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Bible Study Helps: Judges

Mar 17, 2019

The 21 chapters of the book of Judges can make for some rather depressing reading, but they are an important part of Israel’s story and how God worked in the Old Testament. The events of this book take place between the death of Joshua and the rise of Samuel and Saul and the start of the monarchy.

All up, the book covers a period of some several hundred years with various judges (more accurately, leaders or deliverers) discussed. If the book of Joshua offered us a fairly positive beginning to Israel’s conquest of Canaan, the book of Judges gives us a rather gloomy picture, with disobedience and idolatry bringing the people into oppression, from which they cry out for deliverance.

The book offers us repetitive cycles of God’s people getting into real trouble because of sin, crying out to God, and the Lord sending them a military deliverer. These were often tribal or territorial difficulties dealt with by tribal or local leaders, not those leading Israel as a whole. As Hubbard and Dearman explain:

The picture of Israel’s situation that Judges paints is dark and dangerous. Politically, loose and locally based organization holds the tribes together rather than a single leader in the mold of Moses or Joshua. The lack of central leadership leaves the nation especially vulnerable to foreign invasions, and several plague it across Israel’s northern, eastern, and southwestern boundaries. As noted, regional Heroes successfully drive the invaders out, but none fills the leadership gap left by Moses and Joshua.

Two important refrains found in this book are well worth noting:

-“In those days there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25)
-“Everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25)

If the second phrase above sounds familiar, it should: it was uttered by Moses just before the Israelites crossed into the promised land. In Deuteronomy 12:8–9 we find this: “You shall not do at all what we are doing here today, every man doing whatever is right in his own eyes; for you have not as yet come to the resting place and the inheritance which YHVH your Elohim is giving you.”

Yet by the time we get to the book of Judges that is exactly what is happening. If the book of Joshua was all about the Israelisation of Canaan, then the book of Judges, as Daniel Block puts it, is all about the Canaanisation of Israel. All up around 14 leaders or chieftains are discussed in the book. In six of these stories we have a common and depressing fourfold pattern found:

-Israel falls into apostasy via disobedience and violation of the law;
-Divine punishment is unleashed via the enemies of Israel;
-Israel cries out for help;
-A judge or deliver is raised up by God to save his people.

As mentioned, the book is bracketed by the leadership of Moses and Joshua on the one end, and the monarchy on the other. Michael Wilcock puts it this way:

If, in the days of the exodus and the days of the monarchy, there was one practical fact of life about which no-one needed to be in any doubt, it was this: you knew who was (or at any rate was supposed to be) in charge…. But in the intervening years, between the authority represented by Moses and Joshua on the near side, and that represented by David and Solomon on the far side, Israel seemed to walk a fragile, swaying rope-bridge slung from one great cliff to another.

And so it was. Seven times in the book we are told that the Israelites did “evil in the eyes of the Lord” (2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1: 6:1; 10:6; and 13:1). As Henrietta Mears once put it, “Someone has called the book of Judges the account of the Dark Ages of the Israelite people. The people forsook God (Judges 2:13) and God forsook the people (Judges 2:23).”

I have also previously discussed one of the more interesting stories found in the book: that of Gideon and his fleece. How should we understand this event, and can Christians today get divine guidance by means of such methods? See here for my thoughts: billmuehlenberg.com/2011/05/20/difficult-bible-passages-judges-636-40/

Also, just as with the book of Joshua, many readers today will be uncomfortable with the idea of the conquest of Canaan which is also described further in this book. But as Dale Ralph Davis reminds us in his expository commentary:

If only the Canaanites could know how much emotional support they receive from modern western readers. And the conquest was frightful. But people who bemoan the fate of the poor Canaanites don’t view the conquest from the Bible’s own perspective. They forget one vital fact: the Canaanites were not innocent. Moses was emphatic about that; he humbled the Israelites by insisting that Yahweh was not giving them Canaan because they were such godly folks but because the Canaanites were so grossly wicked (Deut 9:4-6). If you want all the gory details, see Leviticus 18:6-30 and Deuteronomy 18:9-14. These texts show that the conquest was an act of justice, Yahweh’s justice. Israel was the instrument of his just judgment upon a corrupt and perverted people.

For more reading on this thorny issue of the taking of Canaan, see the resources I list here: billmuehlenberg.com/2018/03/05/bible-study-helps-joshua/

Believers have often discussed the issue of kingship in the OT. As to the question of whether the request for a king was good or bad – a divine idea or a human idea – I have discussed this elsewhere in some detail: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/03/20/ancient-israel-meant-king/

And as to relevance of the book for believers today, Michael Glodo offers us these helpful remarks:

The book of Judges testifies to God’s faithfulness in spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness. He upheld the covenant with warnings from the angel of the Lord and allowed the Canaanites to periodically oppress his people in order to turn their hearts back to him. God raised up judges to rally the nation, and he gave them victory over their oppressors. Yet these victories were temporary. The limited, short-lived success of the judges pointed to the need for a greater, more effective, and abiding solution to Israel’s idolatrous heart. Judges confirms what the Balaam narrative should have taught Israel—that the real threat was not external but internal (Numbers 25). Old Testament Israel is universal human nature writ large. . . . To the extent that the judges saved God’s people, we see the saving work of God in and through Jesus Christ.

Or as J. Alan Groves puts it: “God’s compassion during the period of the judges pointed to the greater compassion and permanent peace he would bring through Jesus, the better deliverer. In Jesus, God’s repeated acts of compassion in the OT have a foundation; God’s mercy, grounded in the cross, extends “backward” as the basis for his compassion in Judges.”

Judges Commentaries

Top notch commentaries mainly of a scholarly and academic nature from a conservative/evangelical perspective include:

Block, Daniel, Judges/Ruth (NAC, 1999).
Boda, Mark, Judges (EBCR, 2012).
Butler, Trent, Judges (WBC, 2009).
Cundall, Arthur and Leon Morris, Judges & Ruth (TOTC, 1968).
Evans, Mary, Judges and Ruth (TOTC, 2017).
Smit, Laura and Stephen Fowl, Judges & Ruth (BTCB, 2018).
Way, Kenneth, Judges and Ruth (TTC, 2016).
Webb, Barry, The Book of Judges (NICOT, 2012).
Wilcock, Michael, The Message of Judges (BST, 1992).
Younger, K. Lawson, Judges, Ruth (NIVAC, 2002).

Devotional and homiletical works are numerous. Some good ones include:

Davis, D. Ralph, Judges (Christian Focus, 1990).
Webb, Barry, Judges and Ruth (PTW, 2015).
Wiersbe, Warren, Be Available (Victor, 2004).

See my review of Webb’s NICOT volume here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/17/a-review-of-the-book-of-judges-nicot-by-barry-webb/

Happy studying and happy reading.

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4 Responses to Bible Study Helps: Judges

  • A timely reminder about who is in charge. In my lifetime Western nations have gone from being unabashed about claiming their Christian foundation to being timidly proclaiming that they are now secular nations.

    The fact is that secularism was set up by Christian culture and was even mandated when the Brits and allies set up Israel, even though they were well aware of the prophetic significance, but it was an “in God we trust” secularism where the overarching authority from God was never in doubt. Human rights were given by God. Now we have a new secularism which claims authority over God and claims there is no absolute truth (in complete contravention of enlightenment principles and rationality as well as Christianity) and that all gods and all religions and all belief systems are equal other than humanist secularism which must take precedence over all and preferably based on atheism and socialism. This is done all while claiming that atheistic secularism is not a religious belief.

    This change has happened in a time of peace, exactly as was prophesied, and without most people with human understanding noticing anything has changed. They say everything is still proceeding as it always has and people are still marrying and being given in marriage etc. (Mat 24:38, 2 Pet 3:4) but the reality is that this apparently small, even unnoticeable change is, in fact, more than seismic. It is more than universal because it attempts to place the God of all creation in subservience to man. It is a very fundamental blasphemy and ignorance just as God attempted to teach the Jews in Judges and elsewhere, including Revelation 13.

    Unfortunately the scriptures tell us that we will have to put up with this patiently until the time of the Gentiles is fulfilled. That, however, does not mean we are to not loudly proclaim the truth. Maintaining our love of the truth is fundamental as scriptures like 2 Thes 2:10 attest.

    Eph 4:17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should not walk from now on as other nations walk, in the vanity of their mind,
    Eph 4:18 having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.
    Eph 4:19 For they, being past feeling, have given themselves up to lust, to work all uncleanness with greediness.
    Eph 4:20 But you have not so learned Christ,
    Eph 4:21 if indeed you have heard Him and were taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus.
    (MKJV)

  • Ok, so If I understand you correctly Mr M, you are saying it’s better to have leaders than each making their own decisions i.e. it was better to have Moses and Joshua than each deciding what was right in their own eyes. Your main point being, to protect the borders individuals are not going to be effective, for instance, would the Democrats in the USA protect the border I guess.

    Does that not mean then that Christianity should have its own earthly government (their own President Trump or is that prime minister?), not a secular government since how could the dead be any use to the living. To have Christendom, it seems to me history has shown it can’t exist for long before the secular (the dead) infect Christendom to such an extent all manner of perversions arise, it seems to me, the perversions are equal and opposite of the Good, therefore, the greater the good the greater capacity for perversions, which is what we see in post-Christian nations, i.e. the perversion of marriage, the perversion of sex, the perversion of gender, the perversion of family, the perversion of motherhood/fatherhood, the perversion of giving birth by bringing death. The list could go on and on.

    Is it not the case that the “brief” periods of Christendom was nothing more than the judges doing what they did in your article? Which leads me to a difficult question, do we need the equivalent of sharia law, I.e. a political element, you may want to call it Moses or Joshua or even dare I say, Pope?

    If we say, for instance, we puritans sailed a ship to a far of land let call it America and wanted to create Christendom is it even possible to do that with our present mindset of what Christendom would be.

    I understand what I am asking isn’t something that you could respond to in a few lines, but it seems to me that from a biblical perspective if we were given Christendom Ireland, it would not over a period of time be any better than what the worst of the secularist would achieve.

    I am, of course, not saying our eternity will not be Christendom but is the best we can do is abolish slavery only to enslave in another way, only to end abortion so the babies can be secularised to hate their creator. Why can’t we create Christendom and then just be and do what we claim to be?

    I do understand we have a sin nature and I do understand we take a bite of the forbidden daily, but we could impose Christendom if we could impose slavery could we not?

  • Thanks again Sarah. In this case you might be reading too much into my remarks about the historical situation of Israel during the period of the judges. My remarks were basically descriptive, not prescriptive. I was simply pointing out that Israel was unified under Moses and Joshua, more or less tribalized and localised under the judges, and then when the monarchy was established, they again had a centralised government and leadership. It is not just Israel, but all people groups or ethnic groups that may do a bit better with some sort of uniform leadership.

    An altogether different question is whether such a thing as a theocracy is the way to go. It was tried of course in various ways – by Calvin in Geneva, Knox in Scotland, puritan New England, etc. And some groups, the reconstructionists, or theonomists, tend to want it still happening today. See a bit more on them here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/01/09/on-theonomy-part-one/

    But that is a rather large topic which cannot be easily dealt with in short comments! As to Christendom, basically what we had for a thousand years was just that – to speak of the West was basically to speak of Christendom (roughly 800 to 1800 AD). Christianity civilised much of the pagan world, but since the Enlightenment, it has been losing ground big time in the West and reverting to paganism (but it is gaining ground in the non-West).

    The issue of Christianity and culture, or church and state, is also massive. My take is we need to do two things concurrently: we need to see individual souls saved, and we must also work to see society transformed. Neither will be fully done in this world of course. But we can work at both. Thanks again.

    But hey, you just want me to write book-length comments to keep up with yours! Bless ya dear.

  • Thanks, Bill. Having recently read Judges, (and, yes, feeling somewhat depressed – but am into Samuel now), I very much appreciate all the points you have made. You have helped so much to clarify my thinking. Thanks again.

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