Today in church we begin a series looking at the book of Judges. I’m going to blog some introductory notes I presented to our Bible teachers group.
The word ‘judge’ does not have the judicial sense that we associate with it. It seems to mean both deliverer or saviour and governor and ruler. The judges are military heroes who deliver God’s people and then rule over them during their lifetime. They give the people rest from their enemies while they live. In this they point forward to Jesus, our ultimate hero, who fights against our enemies (sin and ) and give us rest from them as long as he lives!
The judges themselves were a motley crew. They are rarely from influential families or noble backgrounds. They are also often flawed characters (indeed, they seem to get worse as the book progresses, mirroring the decline in the nation).
Ehud is left-handed and Deborah was a woman – both of which might have disqualified them from leadership in the culture of their day (Judges 3-5). Gideon was a coward (Judges 6-7) and Jephthah makes a rash vow (Judges 10-11). Then there is Samson whose every act of deliverance is initiated by his (Judges 13-16). Time and again, they conquer through weakness (most explicitly in the story of Gideon and his 300 men).
The point is that the judges are instruments of God. The judges are all raised up by God. ‘Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders’ (Judges 2:16). None of them are conventional heroes to demonstrate that behind them all is God. He is the true Judge, the true Deliverer, the true King and the true hero of the story. In Judges 11:27 Jephthah speaks of ‘the Lord, the Judge’.
One of the key message of the book is that God uses unexpected people to do unexpected things. God uses messy people. He uses sinful people. In 14:4 we read the writer of Judges provides an editorial comment on the story. Samson wants to marry a Philistine which his parents know is wrong because Israelites were not to inter-marry with foreign women. But the writer tells us: ‘His parents did not know that this was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel.’ (Judges 14:4) Samson’s sinful desires are part of God’s plan. God uses even sinful actions to accomplish his purposes (Acts 4:27-28).
Because God is the true Judge and the true King, the judges do not begin ruling dynasties or take the king. They bring peace to Israel during their lifetime. Gideon and his son are a somewhat ambiguous exception that proves the rule. Gideon is asked to be king, but refuses saying, ‘I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.’ (Judges 8:23) However he calls one of his sons, ‘Abimelech’ which means ‘the king is my father’. After Gideon’s Abimelech has himself proclaimed king in Shechem after an act of fratricide. After three years, the people of Shechem rebel against Abimelech so he turns on them, about a thousand. But he himself dies besieging a neighbouring town. Abimelech is the only ‘king’ in the book of Judges and it is not a pretty sight!