We have just finished a study of the Book of Joshua, which tells the story of Israel’s conquest and division of the Promised Land. In this series we will continue the study of Israel’s history by studying the book of Judges. I want to start by reviewing the larger picture of Old Testament revelation. The first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Pentateuch, provide an account of the founding of the Old Covenant and the establishment of the Old Covenant people of God. Also contained therein is God’s Law, which God gave to Moses as a means of ordering the life of the people of Israel.
Six historical books follow the Pentateuch: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings. These six books carry the story of Israel from the death of Moses to the Babylonian captivity, a period of some 900 years. As we have seen, the book of Joshua describes the entry of Israel into Canaan, the first phase of the conquest of the land, and the division of the land among the various tribes, all under the leadership of Joshua.
The book of Judges, which we begin to study today, embraces the period of about 350 years from the death of Joshua to the rise of Samuel. Samuel had the unusual role of being at the same time the last judge and the first prophet of Israel.
From God’s point of view, in this period of Israel’s history she was to establish herself in the land by completing the second phase of the conquest. That is, Israel was to drive out the remaining Canaanites and set up the nation under the Mosaic Law. The Lord was prepared to help them accomplish this goal, so long as they were faithful to the covenant. But unfortunately, Israel was not faithful. They quickly tired of the task of fighting the Canaanites. Instead of killing or driving them out, Israel became content to subjugate them. And then Israel began to befriend the Canaanites and to worship their gods.
This led to punishment by the Lord. He permitted Israel’s enemies to oppress and humiliate Israel until in their distress they sincerely repented of their sins and turned to the Lord. Then the Lord would raise up leaders, judges, whom he empowered by the Holy Spirit, to deliver the people from their enemies. Unfortunately, time and time again following the death of a judge, Israel fell back into idolatry and sank deeper than ever into bondage and spiritual decay.
Turning now to the matters of the authorship and date of Judges, as with all of the Old Testament books there are uncertainties and differences of opinion. No one knows who the author of the book was, though some have suggested Samuel may have written it. However that cannot be demonstrated.
There also are some problems with the arrangement of the book. For example, in the section I label the “Introduction,” there really are what we might call two introductions. That is the book begins with the words, “After the death of Joshua;” and we see introductory matters through 2:5. Then at 2:6 we read, “When Joshua dismissed the people,” which means it is reporting things that took place before Joshua’s death. And then we find more introductory material through 3:6. Thus there are two introductions put together by the author.
In respect to the date, we cannot pin it down precisely; but chapter one, verse 21 gives us a hint. It reads: “the Benjamites did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so the Jebusites have lived in Jerusalem among the Benjamites until this day.” Of course the key phrase is “to this day,” meaning the day of the author. We know from 2 Samuel (5:6-9) and Chronicles (11:4-9) that the Jebusites remained in possession of Jerusalem until the days of David when he took it and made it his capital. That means that the book was written before the days of David, since the Jebusites still controlled the city when the book was written.
We get an additional hint in Judges, chapters 17-21, where several times we are told about the time period under discussion, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; and 21:25), implying that at the time of the writing there was a king in Israel. Therefore the book could have been written during the reign of Saul, or during the first seven years of David’s reign. But that is about as precise as we can get.
Now then, turning to the contents of the book, it has three main divisions. The first section, 1:1-3:6, is an introduction, as I already indicated. Then comes the main part of the book, 3:7-16:31, which details the years under the judges. And the book closes in chapters 17-21 with what I call “Additional Stories,” but which usually is termed by others “Appendices.” The reason for that is that the stories told in those closing chapters chronologically belong in the period of the judges, but they are placed at the end of the book.
Another issue that I want to mention is the missed purpose of this period in Israel’s history. At the beginning of this session, I mentioned that from God’s point of view this period following the death of Joshua was to be the next stage in salvation history. Israel was supposed to secure the land through the second phase of the conquest. That is, the individual tribes were supposed to drive the Canaanites out of their individual portions and establish the nation under God’s Law. And the generation that was alive at the time of Joshua’s death had some success (1:1-20; 22-25). But after they passed from the scene, it was strictly “downhill” for Israel.
Not only did Israel not drive out the Canaanites, they began to come under the influence of the Canaanite gods. And with that loss of fidelity to the Lord, the tribes of Israel also lost their commitment to function as a single nation. The various tribes began to follow their separate interests, and even fought one another on occasion.
Consequently, Israel suffered more and more from oppression by heathen nations round about them. They would have become totally a prey for their foes had the people not sincerely repented of their sins. But they did; and God, ever faithful to his covenant, raised up judges to deliver them. And so that period of history became what we might call a transition period instead of the next stage in salvation history. The next stage did not begin until the time of Samuel and David
The judges were people who usually, though not necessarily always, functioned in two ways. The first function was that of military deliverer. God would call the judges into his service; and he would send his Holy Spirit upon them to enable them to deliver the people by means of military victory.
The second function was to administer the nation after the victory was won. This kind of judging carried duties similar to those of a king. Thus in 1 Sam. 8:5 the elders of the people said to Samuel, “appoint for us, then, a king to govern [literally judge] us, like other nations.” Likewise in 2 Kings 15:5 when king Azariah became a leper, we are told, “Jotham the king’s son was in charge of the palace, governing [literally judging] the people of the land.” Thus we see the two typical functions of the judges.
This office of judge is interesting. It developed for a couple of reasons. Of course one reason was because Israel had no monarchy to provide hereditary leaders. A second reason was because there was no divinely appointed leader to succeed Joshua. Therefore there was a leadership void after his death.
So when appropriate, the Lord would directly call a judge to service and supernaturally endow that judge with the gifts necessary to do the task at hand. However, as I implied a little earlier, not all of the judges are said to have fulfilled both roles of deliverer and governor. For instance Shamgar (3:31) and Samson (chs. 13-16) are called judges of Israel, but there is no record of their ever ruling over the people. The book simply tells of their conflicts with the Philistines.
Others such as Tola and Jair (10:1-3) are said to have ruled over Israel for 23 and 22 years respectively. But there is no indication that they ever delivered the people from enemies. So clearly both roles were not necessary for one to be a judge in Israel.
Some have raised the question why the book of Judges would end with the death of Samson, when 1 Kings tells us that Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Sam. 4:18) and Samuel judged the nation until the end of his life (1 Sam. 7:15). There is an explanation for that.
Eli not only was a judge. He was the high priest. And so his work as judge was unique in that he had an additional exceedingly important office that was critical to the religious life of the nation. He combined political and religious influence and power in one person.
Samuel also had a unique role in Israel. In addition to being the judge of Israel, Samuel was the first prophet of the Lord in the nation. As judge he was a deliverer of the people from the Philistines. But he did it in a different way. He did it primarily by the power of prayer.
The story is in 1 Samuel 7:3-11. Samuel first of all had Israel put away the false gods from among them; and then he gathered Israel at Mizpah where he prayed and they confessed. Next, Samuel made a sacrifice to the Lord and prayed about the immediate threat of the Philistines who were ready to do battle. As Samuel made the sacrifice and prayed, God through the Philistines into confusion, and Israel won the day.
As you can see Samuel’s judging was closely associated with this role as the prophet of God. And so his role as judge, like Eli’s, was unique. Thus the era of the judges can properly be said to have ended with Samson.
Of course Samuel became the primary link between the period of the judges and that of the monarchy, which began with Saul. And that period became the new stage in salvation history that I spoke of earlier.
I have not made any attempt to draw applications out of this introductory material. But I do want to make a comment and offer a quotation. The comment is this. There is no missing the close relationship in the book of Judges between the moral strength of the nation, which was based on its religious convictions, and the deterioration of the nation when the strength of religious morality in the nation declined. This is a universal principle.
Certainly our cultural situation today is more deteriorated morally than it was during the days of World War II. But because of the war, General Douglas MacArthur thought we were in cultural trouble then. I want to offer a quotation from him, which I believe is quite appropriate today, though I do not know the precise occasion on which he said it. It reads:
In this day of gathering storms, as moral deterioration of political power spreads its growing infection, it is essential that every spiritual force be mobilized to defend and preserve the religious base upon which this nation is founded; for it has been that base which has been the motivating impulse to our moral and national growth. History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual reawakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.
What Douglas MacArthur saw as a threat to our culture approximately sixty years ago, is certainly more of a threat today.