This post on the book of Judges is the first of two on God’s sovereignty in times of chaos. Click here to see the second instalment, focussing on the book of Ruth.
Much of our experience of life feels chaotic and disjointed. We struggle to catch even small glimpses of an overarching purpose. We cannot read God’s mind, or directly observe his hand of providence at work (e.g. Isaiah 55:8-9). This is particularly true in times of war and its aftermath and, as in the case of the current COVID crisis, in times of widespread disease and its after-shocks.
The Bible is open about the hard truth about the world—and about our own hearts.
The Bible is open about these things. It tells us the hard truth about the world—and, more uncomfortably, about our own hearts. Israel’s history recorded in Judges is one such place where we are confronted with the dark reality of just how bad things can become. But in all this darkness, our unchanging God of holy love is never absent, and he is always at work to achieve his good purpose. In the book of Judges, we encounter God in Chaos.
Faithful God, Adulterous People
The book of Joshua tells the good news of God fulfilling all his promises: the Israelites cross the Jordan; they are given victory over their enemies and receive their inheritance in the promised land (Genesis 12:1-3, 7 cf. Joshua 21:43-45).
But where God proves faithful, the generation following Joshua grows increasingly complacent and unfaithful (Judges 2:1-15). The reason that God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and given them the land, was so that they could worship and serve him there (e.g. Exodus 8:1; 9:1; 10:3 cf. Deuteronomy 4:1-14; 6:1-25 etc). But this is exactly what they fail to do. Rather than embracing their new life in the land of promise; becoming a light to the nations, the people of Israel compromise with the peoples they had failed to remove as God had commanded.
However, even this rebellion does not lie outside God’s sovereign direction. God hands them over to the consequences of their choices: the nations will remain to test his people and reveal what is in their hearts (Judges 2:20-3:6). In short, while God remains faithful to his covenant, Israel betrays his love. They intermarry with the nations and eagerly embrace their way of life. As Barry Webb puts it, ‘In becoming covenant-makers with the Canaanites they became covenant-breakers with the LORD who had brought them out of Egypt.’
God’s people put themselves in thrall to idolatry. They first tolerate, then embrace the evil practices unheard of in Israel up to that point (e.g. Judges 19:30). Moral perverseness becomes, not just an occasional feature, but the essence, the unconscious norm, of their lifestyle. And yet the continued response of the LORD to his wayward people is one of grace (Judges 2:16-3:6). The pattern described in the narrative of Judges is as follows:
- Israel serves the Lord
- Israel falls into sin and idolatry
- Israel is enslaved
- Israel cries out to the Lord
- God raises up a judge
- Israel is delivered
Vortex of Evil
Despite repeated cycles of God’s discipline and mercy, the sin of the people not only repeats itself, but deteriorates with every successive generation: ‘They turned back and became more corrupt than their fathers’ (Judges 2:19). There is no light at the end of the tunnel; only the darkness of moral chaos; ‘a downward spiral, a vortex in which Israel is drawn ever more deeply into the grip of the evil it has chosen.’ After the Samson narrative (13:1-16:21), no more Spirit-anointed Judges are raised up by God. Instead what we witness is the Lord handing Israel over to the lawless lives they have chosen, summarised with the repeated refrain:
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit. (17:6; 21:25 cf. 18:1; 19:1)
Increasingly, corruption, violence and inter-tribal power plays, not only characterise their politics, but the treatment of the most vulnerable members of their communities (especially women). These come to a head in the closing events of the book (ch. 19-21), which have been aptly described as ‘texts of terror.’
Texts of Terror
A certain Levite of Ephraim takes a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. Throughout this loveless narrative she is treated like his property. In a desperate attempt to escape her situation, the woman is unfaithful and returns to her father’s house. The Levite travels to her family home to take back what is his. The narrative focusses on the drinking and feasting of the two men, while she is effectively ignored and recedes into the background (19:1-10).
This woman has been shamefully used by all of the men in her life.
But the worst is yet to come. On their way back to the Levite’s home they seek shelter in Gibeah; where a gang of evil Benjaminites threaten to sexually assault the Levite. When the man sends out his concubine instead, she is brutally gang-raped and left for dead (19:18-26).
In the morning, when the Levite opens the front door to leave and sees her lying there, he appears completely unmoved. He tells her to get up and, when there is no response, simply lifts her onto his donkey and goes home (19:27-28). This woman has been shamefully used by all of the men in her life. The sad story continues even after her death:
The Levite took a knife, and taking hold of his concubine he divided her, limb by limb, into twelve pieces and sent them into all the areas of Israel. (19:29)
This is the final, ultimate violation of the concubine’s personhood. She is denied even the dignity of burial. And a special horror is added by the lingering doubt about whether she was already dead or merely unconscious when the dismemberment took place. In any case the Levite would not care; he had no further use for her as a person—only as an object to inspire horror and bend others to his will. It is the most appalling abuse of a woman in Biblical literature and perhaps in any literature. But it has exactly the effect the Levite intended.
And all who saw it said, “Such a thing has never happened or been seen from the day the people of Israel came up out of the land of Egypt until this day; consider it, take counsel, and speak. (19:30).
What follows is a blood-bath as the people of Israel seek terrible revenge on the people of Benjamin. Then other Israelite women are abducted and subjected to forced marriage to ensure that the tribe of Benjamin won’t die out (21:16-23). Webb writes:
What started with the rape of the concubine in Gibeah has led to the abduction (and effective rape) of four-hundred virgins in Jabesh-gilead … They have created a world in which right is wrong and wrong is right and landed the nation in complete moral bankruptcy.
Judges ends with the now familiar and ominous chorus: ‘In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.’ (Ju 21:25)
What are these Accounts Doing in the Bible?
It’s safe to say that these are not the stories one might read to a first time inquirer of the Scriptures. But what is abundantly clear is that the Bible offers no escape from the dark realities of our broken and fallen world. Here is no spiritual opiate for the masses; as Karl Marx accused. Rather, in the brutal record of these events the Holy Spirit holds up a mirror to the human race that has turned its back on God; including his own people.
A society or culture in which ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’ is a world of chaos and cruelty, where justice fails.
What is the end-point of a society or culture in which ‘everyone does what is right in their own eyes’? It’s not a golden utopia of free love, limitless self-expression and creativity, but a world of chaos and cruelty, where justice fails. The narratives recorded in Judges belong to our world: a world full of revenge and violence, of misguided conflicts, war-crimes and the exploitation of those most vulnerable.
The Incomparable Grace of God
But even in these dark days, God is never absent. He is present in chaos (e.g. 20:1, 18-29). By withholding easy victory to the tribal alliance that sought disproportionate revenge on Benjamin (20:18-36), he hands the whole nation over to the consequences of their shared evil (20:18-28 cf. 20:29-48). God shows no favouritism and makes no deals with his people when they treat him like some false foreign god; as a kind of divine insurance policy in their ill-advised battles. Yet, by the close of the book, each of the tribes has been preserved in their own inheritance (21:24). God has not given up on his covenant with his people.
God is in the chaos. His holy love meets human evil head-on, even turning it to his own good purposes. As difficult and distressing as they are for us to read, these texts of terror anticipate a final and far more shocking event: the shame and horror of the death of our perfect sinless Saviour on that ugly bloody cross. It is this event above all others that lays bare the utter darkness of our sin, and the unfathomable love and mercy of our good and holy God (e.g. Acts 2:22-25, 36-39; 1Peter 1:17-21; Hebrews 13:11-13). Henri Blocher wrote,
Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin…The secret and hidden wisdom of the Lord has caused to coincide the ignoble murder and the act of supreme love of the righteous for the unrighteous, the expiation, by his death in their place, of their sins.
Judges ends with the news that ‘there is no king in Israel.’ But it has a sequel from the same time. In the book of Ruth, barely glowing coals begin to flicker into flame revealing God’s kindness and human kindness; and hope and a future in the most unpromising people living out desperate lives on the margins of society. This book ends with the promise of the Redeemer-King to come.
 Barry G. Webb. Judges and Ruth: God in Chaos. (Preaching the Word; Crossway: Wheaton Illinois; 2015). This is a very accessible exposition which includes quality application for churches and preachers. For more background and exegetical detail refer to his earlier books: The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading. (JSOTS 46; JSOT Press: Sheffield; 1987); Judges.(NICOT; Grand Rapids; Eerdmans; 2012).
 Barry Webb (2015), 34.
 Barry Webb (2015), 54.
 Webb (2015), 232.
 Webb (2015), 239, 240.
 Henri Blocher. Evil and the Cross. (Kregel Academic: Grand Rapids; 1994), 132, 133. The expiation; that is the complete removal of our sin from us, is accomplished through the propitiation accomplished by Jesus’ death. That is, on the cross Christ takes the place of sinners, and absorbs in himself the full force of God’s wrath against our sin (e.g. 1John 2:2). In this way, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2Cor 5:21)