Sunday, August 25, 2013

Bible Commentary - Judges Introduction

Ready or not, here comes Judges.

I am, of course, joking, because I am eminently prepared for Judges.  And soon you will be too, trusty and faithful readers, because much like Neo in The Matrix, you are about to receive a swift information upload.  Instead of kung-fu, I will be transferring to you biblical studies.  Anyway, lets get on topic because I have a lot I want to say about Judges.

First of all, I think Judges comes at a really important time for Israel.  After receiving the promise for inheriting this land in Genesis, the exodus from Egypt in, well, Exodus, and returning to conquer the land in Joshua, Judges is the first book that will take place entirely in the promised land, with all the Israelite tribes here, all the most revered leaders dead, and the Canaanites subdued but not destroyed.

Joshua was a critical period for Israel because it marked their transition from wandering in the desert to taking their inheritance.  Judges is critical because it will show us how Israel will live now that they are in their inheritance, and their actions now foretell how they will generally behave between here and the end of the histories in 2nd Chronicles.  In short, Judges forms the pattern of behavior that will mark Israel's occupation of the promised land, and it's a pattern that they hardly ever diverge from until the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE.

This pattern is very well defined, so much so that I personally refer to it as "the Judges cycle".  The basic pattern is as follows: 1) Israel sins, 2) a foreign nation invades them or some other disaster occurs, 3) Israel repents, 4) the LORD brings deliverance and blesses Israel, leading us back to 1).  This is like the bible's equivalent to The Song That Never Ends.

The truth is that Israel is in a downslope, and while there are a few brief and shining revivals, from this point onward things are just going to get worse and worse.  This is something I have warned about several times, most recently in the book of Joshua when Israel was not able to drive out all of the Canaanites from the promised land.  The reference I have made time after time is Deut 20 where Moses warned that allowing the Canaanites to survive in the land would become a trap to ensnare the Israelites into sin.  In essence, that is exactly what happens.  Even within Judges, the earlier leaders are generally more faithful than the later ones.

A second significant theme in Judges is the phrase "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes." (Judges 17:6, 21:25).  Conceptually, Judges is a period of lawlessness in Israel, because it follows the death of Joshua and precedes the kingdom of Israel.  Of course, Israel sinned even in the days of Moses, and they continued to sin after there was a king.  But I think we will see throughout Judges that it was a period of anarchy and strife, even between the tribes of Israel.

Another significant implication of this phrase is that Judges was almost certainly written after the kingdom of Israel was established.  I haven't really discussed the kingdom because we still haven't gotten to that part of the bible so I haven't said much about it.  It should be self-evident that Judges must have been written (or at least compiled) after the events it describes, but since the kingdom immediately follows the events of Judges, knowing that it was written (or compiled) after the kingdom doesn't really narrow it down.  There is textual support for at least some parts of Judges being written close to the events it describes.

Judges has a vignette stylism that centers briefly around a series of individual heroes, the eponymous "judges", who lead Israel out of their difficult circumstances and back into glory.  This is contrary to the Pentateuch which is much more tightly interconnected through related generations.

The episodal nature of Judges supports the possibility that it is a compilation of separate stories rather than a single composition.  That said, I have already pointed out several clear themes in Judges (the "Judges cycle" and "everyone did what was right in his own eyes"), so it's obvious that the author or compiler of Judges was trying to bring these various stories together into a much more unified message.  Even the similarity between the different stories suggests a common understanding or purpose behind the otherwise discrete series of messages.

The authorship is also disputed and the book does not itself claim a specific author.  The traditional view is that Samuel authored Judges, but there is no direct or textual evidence to support this view.  I think my preceding paragraph gives the closest to my understanding of the authorship: Judges is composed of many stories, but a common framework.

I'll add more stuff here later if I think of it, but for now I'll move on to Judges 1.

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