Philip Greenslade explores the spiritual relationship between Joshua and Judges
Not surprisingly for someone brought up in Portsmouth, Britain’s premier naval base, I have long been fascinated by military history. One book which gripped me when I was young was Chester Wilmot’s The Struggle for Europe, a journalist’s vivid and detailed account of how allied armies fought on D-Day to help bring World War II to an end. Wilmot’s book was intriguingly sub-titled: How we won the war but lost the peace.
This could be an appropriate subtitle for Joshua and Judges: How Israel won the war (Joshua) but lost the peace (Judges)!
Let’s start with the big picture so that we can note the place of Joshua–Judges and see the way that the Old Testament is shaped in three columns:
Fixes Israel’s identity as God’s redeemed and covenant people (re-established Deuteronomy)
||Joshua > 2 Kings
1350 BC to 586 BC
||Pre-history, Patriarchal history Covenant and Law (= Torah)
Fixes Israel’s identity as God’s redeemed and covenant people (re-established Deuteronomy)
Shows how well or badly Israel (and her kings) kept covenant with God in the Land (hence Joshua to 2 Kings is called the 'Deuteronomic history')
Records the messages of the prophets who prophesied during part two, calling on people and kings to return ('repent') to covenant faithfulness.
Joshua–Judges then purports to be an account of how Israel conquered, possessed and lived in the land of Canaan from its entry under Joshua (c.1400 BC) until its first king, Saul (1050 BC).
Now it has to be admitted that, for modern readers, God’s conquest of Canaan is a major moral problem. Is God guilty of arbitrary ethnic cleansing? There is no glib answer to this question but a number of considerations can be offered.
Joshua, we recall, is connected to the larger story told in the Torah reaching back to Genesis 1–11. It is therefore presented to us a part of the story of how God reconquered a portion of the earth which belonged to Him from creation, reclaiming it from the rebellious and idolatrous powers of this world.
Discoveries from the late Bronze Age (1500–1200 BC), especially at a place called Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on the northern coast of Syria, lead some scholars to believe that Canaanite culture was degraded, immoral, bestial and pagan (involving sacral prostitution and child sacrifice among other things: cf Lev. 18:24–28).
If this is true then such a culture was finally reaping what it had sown.
If we ask another question: ‘Does God hate sin this much?’ – the answer must be ‘Yes!’ But bear in mind that according to the Torah we can ask another question: ‘Does His patience run this far?’
For an answer to this, take careful note of Genesis 15:16. Joshua certainly presents the conquest to us as God’s ‘holy war’ (cf. Josh. 5:2–15) with Israel as His army, and the spoils could not be plundered as booty but were placed under a ‘ban’; that is they belonged exclusively to God.
One thing we must say in the light of further biblical revelation and especially in view of the Cross is that since then God has sheathed His ‘sword’ (no 12 legions of angels, Peter put away your sword) until the final day of reckoning (Rev. 19:15–21).
One scholar’s view is worth quoting: ‘The conquest was not the grossest injustice but God’s highest justice … every one of Yahweh’s victories over His enemies in the process of history is a partial portrayal of His victory over all His enemies at the consummation of history.’ (Dale Ralph Davis: No Falling Words, Baker, 1988 p.106.)
In the longer view, any moral ambiguity attaching to God as a result of accounts like Joshua and Judges can lead us to marvel at the condescension and humility of this God who chooses to put His reputation as a good and just God on the line.
This same God is not afraid of ‘getting His hands dirty’ and becoming intimately involved with a primitive people at an early stage of His dealings with them. His story is inextricably bound up with ours: and ours is violent and murky, but that’s the way He has chosen to do things.
Similarly, His plans have our grubby fingerprints all over them, but even at the risk to His image God refuses to disengage with history.
It’s also worth considering that Judges points up the failure to fully occupy the land, so the view of some historians that the conquest may never actually have taken this violent course may be on target.
In any case, the Conquest was a one-off event. Israel-in-the-Land was a unique experiment, with the people given a unique chance to show how blessed it is to live theocratically, i.e. under God’s direct rule. Judges shows us how Israel lived up to this destiny.
Let’s outline briefly the Book of Joshua
A. Entering the Land 1:1–5:15
(i) preparing leadership 1:1–18 Joshua commissioned tribes East of the Jordan River to help brothers first.
(ii) preparing militarily 2:1–5:1
mission of spies (Rahab)
miracle of river crossing (Jordan) (memorial stones: God-centred 4:23–24)
(iii) preparing spiritually 5:2–12
5:2–9 consecration – circumcision
Gilgal means ‘rolled away reproach’
5:10–11 celebration – Passover
5:12 facing reality – manna ceased
5:13–15 facing God! – whose side is He on?
God is not on anyone’s side! The question is: are we on God’s side?
B. Conquering the Land <>6:1–13:7
3 campaigns which show brilliant military strategy:
(1) Conquest of Central Canaan (6:1– 8:35)
6:1ff Joshua did not fight the battle of Jericho!
7–8 Ai – victory and defeat
Achan – solidarity and judgment (Valley of Achor)
8:30–31 Worship and Covenant renewal takes place between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim where Law is read and the typical ‘curses or blessings’ covenant formula is rehearsed.
Shechem (Gen 12:5–7; 33:18 land promised to Abraham and later to Jacob).
NB. Yahweh is the Great King of all the earth reclaiming part of His territory (3:13) as at the Exodus (4:23).
(2) Conquest of Southern Canaan (9–10)
9 treaty with Gibeonites (deceived but honoured it)
10 victory over Amorites – longest day!
10:5 cities conquered
(3) Conquest of Northern Canaan (11:1–15)
Battle with a coalition led by the King of Hazor. This is the Lord’s battle (v6), an act of severe judgment (v20); and the key to Israel’s success is obedience (v15).
Summary: 11:16–12:24 what has been possessed.
NB. 13:1–7 what has not yet been possessed.
C. Settling in the Land 13:8–21:45
(a) Distribution of land to tribes (13:8–19:51)
13:8 East of Jordan – Reuben, Gad, half-Manasseh plus Caleb (14:13f), & Joshua (19:49f)
15:1 Judah in the south to desert of Zin from sea to sea (v12)
16:1 Ephraim/Manasseh (=Joseph)
18:11 Benjamin; 19:1–9 Simeon; 19:10–16 Zebulun
19:17ff Issachar; 19:24ff Asher; 19:32ff Naphtali; 19:40ff Dan<>(b) Worship at the tent of meeting at Shiloh, 10 miles east of Bethel, there until Samuel’s time (1 Sam.4:3).
(c) Levites – a parable: no inheritance except their ministry and Lord (13:14, 33; 14:4; 18:7)
(d) 48 cities given to Levites – 6 of which were ‘cities of refuge’ (20:1– 21:42)
21: 43–45 has been called the ‘theological heart of the book of Joshua’ (Davis)
– no enemies stood before them
– no words of God failed them!
D. Remaining in the Land 22:1–24:33
Chapters 22–24 emphasise Israel’s fidelity (as 21:43–45 has stressed Yahweh’s faithfulness) cf.22:5, 16, 18–19, 25, 29; 23:6, 8, 11; 24:14–16, 18, 21, 23–24.
NB – 3 assemblies: 22:1; 23:2; 24:1 – Conditions for remaining in the Land are now spelled out.
- Re-evaluating worship
- Remembering history
- Renewing covenant.
Joshua ends by disclosing the three main ways in which Israel can retain a right relationship with God and thus remain in the Land:
(1) By re-evaluating worship (22:1–34)
This chapter records an inter-tribal misunderstanding over God-directed worship. When some tribes are suspected of setting up a rival altar, the prescriptions in the Torah about one place of worship seem under threat (cf Deut 12:5, 11–12, which implies ‘one faith, one Lord, one altar, one worship’ as the Lord commands).
When the tribes given land east of the Jordan (having crossed the river to help their fellow tribes become established in the land) finally return east, they erect an ‘imposing altar’, seemingly in defiance of Deuteronomy 12. Here the Torah makes clear that God reserves the right to choose how and where He is to be worshipped unlike Canaanites who apparently did ‘DIY’ religion at random!
At the news of another altar being erected, the northern tribes rise up in warlike opposition. Now this holy zeal of the tribes for Yahweh’s worship is to be commended, for all Israel will suffer (vv18–20). Phinehas leads a deputation to urge the east-of-the-river tribes not to rebel in this way. But ‘we were not rebelling’ the suspected tribes protest, eventually convincing their fellow Israelites of their innocence. In fact, they argue, we erected the altar precisely in order to preserve the true worship of Yahweh (vv21–29) and out of anxiety over the future (vv24–25), because, without a visible focal point of worship, our tribes east of the Jordan might lose their identity as God’s people (v34).
(2) By remembering history (23:1–16)
Joshua’s farewell speech emphasises the lessons of history that:
- We have a responsibility for the next generation (vv.1–3)
- There is still much to do (vv.4–5)
- Life is a series of serious moral decisions (vv.6–13)
- God is fighting for us (v3), can be trusted to keep His word (v.14ff) and is to be feared (vv.15–16).
(3) By renewing covenant (24)
The covenant renewed here bears the marks of the classic Treaty pattern of the ancient world: preamble (v.2) history (vv.2–13), stipulations (vv14–15), sanctions (vv19–20) document/witness (vv22, 26–27) though the idea of a covenant-making/keeping God is unique in the Ancient Near East.
Here is a heart-warming reminder of the amazing covenant-love of God: Abraham was a worshipper of false gods (v2) when grace took him (v3) and slowly and strangely brought his descendants into Egypt (v4) where God showed His saving power (vv5–7) then conquering the nations and bringing them into the Land (vv8–9) – Israel is in the ‘grip of grace’ (Davis) (vv11–14).
Joshua now issues the challenge to choose between pagan gods. (vv15–18) – choose which pagan god you will serve. If not then you must worship Yahweh. Note, Yahweh is not an option! Nor will cheap obedience do! (vv.19f). Even the bones of our dead challenge us to be faithful and committed to our covenant-God. (vv24:29ff).
The Book of Judges
Judges portrays Israel as presented with the unique opportunity as God’s kingdom-people to show what life could be like under the direct rule of God. Israel’s failure was tragic – and especially ironic in that this age of moral and spiritual degeneration was the most ‘charismatic’ era in Israel’s history!
Three main sections: 1:1– 3:6; 3:7–16:31; 17– 21
A. Introduction 1:1– 3:6
(i) Political/historical introduction (1:1–2:5)
The narrative looks back to Joshua to show the failure fully to possess the Land! (mentioned 7 times: 1:27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33).
The serious consequences of this failure are that Yahweh will appear to be an ‘also-ran’, just another fertility god!
Such a realisation initially evokes an emotional response. (2:5)
(ii) Theological introduction (2:6–3:6)
This is a key summary which looks forward to the rest of the book of Judges.
Note the sad four-fold cycle: the people do evil (2:11) inciting the Lord’s anger and judgment (2:14); the people cry out in distress (2:18b) which arouses the Lord’s compassion so that He raises up judges to deliver Israel (2:16–19).
God allows the pagan nations to remain to test Israel (2:22–23; 3:1–4). This tragic cycle is continually repeated in the account in Judges.
Israel’s repeated repentance was evidently skin deep and masked a consistent compromise with the culture, a surrender to Baalism, the worship of the Canaanite ‘prosperity’-god based on sexuality and child sacrifice. (There is some evidence that sex was carried on with religious prostitutes at the local pagan shrine which was intended to ‘stimulate’ the union of the god and goddess, Baal and Ashtoreth – so guaranteeing fertility and propagation on earth).
In reading Judges we should bear in mind that a judge was not a legal expert but a charismatic leader and warrior raised up by the Lord to deliver Israel.
B. Main section 3:7–16:31
Othniel’s story serves as a paradigm (3:7–11) which precedes the accounts of the five major judges:
|Ehud (3:12–30) (left-handed & cunning – a gruesome story!)
||Deborah (4–5) (a woman!)
|(6–8) The key here is that Gideon represents Yahweh (cf. How Abimelech (9) represents King Baal. NB Jotham’s parable/warning)
||Jephthah (10:6–12:7) (outcast)
|Samson (13–16) (long-haired and fallible)
NB. Samson is really a paradigm of all Israel! He was born by divine provision, consecrated to the Lord, uniquely gifted, who chased after foreign women, did as he saw fit (cf 14:3) so that finally the charisma left as consecration ends!
(NB: Minor judges Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon)
C. Epilogue 17–21
The story of the unique experiment of Israel living directly under God’s rule ends in dreadful degeneration typical of the whole period.
(i) 17–18: Idolatry of
(a) individual – Micah: corrupted worship. Levite, from Bethlehem (17:7) – mercenary!
(b) tribe – Dan: left allotted territory, and adopted Micah’s new-fangled worship, Levite sold out to highest bidder!
(ii) 19–21: Immorality of the most perverted kind:
A fugitive concubine who has been unfaithful to a Levite (19:2) agrees to return with him from her home in Bethlehem, and stops in Gibeah (19:21) where homosexuals try to rape the Levite but he offers them the girl instead. Sodom is now well and truly in the land! Cutting up her dead body into 12 pieces, he sends a piece to each tribe.
20:1f: Inter-tribal warfare!: The Benjaminites who defend the Gibeanites end up being routed by the other tribes.
21:1f: Great grief breaks out in Israel at the prospect of one tribe dying out and so the tribes determine to find wives for the 600 Benjamite survivors – doing so by a brutal raid on Jabesh Gilead.
There are scarcely more horrible chapters in the Bible. They don’t make for late-night devotional Bible reading – nor indeed for giving to children!
But the writer of Judges is more interested in theology than sensationalism as is evident from two very significant pointers:-
(1) Like the toll of a solemn bell, the tragic epitaph is repeated: ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).This serves to set up the rise of kingship nicely as recorded in 1 Samuel. But it also highlights its dangers. At a time of national moral and economic anarchy a ground-swell often grows for a strong and dominant leader. It was that depressed days of the late 1920s that led to the rise of Hitler who pledged to reverse Germany’s humiliations, cure unemployment and make the trains run on time!
Popular appetite for authoritarian figures usually backfires as it did in Israel with Saul and Solomon and coincides with a weakening of trust in the kingship of God.
(2) But it also hints at the longing for a true king to come who will bring peace and justice. Here we note a fascinating connection between the end of the book of Judges and the beginning of the book of Ruth. The Levite hired by Micah (17:7), the concubine so dreadfully abused (19:1), and Ebimelech the husband of Naomi were all from Bethlehem! (Ruth 1:1). The ‘Bethlehem Trilogy’ of stories, as it has been called, starkly contrasts the time of the Judges in which the story of Ruth is set and the significance of Ruth. The story of Ruth redeems Bethlehem’s reputation. But more than that Ruth’s story re-connects Israel with God’s long term, strategic, covenant-plan of salvation! Her story connects backwards to Abraham via Perez and forwards to King David whose birthplace was also Bethlehem (Ruth 4:18–22) and beyond this to the one true King of Israel who was born in …!
How might Judges be applied as a lesson for the contemporary church? Looking back we ask: why have we not seen what we had hoped to see? Where is the fulfilment of our dreams and vision? (Judges 2:10). Where did we lose our edge as the kingdom-people of God? Judges explains why:
- Failing in covenant faithfulness to God (2:20), living like Israel, in a multi-racial, multi-cultural society, we have failed to occupy the Land fully. We have enjoyed great success but failed to possess the great success we were given. Under cover of charismatic euphoria, we went on living just as we had always done, doing what wasright in our own eyes!
- Charismatic superstars with great deliverance ministries and much outward success (like Israel’s ‘judges’) can co-exist with great moral and spiritual decline. High-profile, evangelical and charismatic leaders are no substitute for a vibrant, obedient, radically different, God-centred people.
- We have compromised with ‘Baal’ religion, opting for the ‘prosperity’-god whose power can be tapped by pious techniques, instead of the Sovereign God of covenant who adds all things necessary to a people who humbly seek first His kingdom and its righteousness. Self-indulgence has displaced self-denial and we have become just like the society around us. In other words, we may have won the battle in the church but we have not won the battle in the culture.
Good news – God is amazingly faithful:
(a) He is willing to get involved with the messy events of human history: His plans – as we pointed out earlier – have our grubby fingerprints all over them. If we were to fashion a god in our image we would never have put Him at the head of an army of extermination – but He is not made in our image. He is at once more holy, more serious in His hatred for sin, and more willing to be associated with a sinful, devious, half-changed people He has chosen as His own.
(b) He cares enough not to let us go even in the long night of our silliness and shame and stupidity and compromise with the culture when we go off and do our own thing. He hears our perennial cries of distress and has compassion in His great covenant heart for a Samsonite church – gifted but flawed, charismatically blessed but compromising in character, a church too much like the world and not enough like Him. And He still plans better things on the basis of Bethlehem!