I just finished my study of the book of Judges, and, wow, so many thoughts.
The stories that have stuck out to me: Deborah and Barak. Gideon. Abimelech. Jephthah. Samson, Micah, Gibeah. With a few others stuck in. Every single story is about the failure of people to do the right thing.
First we have Barak (Judges 4), who ought to have obeyed God’s command to go to Mount Tabor… but doesn’t, until Deborah summons him and reminds him of what God already commanded. Then he still refuses until Deborah agrees to go with him, at the cost of losing all honor for the victory, and Jael kills Sisera.
Then we have Gideon, who is a pretty decent if highly-doubtful guy, who actually meets YHWH (Judges 6) in the flesh, continues asking God for extra confirmation at every step, but basically, fears God and does well… until the end, when he collects booty from everyone and makes an idol which leads his household astray. He also has tons of wives and children.
This doesn’t bode well for Gideon’s son Abimelech (Judges 9), who kills every last one of his brothers except the youngest, Jotham, who manages to escape. Abimelech names himself king after this mass slaughter, and various other atrocities and mass-murders ensue, until God “turns back” the evil Abimelech had done on his head.
Then we come to Jephthah, who fears God and judges pretty well, but does this awful hideous thing of promising to human-sacrifice something (which turns out to be his beloved daughter), and then… he follows through on his oath (Judges 11).
Then Samson (Judges 13), whose parents have an encouraging and unblemished testimony of fearing God, and who is himself filled with the Spirit incredibly constantly, but Samson himself makes a ton of foolish decisions, is vain, is a womanizing partier, is prone to fits of incredible temper, revenge, and wiping people out, breaks his vows, lies, gives into nagging women repeatedly… and dies.
Then Micah (Judges 17), who steals from his mother, then creates a completely invalid little shrine in the name of YHWH but with false gods abounding, bribes a Levite priest into lending it some legitimacy. But along comes the tribe of Dan, which steals his little shrine, his priest, and his false gods, and carries them off to set up in Dan, where it remained for “as long as the house of God was in Shiloh” (18:31, hcsb).
Lastly, there’s Gibeah, which is really just… unspeakable. Atrocity compounding atrocity, one after the other. I’m not sure there are more revolting chapters anywhere in Scripture than Judges 19-21.
And yet, through all of this, God is accomplishing His ends. Israel has no king. Joshua, the faithful leader, has died, and the tribes have continually (chapter 1) failed to take control of the land from the Canaanites. A lot more of that is accomplished through these stories. And the Israelites are disciplined again and again, and forced to return to God and beg for mercy and assistance, again and again. One time God denies them—I’ve rescued you before, and you went away again, “cry out to the gods you have chosen” (Judges 10:14, hcsb), but they persist in their repentance and God “became weary of Israel’s misery” (10:16, hcsb), which is one of the most startlingly beautiful phrases in Scripture. Another time—after Gibeah—the Israelites consult Him for help, and He tells them what to do… only to have them be considerably wiped out, beginning with Judah (Judges 20). It is only after they come to God again with fasting and sacrifices and weeping that He delivers the rebelling tribe Benjamin into their hands.
So we see here, first of all, how remarkably God works. This is both justice and mercy tempered together, love and discipline. But what I found incredibly encouraging—and surprising—was how very screwed up the “good guys” are, and yet they are included in Hebrews 11 among the faithful and righteous. We point to David as an example of how fallen Christians can be, but here we have Barak, who ignores God’s explicit calling; Gideon, who doubts God repeatedly and falters at the end; Jephthah, who murders his own daughter in the name of God; and Samson, who seems in many ways to live a really, really depraved lifestyle filled with women and drinking and hedonism and lawbreaking. And yet these are the people God called, used, and justified.
It’s also scary the reality of God’s judgment here. Barak loses the honor of the victory. God repays Jephthah’s rash vow with the loss of his daughter. Gideon’s whole family is massacred by his own son. Samson loses everything he seems to strive after, and then his own life. The nation of Israel as a whole loses many of their men in the skirmish with Benjamin (not to mention nearly the entire tribe of Benjamin itself), then because of their own rash vow-making, they end up losing another entire town of people, and basically inviting the remaining Benjaminites to come along and kidnap and rape innocent women in Shiloh with no consequences.
Judges is a really easy book to read. But a very hard one to process.