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Drifting Away From God - Lessons From the Book of Judges

Period of the Judges timeline


The era of the Judges occurs between two important time-periods in Israel’s history. It is sandwiched between the conquest/occupation of the promised land – Canaan, and the establishment of Israel’s Monarchy.

Joshua succeeded Moses and had led the Israelites to conquer the promise land, distributing the land among the 12 tribes, renewing the covenant and after finishing his mission died around 1350 BC. Saul became king around 1050 BC. Between these two events is the period of the judges, which spanned roughly 350 years.

The period of the Judges was a turbulent time for Israel. If one were to describe this chapter of Israel’s history, one could call it the start of the downward spiral and descent into sin and drifting away from God.

It is succintly summarised by this phrase that occurs repeatedly in the book

“In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.”

Joshua completes his mission

After taking over the mantle from Moses, Joshua successfuly led the 12 tribes of Israel in capturing the promised land. The land was divided among the tribes according to God's instructions (Joshua 13 - 19)

However, after leading the initial conquest, Joshua died before the entire land could be occupied. There were pockets of enemy nations still present across the land, which the 12 tribes were to defeat and thus complete the occupation of the promise land.

Judges 2:6-9

After Joshua sent the people away, each of the tribes left to take possession of the land allotted to them. And the Israelites served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and the leaders who outlived him—those who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110. They buried him in the land he had been allocated, at Timnath-serahb, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.

Events following Joshua's death

Joshua did not appoint a successor. It was assumed that the tribes would govern themselves and co-exist peacefully with each other in their new territory, and that they would remain obedient to God as he worked out his plan and purpose for his people. Unfortunately this new generation of people, who had not witnessed God's mighty acts of the past, began to drift away from God.

They turned away from the LORD to the gods of the land they inhabited. They also intermarried with the people of the land. These actions were in clear violation of their covenant with God

Judges 2:10-12

After that generation died, another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel.The Israelites did evil in the Lord’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods, worshiping the gods of the people around them. And they angered the Lord

Judges 3:5-6

So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, and they intermarried with them. Israelite sons married their daughters, and Israelite daughters were given in marriage to their sons. And the Israelites served their gods.

Cycle of disobedinece, suffering and deliverance

Israel's disobedience greatly angered God. The people experienced numerous setbacks when trying to occupy the land alloted to them. This resulted in great distress for the people. They cried out to God who took pity and raised up judges to rescue the Israelites from their attackers.

Judges 3:15-16

Every time Israel went out to battle, the Lord fought against them, causing them to be defeated, just as he had warned. And the people were in great distress. Then the Lord raised up judges to rescue the Israelites from their attackers.

These judges were more military leaders rather than legal judges as the term would be understood today. They were skilled warriors who rescued the people from enemy attacks. Although far from being ideal role models of the faith, God nonetheless blessed them and gave them victory over Israel's foes. Unfortunately, after being delivered from their oppresion and suffering, the people would return to their depraved ways, and the entire cycle would recur.

Judges 2:18-19

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge over Israel, he was with that judge and rescued the people from their enemies throughout the judge’s lifetime. For the Lord took pity on his people, who were burdened by oppression and suffering. But when the judge died, the people returned to their corrupt ways, behaving worse than those who had lived before them. They went after other gods, serving and worshiping them. And they refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.

Inter-tribal conflict

Not only did the tribes have difficulty in dealing with their enemies, crack began to appear among the tribes themselves, Over time, rivalry and distrust started creeping into the mindset of the people, and they begin to form a parochial and partisan view of the other tribes.This undercurrent of narrow-mindedness came to the fore in a series of needless confrontations between the tribes. Two such incidents are recorded in Judges chapters eight and eleven.

In the first incident, Gideon from the tribe of Manasseh had successfully defeated the Midianites with the help of the other tribes. However the tribe of Ephraim were unhappy and confronted Gideon. The reason for their unhappiness is not readily apparent. Gideon however using tact and diplomacy was able to assuage the Ephramites anger

Judges 8:1-3

Then the people of Ephraim asked Gideon, “Why have you treated us this way? Why didn’t you send for us when you first went out to fight the Midianites?” And they argued heatedly with Gideon.

But Gideon replied, “What have I accomplished compared to you? Aren’t even the leftover grapes of Ephraim’s harvest better than the entire crop of my little clan of Abiezer? God gave you victory over Oreb and Zeeb, the commanders of the Midianite army. What have I accomplished compared to that?” When the men of Ephraim heard Gideon’s answer, their anger subsided.

In the second incident, the Ephramites anger was directed at Jephthah for very similar reasons. Jephthah had overcome the Ammonites with the help of the most of the tribes, but the Ephramites somehow felt that they has been left out of the loop. In contrast to Gideon's handling of the matter, Jephthah was more blunt in his response. A small armed confrontation took place with Jephthah emerging as victor.

Judges 12:1-4

Then the people of Ephraim mobilized an army and crossed over the Jordan River to Zaphon. They sent this message to Jephthah: “Why didn’t you call for us to help you fight against the Ammonites? We are going to burn down your house with you in it!”Jephthah replied, “I summoned you at the beginning of the dispute, but you refused to come! You failed to help us in our struggle against Ammon. So when I realized you weren’t coming, I risked my life and went to battle without you, and the Lord gave me victory over the Ammonites. So why have you now come to fight me?”The people of Ephraim responded, “You men of Gilead are nothing more than fugitives from Ephraim and Manasseh.” So Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and attacked the men of Ephraim and defeated them.

Israel's religious and moral decline

While having to contend with escalating civil unrest, the period of the judges also witnessed the plumetting of Israels' religious and moral life.

Judges chapter 17 recounts how a man named Micah (not the prophet) set up his own personal religious enterprise, complete with a homemade shrine, a sacred ephod, some household idols, and a personal priest for good measure. Ironically, the money for this project was actually stolen by Micah from his own mother, and only returned under fear of a curse.

Judges 17:1-2, 4-5

There was a man named Micah, who lived in the hill country of Ephraim. One day he said to his mother, “I heard you place a curse on the person who stole 1,100 piecesof silver from you. Well, I have the money. I was the one who took it.” So when he returned the money to his mother, she took 200 silver coins and gave them to a silversmith, who made them into an image and an idol. And these were placed in Micah’s house. Micah set up a shrine for the idol, and he made a sacred ephod and some household idols. Then he installed one of his sons as his personal priest.

Sodom and Gomorrah - the sequel

Israel's moral decline was further highlighted by an incident reminiscent of the reprehensible episode of Lot and his family in Sodom years earlier.

A Levite and his concubine were en route to the hill country of Ephraim from Bethlehem. As it was getting dark, they broke journey at a town called Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin, and were fortunate to find an old man willing to host the coupe at his home for the night . Come nightfall, some men of the town surrounded the house demanding that the Levite be sent out for a "carnal encounter". The host instead offered up his own virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine. The incident ended with the concubine being abused all night until she succumed to the assault.

The Levite took his concunbine's body home to the hill country of Ephraim, where he decided to make a bold statement on the appaling conduct of the people of Israel (more specifically people of the tribe of Benjamin).

Judges 19:29-30

When he got home, he took a knife and cut his concubine’s body into twelve pieces. Then he sent one piece to each tribe throughout all the territory of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “Such a horrible crime has not been committed in all the time since Israel left Egypt. Think about it! What are we going to do? Who’s going to speak up?”

Relationships between the tribes reach a nadir

This deplorable incident sent shock waves across the land. Many were justifiably repulsed and outraged by what had transpired.

Judges 20:1, 12-13

Then all the Israelites were united as one man, from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, including those from across the Jordan in the land of Gilead. The entire community assembled in the presence of the Lord at Mizpah.

The Israelites sent messengers to the tribe of Benjamin, saying, “What a terrible thing has been done among you! Give up those evil men, those troublemakers from Gibeah, so we can execute them and purge Israel of this evil.”

The Benjamites would not listen. Instead, they rallied all the men from their towns and gathered for battle. There was an intense civil war between the 11 tribes and the tribe of Benjamin, with heavy casualties on both sides. Eventually the Israelites gained a somewhat hollow victory, in that the Benjamites lost 25 000 strong warriors leaving only 600 men who escaped.

The stark gravity of the situation begin to dawn on the people. They had come so close to anihilating one of the twelve tribes of Israel, one of their own kin. Surely something was very wrong.

Judges 21:3

“O Lord, God of Israel,” they cried out, “why has this happened in Israel? Now one of our tribes is missing from Israel!”

What can we learn?

An obvious question that arises from pondering the events of the book of Judges is...

How could God's chosen people behave in such a manner?

Although the bible makes it clear that Israel was not chosen due to any inherent goodness or moral superiority on their part, one would expect that having been chosen, they would go on to play their role as a light to world and a reflection of God's character. Paul describes the previlege Israel was accorded.

Romans 9:4

They are the people of Israel, chosen to be God’s adopted children.God revealed his glory to them. He made covenants with them and gave them his law. He gave them the privilege of worshiping him and receiving his wonderful promises.

Sadly, they had drifted away from God and turned to other gods. God in his grace and mercy continued to love his chosen people, despite their rejection of him. With God out of their lives, they plunged into godlessness which manifested in their totally debased and decadent behaviour.

When God is no longer the centre and focus of one's life, things gradually veer off course until ungodliness becomes norm. This drifting away doesn't happen overnight but is a gradual incessant process. Small questionable choices and decisions subtly and steadily build over time. Before one realises what has happened, one finds themselves far away from God. The further away, the harder it is to get back on course - a vicious cycle indeed.

What can cause one to drift away from God?

  1. Losing focus and becoming distracted by worldly things
  2. Lack of regular christian fellowship

However, we can draw comfort that God's purposes prevail despite human failure, and that God loves his children too much to let evil win.

Let us constantly be on guard against drifting away from God, and may we always strive to display our identity as God's children

© 2022 Ferdinand-J-K

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