In our study through the book of Joshua, we have been following the Israelites as they arrived at and then entered the promised land. Moses had brought them out of Egypt, and Joshua, Moses' successor, led them into the new land and led them in starting to conquer the land. And under the leadership of Joshua, the Israelites began to take control of the land from the Canaanites and other peoples who were there.
As the book of Judges opens, the tribes are starting to take over the land that God had provided, to rid the land of its pagan and evil inhabitants, and to establish the land as their own. But they did not follow through, preferring instead to try to take the land on their own terms. As they compromised the plans of God, however, they began to experience problems—problems that had been predicted a half-century earlier (Exodus 23:32-33):
31 And I will set your bounds from the Red Sea to the sea, Philistia, and from the desert to the River. For I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hand, and you shall drive them out before you. 32 You shall make no covenant with them, nor with their gods. 33 They shall not dwell in your land, lest they make you sin against Me. For if you serve their gods, it will surely be a snare to you.”
The book of Judges shows the results of not following the instructions of God; how Israel did turn to the gods of the Canaanites, and how they consequently never experienced all of the blessings God had promised.
A forgotten promise
Judges chapter 1 outlines what happened shortly after they got to their new land and began to conquer it. Remember the vow of the people in Joshua 24:16-24):
16 So the people answered and said: “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; 17 for the Lord our God is He who brought us and our fathers up out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, who did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way that we went and among all the people through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out from before us all the people, including the Amorites who dwelt in the land. We also will serve the Lord, for He is our God.”
19 But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then He will turn and do you harm and consume you, after He has done you good.”
21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord!”
22 So Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord for yourselves, to serve Him.” And they said, “We are witnesses!”
23 “Now therefore,” he said, “put away the foreign gods which are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and His voice we will obey!”
We read in the first verse of the book of Judges that the people did indeed get off to a good start: they asked the Lord for guidance: “Who shall be first to go up for us against the Canaanites to fight against them?” (v. 1); that is, “who should take the lead.” We don’t know how they sought the Lord’s guidance on this, but there was a clear answer from Him: “Judah shall go up” (v. 2). Notice also in verse 2 that God gave them a guarantee of victory: “Indeed, I have delivered the land into his (Judah’s) hand." Note the past tense; the victory was already won; God had already determined the outcome, and all the people needed to do was to conquer the land according to God's instructions: none of the peoples in the land were to remain. They were to be driven out.
I can't help but be reminded of the fact that wherever God leads us, He enables us to succeed. Each of us has experienced the leading of God. It can be a feeling or a message we discern. Or it may come from a scripture passage, giving us direction for the clear path to take or the decision to make. It is good to know that from the very beginning of God’s relationship with His people, He always has enabled us to do what He directs us to do. He does not ask us to do the impossible. He does not promise us a future that He hasn’t already enabled for us.
So Judah assumes the lead in obedience to the word of God, first asking the assistance from the tribe of Simeon and promising assistance to Simeon when it becomes time to rid its portion of the land from its evil inhabitants.
Justice for Adoni-Bezek
The portion assigned to Judah included an area or city-state called Bezek, governed by a king called Adoni-Bezek (literally, “The Lord of Bezek”). Adoni-Bezek’s was well known throughout the land for his cruelty to the kings of the peoples he and his army defeated. He cut off the thumbs and toes of the kings he captured—70 in all, according to him—and forced them to scramble under his table for crumbs in order to eat and survive. Why thumbs and big toes? Adoni-Bezek meant it as an object lesson to any monarch who may ever consider warring against him. Cutting off the thumbs and big toes of his enemies guaranteed Adoni-Bezek compete and irreversible domination. The kings could no longer grasp a sword or a spear or shield in battle without thumbs. And while they could walk without their big toes, the could not run swiftly.
So Judah’s treatment of Adoni-Bezek was not only a kind of justice—the same treatment for him as he had given others—but also a warning to the rest of the peoples inhabiting the land. So far, the Israelites were off to a good start, obeying their Lord and beginning to rid the land of its evil inhabitants and their false gods.
Failure to follow God’s plan
We see starting in verse 19 the problems begin to develop as the people failed to follow through faithfully the plan God had put before them: "So the LORD was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron."
There is a mountain range that runs north/south just west of the Dead Sea and Jordan River. To the west of those mountains, stretching clear to the Mediterranean Sea is a wide plain, called here the lowlands. This area consisted mostly of fertile farmlands, and through it, along the coast, ran the the highway by the sea, the major trade route along the coast from Egypt to Phoenicia, Aram, and other nations north and northeast of Israel. The lowland region and its vital trade route were well defended; as we read in verse 19, by an army or military garrison with chariots. These may have been Philistines, or, also likely, Egyptian forces there to defend the vital trade route through the territory.
The hesitation of the tribe of Judah to conquer the lowlands is the first clue we have of the compromises that would plague Israel for the rest of its existence. As we know from the text, each tribe was given a territory with clear instructions from God to drive out the people who were living there. Judah’s failure to do so was just the start of the failure of all the tribes to follow the command of God to rid the land of its evil inhabitants:
Verse 21—the tribe of Benjamin did not drive out the Jebusites, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but chose to live in their midst instead.
Verses 22-26—the tribe of Joseph defeated Bethel but spared at least one of the inhabitants and his family, who established another city in the land.
Verse 27—the tribe of Manassah failed to drive out the people from throughout its inheritance, but instead yielded to the Canaanites’ determination to defend their lands.Manassah allowed them to stay in return for paying tribute (a tax).
Verse 29—Ephraim did not drive out the Canaanites from its portion of the land, but allowed the Canaanites to remain and live among them.
Verse 30—Zebulun put the Canaanites under tribute rather than driving them out.
Verse 31—Asher . . . verse 33—Naphtali . . . verse 34—Dan . . . all of them allowed the inhabitants to stay and live among them, in defiance of God’s instructions and in spite of God’s promise that He had already delivered these peoples into the Israelites’ hands.
Verse 34 gives us an important indication of the extent to which the Israelites yielded to the people inhabiting the land: the Amorites kept the people of Dan from inhabiting the fertile valleys of their inheritance and forced them to live in the mountains.
What happened? Perhaps they grew weary of the effort. Perhaps they forgot God’s promise that He had already delivered the people of the land to the Israelites. Maybe the Israelites faith and commitment to God had weakened. Who knows? But what we do know is that in the end, because of the disobedience that began shortly after then entered the land, described in Judges 1, the Israelites never did occupy the land God had given over to them. They compromised, and so they failed to possess all that God had already given to them.
The Israelites entered the land as conquerors, with all the power and the promise of God that the land was theirs for the taking, but they settled in among those who had rejected God and whose culture would eventually lead to their destruction.
And God was not pleased
We read in chapter 2 that the Angel of the Lord visited the people with a message, reminding them that God had kept His promise, but that they had broken their covenant with Him. As a result, the Angel of the Lord tells them, God will no longer drive out the inhabitants before the Israelites.
And as we study through the book of Judges, we will read about cycle after cycle of obedience and disobedience, faithfulness and unfaithfulness, sin and repentance.
The people of Israel have shown us that faith and commitment that is half-hearted are not enough. The story of Israel occupying the land only in part is a lesson for us, that we cannot compromise on our faith; that we must not follow our Lord only in part.
God had already defeated the enemy, and the land was already as good as conquered. He promised them their full inheritance, but by compromising—by looking at the obstacles rather than the promises—they accepted only part of what God had for them.
And what would this mean long-term to the Israelites? We can read in verse 10 the beginning of what would be many centuries of repeating cycles of sin and repentance: "When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel. The repeating cycles of sin and repentance that started with that generation eventually would lead to the conquering of Israel by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, as God's chosen people strayed further and further into sin and rebellion.
The book of Judges is a record of real history. And for us it also is a metaphor.
When we compromise on a promise or principle from God, we open ourselves up to the influence and domination of sin. When we compromise, we deny the power of our Lord. He has already conquered the sin that tempts us, yet we may yield to temptation. He has already rescued us, but we can act like we are of the world and not of the kingdom. He has empowered us, yet we may see ourselves as weak and powerless. He has given us victory, yet we may feel defeated and despondent.
So what does our Lord expect us us? The answer is pretty straightforward: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). We are of His kingdom and we have been given the ability to conform to the new life and the new powers He has given us.
Finally, let me observe that the book of Judges may seem depressing because of Israel’s repeated disobedience and rebellion against their Lord. But in the midst of the repeating cycles of sin and repentance, we also will find in the pages of the book of Judges that the story of Israel's troubles also is the story of repentance and God’s unending grace.