Evelyn Waugh wrote a wickedly funny book called “decline and fall” about a guy whose life turned a bit bad and then got much worse. We’ve been watching Breaking Bad, pretty much a standard suspense-driven gangster drug movie, set against the spiralling moral decline of the central character. He turns bad, worse, worse and worse… you get the drift.
Judges is that kind of story. It starts bad, the Iraelites didn’t completely conquer the promised land, and its been claimed back by Canaanites who terrorise them and infiltrate their culture and religion.
The glorious bits come at the start. A few leaders, Judges such as Deborah and Gideon, win some great and unlikely victories against the Canaanites. Their human weakness is scrupulously depicted to emphasise the faithfulness, love and strength of God.
But the judges get worse as the book wears on, and the nation more brutal and divided. Jephthah and Samson are deeply flawed leaders, whose God given giftedness is highlighted to show how ignorant they are of him, or shamelessly they take his blessing to boost themselves. And how he brings some good out of lives of squandered grace.
So the book ends very bleakly. The law of Deuteronomy and worship of Jehovah is hopelessly compromised and muddled, a shadow of what God intended. Society is brutal and unsafe, overrun by conquering foreign rulers, the ungodly Canaan customs and tribal warfare.
I draw lessons about the scandals and decline of the modern church and my own walk of faith, oddly encouraged at God’s preposterous steadfastness. No matter how bad things get, he’s always seen worse before. Unshockable.
Death of Joshua, failure to completely conquer Canaan
1 Book starts by listing the unconquered bits of the promised land post Joshua
2 Death of Joshua, the people do as they please, the old religions flourish
Bloody but generally good judges including Deborah and Gideon
3 Three judges in quick succession, they are warrior/assassin type judges, freeing the people from oppression. I contemplate how God’s plan B becomes his plan A.
4 Deborah prophesies a great victory then leads it herself when the boys know better
5 Deborah’s wild victory song… rise up like the sun and kiss the world with love!
6 Gideon timid, inadequate is the perfect vehicle to show God’s strength
7 Gideon whittles down his army, and wins by confusion in the night… all to prove God’s role in the victory
8 After Gideon’s death, the people trust in anything but God, its tragic
9 Gideon’s disastrous family are grand and greedy where he was humble, and end up destroying each other and betraying the people
10 2 minor judges and some peace precede the people falling back to idolatry. They can’t stick with an abstract God
Flawed Judges, Jephthah and Samson
11 Jephthah’s tragic story where he ends up sacrificing his daughter to get a victory. He honours God on some level, but he is a deal maker, and he trusts his own abilities too much. I contemplate deal makers
12 Jephthah’s rule descends into tribal warfare, Jew killing Jew. Judges is like a dying fire with ever smaller flares of flame
13 After years of bitter civil war and foreign invasion, Samson is promised to barren parents by an angelic figure, a proto-messiah. I mourn my own failure to obey god
14 Samson, prodigiously gifted, set apart for God by vows, breaks all of them, marries the enemy, is wicked. Yet still used by God, good from bad
15 Samson really is a quite terrible leader of Israel, violent, impulsive, disloyal and generally unpleasant. The text doesn’t editorialise, I go a bit crazy
16 The poignant denouement, Samson prays and brings down the philistine temple upon himself. The first time he mentions God. One last sacrifice after a life of wasted talent
Israel leaderless and virtually Godless, where everyone does as they please
17 Micah, not a Judge, a landowner who is so lost he worships an Ephod, a priestly item, and engages a sellout itinerant Levite to be a live-in priest – its all nothing like the Torah
18 The tribe of Dan, belatedly claiming their land, take all Micah has, and the priest switches allegiance. Fighting over useless false Gods, what have they become?
19 Exodus ended with cities of refuge being established, Judges ends with a Benjamite city where the gang rape and murder of a stray visitors is a usual nights fun. She’s dismembered and distributed to the 12 tribes as a grisly symbol of the chosen people hitting rock bottom.
20 Civil war erupts many tribes vs Benjamin, many die.
21 So many Benjamites die in the civil war, that more slaughter, kidnapping and rape is organised to give them brides so they don’t die out altogether. Israels lowest point yet. I despair for the moderns church, and marvel at God’s patience