How and Why to Read Judges in 2022
This past week, 61 U.S. senators voted for a bill that would abolish from federal law the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman — instead conferring the name, rights, and privileges of marriage on the union of any two adults, including same-sex couples. With virtually no protections for religious freedom, the act is likely to pass the U.S. House and be signed by President Biden, and so all branches of government will confirm the Supreme Court’s 2015 legalization of same-sex marriage in its Obergefell decision. One formerly conservative Republican who voted for the measure, Senator Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), explained her vote this way, “We do well by taking this step, not embracing or validating each other’s devoutly held views, but by the simple act of tolerating them.”
In a sense, the federal government’s new policy on marriage is: anything goes. Indeed, Obergefell opened the floodgates of sexual perversion. Transgenderism has achieved cultural normalcy, while polyamory, pedophilia, and other severe disorders are racing on its heels. Not only are these evils embraced by adults, but many ideologues feel justified in pushing them onto children, too. The closest biblical parallel to our current situation comes from the Old Testament book of Judges, which twice states, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25).
In that statement, the divinely inspired historian condemns the idolatrous Israelites for disobeying God’s command in Deuteronomy 12:8, “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes.” How could such a situation arise? And what should the people of God do when they find themselves in such a depraved culture? The book of Judges can help inform American Christians’ response to our own cultural moment.
Overview of Judges
The book of Judges contains five parts. First comes a prologue (Judges 1:1-3:6), which provides a context for the events that follow, as well as a summary of those events. Next comes an account (Judges 3:7-10:5) of the early judges, followed by an interlude (Judges 10:6-16) where God calls the people to repentance. Then come the accounts of more judges (Judges 10:17-31). The final chapters form a sort of appendix (Judges 17-21) detailing two tales that especially depict the utter depravity Israel had fallen into and the near loss of two whole tribes.
Because Judges was written for theological, not historical reasons, its chronology is not always perfectly clear. If all of the years where Judges says Israel lay subject to a foreign power, had rest, or was ruled by a judge were added up, they would total nearly 400 years from the time of Joshua’s death until the record ends, likely somewhere during the time of Eli or Samuel. However, that record is not necessarily comprehensive. For one judge, Shamgar, no timeframe is mentioned, while others could have judged concurrently in different regions of Canaan, or concurrently with the years of Israel’s servitude. Some theologians, such as Matthew Henry, estimate the years of the judges as closer to 300. Henry also believes the tragic appendix of the book (Judges 17-21) occurred shortly after Joshua’s death, since “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron” (Judges 20:28), conspicuous in Numbers 25 and Joshua 22, still served as priest. The era of the judges extended beyond the events recorded in this book, as 1 Samuel records that Eli (4:18) and Samuel (7:16) both “judged Israel.”
It's worth stating at this point that the office of “judge” in ancient Israel has no analog in modern America. Israelite judges could and did preside over disputes and over courts of law. But there was no “separation of powers.” God called them directly to fulfill specific purposes — saving his people and leading the nation back to him. Often in Scripture they muster troops, lead them in battle, execute martial law, abolish idolatry, and lead revivals. They have very little in common with judges today.
The prologue of Judges sets the context for the book, the failed conquest, and summarizes its main theme, the failed covenant. The book picks up where Joshua left off, even containing some parallel accounts of Othniel conquering Hebron (Judges 1:10-15, Joshua 15:14-19) and Joshua’s death (Judges 2:7-9, Joshua 24:29-31). Israel has conquered enough of Canaan to inhabit. They must continue the conquest and resist the surrounding pagan idolatry. They began well with further conquests (Judges 1:1-26), but their resolve quickly waned (1:27-36). Therefore, God told them (2:1-5) he would punish their disobedience by making the remaining Canaanites their oppressors. As for the summary, Israel would turn from God to idols, so God would send an enemy to oppress them; then Israel would cry to God, and God would send a judge to deliver them. “But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers” (2:19). Wash, rinse, repeat.
The early judges follow this pattern. In Judges 3, God raises up enemies to the north, east and south, and west, and then he raises up three men who defeat them. In Judges 4-5, God oppresses Israel by a king from Canaan itself. He then raises up a woman named Deborah to judge Israel and a man named Barak to lead the army — who is unwilling to go alone. In Judges 6-8, God calls Gideon to save Israel from a vast horde of Midianites, but surprisingly, the narrative focuses largely on tests of faith before the conflict. Sadly, Gideon, who began by smashing Baal’s altar, leaves as his legacy an idolatrous ephod and a semi-royal dynasty, which leads to a three-year reign of terror under his illegitimate son Abimelech, who sets himself up as king. Almost nothing is told to us about the last two early judges (10:1-5), but they did save Israel.
In the center of the book, something surprising happens. The people turn to idols, God sends an oppressor, the people cry out for a deliverer — but then God refuses to send one. Instead, he tells them, “Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress” (10:14). The false gods they worshiped were wood, stone, and metal, so of course they could not save. How disastrous to be forced to turn for deliverance to what cannot save! In the end, God “became impatient over the misery of Israel” (10:16) and sent a deliverer, but only after they had rejected their idols. God delights far more in mercy than in judgment, but he disciplines his people to trust in him alone.
God continued sending judges to save his people, but something was different. For one thing, the times of peace were much shorter. Whereas the earlier judges had nearly 40 years apiece, these latter judges had barely 10. For another thing, these judges seemed to have much more flawed characters. Jephthah “was the son of a prostitute,” cut off from the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:2), driven into exile by his brothers, and surrounded by “worthless fellows” (Judges 11:1-3). After defeating the Ammonites, he makes a rash vow and follows through on it by sacrificing his only daughter. Very little is said about the next three judges, but one had 60 children and another 40 children, which implies they had more than one wife. Finally, there is Samson, who was supposed to “be a Nazirite to God from the womb,” but constantly violated the Nazirite law — against touching dead things and drinking wine. Few characters in Scripture exhibit less self-control, who reeled indiscriminately between lusting after Philistines and murdering them, finally careening into a Philistine prison with his eyes blinded and his superhuman strength gone. Yet God used Samson, even as a blind prisoner, to wipe out the Philistine elites.
The final chapters of Judges feature no judges. Instead of giving us a bird’s eye view of Israel’s geopolitics, the narrative zooms in considerably. Judges 17-18 describe how the entire tribe of Dan falls into idolatry in a story where nearly every one of the Ten Commandments is broken. First, a man whose name means “who is like God?” creates an idol. Then he hires a wandering Levite as his priest; Levites were not supposed to wander. Were the people in Bethlehem to irreligious to support him? Next, the Danites abandon their inheritance and spy out a new land which is easy for them to take in their own strength. On their way, they steal Micah’s idol by stealth and then with threats of murder.
The next story (Judges 19-21) is even worse, if possible. In one of the most R-rated sections of the Bible, the entire city of Gibeah in Benjamin goes full Sodom (Genesis 19:5) on a Levite staying overnight. The Levite is no role model. He not only took a concubine, but then she runs away from him (was she mistreated?). He then sweet-talked her into returning to him only to viciously expose her to save his own skin. Israel is so outraged that they assemble a massive army to destroy Gibeah, as the Lord commanded (Deuteronomy 13:15). But when Benjamin sides with Gibeah against the rest of Israel — God judges Israel for their own sins by inflicting massive casualties — only 600 Benjaminites survive. Due to another rash vow, there are no wives for Benjamin, and the tribe is at risk of extinction. Saving the tribe of Benjamin results in another city sacked and 200 brides stolen.
Gospel Themes in Judges
Judges can be confusing to read, or even downright depressing. How in the world does the recitation of these sordid deeds apply to Christians? It turns out that Judges is rich in gospel themes.
Judges clearly shows the depravity of the human heart. These Israelites had every natural advantage. God’s mighty works and their victorious conquest of Canaan were recent history. God made them to prosper materially. God had blessed them with his law and embedded dedicated teachers throughout their land. God gave them security on every side. Yet even under these near-perfect conditions, their hearts turned to idols. Even after God sent judges to save them, they repeatedly returned to those false and worthless idols, which had no power to save. They seemed never to learn the lesson. And if they couldn’t worship God under these conditions, how could anyone? We can’t be righteous in our own strength, and we can’t come to God in our own power. We need him to save us, as he did the people of Israel.
That brings us to consider the judges themselves as types of Christ. Like Samson, his birth was miraculous. Like Jephthah, he was rejected by his own people. Like Ehud, Jesus confronted our enemy single-handedly. Like Gideon, he gained his victory not with weapons of this world, but according to God’s power. Like Samson again, and he saved more people in his death than by his life. Like Deborah and Barak, he will sing a song of triumph over his humiliated foes. Like all of them, Jesus will rule over his people in peace. If God can save his people through such imperfect instruments as these judges, how much more can the sinless Son of God save those who trust in him!
In fact, God was already preparing the way for the Messiah in this pre-kingdom era. Both Bethlehem and Jerusalem appear here, long before they become the seat of the kingdom or the focal point of redemptive history. The tiny town of Bethlehem is the hometown of three characters, the judge Ibzan (12:8-10), the idolatrous Levite (Judges 17), and the violated concubine (Judges 19). Jerusalem also appears as the place where a cruel pagan king was executed (1:7), with Judah sacking it (1:8) before the Jebusites apparently repossessed it (1:21). Additionally, Samson’s birth foreshadows that of John the Baptist; an angel appeared to a barren couple and foretold that they would have a son who would be a Nazirite from birth. Only this angel is the Lord himself, who replies, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (13:18) — a Messianic title (Isaiah 9:6).
Despite the depressing amount of sin and judgment narrated in Judges, God’s merciful patience is on full display. Consider his impatience with the misery of Israel mentioned above, in contrast to his astounding patience in allowing them time to repent again and again. Consider, too, his gentleness toward Gideon’s halting faith, confirming with repeated signs when he could have rebuked his weakness and fear (6:36-40). Judges shows what Peter tells, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). As with many wretches in Judges, there will come a time when it is too late to repent. But, as long as you are breathing, you still have a chance to turn to Jesus, so do it while you still can.
Similarities to Modern America
The main resemblance between ancient Israel in the time of the Judges and modern America is the dumbfounding, pervasive immorality carried on openly by those without fear or knowledge of God. In fact, that’s exactly what caused Israel’s fall. “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (2:10). God’s people often find their circumstances deteriorating when a new generation arises without knowledge of God’s work (see Exodus 1:8). There remained a few faithful Israelites in the time of the Judges — such as Samson’s parents, Boaz, or Hannah — but they were a remnant. Of course, ancient Israel was the only true theocracy (God-ruled state) in world history (all other attempts have really been ecclesiarches — rule by religious leaders); America’s situation is quite different. Nevertheless, our moral anarchy has the same cause — ignorance of God — and we as a remnant have the same duty — remaining faithful to God while we proclaim him.
Fortunately, God is not alarmed, dethroned, or even disadvantaged when a nation turns away from him. No king in Israel doesn’t mean there is no king over Israel. God remains in control of the destinies of nations even if we feel powerless — even if the “trends” all point in the other direction. Consider Abimelech, the illegitimate son of Gideon who murdered all his brothers and set himself up as king. After three years, “God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem,” his co-conspirators (9:23), so that they betrayed and destroyed one another. In Judges God saved his people by an exiled mercenary, a profligate, a man afraid to cut down an idol in daylight, and another man afraid to take the field without a woman’s help — yet all of these leaders appeared in the Hall of Faith (Hebrews 11:32). Yet here God demonstrates he needs no human agency at all to accomplish his purposes. America may poke God in the eye, but we need not be alarmed; God can vindicate himself and judge the nations.
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.