Judges 2 The Pernicious Cycle of Disobedience

Cracked pots, Picture taken by Enric from the Monestary of Sanahin, Armenia shared under creative commons 4.0

Judges 2:1-5 The Messenger of God

1 Now the angel[1] of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you. 2 For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries  to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 When the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the Israelites, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 So they named that place Bochim, and there they sacrificed to the LORD.

The book of Judges begins with Israel inquiring of God, “who will go up?” but in the aftermath of Israel’s failure to expel the inhabitants of the land now a messenger of God “goes up” to confront Israel. The messenger can be read as a prophet or an angelic messenger, but in either case they speak for the God of Israel. This is the first of three times in Judges that the LORD will either send a messenger or directly confront Israel with their unfaithfulness.[2] The location that the ‘messenger’ goes up from is important, even though it is causally dropped into the opening verse. Gilgal is near Jericho. It is where the Israelites celebrate Passover for the first time in the promised land (Joshua 5: 10-12) but it is also where Joshua meets the commander of the army of the LORD. (Joshua 5: 13-15) It is possible that Judges intends us to hear this messenger as the same commander of the army of the LORD who was neither ‘one of us or one of our adversaries’ but who, at the LORD’s command, had come. Previously this ‘man’ was sent by God to go up against the Canaanites, now a ‘messenger’ goes up against the Israelites to confront them with their failure to maintain the covenant their God established with them.

This messenger speaks with the authority and voice of God. God promised to never break the covenant God made with the people, but the people have failed to uphold their side of the covenant by entering into covenants with the people of the land. The LORD their God is faithful but will not be taken for granted and the consequence of their disobedience is the discontinuation of God’s assistance in driving out the remaining inhabitants of the land. Canaan will not become a new Eden: a land of milk and honey free of temptations. Instead, “Canaan will be for Israel a land like any other, with other nations, other cultures, other values, and other gods constantly gnawing at Israel’s heart and allegiances.” (NIB II: 748) The vision of what could have been has been shattered by the broken covenant. Judges accepts this judgment as justified but also a cause for weeping and as the people offer God sacrifices they name the place ‘weepers.’

Judges is a book of weeping. Jephtah’s daughter will weep over the life she will lose to her father’s rash promise. (11: 37-38) Samson’s wife will weep because she is caught in a broken world where she is caught between her people and her husband. (Judges 14: 16-17) But the book ends with the people of Israel weeping to God at Bethel (20:23, 26; 21:2) over the brokenness of the people that ends with the near extermination of the tribe of Benjamin in response to the wickedness they exhibit. It is likely that Bochim is Bethel, and that the place where the Israelites weep at the beginning of the story of Judges becomes the place where the story ends in tears. The people can lament the covenant that they have not fulfilled, but the book of Judges also turns upon the faithfulness of God to this people even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. In this generation still knows the actions of God to bring them out of Egypt and into the land. Future generations will forget their story and their identity, and yet God will continue to hear and respond to their oppression.

Judges 2: 6-23 The Pernicious Cycle

6 When Joshua dismissed the people, the Israelites all went to their own inheritances to take possession of the land. 7 The people worshiped the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred ten years. 9 So they buried him within the bounds of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. 10 Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; 12 and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. 14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.

16 Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel; and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their ancestors, and have not obeyed my voice, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.” 22 In order to test Israel, whether or not they would take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their ancestors did, 23 the LORD had left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua.

Before beginning the narrative of the judges that would be God’s response to the cries of the people, the book of Judges look at the sweep of time from the ending of Joshua’s leadership in the initial conquest of the promised land through the duration of the book. We are introduced to the pernicious cycle which will play out continually throughout the book of Judges. In the absence of a charismatic leader like Joshua it only takes one generation for the people to adopt the gods and the practices of the nations that surround them. The cycle begins when the generation that occupied the land were unable to hand on a practice of faith to the generation that came after them, and now we have a generation that does not know the LORD the God of Israel or the work that God did for them. In the absence of the worship of the LORD and the practice of the law the people adopt the practices of the nations around them and worship their gods.

This short preparation for the narration of the story of the judges gives us an insight into the character of the LORD the God of Israel. The LORD will not be taken for granted. The expectation of the LORD the God of Israel is that the people is to ‘have no other gods before me.’ This God of Israel is ‘a jealous God’ (Exodus 20: 3-6) who desires to show steadfast love for a thousand generations, but in the absence of fidelity will punish the iniquity of the people for several generations. We see this characteristic of God which is spelled out in the first commandment given narrative form when the people abandon God provoking God to anger and God both removes God’s protection (gave them over to plunders who plundered them and sold them into the power of their enemies) but also actively resists them (whenever they marched out the hand of the LORD was against them). Yet, the LORD is a God who is moved to pity and continues to have compassion on the people. The God of Israel is, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, a God who hears the groaning of the people in their oppression and a God who feels compelled to provide a way that the people can find relief from their oppression. Yet the actions of the judges also fail to provide for a sustainable practice of faith and the book of Judges narrates a pernicious pattern of unfaithfulness and a spiral into a dark period of decline where the identity and continuation of Israel is under threat from external groups like the Canaanites and the Philistines, but also from the tribes failure to adopt the practices that were supposed to distinguish them from the nations around them.

Baal with a Thunderbolt (15th-13th century BC) found in the ancient city of Ugarit Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=931147

The Baals and the Astartes apparently provided an attractive alternative to the monotheistic  and covenant formed practices demanded by the LORD the God of Israel. Although we do have some archeological evidence that show Baal as a god of storms and Ashtoret as a goddess of fertility, it is important to note that both are denoted as plurals and Baal is often used in conjunction with another name and is used as a common noun like ‘god’ or ‘lord.’ This pluralistic Canaanite culture probably worshipped several local storm and fertility related ‘gods’ which were worshipped in various ways among the Canaanite people. In a community that raised grain, crops, and livestock these local gods were probably associated with local planting and harvesting practices. The practice of a monotheistic worship of an imageless God who not only expected worship but also obedience throughout one’s life was a strong contrast to the manner in which most ancient religions viewed their interactions with their gods. The people of Israel may have viewed the engagement with these practices pragmatically as appealing to multiple gods to attempt to secure a good harvest and good animal husbandry, but the LORD the God of Israel was not willing to be one among a pantheon of gods.

The failure of the tribes and families of Israel to maintain their identity and faithfulness to the God of Israel in the presence of other people who lived and worshipped differently illustrates the fragility of the community without leadership to unite them in their practices. The judges will be able to temporarily end the turmoil of the people under the oppression of the nations or to bridge the conflict between the tribes and people but they are unable to create within the people a way of life that is nurtured and nourished by their worship or the LORD. Instead of the people of Israel being an alternative to the practices of Egypt or Canaan, the book of Judges portrays them quickly conforming to the local practices including adopting the worship of the gods of the land of the people they were supposed to displace.

[1] The Hebrew here is mal’ak-Yahweh which is literally ‘the messenger of The LORD.’ The messenger could be angelic or human. Most English versions assume the messenger is an angel because of the association with Gilgal discussed above.

[2] Judges 6: 7-10 and 10:10-16

2 thoughts on “Judges 2 The Pernicious Cycle of Disobedience

  1. Pingback: Judges 3 The First Three Judges | Sign of the Rose

  2. Pingback: Judges 6: The Calling of Gideon | Sign of the Rose

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