Introduction to Judges
Before looking at Judges in detail, we need to examine the place the Book of Judges holds within the Bible, especially the OT. In Gen. 3 after the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, God places a curse upon the entire world. Man is cursed to work by the sweat of his brow, the earth is cursed so that the ground becomes more difficult to till, whereas the woman is cursed so that she bears children in pain and is no longer satisfied with the role God assigned to her as being the support of her husband. With the coming of Abraham, God begins to reverse the curse.
Through Abraham and his descendants after him—especially through his descendant the Messiah, God will bless all humanity. Part of that blessing involved God giving the land of Canaan to the Israelites. Well, Israel has recently emerged from the desert after being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years and has begun to claim her inheritance. The main work of occupying the land has occurred. Major victories against the Canaanites in Moab, at Jericho, and at Aijalon, have been accomplished; now what remains is a mop-up operation. Difficult battles were yet to be won. In fact, while Israel was coming in from the East, a new power—the Philistines (of Greek origin) were coming in from the West. Regardless of what the Philistines were doing, though, the Israelites were actually beginning to possess the land.
At this point in Israel's history, you would think that everything was turning up roses because they were finally coming into their inheritance. God was making good on His promise to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. The sad thing, though, is that this does not turn out to be all that much of a positive experience. Starting with the generation which came after the conquest of Canaan, the people lapse into idolatry. God will respond by sending various oppressors to discipline the Israelites for their sin of idolatry. For the next 900 years, the people will sin and experience God’s wrath through other foreign armies, internal strife, or even droughts and famines. What was so promising actually became a source of continual pain. Only during brief interludes—much of David's reign, Solomon's reign, Hezekiah's and Josiah's reigns—do the Israelites enjoy the inheritance in a real way; however, for the most part, the inheritance is a disappointment—not because of God but because of the people.
As time passes, the people begin to long for a new inheritance because this inheritance has failed them. They long for an inheritance in which God's people do not turn to idolatry and in which sin has no place. They long for an inheritance in which death is totally absent, both on the human level and on the level of nature. This inheritance we are enjoying right now is due to the Spirit who lives in us; however, we will enjoy it only fully when Jesus returns. In Judges, we see the beginning of the time when the people start being dissatisfied with their inheritance and begin to long for a better one—a more permanent, incorruptible one: "to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you (1 Pet. 1:4).
ISRAEL'S FAILURE TO POSSESS ALL THE LAND (Judges 1:1-36)
Joshua has just recently died. The generation which succeeded him begins to resume the task of subjugating the land. This seems strange to us at first because we thought that Joshua had conquered all the land while he led Israel. God, however, had informed the Israelites that He would not let them destroy all the inhabitants at once because such an action would lead to under-populating. Under-populating the land in turn would result in wild beasts overtaking the land. This was a real danger because we read from the story of David that both lions and bears presented a serious problem for the shepherds in Israel.
In Judges 1, we see the tribes of Judah and Simeon under God's direction taking the lead in driving out the Canaanites. Success is limited. Whereas Judah and Simeon were successful in defeating the inhabitants of Bezek (as king was named Adoni-Bezek—great story in which Judah cuts off the big toes and big thumbs of the king's Debir) and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the other tribes were not completely successful in driving out the Canaanites. Part of this was due to the serious threat the Philistines posed against the Israelites. The Philistines along the coastal plains proved to be a formidable force because they were skilled in the use of iron, whereas the Israelites were still using bronze weapons, more inferior weaponry. The Philistines prevented the Israelites from focusing complete attention upon the Canaanites.
While this is understandable, the sad thing is that the Israelites made a tragic mistake. To a degree, they simply decided that they were not going to be able to drive out the Canaanites completely; therefore, they decided to accept the Canaanites as a necessary evil and decided to force them to pay tribute to the Israelites. In other instances, after the Israelites did become strong enough to destroy the Canaanites—for example, in the instance of Manasseh, they decided to make them forced laborers, that is slaves. For all intents and purposes, the Israelites had given up. Well, there is no giving up in the Christian life. If I do what God wants me to do and things don't turn out the way I expected them to, it still does not relieve me of the responsibility of continuing to obey the Lord. What the Israelites did seemed logical; however, their actions were totally contrary to the express command of the Lord. The Lord had commanded the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites, not make treaties with them or use them as forced labor.
GOD'S DISCIPLINE OF ISRAEL (Judges 2:1-23)
After the Israelites had made treaties with the Canaanites still in the land, the angel of the Lord descended to Gilgal and appeared to the heads of the 12 tribes at Bochim (the exact location is unknown; however, the word literally means "weeping"). The mention of Gilgal is important because Gilgal had been the site where that same angel had assured the Israelites of victory over the Canaanites because he would be with them in battle. As the Israelites saw the angel come from Gilgal, they must have immediately realized the terrible mistake that they had made. Their refusal to continue the way against the Canaanites was not due to God's failing them but to their giving up!
The angel of the Lord reproves them for their disobedience. The resulting punishment is that the Lord is not going to remove the Canaanites from the land but will instead allow them to remain so as to be a source of temptation for the Israelites. If the Israelites had obeyed the Lord and continued to pursue the course of destroying the Canaanites instead of making peace with them, the Lord would have destroyed the Canaanites on His perfect timetable and thereby remove all temptation to idolatry. Since the Israelites disobeyed God, He was going to let the Canaanites remain in the land so as to be a type of test for the Israelites. God was not wanting the Israelites to descend into idolatry; it's just that they had made their own way rough for themselves. Now they would constantly have to face the choice of being true to God or else turn to idolatry. Unfortunately, for the next 900 years, Israel will fail the test. It will take the catastrophe of 586 BC when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple to convince the Israelites once and for all to put away idols.
Unfortunately, many Christians today are experiencing to a real degree what the Israelites faced during the times of the judges. Each and every one of us is going to experience temptation in one form or another. For our own good, we need to resist that temptation as soon as it confronts us. We don't have to resist it in our own strength and power; instead, we can rely upon the Lord for help. The sad thing is that many times we yield to that temptation, and we suffer consequences we never counted on.
For example, I know a Christian who was tempted to look at some pornography. At first, it is easy to resist the temptation, but every now and then, he would take a look. To his surprise, he discovered that it was harder to resist the temptation the next time. Well, he yielded again, and the next time, the temptation was almost unbearable. A day came when that Christian asked for forgiveness for this sin and made a commitment to the Lord that he would never look at pornography again. To his surprise, he discovered once more that the temptations didn't go away. They were still there and still in full force. Did that mean that God didn't love him? No, it meant that God allowed the temptation to remain in order to test the Christian of his love for Him. The same applies in the areas of sex, power, fame, finances, etc. We need to resist and submit to the Lord when the temptations first start so that they will not become more and more difficult to resist, and if we yield too often, God is going to allow the temptation to remain at fever pitch. If we get into that kind of situation, we don't need to beat ourselves up because we have these kinds of temptations; we just need to remember that God is testing our love for Him.
"But wait a minute," you may say. "I thought that God was going to forgive me!" God does forgive you; however, sin does have consequences like the one we see operating in this story. For most of us, it is easier to understand this on a physical level than on a spiritual level; however, the principle applies at both levels. For example, a person in a fit of rage cuts off both his arms. Later, he feels guilty and asks God's forgiveness. He receives God's forgiveness. Then one day, he decides that he is going to go out and play tennis. Suddenly, he realizes he cannot play because he doesn't have 2 arms. He pleads for God to give him 2 arms again. Hadn't he repented and asked for forgiveness? Therefore, shouldn't God give him 2 arms? Well, he doesn't get those 2 extra arms. He may have to use prosthetic arms. Why? Because God didn't love him? No. Because God hasn't forgiven him? No. Has he lost his salvation? No; however, he won't ever play tennis again with 2 natural arms because his and our actions do have consequences both on the physical level and spiritual level.
THE BEGINNING OF THE CYCLE: Oppression by Moab and Deliverance by Ehud (3:1-31)
The Israelites immediately fail the test, and a cycle begins which continues for the next 400+ years. Israel will be right with God and then fall into idolatry. God will send a foreign power to oppress the Israelites. The people then groan beneath the weight of their oppression. God is moved with pity and sends a judge to deliver them. After the judge delivers Israel, the Israelites will serve God throughout the rule of that particular judge. Then the judge will die, and the people will lapse immediately into greater sin, starting the cycle all over again.
Right after Joshua and his generation passed away, the Israelites lapsed into idolatry. We read in 2:10 one of the most incriminating verses in the whole Bible about the failure of the fathers to raise up their children in the ways of the Lord: "And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel."
Note that it did not say that the Israelites did not take their children to church. Neither does it say that they didn't teach their children to tithe or to be good. It says that the succeeding generation did not "know the Lord." Too many of us reduce Christianity to being nothing more than being moral and going to church. Christianity is a life-changing encounter with the Father through His Son Jesus Christ. Anything else reduces Christianity. Our children need to see God's power at work in the lives of their parents who in turn will help these experience God's power in their own lives.
Your children and my children are constantly faced with instances in which God wants to show Himself strong. He uses these instances in order to show your children that He is both real and powerful on their behalf. At Bowie Elementary, there is a program in which good students are honored each week both at the class and school level. A little over a year ago, my daughter came home depressed because it seemed like everybody else in her class except for her was getting recognized as being the class star student of the week. Well, we would have done what many parents do and called up the teacher, chewed her out, and made sure that she got star student from her class the next week. Instead, I felt like this was a great opportunity for God to show Himself strong on her behalf. So we decided as a family to pray about the matter and tell the Lord that we would be happy with whatever He chose to do. Well, the next time star students of the week were announced, guess who was chosen from Molly’s class? That's right, Molly! What's even better is that same week she was chosen to be one of the 10 star students of the week for the entire school. Molly knew beyond a doubt that this result from the fact that we had prayed about the matter. God had proven His reality to a 7-year old. We are sadly mistaken if we think that God is interested only in doing big things for adults in order to show Himself real. Most of us adults don't need that. The ones who do are the children, and it's our responsibility as parents to help our children experience God's power and reality.
Well, the children of that first generation did not know the Lord and as a result fell into idolatry. So begins the vicious cycle of falling into idolatry, oppression by foreigners, crying to the Lord, God being moved with compassion and sending a judge to deliver them, peace in the land while the judge rules, the judge dying and the people committing even greater sins. In response to this first lapse, the Lord sends the king of Babylon (Mesopotamia) who terrorizes Israel until God raises up Othniel who delivers Israel.
The second lapse results in Eglon, the king of the Moabites, capturing Jericho (the city of palms). One word about Eglon—he was fat. Not the kind of fat that Slim Fast will cure, but rather the kind of fat that would appear on the front pages of the National Enquirer. Although the Israelites had rebuilt the city of Jericho, they had refused to fortify it because of the curse Joshua had placed upon the city. Eglon uses the city as his base of operations to oppress other parts of Israel. The people cry out to God because of their sufferings, and He responds by raising up Ehud. Two of the finest OT scholars ever (Kiel and Delitzsch) claimed that nowhere in the passage does it say that God raised up Ehud, and therefore, what Ehud did, did not result from God's initiative. I think, though, that the implication of the passage is that Ehud was God's man acting on God's behalf. Our modern-day sensitivities may recoil in horror at what he did; however, I've got the distinct feeling that the writer of Judges as most impressed with what Ehud did. You can almost hear him laughing with delight over the details of the story.
Ehud, noted for being left-handed, accompanies a group of Israelites bearing tribute to Eglon. After the tribute is paid and the company leaves, Ehud returns by himself and asks for a private audience with Eglon. Ehud approaches under the pretense that he has a message for the king of the Moabites. For some unknown, insane reason, Eglon grants the audience. Eglon is on top of the roof which is probably covered with cloth canopies—a type of cooling room. When the 2 are alone, Ehud asks permission to come closer to Eglon so that he can whisper in his ear the message. When he approaches, Ehud tells Eglon that he has a message for him from the Lord. At that point, Ehud stretches his left hand to his right thigh and retrieves a sword (18" long) he has hidden under his garments. He then takes the sword and plunges it at a 45-degree angle into Eglon. Eglon is so fat that the belly totally swallows up the sword. Whereas our English versions are really tame at this point, the Hebrew is much more graphic. I will let you look in credible OT commentary to find out further details.
Ehud then leaves the room, bolting the door behind him. When the attendants later check on Eglon, they find the door bolted. They're thinking that Eglon has gone to use the rest room. When Eglon does not respond later, the attendants unlock the door and discover that Eglon has been assassinated. Ehud meanwhile rallies the Israelites, destroys 10,000 Moabites and liberates Israel from Moabite oppression. Needless to say, no other foreign oppressor ever fell for the trap of granting an audience to a left-handed Israelite after this event.