Chaos (Judges 1-21)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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After the death of Joshua, Israel has no permanent national leadership position. Instead, as threats arise—a military attack, for example—men and women are raised to leadership for the duration of each crisis. The English term “judges” does not really capture the role these men and women play in the nation. (The Hebrew word shopet, usually translated “judge,” means an arbitrator of conflicts, military commander, and governor of a territory.[1]) The judges do settle disputes, but also take responsibility for the military and governmental affairs of the nation in the face of hostile surrounding peoples. While we will maintain the traditional designation of judges, the epithet “deliverers” is a more accurate description of these leaders.

In the book of Judges, we find an altogether more dismal view of Israel’s leaders than in the book of Joshua. Bit by bit, the succession of judges diminishes in quality until finally leading Israel into utter chaos. The book concludes with stories of rape, murder, and civil war, with the appropriately grim coda, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Doing right in their own eyes does not refer to virtuous people acting ethically on their own accord, but to the unfettered pursuit of looking out for number one, as we might put it today. It means the failure to obey God’s command, through Joshua, that “the book of the law shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:7). The command is to do what is right in God’s eyes, not what seems good in our own biased and self-serving vision. The judges failed to lead the people in observing God’s law, and thereby failed both to administer justice and to govern the nation.[2]

Failing the Driving (Out) Test: Israel's Idolatry (Judges 1-2)

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Judges 1-2 picks up where Joshua 13-22 left off, with the failure of Israel to drive out the Canaanite nations in the land. “When Israel grew strong, they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but did not in fact drive them out” (Joshua 17:13). There is a certain irony in the newly liberated Israelites becoming slave owners at the first opportunity. But the chief reason Israel was supposed to drive out the Canaanites was to prevent their idolatry from infecting Israel. Like the snake in the Garden, the idolatry of the Canaanites will test the Israelites’ loyalty to God and his covenant. Israel fares no better than Adam or Eve did. Failing to remove the temptation of the Canaanites, they soon began “serving” the Canaanite gods, Baal and Astarte (Judges 2:11-13, 10:6, etc.) (The NRSV translates the Hebrew as “worshiping,” but virtually every other English translation more accurately reads “serving.”) This is not merely a question of occasionally bowing before an image or uttering a prayer to a foreign god. Instead, Israel’s life and their labor are spent in futile service to idols, as Israel comes to believe that their success in labor depends on assuaging the local Canaanite deities.[1]

Most of our work today is dedicated to serving someone or something other than the God of Israel. Businesses serve customers and shareholders. Governments serve citizens. Schools serve students. Unlike worshipping the Canaanite gods, serving these objects is not evil in itself. In fact, serving other people is one of the ways we serve God. But if serving customers, shareholders, citizens, students, and the like becomes more important to us than serving God, or if it becomes simply a means of enlarging ourselves, we are following the ancient Israelites into worshipping false gods. Tim Keller observes that idols are not an obsolete relic of ancient religiosity, but a sophisticated, though false, spirituality we encounter every day.

What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give. A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living. An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought. It can be family and children, or career and making money, or achievement and critical acclaim, or saving “face” and social standing. It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in the Christian ministry.[2]

For example, an elected official rightly desires to serve the public. In order to do that, he or she must continue to have a public to serve, that is, to stay in office and keep winning elections. If serving the public becomes his or her ultimate goal, then anything necessary to win an election becomes justifiable, including pandering, deception, intimidation, false accusations, and even vote-rigging. An unlimited desire to serve the public—combined with an unshakable belief that he was the only person who could lead them effectively—seems to be exactly what motivated US President Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. It seems that an unlimited desire to serve the public is what caused him to pursue winning the election at all costs, including spying on the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel. This in turn led to his impeachment, loss of office and disgrace. Serving an idol always ends in disaster.

People in every occupation—even the family occupations of spouse, parent and child—face the temptation to elevate some intermediate good above serving God. When serving any good becomes an ultimate goal, rather than an expression of service to God, idolatry creeps in. For more on the dangers of idolizing work, see the sections on the first and second commandments at Exodus and Work (“You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3); “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Exodus 20:4)) and Deuteronomy and Work (“You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut 5:7; Ex 20:3); “You shall not make for yourself an idol” (Deut 5:8; Ex 20:4)) at

Deborah (Judges 4-5)

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The best of the judges is Deborah. The people recognize her wisdom and come to her for counsel and conflict resolution (Judges 4:5). The military hierarchy recognizes her as supreme commander and in fact will only go to war on her personal command (Judg. 4:9). Her governance is so good that “the land had rest for forty years” (Judg. 5:31), a rare occurrence at any point in Israel’s history.

Some today may find it surprising that a woman, not the widow or daughter of a male ruler, could arise as the national chief of a pre-modern nation. But the book of Judges regards her as the greatest of Israel's leaders during this period. Alone among the judges, she is called a prophet or prophetess (Judg. 4:4), indicating how closely she resembles Moses and Joshua, to whom God also spoke directly. Neither women, including the undercover agent Jael, nor men, including the commanding general Barak, exhibit any concern about having a female leader. Deborah’s service as a prophetess-judge of Israel suggests that God does not regard women’s political, judicial, or military leadership as problematic. It is also evident that her husband Lappidoth and her immediate family had no trouble structuring the work of the household so that she had time to “sit under the palm of Deborah” to fulfill her duties when “the Israelites came up to her for judgment” (Judg. 4:5).

Today, in some societies, in many sectors of work, in certain organizations, women’s leadership has become as un-controversial as Deborah’s was. But in many other contemporary cultures, sectors, and organizations, women are not accepted as leaders or are subject to constraints not imposed on men. Could reflecting on Deborah’s leadership of ancient Israel help Christians today clarify our understanding of God’s intent in these situations? Could we serve our organizations and societies by helping demolish improper obstacles to women’s leadership? Would we personally benefit from seeking women as bosses, mentors, and role models in our work?

The Economic Effects of War (Judges 6:1-11)

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After Deborah, the quality of the judges begins to decline. Judges 6:1-11 illustrates what was likely a common feature of Israelite life at this time – economic hardship stemming from war.

The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and the Lord gave them into the hand of Midian seven years. The hand of Midian prevailed over Israel; and because of Midian the Israelites provided for themselves hiding places in the mountains, caves and strongholds. For whenever the Israelites put in seed, the Midianites and the Amalekites and the people of the east would come up against them. They would encamp against them and destroy the produce of the land, as far as the neighborhood of Gaza, and leave no sustenance in Israel, and no sheep or ox or donkey. For they and their livestock would come up, and they would even bring their tents, as thick as locusts; neither they nor their camels could be counted; so they wasted the land as they came in. Thus Israel was greatly impoverished because of Midian; and the Israelites cried out to the Lord for help.

The effects of war on work are felt throughout many parts of the world today. In addition to the damage done by direct strikes against economic targets, the instability brought about by armed conflict can devastate people’s livelihood. Farmers in war-torn areas are reluctant to plant crops when they are likely to be dislocated before the harvest comes. Investors judge war-torn countries a poor risk and are unlikely to funnel resources to improving infrastructure. With little hope of economic development, people may be drawn into armed factions fighting over whatever resources may be left to exploit. So the dismal cycle of war and destitution continues. Peace precedes plenty.

Israel’s economic situation was so precarious under the Midianites that we find the future judge Gideon “beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites” (Judg. 6:11). Daniel Block shows the rationale for his behavior.

In the absence of modern technology, grain was threshed by first beating the heads of the cut stalks with a flail, discarding the straw, and then tossing the mixture of chaff and grain in the air, allowing the wind to blow away the chaff while the heavier kernels of grain fell to the floor. In the present critical circumstances this obviously would have been unwise. Threshing activity on the hilltops would only have aroused the attention of the marauding Midianites. Therefore Gideon resorts to beating the grain in a sheltered vat used for pressing grapes. Generally wine presses involved two excavated depressions in the rock, one above the other. The grapes would be gathered and trampled in the upper, while a conduit would drain the juices to the lower.[1]

Today Christians and non-Christians alike overwhelmingly agree that it is immoral to conduct business in ways that perpetuate armed conflict. The international ban on “conflict diamonds” is a current example.[2] Are Christians taking a lead in such endeavors? Are we the ones who track down whether the businesses, governments, universities, and other institutions where we work are unwittingly participating in violence? Do we take the risk to raise such questions when our superiors might prefer to ignore the situation? Or do we hide, like Gideon, behind the excuse of just doing our jobs?

Past Success Doesn’t Ensure the Future - Gideon’s Ambivalent Leadership (Judges 6:12 – 8:35)

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Gideon is a prime example of the paradoxical character of Israel’s judges and the ambivalent lessons they offer for leadership in the workplace and elsewhere. Gideon’s name literally means “hacker”,[1] and it seems to point in a positive direction when he hacks up his father’s idols in Judges 6:25-7. (The fact that he does this at night, out of fear, is a disturbing detail.)[2] Despite the fact that God has promised to be with him, however, Gideon is forever seeking signs, most notably in the incident of the fleece in Judges 6:36-40. God does condescend to assure Gideon in this instance, but it is hardly an example for others to follow as many modern Christians argue in relation to guidance and specifically vocational guidance. It is instead a sign of the wavering commitment that will come to ultimately collapse into idolatry at the end of the story.[3] See Decision Making by the Book[4] and Decision Making and the Will of God[5] for in-depth analysis of Gideon’s discernment methods.

The high point of the tale is, of course, Gideon’s astonishing triumph over the Midianites (Judges 7). Less well known are his subsequent failures of leadership (Judges 8). The inhabitants of Succoth and Penuel refuse to help his men after the battle, and his brutal destruction of those cities might strike some as disproportionate to the offense. Gideon is again living up to his name, but now he is hacking down anyone who crosses him.[6] Despite his protestations that he does not want to be king, he becomes a despot in all but name (Judg. 8:22-26). Even more troubling is his subsequent fall into idolatry. The ephod he makes becomes a “snare” for his people, and “all Israel prostituted themselves to it there” (Judg. 8:27). How the mighty are fallen!

A lesson for us today may be finding gratitude for the gifts of great people without idolizing them. Like Gideon, a general today may lead us to victory in war, yet prove a tyrant in peace. A genius may bring us sublime insight in music or film, yet lead us astray in parenting or politics. A business leader may rescue a business in crisis, only to destroy it in times of ease. We may even find the same discontinuities within ourselves. Perhaps we rise in the ranks at work while sinking into discord at home, or vice versa. Maybe we prove capable as individual performers but fail as managers. Most likely of all, perhaps, we accomplish much good when, unsure of ourselves, we depend on God, but wreak havoc when success leads us to self-reliance.[7] Like the judges, we are people of contradiction and frailty. Our only hope, or else despair, is the forgiveness and transformation made possible for us in Christ.

The Judges’ Failure of Leadership (Judges 9-16)

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Gideon’s failures are intensified in the judges who follow. Gideon’s son Abimelech unites the people around him, but only by killing his seventy brothers standing in his way (Judges 9). Jephthah starts as a brigand, goes on to deliver the people from the Ammonites, but destroys his own family and future with a dreadful vow that leads to the death of his daughter (Judg. 11). The most famous of the judges, Samson, wreaks havoc amongst the Philistines, but infamously succumbs to the seductions of the pagan Delilah to his own ruin (Judg. 13-16).

What are we to make of all this for our work in today’s world? First of all, the stories of the judges affirm the truth that God works through broken people. This is surely true, for a number of the judges—Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah— are praised in the New Testament, along with Rahab (Hebrews 11:31-34). The book of Judges does not hesitate to point out that the Spirit of God empowered them to bring about mighty acts of deliverance in the face of overwhelming odds (Judges 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6-9; 15:14). Furthermore they were more than instruments in God’s hand. They responded positively towards God’s call to deliver the nation, and through them God delivered his people again and again.

Yet the overall tenor of Judges does not encourage us to make these men into role models. The burden of the book is that the nation is a mess, awash in compromise, and its leaders are a disappointment in their disobedience of God’s covenant. A more appropriate lesson to draw might be that success– even God-given success – is not necessarily a pronouncement of God’s favor. When our efforts in the workplace are blessed, especially in the face of adverse circumstances, it is tempting to reason, “Well, God obviously has his hand in this, so he must be rewarding me for being a good person.” But the history of the judges shows that God works when he wishes, and how he wishes, and through whom he wishes. He acts according to his plans, not according to our merit or lack thereof. We cannot take credit as if we deserved the blessings of success. Likewise, we cannot judge those whom we deem less deserving of God’s favor, as Paul reminds us in Romans 2:1.

The Prosperity Gospel Unmasked in Early Form (Judges 17)

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If the central section of Judges offers us flawed heroes caught in a depressing cycle of oppression and deliverance, the final chapters portray a fallen people seemingly beyond the hope of redemption. Judges 17 opens with almost a parody of idolatry. A man named Micah has lots of money, his mother uses the money to make an idol, and Micah hires a free-lancing Levite as his personal priest. It is not surprising that Micah’s tawdry home-grown cult features an equally abysmal theology. “Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest’” (Judges 17:13). In other words, by getting a religious authority to bless his idolatrous enterprise, Micah believes that he can co-opt God into churning out the goods he craves. Human creativity is here wasted in the worst possible way, in the manufacture of make-believe gods as a cover for greed and arrogance.

The impulse to turn God into a prosperity machine has never died away. A notorious form of it today is the so-called “prosperity gospel” or “gospel of success” which claims that those who profess faith in Christ will necessarily be rewarded with wealth, health, and happiness. With respect to work, this leads some to neglect their work and descend into licentiousness while waiting for God to shower them with riches. It leads others—who expect God to deliver prosperity though their work—to neglect family and community, to abuse co-workers, and to do business unethically, certain that God’s favor exempts them from ordinary morality.

The Levite's Concubine: Human Depravity & The Complicity of Religious Authorities (Judges 18-21)

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The final episode in Judges is the most appalling event in Israel’s long slide into depravity, idolatry, and anarchy. Some men from the tribe of Dan make off with Micah’s whole religious enterprise, including the Levite and the idol (Judges 18:1-31). The Levite takes a concubine from a distant village (Bethlehem, as it happens), but after a domestic quarrel, she returns to her father’s house. The Levite goes to Bethlehem to retrieve her. After a five-day drinking binge with her father, the Levite foolishly begins the journey back home not long before sunset. They find themselves alone at night in the town square of a village in the tribe of Benjamin. No one will take them in until at last one old man offers the hospitality of a place to stay the night.

That night the men of the city surround the house and demand that the old man bring out the stranger so they can rape him (Judg. 19:22). The old man tries to protect the stranger, but his idea of protecting visitors is stomach-turning, to put it mildly. In order to spare the Levite, the man offers his young daughter and the Levite’s concubine for the men to rape instead. The Levite himself casts the concubine out the door, in perhaps the earliest recorded instance of religious authorities’ complicity in sexual abuse. Then “they wantonly raped her, and abused her all through the night until the morning” (Judg. 19:25). Her body is subsequently dismembered and dispersed to the tribes of Israel, who almost exterminate the tribe of Benjamin in reprisal (Judg. 20-21). The Canaanization of the Israelites is complete.[1]

The concluding line of the book sums up things succinctly. “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg. 21:25). In case it’s not obvious, this means that without leadership that led the people to serve the Lord, people followed their own evil devices and desires, not that people’s inherent moral compasses led them to do right without needing supervision.

In our spheres of work today, threats against the powerless— including abuse of women and foreigners—remain shockingly common. Individually, we have to choose whether to stand with those who face injustice—undoubtedly at risk to ourselves—or lie low until the damage is past.

Organizationally and societally, we have to decide whether to work for systems and structures that restrain the evils of human behavior, or whether to stand aside while everyone does what is right in their own eyes. Even our passivity can contribute to abuses in our places of work, especially if we are not in positions of authority. But anytime others perceive you as having power—say because you are older, or have worked there longer, or are better dressed, or are seen often talking with the boss, or belong to a privileged ethnic or language group, or have more education, or are better at expressing yourself—and you fail to stick up for those being abused, you are contributing to the system of abuse. For example, if people tend to come to you for help that means you have a significant amount of perceived power. If then, you stand idly by when a derogatory joke is told or a new employee is bullied, you are adding your weight to the victim’s burden, and you are helping pave the way for the next abuse.

Reading the horrible events in the last chapters of Judges may make us grateful that we do not live in those days. But if we are truly aware, we can see that simply going to work is as freighted with moral significance as was the work of any leader or person in ancient Israel.