At the beginning of the book of Judges, Israel have a problem. God has promised them a land to live in but they still need to conquer it and their leader, Joshua, has died. Nevertheless, God commissions the tribe of Judah to go ahead and invade the land. The Israelites do a half-hearted job which sets them up for all kinds of future problems.
In Chapter 2 we are introduced to a repeated cycle in the book of Judges. The Israelites forsake the Lord and worship foreign gods. The Lord then gives them over to their enemies. The Israelites call out in distress and God raises up a Judge who delivers them.
From chapter 3 onwards we get the case histories of the Judges of Israel. The first Judge is Othniel who delivers the Israelites from the King of Aram. The second Judge is the unlikely choice of Ehud, as he is perceived of as no threat, who delivers Israel from the Moabites. The third Judge is Shamgar who saved the Israelites from the Philistines even though he probably wasn’t even an Israelite himself!
In chapter 4 we read that the Israelites do evil in the eyes of the Lord once again. This time, the Lord raises up a woman, Deborah to be Israel’s fourth judge. She commissions Barak to fight the Canaanites. However Barak won’t go without Deborah, he needs his comfort blanket!
The Lord defeats the Canaanites (v.15). Their commander, Sisera, flees to the tent of Jael. While he is sleeping Jael drives a tent peg through his temple into the ground and Sisera dies. Jael shows Barak.
Chapter 5 is a song remembering the events of chapter 4. It shows that various Israelite tribes declined to fight the Canaanites (vv.16-17) whereas others risked their lives for the cause (v.18). Verses 28 to 30 show what kind of man Sisera was: a plunderer, pillager and raper. God’s people rejoice when evil is judged.
In Chapter 6 we are introduced to Gideon, Israel’s fifth Judge. This time it is the Midianites who are doing the oppressing. God speaks to Gideon while he is threshing wheat in a winepress (v.11). This is a strange place to thresh wheat! Gideon is hiding from the Midianites who were invading and ravaging their land (v.5). God tells Gideon he has commissioned him to lead the Israelites in battle against the Midianites. Gideon protests then asks for signs. He shows himself to be an unexpected hero.
In Chapter 7 God says that Gideon has too many men for him to deliver Midian into their hands so he gets Gideon to whittle down his fighters from over 20,000 to 300,. The warriors are armed with trumpets and jars; hardly advanced weapons of warfare! And yet when the 300 trumpets sound the Lord cause the Midianites to turn on eachother (v.22) and a great victory for Israel ensues.
However, in chapter 8, Gideon shows that your strength can be your greatest weakness as he turns on his own countrymen and kills them just for not giving him bread.
Gideon (Ch. 9) Timid Gideon turns powerful, although he refuses to rule over Israel. He asks Israel to give him the golden earings from their spoil and he makes an ephod (a garment worn by a priest) out of them and sets up his home town as a place of worship. In this way, Gideon leads the nation of Israel into idolatry. There is peace in the land (v.28) but it is a compromised peace.
Chapter 9 can be split into 5 scenes:
Scene 1 (vv.1-6): After Gideon’s death, a treacherous usurper named Abimelech siezes power over Israel. He does this by killing the rest of Gideon’s offspring.
Scene 2 (vv.7-21): Jotham tells a story to the people of Schechem. He tells them that there is a problem with the King they had chosen. He is a thornbush, ie a fire-hazard.
Scene 3 (vv.22-29): Gaal incites rebellion against Abimelech.
Scene 4 (vv.30-49): War, Abimelech launches a revenge attack on the people of Schechem.
Scene 5 (vv.50-57): Poetic justice, Abimelech is killed by a woman who drops a stone on his head. The Lord gets evil to destroy evil. He is revealing His wrath while seeing His justice done.
Jephthah (Chs. 10-12) is rejected by his half-brothers. However, when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the leaders of Israel ask Jephthah for help. Jephthah sends the Ammonite king a message which is ignored. Jephthah then makes a rash vow to the Lord. He has a chip on his shoulder because of his rejection by his half-brothers. He wants to defeat the Ammonite king more than anything. By making this rash promise, he is showing that he has faith in God but he has been squeezed into the world’s mould.
Samson (Chs. 13-16) is last of the twelve Judges. The Philistines conquer the Israelites after they once again do evil in the sight of the Lord (v.1). The people are happy to be conformed to the people around them (15:11) and yet, in His mercy and kindness, the Lord raises up a saviour for God’s people. In the midst of Manoah and his wife’s barrenness, the Lord gives them a child, a saviour. A repeated theme throughout the Bible is that God is able to make something out of nothing. Our salvation from sin and death is God’s work alone. Jesus completes our salvation.
The tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is not a problem to be solved but a framework in which to live. Samson’s story is a study of this tension (14:4). All the characters are responsible for their actions while God uses them for his purposes. God is not limited by our ungodliness.
The Danites and Idolatry (Chs. 17-18) “A Pick ‘n’ Mix Spirituality” In the 21st Century many people see themselves as spiritual persons without signing up to a particular creed. In this way, we worship God how we want to. Similarly, in the book of Judges, God’s people have been seduced by false gods and this has lead to false worship and a skewed morality. In chapter 17, a shady character called Micah sets up his own private temple, hires his own Levite priest and worships his own carved idol. The tribe of Dan are looking for a place to live and discover an area near Micah’s house. Consequently, the Danites unearth Micah’s private temple, priest and carved idol and steal them. Micah’s reply reveals who he is actually worshipping:
You take my gods that I made and the priest, and go away, and what have I left? (18:24)
False spirituality, which is what Micah is involved in, involves chasing after a god that cannot save. What false gods have you been tempted to chase after? The Danites then attack and pillage the peaceful city of Laish and set up their stolen carved idol. When Israel forget their God, might makes right.
Civil War: Israel against Benjamin (Chs.19-21) “The importance of believing in God” History shows that when Christian belief is strong, crime decreases. On the other hand, when there is spiritual and religious confusion there is corresponding moral and civil confusion and turmoil. In other words belief affects behaviour.
Look what people look like without a Saviour King (chapter 19). A repeat of Sodom and Gomorrah. God’s people reject their God and it leads to moral rottenness.
Look at how mysterious God’s judgments are (chapter 20). Israel are united against the tribe of Benjamin. They listen to a deeply flawed Levite. There is genocide. No-one is immune from God’s judgments. This is a warning to our pride.
Look how we can still rejoice in God’s persevering grace (chapter 21) Without God people are confused, abused and many end up dead. However the tribe of Benjamin is preserved.
The story of Judges has value as a tragedy. It is a sobering explanation of the human condition and ultimately it points out the need for God’s grace to send a King who will rescue His people (The Bible Project).