The best way to imagine the Book of Judges is to compare it to some bad movie sequels, where the writers have run out of ideas and so just keep repeating themselves. Because that’s essentially what the Book of Judges is, the same story told again and again. Every single story begins with the Israelites abandoning God, God sending a foreign oppressor as punishment, the Israelites beg forgiveness and so God rescues them. Every good thing that happens is due to God and every bad thing is the Israelites fault, which makes me doubt the objectivity of the author.
So Judges begins as Joshua left off, with the Israelites defeating their enemies and slaughtering their opponents. They defeat the Canaanites and the Perizzites and burn Jerusalem. Interestingly, despite God’s claims that he will defeat all opponents, it is said that “he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.” (1:19). How can God claim to have created everything in the universe, yet be weaker than a small primitive tribe? How can God claim to be all-powerful when he is defeated by iron chariots?
Judges lists the tribes, primarily the Canaanites, who the Israelites did not commit genocide against, but instead used them for forced labour. This raises the question of whether ancient Israel was in any way a slave or caste society? Was there a divide between the Canaanites on the bottom and the Israelites on the top? While I was glad of a break from the relentless extermination of the last book, it turns out God is angry about the lack of genocide. In fact he sends an angel to the Israelites declaring that they have broken their covenant with God, for failing to commit genocide against the Canaanites. As punishment, God will no longer help them win battles but instead the Canaanites will be a thorn in their side. Just when you think God can’t get any worse, he is now leaving people to die as retribution for not committing genocide.
As time passed the Israelites did evil (in the eyes of the Bible) by worshipping Baal and Ashtaroth. This made God furious so he sent plunderers and “he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies.” (It’s unclear whether they were being punished for the lack of genocide or the lack of worship or both.)God sent judges to save them, but the people didn’t listen and whenever the judges died, people would abandon Judaism. So God sent enemies to test the people (killing many of them seems a strange sort of test. Did the dead pass or fail?). This is an unusual twist on the old question of the problem of evil. Why do bad things such as war and the massacre of innocents happen? According to the Bible, it’s because those people sinned and God sent war to punish them. It’s hard to believe that wars in the Middle East or the Second World War were sent by God to punish people for sin.
This is a strange notion that leads to disturbing conclusions. Does that mean that those who murder, rape and pillage are actually doing God’s work? Should we look at the destruction of war as divine judgement that can only be stopped by prayer rather than treaty? Should we blame the victims for bringing such suffering on themselves? Should we excuse war criminals for punishing the sinful? What do you do to deserve war? Is simply changing religion bad enough to deserve that? How many people must change religion for war to be necessary? All of them or just a majority? Did they stop following all the laws or just some?
More importantly, is war the only way to punish the sinful? Why not wait until they are dead and judge them then? Is there no non-violent way of judging people? After all, in war innocent people die painful deaths, would a loving God not want to avoid rather than encourage this? Would it not be better to peacefully convince people to change their ways?
There is actually a sudden shift in the tone of the Bible. In Joshua, the Israelites were winning all their battles and destroying everything before them. However, in Judges, the Israelites spend most of their time as subjects of other powers and struggling for independence. This poses an obvious problem for the supposed chosen people who claim to have God fighting on their side. How can God be defeated? So the Bible, comes up with an excuse, God wanted them to lose because they had become evil. It’s never fully explained what the Israelites did wrong, though it’s hinted they changed religions. But why would they forget the miracles God had performed? Either the people are stupid, maybe God’s miracles have been exaggerated or perhaps other religions have been performing similar miracles.
There is also the problem that the Israelites are going to war with people they claimed were destroyed in Joshua and Exodus. I’m finding it hard to keep track of all the various tribes and it seems the authors of the Bible had the same problem, because we have a tribe being completely exterminated only to reappear later. The unity of Joshua is completely missing, so Judges reads like an alternative history of the Israelites. Instead of coming from Egypt, they were a divided group of people who slowly united against outside enemies and then later made a creation myth.
So God sent war to test the Israelites. He sold them into the hands of Cushan-ristathaim king of Mesopotamia. For eight years they were subject to him until the people of Israel cried out to God who sent Othniel to save them. Wouldn’t they have cried out at once, why did God wait eight years? What made him finally say enough people have suffered? Othniel won battles and there was 40 years of peace. But again the people of Israel did evil, so God strengthened Eglon the king of Moab, who conquered and ruled Israel for 18 years. Then God sent Ehud, who killed Eglon and lead the Israelites to victory against 10,000 Moabites (not a single one who survived). Then there was 80 years of peace.
Again the people did evil, so God sold them to Jabin the king of Canaan. After 20 years, God decided to do something and there was a battle in which the Israelites won. Interestingly, the army was lead by Deborah, which is one of the few times a woman has power in the Bible. As Jabin fled, he sought sanctuary in the tent of a friend. While he slept, his friend’s wife hammered a tent peg into his skull. Random brutality is a recurring theme of the Bible. And there was 40 years of peace.
Again they sinned so this time Midian ruled Israel for 7 years. This time there is actually a bit of a story about how they were driven off. An angel appears before a man called Gideon and tells him that he must lead an army. But Gideon wanted proof so he put meat and cake on a rock which the angel caused to burst into flames. Gideon asks for another proof that God is on his side. He left a fleece on the floor asking that it be covered in dew but the ground be wet. When this happened, Gideon asked for the opposite. So the next day, the floor was wet but the fleece was dry (if you think about it, this is pretty weak evidence).
This raises an interesting point about proof. For most of the Bible, it is taken as a given that God is speaking to the prophets and no one seems to challenge them. But how can you be truly sure that God is on your side? While the modern view is that you should never question God, in the Old Testament there are several cases where people ask for evidence that God is really there. While the proof given to Gideon isn’t overly convincing its a lot more than most other get. Why has God given up on providing proof nowadays and instead relies on blind faith?
However, God told Gideon that his army was too large and people might think that the Israelites won because they had a large army, not because God was on their side. So Gideon sent home everyone who was scared (22,000 people) leaving 10,000. This was still too many (God really wanted to show off) so he sent them to drink from a river and everyone who drank like a dog (300) was selected. These 300 were all he needed.
Gideon spies on his enemy’s camp where the soldiers inexplicably acknowledge that Gideon is sent by God (then why were they fighting against him?). When Gideon attacked God put the enemy’s sword against their fellow soldiers. According the Bible 120,000 men died (compared to only 300). He defeats them and chases them. On the way he asks for food from some locals who refuse him. When he returned he flogged the elders with thorns, sacked the city and killed the men.
Gideon had 70 sons and many wives (again daughters literally don’t count and the “sacred institution of marriage” is blatantly disregarded. One man and too many wives to count is fine with God but two men isn’t?). As soon as he died, the people abandoned their religion yet again. Then things take a Game of Thrones turn with betrayal galore. One of his sons Abimelech plotted to make himself king and with the leaders of Shechem, slaughtered his 70 brothers. But Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem turned against each other and began infighting in a rather tedious manner. Abimelech ambushed Shechem, killed the men, razed the city and sowed it with salt. He burned 1,000 people in the tower of Shechem alone. He attacked Thebez but a woman threw a rock that crushed his skull. He quickly got his soldier to stab him so that no one could claim he was killed by a woman. The petty sexism is almost funny and I’m not sure how being killed by your own soldiers is better than being killed by a woman.
So the main theme of the first half of the Book of Judges is that if things are going well, God should get all the credit. But if things are going badly, then that’s your fault because God is sending these things as punishment for your sin. (This makes God one of the first politicians and spin doctors). Now this belief has been dropped as primitive by modern believers, but this is what the Bible says. What probably really happened was that the Israelites would fight wars, win some and lose some. If they won, they took this as a sign that God was on their side, and if they lost, this was a sign that God was punishing them for their sin. The battles took place first, the religious stories came later.
It still leaves a lot of questions. If I am holy and my neighbours sinful, will God still punish us with war? Will I still be killed by the soldiers? Can I live a sinful life so long as I have iron chariots that apparently God cannot defeat? Does God still send wars to punish people for their sin? If not, why did he change his mind?
For the other posts in my series reading the Bible, see here.