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The Leadership Vacuum: Who’s on First?
The first verse of Judges points out a lack of leadership initiative after the deaths of Moses and Joshua: “Who shall go up first?” (1:1) Then the last verse includes the same problem: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (21:25) So Judges is essentially the lament of kingless Israel and its problem of leadership, as well as a celebration of the rare and divine provision of a true leader.
- In spite of this, God is given a behind-the-scenes leadership (e.g. 14:4) in which he responds to prayer and directs the godly influences of the book. Two judges, Gideon and Jephthah, proclaim this truth of God’s kingship:
- When Gideon is asked to rule, he declines, saying “The LORD will rule over you.” (8:23)
In his diplomatic letter to the king of Ammon, Jephthah appeals to God, saying “the LORD, the Judge, decide this day [between us].” (11:27) Though he no longer guides them by cloud and fire, the LORD is shown to be the true leader of wandering Israel.
The Time of the Judges
The time period of the judges spans from Joshua’s death (2:7-10) to the beginning of Saul’s kingship (1 Samuel 8-10).
There are either 12 judges in the Book, from Othniel to Samson. (Abimelech “ruled” during the same period (9:22), but he is neither called by God, nor is he called a judge.) Technically, the last two judges are Eli and Samuel in the book of 1 Samuel (1 Sam. 4:18, 7:15), bringing the total to 14 judges.
Israel’s deliverers in this time period conspicuously include several women (Jael, 4:21; also 10:53), one of them a judge and a prophetess (Deborah, see 4:4). Ruth’s story is also included in the period of the judges (Ruth 1:1).
The Canaanites Remain (ch. 1)
The saga of Judges begins with the Israelites’ failure to complete their mission of conquest. They lack both initiative and the ability to follow through. The remaining tribes are left in Canaan both as a result of Israel’s disobedience, and as God’s response to their disobedience.
Judges differs from Joshua in its scope and purpose. In the Book of Joshua, we have the crisis of entering Canaan, and its results; in Judges, we have the process, and its difficulties.
The two reasons that God allowed other nations to remain in Canaan was two-fold: “to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD” (2:20-3:1, 3:4); and “to teach war to those who had not known it” (3:2). Defense was a survival skill in the ancient tribal Middle East.
The Structure and Pattern of Judges: Cycles of Deliverance (ch. 2)
After Moses and Joshua, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” (2:10) Sadly, the Jews depended too much on human leadership for their spiritual health (2:19). Every generation needs revival, so it makes sense for Israel’s liberation to be cyclical.
Leonard Ravenhill says, “The Christian life is crisis, process, crisis, process.” The Book of Judges is structured in cycles of deliverance, which is a picture of God’s dealings with Israel in all of history: disobedience, oppression, crying out, compassionate deliverance, and backsliding. This is outlined as the pattern of the book in 2:16-19.
Antiheroes (ch. 3-16)
Every deliverer in Judges is also an “antihero,” redefining what it means to be a hero and overturning our expectations.
The judges follow the Old Testament pattern of God’s calling; but otherwise, their lives are very atypical. Leadership in Judges is a divine provision, not the result of human preparation. God can call who he wants into leadership.
Since God can call anyone that is willing, a central question in the book of Judges is, are the righteous willing?
Are the Righteous Willing?
Jotham’s parable in ch. 9 is central in the story and acts as a summary statementof leadership in the time of the judges:
- The olive, the fig, and the vine are each invited to lead the trees of the forest. All three decline in turn, and leadership falls to the bramble.
- Leadership does not fall to those who are best prepared, but to the willing.
Many are unwilling to lead. The leaders that do come are sometimes wicked, and always strange. They never come from the expected channels. (See the motif study.)
Governed by Honor and Shame (ch. 17-21)
In the West, we see government as providing moral boundaries, but in the East it is often the community that does this. Judges 18:7 in some translations says, “there were no rulers in the land who might put them to shame for anything.” The concept of honor and shame sets the stage for these last five chapters of Judges.
In ch. 17 and 18, we see Micah paying a Levite to assist in the worship of idols. When the Danites offer better pay, the Levites leaves, robbing Micah pitifully. This shows the sad state of government and religion in the time period.
In ch. 19, in the absence of leadership, the land of Benjamin becomes a scene not only for gang rape and murder, but rape culture. The entire city of Gibeah is complicit in allowing this problem to proliferate.
In ch. 20, we have the only solution to the rape culture in the Middle Eastern view—the Israelites gather troops and avenge the rape, by punishing the whole region of Benjamin’s tribe.
Judges 21 concludes with Israel sadly divided, and Benjamin largely disinherited. All Israel had vowed not to intermarry with Benjamin; after they solve this problem, the shame of Benjamin is covered and the book is over.
See the accompanying study on the motif of the “antihero” in Judges.
For material on the biblical heroes in Judges, see A Time for Heroes by Brother Andrew, or applicable chapters in Alexander Whyte’s Bible Characters.
On Micah and the Levite, listen to Paris Reidhead’s convicting sermon, “Ten Shekels and a Shirt.”
For more on the culture of honor and shame, see Honor and Shame by Roland Müller, which is a concise and useful summary of the topic as it relates to Middle Eastern life.