Under Joshua’s leadership, Israel had conquered the boundaries of Canaan but many pagan peoples still lived within the areas allotted to these tribes. The book of Judges is the record of how Israel failed to diligently keep the command to exterminate those pagan nations (see Deuteronomy 7; Joshua 23) and how God repeatedly delivered His people into their hands.
In the first two chapters of Judges, the author describes the situation first from a military/survey perspective and then from a spiritual/causal perspective. In Judges 1, the author uses military imagery to briefly describe the campaigns of the southern tribes (Judg 1:1-21) and the success and setbacks of the northern tribes (Judg 1:22-36). In Judges 2, the author notes the spiritual failure that led to Israel’s military failure. Israel covenanted with the Canaanites and exchanged the worship of the Lord, who brought them out of Egypt, for the worship of idols (Judg 2:1-5, 11-13). Further, Joshua’s generation failed to teach their children all the Lord had done for them and the requirements of obeying Him in the land (Judg 2:6-10).
The result? A cycle was set in motion in which the Lord would repeatedly give His people into the hands of their enemies: “He sold them to the enemies around them, so that they could no longer resist their enemies. Whenever the Israelites went out, the LORD was against them and brought disaster on them, just as He had promised and sworn to them. So they suffered greatly” (Judg 2:14-15). Although the Lord was regularly moved to compassion and responded to Israel’s cries for deliverance (Judg 2:16-18), the Lord ultimately let the nations remain as “thorns in their sides” due to their continued unfaithfulness (Judg 2:3; 20-23).
Israel’s true character was revealed as the Lord tested His people (Judges 3). The text records at least two of the Lord’s motives. The Lord did this “to teach the future generations of the Israelites how to fight in battle, especially those who had not fought before” (Judg 3:2) and to determine if Israel would keep the commands He had given their fathers through Moses (Judg 3:4). Israel failed the test. The author wrote, “The Israelites took their daughters as wives for themselves, gave their own daughters to their sons, and worshiped their gods” (Judg 3:6). Judges 3-5 thus begins the cycle of discipline and deliverance through the Judges, and Israel’s return to idolatry when each judge died. The initial judges included: Othniel, Caleb’s younger brother, (Judg 3:7-12), Ehud (Judg 3:12-30), Shamgar (Judg 3:31) and Deborah, with the assistance of Barak (Judges 4-5).
The final phrase of the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever he wanted” (Judg 21:25), places the narrative within the storyline of Scripture. Israel’s heart was more cowardly than courageous, more accommodating to pagan idols than fearing of the Lord. The implicit warning here is repeated in the New Testament.
(1) Paul warned the Corinthians that the consequences of Israel’s failures “happened to them as examples, and they were written as a warning to us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall!” (1 Cor 10:11-12). Paul’s concern was not just that his audience abstain from idolatry, but that they do so because of their privileged place in redemptive history. Paul warned them, “My dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking as to wise people. Judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:14-16a).
(2) The author of Hebrews warned his audience that if God judged Israel for their hardness of heart, “How much worse punishment, do you think one will deserve who has trampled on the Son of God, regarded as profane the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Heb 10:29). He went on to remind them that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).
(3) John concluded his first letter with the general warning, “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).