Judges: when society crumbles

Judges, the biblical book, is two things at once: a record of historical heroes, and a detailed, exhausting chronicle of human failure.

Reading about the heroes is fun. The entertainment never lasts, however, because the author painstakingly takes care to point out the flaws in every hero and the crumbling society in which the judges found themselves. The author of Judges, like all the other authors of the Bible, zoomed in uncompromisingly on that one most unpopular topic: sin.

It can be hard to read the Bible for exactly this reason. It doesn’t let up on sin. Many people especially shy away from books like Judges, for an understandable reason. Reading Judges is like watching an extended movie called “This Is What Sin Looks Like.” It is a brutal read.

After a chapter and a half of setting the scene with some essential background information, the rhythm of the book gets going in chapter 2:

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. Judges 2:11-12

If you come to the beginning of Judges having read Genesis through Joshua, these verses will break your heart. For six books straight, God had set up every precaution, prescribed every law, held up every incentive, to keep the people of Israel faithful to him. He had given them a glorious vision of themselves as the beacon of hope for humanity, the shining city on a hill, a blessing and example to all people. To accomplish this, all God had asked of them was to “fear him, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve him, and to keep his commandments” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

By the beginning of Judges, the potential was huge. God had freed Israel from slavery and brought them to Canaan where he had led them in a string of military victories under Joshua, giving them the land and the security they needed to flourish as a nation. The question on everyone’s mind at this point in the biblical story is, “Will Israel pull it off? Will they keep God’s law and fulfill their God-given mission as a nation?”

The author of Judges wrote his or her book (the author is unknown) for the purpose of answering this question with an unambiguous NO. Why, you may ask, write 21 chapters expounding upon this simple answer, in such painful detail? Perhaps it is because the reason for the No was sin, and sin is complex and convoluted. Apparently, although we dislike hearing or reading about sin, we must understand it if we want to be deeply joyful, deeply useful Christians.

For Judges-era Israel, the disease of sin most often expressed itself by blending in with the pagans around them by intermarrying with them (3:5-6) and adopting their religious practices (8:27, 10:6, 17:4). It was the spiritual, not ethnic, dilution that mattered. In the same breath, people said things such as, “I dedicate the silver to the LORD… to make a carved image and a metal image” (17:3), as if even in the wake of Moses’ life people had not heard of the second and third commandments.

You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes… Deuteronomy 12:8

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6 (repeated in 21:25)

Overall, the author of Judges gives very little direct commentary about the events he recounts. At two brilliantly ironic places in his narrative, however, he pauses to say, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” The author deliberately uses the same phrasing Moses had used several years earlier, before Israel entered Canaan.

“Everyone doing what was right in their own eyes”; that is how the author of Judges explained Israel’s chaos. And perhaps that is the most fundamental way to define sin: me defining my reality, what I will call good and what I will call bad; me deciding whom or what I will worship and love. Me deciding what is worth my time, my self. The god of Me, doing what is right in my own eyes, with no thought to God or the debt of love.

To list for your reading enjoyment a complete catalog of the disturbing, heart-breaking, and dreadfully ironic examples of human sin recorded in Judges would take a blog post unto itself. Suffice it to say the list is long, and diverse.

But why did Israel fail? They possessed God’s law, and every privilege. God had carefully inculcated into their culture both the motive and the opportunity for obedience. The Apostle Paul reflected on this question some eleven centuries later, and concluded, in light of Jesus’ advent and the Spirit’s outpouring:

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin [or as a sin offering], he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Romans 8:3-4

Because Jesus (1) came to the world as a man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” and (2) offered himself as an atoning sacrifice for sin, (a) sin is condemned and (b) the law is fulfilled in us whose hearts and lives are penetrated by the Spirit.

They had the law, but we have the Spirit. How dare we forget that for a moment. God the Creator, the King, the Judge, the Promise-Maker, the Promise-Keeper – the God of Judges – is alive, and living in us. The same Spirit of Yahweh who “rushed upon” the judges and made it possible for them to deliver Israel militarily now abides in us without leaving, making it possible for us do outlandish, “foolish,” beautiful things for the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name.

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you… For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” Romans 8:11, 14-15

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One thought on “Judges: when society crumbles

  1. Thank you Lyssa, I learned a lot from this essay. Your words and God’s pierce my heart. You encourage me. Love, Mom

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