I have a confession to make: I love the Book of Judges.
Judges is a tough book to love, I know. It’s violent. Life is messy. There’s little “softly and tenderly” in this book, from the winnowing down of Gideon’s army to fight the Midianites to the primal urges of Samson, who fought and fucked the Philistines with equal fervor. It is human life at its ungoverned rawest. It is Israel, the people of God, at its idolatrous worst. (I’ve been threatening to send my editor at Wipf & Stock a proposal for book that looks at war, and all other human activity, through the lens of the last three chapters of Judges.) I don’t even think any of our liturgy comes from Judges — at least Numbers contributes the benediction!
And yet, I don’t think you can understand scripture — can truly appreciate who Jesus really is and what Jesus really redeems us from — without understanding and appreciating Judges.
The book begins with the continuing conquest of Canaan, a conquest God ordered as far back as Deuteronomy, a conquest that was to result in the complete displacement and extermination of the Canaanites. Scripture was also clear, when the instructions are first given in Deuteronomy 7, that it is God doing the real work of driving out “the nations before you.” God tells Israel:
17 “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them? ’ 18 you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19 the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. 20 Moreover, the Lord your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed. 21 You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God. 22 The Lord your God will clear away these nations before you little by little. You may not make an end of them at once, lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you. 23 But the Lord your God will give them over to you and throw them into great confusion, until they are destroyed. 24 And he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven. No one shall be able to stand against you until you have destroyed them. (Deuteronomy 7:17-24 ESV)
But Israel was proving faithless in the conquest, and instead of killing the Canaanites, Israel was merely enslaving them: “Now when the people of Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not utterly drive them out.” (Joshua 17:13) More than anything, it meant that the Canaanites remained in their midst, with their idols and their practices, their sons and their daughters. The whole point of exterminating and expelling the Canaanites was to ensure their gods and their rituals would present no beguiling alternative to the worship of Israel’s God.
This tells us something powerful about human nature, that no matter truth has been revealed to us, what relationship we have with the God who called us to become a people, we are still desire the things of this world, things we can touch and hold, gods we actually touch and see and command.
By the end of Joshua’s life, however, he’s beginning to see that Israel cannot faithfully do this task they have been given. He warns Israel they as long as Israel remains faithful to God, God will continue to fight for them. Otherwise, they risk their doom in their unfaithfulness (Joshua 23:). Israel swears to be faithful.
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:19-21 ESV)
We will serve the Lord. We swear to be faithful. We promise to do the hard work we have been given. We will keep to the teaching. We promise.
But Israel doesn’t serve the Lord. Perhaps Israel simply cannot serve the Lord. “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not drive them out completely.” (Judges 1:28) Complacency, and faith in our strength. It is enough to subdue and oppress, without realizing that when we do, we enter into a difficult relationship with those we have captured, in which they ensnare us as much as we ensnare them. We become captive to our power, which we turn upon ourselves (and this will happen, as Solomon’s state conscripts Israelite labor to support the court and the army). We become captive to fear, because the people we have occupied and oppressed are still here, perhaps waiting for the moment to strike back. Prison guards and soldiers of an occupying army are free to act in ways prisoners and the occupied are not, but in many important aspects, they are not substantially freer. Both guards and soldiers are just as trapped in the relationship, and are as dehumanized — perhaps more so — are those they guard and occupy.
At the beginning of Judges, an Angel of the Lord appears to Israel and pronounces God’s judgment on the wayward people:
1 Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars. ’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the Lord spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the Lord. (Judges 2:1-5 ESV)
Judges 2 is the indictment. God has proclaimed God will no longer act on behalf of the call out people. They have been faithless, not held up their end of the bargain, and God will not complete the conquest. Israel will have to live with the Canaanites, and all that that means. All of the consequences that leads to.
And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:11)
This is what idolatry means. This is what sin means. To serve, עבד ebd — the same term used by God in his battle with Pharaoh — implies both work and worship. It is rituals and ceremonies and celebrations but it is also life lived completely out of relationship with Israel’s God. It is to forget the teaching, forget the relationship, forget the promises of God.
Israel loses no time forgetting and abandoning and forsaking:
12 And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. 13 They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. (Judges 2:12-15 ESV)
“We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.” This is what it means. To abandon God, to serve another, and then to live in the consequences of that, to be sold into the hands of our enemies, to be oppressed, to know that our struggles only mean we will lose. To know that as we wallow in our sin, suffer in our consequences, that we have tossed away all that we have been promised. We have not so much been sold as we have sold ourselves. And for very little.
This is the terrible distress of sin. It is the law that drives us to the Gospel, to cry out, to beg for rescue and redemption.
And God is moved by our cries, our distress. God does not leave us in the muck that is our suffering. God has not stopped fighting for us, but the kind of fighting, the terms of the war, have changed. “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand that plundered them.” Rescue comes. It’s temporary, and once we are strong, on a sure footing, confident and happy and self-assured, we do it again. We walk away. We are beguiled by all flash and the flesh and just as soon as we can, we serve it again.
And again. And again.
And God rescues us. Again. And again. And again.
The first Judge was Othniel, the nephew of Caleb, the only Israelite spy sent to Canaan who was not afraid of the Canaanites (Numbers 13). He sets the pattern for all that shall come:
7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)
The Lord raised up a deliverer — מוֹשִׁ֛יעַ, and the names Jesus and Joshua are derived from this same word — a savior, one who comes to rescue the people. Jesus is a deliverer. His very name testifies to that.
God does not rescue without the people crying out first (and in Judges 10, God actually gets so fed up that at first, God says he is done with his people, and they can go ask their false gods for deliverance), and does not rescue them without raising up a person to do that. This is how God comes to save. We are redeemed by God, but the means of our redemption is a human being, one of our own, raised to fight and defeat those we are currently in bondage to.
There is something so utterly, and thoroughly, and wonderfully human in all this. God does not use people who are first pristine and holy to do God’s work — God uses the likes of Samson (who probably never met a woman he didn’t sleep with), and Jephthah (the illegitimate son of a prostitute who is first tossed out by his people, only to be asked to come back and lead them in battle), and Gideon (who is the youngest son of a tiny clan, and who cannot help but ask God for more signs than is probably wise). These are human characters, all of them deeply flawed and tremendously gifted, every one of them used by God.
God doesn’t choose the holy — God makes holy what he chooses.
What I like most about Judges is how clear this book makes things. God rescues the sinful from the consequences of their own sin. It is clear that the people of God, over and over again, give themselves quite willingly, to that sin. There are no “innocent oppressed” in Judges yearning to be free — a fatal conceit of some theologians who have come to believe the oppressed must somehow be completely innocent of their oppression in order to merit God’s redemption. Which also tends to mean there can be no forgiveness, redemption, or reconciliation for those who are truly guilty of anything. (And I have met theologians and church people who effectively believe and preach these things.) A true distortion of the Good News, which is not for the innocent or the righteous, but the guilty and condemned.
In Judges, there is just the people of God, captive to sin, giving ourselves over to our worst desires, crying out because we cannot free themselves. And finding God hears, and is moved, and redeems.
At supper in a rented room. On a cross. In an empty tomb. Again. And again. And again.