Success Only by Reliance on Jehovah
PERFECT holiness, firmness for what is right, coupled with mercy and long-suffering—these are the outstanding qualities of God demonstrated in the Bible book of Judges. And the fact that no success can come without wholehearted recognition of and reliance on him is the chief lesson taught. The account bridges the somewhat unsettled period of Israelite history between the death of Joshua and the events leading to the establishment of the kingdom under Saul.
The history of the period of the judges is one of Israel’s alternately falling into idolatry and oppression by their enemies and their returning to Jehovah, with resulting deliverance. Under the strong and faithful leader Joshua and the men of Joshua’s generation, who had been eyewitnesses of God’s majestic power exercised in behalf of those who worshiped him, they had success. But now “another generation began to rise after them that did not know Jehovah or the work that he had done for Israel. And the sons of Israel fell to doing what was bad in the eyes of Jehovah and serving the Baals.”—Judg. 2:10, 11.
HOW ISRAEL WAS ENSNARED BY IDOLATRY
Even though they had not personally seen all of God’s works, why would a nation with Israel’s background, and knowing God’s law and his hatred for idolatry, fall into such a snare? As Bible scholars Keil and Delitzsch* explain:
“With regard to the nature of Baal and Astharte worship, . . . it is evident from the more precise allusions contained in the history of Gideon, that it did not consist of direct opposition to the worship of Jehovah, . . . but that it was simply an admixture of the worship of Jehovah with the heathen or Canaanitish nature-worship.”
The worship of Baal-berith at Shechem, into which the Israelites were ensnared after Gideon was dead, was, according to this commentary,
“simply a corruption of the worship of Jehovah, in which Baal was put in the place of Jehovah and worshipped in a similar way . . . The worship of Jehovah could even be outwardly continued in connection with this idolatrous worship. . . . This will serve to explain the rapid and constantly repeated falling away of the Israelites from Jehovah into Baal-worship, at the very time when the worship of Jehovah was steadfastly continued at the tabernacle in accordance with the commands of the law.”
Nonetheless, if the above be true, despite its outward appearance of serving Jehovah, this practice, similar to modern-day “interfaith,” was a forsaking and a rejection of Jehovah. It altogether distorted God’s holiness and was a disgusting degradation, just as the writer of the book of Judges (most likely Samuel) says: “They abandoned Jehovah and took up serving Baal and the Ashtoreth images.”—Judg. 2:13.
God could not let the people who represented his name and sovereignty continue to receive his protection. He let the enemy nations remain in the land and used them as instruments to punish unfaithful Israel. For his name’s sake and for discipline—to preserve Israel so that his law and his truth might remain—God let them come under oppression. When they came to their senses, got rid of their idol gods and appealed to him in sincerity, he delivered them. (Neh. 9:26-28) This he did by raising up judges.
JUDGES CALLED DIRECTLY BY GOD
Jehovah called the judges directly and bestowed miraculous power on them so that they could deliver Israel. They often continued for some years to judge during times of peace. They did not follow a line of succession but were raised up individually when needed. Some of the judges apparently effected their judging activity over only a section of Israel. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (1962, Vol. 1, p. 584) suggests: “It is doubtless necessary to recognize that in many cases the judges were contemporaries of one another, exercising authority over limited tribal areas.”
Thirteen judges are named, including Deborah, a prophetess and judge. Abimelech, the wicked son of Gideon, attempted to rule the land for three years, but was no judge of Israel. (Judg. 9:22) While a total of the periods mentioned amounts to 410 years, the Bible appears to allow only about 350 years for the period of the judges up to the establishment of the monarchy in Samuel’s time.
This 350-year period is calculated as follows, taking into account that there were overlapping judgeships: 479 full years from the Exodus to the building of the temple. From this is subtracted 129 years, namely: 40 years wilderness wandering, 6 years conquering Canaan under Joshua, 40 years of Saul’s reign, 40 years of David’s and 3 years of Solomon’s before he started temple building. The Authorized Version reading of Acts 13:20 is not according to the earliest Greek manuscripts.—Deut. 2:7; Josh. 14:7, 10; Acts 13:20; 2 Sam. 5:4; 1 Ki. 6:1.
MIRACLES PERFORMED IN JEHOVAH’S STRENGTH
It is thrilling to read the accounts of the exploits of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah and the other judges. Barak, with 10,000 men, completely destroyed a huge enemy force that possessed 900 war chariots armed with iron scythes projecting from their sides or from their axles. (Judg. 4:3, 16) Gideon, with 300 men, routed an army of 135,000 Midianites. (Judg. 7:19-22; 8:10) Jephthah struck down 20 cities of the oppressing Ammonites. (Judg. 11:32, 33) Samson carried the tremendous gates of the Philistine city of Gaza several miles to the top of a mountain and deposited them there. He slaughtered a thousand of these hard-set enemies of Israel in one battle, singlehandedly. Finally, he killed more at his death than during his lifetime, when he pulled down the great temple of the Philistine god Dagon while the Philistines were offering their idolatrous sacrifices and exulting over their capture of the strong man of God. Three thousand died.—Judg. 15:14, 15; 16:1-3, 28-30.
Samson’s work was highly important, for he ‘took the lead’ and began to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines at a time when even the leading tribe of Judah trembled and cowered in fear before them. (Judg. 13:5; 15:9-13) Under the prophet Samuel this crushing of the Philistines was carried further, and King David finally subjugated them altogether.
Some persons may wonder why a woman, Deborah, became a judge of the nation. Her place of judgment was under a palm tree, where the people approached her so that she could judge their problems and cases according to the Mosaic law. She was also a prophetess. She never led the army of Israel into battle, but she encouraged and strengthened Barak, a man of Naphtali, to take leadership in the fight against King Jabin of Hazor, who had oppressed Israel for 20 years. And she was willing to accompany Barak in the attack. (Judg. 4:4-9) The fact that a woman was used in this manner seems to reflect the low spiritual state to which Israel had fallen at that time. It appears that there was no man in the northern part of Israel that had the strong faith and the prominence to take the lead. But God’s spirit that came upon Barak, together with the assurance given him by Deborah, who was an inspired prophetess, impelled him to gather together an army of 10,000 men and to achieve an astounding victory.—Judg. 4:10.
VICTORY ONLY THROUGH PURE WORSHIP
The last five chapters 17-21 of Judges are not chronologically placed. These chapters are, in effect, appendices to the book of Judges. Chapters 17 and 18 record the beginning of idolatrous worship shortly after the death of Joshua and the sin and unrighteousness connected with it from its very start. The last three chapters 19-21 depict how deep-rooted the corruption produced by the influence of the Canaanites had become at that early period. And this helps us to see why God commanded the extermination of the Canaanite peoples.
However, this latter account, which describes the war waged against Benjamin by the other tribes because of Benjamin’s extreme moral degradation, also illustrates how Israel as a whole had kept itself from such corruption. The tribes showed great zeal for what was right. But they had evidently relied on themselves and their action was not primarily motivated by interest in clearing reproach from Jehovah’s name. Here, as throughout the accounts of the judges, the absolute need to rely wholly on Jehovah is emphasized in this way: Even with their zeal for clean worship, the 11 tribes seemed to rely on their own power in the first two attempts to punish Benjamin. They were defeated in these battles, sustaining a loss of 40,000 men. High Priest Phinehas was with the sacred Ark that had been brought from Shiloh to Bethel, where the army was encamped. But after the two defeats they fasted and offered burnt offerings and communion offerings, thereby recognizing the need for Jehovah to fight the battle for them. Only then did Jehovah deliver the Benjaminites into their hands.—Judg. 20:20-29.
A reading of the book of Judges is faith-strengthening. It is a powerful testimony to Jehovah God’s holiness and insistence on pure worship and to his great mercy toward those who call on him in sincerity and truth. The book inspires confidence in its readers that they can come off victorious by ‘rolling their works upon him.’ Through his appointed Leader and Great Judge Jesus Christ, deliverance will come to those putting their trust in Jehovah, no matter how great the obstacles.—Prov. 16:3; Rom. 8:35-39.
commentary by Keil and Delitzsch on the book of Judges, pp. 269, 270 (Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.).