Who here has heroes? Who here has people they look up to and admire for something that they’ve done?
From time to time we’ve probably all had heroes. And they could have been great leaders, someone with special talents and abilities, a great sportsman, or even a family member.
But then it seems that the world needs heroes. People to look up to. Because when there isn’t anyone around to look up to—because our heroes have failed—we invent them. People like Robin Hood, the Scarlett Pimpernel, and for those of us who were born since the 1930s, the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics. People like Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc. etc.
It seems that the world needs heroes. And there have been some great people over the years who fit that category. But having heroes is nothing new, they had them in the Old Testament too. But the heroes of the Old Testament were real people, and they weren’t called heroes, they were called Judges.
2. Modern Judges
Now if I were to ask you what a judge did, you would probably tell me that a judge is someone who presides over some sort of court proceedings—with the intention of conducting a trial in an impartial way. Well, that’s what you’d hope. You would tell me that he or she hears witnesses and looks at the evidence presented. The judge would then assess the creditability and the arguments of the particular case, and then issue a ruling based on their interpretation of the law. And that’s one definition.
Another would be someone on a television programme, whose role it is to encourage participants in the way that they can improve their act, as well as to decide who is the most talented in a particular competition.
3. Old Testament Judges
But today I’m going to give you a third definition—one that comes from the pages of the Old Testament. Because to be a “Judge” in Old Testament terms, a person needed to meet certain criteria.
The first is that the Judges were primarily “Saviours” or “Deliverers” of their people from their enemies. In other words, military prowess was identified as an important part of their lives. As a consequence, it was expected that if someone was a “Saviour”, he or she would lead the people in battle against their enemies.
Secondly, to be a “Judge”, administering justice was important. Indeed a “Judge” would be required to hear the people’s legal complaints and make the appropriate decisions.
And thirdly, to be a “Judge”, they needed to be chosen by God, and were often endowed with some sort of peculiar quality by God, with different people having different gifts.
So they would be a leader in battle, a ruler in peace—a kind of saviour appointed by God. A sort of hero in Old Testament terms.
Furthermore, the position they held was for life. But it wasn’t hereditary. And their authority was limited in terms of meeting the requirements of God’s law alone. They weren’t free to add or take away from God’s commandments.
In other words they were heroes, but within the constraints of God’s appointment and God’s laws. They were appointed to rescue God’s people when things went wrong; they were there to ensure justice—God’s justice—to all the people; and they were there to represent God in everything they did.
1. Judges in the Bible
And in the Old Testament we have a number of people who meet the criteria of being a Judge—and they’re not all in the book of Judges.
We have Moses and Joshua. We then have a number of people in the book of Judges. Then following that there is Eli and Samuel.
2. The Book of Judges
Having said that, in the book of Judges itself, not everyone mentioned is a genuine “Judge.” Indeed, we have to be careful as we read the stories, because not all were appointed by God. And the appendix—the last five chapters—involve the telling of stories of two characters who are not considered Judges at all.
3. Faults and Failings
Now the Judges weren’t perfect. Indeed, Moses broke faith with God by not giving God his due at the waters of Meribah Kadesh (Deuteronomy 32:51-52); Gideon used his position to avenge the death of his brothers (Judges 8:18-21); Abimelech murdered his seventy brothers (Judges 9:5); Jephthah made a rash vow which later required him to sacrifice his daughter (Judges 11:30-31); Samson had a history of getting up to some very strange things (Judges 13:1-16:31); and Eli continually turned a blind eye to the abusive behaviour of his sons (1 Samuel 2:29).
C. THE BOOK OF JUDGES
1. The Downward Spiral
In the book of Judges itself, one Judge was not necessarily followed by another. Some of the Judges were national Judges, and others more local. And even though the bible doesn’t spell it out, some of the Judges would have overlapped.
As a consequence, the book of Judges begins with a vacuum. The people had arrived in the Promised Land, they’d had time to settle down, and Joshua their leader and Judge had died. And then time passed and there was no new Judge, and things very quickly went downhill.
Indeed, the book of Judges describes a cycle that is maintained throughout the rest of the period of the Judges: There is a generation who doesn’t know God (2:10); the Israelites do what is evil in the eyes of God (2:11); they provoke God to anger (2:12); God hands them over to raiders (2:14); God raises up a Judge (2:16); the people refuse to listen to the Judge, but God saves them anyway while that Judge lived (2:17-18); the Judge dies, and the people become even more corrupt (2:19). And the cycle continues over and over and over again.
2. The Role of the Judges
In the book of Judges we have story after story of Judges being appointed by God. Some names will be familiar, and others not. And yet even though the Bible does not state everything about each of the Judges—indeed in the case of Shamgar we only have two sentences—they all had the same role. They were leaders in battle, rulers in peace—a kind of saviour appointed by God.
In a male-orientated society, most of the Judges were men. But one—Deborah—was a woman. But then in the book of Judges women are portrayed as leaders and heroes, shrewd, manipulative and, at times, victims. Exactly the same as the men.
War was sanctioned by God. And at times that would involve conquest, liberation, and even civil war. But then God used war throughout the Old Testament period, in order to aid his people. Indeed, God loved his people so much that he was prepared to use extreme lengths to keep his people safe. Safe from physical harm and more importantly safe from spiritual harm.
God’s use of war was positive, not negative. What was at stake was people’s eternal welfare—their continuing relationship with him. So he used war to create a safe environment, where his people could be safe from outside influences (hence him giving them the Promised Land). He used war to send invaders—to discipline his people—in the hope that the people would return to him. And he used war to ensure that the faith on which the covenant was based was free from corruption. He wanted to create and maintain an environment where his people were protected from straying from their eternal path.
Which is also why, in the time of Moses, he didn’t say “You shall not kill”—indeed he sanctioned the death penalty in certain circumstances to safeguard the safety of the community. But he did say, “You shall not murder.”
So the background to the period of the Judges is very different to the world that we live in today. Indeed, many of the things that are familiar in our culture today stand in direct opposition to the demands of God as expressed in the pages of the Bible. We often think that we have become more “civilised” or that “We have grown beyond what the people understood in the pages of the Bible.” Yet there are some real truths that are locked in the pages of the book of Judges, and ones we would do well to remember.
1. Life is about our Relationship with God
And the first has to be, that life is not about what pleasures we can get, what things we can accumulate, how rich we can become, or how focussed we get on our own selves. It is about our relationship with our creator.
2. We all Make Mistakes
The second thing is that we all make mistakes. Indeed, it was the people’s mistakes that required God to respond by sending one Judge after another. But more than that, the Judges were not perfect either, and their lives are examples that even the most godly people fall of the rails. Indeed, they sometimes had their own agenda for doing what they did.
3. We Cannot Rescue Ourselves
The third thing that the Judges teach us, is that we cannot rescue ourselves. We may be good at getting ourselves in a mess, but we are quite wrong if we believe we fix it on our own. Indeed all we do is to make the situation worse.
Which is why I get amused when our politicians (and others) tell us that we can fix our own messes, or that we’ve grown, or that we are now capable of restoring the environment and our society on our own. Because we can’t; it doesn’t work that way.
4. We Need God’s Help
Fourthly, we need God’s help. Which is why the principle role of the Judges was to be God’s representative here on earth, showing us the way back to God. Yes, they did, with God’s help, pull God’s people out of their dilemmas and try to fix their wrong thinking. But their principle role was to stand as a reminder that we cannot live life in any sort of meaningful way without God at the centre. We need God to help and guide us.
5. The Downward Spiral
And lest we be tempted to think, that back on track, we can sort all things out for ourselves, then fifthly, we can’t. We need God’s help. We need that relationship with God. Otherwise we just continue the downward spiral, as things worse and worse and worse.
Now some people may not like the way God does things; some might want him to do things differently. But the one thing you can guarantee with God, is that his way is the way that is best for us. He has our best interests at heart. Everything that God does, is for our benefit. And when we forget that, that’s when we get ourselves into trouble.
Of course, we don’t always see it that way; and we may be tempted to do things differently. But there are reasons why God sent Judges on what appears to be an ad hoc basis. He wanted his people to trust him. And that’s why, when Samuel was Judge, Samuel objected to the people’s request for a king.
Because in the end, the people wanted a king. They didn’t want there to be a Judge one minute and no one the next. They didn’t like the gaps. What they wanted was to know that there was always someone—a human—that they could approach at all times to fix their problems. They wanted continuity. They wanted a hereditary kingship. They didn’t want the uncertainty of when God would come to their rescue next.
But that’s not what God wanted. God wanted the people to have faith. God wanted the people to learn to trust in him. Furthermore, God knew very well there would be no certainty that a good king would be followed by another good king. And if the people had thought back to when Abimelech followed after his father, Gideon, they would have realised that.
And yet, God acceded to the people’s request, and the period of the Judges ended with the death of Samuel. And so the time of the Kings began.
Yet even then, God used that situation too. Which is why, come the New Testament, God’s son was born to be king. A king who would point people to a relationship with God. A king who was born because of our mistakes. A king who was born to rescue God’s people. A king who would provide help and restore the people’s relationship with their creator. A king who would lead in the fighting of the spiritual battle. A king who was and is effectively the perfect Judge. The hero of all heroes. Jesus Christ.
There is something horribly familiar in the book of Judges. And that is the mess that we so easily get ourselves in. We are surrounded by it. Indeed, we only have to watch the news to discover war after war, of people being nasty to one another, and of people being self-centred and allowing—and even making—other people suffer.
It’s the same mess that the Judges were sent to clear up time after time in the book of Judges.
Which is why we need a Judge—a hero—today. But then we’ve got one. We’ve got the ultimate hero. A hero who has our own interests at heart and doesn’t make mistakes. Today, our world needs God more than it has ever done before. And why? Because, with the number of active Christians in this country being less than 5% of the population, we live in what the book of Judges calls “A godless generation” (Judges 2:10).
Our society’s culture and beliefs today are very different to that of the bible. But then, in our culture, we have persuaded ourselves that we are “More civilised”, that “We have grown up”, and as a consequence, “We are free to move on.”
Unfortunately, nothing is further from the truth. Because what’s at stake is people’s eternal relationship with God.
There is a reason why God does things in specific ways. And that’s very evident in the book of Judges. We need to have faith. And we need to make sure that that faith is not corrupted by outside influences. And only if we get that right, can we stop the endless downward spiral which leads to the destruction of our relationship with God and the destruction of the world.
Posted 4th October 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis