced by an angel (Isaac, John the Baptizer, and Jesus being the others) [thanks to one of our participants!].

Yet Samson’s life is rebellious at every turn. Yes, he is victorious over the Philistines. But often that is overshadowed by his disobedience. He wants a Philistine wife, which his parents oppose. He is seduced by Delilah; he reveals what should not. He loses his strength because of his pride. And even in his final gasp, his action seems more like personal revenge than Godly vindication. But there is one phrase that stands out: “He called out to the LORD: “Lord GOD, please remember me.” (Judges 16:28 HCSB). Samson is a man of the covenant after all.

Ultimately the Book of Judges seems like a gory, less than helpful book in the Bible. Especially when we consider the last verse:

In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 21:25 NAS95)

The ongoing spiral of promise

The Book of Judges does not leave us with a satisfactory sense of God’s history. However, even looking only at the external events of the book, we still see God faithful to His people, despite their repeated rebellion. God never gives up on His promises. The call was always “to remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields o...

Jan van Scorel, Ruth and Naomi in the fields of Boaz.

And beneath the surface in the period of the Judges was the ultimate story, one hidden from the headlines. God’s promise of a Savior, overheard by Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), expanded to Abram (Gen. 12 and 15), extended through Isaac and Jacob, was continuing, even during the time of the Judges.

During the time of the judges, there was a famine in the land. A man left Bethlehem, in Judah with his wife and two sons to live in the land of Moab for a while. The man’s name was Elimelech, and his wife’s name was Naomi. (Ruth 1:1-2 HCSB)

After going to Moab, Naomi’s husband and two sons die. But her one daughter-in-law, Ruth (a Moabite), stays with Naomi, even when Naomi returns to Bethlehem. Eventually, Boaz becomes Ruth’s husband. And that picks up the promise of a Savior theme. In the last portion of Ruth we have a very short, but critical genealogy.

The neighbor women gave him[son of Boaz and Ruth] a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi!” So they named him Obed. He is the father of Jesse, the father of David. (Ruth 4:17 NAS95)

…to Perez was born Hezron, and to Hezron was born Ram, and to Ram, Amminadab, and to Amminadab was born Nahshon, and to Nahshon, Salmon, and to Salmon was born Boaz, and to Boaz, Obed, and to Obed was born Jesse, and to Jesse, David. (Ruth 4:18-22 NAS95)

So, despite all the attention grabbing headlines of the Judges, God was working with these relatively unknown people. God was keeping his promise to the covenant. God was concerned not just with the immediate deliverance of Israel, but with the ultimate deliverance through this line of promise.

And there the Book of Judges takes on new significance. The Judges provide breathing room for God to continue to care for that line of promise. Even a young foreigner, Ruth, becomes important in God’s scheme of salvation. David, her great-grandson would be a great King who carries on the promise of a Savior.

Many generations later there would be an unknown young woman, a descendant of David, in Nazareth who would not attract the attention of the world leaders in Rome or Egypt. But she would give birth to the greater David, the greater King, Jesus, who would bring deliverance not just from a neighboring nation, but from the true enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Thus, the period of the Judges is not a book of despair but a book of promise and hope in the midst of unruly world events, threatening nations, and sometimes less than satisfactory leaders.

God is that kind of God.


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disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
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