REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 15
J u d g e s
The lessons and summary of the Book of Judges
We cannot leave this book of Judges, with its litany of repeated failures, without wondering why it is included in the cannon of Scripture at all. It is hardly edifying, and to many even downright discouraging. The triumph of the rescue from the slavery of Egypt, and the long journey to the land God promised to Abram, Isaac, and Jacob, seems to have come crashing down as the people failed to honour the covenant which successive generations of Israelites had confirmed. We haven’t even seen any of those “judges” so stand out, (except for quite short periods of respite), that they motivate and lead the people in completing the task of uniting the tribes of Israel as examples of harmonious, righteous living to the nations among whom they now lived. BUT, there is a reason, and to discover it we need to delve a bit longer into what follows this Book of Judges. Two things become clear. The author, whoever it was, uses this record of failure to bring about necessary change. Several times (seven to be exact) in the text of ‘Judges’ the author uses the words “in those days”. They indicate that the author is looking back in history at the events being described. Furthermore, that the author yearned to see improvement in the situation.
Although ‘uncertain’, a case is made that Samuel, the last ‘judge’ of Israel, was the author not only of the books that bear his name, but of Judges and Ruth too, even though Samuel did not initially favour the appointment of a democratically appointed king. The precise timing of events is not critical to our understanding of the message. However, Ruth and Boaz lived about the time when Gideon was judge in Israel. Samuel was born while Samson was judge, and Eli was High Priest and became judge over Israel shortly after, or late in the life of, Samson. We will ‘reflect’ much more on the life and influence of Samuel later in this series. But in broad terms, given Samuel’s enormous influence of events which transpire in the life of the Israelites in the promised land, it is possible to see how important it would have been for him to remind the people of their abject failure, recorded sometimes in minute detail, in the Book of Judges.
The story of the gentile Moabite lady, Ruth, adds nothing to the narrative about actual life in the land, EXCEPT as it goes to the very heart of love God demonstrates in His relationship to those who choose to worship Him out of a willing heart. Boaz himself is held up as the “kinsman redeemer”, covering his gentile bride with the attributes of love and sacrifice which are later found in the all embracing love of Yeshua. And that is in sharp contra-distinction to those who belonged to God but wittingly, even wilfully, turned away from Him into idolatry, which quickly morphed into decadence and immorality. Let us remind ourselves of some wise words of counsel which the beloved Rabbi Sha’ul gave to his protege Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16,17) centuries later. “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”. For that reason, the hundreds of years of repetitious failure recorded Book of Judges is used by its author to remind future generations of Jews of the traps and pitfalls which are to be avoided. And not the least being the generation amongst whom God miraculously caused him, Samuel, to be born. One of only six men recorded in the Scriptures being born of a formerly ‘barren’ woman. God’s man for God’s time … and ALL time.
The Book of Judges does not deal with the SIXTY year period of ‘judges’ who came after Samson. That is left to the first two “books of the kings” which bear Samuel’s name. We begin our ‘reflections’ on those books next week. We know very little about Eli who succeeded Samson in that role, except that, somewhat surprisingly, he was also High Priest at the same time as he was ‘judge’ and resided in Shiloh, where the tabernacle was set up by Joshua. He was a direct descendant of Aaron’s fourth son Ithamar. We also know that he eventually lost his life as a direct result of an accident which was triggered out of his own moral failure in the matter of the conduct of his own two sons. That is an indication of the continuance of the unsavoury behaviour patterns which beset the Israelites, and which characterises the Book of Judges.
We may conclude that this was the point in history when God said “enough”. In preparation for change, and by miraculous intervention, God placed the righteous Samuel right in the centre of the ‘action’. But before any of that action could commence the Book of Judges had to be written. The failures recorded there provide the background and reasons for the need for change.
Furthermore, as we have already reminded ourselves with Paul’s quotation and counsel to Timothy, there are many lessons to be learned from this ‘book of failure’ for any who have the diligence and willingness to learn them. “Be diligent (study) to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth”. Another word of counsel from the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 2:15).
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 14
J u d g e s
In the list of judges shown in the table here, we have ‘reflected’ on 13 of them, and the book of Judges does not mention either Eli or Samuel. After the death of Samson and the hierarchy of Philistine leaders, the writer of this book provides more detail of significant moral failure which succeeded that event. It may well be that later Scripture authors were motivated, in part, by these events in making some of their observations. I think of Psalm 1 and Matthew 7 and 12 specifically in reference to the fruit borne by ‘good’ and ‘rotten’ trees. Quite clearly, the ‘tree’ in our Judges ‘reflections’ , Israel, was ‘rotten to the core’. The strong leadership provided by Moses and Joshua, hundreds of years earlier, was a distant memory.
“And it came to pass in those days, when there was no king in Israel …”. Which resulted, as the very last verse of our text today says “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes”. (Judges 21:25) The word ‘king’ is often, as in this instance, a word used to describe the civic leader. Since Israel had no such person, it is little wonder that with no-one in charge, there was no direction, and very little, if any, moral compass. Thus opens our reading today. Micah, a man of Ephraim, stole money from his mother. He remorsefully returned it to her. It was money she had planned to use to make a statue which she would worship. Which is exactly what the money was eventually used for. Micah’s home became a shrine of idolatry, with one of his sons consecrated as a priest of that idolatry. Then a Levite (a man dedicated to the priesthood of the Lord), from Bethlehem, turned up at Micah’s home and was persuaded, for an annual stipend, to remain in Micah’s employ as a priest of idolatry. Micah reasoned that if he had a Levite as priest, albeit doing the wrong thing, that would out things right with the LORD! But that is not the end of the story. Read it in Judges 18. The tribe of Dan eventually took possession of those idols and symbols of worship, together with the wayward Levite, and set up an official idolatrous worship centre in their new location of Dan, formerly called Laish, with other pseudo priests from the tribe of Manasseh. What a mess! All this time, for hundreds of years, the House of the LORD still clearly established in Shiloh, where Joshua had set up the tabernacle. The writer of this book is now intent on establishing the depths of disobedience which had gripped Israel.
The Levites were set apart for the service of the LORD. They were allowed to marry but had constraints on their lifestyle, and the status of the women they could marry, which were significantly more strict than for the ordinary Israelite. (Leviticus 21:14). The Levite in our text (Judges 19:1) had abandoned the conditions of his calling. A strong sign of the moral decay within that society. Perhaps there is a salutary lesson that we may learn from this. Our status as ‘believers’, since we belong to the LORD, requires that we live by standards which are different to those who have made no such commitment. And there are plenty of witnesses to our behaviour. (A personal note:- when as an 18 year old I was conscripted into the Air Force, my old Sunday school teacher counselled me to “nail your colours to the mast”. You won’t need to wonder if you are going ‘off track’ , he said, because you will be surrounded by people who will be only too pleased to tell you. He was speaking from his personal experience as a christian working in the South Wales coal mines). People around us take note of how we live as evidence of our confession of faith. Actions speak louder than words.
The graphic story of that disobedient Levite, and the events which took place as a result are detailed in Judges 19 to 21. In a bizarre and gruesome account of his “wife’s” demise, one thing stands out. “So all the children of Israel came out, from Dan (in the north) to Beersheva (in the south) as well as from the land of Gilead (in the east), and the congregation gathered together as one man before the LORD at Mizpah”. 400,000 men of military age. They decided to send an army of 40,000 to deal with the matter. They demanded that the Benjamites (who had army of 26,000) deliver up to them the “vile men” who had killed the Levite’s wife, for judgement. They refused. In two days of conflict, Israel lost all of its army, 40,000 men. That brought the Israelites to their knees (literally) before the LORD. Read the account in Judges 20. All but 600 Benjamites lost their lives in the next battle, and their cities were destroyed. It is a sad story of disaster which can only be attributed to the judgement of God on them for their wanton disobedience to the covenants they had made, and reaffirmed, many times. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”. (Hebrews 10:31) Yes, that is the same God who also said “I am the LORD, I do not change” (Malachi 3:6) And also YES, He was addressing those who belonged to Him. Selah!
It looked as though the tribe of Benjamin would be wiped out as a result of these disastrous encounters. But in the course of time, there was a reconciliation and the other tribes found a way to keep Benjamin in the “family” of Israel by providing wives for those who survived the conflict. Never-the-less, the book of Judges lives up to the conclusion to which I referred in the first ‘reflection’ on this book, that it might well have been named “The Book of Failures”. And in spite of that, there are many lessons for us to learn about the way God deals with, loves, corrects, and chastises those who are His.
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 13
J u d g e s
“Again the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and the LORD delivered them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years”.
After this time of travail for the Israelites, the LORD Himself took a hand in their rescue. We do not read that the people cried out to the LORD as in former times. In fact there is evidence in our text today that the people had settled into a life of subservience to the Philistines! (Judges 15:11) So the LORD sent an Angel to the childless (barren) wife of Manoah, of the tribe of Dan, to announce that she would bear a son who would begin to deliver the Israelites out of the hands of the Philistines. This is not the first occasion the LORD had miraculously caused a ‘barren’ woman to bear a son who would have a prominent role in God’s plan for His people.
Think Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, now Samson, soon Samuel, and finally John the Baptiser. Six miraculous occasions in which God provided a timely leader for the benefit of the people called by His name.
Manoah’s wife, on this occasion, was given unique and vital, instructions regarding the child she was to bear. This boy was to be dedicated, from conception, to the LORD’s service. A Nazarite to the LORD. No alcoholic drink, no unclean foods during the pregnancy. And the boy himself was not to be a Nazarite from conception to death. The conditions under which a Nazarite lived are specified in Numbers 6. Ordinarily, the vow was taken by a man or woman for a specific period of time (remember Rabbi Sha’ul in Acts 21 demonstrating his own ‘orderly walk’ by assisting 4 men who had taken such a vow). But for this young man it was a lifetime appointment by God Himself. Such was the gravity of the work God had for him to accomplish. Manoah sought a further conversation with the Angel of the LORD to clarify how the lad was to be brought up. The Angel merely confirmed what he had already spoken to his wife, and then supernaturally departed from their presence. “So the woman bore a son and called his name Samson; and the child grew, and the LORD blessed him”. That statement covers a period of several years, during which time there came a moment when “the Spirit of the LORD began to move upon him”. Now, in order to understand the context of what follows, keep in mind that at this time the Israelites were in subservience to, and cautious of, the Philistines.
However, the young Samson went to a small Philistine town, Timnah, about 5 Km east of Zorah. became attracted to a young Philistine lady, and asked his parents to arrange a marriage between them. At first they were quite reluctant to make that arrangement, (they did not know that this was part of God’s plan) but eventually Samson did marry the young Philistine woman. Read the fascinating story in Judges 14 to see how God used this lady to betray Samson and thus turn him against the Philistines. (“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the LORD” Isaiah 55:8).
There followed a series of conflicts between Samson and the Philistines, on each occasion the conflicts resulted in many Philistines losing their lives as the Spirit of God came upon Samson to gift him with supernatural strength. Of course, we know that it was because the LORD had both chosen and anointed him for the task. We are not given any more detail here of the oppression of the Israelites by the Philistines, but evidently the effects of Samson’s presence caused him to be anointed judge over Israel for the next twenty years. We can safely assume that they were years of relative peace. But that is not the end of the story of Samson. His family lived in the area known as the “Valley of Sorek”. As did the family of a lady called Delilah, for whom Samson had developed a ruinous affection. The Philistine hierarchy bribed Delilah with the promise of 1,100 ‘pieces of silver‘ ($23,000+ in 2023 currency), to entice Samson to reveal the source of his supernatural strength.
Well, the story is very well known by anyone whoever attended a Sunday school, At the first, Samson ‘toyed’ with Delilah by inventing fanciful reasons for his strength, but eventually, in a naively trusting manner, told her the truth. Now here is an important lesson. As children, mostly, we were told what Samson declared to Delilah was the truth. That his strength came from the length of his hair. But the real truth is that the length of his hair was just a symbol of his relationship with God, made in a Nazarite vow even before he was conceived. In every case (Numbers 6) the Nazarite vow voluntarily ended with a sacrifice to God (with whom the vow was made) and shaving the head. Samson we might presume, forfeited his relationship with God, as a Nazarite, for the love of Delilah. No longer could Samson instil fear in the Philistines to the peaceful benefit of the Israelites.
However, the story of Samson, the judge of Israel, has one more surprise. Blinded and tormented by his captors he was brought before the leaders of the Philistine’s as they gathered to make sacrifice to their god, Dagon. The symbol of Samson’s strength had begun to grow again, and Samson cried out to the LORD that his supernatural strength be restored one more time. It was. And the building in which the Philistine sacrifice was to be made came crashing down on all those assembled there. “So the dead that he killed at his death were more than he had killed in his life”. The last word to the LORD!
REFLECTIONS ON LIFE IN THE PROMISED LAND
The Promised Land “reflections” 12
J u d g e s
After the death of the wicked Abimelech, there came upon the people “the curse of Jotham” (Judges 9:57). Many commentators have attempted to provide insight into this “curse”, and the general consensus seems to agree that it consists of a spirit of discontent, treachery and revenge. By any measure, such behaviour in a community or group leads to more division, and healing becomes almost impossible.
But “After Abimelech there arose to save Israel ,Tola”. He was of the tribe of Issachar, he lived in the mountains of Ephraim, and apart from knowing the names of his father and grandfather, that completes our knowledge of him. He judged Israel for 23 years and he died!
For the next 22 years Israel was judged by Jair of the tribe of Manasseh, who lived in Gilead. (Numbers 32:41) He had 30 sons, who rode on donkeys and had 30 towns in Gilead, over which they presided. Then Jair died and was buried in the town of Camon. That is the sum total of our knowledge about Jair. During the period of 55 years, while Tola and Jair were in charge of things, not-withstanding the ‘curse of Jotham’, it appeared that the people did not fall into their usual pattern of idol worship. But as soon as Jair died, the pattern resumed. All over the country, the gods of the Canaanites, of Syria, of Sidon, of Moab, of Ammon, and of the Philistines were honoured in worship instead of the God of Israel, YHWH Elohim. “So the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel”. Again. For 18 years the Israelites were harassed and oppressed. On both sides of the Jordan River, the tribes, Rueben, Gad, Manasseh, Benjamin, Judah, Ephraim experienced the harsh oppression of the Ammonites in particular. So once again, the Israelites called out to their God for help. And received a huge shock.
In human terms the word “exasperated” probably best describes the reaction of God to their pleas for His intervention. “Yet you have forsaken Me and served other gods. Therefore I will deliver you no more. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress”. Now we are not given any sense of a timeline here. So it is impossible to estimate how long it took for the ‘penny to drop’ with them, or how long it was before even the LORD could stand it no more. But what is plainly evident is that the LORD was greatly distressed to see His chosen ones, with whom he had made an everlasting covenant, struggle with their oppression. And that, my dear friends, is a lesson for the whole world to know. The precursor to their salvation? “So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD”. The Scriptures tell us clearly that there is still more oppression ahead for the people called by His Name. But God will keep His covenant with those who are His. “And ALL Israel shall be saved” (Romans 11:26).
In our text, the ‘saviour’, the next judge over Israel, was again a most unlikely character. Jephthah, a son (by a harlot) of Gilead of the tribe of Manasseh. Originally rejected by the rest of his step-brothers, he fled to the land of Tob, to the east of the King’s Highway (today a scenic road between Amman and Wadi Musa) in Jordan. There he became something of a bandit, but skilled in the art of warfare, and well known as a result. Thus it was that the elders of Gilead sought him out to lead them against the Ammonite predators. Jephthah was a skilled negotiator too, because he bargained with those elders to become head over them (and thus as their judge) as a condition of his help. He was less successful in his negotiations with the Ammonites (Judges 11:12-28) but, after seeking the favour of the LORD, he made a fateful vow which eventually cost him the life of his daughter. But God gave them success in the resulting battle with the Ammonites. Yet it did not bring the peace that might have been expected. It would appear that the “curse of Jotham” was still upon them. It manifested itself in a dispute between Jephthah and the Ephraimites, who were ‘miffed’ by the fact that Jephthah had apparently not asked them to be part of the battle with the Ammonites! In the events which followed, a great battle took place between the men of Gilead and the Ephraimites, in which 42,000 Ephraimites lost their lives. Jephthah went on to judge the people for a further six years before he died.
Then followed relatively short periods of succession of the next persons who occupied the position of judges. Firstly, Ibzan, probably of the tribe of Benjamin. He judged Israel for seven years before he died. Then followed Elon of the tribe of Zebulun who occupied the position for the next ten years. After him Abdon of the tribe of Ehpraim, son of Hillel (not the famous Rabbi!) sat in judgement of the people for the next eight years. The only notable thing we are told about him is that he was quite wealthy, evidenced by the number of donkeys in his family.
Then the old patterns of behaviour returned. Idolatrous worship accompanied by unrighteous living became rife among them. So once again, the LORD allowed their enemies, this time at the hand of the Philistines, to sorely treat them. The next forty years they lived under that oppression before the Lord Himself intervened. Which is where we will start next week.