Judges Overview

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

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Judges 21

In the aftermath of the civil war, there is a real risk that Benjamins tribe will die out all together. There is a remnant. 

The people arrange for them to get brides. This is done by the most horrific of means, more slaughter, kidnapping. I was reminded very much of boko haram’s virgin stealing in the modern day.

The final chapters of judges have shown the utter failure of God to make a people of the law. Its in a way the story of two priests. First we had the Levite who was a mercenary, then the Levite who left his bride to be ravished and then stirred up a war over it.

In exodus, Sodom and Gomorrah was the symbol of how far man fell from the garden. We see a similar story play out in Israel, to show that god’s chosen people, in his chosen land have fallen further. 

I have grown to accept the decreasing influence of the church in my world in my lifetime. God has not left Israel because of it sin, nor will he leave us. 

Judges 20

Civil war follows the humiliation and death of the Levites wife in the last chapter. The tribes meet and unite against Benjamin. They refuse to disavow the act. Many thousands of Israelites die.

They consult God as to how to run the attack. I think we’re are arriving at the end of judges. God has barely appeared for a while now.

Judges 19

I remember this chapter from reading it as a teenager. One of the most truly shocking chapters in the Bible. 

This time i see the pattern more. The decline that led here. Samson was the most faithless judge, ironically a man god made strong defined by his weaknesses.

Then the story of Dan, showing how deeply the Israelites had forgotten their nationhood and their religion.

This is rock bottom. The ultimate failure of the nation to live as god’s promised people.

A Levite travelling with his son and his sons wife/concubine chooses to push on and stay in an Israelites town in hope of hospitality. He gets none until another person originally from his region finds him. Tribal affiliation gone. 

At nightfall men in the town want to gay gang rape the son. To avoid that his host offers his virgin daughter and the concubine. They take the concubine who they rape and abuse til death. 

The sons behaviour, surrendering his partner to them, is as ignoble as the mob.

In death she is dismembered into 12 and distributed to each of the tribes to say “what have we become?”

Israel’s decline is completely and unsparingly told to us. There is no sugar coating in the “good book”. Left to our own devices our race is capable of the most horrific evil. Atheists will say religion is to blame, but I think that’s wishful thinking. Israel shows us how religion can’t fix the darkness in our hearts, but I don’t think it’s the source of it.

We need a saviour, imho.

Just read the most fantastic discussion of this chapter here: http://www.womeninthescriptures.com/2010/09/concubine-in-judges-19.html?m=1

She reminded me that genesis ends with a similarly shocking story, but there there is some divine intervention. The woman here is left with no protection. 

Judges 18

Oh gosh, the story is so sad. It’s turned into a pale remake of exodus and Joshua. But every detail is wrong, and demonstrates how far they have gone from gods plan.

The tribe of Dan have, it seems, never bothered to claim the land they were given. So this is the story of them doing that. They get no help other than passive from the other tribes: they are allowed to pass over their lands. That is what their sense of nationhood has become.

A war party of 600 come to Micah’s house. They take his mercenary priest and his idols. The priest is semi kidnapped but then they point out he’ll be more important and better paid by them so he flips to liking it. He’s a pathetic self serving excuse for a priest. He’s like the equivalent of Moses in exodus, but money talks louder than God.

Thy idols are like the equivalent of the arc of the covenant. But they are just stolen pieces of foreign carving.

Michah realises they’ve been taken and rides out to reclaim them, but is too weak against the 600 Danites. He vents his frustration that they’ve taken everything that means anything to him. But the irony is of course, how powerless are the gods? Lumps that men fight over!

The Danites are thieving bullies with seemingly no relationship with Jehovah at all.

The people they defeat are portrayed in terms where you are supposed to feel a bit sorry for them. They are defenceless, leaderless, amoral and weak and are unsparingly cut down by the raiders of Dan.

If Israel is the house of the lord, god has left the building.

Judges 17

I know nothing of Micah, the judge not the prophet. I don’t know where the story is going but it starts with the same mixed up spirituality that seems to define Israel in this wayward time, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes”.

So he finds some money his mother thought she’d lost and they make an idol for their home shrine. He’s well off and has religious urges and knows something of Jehovah. He fashions an ephod, a priestly garment which seems to have become a worship object. We saw that practise negatively noted in Gideon’s story.

He makes one of his sons a priest and then a real Levite (the priest tribe) passes by, so he engages him to be a live-in priest.

So far so weird. We learn nothing much about God. Indeed as the book has gone on, god’s presence seems more and more remote. They all seem so lost.

Our culture is in a strangely similar place… Losing its religion. Judges feels oddly familiar, despite its savagery at places. Of course, the savagery is still with us too.

God gave us an easy way to know him in Jesus. The Israelites’ Jehovah is not how humans like to think of their Gods. Not concrete, not in a box. We have less excuse.

Judges 16

Samson’s weakness is famously his hair and delilah. I forgot there are actually three women in his story. He’s a serial fool for love/lust.

We saw yesterday his disastrous first marriage. The delilah chapter starts with him visiting a whore, which is seen as a chance to ambush him. It fails, he displays super human strength.

Then delilah. She betrays him 4 times, each time berating him that he doesn’t really love her because he didn’t tell her the truth about what would make him weak. Is he really that dumb? Yes. He finally tells her that his uncut hair, the last nazarene vow unbroken, is his strength. 

Captured, blinded and bought after humiliating captivity to be ridiculed at the philistines temple of dagon, the story reaches its climax. 

They have let his hair grow, oops. He prays, the only acknowledgment of God by him in the story, and brings down the temple on himself and all in attendance. 

I loved this story when I was young – it’s a tragedy, I really got the poignancy of what could have been. The gifted man who squandered it, making one last revenge on the enemy while sacrificing himself.

He has the most blessing of any of the judges, and seems the most determined to waste it. What does it mean? Yolo I suppose, you only live once. Don’t waste it. If you’re ever tempted to think Christ cheated on being fully human because he could do miracles, think of Samson. Miracles galore, but flawed, flawed, flawed.

Don’t let me waste your blessing lord, may I not be decadent with your gifts. 

Judges 15

Struggling with Samson still.

I think I get that Israel is like the French in world war two, they’ve been taken over and lost their identity and pride. Samson is like the resistance. He is a provocateur.

There is little detail about why the philistines are so bad. His vengeance seems cruel.

The story telling is great, is a very readable part of the Bible. But it has him burning all the philistines’ crops with tortured animals over a domestic dispute with his philistine wife. The philistines then burn the wife and her father, he then slaughters many of them.

His own countrymen deliver him bound to the philistines, for whom he is enemy #1. He breaks the ropes with super human strength, slaughter ensues using just the jaw bone of a donkey. He’s breaking the vow not to defile himself with dead things again, not to mention all the killing.

He judges/leads philistine governed Israel for years. Lots of violence, no liberation. He really is quite terrible. 

I’ll hold off commenting further until the next chapter, but suffice to say I’m struggling to see God in all of this. Where are you father? What are you thinking? I know you, I love you, this is not your plan for humanity.

Judges 14

What a disappointment.

Yesterday I was all “Samson is a Christ figure/messianic”. How could I have forgotten the story. He is deeply sinful.

Set apart with vows from birth: a nazarene, he was supposed to be teetotal, and not touch dead things, not to cut his hair. God made him strong, a traditional Greek style hero. 

Instead of being a moral super example to his people, he marries a Philistine. He holds a drunken bachelor feast. Attacked by a lion he wins the fight bare handed in a show of God given power, but returns to the carcass in defilement of his vow. He takes honey from the carcass, and gives it to his parents, hiding from them that he’s made them ritually unclean.

He murders 30 of the philistines as part of a bet.

All we see this chapter is a man who abuses god given grace and talent. 

The morality of the age is “whatever”. The Bible describes it “men did as they saw fit”. Samson is living that way in extreme. 

So often it seems harsh that God brings judgement. This chapter is one where you are left asking why he doesn’t judge, why he won’t intervene in Samson’s free will. 

That god acts in a sinful world, loves a sinner like me is a complex miracle. Grace seems impractical, plain wrong.

The hard verse is 4, where it is clear that god is allowing his folly, to be part of the plan to free the Israelites from oppression. God can bring good from bad. It’s hard to understand, easy to mock. 

The life of Samson has diverged so far from where God designed it to be, yet still he works with it. Plan B, C, D, E, F, G and beyond.

Judges 13

We fail, god loves us. 

The people of God descended into bitter disunity and civil war, and then 40 years overrun by philistine foreigners. 

Samson’s story starts where Christ’s does, with a prophesy before he is born. Like John the Baptist, he’s an unlikely birth, to a previously barren mother. 

As with so many of the chosen, his parents can’t believe they are special. They invite the stranger who talks about the birth to dinner. He insists on sacrificing the meat to God instead, and then the stranger shoots up to heaven in the flames of the offering, revealing himself as an angel.

Samson is a messianic figure. The Messiah is a Samson figure. 

I fail so badly. I have nothing but god’s salvation. Thank you!