4 Reasons You Should Preach through Judges

Article
07.12.2018

I’ve been tasked with considering reasons someone should preach through the book of Judges. Judges transitions Israel from the leadership of spirit-empowered judges, or deliverers, to a spirit-empowered, human king. In doing so, the book points to the Davidic monarchy as God’s means to deliver his people—not only from enemy nations, but also from one another and even their own sinful hearts.

Judges is the worst book in the Old Testament. If not for the death of Christ, it would be the worst book in the whole Bible. It’s saturated with toxic events: genocide, holy war, slavery, and the oppression of women. This tempts some to think the Bible condones this book of horrors.[1] Many have noticed that Judges isn’t merely bad; it gets worse and worse throughout. And, by the time you get to the end, even Sodom and Gomorrah’s famed sins of Genesis 19, which resulted in God’s fire and brimstone, pale in comparison Israel’s sin in Judges 19, which is punctuated by God’s noticeable absence.

It might appear that by the end of Judges, God didn’t even want to touch Israel. But if this summary didn’t convince you to preach through Judges, let me offer you four better reasons to preach through Judges to your people.

1. God is the hero of the story.

When you think of Judges, I’m betting your mind quickly jumps to Deborah’s bravery, Gideon’s fleece, or Samson’s strength. The first 16 chapters focus on spirit-empowered Judges who look more like Avengers than legal experts. Samson looks more like Thor than Judge Judy. But in truth, with the notable exception of Othniel, this book goes to great lengths to show that these human heroes are all zeroes in one sense or another. Barak needs Deborah to hold his hand if he’s going to trust and obey God’s Word. Gideon needs constant reaffirmation from God so that he can trust him. Samson exploits God’s good gifts for selfish gain.

Again and again, these human heroes reveal that salvation comes from God’s initiative not man’s. God is the great hero of Judges.

2. There are both individual and communal effects of sin.

Judges picks up where Joshua ends with God’s people obeying God’s command to take the Promised Land. But momentum stalls in Judges 1:27 when “Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants Beth-shean” and a number of other tribal nations. In the verses that follow, the author records that Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan also failed to drive out the peoples God commanded them to drive out.

Corporate disobedience progressively and increasingly leaks into the lives of God’s People until the end of Judges, chapters 17–21, where two realities dominate: God’s absence and the repetitive refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6, 21:25; cf. 18:1, 19:1). No more deliverers appear after Judges 17, and the sins of God’s people against one another reach their depth when the tribe of Benjamin—Saul’s tribe—rape and murder the Levite’s concubine in the center of the city.

The moral compass of Israel is so broken that Israel’s “just” response to Benjamin’s sin nearly resulted in the genocide of that people. When Israel recognized their sin, they sought to bring “justice” by essentially kidnapping and raping 400 virgin daughters of Jabesh-gilead and the daughters of Shiloh (Judges 21). This explains the last verse of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”

The point here is dark, but simple: As people move away from obedience to their sovereign God, they will move toward sinful passions and progressively spiral downward. This will inevitably result in treating other people as less than human. Sin grows and shapes both individuals and communities, resulting in chaotic injustice and sorrow.

3. Judges teaches how God values women.

I realize this claim comes freighted with obvious irony. A quick read of Judges seems to argue the opposite. Men treat women horrendously. For example, in response to the author of Judges’ description of Judges 19, Phyllis Trible writes, “He also cares little about the woman’s fate.”[2] To be clear, I’m not saying that the men of Judges value women. They gradually ratchet up the oppression throughout.

But the author’s perspective presents an entirely different picture. The author seems to reveal the escalating sinfulness of man by exposing and even highlighting the increasingly dark and brutal treatment of women. In fact, the chaos of Judges makes no sense at all if the author affirms the victimization of women.

We don’t have time to survey every case of the relations between women and men in Judges; there are just too many. But let me offer a few examples that demonstrate how these male-female relationships are both descriptive and indicting. First, prior to Israel’s rebellion in Judges 1:11–15, we read of Achsah and Othniel; they represent the ideal man and woman functioning in harmony. Othniel is then raised up as a judge in Judges 3:7–11. Throughout the rest of the book, relationships between men and women serve as a kind of spiritual barometer for just how low the people are falling—spiritually, theologically, morally, ethically, and so on.

Unlike Othniel, Barak refused to trust and obey God. He ultimately needed Deborah as his security blanket because he refused to see God as his shield. As a result, Jael, a foreign woman, kills the enemy’s general, Sisera, and receives credit for delivering Israel—instead of Barak. Interestingly, Sisera is depicted as being rolled up in a womb like a rug, and Jael feeds him milk like a mother before driving a stake through his head.

Later, Jepthah sacrifices his own daughter as a result of a hasty vow to God, an act Daniel Block calls “the ultimate in abuse.”[3] And who can forget the sexual exploits of Samson that led to his ultimate demise?

The zenith of the book—or maybe it would be better to say its nadir—arrives at the end of Judges with the gang rape of the concubine followed by the near genocide of Benjamin’s tribe and the mass abduction and rape of the daughters of Shiloh.

In sum, the of Judges becomes nonsensical if the author affirms this heinous treatment of women throughout. Notice that the worse the treatment of women becomes, the more men do what is right in their own eyes and the less God seems to be present.

4. The darkness of Judges highlights the beauty of Ruth and the glory of God in redemption.

There’s just something about Ruth. Too often, Ruth is preached in isolation from Judges even though her story takes place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). If one reads the two together, as I take to be the historical context of Ruth’s writing, then the relationship of Ruth to Judges almost seems like God’s new creation response to a chaotic world. Throughout Judges, the relationships between women and men are deteriorating and God is noticeably absent. Throughout Ruth, we’re introduced to Boaz and Ruth as a new ideal couple whose harmonious story trumps that of Achsah and Othniel from Judges 1.

Many claim the ironic relationships between women and men are grounded in the Sitz im Leben of Judges’ author, his setting of life. The author of Judges, they say, exemplifies an abusive and patriarchal point of view. I would argue that the ground of the ironic relationships between men and women originates much further back than the era of the judges—in Genesis 1 and 2. So, as Judges devolves further into sin, the relationships between pinnacle of God’s creation unravel into chaos. Women are abused and the downward spiral continues.

But then, in God’s surprising and sovereign grace, this spiral is reversed in the book of Ruth. Boaz redeems Ruth—a barren, widowed, Moabitess—and he pursues her happily as her kinsman redeemer. Boaz gives her a new name, and—eventually—he gives her sons from whom King David would ultimately be born.

God is against the abuse of women—and furthermore, God promises to set things right when it seems least likely.

COMMENTARIES

If you’re looking for helpful commentaries on Judges, Dale Ralph Davis’ Judges: Such a Great Salvation offered a great deal of help thinking through this book pastorally.

Daniel Block’s Judges & Ruth Commentary in the NAC series is also helpful in addressing the issues from a more academic yet accessible angle.

If you’re looking for an even more exhaustive survey of major themes and engagement with other commentators see Trent Butler’s volume in the Word Biblical Commentary. And of course, the really good stuff is in the academic journals.

FOOTNOTES:

     [1] S. Cyril Rodd, Glimpses of a Strange Land: Studies in Old Testament Ethics (Edinburgh: T&T CLark, 2001), 1-402.

     [2] Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narrative (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1984), 37-38.

     [3] Daniel I. Block, Unspeakable Crimes: The Abuse of Women in the Book of Judges, SBJT 2/3 (Fall 1998), 49.

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