When studying the book of Judges, one is bewildered by the way Israel lives its relationship with God. Israel’s God was a God of history and their encounter with God came through his revelation in Egypt and their deliverance from the house of slavery.
Israel’s faith in God was based in God’s work in history. Israel’s hope was based on what God had promised to do for them in the future. This promise was first made to the patriarchs and then renewed with the people at Sinai. To the people of Israel, the reality of God was demonstrated in historical events and what God had promised to do would shape the future history of Israel.
God’s relationship with Israel as a nation was established in the events that began in Egypt and culminated with the giving of the law at Sinai. This relationship was confirmed and strengthened with Israel’s journey in the wilderness and the conquest of the promised land.
But Israel’s relationship with God was based on Israel’s obedience to God: “If you will only obey the LORD your God, by diligently observing all his commandments that I am commanding you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 28:1).
The theology of the book of Judges, as described by the Deuteronomic historian, is based on the fact that the new generation of Israelites who came after the death of Joshua and the leaders who succeeded him did not obey God. Instead, they abandoned God to follow the gods of the land and were unaware of what the Lord had done in the history of the nation.
The book of Judges describes the oppression of Israel by their enemies. According to the Deuteronomic historian, this oppression came because of Israel’s apostasy. According to the writer, Israel had been faithful to the covenant faith during the days of Joshua and the leaders who succeeded him.
After the death of Joshua there arose a new generation of Israelites who did not know Yahweh or remember how he had saved Israel by his mighty hand: “Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
This new generation of Israelites was indifferent to the demands of the covenant. They abandoned Yahweh to serve the gods of the Canaanites, and as a consequence of their disobedience, the curses of the covenant were invoked upon Israel.
The book of Judges is part of the Deuteronomic history of Israel, a history that covers a period of time that goes from the days of Joshua to the destruction of the temple in 587 B.C. and the exile of Judah. The purpose of the Deuteronomic history was to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of Israel and Judah.
The Deuteronomic history shows that from the conquest of Canaan through the end of the monarchy Israel had violated the covenant and that violation demanded divine punishment. According to the writer, the political destruction of the nation was not the result of divine weakness, but was a demonstration of the power of Yahweh.
According to Gerhard von Rad, the Deuteronomic history was “a comprehensive confession of Israel’s guilt” (1962:1:337). According to the Deuteronomic historian, Israel’s rejection of Yahweh had brought the nation to its tragic end. Israel had violated the most basic stipulation of the covenant: Israel had abandoned Yahweh to serve the gods of Canaan.
In order to show how Israel had abandoned God, the writer of the book of Judges introduces several stories to provide a theological basis for Israel’s judgment and to help readers see God’s judgment in the events that led to the oppression of Israel.
The theology of the book of Judges is presented in terms of Israel’s relationship with God. This theology can be summarized in the context of faith and obedience. The Deuteronomic historian emphasized that if Israel obeyed God and kept his commandments, then God would be with the people. If Israel failed to obey and keep the demands of the covenant, then the people would be oppressed by their enemies.
The life of Israel in Canaan prior to the monarchy is presented in the book of Judges in a literary device of a cycle of apostasy and repentance that reflects the Deuteronomist understanding of Israel’s judgment:
a. The people of Israel sinned against God
b. God sent an oppressor
c. The people cried to God
d. God raised a judge to deliver Israel
e. There is peace in the land as long as the judge lived
f. Israel sinned again after the death of the judge
Thus, the punishment of Israel for doing evil in the sight of Yahweh includes apostasy, oppression by their enemies, supplication to God for help, and deliverance through the work of the judges.
This cycle of apostasy is clearly seen in the events related to the work of Othniel (Judges 3:7-12):
Judges 3:7: “The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, forgetting the LORD their God, and worshiping the Baals and the Asherahs.”
Judges 3:8: “Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram-naharaim; and the Israelites served Cushan-rishathaim eight years.”
Judges 3:9a “But when the Israelites cried out to the LORD.”
Judges 3:9b-10: “The LORD raised up a deliverer for the Israelites, who delivered them, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.”
Judges 3:11 “So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel son of Kenaz died.”
Judges 3:12 “The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”
It is in the stories of the judges that the purpose of the book of Judges can be seen. The writer of Judges had two purposes in writing his book. First, he hoped to show the chaotic time in Israel’s history when there was no king in Israel and every person “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Because Israel had been unfaithful to Yahweh and had neglected the responsibilities of the covenant they had to suffer the judgment of God. Only repentance could bring deliverance.
Second, the writer was demonstrating the need for the monarchy, a centralized government that would provide some form of social stability. Four times the writer emphasizes that “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).
It seems evident that the writers believed that the monarchy was the solution to the moral and religious problems Israel faced during the period of the judges. While the judges were able to deliver Israel from the hands of their oppressors, Israel lacked strong leadership. Israel needed a leader that would provide stability and some degree of permanence and continuity that was necessary for political and social stability in Israel.
Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament theology, Volume 1. New York: Harper and Row, 1962.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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