Introduction to Judges
Topic: Expository Passage: Judges 1:1–2:5
As you can see we are beginning a new series through Judges today, and I’m excited to get started on this book. Judges is a fascinating book that includes some incredible stories. If you grew up going to Sunday School, you probably remember being mesmerized by some of these stories. I remember as a kid being amazed by Gideon’s victory over the Midianites with only 300 men carrying only trumpets, clay pitchers, and torches. The same goes for the feats of Samson. When you’re an 8-year-old boy, what could be cooler than killing a lion with your bare hands? I loved some of these stories.
But certain sections of Judges are conveniently left out of children’s curriculum because even the greatest heroes in Judges had serious faults, and Judges also includes brutal murders, rape, and other awful sins. It all adds up to a fascinating story that on the one hand describes some incredible works of God, and on the other hand gives a sober picture of the darkness of the human heart.
This summer I read through Judges again, and again I was amazed by the theological and practical weight of this book and by the fact that even though it’s a record of events that took place over 3,000 years ago, the world of the judges is not that different from our own because people have always had the same sinful hearts.
And so I decided that once we finished Colossians, Judges would give us a very different kind of study from Colossians but an equally necessary one. I’ve had a great time the last few weeks as I’ve read up on Judges, and I’m excited about what God is going to teach us through this study.
This morning I’d like to lay a foundation for our study. I’ll say up front that this sermon will include more teaching and less application than normal, but if we are going to really grasp what God is saying, we need to understand the context of these stories. And even as we establish context, I expect God to challenge us about several needs of our own hearts. Let’s begin by reading the introduction of Judges in 1:1–2:5, although I’m not going to simply walk through this section today. Let’s begin with the…
I. Historical Background (ca. 1398–1092 B.C.) First, Judges 1:1 tells us that…
Judges begins with the death of Joshua (ca. 1398 B.C.). Joshua was a very larger-than-life kind of leader for Israel. He was Moses’s right hand man throughout Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness. He consistently demonstrated strong faith in the Lord and strong leadership capacity. He led Israel across the Jordan River and into Canaan. And he inspired this ragged group of former slaves to go to battle against the Canaanites and to watch God work.
But he was more than simply a skilled soldier and political leader. He exerted strong spiritual leadership. When you read his final words in the closing chapters of Joshua, you see a man with deep spiritual perception, strong conviction, and dynamic leadership capability. Therefore, when Joshua died, Israel was left with a major leadership void that really affects the nation.
As you can see, I’m estimating the time of Joshua’s death to 1398 B.C. There is some debate about when he died. It could be that it was several years later, which would shorten the time of the Judges. Regardless, these events took place over 3,000 years ago, but we’ll see over and over that people haven’t changed much and neither has God. A second important truth to understand as you read this book is that at this time…
Israel was a loose federation of tribes united by a central worship system. This is an important point that we oftentimes miss because during the time of Moses and Joshua, there was a central figure who led the people. And later the kings united the 12 tribes. Therefore, we sometimes assume that it was the same during the time of the judges. But that’s not the case.
In fact, we are going to see that most of the judges were local leaders who only led one or two tribes and addressed local oppression. None of them were able to unite the nation. To give you an idea of how local they were take a look at this map. Israel was a very loose federation at this time.
However, Israel did maintain centralized worship in the tabernacle, but as you read Judges it’s clear that the tribes’ commitment to centralized worship slowly disintegrated. More and more they chose to worship locally and incorporate the pagan practices of their Canaanite neighbors.
Therefore, the period of the Judges was a time of splintering and anarchy. As Judges states several times, “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” It sounds a lot like our times doesn’t it? Our nation is also fragmenting as people pursue their own truth without any allegiance to each other and especially not to God. Israel desperately needed strong, godly leadership.
The conquest had begun but was far from complete. This is an important point we sometimes miss, because we assume that Joshua conquered all of Canaan. It is true that Joshua made significant progress. One commentator said he “broke the back” of Canaanite possession.
But the Scriptures are clear that there was still much land to be conquered when Joshua died (map). Even in the green regions of this map, there were still large pockets of Canaanites.
Therefore, before he died Joshua commanded Israel to continue driving out the Canaanites (Josh 23:4–10). Joshua was clear that driving out the nations so was essential to their allegiance to the Lord, and he promised that as they were faithful to the Lord, he would give them victory. But sadly Israel didn’t obey Joshua’s command. We read earlier in Judges 1 that…
After Joshua’s death, Israel experienced limited military success and lots of failure. It’s interesting that Judges begins with Israel inquiring of the Lord. The Lord responds, and Judah and Simeon experience tremendous success. The first hint of failure doesn’t come until 19. But then vv. 22–26 say that “the house of Joseph” or the Ephraimites enjoyed great success. But the rest of the chapter details how the other tribes failed miserably to fulfill Joshua’s demand. Therefore, many, many Canaanite cities remained throughout the Promised Land. But we must understand that they didn’t fail for military reasons and definitely not because God failed. Rather…
God caused Israel’s military failure because of their spiritual compromise. Judges 2:1–2 say that the Angel of the Lord appeared to the people after these failures and reminded them that God had told them to utterly destroy the Canaanites and to make “no covenant” with the people, but to “tear down their altars.” But they disobeyed God’s demand. Therefore, notice what God says in 3. Verse 3 pretty much sums up the book of Judges. Israel failed over and over to be wholly committed to the Lord, and God judged over and over.
Therefore, we will see that Judges includes some high moments. God gives some incredible victories, but overall Judges is not a story of success. It’s ultimately a tragedy that describes time and time again the destructive consequences of sin. And jumping to the conclusion of the book…
Judges covers a period of roughly 300 years, and concludes in ca. 1092 B.C. Again, there’s some debate about this date because it’s possible that Judges overlaps with the early events of 1 Samuel, and particularly the priesthood of Eli and even the leadership of Samuel. But if Judges concludes before the events of 1 Samuel, it would conclude around 1092 B.C., and cover a period of roughly 300 years.
This is noteworthy because if you simply add up all the dates in Judges, they come out to 410 years. At first this seems like a problem because 1 Kings 6:1 says that Solomon began building the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt. And if you add 410 to all of the other events that we know happened between the exodus and the building of the temple it comes out to 593 years.
But this does not represent an error in Scripture because the stories in Judges can easily overlap because they are local stories not national ones (map). As a result, there’s no reason why, for example, Othniel’s rule in the far couldn’t overlap with Ehud’s rule in the south. That’s a basic introduction to the beginning and ending of the book. Next, let’s talk about…
II. The Judges: Judges 3–17…
Judges tells the story of 12 Israelite judges. Here they are: Othniel (3:7–11), Ehud (3:12–30), Shamgar (3:31), Deborah and Barak (4–5), Gideon (6–8), Tola (10:1–2), Jair (10:3–5), Jephthah (10:6–12:7), Ibzan (12:8–10), Elon (12:11–12), Abdon (12:13–15), and Samson (13–16).
You can see in the references that some of the judges are only briefly mentioned, while others receive extended treatment. That’s because the author is not primarily concerned with telling what happened. He is giving a historically accurate record, but primarily he is focused on making a theological point, and so he gives more extended treatment to the figures that best illustrate his point. Regarding these leaders notice that…
The judges were military deliverers, not spiritual judges. It is true that some of them did better than others. Deborah exercises some strong spiritual leadership through the song she writes after God gives deliverance. And Gideon does destroy a few idols. But beyond that, none of these 12 even pale in comparison to Moses, Joshua, or Samuel.
Daniel Block sums it up well when he states, “The involvement of the respective judges in the religious affairs of the nation is telling. Although they all served actively as Yahweh’s agents of deliverance from foreign enemies, not one of them had the moral or spiritual constitution to launch a crusade against the enemy within, to denounce the idolatry of the nation, or to call the people back to Yahweh. The only judge who engaged in such tasks was Samuel (1 Sam 7:1–11), who probably disqualified himself for consideration in the Book of Judges on these grounds… The Book of Judges is not so much a written memorial to Israel’s heroes in the Early Iron Age as a witness to Yahweh’s gracious determination to preserve his people by answering their pleas and providing deliverance” (Block, Judges, Ruth, pp. 39–40). Again Judges is a tragedy. In fact…
The judges become progressively worse. We often talk about Judges in terms of a cycle. Israel sins, God judges them through foreign oppression, they repent, and God sends a judge to deliver them. And this cycle is certainly present, and we’ll talk about it next week. But a number of commentators have noted that Judges is not so much a cycle as it is a downward spiral.
For example, the first judge Othniel was something of a model judge. He’s an able warrior, the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and he is successful. But after him, things just get worse. And the last judge, Samson, is a complete mess. He’s completely undisciplined, he has no regard for God’s Law, and he never even rallies the nation to go to war. He just kills a bunch of people.
And the author drives home this downward spiral in the final 2 stories of Judges. Judges 17–18 tell an odd story about the idolatry of the tribe of Dan that exemplifies Israel’s disregard for God’s Law. And then Judges 19–21 tell a horrendous story about rape, murder, civil war, and kidnapping children.
While there are some incredible high points in Judges, it’s mostly a sad story that illustrates the awful consequences of abandoning God’s Law. Through this dark tale, it drives us to see the goodness of God’s law and the blessing of walking with him, because the alternative is terrible. Next let’s talk about…
III. Authorship (Anonymous): I want to begin our discussion here by emphasizing…
Judges is a unified work that is intended to make a prophetic point. I bring this up because much of modern scholarship and especially those who deny the inspiration of Scripture believe that Judges is a compilation of several independent traditions that hundreds of years after the events were put together into Judges. Therefore, it’s not a historically credible book.
And certainly, the author of Judges used sources. He wrote a book that covers 300 years of history. But Judges is clearly a unified work. It has an obvious movement in the plot toward a central point.
Ultimately, the author is driving toward a prophetic point. The ancient Jewish rabbis recognized this. In the Jewish canon, Joshua–Kings are not called “Historical Books,”; rather, they are called the “Former Prophets.” This is because even while these books accurately record history, the Jews understood that ultimately they were making a prophetic point.
It will do us a lot of good if we keep that in mind. Judges isn’t just telling us a bunch of interesting stories so that we know what happened. No the author wants to teach us about God and about how he wants us to live. But unfortunately for us he never tells us who he is.
Judges is anonymous. But this shouldn’t startle us because all of the historical books of the OT are anynonymous. However, Judges indicates…
Judges was written early in the monarchy. Judges 21:25 implies that the author is writing at time when Israel had a king, so the very earliest time the book could have been written was during the reign of Saul, which began in 1051 B.C., or only around 40-50 years after the events of Judges concluded.
And Judges 1:21 is pretty clear about the latest possible date for the completion of Judges. This verse indicates that the Jebusites were still living in Jerusalem when the author wrote. And 2 Samuel 5 tells us that about 7 years into his reign David drove the last Jebusites out of Jerusalem, which means that the author had to be writing before 1,000 B.C.
This fact led the ancient Jewish rabbis and many conservative Christians to believe that Samuel was a likely author. This makes very good sense. In particular, it’s easy to see how Samuel could have written this book to urge Israel to unite around King David as the righteous king they so desperately needed. But obviously, we can’t say definitively that Samuel was the author. That being said, let’s talk finally about the theme/message of Judges.
IV. Theme: I’d like to begin here by just emphasizing what Judges is not.
Judges is not a manual for Christian living. This needs to be said because some people come up with really bad applications of Judges because they just assume that whatever these guys did we should do ourselves.
The classic example of this from Judges is that Gideon tested the Lord by putting out a fleece, so lots of Christians put out their own fleeces to try to force God to tell them what to do. So some man is thinking about divorcing his wife, and he tells God that he’ll divorce her if she feeds him a salad for dinner, and he’ll stay with her if she makes him a steak. That’s just nonsense, and it’s not the point of the story of Gideon.
Rather, we must be very careful as we study this book to look at the pieces in light of the big picture. You need to read each story in light of the overall plot of the book. Otherwise, you’re going to miss the point of the details.
And it’s also worth emphasizing that we must look at the big picture in light of God’s eternal purpose. Not only do we need to read the individual stories in light of the entire book; we need to read Judges within the context of the entire Bible. In our time and place we need to think about how does Judges fit within God’s redemptive purpose? How does it point us to Christ? I’ll say more about that in a moment. That being said, notice that…
The key verse of Judges is Judges 17:6; 21:25. These verses are identical, which tells us that what they say is very important. In fact Judges 18:1; 19:1 also repeat the part about no king. The fact that the author repeats this idea and closes the book with this statement in 21:25 tells us that this statement is key to understanding the entire book. Israel needed a righteous king and they needed to obey God’s law, because anarchy is really bad. In particular nothing ends well when we stray from God’s righteous law. In light of that, I’d like to close by stating 4 primary themes of Judges. The first is…
The Power, Justice, and Grace of God: The character of God is apparent at every turn in Judges. We are going to see some incredible demonstrations of God’s power through his miraculous deliverance of Israel. We are going to see his justice in how he judges Israel for their sin.
It’s worth noting that God’s justice would have been especially important for the original audience to understand. This is because the ancients believed that military success was directly related to the power of your god. Therefore, they would have understood all of Israel’s losses as reflecting God’s weakness. But Judges is clear that Israel didn’t lose because God was weak but because God is just, and he demands obedience.
And we will also see God’s grace over and over in Judges. Israel is a terrible, ungodly mess, but every time they cry out to God, he listens, and he responds. And praise the Lord that he is the same God to us, because we also fail over and over. But he is always faithful and gracious even when we are not.
The Goodness of God’s Law: As the theme verse of Judges says so clearly, Judges is essentially a story of what happens when a nation abandons God’s Law and follows its own sense of right and wrong. Judges is clear that it doesn’t end well. And it’s fascinating to see the parallels here with our own culture as it fragments as it moves further from a biblical worldview.
Therefore, Judges is a powerful reminder that God’s Law is good and wise and that the best life is not the one where I just follow my heart wherever it takes me. No the best life is the life in submission to God’s Word. Judges teaches me to love God’s Law and to trust God’s Law.
The Danger of Compromise: Judges is clear that Israel’s Achilles heal was it’s failure to drive the Canaanites out. Rather, than remaining separate from the nations, they blended in. It eroded their allegiance to God and led them further and further into idolatry and sin.
Therefore, Judges warns us that we live in an evil world, and if we don’t appreciate the world’s corrupting influence it will destroy us. Certainly we must reach this world with the gospel, but we must also be careful to stay separate from the world and to cling to God’s people.
The Need for Godly, Strong Leadership: Again Judges ends with a plea for a righteous king. The author makes this plea because the judges all failed to provide the kind of strong leadership Israel so desperately needed. At every turn this story leaves you looking for more.
At the time of writing, the author probably intended to drive Israel toward David as the righteous king they so desperately needed. But we know that David had his own failures as did all of the Davidic kings that followed him.
As a result for us as Christians, when we see the failures of the Judges, we should respond by giving thanks for Christ, the only truly righteous king. We should praise the Lord that he has put the Law on our hearts so that we can obey in way Israel never did. And we should look forward to the day when he will reign in glory and righteousness beyond what any human king has ever achieved. Judges should drives us to say, “Come Lord Jesus.”
And so I hope that you will engage your heart in this study. Read Judges on your own. Listen online to any sermons you miss. And anticipate what God will do in us as we hear his Word.