Themes & Takeaways from Judges

On Sunday our church finished our expositional series through the book of Judges. The following is an outline of the book along with some big-picture themes and takeaways.

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Outline of the Book of Judges

  1. Double-Intro (1:1-3:6).
    1. Insufficient Conquest (1:1-2:5) [Israel’s “inheritance” jeopardized]
    2. Insufficient Saviors (2:6-3:6) [Israel’s idolatry showcased]
  2. The Judges Cycle (3:7-16:31) [idolatry → oppression → crying out → deliverance →]
    1. The Othniel Cycle (3:7-11)
    2. The Ehud Cycle (3:12-31)
    3. The Barak Cycle (4:1-5:31)
    4. The Gideon Cycle (6:1-8:28)
    5. [The Abimelech Account (8:29-10:5)]
    6. The Jephthah Cycle (10:6-12:15)
    7. The Samson Cycle (13:1-16:31)
  3. The Double-Outro (17:1-21:25)
    1. Religious Anarchy (17:1-18:31) [Israel’s idolatry showcased]
    2. Civil Anarchy (19:1-21:25) [Israel’s “inheritance” jeopardized]

Themes & Takeaways from Judges

A Cycle of Disobedience and Deliverance
  • God’s people repeatedly do evil in God’s eyes/sight (2:11; 3:7; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1; cf. 14:3, 7; 19:24). Said differently, they do right in their own sight/eyes (same word) as a result of there being no king during those days (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). These refrains structure the book.
  • Israel goes through a cycle of (1) committing idolatry, (2) God handing them over to oppression, (3) crying out to God for deliverance, and (4) God raising up a judge to deliver them. This cycle is introduced in 2:6-3:6 and is then carried through the six judges in 3:7-16:31.
  • There are a total of twelve judges in the book, thus representing the twelve tribes. This is the story of all of Israel, in other words. If the Abimelech narrative is counted, there are seven cycles in the book, potentially symbolizing the fullness of Israel’s downward spiral. Alternatively, if Abimelech’s account is not included, that would leave us with six cycles, potentially deliberately one less than seven (six) and thus signifying incompletion and longing for something more (David?)
  • The cycle, among other things, testifies to God’s grace. After hearing of Israel’s idolatry, we expect that God would hand them over to their oppressors. This is what they deserve. What is undeserved (and in this sense unexpected) though is that God would listen to their cries over and over and keep supplying deliverers for them. The book of Judges is a book of God’s grace demonstrated over and over, his longsuffering and patience with his wayward people. God treats us, not on the basis of what we deserve, but with deliverance. God relentlessly pursues his people. And this—God’s relentless grace, not human righteousness—is then, and can be, the only basis for future hope, both for Israel then and for us now.
  • As also demonstrated by the above cycle, our repentance is often quite short-lived, as we frequently go right back to our sin as soon as we get relief from its consequences. We are slow to learn. We often fail to appreciate grace even right after we’ve received it.
  • Thus the book of Judges is a book about “insufficient saviors” (judges). It presents a cycle of saviors (“judges”) who ultimately prove insufficient to secure permanent deliverance and rest for God’s people. The judges only brought temporary deliverance, namely, for as long as they lived. Immediately after they die, the people again rebel and return to idolatry. A more permanent solution is needed. And as they go on, each subsequent judge proves progressively worse and worse. We are meant to despair of the judges as a solution. In this way, the book of Judges anticipates Jesus, who is God’s appointed savior who brings complete and permanent rescue and rest for God’s people. The inadequacy of the judges produces a longing for Christ, the all-sufficient savior-king.
Israel Among the Canaanites
  • Whereas God had redeemed Israel to be distinct from other nations, a holy people for his own possession (Ex 19:5-6), instead, because of their failure to drive out the Canaanites, they become just like the nations. The book of Judges is a record of Israel’s failure to live out her vocation as God’s unique people. Instead of Israel serving to draw the nations to God, in the book of Judges we see the progressive “Canaanization” of Israel, so to say. The nature of sin and unfaithfulness could be described as becoming like the world around us (this “Canaanization” of Israel).
  • Israel’s failure to eradicate the Canaanites from the land, in disobedience to God’s command, would have been easily rationalized: if a nation is stronger than you, it seems unwise to pick a fight with them; and if they are weaker, why eliminate them when you can subjugate them? So too, we rationalize our sin. But as with the case of Israel here, “little” sins pave the way for bigger sins. Israel’s failure to eradicate the Canaanites eventually leads to her downfall as those Canaanites drew her into idolatry. Israel’s failed conquest became the prelude to her apostasy. So too for us, half-hearted commitment will lead to our downfall.
  • Our own time could likewise be described as a time period in which people “do what is right in their own sight.” And as Israel faced pressure to adopt the practices of its surrounding culture, so we likewise face the same challenge: Will we follow the spirit of the age around us and capitulate to our society’s idolatries? Will we maintain our distinctiveness as God’s holy people, or will we become just like the nations, incorporating their values and lifestyles?
Inheritance & Rest
  • The book has a double-intro and double-outro that mirror each other. The first intro presents Israel’s insufficient conquest, their failure to drive out the Canaanites from the land (their “inheritance”), as God had instructed (1:1-2:5). The second intro then highlights their idolatry. The first outro then provides a portrait of Israel’s idolatry during this time (17:1-18:31). And the second outro returns to concern for their inheritance as it is again in jeopardy, this time because one of the tribes of Israel is nearly lost (19:1-21:25). If the double-intro serves to explain how Israel got themselves into this mess—idolatry and failure fully to take the land and remove the Canaanites from among them—the double outro functions to show how bad such matters really got as a result.
  • At the end of the first several judge cycles, each concludes with the mention of rest being achieved (3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28). However, after the account involving Abimelech (who himself breaks the pattern), the land is never again said to have rest within the book. The pattern is broken. Things have “gone off the rails” at this point onward, we might say.
Longing for a Righteous King
  • The book of Judges showcases our need for a king (see esp. 17:6 and 21:25). The lack of kingship serves as a major explanation for how things got as bad as they did. God’s people need a righteous king who will lead them in righteousness, to no longer do right in their own sight, but to do what is right in God’s sight.
  • At several points, the book presents the tribe of Judah in an intentionally positive light. Judah leads the charge in the conquest (1:1-2; cf. 20:18). The first and best judge, Othniel, is from the tribe of Judah (1:7-11). In contrast, Benjamin, and even specifically the city of Gibeah, is painted in a rather negative light. In contrast to the hospitality shown at Bethlehem of Judah, Gibeah of Benjamin commits the atrocities of ch. 19. And it is Benjamin who is nearly destroyed in ch. 20. Judah is of course where King David was from. Gibeah of Benjamin, in contrast, was Saul’s city. This seems to be the book’s subtle way of saying, “David is the sort of king that is needed. We need a king, yes. But not just any king—not a king like Saul; but a king like David.” Ultimately, however, even David proves insufficient. And so the longing of the book for a righteous king is ultimately and only sufficiently met in King Jesus.
  • The book of judges anticipates the incarnation. We need a human judge and king, as shown. But as demonstrated by the book, mere human judges always prove imperfect and insufficient. We ultimately need God as our judge. This need—for both human kingship and divine judgeship—is met in Jesus, the God-man. Jesus is God become man to serve as our saving king.
Minor Themes
  • Women repeatedly play rather heroic and positive roles throughout the book. For instance, Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, in ch. 1 boldly takes action to secure a good inheritance for herself and her family; Deborah steps up to secure deliverance for Israel even when Barak acts as a deadbeat judge (chs. 4-5); Jael drives the tent peg through Sisera’s head, crushing the head of Israel’s enemy (ch. 4-5); likewise, it’s an unnamed woman who crushes the head of Abimelech when she drops a millstone from on top of the tower (ch. 9); and Samson’s mother is seen as one who believes the promise of God, when Manoah, Samson’s dad, is fearful (ch. 13). Yet, while it is women who in many ways are depicted most positively in this book, it is also women who are nonetheless treated most horrifically: for instance, Jephthah’s daughter (ch. 11), the Levite’s concubine (ch. 19), and the women of Jabesh-gilead and Shiloh (chs. 20-21).
  • At two points, the crushing the enemy’s head by a woman is mentioned (5:26; 9:53), seemingly drawing us back to the promises and longing of Gen 3:15, where the woman’s seed would crush the head of the enemy of God’s people.
  • Vows feature prominently in the book. In 1:12 Caleb promises to give his daughter, Achsah, to whoever conquers Kiriath-sepher. However, the remaining vows in the book are quite tragic, particularly for the female characters (see Jephthah’s foolish vow in ch. 11, and then the two vows mentioned in ch. 21 that likewise result in tragedy).
Redemptive Historical, Covenantal Context
  • The book includes several incidences in which Israel’s history, and God’s past dealings with her (e.g., the Exodus from Egypt, the covenant made at Sinai), are recounted for her (see e.g., 2:1, 7-10, 12; 6:13). God’s past dealings with his people are meant to remind them of their identity and call them to act accordingly, according to how God has dealt with them in the past and his relationship with them in the present.
  • The material of the book of Judges is deeply connected to the Mosaic Covenant. In this covenant, God had commanded them to remove the Canaanites from the land and warned them of the results of failing to do so. Here in Judges, they fail to do so and face the consequences. And the consequences are clearly connected to the Mosaic Covenant, the very curses God had promised would come as a result of such disobedience (e.g., 2:15)
  • There exists a tension in the book between God’s covenant promises to Israel to bless Israel and Israel’s disobedience to her covenant, which means her experiencing the covenant curses. The tension is as follows: How on earth will God fulfill his promises to bless a people who are unfaithful and only act to deserve his curses? This tension is one that continues across the Old Testament and only finds its resolution in Christ, who bears our curse so that we might experience God’s blessing.
A Theology of Idolatry
  • The book of Judges in many ways serves as an extended examination of the nature and consequences of idolatry, that is, “trusting in created things rather than the Creator for our hope and happiness, significance and security” (New City Catechism).
  • In the book of Judges, we see that God wants Lordship over our entire lives, not just part of it. He has no interest in sharing worship alongside any rival gods. God tolerates no completing loyalties. He is not interested in us splitting our worship between him and anything else.
  • We also learn from the book that, although idolatry can come in overt forms (i.e., the explicit worship of idols in the traditional sense), idolatry can also come in the form of more subtle syncretism, where we mix foreign, incompatible things with our worship of God.
The Human Sinful Condition
  • The book of Judges speaks to the “real world” of suffering in which we live. It doesn’t pull any punches regarding the evil, suffering, and atrocities that occur in our world and in our lives.
  • Judges shows that spiritual decline is our default. Israel’s bent is not to get better, but to get worse. The cycle is not one of improvement, but of constantly falling back into sin and idolatry. In other words, renewal (revival) is always our need. The book speaks to the danger and tendency in our sinful hearts toward idolatry.
  • The book shows us that our own moral compasses are broken. We “do right in our own sight.” And what’s “right in our sight” is often downright evil in God’s. It is dangerous to rely on our own moral reasoning. In the book, we see our own tendency to call evil “good.”
  • The book of Judges showcases the human condition, who we are apart from God’s grace. Whereas most societies present their origin stories in idyllic, almost mythical terms, Judges has no fantasy of Israel’s “glory days.” Rather, these are “the (not so) glory days.” And as we look at Israel’s own experience under God’s law, we are meant to see ourselves in the mirror—the same human condition is in us as well. If this is who we are, in other words, our only hope of deliverance is found, not by looking within ourselves, but to God–in other words, repentance and faith.
  • Judges makes clear that the Bible is not meant to be collection of stories about moral people we are supposed to emulate. Rather, it’s the story where God alone is the hero and saves us despite ourselves.
God’s Sovereignty
  • The book of Judges demonstrates God’s sovereignty over our circumstances. He is in charge no matter what our situation and utilizes our situations for his own purposes.
  • One particular example of this is how God even uses evil regimes and sinful actors for his purposes, namely here, to chasten his people and provoke repentance (e.g., we are told that God “sold them over” to foreign nations; Israel is subjected to “Egypt” all over again, so to say.). Oppression and suffering are not mere “accidents of history,” in the book of Judges. Rather, God often uses trying circumstances in the lives of his people as chastening to awaken us to repentance. God has purposes in our trials.
Internal vs. External Threats
  • The battles with and oppression of the nations are mere foils for Israel’s more fundamental battle with sin and how it affects her relationship with God. The ultimate concern of the book is not Israel’s political condition, but her spiritual one.
  • Throughout the book, the author spends more ink detailing Israel’s own internal conflicts, intramural battles between tribes, than their battles with external opposition. This is because the author is primarily concerned not so much with Israel’s physical oppression, but her spiritual depression which gave rise to it. Israel’s own internal disunity and feuding serves as proof of her dire state.
A Peculiar Salvation
  • The judges are incredibly flawed people. And nonetheless, God uses them to save his people and do rather amazing things (cf. Heb 11). God’s Spirit comes on the judges to empower them at particular points in the book (3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). This shows us that God can and often uses very flawed and sinful people to do his work. When he does so, it makes clear that God is the real hero, not them. He saves, often not because of them, but despite of them. Likewise, if anything good is accomplished through us, it’s due to God, not us. All glory goes to him. We have no reason to boast.
  • Likewise, God often saves through unusual circumstances. We see this, for instance, in the strange weapons used by God’s deliverers throughout the book. For example, Ehud makes himself a homemade sword (3:16); Shamgar uses an oxgoad (3:31); Jael kills Sisera with a tent peg (4:21); Gideon fights the Midianites with a mere 300 men, and they use jars and trumpets (ch. 7); the unnamed woman drops a millstone (9:53); Samson uses foxes with torches attached to their tails as well as a donkey’s jawbone (ch. 15).