Stories of Five Judges, Part One

A Cycle of Failure, 2:6-3:6

Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, “Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did.” The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua. (2:18-23)

After an account of the victorious battle in chapter one of Judges, we are given a summary of how Israel fell prey to powerful oppressors. Verses 6-9 almost parallel Joshua 24:28-31. One of the very curious features of Old Testament history is the repetition of history. At times it is almost humorous and predictable, and the reader wonders why these people of God didn’t learn from their predecessors!

Of course, before we mock the ancient Hebrews for being somewhat dense, it would do us well to review our own history. The Great Detective himself made this observation:

The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again. (The Valley of Fear)

1. Epitome of an Era, 2:6-10

Just before he died, Joshua led his people in renewing their covenant with the Lord. After that, each one went to take possession of their inheritance. Those events are actually described back in chapter one. Joshua passed away in the flower of his manhood, at the age of 110, and he was laid to rest within the boundaries of his allotment of land in the hill country of Ephraim. His burial plot was in a place called Timnath-heres, which means “portion of the sun.” What a wonderful place to be buried. Even in death God honored his faithful servant.

During the lifetime of Joshua and the leaders who outlived him, Israel was generally faithful to the Lord. Unfortunately, the great leaders of his generation began to die out, and the new generation seemed uninterested in God. Perhaps it was because they had not personally witnessed the great things He had done for Israel. Perhaps it was because they had been inadequately taught.

We may never know why Israel behaved the way they did, but these handful of verses is a summary of Israel’s history for the division of the Land to the beginning of the period of the Judges (The Pulpit Commentary, Judges).

People cannot thrive on the spiritual power of their parents. Each individual must experience the reality of God for themselves and develop a vital, personal relationship with Him. If that doesn’t happen, a generation may find itself lost in a spiritual morass that leads nowhere.

2. A Wicked and Perverse Generation, 2:11-15

With verse 11, we read an all-too familiar phrase: “…the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” All told, that ominous phrase occurs six times throughout Judges, each time introducing their cycle of failure: sin/slavery/supplication/salvation/silence.

In this first cycle, the Israelites quickly forsook the worship of Jehovah and served “the Baals.” Baal is an interesting word and means “lord, possessor, owner, or husband.” In the text before us, the word appears in the emphatic plural form, and means “the great lord” or “the sovereign owner” (Ridall).

This is an apt name for a false god, who because of its very nature is capable of ensnaring its victim, trapping him in endless and useless religion, ultimately coming dominate, possess, and own him, heart and soul.

In the ancient near east, Baalism was a cult or religion of nature. It’s primary doctrine was that of fertility. The idea was that a supernatural being was responsible for the fertility and productivity of the land and of animals. It’s easy to see how attractive this cult would be to a people who lived in an arid land. Worship of Baal was best described and perverse, and included such things as human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children and infants, who were often burned alive as a form of burnt offering, their screams of agony considered a form of prayer. How could God’s people do such abominations? Like most sins, the worship of Baal didn’t start out with human sacrifice, one worked up to that level of devotion. Baal worship often began with strange and deviant practices. It is a quirk of human psychology and physiology that our bodies always move toward pleasure and away from pain. When your crops won’t grow and your goats are dying from lack of water, the pleasures of sin can offer a welcome relief. The Bible teaches that there is pleasure in sin, but that pleasure is short lived and never satisfies, and so the hapless sinner must go deeper, always deeper in sin to get more relief from his pain. Sin will always take you farther than you wanted to go. Dr. R.G. Lee said these powerful words:

Sin is no disagreeable hindrance to the smooth ongoing of the social machinery. It is not egotistic abnormality. It is not goodness in the making, as though garbage could be fried chicken in the making. It is no upward stumble in man’s progress. Sin is the cancer of the soul; the leprosy of life; the poison of the heart; the madness of the brain; the palsy of the life; the frenzy of the imagination; the pollution of the blood; the blindness of the eyes; the prostitution of the tongue. Sin stole the keys of man’s nobility and threw him, woefully deranged, miserably erratic, and lost into hell. Sin is no light discord, it is a thunder clap of horror. It is no trickling stream, but rather a raging flood of death and destruction. Sin is no pen knife, t is a guillotine separating man from God.

There was a female variant on Baal, and her name was Ashtaroth. She was the goddess of love, fertility and maternity. Worship of this one included all forms of prostitution. So powerful and influential was she, that even the great Solomon fell prey to the alluring charms of this “Queen of Heaven,” as she was called in Jeremiah 7:18. You may not know her as Ashtaroth, but perhaps you have heard of Aphrodite and Venus. She was known by many names, but just like Baal, she never satisfied. How many witless men and women serve Ashtaroth today? Blindly stumbling from one relationship to another, looking for what? People like that are looking for the one thing found only in God.

3. A Sad Pattern of History, 2:16-23

With verse 16 the cycle begins in earnest. God’s people would find themselves in an untenable position, and He would raise up a judge to deliver His people from the oppression into which they fell. The term “judges” more properly means “governor” or even “champion,” the exact meaning is a bit unclear, but the concept is obvious. When the people hit rock bottom, God intervened with a man (or woman) who would have exactly what was needed to save the people. There were some 15 of these “judges” during this time. The Lord spared the people during the reign of a particular judge, even though the people deserved to be enslaved by their oppressors. But after the death of that judge the corruption of the people would resurface, worse than ever.

In fact, when we read verse 19, it indicates that the evil inclinations of the people became progressively worse as the period of the judges continued. The word stubborn as used here is the same word used to describe Israel when Aaron made the golden calf back in Exodus 32. If the Israelites were “stiff necked” in the wilderness, they were even more obstinate in the Promised Land. This new environment did not mean change the people one iota.

In verse 18, we read this remarkable phrase:

[T]he LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them.

I say this is remarkable, because here is a people who by there very actions denied the God who is now having compassion on them. Here is a people involved in religious prostitution, forsaking their one true Husband, the Lord, in favor of other gods. But when they suffered under the oppression of these gods, they cried and God had compassion on them. The language of this verse hearkens back to their days in Egyptian bondage. Who can fathom the love of God? The tears of a broken heart can change the way God deals with even the vilest of backsliders.

4. God Test His People, 3:1-6

The first six verses of chapter 3 introduce the reader to the identity and function of the nations left in Canaan to “test” Israel. These nations not only tested the loyalty of people to God, but it also provided them training in the disciplines of war and national defense. This new generation of Hebrew knew nothing of fighting; they had not grown up under Joshua, the great military leader, and they needed to learn how to fight. It wouldn’t be long before, under David, for example, the Hebrews would be facing greater foes than the ones in Canaan. Nations like Egypt and Assyria.

It may seem odd that God would use the Canaanites to both punish and teach Israel. Yet, this was all part of God’s sovereign work. In fact, in Exodus 23 we read the the Canaanite presence in the Land also kept the Israelites from being overrun with wild animals!

Sometimes the things in our lives that appear to be so at variance with God and His work are actually the very tools in His Hands that He uses for our good! It reminds us of Romans 8:28,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Conclusion: Some Lessons

There is a veritable wealth of lessons to be learned from this passage of Scripture. We learn, for example, there can be no salvation without a personal knowledge of God. What our parents or our spouses believe doesn’t affect us at all. We also learn how easy it is forget God when given a choice to follow our passions. It can happen in an instant.

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (I Cor. 10:12)

Although people have a tendency to wander from God and backslide, God doesn’t let go easily. He never lets His people slip away comfortably. And God’s word toward those who repent is always forgiveness.

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