I’m not sure how this should go, but I’ve been considering how to format an “entire book” post for a couple of weeks now. I decided that I was overthinking it to death and that I should just jump in before I end up chucking the whole project.
The format of these “First Reading” posts may change over time, but the purpose I have in mind is to share my thoughts and perspectives as a first-time reader of a particular book of Scripture.
- This is not a scholarly commentary.
- This is not a study guide.
- I have exactly zero authority in the realm of biblical exegesis.
This is only a peek at my margin notes, a journal of my initial thoughts, a first confrontation of difficult passages, and any questions or conclusions I have drawn as a layperson in solitary study.
Get out your Bible, read the book of Judges with me, and let’s bat this ball around the court a bit and see what happens.
Authorship: Judges is anonymous, but tradition holds that the prophet Samuel is the author, and he fits in with all of the internal evidence as the author.
Date of Writing/Date of Events: likely between 1040 and 1000BC during or just after the reign of Saul. There is a lively scholarly debate over the dating of Judges, as there is with most books of Scripture.
Narrative Context: Judges describes the period of time after the death of Joshua and before Israel had kings. The Israelites have entered Canaan (the Promised Land) and prospered for a generation. A new generation has forgotten the signs and wonders experienced by the tribes of Israel during the time of Moses and Joshua. They have begun to intermarry extensively with the native peoples of Canaan…and participate in the idolatrous worship of their many gods.
Is This Stuff For Real? – Literal v. Figurative in Judges
Judges is the 7th book of the Old Testament, and it is the first one in which I had difficulty discerning between that which is meant to be figurative and that which is meant to be literal. It is not my intention to enter into any debates about the historicity of the book of Judges at this time, but it’s definitely something I thought about and considered throughout my reading.
I spoke to my pastor about it this morning. He told me that most evangelical Christians would argue that the stories and events in Judges are literally true. I asked him if it really mattered, and his response was a very helpful admonition to remember that (and I’m paraphrasing because I don’t record every conversation I have with my pastor):
Eastern cultures do not value the same things in their historical accounts that Western cultures value. We of the West want dates, specific names, and quantifiable data. We value an annotated, footnoted, and peer-reviewed chronicle. Those aren’t the sort of things that a Middle Bronze Age historian in the Near East concerned himself with. For him, the moral of the story was the important part. He would have been less concerned with exactly what happened than with what an event meant, what it caused, and how it changed things for his people. When we study the Bible, we must consider the era and the cultural biases of the authors who were inspired to write it.
I have an excellent pastor, don’t I?
You can ponder the historicity (literal truth) of the Judges narrative and draw your own conclusions. My personal impression/belief after a first reading is that many or all of these people were real. I believe they did, in fact, “judge” the tribes of Israel during this period. They led their fellow Israelites out of oppression and idolatry and back into a relationship with God. Some judges were more successful than others. Some were more likeable than others. Some had more momentous reigns than others. They all were used to execute God’s will for Israel, which has always been a return to fellowship with Him.
There is an obvious cycle in the Judges narrative, and it goes like this:
- Israel falls into debauchery and idolatry.
- God removes his favor from Israel and a foreign people oppress them.
- The people repent and cry out to God in their time of distress.
- God puts the Spirit on a particular leader (a judge), and Israel is victorious.
- Israel lives in peace until the death of the judge.
- The new generation begins the cycle over again at step 1.
In secular history, we see patterns just like that one over and over again, so it isn’t a stretch at all to believe that the nascent nation of Israel began with a set of core cultural values that made them strong and successful only to betray those values once in power. They fell into corruption and assimilated with the idolatrous nations around them over time. Similar patterns happened in many civilizations and it tracks perfectly with what we know of human behavior and human governments.
As to the historicity of the details we read in Judges: the violence, the overwrought melodrama, and the superhuman strength of Samson? Well, my verdict is still out on that and might always be—who knows? I believe that God has the power to make all of that stuff happen in reality, but since He doesn’t seem to do it often, and since the tone of some of the stories is very much like the New Testament parables…I just can’t say for sure. When I get into commentary and the verse-by-verse study stage, anything could happen—but the moral of the stories is what matters. That’s what I’m going to focus on for now.
I don’t believe it matters if every word of Judges is literally true. What I know is that these stories are included in God’s Word. I believe that means He wanted us to read them, just the way they are, and learn the lessons they teach.
The Big Picture
When I read Scripture, I am careful not to isolate verses or even chapters if possible. Cherry-picking is a dangerous way to read the Bible, and we should avoid it at every turn. Each book has a larger message to show us, and each book fits into the Genesis-to-Revelation arc in a miraculously perfect way. We will miss that if we focus on “the good parts” or “the best verse” or “the one that applies to me.” Don’t do that.
Judges is the story of a particular period in Israel’s history. It has individual stories in its pages, and each of those can be considered alone, and it has individual sentences or verses that have major impact for us to memorize and keep. Before we can do that, however, we need to look at the big picture of Judges as a whole. Why was this book written? What did the author want his original audience to see and learn from it? What does God want us to see and learn from it today? Judges is a continuation of the narrative of the Torah/Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and Joshua, so there is also the need to consider it in that context.
The big picture as I see it, before I look at commentaries or listen to any sermons or read any expository articles by scholars—just my impression after reading it—is that this is about mankind’s need for divine authority.
What strikes me from beginning to end is the contrast of man in a state of lawlessness, depending upon his own reason to make decisions, against man in a state of submission to a divine authority, using the laws of God to make decisions. Judges is a billboard that says:
Man cannot create and maintain his own moral code without falling into corruption, debauchery, and alienation from God.
There are 5 major themes/morals addressed in these stories that I took from this first reading:
- General: Mankind must be shepherded by God because man is easily tempted and will, if left to his own devices, follow ungodly shepherds to his own ruin.
- General: Even men with good intentions and a determination to live moral lives will fail in the absence of a divine law/divine guidance to follow.
- General: God will not tolerate idolatry.
- General: God always provides a means of return to grace. He is faithful even when we are faithless (2Tim 2:13).
- Specific to Original Audience: The nation of Israel abandoned their covenant with God after the death of Joshua, and evil reigned throughout the tribes.
My understanding may improve or change after consulting scholarly work and pastoral guidance on this book of Scripture, but these major lessons are what Judges communicated for me on this go around. For the rest of this space, I’m going to summarize the first 10 chapters from my perspective.
Chapters 1 – 3: Israel Has Fallen
In the opening chapters, we are shown that Israel has become disobedient, idolatrous, and broken their covenant with God. The consequences of that are shown in God’s removal of victory in the conquest of Canaan. We see many nations left undefeated and several tribes of Israel that have not succeeded in subduing and occupying the entirety of their inheritance in the Promised Land.
In keeping with God’s pattern from Genesis to this point, we are shown that a remedy is provided by God for men to return to grace. In this case, God responds to the distress of Israel by anointing individuals with the Holy Spirit just as He did with the Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, and the 70 from Numbers 11:25.
In Judges, these anointed individuals are raised up as leaders called “judges” to bring Israel out of oppression and back into covenant fellowship with God. Think of them as shepherds more than magistrates. They are leaders like Moses and Joshua were leaders rather than kings.
The cycle is presented to us in these chapters, and it is followed throughout the book. You can see it above in the first photograph of my margin notes.
Chapters 4-5: The Story of Deborah, the 4th Judge of Israel
Deborah was a prophet before she became judge over Israel. Her gift of prophecy and her faith and leadership led Israel to a great military defeat over King Jabin and his tenacious military leader, Sisera. Chapter 5 is a psalm/song of her reign and victory.
One cannot help notice that this is the story of two women. One, a leader and prophet, guides her nation out of oppression under a foreign foe. The other, a common citizen, shows great courage and cunning in defeating the enemy’s leader. Two women, acting autonomously, save Israel. Both women are married, but both are identified by name, not just with the names of their husbands. They also both work with men who are not their husbands in fraternal roles that are not considered inappropriate. We must notice these things in Scripture. They are important.
Chapters 6-8: The Story of Gideon, the 5th Judge of Israel
Gideon is a timid and unremarkable man who knows that he is timid and unremarkable. He gives God a series of tests for proof before he will offer obedience. He requires knowledge of God, refusing to adopt faith (this is a tremendous lesson we can meditate upon).
God uses Gideon to publicly demonstrate the error of idolatry and to demonstrate his power and glory (by defeating Midian’s armies with only 300 men).
The story ends by showing that even with the signs and wonders he gave Israel through Gideon’s story, the people are still idolatrous, hungry for icons and pagan ritual rather than the real relationship they have in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
This is a super condensed summary, but the story of Gideon is long and detailed enough that it would require a post of its own. It was not my favorite story in Judges, and there is a ton left to cover. The main themes are: God uses flawed people to accomplish his will and, even with an anointed leader and physical proofs of God’s sovereignty, people will gravitate toward idols of their own making.
Chapters 9-10: The Story of Abimelech & Jotham
Gideon apparently had a monstrous number of concubines and produced “70” sons from among them. This number is, in my opinion, figurative for “a whole lot of sons.” I say this because 70, like 7, is a number of completion in Scripture. 40 days generally just means, “a long time,” and 70 generally just means, “a lot.” So, Gideon either had precisely 70 sons or he had a ridiculously huge number of them and because he made babies with so many women all over the place, no one at the time Judges was being written knew for sure exactly how many sons he really had. So they wrote down 70. Everyone in the original audience would have known that this number was code for “Dude had a lot of babies, okay?”
Abimelech was one of these seventy strapping lads produced by Gideon, and his mother was from a town called Shechem. After Gideon’s death, Abimelech gets on a soapbox and riles up his mother’s blood relatives there. They hold a vote to make Abimelech a king over all of Israel. It is important to note that in the list of Israel’s judges, Abimelech is the only one we are told was chosen by people rather than by God. That’s huge, y’all. You might wanna write it down.
Abimelech hires mercenaries to murder all of his brothers, and they kill all 70 (even though if this number were literal…it would by default mean they only killed 69, right? Abimelech is #70). Then, we see the emergence of Jotham, the youngest of Gideon’s 70 sons, who survived the massacre of Gideon’s heirs. See why this number being taken literally doesn’t work?
Okay, so Jotham is enraged and deeply grieved over what Abimelech has done to all of their brothers, and he stands on a mountain overlooking Shechem and shouts a heartbreaking speech of exhortation and cursing.
The best thing ever: Abimelech gets what’s coming to him at the end of chapter 9, and it was (again) a woman who delivered his mortal injury. Terrified that his legacy will include “killed by a girl,” Abimelech uses his last breaths to beg one of his men to run him through with a sword. “Don’t let it be said that Abimelech was killed by a woman.” Oh, the horror of it.
And that’s how the murderous jerk dies and the curse of his brother Jotham is fulfilled. Two more judges follow Abimelech (Jotham is not one of them), and the Israelites fall back into idolatry and evil living.
Let me know if any of this is helpful or if you want to have a civil dialogue with me about any of it. There are beautiful things we can accomplish together with this connection we have in the internet, but always be mindful of Paul’s admonition in 2Tim 2:16-25 about foolish arguments leading to ungodly behavior. We should study this book together, not fuel an addiction to self-righteousness by clubbing one another over the head with it.
I hope you will read Judges and be given a lot to pray over and meditate on through it. Remember that we need to read and understand Scripture before we attempt to apply it (to our own lives or to anything else). Learn first, understand second, and apply last. Got it?
Thanks for reading with me. I’ll see you in chapter 11 next time.
I really love The Bible Project‘s work, and before I go, I’ll pop this video they made in for you. It goes with the title image I chose from their poster collection. Check them out, and if you love their work like I do, consider visiting them and making a donation. Everything they do is available for free. It’s an amazing amount of work they’ve produced.