This summer, Rachael and I hosted a weekly Bible study with some friends of ours from the campus ministry that we volunteer with. The focus of the study, which was selected by everyone back at the start of summer, was the Book of Judges.
Judges is a strange book in the Old Testament canon. It’s a history explaining what life was like for the Israelites following the end of their successful war campaigns to conquer Canaan and before Samuel came along and anointed Saul as the first king of the monarchy. Most of the book gives accounts of multiple figures from this time period who are given the title of judge in English translations. With the exception of Deborah, these judges don’t typically act with any kind of judicial authority; more often they’re military leaders of various rebellions that different tribes of the Israelites carried out in response to oppressive foreign tribes who were still living alongside Israel in Canaan. The reason there were still foreign tribes in Canaan at this time, according to the prologue of Judges, is that the Israelites failed to properly stamp out the native inhabitants of their promised land.
That’s kind of a troubling explanation for the modern-day Christian.
Everyone in our Bible study group struggled with this essential background portion of the book. The author of Judges makes it abundantly clear that Israel repeatedly gets in trouble during this period because they fail to maintain their own cultural purity and because they don’t get rid of all the pesky natives. The first half about cultural purity is somewhat problematic, but it at least makes sense in context of Levitical law’s demands that the Israelites maintain their national identity through stringent hygienic, dietary, and sexual standards; the Israelites had a national identity, which included their faith in Yahweh, and it was important for them to protect that identity. The second part of the author’s explanation, that Israel failed to maintain its cultural purity because it didn’t do a good enough job eradicating corrupting influences, just doesn’t sit well today. Even conservative Christians who agree with the rhetoric of the culture wars that says secularism is a blight on Christian culture find the assertion that Israel fell away from God repeatedly because they didn’t kill enough of their neighbors to be a difficult one to swallow.
When I first started studying Judges, I quickly came across the historical framework that says it’s a part of the larger work known as the Deutoronomistic history which includes all of the history books in the Old Testament beginning with Deutoronomy and proceeding through Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This history was probably written beginning in the 7th century BCE and completed sometime in the 5th century BCE during Israel’s subservience to first Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia. The purpose of the history was to frame Israel’s hardships under these foreign rulers as the consequences of failing to maintain a faithful covenant with Yahweh, which helps explain the xenophobia on display in Judges.
All of this background knowledge still doesn’t help explain how to deal with Judges as an instructional text, especially when trying to explain how a book that records the Israelites doing horrific things to one another and to foreigners who live among them (a huge no-no according to Leviticus 19:33-34) judges their failing not as simply a lack of faith, but a lack of faith as expressed through not being exclusionary enough with their neighbors.
In an inerrantist framework, the fact that Judges is included in the canon means that it’s part of the inspired Word of God, which means that whomever the human author was, God is supposed to be speaking through them, and what it says is therefore perfect. I don’t consider myself an inerrantist anymore so I found the Deuteronomistic context helpful for keeping in mind the limitations of the text while I was reading it, but I know that not everyone has the same theological freedom on that point.
None of that is to say that I don’t think the Bible is divinely inspired–I do. But in addition to that, I also believe that God’s use of human mouthpieces makes it important to try to parse out the author’s purpose from the Holy Spirit’s; this is, for obvious reasons, a difficult undertaking that’s subject to all kinds of flawed interpretations–just like inerrantism.
To sum up a belabored point, Judges is a really hard book to make sense of in light of the grace and mercy that Christ calls us to prioritize in our own lives.
I haven’t even started to scratch the surface here, so there will be at least another part on Judges, though it will probably take many more to fully discuss everything.