And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. - Judges 2:10 (ESV)
Judges is perhaps the most tragic of all the books of the Bible. Many have noted the pattern in Judges that is a cyclical spiral into worse and worse degradation. Judges is the story of a people who neglect and forget their spiritual roots and go after other gods, then are punished by Yahweh according to their covenant, then rescued by a leader that Yahweh raises up for them, only to repeat the process again and again and in worse and worse ways.
One of the key texts to interpreting Judges is found in the passage cited above. Despite all of Yahweh's warnings, and Moses's warnings, and Joshua's warnings, there arose a generation that did not know Yahweh or the work he had done for Israel. I have heard it said that a people is only ever one generation away from losing the gospel. Judges is a stark biblical example of that.
An Outline of Judges
Judges begins with a recounting of the final days of the conquering of the Promised Land in chapters 1-2. These chapters set the stage for the rest of the book. Unlike many biblical books, Judges contains a description of the contents of the rest of the book. It is worth citing in full:
Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. - Judges 2:18–19 (ESV)
As a result of this failure, Yahweh decides not to drive out the rest of the nations in the Promised Land in order to test the people by them.
Chapters 3-4 narrate the first series of disobedience, oppression, salvation, and rest. It includes the judges Othniel, Ehud, and Shamgar. Barak and Deborah follow them. Deborah was the judge who told Barak he had been selected to lead Israel to freedom from their oppressors, but he was unwilling unless she went with him. The song that constitutes the fifth chapter is attributed to both of them.
Judges 6 begins the saga of Gideon. It continues through chapter 8. As soon as Gideon dies, the people "turned again" (Judges 8:33). Judges 9 shares the story of Abimelech and the swift downfall of Gideon's line. Judges 10 skips the stories of Tula and Jair to get to the story of Jephthah in chapters 11 and 12. Jephthah's story includes the controversial account of his sacrifice of his daughter as part of a rash vow to Yahweh.
The story of Samson comprises chapters 13-16. Samson is the strongest man to ever live. At least, he is the strongest physically speaking. His story is one of physical strength coupled with moral weakness. His last act is a Kamikaze effort to destroy many of Israel's enemies.
Chapters 17-18 cover the story of Micah and the Levite. Interestingly, no judge figures in this narrative. It is the story of a Levite who is hired by a man named Micah to be his priest. Then men from Dan steal Micah's religious objects and attack an unsuspecting city of Canaanites to have a a place to live.
Judges ends with one of the more gruesome and disturbing stories of the entire Bible. A levite and his concubine are attacked in Jerusalem by Benjaminites who want to sexually abuse the man. The concubine is thrown to them instead, and they abuse her all night. At the end of the night, she crawls back to the door of the house and dies. The levite cuts her into twelve pieces and incites the rest of Israel to act against Benjamin. Civil war erupts. The Benjaminites look to win before they are destroyed.
After the Benjaminite defeat, Israel routs the tribe by destroying their towns and the people in them. But they are sad to lose a tribe of Israel, so they first attack one of their own towns to procure women for marriage and then a Canaanite town. The book ends with Benjamin's future secure and a reminder that there was no king in Israel in those days. The final story seems to be a bottom-of-the-barrel example of how everyone did what was right in his own eyes when there was no king.
The Benefits of Judges
Judges is a difficult book to read. Perhaps one of the main lessons Judges gives is the extent of the depravity of human nature. Judges reminds us that we are not naturally holy, good, or godly. Judges is the story of what happens to a people who forget their God. Or, if they don't forget him, it shows what happens when they refuse to follow him.
Judges goes from bad to worse throughout the book. If we learn anything, it is the depths of the misery that sin causes when it is allowed to run amok among a people. And in that sense, Judges serves as a warning to every generation that comes after of the consequences of sin.
Judges teaches us how sin tears everything apart. It separates people from God and people from each other. In this negative sense, Judges encourages us to follow God and to love him with all our heart, mind, and strength.
Far better to learn from Judges to strive to follow Christ and live for God through him. Judges teaches us how far a people can stray from God. It is a negative example if there ever was one. We ought to be afraid of ever ending up like the people in Judges. But the only way for that to happen is for God's grace to invade our lives and cause us to know and grow in Christ.