Harry Whittaker
Judges And Ruth

2. The Theme of the Book (2:11-3:6)

Israel’s decline

The second preface, or should one say the true preface, to the Book of Judges (2:11—3:6), presents a clear summary of its theme. The recurring cycle — apostasy, retribution, repentance, and appeal to God, then the raising up of a judge to bring a breath-taking deliverance — is a pattern which every reader of Judges is impressed by. Here, at the outset, it is expounded in simple unambiguous fashion.

Living among the Canaanitish peoples, instead of expelling them, the people of Israel were soon infected with their evil outlook and way of life. Instead of these pagans marvelling at the religion of Israel — “What nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them?” — they were constrained instead to wonder at Israel’s amazing penchant for assimilating every other idolatry they came in contact with.

Paganism welcomed

“They served Baal and Ashtaroth.” The names are given as samples of the male and female deities Israel became prone to reverence — Baal (Lord, Master) an equivalent of Adonai, also means Husband, and thus the name served to emphasise the sexual character of the rites practised. Properly understood, the name could be used significantly of the God of Israel (e.g., Jer. 31:32). Yet the time came when this use of it was proscribed because of its evil associations (Hos. 2:16,17).

Ashtaroth is the plural (or, rather, dual) form of the name Ishtar, Venus, with reference to the appearances of that bright shining planet as both morning and evening star. The fuller title Ashtaroth-Karnaim (of the two horns) suggests that even without telescopes they knew of the crescent appearance of Venus. This name Ashtaroth is not to be confused with the Asherah (plural: Asheroth), commonly translated “the groves”. These were phallic symbols of the kind which have survived as a feature of eastern architecture. The name means The Way to Happiness. It serves to illustrate that the modern glorification of sex is only a revival in more sophisticated form of the old nature religions, which rotted the nation life of Israel. When the records say that Israel “went a-whoring after other gods”, this is more than a mere figure of speech. “Ships sink not by being in the water, but by the water getting into them,” writes Fausset trenchantly. God “of our pleasant vices makes instruments to scourge us.”

No wonder, then, the “the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel.” So he let loose upon them the cathartic influence of oppression from their enemies. For many centuries all the nations of that region would regard Israel as an upstart people who, coming in from nowhere, had ruthlessly thrust themselves into Canaan. Therefore they were considered fair game by any of an aggressive disposition. “The Lord delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about.” They suffered not only from seasonal marauders such as the Bedouin Arabs coming in from the desert, but also from longer-lasting oppressions inflicted by more powerful neighbours.

God’s discipline

All this was precisely in accordance with the curse Moses had pronounced beforehand, should Israel prove disloyal to their God: “Ye shall have no power to stand before your enemies.” Psalm 106:34-46 is a long and eloquent commentary on this phase of Israel’s history. Its climactic allusions to the Covenant Name of God (verses 45-48) teach a simple lesson which Israel was astonishingly slow to learn.

Yet, such was the long-suffering and compassion of the Lord, He could not leave the people entirely to their own devices, but sought to save them from both spiritual and political disaster by raising up judges to deliver and to reform them: “For it repented the Lord, because of their groanings, by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them.”

These judges, whose exploits are set out in greater or less detail in the Book of Judges, differed from the kings who followed them in that they could not command the loyalty of the people, they could only appeal for it. And whereas every king who reigned in Jerusalem had the blood of David in his veins, the office of judge never passed from father to son.

A sequence of judges

There are only five judges about whom much detail is given: Ehud (of the tribe of Benjamin), Barak (Naphtali), Gideon (Manasseh), Jephthah (Gilead, that is, eastern Manasseh), and Samson (Dan). Seven “minor” judges make up the twelve: Othniel (Judah), Shamgar (Dan?), Tola (Issachar), Jair (Gilead), Ibzan (Judah), Elon (Zebulun), Abdon (Ephraim). There is also one usurper: Abimelech. In these twelve true men of God, and the one false leader, some see a certain typical significance.

The record calls them “saviours” — this Hebrew word meaning “deliverer” comes no less than 19 times, in noun and verb form. The judge, reinforced by the prestige which accrued from his exploits, was usually able to keep the people loyal to the God who raised him up. But when he was dead there seemed to be no one else, not even a high priest, with the authority, zeal and personality to stave off another wave of apostasy. Thus the cycle started all over again. If ever history repeated itself it did so in the days of the judges. The pendulum never ceased to swing. Only, some oscillations were more violent than others.

Jehovah’s changed attitude

One consequence of this unfaithful spirit was a dramatic change concerning the conquest of the Land. In the days of Moses and Joshua there had been repeated, very emphatic promises of a complete and speedy overwhelming of all opposition: “The Lord thy God shall deliver them unto thee, and shall destroy them with a mighty destruction, until they be destroyed” (Deut. 7:23; and 9:3; 31:3). But now, through some prophet or priest, came a minatory revocation: “I will not henceforth drive out any from before them of the nations which Joshua left when he died” (2:21). Old Testament history is dotted with numerous instances of this “change of mind” by the Almighty. They pose a much-neglected problem.

These residual peoples would have presented few difficulties if only Israel had been faithful to their God, for then their wholesome way of life and the ensuing abundance of divine blessing would have brought inevitable conversion of the remaining pagans to the faith of Israel.

Canaanite opponents

Instead, with some there were long-continuing hostilities. Until the time of David, Philistine militarism hung as a dark cloud over the security of the southern tribes. The king of Hamath was often a threat in the north. The people of Tyre and Zidon were never displaced. And even the Hivites and others who were in some degree subjugated had the satisfaction of conquering Israel with their crude idolatries. Left to “prove” Israel (3:1), they proved over and over again what a wayward, feckless, disloyal people Israel was. “Children in whom is no faith.”


Chapter 2

Forsook the Lord. The root cause: a neglect of Deut. 4:9.
The anger of the Lord. Psa. 106:34-39 is followed by v. 40-42. Cp. v. 20 here and also 3:8.
Against them for evil, as the Lord had said. Lev. 26:37, and contrast Josh. 1:9.
It repented the Lord. The words mean this. It will not do to read “the Lord pitied them”
This people. A phrase common in O.T. as a term of contempt and reprobation; e.g., Exod. 32:9. More so here because the usual ‘amim is replaced by goi, as though Israel had become Gentile.
I will not henceforth drive out any. Contrast Deut. 31:3; 7:23; 9:3; Josh. 23:16.

Chapter 3

A double reason: to prove Israel and to teach them war. In what sense the latter? — to afflict them by the horrors of war, or to make them warlike?
Lords. The Hebrew has the correct technical term here, and always, with reference to the rulers of the five Philistine cities. Strictly it means ‘axles’, as in 1 Kgs. 7:30, with reference to their chariots. Everywhere else the sense is as here.
Why no Girgashites? Josh. 3:10. Because the east side of Galilee (Matt. 8:28) was not settled as yet?
A flagrant infringement of Deut. 7:3. Verses 6-8 present seven steps in a downward progression.

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