I recently completed a manuscript on the book of Judges for Baker’s Teach the Text Commentary Series (see my previous post for more information about the series). It took me about three and a half years to write the short text, and I want to share just a few highlights from what I learned during my study.
First, let me explain the title of this blog post. If I could choose the title of my commentary, it would be something like “Canaanized” or “Canaanization” (terms coined by Daniel Block) because that essentially captures the theme of the whole book of Judges. Israel’s problem was that she became increasingly indistinguishable from her Canaanite neighbors because of ignorance and apathy toward God’s instructions. In the same way today, our Christian characteristics (like selfless love and service) may be hard to find if we identify more with the world than we do with Christ. It is important for Christians to study the depressing theme of apostasy in Judges because it exposes the “psychology of sin”: the spiraling patterns of sin that lead to the “de-sanctification” of God’s people.
Second, this is a book about God. Even though infamous characters like Gideon and Samson are occupying the narrative, they are somewhat incidental to the more important protagonist, Yahweh. Judges showcases God’s deliverance, faithfulness, compassion, patience, kingship, providence, discipline and justice. These divine qualities are revealed in the text either through the human bit-players or, as is more typical, despite the human characters. For each and every story, I have tried to answer two important questions: (1) “What is wrong with this picture?” and (2) “Where is God in this story?” Both of these questions are essential keys for unlocking the theological messages.
Third, in order to understand properly the teaching of a given passage, one must know God’s instructions given in the Pentateuch. Judges is part of the “Deuteronomistic History.” This means that the narrator assumes his audience knows what is taught in Deuteronomy. The stories in Judges are often contradictory to God’s instructions in Deuteronomy and thereby show Israel doing the opposite thing, either due to ignorance of Torah or due to covenant rebellion. Thus, teachers and preachers of Judges must take Deuteronomy with them when they interpret and apply any story. I suspect that if my commentary had a Scripture index, it would demonstrate that Deuteronomy is in fact the most often-cited biblical book in my interpretive remarks.
Fourth, I advance a theory in the commentary about the narrator’s intentional literary structure. I argue that the book is arranged in a “ring,” which is a complex form of chiasm found throughout ancient Near Eastern and biblical literature. The Gideon narrative is emphatically positioned in the center (chaps. 6-8), the “parallel panels” are found in chapters 3-5 and 9-16, and the prologue (chaps. 1-2) is parallel with the epilogue (chaps. 17-21). Recognition of this structure can enhance interpretation on many important points—especially as the stories in the first half (chap. 1-7) are relatively positive and those in the second half (chaps. 8-21) are decidedly negative.
Fifth, I can make some recommendations about study resources on the book of Judges. Apart from my forthcoming commentary, I want to suggest that you consult the works of a number of previous scholars. I have learned the most from the commentaries by Daniel Block (Judges, Ruth. NAC. Broadman, 1999), K. Lawson Younger (Judges, Ruth. NIVAC. Zondervan, 2002) and Barry Webb (Judges. NICOT. Eerdmans, 2012). The most noteworthy articles on Judges were written by individuals like Robert Chisholm, J. Cheryl Exum, D. W. Gooding, Richard Hess, Anson Rainey, Jack Sasson, Lawrence Stager and Lawson Stone. Some commentaries that were not published in time for my research include those by Robert Chisholm (Kregel), Serge Frolov (Eerdmans) and Jack Sasson (Yale Anchor)—all of these will no doubt be useful future resources.
Finally, I want to recommend that when you decide to preach or teach through the book of Judges, you can divide it up according to the following coherent segments (in twenty-three lessons or fewer):
Military Failure (1:1-2:5)
Religious Failure (2:6-3:6)
Deborah and Barak Prose (4:1-24)
Deborah and Barak Poetry (5:1-31)
Gideon’s Rise (6:1-32)
Gideon’s Battle (6:33-7:25)
Gideon’s Demise (8:1-32)
Israel’s Problem (10:6-16)
Jephthah’s Rise (10:17-11:28)
Jephthah’s Fall (11:29-12:7)
Minor Judges (3:31; 10:1-5; 12:8-15)
Samson’s Beginning (13:1-25)
Samson’s Marriage (14:1-20)
Samson’s Revenge (15:1-20)
Samson’s End (16:1-31)
Micah’s Shrine (17:1-13)
Danite Migration (18:1-31)
Levite’s Concubine (19:1-30)
Israel versus Benjamin (20:1-48)
Wives for Benjamin (21:1-25)
In conclusion, I want to reiterate my advice regarding the book of Judges. First, keep in mind that it is about the dark theme of Canaanization and that this problem is faced by both ancient Israel and the contemporary church. Second, don’t miss the fact that the stories of the Bible are always primarily about God—revealing his attributes in action. Third, bring the book of Deuteronomy with you when you read, interpret and apply the book of Judges. This will help you to make observations that the narrator actually wants you to see. Fourth, think in circles (or rings) as you consider how a given story/cycle relates to the rest of the book (for additional reference, see my previous blog post on “Thinking in Circles about the Bible,” Nov 23, 2011). Fifth, utilize the many great resources that we have at our disposal (and purchase mine, of course!). Finally, do plan to teach a series on Judges in your small group or in your preaching ministry. It offers timeless revelation that is eternally relevant for the people of God.