JUDGES AND THE PROMISES
Joshua’s prediction that it would be hard to serve the Lord dawned quickly. For eighty years, Israel had leaned on two domineering central figures namely Moses and Joshua. Without constant reminders by a strong leader, God became more remote and easily disobeyed. The historian wrote: “The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel” (Jud. 2:7).
Jacob’s descendants quickly forgot where they came from. “After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the people around them. They provoked the Lord to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel, the Lord handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around them 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” (Jud. 2:10-15).
Apparently, the urging of Moses to teach the people the mighty deeds of God, were neglected. Without the presence of the Lord God, Israel could not drive out the Canaanites who became “thorns in their side” and “their gods became snares to them” (Jud. 2:3). This led to a consistent pattern of obedience and disobedience until the Babylonian captivity. The periods of obedience to God were briefer than the lengthy times of disobedience. From time to time, God raised up Judges who would free Israel from their oppressors and return the people to God. But, as soon as a judge passed on, the people would return to ways more corrupt than before (Jud. 2:16-23).
Before the entrance of every judge, we read: “Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” Most judges were filled with the Spirit of God, freed the people from their enemies and advised them during the duration of their life. These individuals displayed tremendous courage and faith. The Book of Judges lists the following: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar (he was not a judge), Deborah, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon, the colorful Samson and of course the devout Samuel.
Success had a tendency to attribute praise to men rather than to God. The Israelites wanted to reward Gideon and have him and his Descendants rule over them. He refused by saying, “I will not rule over you neither will my sons rule over you. The Lord will rule over you” (Jud. 8:22-23). Instead he asked for gold and jewelry so that he could make an idol and worship it. Then, Gideon’s illegitimate son Abimelech murdered seventy of his brothers and had himself crowned king at Shechem. Later, he annihilated the very people who made him king. His end came quickly when a woman dropped a stone on his head and his servant ran him through with a sword. Israel’s first king proved to be a disaster (Jud. 9).
Jephthah, like Abimelech was illegitimate and was picked by the people. He turned out good except he overstepped his bounds by hastily promising to sacrifice for his success the first thing that would meet him when he returned from defeating the Ammonites, which happened to be his only daughter. He also warred against his own people (Jud. 10-12). Samson, of course, literally lost his head over Delilah. He was not a judge, but a one-man army and a pain in the neck of Israel’s oppressors, the Philistines (Jud. 13-16).
Things went from bad to worse. The historian records: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit” (Jud. 17::6). And what they did makes modern dictators look mild. There was a man by the name of Micah. He made his own idols and hired a Levite to legitimize his idolatry. Some six hundred Danites confiscated his idols and the priest, fell on a peaceful region and killed all the inhabitants, settled with their new gods and worshiped them until the days of their Assyrian captivity (Jud. 17-18).
Men of the tribe of Benjamin committed the most heinous crime at Gibeah. A stranger’s wife was sexually molested by so many that she died. The husband divided her into twelve pieces and shipped these to the twelve tribes. This incited the Israelites to avenge the crime. When it was all over, The Benjamites were all killed except for six hundred who had fled to the mountains and Israel had lost 38,000 soldiers. To obtained virgin wives for the remaining Benjamites, the Israelites killed the population of an entire city. To their dismay, they found only four hundred virgins. The remaining two hundred Benjamites were told to steal their maidens from an annual festival of the Lord at Shiloh. All of this was justified by a vow that they would not give their own daughters to the Benjamites (Jud. 19-21).
In addition to immorality, idolatry and oppression there was also a famine. This motivated Elimelech to move his family to Moab. He died and his sons, Mahlon and Chilion, married Orpah and Ruth, Moabite girls. The sons also died and left Naomi, their mother, childless. Orpah stayed with her people, but Ruth went with Naomi who returned to Bethlehem. It was Ruth who enticed Boaz to become her husband. They became the parents of Obed, grandfather to Jesse and great grandfather to David the king (Ruth).
The man that began to change the political scene of Israel was Samuel. Jeremiah the Prophet said this regarding Samuel, “Then the Lord said to me: ‘Even if Moses and Samuel were to stand before me, my heart would not go out to this people. Send them away from my presence! Let them go!’ And if they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ Tell them, ‘this is what the Lord says: Those destined for death, to death; those for the sword to the sword; those for starvation, to starvation; those for captivity, to captivity’” (Jer. 15:1-2). These conditions prevailed during the Judges and the monarchs. Samuel tried to salvage what was left of the theocracy. He was a gift to a childless wife who returned the boy to the Lord to be brought up by Eli the priest that had mismanaged his office. Like Joshua, he was an Ephraimite and gifted with hearing God’s message. The editor began, “The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.” It was on the third call that Eli told the lad to say, “Speak for your servant is listening.” The Lord’s first message to Samuel was, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.” It tingled against the house of Eli and elevated Samuel as judge, prophet and priest. He lived in Ramah but had offices in Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah. Under him, theocracy was at its best because Israel and their enemies feared the Lord Yahweh. Samuel secured peace with the other nations, and the Philistine who felt cursed by it returned the Ark of the Covenant to Israel.
Samuel like his mentor Eli could not mange his sons and the people began to demand a king, the second tingling (I Sam. 1-8). The elders demanded that Samuel appoint a king to lead them. Samuel objected and argued that the king would be too costly for Israel. He too would take ten percent of everything they had including their sons and daughters and their livestock. It was all to no avail and the Lord God told Samuel: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected as their king, but me. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do” (I Sam. 8). Both, the warning and the cost did not dissuade the people from wanting to be like other nations. Samuel was led to anoint Saul, son of Kish of the tribe of Benjamin as king. Saul became dysfunctional and Samuel was instructed to replace Saul with David, son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah. Samuel was the last of the theocratic leaders. Saul and David replaced God as king over Israel. What was tragic was that there were not enough people willing to retain God as their king.