Sunday, October 28, 2012
Judges 2:8-19 (The Story, Chapter 8)
“A Worthwhile Inheritance”
Samson and Delilah. Gideon laying out the fleece to test God. Deborah leading the men into battle. Familiar names. Many of us learned about these characters as kids in Sunday School, but few of us know their stories in context.
When we look beyond the Sunday School stories, the book of Judges is rather puzzling – who were these people, really? What did they do?
And then there’s the question of where they fit in Israel’s history. There is little mention in Judges of the covenant or the temple or any of the other religious trappings that we’ve seen so far in the story of God relating to God’s people. So where do these judges belong in the story?
Let me give you some background that will help to make sense of the book.
First of all, the name of the book – “Judges” – is a bit of a misnomer, at least in its English translation. The word comes from a Greek translation of a Hebrew word meaning “governor or administrator.” While the traditional translation is “judge,” it is not a judicial word at all, at least not in the sense that we think of judges today. The title didn’t mean that they settled disputes or heard court cases (Deborah might have been in that profession – according to 4:4-5 – but that is incidental to her title as a ‘judge’).
Most accurately, perhaps, the judges would have been regional tribal leaders. Israel was, at this time in its history, a loose confederation of tribes descendent from the 12 sons of Jacob. They had some unified leadership under Moses and Joshua, but it would be another 400 or so years before they were consolidated into a single nation under a king. In the meantime, the judges were probably local leaders who showed bravery in battle against another city-state or tribe, and thus gained some standing among their kinsmen.
Although they may have been relatively minor historic characters, the judges did take on a certain mythology within the Israelite culture. They were, in a sense, the “super-heroes” of their time. The book of Judges follows the typical patterns of ancient near-eastern hero literature.
This genre of writing celebrates the exploits of individuals who stand out because of some excess or extreme characteristic. Heroes, in this style of writing, may be particularly ugly or beautiful, of low social standing or high, but always somehow out of the ordinary. In Judges, we see heroes who are atypical for their gender (Deborah) – their lowest-of-the-low position in society (Gideon) – their illegitimate birth (Jephthah) – and their extraordinary strength (Samson).
Heroes, typically, are honored more for their exploits than for their character – as we see when Jephthah traps himself with a foolish vow that leads him to sacrifice his daughter, and Samson destroys himself through his lust for women. They were victorious warriors – and thus served their purpose as deliverers of Israel – but tragic failures in their personal lives.
Another interesting characteristic of hero literature from that time period is an element of social commentary. Hero literature tended to emerge in the “in-between” times of history – when one social model had collapsed and another hadn’t yet solidified. Authors usually wrote hero literature because they recognized that the world as they knew it was gone, and they felt vulnerable in the midst of so much change – so there was need for a hero who would defend and protect them.
The book of Judges describes just such an in-between time for Israel. The conquest (under Joshua) was over, and the people had settled into some basically peaceful and prosperous years. Slavery was a distant memory; their nomadic lifestyle had given way to a more settled homestead; and warfare had, mostly, ended. There were local skirmishes with other city-states, here and there, but over all life was good, and the people were relatively comfortable.
But comfortable was exactly the problem. Judges draws attention to the moral, religious and social crisis that was brewing under the surface of the calm. God’s people may have gained material wellbeing, but they have failed to pass on the faith (“another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel,” Judges 2:10). There was an absence of war, but it also brought a complacency about God. All is NOT well.
The author of Judges seems to have recognized the slipping away of the former ways – the faithfulness to the covenant and dependence upon God that the people maintained under Joshua’s leadership. The former ways were ending, and the people are left vulnerable. A hero is needed to defend and protect them – but not a military hero. A spiritual one.
In the book of Judges, the crisis is more religious than political. The people experience defeat as a direct result of their moral failures – it occurs as a result of the people’s forgetfulness of God. They cry out for a warrior, but their real need is for spiritual renewal.
The people’s cries are part of a clear pattern that is repeated throughout Judges: they forget God’s past deeds, and as a result, the people do evil in the eyes of God; God hands them over to their enemies; they eventually have enough off oppression and cry out for help; God hears their cries, has mercy on them, and raises up a judge to deliver them from their enemies. And then, as they grow comfortable again, complacency sets in and the cycle begins all over again.
What is interesting, when you read the book carefully, is that this cycle doesn’t just repeat itself – it also deteriorates as the story goes on. The evil that the people do becomes more intensely evil – in chapter 3, they “forget their God” (3:7) – by chapter 10, they have “abandoned their God” and are worshipping a whole host of other gods (10:6). Likewise, the periods of oppression last longer – from 8 years under foreign rule at the beginning of the book (3:8), to 40 years at the end (13:1).
It isn’t just that God is punishing them more severely. Remember that it is the people’s cry for help that prompts God to raise up a deliverer – so although God continues to save them, it takes longer and longer for them to cry out. They are becoming accustomed to their immoral lifestyle; it no longer distresses them as it once did. And then when they do call to God, their cries shift from repentance at the start, to merely a cry of alarm with no evidence of a real change of heart – and then, finally, no cry at all during the final cycle when Samson is raised up.
The same downward spiral is evident in the judges themselves. At the start, the judges are highly esteemed – little biographical information is given about Ehud and Deborah, but they are generally positive characters. As we move through the narrative, we learn more about the judges – we read of Gideon’s call story, for example – but they also become less effective. When we get to Samson, his whole life story is recorded – and it reveals a tragically flawed character. It seems that the more we learn of these judges, the less we like them! They were strong enough warriors, sure – but they were certainly not role models.
The storyline of judges, when read as a whole, shows one thing clearly: Charisma, when devoid of character, corrupts. What the people needed were not warriors or not super-heroes. What the people needed were spiritual leaders, men and women of integrity and faithfulness who would draw them back to God.
Unfortunately, in that time, they did not have such leaders. Or, maybe more accurately, the faithful leaders they did have were not the ones the people chose to follow. More and more, the people chose to follow the slick talkers and good-looking ladies’ men. And more and more, those leaders failed them!
The whole mess is summarized, finally, with these closing words: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Arrogant self-will rules the day, and Israel is her own worst enemy.
So that’s the book of judges: hero literature that shows the moral decline of a society.
Whatever side of the political aisle you may be on during this election season, I think we all have to agree that this is a story for our time. The downward spiral is evident all around us, isn’t it? So Judges issues a clear warning to us of what may be.
It does more than that, though. It also offers a veiled hope that we might change the trajectory – a hint of how we might reverse the spiral. We see it when we read Judges as a story of inheritance. Its core question: What will we pass on to our children?
At this point in the Old Testament, Israel’s attention has turned to the inheritance of the land. They focus their attention on invading the land and then protecting the land. I’m sure they do so with the greatest of intentions of providing a good land for their children. Inheritance matters.
But the land isn’t the inheritance that God has asked them to pass on to their children. God has promised the land – that is his gift; their part is to pass on faith.
In the making and renewing of the covenant, God had told Israel over and over again to pass on the stories of faith and the example of obedience to their children. At the Exodus, God tells them to tell their children and their grandchildren of their deliverance. The Passover feast is established specifically to teach children about God’s provision and protection. In Deuteronomy, they are to recite God’s law to their children, talking about them at home and away, in the day and at night. In Joshua, they build a memorial of stones at the edge of the Jordan, so that “when your children see them and ask what they mean” you shall tell them that God is the one who brought you here.
That is what Israel was supposed to pass on to their children. But instead, “a generation…who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.” They had failed to pass on the stories of faith.
Their failure serves as a warning for us. Perhaps what we need is not more political debate, but more time studying – relearning – the stories of faith and the teaching of Scripture. Perhaps we ought to worry less about who our next political leader will be, and more about who our children’s role models are. Maybe we need to use less energy fighting for our “religious rights” and invest more energy in remembering and celebrating God’s faithfulness to us.
To those, like me, who are raising children right now: let me speak frankly for a minute. We spend an awful lot of our time and money getting our kids into the right activities, onto the right teams, and in the right schools, so that we can give them the very best future we can. That is all well and good, to a degree. But when life gets hard – when they loose a job, when a storm destroys their house, when a relationship falls apart – they will need a relationship with God and a firm foundation of faith to get them through. Are we giving that to them? Or is that getting lost in the craziness of our lives? Which inheritance are we providing?
And to those who have already raised their children, or taught them, or just generally think you are past that already: you are the ones who need to teach faith to us and to our children. In Judges 2:10, it was the generation who was gathered up to their ancestors who began the downward spiral. The next generations – the generations who lived during the time of the judges – were left “not knowing the Lord” because those before them had not passed on the stories of God’s faithfulness. Please, teach us those stories. Teach us how God has been present in your life – so that we’ll have something to pass on when it is our turn.
The good news, of course, is that even when the chain of faithfulness is broken – and the generations fail to pass on their knowledge of God – even then, there is a veiled hope for the future. Judges ends with a hope that a king might be the kind of leader who call the people back to God. We end with the hope that God will not desert us – but will provide leaders to call us back, over and over again. May we come to know God again through them.