Judges 1-3

Good morning! Today we begin the book of Judges, which are a series of stories about the intervening time from the colonization of Canaan until the time of the prophet Samuel and his anointing of Saul, the first king. We see among these “judges” (who combine military and community authority) mostly good but some bad leaders, both female and male, all measured by how faithful they (and the people of their time) are to the covenant with God. Obedience and loyalty to God affects their success in battle. Overall, Judges presents a repeated cycle: from faithfulness to unfaithfulness, then divine judgment in the form of military defeat, then salvation at the hands of a judge, then a return to faithfulness (for a time). This general formula helps give shape to some of the most vivid yet overlooked stories of the Hebrew Bible.

The beginning of Judges tells again of the conquest of various parts of Canaan, this time with an eye to the more disparate leadership of the tribes rather than that of Joshua (though he is still alive). Judah and Simeon fight for and inhabit the land allotted to them. We read the story from Joshua 15 of Caleb’s nephew Othniel taking a city and “winning” as a prize Caleb’s daughter Achsah, who successfully asks her father for land as a dowry. Other details from this chapter are also familiar from Joshua. This summary of earlier events emphasizes the continued presence of “others” among the settled Hebrew people.

As Judges 2 opens, we learn from an angel that co-existence with foreigners displeases God and will lead to idolatry. An interlude emphasizes the righteousness of Joshua and his generation, before describing their death and the emergence of “another generation…who did not know the Lord”. This foreshadowing yields immediately to description of Israel’s unfaithfulness. This leads to military defeat, then God raises up righteous judges (military and civil leaders), but the people are not able to be faithful for long. The end of the chapter suggests that non-Israelites who remain among the people do so at the will of God to test Israel’s loyalty. While cynics might see here a contradiction, or God’s “moving the goalposts” and making it harder for Israel to demonstrate faithfulness, I find this a helpful example of biblical voices in conversation with one another, seeking to make theological sense of what’s happening in the world.

This “testing of Israel” theme carries into chapter 3, where we first begin to read the leadership of various judges for the people. Othniel’s success in battle has already been seen, and he gets credit for liberating Israel from an oppressive foreign king. A visceral story of Ehud’s assassination of Moabite King Eglon emphasizes Ehud’s cleverness, both in the slaying of the king and then the successful rebellion he leads against the Moabites, using to his military advantage the “choke points” of fords across the Jordan River. The verse given to Shamgar’s success against the Philistines highlights another characteristic common to judges in this period—their physical strength and dominance. We’ll see this again in the stories about Samson later on. Happy reading!

Read Judges 1-3.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Judges 4-5. Thanks for reading!

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