A part of my learning process is spending time with the parts of the bible I am less familiar with, and this certainly applies to one of the “most exciting, colorful, and disturbing books in the Bible” (NIB II:723) the book of Judges. The book of Judges narrates the time between the entry into the promised land under Joshua and the beginning of the time of the kings of Judah and Israel. This book which occurs in the early Iron Age highlighting the transition from, “a nomadic, shepherding life to one settled and agrarian.” (Hattin 2020, xi) During the book of Judges, Israel is not a nation as we think of nations but rather a collection of tribes and families that rarely acted as a whole. The book of Judges is a violent book which narrates a continual decline in the social and religious life of the people. It is a time where the divine promise is under threat by forces external to Israel, but the greatest threat to the promise is internal-the continual drift of the people away from the ways of covenant faithfulness and to the attractive alternative presented by the gods and practices of the nations that continue to exist in the land.
Entering the world of the book of Judges is challenging. As mentioned above the book is violent, but so is the ancient world. In addition to the immense technological gap between the early iron age and the information age is the equally challenging cultural gap between both the author of the book of Judges and the world that the book describes. The world of Judges is closer to the society of native American populations prior to the arrival of Europeans than to the medieval world that many imagine. It is a time of competing religious and moral visions contrasted with the desire for a covenant based theocratic system desired by the author of Judges.
Within the book of Judges is a continuing and escalating pattern of the unfaithfulness of the people, God’s deliverance of the people into the hands of an oppressor, the call for help from the people, and God’s deliverance of the people from their trouble by a judge. The judges are not legal scholars but military leaders who act to deliver the people from trouble. There are many familiar stories within the book of Judges: Samson and Delilah, Gideon, and Deborah and Barak. There are also many parts of Judges that are rarely talked about: Jephthah’s rash promise which ends with the sacrifice of his daughter, the awful treatment of the unnamed concubine of the Levite and the subsequent near elimination of the tribe of Benjamin, and the carrying away of the women of Shiloh. It has stories that teenage boys love because of their gruesome nature: stories of a sword swallowed up by fat or a tent peg driven through a sleeping king’s head. It is a violent and strange book.
This is not a part of scripture I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and beyond the simple reality of God’s continual deliverance of Israel despite its continual turning from the covenant vision and its dark vision of the possibility of human depravity I’m not sure what I will discover in this exploration. It is a place in scripture where women often fill unexpected roles, but are also victims of violence. I do consider Judges, along with 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, part of a larger narration of the story of Israel that looks backwards trying to make sense of how it can end up in exile under Babylon, and a part of that narration is trying to make sense of the current crisis by examining the stories of the past and where the people have failed to live into the vision God desired for them. I can’t promise that every piece of Judges will produce brilliant flashes of illumination, but I do trust that there is wisdom to attempting to enter this strange book, hear it on its own terms, trying to understand and learn from this action filled and disturbing story.