The Bible – Book by Book – Judges

A curious event occurs in Genesis 5:5. It might not seem so curious to us, as this event has become somewhat commonplace to us. But at that time, this sort of thing had never happened before. It was a new event in human history. In Genesis 5:5, Adam died. Other people had died before Adam, or at least one person. But that was the unnatural event of murder. We don’t see anyone in the Scriptures dying of natural causes. This was a curious event and it solidified the reality that had entered into the creation when Adam and Eve had fallen into sin. The life of man now ended in death. In fact, the rest of Genesis 5 is a litany of death. “and he died…and he died…and he died.”

If death remains a curious event, it is only because we will experience it but once. It is no longer curious because it is completely foreign to us. The book of Genesis ends with the people of God in Egypt and another death, the death of Joseph. The book of Joshua ends with the death of Moses and the people of God in the land of Canaan. They have been chosen as God’s special people. They have been rescued from slavery. They have received a Promised Land. But they are still subject to the unyielding presence of death.

The book of Judges will not answer the problem of death. It will open by reiterating the death of Joshua. The death of Joshua bridges from one book into the next. This is important because it sets the context of the book of Judges. People die. Leaders die. And the death of leaders will send Joshua into a downward cycle of despair.

There is a repeating pattern in the book of Joshua. There is rebellion against the LORD, “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judg 3:7). God is angry with them. The people are oppressed by their enemies. The people cry out in repentance. The LORD raises up a deliverer, or a judge. There is peace for some period of time. The judge dies. And then the cycle starts over. There are twelve judges in the book. Six of these judges receive some form of narrative. But each seem to follow this cyclical pattern, with each subsequent judge being a little worse than the previous and each revolution being punctuated with the death of the judge. Therefore, a picture of a downward spiral is more accurate than that of simply a cycle. The story arc of Judges more closely follows that of a toilet bowl than a bicycle wheel.

The first judge in the cycle is Othniel. Othniel is raised up after the people cry out for deliverance from the hand of Cushan-rishathaim (i.e. Cushan the Doubly Wicked). Othniel confronts Cushan and defeats him. And there is 40 years of peace in the land.

The second judge is Ehud. Ehud’s cycle is one of the most colorful depictions of battle in the Bible. Ehud slaughters Eglon by concealing a dagger on his right thigh. When he confronts Eglon, who was a “very fat man,” Eglon was in his bathroom. Ehud reaches with his left hand for the dagger on his right thigh. He thrusts it into Eglon’s fat belly, pierces the sphincter, and disembowels Eglon. The fat closes up over the handle of the dagger. Ehud leaves the dagger in Eglon and escapes. Ehud ushers the people into 80 years of peace.

It might be apparent by now that these judges were not what we typically think of as judges. They were not officials in black robes making judicial pronouncements. Perhaps a better translation of the term would be “warlords.” The warlord in the middle of Judges is Gideon. Gideon is often celebrated in our churches, but perhaps that should be re-thought. Gideon is, at best, a mixed bag. He destroys the altar of Baal, but he repeatedly demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s command. He delivers Israel from Midian and refuses to be made king, but then he names his son Abimelech, which translates to “My father is king.” Gideon is a hero/antihero who reflects well the fickle nature of the people and yet is an instrument of God’s grace.

The longest narrative in Judges is given to Samson. Again, Samson is often presented to us (particularly in children’s story bibles) as a hero, but he is really more antihero. He is a deeply flawed saint. He has a birth narrative, like noteworthies Moses and Samuel. But he often does what is right in his own eyes. Bruce Waltke summarizes, “He mixes his faith with lust of the eyes, lust of the flesh, and pride of life, not with love of God and Israel.” Samson also reflects a fickle people. And Samson will not be the ultimate deliverer of the people, for he too will die.

Every warlord judge died. None of them brought true deliverance to the people. They still rebel against God, suffer the consequences, cry out to God, and seek deliverance. But that deliverance will only be fulfilled in one who will not die. The book of Judges is a cry for redemption that can only be satisfied by One who defeats the grave and death. The book of Judges calls for the covenant-keeping God to destroy the anarchy of our hearts with an ever-living Redeemer, Jesus Christ.