Scripture Reading: Judges 2-4, 6-8, 13-16
Significant Moments in The Story
The death of Joshua & Israel’s “cycle of disobedience” – Judges 2
The judge Deborah & the Canaanites – Judges 4
The judge Gideon & the Midianites – Judges 6-8
Gideon’s fleece – Judges 6:36-40
The judge Samson & the Philistines – Judges 13-16
Samson & Delilah – Judges 15
The cycle of disobedience
Judges 2:11-19 establishes what will be the overarching pattern of the book of Judges – Israel will forsake God to worship other gods, they would fall to opposing nations, they would cry out to God for help, God would raise up a judge to deliver the people from their oppression, and a time of peace would follow. Some interpret Judges not so much as a book of history but a book of religious instruction about the consequences of disobedience. Indeed, as will be touched on later, there are a number of historical questions surrounding the book of Judges. However, it also clear from the book itself that the stories told serve a didactic purpose: even when God’s promises are fulfilled, the covenant relationship with God cannot be ignored.
An understanding of “the land”
To this point in the narrative of Scripture, the Promised Land has been the goal that Israel has been waiting to attain. The book of Judges, at the very least, is the first descriptions of what living in the Promised Land looked like.
- The land is a gift. God intended the land to be a safe place for those who did not previously have a land of their own. They did not acquire it by their own strength and power, but by the power of God.
- The land is a summons. Judges 2:1-2 is God explaining all that he has done for Israel in leading them out of slavery and giving them this land. God says he will never forsake his covenant. He then says that the land is both a gift and a calling, a calling to remain faithful to the relationship God has formed with Israel. How will Israel respond to the gift they have received?
- The land is a temptation. Israel is no longer wandering in the wilderness having to look for sources of water and food. They now possess land, it is theirs. With that safety comes the seduction of security – to forget the land is a gift they received rather than property they earned, to make possession of the land of greater significance than the covenant relationship with God who gave them the land. Will Israel still be able to see God as the source and foundation of their life when they get into the day-to-day routines of living in the land?
The Bible does not put heroes on display through rose-colored glass. Certainly, this is the case in the book of Judges, perhaps even more so. Both Gideon and Samson are judges who deliver their people from oppression by foreign nations. However, they are almost anti-heroes. Gideon is constantly expressing doubt that God can do what God says He will do. Before every action, Gideon asks God to prove Himself. Even in the moment when it seems Gideon finally gets it – when he is asked to be king and he responds “The LORD will rule over you” (Judges 8:22-28) – he follows that up by asking the Israelites to give him their gold so that he can fashion an image which Israel will ultimately bow down to (think about the golden calf story). Samson, for his part, is portrayed as a brash jerk who has little consideration for anyone besides himself, including God. The only time that we hear any kind of faith on Samson’s part is when he asks God to give him the strength to bring the roof down on the Philistines (Judges 16:28). Many of the stories of the judges are stories where we see God’s deliverance worked out through some of the most flawed people and circumstances.
Baal – Judges 2:11-13
Baal was the name associated with the Canaanite god of fertility and storms. In an agrarian culture, where life depended upon good crops and good soil, Baal was the chief god and the worship of Baal was central to the life of the people. In the book of Judges, we see Israel settling into Canaan, a land where many of surrounding peoples worship Baal. As Israel establishes roots in Canaan, it seems that they struggle with assimilating the worship of Baal into their worship of God and/or replacing the worship of God with the worship of Baal. Though it might be easy for us today to ask why they would continue to do this after so many warnings to avoid such entanglements, it must be remembered that matters of faith were not separated out from other aspects of life. For an agrarian society, the temptation to revere a god who was associated with the storms that renewed the land every year would have been not just a matter of belief but a matter of good business.
Astartes – Judges 2:13
Associated with the Canaanite fertility goddess Ashtoreth, an ally of Baal.
Judges – Judges 2:16
It is important to understand that a judge was not a king – their authority was neither absolute, permanent or hereditary. Neither was a judge necessarily a legal figure, though Deborah seems to have had some kind of role in settling questions and disputes. However, that may have been more associated with her role as a prophetess, one who explained the will and word of God to others. In the book of Judges, the judges are instead portrayed as military leaders who are called out by God’s Spirit to deliver the people from oppression and rule over them for a time. In some cases, these judges may have only been leaders in their specific tribes or over an alliance of a couple of tribes.
The nations the LORD left – Judges 2:21-23
Joshua 11:16-23 summarizes Joshua’s victories. The picture that this passage portrays is that Joshua’s conquests were vast and almost absolute, that the people of Canaan save for the Gibeonites were “utterly destroyed.” However, at the beginning of Judges, the picture that we see is vastly different. We are told in Judges 1 of numerous groups of nations that continue to live in the land, and Judges 2 clearly says that there were nations that Joshua left when he died. Judges portrays the continued existence of these nations in the Promised Land as God’s way of testing Israel’s faithfulness.
So how do we explain the two differing accounts that Joshua and Judges present of the Israelites’ conquering of the Promised Land? There are a good number of historians who believe that Israel’s move into the Promised Land was a much more gradual process, more in line with the portrayal in Judges than in Joshua. There are some who wonder if the narrative of Joshua reflects Israel’s initial entry and success in the land, basically summarizing the details of many years of fighting.
What should not be overlooked is that both Joshua and Judges are trying to do more than just recount history. They are seeking to interpret history from a theological perspective. They are not only seeking to speak to past events, they are seeking to address present issues in the relationship between God and His people. Perhaps rather than taking on the difficult task of trying to make these seemingly contradicting timelines synchronize, we are better served letting each book speak its unique message.
The tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun – Judges 4:6
Another distinction between Joshua and Judges is that the action in Judges seems more regionalized and restricted to certain tribes. For example, in the story of Deborah, only 2 tribes are called to fight against the forces of Sisera. In Joshua, the Israelites are depicted as acting more as one nation. In Judges, we see much more fragmented action. This, along with the fact that the total number of years for the judges spans longer than the period of history that these battles actually would have taken place, has led to the idea that Judges may be a collection of stories of specific tribal leaders, some of whom were judges simultaneously. Israel, at this time in their history, was much more a confederation of twelve tribes than a unified state. It will not be until well into David’s reign that we will be able to really speak of a unified “Israel”. Judges probably gives a more accurate portrayal of how Israel existed at this time – a loose alliance of tribes who expected their neighbors to join with them against an enemy or else face dire consequences (see Judges 8:4-17).
Choosing Gideon’s army – Judges 7:1-7
The story of how God leads Gideon to choose his army is fascinating. However, it must be remembered that God’s purpose, as He explains to Gideon, is to insure that Israel does not take the credit that belongs to God. First, Gideon tells all those who are afraid to fight to go home. Then, from those that are left, God tells Gideon to take them to the water to get something to drink. God tells him to send all those who knelt to get water home and keep all those who lapped the water like dogs. Why is this such a significant difference? It might be because those soldiers who lapped the water were likely the least trained, least prepared of all the soldiers. The soldiers who knelt to drink probably did so that they could keep their head up and their weapon in their hand, ready for a surprise attack. However, those who lapped the water like dogs would have to put their weapons down and would be completely oblivious to what was happening around them while they drank. So, God sent Gideon into battle with the smallest group of Israel’s worst soldiers!
Nazirite – Judges 13:5
Interestingly, Samson is referred to more frequently as a nazirite than a judge. The term means “one consecrated” or “one separated”. As Judges describes, a nazirite’s dedication to God was symbolized by their refusal to drink of wine or intoxicating beverage and their refusal to cut their hair. Some were believed to be set apart by a work or calling of God, others chose to become a nazirite of their own volition, in some cases maybe even just for a certain period of time in order to accomplish a specific task.
Some Questions That Might Come Up
Why would Gideon proclaim that only God would rule over Israel and then create a golden ephod that the people would worship?
First off, it should be noted that what God had feared earlier in the Gideon story has come true. Notice in Judges 8:22 that Israel says, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.” Remember when God was reducing the size of Gideon’s army because He was afraid if the army was too big that Israel would take the credit for victory themselves? Sure enough, Gideon is getting all the credit for victory with no mention of God anywhere. So, Gideon’s answer to this offer is indeed the seemingly righteous and faithful answer to give.
Which makes what happens next all the more perplexing and frustrating. Gideon asks each person to give a golden earring that he melts down and has formed into a golden ephod. Typically, an ephod was understood to be a priestly garment that was worn over the shoulders of the priest or might have been placed on the shoulders of an idol. In this case, we are not certain if it is a garment or something else, perhaps even a replica of the ark of the covenant. In any event, the result of his actions is that he creates an idol that Israel worships in place of God.
There are some who call Gideon’s motivations into question. Notice that Gideon places this golden ephod in “his town” of Ophrah. There are some who wonder if Gideon wasn’t trying to say all the right things about God being the ruler of Israel and, at the same time, control Israel in more subtle ways by controlling the religious life of the Israelites. Or perhaps Gideon, whose family had been worshipers of Baal, is knowingly or unknowingly mixing foreign religious practices with the worship of the one God. Dennis Olson, in the New Interpreter’s Bible, raises the possibility that Gideon may have offered Israel the ephod as a replacement for human leadership as a way of trying to shirk his responsibility to lead Israel as a judge. The last verse of Judges speaks of the days when “… there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Perhaps the Gideon story is a foretelling of coming chaos when there is no responsible leadership.
Gideon is one of the most complex figures of Scripture. He is constantly asking God to prove Himself before following His commands. Outside of Judges 8:23, we might define Gideon as more of a coward than a courageous and faithful leader like Joshua. This episode with the golden ephod is one more factor that complicates how Gideon is remembered, both in our memories and the memory of Scripture.
Some Reflection Questions
- Israel is constantly running from the true God to other false gods. What are some of the false gods in our culture today? Which of them have you trusted?
- False gods trigger a cycle: a web of sin, God’s judgments, crying out for help, and God providing deliverance. What are some destructive cycles you have seen in your own life?
- Do you think that the Israelites did a good job of passing their faith to the next generation? How can we do this better in the church and in our own families?
- How would you describe Deborah? In what way does her story influence your view of women in leadership?
- Do you think Gideon’s request for a sign was an act of faith or an act of faithlessness? Does his faith change over time?
- Your friend, Samson, confides in you that he has trouble with women but doesn’t understand why. What would you tell him?
- In what ways was Samson a faithful man of God? In what ways was he not?
- What was Samson’s true weakness? How can you deal with your weaknesses before they become your downfall?
- Where do you see God’s grace in this chapter?
- Which character in this chapter stands out to you and why? How can you be more like them?