Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Settling with the Enemy- Judges 1

Today we begin an exciting new journey in a brand new book (well, new to us)—the Book of Judges. While we are not sure who wrote the book (possibly Samuel), we are sure that it was probably written early in the monarchical period as it looks back on dire times retrospectively and from time-to-time will say “in those days, Israel had no king.” This history book covers the time between the death of Joshua (the leader of Israelites after Moses) and the reign of Israel’s kings (beginning in 1 Samuel with Saul). Prior to Joshua’s death, this leader implores the people of God to obey the commands of the Torah (Law) given by Moses as they continue to settle in the Promised Land in and among many different pagan peoples. Not only were they to serve as an example of an alternative way to live and worship, they were to drive these pagan nations out of the land along with their influences and terrible practices (child sacrifice being one). The Israelites’ obedience to the Law and their victories over these wicked people would demonstrate to the world who God is and exactly for what he stands. God’s people were, in essence, called to be a penetrating light in a dark corner of the world. The name of the book—“Judges”—comes from the type of leaders the Israelites had during this time. Though when we hear this word our mind might immediately go to a courtroom drama, the judges in this book were regional-political leaders/tribal chieftains that God had appointed and empowered to lead in an especially distressing time in Israel’s history. I will warn you, this book is disturbing and violent and tragic. Inevitably, as we will learn, rather than stand in contrast to the pagan world around them, Israel fails to live rightly and as the book progresses, God’s people entertain, embrace, and embody both the nations they were supposed expel and elements of their wickedness. Things go from good, to pretty good, to okay, to bad, to worse, to just plain ugly and it all starts in Judges chapter 1 in the three episodes that are revealed as the book opens.

1. A Promising Start-1:1-2

The history found in the Book of Judges overlaps the Book of Deuteronomy. At the beginning of this book (and at the end of Deuteronomy) the people of God are united in covenant community, obedient to the Lord who delivered them from Egyptian bondage. After wandering in the wilderness for 40 years and gaining a foothold in the long-awaited Promised Land (thanks to events like the defeat of Jericho), the next challenge becomes occupying the land. This large task is made even more difficult following the death of Joshua. Without strong godly leadership, it doesn’t take long for covenant people of God to dissolve into moral and social chaos. The death of Joshua is, in many ways a turning point in Israel’s history. Without his example (or the example of Moses who preceded him) firmly in place, a vacuum of emerges—a vacuum that is filled, in large part, not by God’s precepts found in the law, but by the Canaanite influence that saturated the land during this period. This downward spiral begins here in chapter 1. That said, things don’t go wrong immediately. 

Israel’s immediate response to the death of Joshua is to call upon the Lord—“the sons of Israel inquired of the Lord, saying, ‘Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?’…”. At this very early juncture in the book, it appears as though the people of God were willing to continue the campaign that Joshua had started—the same campaign that Joshua commanded the people to complete in Joshua 23:4-5. “Here the people express their willingness to obey this command and acknowledge the Lord’s leadership in the campaign” (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 120; see also Block, Judges, Ruth, 86).

One might wonder why this campaign was necessary. Readers must remember that this land belonged to the Israelites. 400 years of absence in Egyptian slavery had allowed many pagan people to come in and set up shop in what was supposed to be the epicenter from which the world would be blessed by the one true God. The Canaanites and other peoples currently inhabiting this region could not accomplish God’s purpose on the world’s stage and therefore, they had to be removed by the rightful possessors of the land. Why not share it with them? The brand of wickedness and idolatry adopted by the Canaanites was especially dangerous and debilitating, especially to the people of God. Leaving them in the region with any kind of influence would no doubt lead to syncretism, deception, and spiritual decay. This potentiality would only be circumvented if the Canaanites disappeared from the land entirely. This is why all the way back in Deuteronomy 7:1-2 God says, “When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations-the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them,  and show them no mercy.”

Following the Lord’s command and expelling the Canaanites would be helped if a new leader was established to replace Joshua. A new leader is exactly what the Lord provides in response to the prayer voiced in verse 1—“the Lord said, ‘Judah shall go up;’…” (1:2a). It is helpful to know that “Judah” here is not an individual, but a tribe of descendants that share “Judah” as their father (the fourth of twelve sons of Jacob and the first born of Leah). Judah’s leadership was well-known in Israel’s ancient traditions. Prior to Jacob’s death, Jacob described Judah as a powerful warrior and leader among his other brothers (Gen. 49:8-12). For these reasons, God’s choice of the tribe of Judah to lead in this time was no surprise.

After choosing Judah to lead/continue the campaign against the Canaanites, the Lord issues a promise—“behold, I have given the land into his hand” (1:2b). This is not unlike the many promises and fulfillments given to Joshua during his leadership (Josh 2:24; 10:19; 11:8; 10:19; 21:44). With the issuing of this promise here to Judah, everything looks as though things will be business as usual going forward—just as it was in the days of the Joshua.

One commentator puts it this way: “The opening scene of the book offers so much promise. The theocratic system is still in place (in other words, God is still looked upon as the ultimate leader of the people of Israel). Israel is sensitive to the will of God, and God responds to the overtures of his people. In its present …position, after the Book of Joshua, the reader expects a continuation of the triumphant narrative encountered in the previous book. But how different will be the reality from the ideal, the history from the dream! By raising the reader’s expectations this way the narrator invites us to share the intensity of his own and God’s disappointment with his people in the period of settlement. Verses 1-2 throw the remainder of the chapter and the book into sharpest relief” (Block, Judges and Ruth, 87) (And it doesn’t take long).

2. The Wins and Losses of Judah-1:3-20

Judah decides to partner with another tribe (of full brothers), pool their resources, and act in such a way that is beneficial to both parties—“Then Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; and I in turn will go with you into the territory allotted you.’ So Simeon went with him…” (1:3). In other words, “you come and help me fight these guys and I’ll help you fight those guys.”

This team appears relatively successful. First, they lead an “upland campaign” (see “went up” in verses 4-8. (1:4-8). “Up” here refers to elevation, not direction (in other words, not north, but ascending). This campaign can be divided into three phases. First, there is the victory at Bezek—“Judah went up, and the Lord gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hands, and they defeated ten thousand men at Bezek.” (1:4). Next, there is the humiliation of Adoni Bezek (the escaped ruler)—“They found Adoni-bezek in Bezek and fought against him, and they defeated the Canaanites and the Perizzites. But Adoni-bezek fled; and they pursued him and caught him and cut off his thumbs and big toes. Adoni-bezek said, ‘Seventy kings with their thumbs and their big toes cut off used to gather up scraps under my table; as I have done, so God has repaid me.’ So they brought him to Jerusalem and he died there.” (1:5-7). The form of torture described in this series of verses served to humiliate the victim and render him incapable of taking up arms in the future. Apparently, this king had this coming to him as he had mutilated seventy other kings in the same way in the past. The king himself admits that God was justly repaying him for his own cruelty. However, these gory details might also reveal that even here, at the beginning of Judges, the people of God were stooping to a pagan level in the way they chose to deal with enemies. Rather than execute the king on the spot, they allowed him to live (at least for awhile) and resorted to a Canaanite method of torture (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 122). This proves that even here in chapter 1, the regression of God’s people is beginning to show itself. The third phase of this campaign is mentioned in verse 8—"Then the sons of Judah fought against Jerusalem and captured it and struck it with the edge of the sword and set the city on fire…” (1:8). The swiftness of this entire campaign in general and this last phase in particular reveals God’s presence really was with his people as they tried to complete what Joshua started.

Following the “upland campaign” (i.e. “going up”), Judah tackles the “lowlands” (“went down” or descended into the valley).  The writer reports as follows: “Afterward the sons of Judah went down to fight against the Canaanites living in the hill country and in the Negev and in the lowland. So Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (now the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath-arba); and they struck Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai. Then from there he went against the inhabitants of Debir (now the name of Debir formerly was Kiriath-sepher). And Caleb said, ‘The one who attacks Kiriath-sepher and captures it, I will even give him my daughter Achsah for a wife.’ Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, captured it; so he gave him his daughter Achsah for a wife. Then it came about when she came to him, that she persuaded him to ask her father for a field. Then she alighted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Give me a blessing, since you have given me the land of the Negev, give me also springs of water.’ So Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs…” (1:9-15). During this conquest, some of the same Anakites that had terrified the Israelite spies during their surveilance of the land in Numbers 13:22 and 33 are successfully defeated—Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. Caleb joins in on the scene and promises his daughter to the Israelite who attackes Kiriath-sepher. After his nephew brother captures it, he makes good on this promise—guaranteeing that his daughter would have a worthy husband and that he would have a capable in-law. As a wedding present (of sorts) Caleb grants his daughter a field and “springs of water” after she requests such. Caleb’s seeking to provide the very best for his daughter here at the early part of the book will contrast sharply to how future leaders deal with women as the story unfolds.

The account continues with Judah’s activity: “The descendants of the Kenite, Moses’ father-in-law, went up from the city of palms with the sons of Judah, to the wilderness of Judah which is in the south of Arad; and they went and lived with the people. Then Judah went with Simeon his brother, and they struck the Canaanites living in Zephath, and utterly destroyed it. So the name of the city was called Hormah. And Judah took Gaza with its territory and Ashkelon with its territory and Ekron with its territory” (1:16-18). It would appear that under Judah, the conquest and settlement that began with Joshua was continuing strong. However, as the conclusion of the campaign is described, there are shortcomings—shortcomings that will eventually cost the Israelites dearly.

On the positive end, Judah took possession of the hill country—"Now the Lord was with Judah, and they took possession of the hill country…” (1:19a). On the negative end, “they could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley because they had iron chariots” (1:19b). Since when did chariots pose a threat to God’s people? After all, hadn’t Pharaoh’s chariots failed their pursuit of the escaping slaves? Joshua had even assured the men of Joseph that the Canaanites iron chariots would not prevent them from conquering the plains (Josh 17:16-18). Something is not adding up. In 2:1-5, one learns that this might just be an excuse and that the real reason for Israel’s failure to complete the job was their own spiritual compromise and idolatry (Chisholm, Judges and Ruth, 130). That said, on another more positive note, the text continues with “Then they gave Hebron to Caleb, as Moses had promised; and he drove out from there the three sons of Anak…”  (1:20) 

3. The Failures of the Remaining Tribes-1:21-36

However, the chapter does not end on a positive note. Instead, what started out as a campaign to expel idolatrous influence from the Promised Lamb ends up turning into an opportunity for the people of God to settle down with the enemy—a chance that the Israelites take. The contrast between the relative success of Judah, Simeon, and Caleb mentioned earlier is contrasted with what is revealed next, introduced with “but” in verse 21—"But the sons of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem; so that Jebusites have lived with the sone of Benjamin in Jerusalem to this day” (the day that this would have been written).  While both Judah and Benjamin at different times attempted to take this city (see here and in Joshua 15:63), both were unsuccessful at dismantling the stronghold of the Jebusites. Rather than continue the cause and finally and  forever remove this threat and influence, it is obvious that the Benjaminites became used to their tenants and learned to live with them.

 “Likewise the house of Joseph went up against Bethel, and the Lord was with them. The house of Joseph spied out Bethel (now the name of the city was formerly Luz). The spies saw a man coming out of the city and they said to him, ‘Please show us the entrance to the city and we will treat you kindly.’ So he showed them the entrance to the city, and they struck the city with the edge of the sword, but they let the man and all his family go free. The man went into the land of the Hittites and built a city and named it Luz which is its name to this day…” (1:22-26). Here, in spite of the Lord being with them, the tribe of Joseph relied on pagan informants for success, pagan informants that they allowed to settle in their back yard.

The same song repeats itself again and again as the chapter unfolds. “But Manasseh did not take possession of Beth-shean and its villages, or Taanach and its villages, or the inhabitants of Dor and its villages, or the inhabitants of Ibleam and its villages, or the inhabitants of Megiddo and its villages; so the Canaanites persisted in living in that land It came about when Israel became strong, that they put the Canaanites to forced labor, but they did not drive them out completely. Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites who were living in Gezer; so the Canaanites lived in Gezer among them. Zebulun did not drive out the inhabitants of Kitron, or the inhabitants of Nahalol; so the Canaanites lived among them and became subject to forced labor. Asher did not drive out the inhabitants of Acco, or the inhabitants of Sidon, or of Ahlab, or of Achzib, or of Helbah, or of Aphik, or of Rehob. So the Asherites lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; for they did not drive them out. Naphtali did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh, or the inhabitants of Beth-anath, but lived among the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land; and the inhabitants of Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath became forced labor for them. Then the Amorites forced the sons of Dan into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the valley;  yet the Amorites persisted in living in Mount Heres, in Aijalon and in Shaalbim; but when the power of the house of Joseph grew strong, they became forced labor. The border of the Amorites ran from the ascent of Akrabbim, from Sela and upward” (1:27-36) (emphasis added). Instead of fulfilling their God-given destiny of driving out the pagan influences from this Promised Land, these tribes allowed the Canaanites and Amorites to persist in the region in all of these little settlements. These groups remained inhabitants when the only inhabitants should have been the Israelites. Instead of leveraging their seasons of strength in such a way to finally expel these groups, God’s people used their influence to enslave these people—regressing to what they themselves had endured in Egypt all those years ago (not unlike what they did in Josh 16:10; 17:12-13, etc.).

So What?

Chapter 1 of Judges sets the stage for what will prove to be the not-so-slow moral and spiritual decline of God’s people during this troubled epoch. In failing to drive out the Canaanites from certain areas and in endorsing some of the practices that the pagans were using to torture and enslave enemies, we can already see small concessions made to the world that will eventually lead to major failures in the future. While we haven’t been called to drive people out of our city/state/country today, twenty-first century believers can sympathize with this account on a spiritual level when they consider the call to personal holiness. Small concessions given to the world and her ways, for the sake of peace, comfort, ease, or just because one is tired of the struggle, can suffer dire consequences down the line. Much like the Israelites in the days of the judges, we have been called to serve as a beachhead for a holy alternative in the world in which we live, not a compromising diplomat that grants footholds to the enemy that will do us in in due course. So let me ask you, what concessions have you/are you making in your life today? What are letting slide? It is possible that what may not look like a big deal today could ruin your life tomorrow. This is the unfortunate tragedy of God’s people in the Book of Judges and one can already see the beginnings of it here in chapter 1.

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