The reason I harp on this is because war is in no way a small theme in the Bible. In the Old Testament, "salvation" means, almost always, God rescuing his people in battle. To enter into the world of the Old Testament is to rejoin a warrior nation with constant danger on every side. If I'm honest with myself, I must admit two things. One, I have no idea from real experience what this is like. Two, I nevertheless sense deep down an atavistic longing awakened by these texts. I mention this because, before we sit in judgment over the text with our self-righteous modern ethical mindset, I think we should let ourselves be disarmed by the Bible. Before we ask, "How do we interpret the text and apply it to our lives?" maybe we should first just try to enjoy the stories. If you do this, you will absolutely love the book of Judges.
The theme of the book is laid out near the beginning, in 2:11-23, of which I'll quote 16-19:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshiping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.There are basically two parts of the book after this. The first part, which runs through Chapter 16, is a series of tales recounting the deeds of the awesome judges. The Greeks had their pantheon of gods; the Israelites had their judges, each one of them known for showing glory in battle. You cannot find more entertaining stories, but let the reader be warned--there are blood and guts everywhere. The first of these stories is Ehud defeating King Eglon of Moab. "Now Eglon was a very fat man," says the sacred text. So do you know how Ehud killed him? He went before the king all alone to give him a "message from God," then he plunged a sword into his belly, "and the fat closed over the blade." This is in the Bible, folks.
Then there's the story of Deborah and Barak. Deborah the prophetess tells Barak to go to battle against Sisera, but Barak won't go without Deborah. So she tells him that because of this, "the Lord will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman." Now the woman she's talking about is actually Jael, who tricks Sisera into coming to rest in her tent after he flees from battle. Then while he's sleeping, she takes a tent peg and drives it into his skull.
Then there's the awesome story of Gideon, who defeats the Midianites. God commands him to narrow his army of 22,000 down to just 300 (why does that number sound familiar?), so that the Israelites will be convinced that the victory was truly miraculous. Gideon is one of my favorite characters because of something he says near the end of his story. From 8:22-23:
Then the Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand if Midian." Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you."This beautiful statement of Israelite allegiance to God over all human authorities is that tainted by what happens just after. Gideon creates an idol for the people, and they bow down and worship it. The Bible is full of this kind of stuff: there is never a clean victory, because even the good guys always screw up something.
After Gideon one of his seventy sons, Abimelech, tries to establish himself as king by first killing off all of his brothers. Only one of them, Jotham, survives. Jotham prophesies that the people's allegience to Abimelech will backfire, and that is what happens: Abimelech burns all the people of the Tower of Shechem, and in the very next scene Abimelech has a millstone thrown on his head and dies.
Then there's story of Jephthah, who delivers the people from the Ammonites. Jepthah makes the most twisted vow I've ever heard of: he promises that if God gives him victory, he'll kill the first thing that comes out of his house upon his return as a sacrifice. So guess what that is? His daughter--his only child. And guess what happens next? He actually kills her. Even worse, his daughter agrees with his decision; she only asks to be allowed to go to the mountains for two months to "bewail her virginity."
I actually heard a sermon about this passage once, for which I applaud the pastor. It was something about not acting on bad theology; Jephthah was basically the example of what not to do. For that I applaud this particular pastor.
By the way, Jephthah is where we get that word Shibboleth. The Ephraimites get angry at Jephthah because he went to battle without them, so they go to war with the Gileadites (Jephthah's people). If any of the Ephraimites tried to escape, here's what the Gileadites did (12:5-6):
Then the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. Whenever one of the fugitives of Ephraim said, "Let me go over," the men of Gilead would say to him, "Are you an Ephraimite?" When he said, "No," they said to him, "Then say Shibboleth," and he said, "Sibboleth," for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan.Finally, the last great tale in this series is Samson. In terms of awesome heroes, it doesn't get much better than this: he kills a lion with his bare hands, he kills thirty men at once by himself in order to pay a debt, he kills a thousand Philistines with a donkey's jawbone. And last and best of all, he is seduced by Delilah, which turns out to be his undoing, because she gets him to tell her the secret of his strength. As 16:16 says, "Finally, after she had nagged him with her words day after day, and pestered him, he was tired to death." I'm telling you guys, the Bible can tell it like it is. The Philistines cut off his hair, which takes away his strength, so they capture him and throw him in prison. But do not fear, Samson's end is glorious. The Philistines make him perform in front of them in their temple. Then Samson asks God for one last bit of super-strength in order to crush the Philistines. His hair grows back just in time for him to push against the pillars of the temple, crushing all of the Philistines and himself.
The reason I list all of these stories is that they deserve the repetition. Simply trying to derive an abstract meaning from them would do them and the reader a disservice. This is not a morality play. I would never teach my children to try to be like Ehud or Gideon, certainly not Jephthah or Samson. These are heroes because of their strength, pure and simple.
Yet there is a clear message which comes through as all these stories are woven together. God will never stop saving his people. There are enemies all around, and God will show his strength by raising up a hero to stop them. But why? Why does God still love his people after they've betrayed him over, and over, and over again? That's love, folks. No matter how angry God is with Israel, he always welcomes them back.
There is a second part of this book, Chapters 17 - 21, which is just about the most horrifying thing you can find in all of literature. I read these chapters as one unit, framed by the repetition of the following verse, which is both 17:6 and 21:25, the very last verse of the book:
In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.It is a tale of idolatry, rape, murder, war, and lawlessness. There is a clear comparison made between the Benjaminites of Gibeah and the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis. The whole story is not worth recounting here, and I'm not sure my stomach could take it if I tried.
The ending of Judges sends a mixed message. Is it now time for God to install a king in Israel? Perhaps that will turn them back from their wickedness. Yet all of this time, God himself has been their king; why do they need human protection? Later Samuel will tell the Israelites they have sinned in asking for a king, though God will give them one anyway. One way to read these words--"In those days there was no king in Israel"--is that the people had rejected even God as their king, and that is what they did "what was right in their own eyes."
If the first part was attractive because of its stories of strength and glory, the second part is nothing of the sort: it can only make one shudder. The Bible can be a very dark book.
But the thing is, I've always found Judges less disturbing than Joshua. It's no wonder that we see darkness when all the people do what is right in their own eyes. Somehow I can deal with that much more easily than I can with God himself commanding people to "show no mercy."
We'll just have to keep dealing with this as the Old Testament stories progress. War never stops being a central theme. Maybe by the time we get to Jesus there will be a way to make sense of it all.