BOOK INTRODUCTION: The book of Judges does more than relate historical information regarding a difficult period in Israel’s history. The book contains a message that is designed to challenge the people of God. Historically, the narrative relates a story of betrayal and grace that occurred between the death of Joshua and the birth of the monarchy in Israel. It is not intended as a political history as much as it is a spiritual history. The exact chronological order in which Israel’s judges ruled as well as the sphere of influence exercised by each one is not made clear entirely. It is certainly possible that while one judge led Israel out of affliction in one part of the nation, another judge was reaching the end of his life in another part of the nation. The narrator’s concern is that we clearly see the cycle of sin, judgment, and deliverance that characterized this time, understand the causes of judgment, discern clearly the grace God showed in bringing deliverance, and begin to perceive the solution to the problem.
The cycle of sin: After the demise of Joshua’s generation, the Israelites began to turn away from their commitment to God and this led to the consequences God proclaimed would come upon them in Leviticus 26:23-26—they would experience defeat at the hands of their enemies. Despite repeated acts of gracious deliverance, and persistently turned away from God and continued to suffer defeat and oppression.
The causes of judgment: Israel worshipped idols. Despite God’s gracious covenant with them, they turned away from him and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites, the people they had conquered. This was a betrayal of their covenant commitment to worship God alone (as in the first commandment), and thus the narrator likens this betrayal to prostitution—a serious breach of covenant commitment.
The evidence of God’s grace: God graciously rescued Israel though they had not deserved it. God’s appointment of deliverers demonstrated that He intended to show them love they did not deserve. The one positive message from the book of Judges is that God is gracious.
The solution to the problem: The last verse of the book speaks loudly: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25 ESV). Israel had a few deliverers in those days, but no one to lead God’s people in their covenant commitment to him, as the king was supposed to do (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20). In many cases, the kings of Israel’s later history did no better than the judges at leading Israel toward greater faithfulness to God, but one day the King of Kings would come, and all of God’s people would walk in his ways. The people during the time of the judges lacked godly leadership.
One further note is in order regarding the judges themselves. Because of the use of the word “judges” in our language, we think of these men as serving some legal/judicial function. With the possible exception of Deborah (and later, Samuel), these leaders do not appear to have functioned in this capacity. The Hebrew word translated as “judge” (shaphat) can also be used to refer to leadership, not just the settlement of cases. They are frequently associated with the task of delivering Israel from enemies. We should think of them as “deliverers” or “leaders,” rather than “judges.”
This chapter is the heart of the book, where the author explains the cycle of sin and deliverance and the reasons why the Lord brought judgment when He did. The chapter should press home the reality that God’s people are expected to live faithfully or experience his discipline. However, God is magnificently gracious and should be praised for his unfailing love.
This section falls into three parts. The first tells of God’s pronouncement of judgment upon the people because of their betrayal. The second tells the tale of Israel’s failure and God’s patient response. The last summarizes how God dealt with Israel and why.
The Proclamation of Judgment—2:1-5.
This section tells of God’s confrontation with his people over their actions. The narrative in chapter one has explained that while some of the tribes were faithful in carrying out God’s command to conquer the Canaanites and wipe out their influence, other tribes were not. The failure of the tribes of Joseph in Joshua 17 has prepared us for this reality. Even in Joshua’s time, some of the tribes demonstrated a hesitancy to believe God’s promises and fulfill their calling. Chapter two reveals that the problem in Israel was deeper than a lack of faith, that is, trust in God and reliance upon his promises. It also involved a lack of faithfulness.
At the beginning, God explains his reason for judgment. This is foundational. It is critical that we understand that God has a right to be angry over our conduct. Our choices are not merely private choices without any implications for anyone else. Since God has committed himself to be faithful to us, love us, and rescue us, He has a right to expect that we will honor him with our conduct. This is God’s complaint to Israel. Notice the argument of verses 1 and 2:
1) God delivered them from bondage.
2) God gave them a blessed land.
3) God committed himself unswervingly to them.
4) Therefore, God expects that they will not make a covenant to live peaceably with the
inhabitants of Canaan.
5) God also has the right to expect that they will obliterate the worship of idols within the land.
God is right to expect faithfulness and holiness from his people, and He is right to judge when they do not fulfill these expectations.
The Story of Betrayal—2:6-23.
Verses 7-10 help us to understand where and why the breakdown of Israel’s commitment occurred. The Israelites seemed “locked in” in the book of Joshua. They were focused upon God’s mission and committed to fulfilling it the right way—for the most part. And yet something happened to sway Israel’s commitment. These verses reveal that a generation gap emerged. After the death of Joshua and his contemporaries, the next generation did not share the unswerving commitment to the Lord their fathers had shared. Specifically, they “did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel,” (verse 10). This should strike us as a bitter irony considering all of the steps their fathers took to memorialize what God had done. Remember the setting up of stones after crossing the Jordan? Remember the “altar” the eastern tribes erected? Both were memorials designed to evoke wonder and faith. And then there is the land itself. How did they get there again? God brought them there. God won the battles. We are prone to blame the fathers for the sins of the sons, but what evidence do we have to fault them? They served faithfully and left behind them abundant testimony of their faith. The following generations abandoned the Lord despite plenty of testimony to the Lord’s goodness and to the covenant God has made with them. Israel is without excuse.
Verses 11-13 detail the sin Israel committed. They worshipped the idols of the Canaanites. This is ironic because Israel conquered the Canaanites. It is tragic because God destroyed the Canaanites specifically because of their idolatry and abominable acts. Now Israel is imitating them. The worship of idols may seem like a distant memory to most believers but keep a few things in mind:
Canaanite idolatry offered carnal pleasure because of the place of sex in their worship. It also offered an easily accessible way to gain a sense of security. The Canaanite gods would bless the land with fertility if Israel participated in their worship, which often involved sexual relations with cult prostitutes. The Canaanite religion offered pleasure and security.
Idolatry is nothing more than seeking glory, security, and pleasure in something besides God.
Putting confidence in idols erodes our faith in God and our ability to make God-honoring choices. We are spiritually blighted by our love for worldly things.
Verses 14 and 15 explain God’s response to Israel’s idolatry. He allowed foreign invaders to conquer and oppress the Israelites. This is exactly what the Lord told Moses he would do, and what Joshua said would happen if they disobeyed.
Verses 16 through 19 explain God’s exercise of grace and Israel’s continued corruption. A bad situation got worse. Though God was righteous to allow judgment at the hands of enemies, he raised up deliverers to provide them with relief. Verse 17 relates that these deliverers understood that they served on the Lord’s behalf: “they did not listen to their judges.” Several examples of this are clear: Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and, at the end, Samson. It is unclear how much religious instruction, if any, they provided. However, they visibly represented God’s presence in Israel and by example called them back to faithfulness, even if they did not serve in the role of prophet or teacher. God was gracious to work through these leaders.
Still Israel sinned. Verse 17 likens that sin to prostitution. This is appropriate, because Israel’s commitment to God was a binding commitment. Worshipping idols is akin to breaking a marriage vow. It is a serious commitment to God.
Verses 20-23 relate God’s rationale. He will not drive out any more of the Canaanites in order to test Israel’s faithfulness. Verse 23 seems to make clear that this is exactly why God did not drive out all of the Canaanites during Joshua’s time. The next generation needed a test. They failed the test.
In chapter 2, the book of Judges teaches us:
God is righteous and is right to judge our sin.
Believers are called to a faithful commitment to the Lord, to live according to God’s ways.
Idolatry is a dangerous and insidious sin that corrupts us and erodes our faithfulness.
God is gracious to give us opportunities to recognize our sin, repent, and return to faithful living.
God will allow testing into the lives of his covenant people. We must continue to choose to follow Him.