The Book of Judges is a narrative that demonstrates God's faithfulness and Israel's apostasy. Judges is a continuation of the story begun in the Book of Joshua. God's people repeatedly fall away from Him in their living and their worship. Yet God provides time and again for their deliverance. This is a dark time in Israel's history. The nation endured repeated periods of chaos: political disunity, infighting, invasions from other nations, spiritual and moral depravity. They broke their covenant with the Lord many times over. They lost sight of their identity as God's chosen people, and they experienced the consequences. God demonstrated His compassion and pity on a wayward people who grieved Him continually. Judges was written to show the consequences of disobedience to God, and the necessity of summoning a righteous king who would lead the people back to God.
We see God's faithfulness through the repeated cycle of disobedience, oppression, repentance, and deliverance. We see that God is a God of both judgement and forgiveness. Judges reminds us that we cannot compromise with the world. Joshua called the Israelites to choose whom they would serve, gods of the world or the one true living God. They chose the gods of the world. That could only end one way...in disaster. Paul reminds us in the Book of Romans, chapter 12 to not be conformed to this world. Thousands of years after the period of the judges God's people still need to be reminded to worship God and God alone.
The period of the judges extended from the end of the conquest of the promised land around 1400 B.C. until Saul was anointed king in approximately 1050B.C. Many scholars claim that the record of the conquest in Joshua is idealistic, with a more realistic account detailed in Judges 1. But the two books identify the same list of cities that could not be conquered. The focus in Joshua is not on those failures but rather on the victories resulting from remaining true to the Lord. Judges, on the other hand, emphasizes Israel's failings during a period when the people of God followed the pagan ways of the nations around them. There is a marked contrast between the books of Joshua and Judges. Joshua closes with a nation resting from war and enjoying the riches God had given them in the promised land. They have promised three times to worship the Lord and Him alone. The Book of Judges pictures Israel suffering from invasion, slavery, poverty, and civil war. So, what happened?
One of two things was true. Either Joshua's generation failed to instruct their children and grandchildren in the ways of the Lord, or if they had faithfully taught them, then the new generation refused to submit to God's law and follow God's ways. In either case God's people fell away. They went from apathy to apostasy. The military victories we see Israel win in Judges come after Joshua has died. The boundary lines for all the tribes had been set and the people moved into their cities and towns to live. But the people had yet to fully claim their inheritance because they could not or did not drive all the pagans out of their land. The people owned the land, but they did not possess all of it. They started off right by consulting the Lord but that quickly deteriorated.
It was common practice in the ancient Near East to physically mutilate prisoners of war. Here we see the Israelites cut off the big toes and thumbs of a captured Canaanite king. He believed he was being paid back for what he had done to others and he died in Jerusalem. By cutting off big toes and thumbs it prevented people from running very fast, and handling weapons would have been difficult as well. Humiliating one's enemies was part of warfare in that time and place.
Moses warned the Israelites before he died about being obedient to the Lord and worshiping Him only. Joshua warned the Israelites before he died about being obedient to the Lord and worshiping Him only. Moses reviewed the covenant and Joshua made a new covenant between God and the Israelites. Both of these leaders knew the hearts of the people. The Canaanites and Phoenicians worshiped the god Baal which means lord. He was also known as the son of Dagon and the son of El. He was Hadad in Syria and Adad in Babylon. He was the god of fertility, both agricultural and human and he is usually pictured standing on a bull, a symbol of fertility and strength. Storm clouds were viewed as his chariot, thunder was his voice and lightning his spears and arrows. Worship of this false god often included ritual prostitution and sometimes the sacrifice of children. His female counterpart was Ashtoreth, and Asherah was the female consort of the god El, who was the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. Ashtoreth was the beautiful goddess of war and fertility. She was associated with the evening star. Worship of her involved extremely lewd practices. This is what the Israelites fell into instead of worshiping the one true God.
The nations the Israelites could not drive out of their land became thorns in their flesh, tempting them to fall away from the Lord. When the rule of other nations became too much for Israel, they cried out to the Lord for help. He responded by sending judges or leaders. These leaders were inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as long as Israel had a judge, they were saved from their enemies. But as soon as the judges died Israel went right back to their sinful ways and the cycle repeated itself. Over and over.
The weapons Israel fought with were not what you might expect. When God goes to war, He usually chooses the most unlikely soldiers, hands them the most unusual weapons, and accomplishes through them the most unpredictable results. Shamgar was given an ox goad and he killed 600 men with it. Jael used a hammer and a tent peg to kill a captain. Gideon routed the whole Midianite army with only pitchers and torches. Samson used the jawbone of an ass, and David killed Goliath with a slingshot and five smooth stones. Our reading for today touches on the stories of four judges. One of the accounts is very brief and another very graphic.
In a society that is very much patriarchal we encounter the story of an Israelite judge named Deborah. At this point Israel is not worshiping the Lord but they are willing to pull together to fight the enemy. Deborah was from the tribe of Ephraim near Judah. When she called for troops at least six tribes contributed soldiers. Her general was a very reluctant fighter who would not command unless Deborah went as well. As a prophetess she told her general Barak that the victory would not come by his hand but from the hand of a woman. The army they would fight had 900 chariots. They were much faster than fighting on foot and the Israelites were out weaponed. But God fought on Israel's side. The story of the Canaanite army captain Sisera’s death is told in the same slow suspenseful manner that Eglon’s death was. However, the conclusion of the story is that even though Jael was the one who drove the tent peg through Sisera’s temple, God gave Israel the victory.
Our reading ends with a joyous celebration. Deborah composed a song that gave God all the glory for what He had done. It is not a short song but then God has done countless marvelous things!
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W