Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.
The writer of Judges sets its stories in a time after Joshua had died, and its theme can best be summed up in the passage above. The cast of characters changes and some are better fleshed out than others, but the story never changes. Israel violates its promise to worship only YHWH; bad consequences ensue; they cry out for help; God raises up a deliverer; they fall back into their old ways; and the cycle begins again.
Baal, the rain god, and Ashtoreth, the mother/fertility goddess, were two of the main deities in the Caananite pantheon. As the Israelite people gave up their nomadic existence and settled into an agricultural lifestyle, it became a matter of life and death that crops and livestock were fertile, and that sufficient ran came at the proper time. Most likely their worship of these local gods was in addition to, rather than instead of, that of YHWH. It seemed logical: why not cover all your bases and placate the local gods as well as the one responsible for bringing them into the land? They really had not yet bought into the idea of monotheism.
Game of Thrones has nothing on some of the stories in Judges, and the judges themselves were often quite flawed people. Left-handed Ehud hides a double-edged sword on his right side, tricks the king of Moab into giving him a private audience, and buries the sword into the fat king’s belly so deeply that the flesh closes over the hilt. Gideon seems to have been somewhat doubtful if God was really talking to him, and keeps asking for proof. Jephthah is the illegitimate son of a prostitute whose father’s family kicks him out, so he becomes what appears to be some kind of Bronze Age gang lord. His story ends when he feels compelled to sacrifice his only child, a daughter, as a burnt offering in order to fulfill a rashly made vow to God. Sampson, who is probably the best known of the judges, is alternately narcissistic and naive, and has a dangerously explosive temper, along with probably far too much testosterone. There’s the story of Micah’s priest-for-hire, not to mention the gruesome story of the Levite’s concubine. Unlike Lot’s daughters, she had no angelic protectors and is abandoned to her rapists. Her death becomes the flashpoint for an intertribal war with unfortunate consequences not only for the Benjamites, but also for innocent women in Shiloh. Judges seems to end in complete anarchy, to the repeated refrain of “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit”
My favorite judge story is that of Deborah, who seems to be the most qualified and rational of the bunch. Her story begins in Judges 4, where she is described in the following way: “Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided” It’s fascinating to me, because here is a woman in a patriarchal society who is its clear spiritual, temporal, and military leader. And she’s not the only female hero of the story: there’s Jael, who manages to rout an invading army by driving a tent peg through the skull of its general.
So where’s the good news in all these very bad stories? As I see it, there is actually quite a bit of it. First, God doesn’t give up on us, no matter how awful we are to him and to each other. Second, it gives me hope to know that God can use even very imperfect, error people to accomplish good purposes. And of course, there’s Deborah, who reminds me that God’s divinely planned role for women isn’t limited to “in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant”.
And I think that’s good news.