If the book of Joshua was entitled: “Victory through Faith,” then the book of Judges would be labeled: “Failure through Compromise.” Sadly, that pretty well sums up the essence of the twenty-one chapters in Judges. The initial battles have been fought and Israel is now in the land of Canaan. Some Canaanite peoples who had been dislodged are now neighboring tribes who hope they can reclaim their territory. They lost the land because of their sins and some of them would regain what they lost when Israel falls into sin. Many Canaanite people still dwell in the land and have yet to be destroyed or driven out. The book of Judges relates a series of encounters between Israel and her oppressors who periodically gain the upper hand–when Israel disobeys God, that is!
Judges were raised up by the LORD without regard to their tribal origin or family background. As we will see in our study of this book, they vary greatly in their personal characteristics. However, they all shared one thing in common–they delivered Israel from oppressors. Essentially, the judges mentioned in this book were military leaders guided by God. They did not make laws; the laws were given by God. They did not explain laws; that was the duty of the priests. They upheld the laws and avenged crime (particularly idolatry and its related vices). When Israel departed from God’s way, they were punished. When they cried out for deliverance, God would raise up a judge. Judges did not rule as would kings. None of the judges were over all the land; they served in a specific tribe or region.
It is traditionally believed that Samuel wrote Judges. There is a two-fold purpose set forth in its chapters:
To continue the history of Israel after they settled in Canaan and until the time when they felt there was a need for a human king to rule over them.
To clearly illustrate the truth that rebellion against God brings punishment, but repentance brings restoration to God.
A careful reading of Judges 1 & 2 may initially lead to confusion. First, Joshua is mentioned as dead (1:1). Later, he is mentioned as alive (2:6). Is this a contradiction? No, and the problem vanishes when it is understood that the writer is summarizing a lot of history (from Joshua up into the era of Eli, Samuel, and King Saul) into a small space, and he is not writing in a chronologically precise fashion. Some of the events described in Judges 1 occurred while Joshua was alive (e.g., the conquest of Hebron by Caleb; Jud. 1:10-15; cf. Josh. 14:6-15; 15:13-19). Other events, however, occurred at a much later time. This solves some of the difficulties associated with this chapter. For example, in Judges 1:8, Judah is recorded as taking the city of Jerusalem initially. But, later on (1:21) it is recorded that the Jebusites could not be dislodged from Jerusalem by the tribe of Benjamin. How can this be? Apparently, after the city was taken, it was not inhabited and some of the enemy returned and dwelt there again.
You are encouraged to the read Judges 1 in its entirety. We will only consider a few verses of interest at this time (since most focus on summarizing battles throughout the land). As the book begins, the people start off well. They ask God for guidance and then they fulfill God’s desire. If only the entire book was characterized by this sort of faithful obedience!
In 1:18,19 a partial victory is recorded – “Also Judah took Gaza with its territory, Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory. So the LORD was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.” I believe some time has passed between Judah’s success recorded here and then her failure. What has happened in the meantime? Apostasy! God was with His people and blessed them with absolute success until they turned from Him. Then, their progress was halted. I believe such explains the partial victory described here. As we consider the rest of the book, this truth will become more clear.
A number of tragic statements are recorded in 1:27ff. Over and over again, various tribes in Israel are mentioned as being unable to completely drive out their enemies, yet they were able to put them under tribute (taxation, and thereby profit from their own disobedience!). This sets the stage for Israel’s ultimate downfall. The Angel of the LORD explains the problem quite well in 2:1-4:
“‘I led you up from Egypt and brought you to the land of which I swore to your fathers; and I said, “I will never break My covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.” But you have not obeyed My voice. Why have you done this? Therefore I also said, “I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you”‘ So it was, when the Angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the children of Israel, that the people lifted up their voices and wept.”