The Judges (Judges 3-16)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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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.