It was after my introduction to Judges last week that I came upon a commentary by one of my favorite authors, Dale Ralph Davis. When I paged my way to the “Introduction” at the front, I was surprised and delighted to read his “Non-introduction.” I will share some of it with you as an encouragement to purchase this excellent piece of work.
“We could wade through it all: the question of the Deuteronomic History, the matters of Uberlieferungsgeschichte, the definition of a shōphēt, moral ‘problems’ in the stories, chronology, archaeology, date, authorship – all those exciting things readers are just dying to know.”
“… I can only confess that as for an introduction to Judges, an excellent piece of work has already been done by the author of the book, and I am not capable of writing a better one. Indeed, I have a growing conviction that we would find far more fun and profit in Bible study if we gave more heed to the introductions the biblical writers themselves prefaced to their works than to the welter of opinions (helpful as they may sometimes be) about a biblical book, drearily culled from the last two hundred years of biblical scholarship.”2
I could not agree more with Davis on this matter of scholarly introductions in commentaries. They are so dull that it tempts you not to engage in a study of that book of the Bible. You end up thinking, “If this book of the Bible is as dull as this introduction, I’m in for a long and very boring study.” Davis is like a breath of fresh air.
My goals for this lesson are simple. First, I will seek to provide some background information that will aid you in your understanding of this passage, so that its interpretation and application will be accurate.
Second, I will take a closer look at some of the events recorded in our text. Third, from there I will endeavor to “connect the dots” in our text, so that we can begin to grasp the author’s purpose and message in the events he has described: “What point or lesson is the author trying to convey in our text?” Finally, we will consider some of the practical implications and applications of this passage.
1.Our text (Judges 1:1-2:5) is “Part 1” of the author’s two-part introduction to the Book of Judges. That’s right, the author has written two introductions to Judges and has placed them side-by-side in the book. The second half of the two-part introduction is Judges 2:6-3:4, our text for the next lesson.
2.The interpretation of our text in Judges should be based upon the Scriptures that come before it (Genesis through Joshua) and what follows (particularly 1 and 2 Samuel). Instructions regarding the possession of the Promised Land were set forth for the first generation of Israelites in Exodus 23:20-33. Instructions were given to the second generation of Israelites in Deuteronomy. Instructions were given to the Judges 1 generation in Joshua 23 and 24. The later books of Samuel (1 and 2 Samuel) also provide us with interpretive data related to the Book of Judges. I will demonstrate this in relation to Judah’s dealings with Adoni-bezek later in this message.
3.We must take into account the important distinction between defeating the Canaanites in battle and actually taking possession of the land. More technically, we are talking about the difference between the terms “take” (Hebrew, lakad) and “possess” (Hebrew, yarash) in our text and elsewhere. The term “to take” has reference to the initial conquest of a territory while the term “to possess” refers to the permanent occupation and control of that territory.3
We may read of an earlier conquest of a certain city in Joshua only to discover in Judges that it had to be taken again and then possessed. When the Israelites first “took” the Promised Land under Joshua, there were too few people to occupy and possess the land. When the victorious Israelites moved on to fight another battle, the displaced Canaanites moved back to “re-possess” their land. Under Joshua, the Israelite tribes united to fight the Canaanites and make strategic victories (Joshua 1-12). Later under Joshua (Joshua 13ff.), the land was divided among the Israelite tribes with each tribe allotted their inheritance. Then, in Judges, it is the task of each individual tribe to “possess” their inheritance. This usually required retaking the land and then occupying (possessing) it.
Thus, the actual possession of a city or area might change over time. We should not be surprised then to learn from Joshua 15:63 that Judah could not defeat Jerusalem (Jebus), and then in Judges 1:8 discover that Judah later fought the Jebusites and “took” the place (Judges 1:18). Later on in chapter 1, we are told that Benjamin “could not drive out the Jebusites who lived in Jerusalem” (Judges 1:21). In other words, the Israelites “took” Jerusalem under Judah, but could not “possess” it under Benjamin. It is not until we reach 2 Samuel 5:6-9 that we are told David finally captured Jerusalem, possessed it, and made it his capital.
Judges 1 is an account of the successes and failures of the Israelite tribes (Judah being the most prominent here) in “possessing” what had been “taken” under Joshua. Judah did reasonably well, but the other tribes did not. We will see circumstantial evidence, as it were, for their failure in chapter one, but the real reason is given in the Lord’s rebuke in Judges 2:1-5.
4.We should not read our text expecting the possession of the Promised Land to be either quick or easy, since God had indicated otherwise. If we suppose that the Israelites leaving Egypt numbered around 2 million people, this is a very large group when it came to sojourning in the desert (even crossing the Red Sea). But in terms of the occupation of the land, 2 million people are not a large enough population to fully occupy and possess the land.
29 “I will not drive them out before you in one year, lest the land become desolate and the wild animals multiply against you. 30 Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you become fruitful and inherit the land” (Exodus 23:29-30; see also Deuteronomy 7:22-23).4
There were other purposes for a slow occupation of the Promised Land:
1 These were the nations the Lord permitted to remain so he could use them to test Israel – he wanted to test all those who had not experienced battle against the Canaanites. 2 He left those nations simply because he wanted to teach the subsequent generations of Israelites, who had not experienced the earlier battles, how to conduct holy war (Judges 3:1-2).
20 So the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and He said, “Because this nation has transgressed My covenant which I commanded their fathers and has not listened to My voice, 21 I also will no longer drive out before them any of the nations which Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them, whether they will keep the way of the Lord to walk in it as their fathers did, or not.” 23 So the Lord allowed those nations to remain, not driving them out quickly; and He did not give them into the hand of Joshua (Judges 2:20-23, NASB 95).
5.The events recorded in Judges 1 are said to occur shortly after the death of Joshua (Judges 1:1). The Israelites in our text are the sons and daughters of those who successfully obeyed God and conquered the Promised Land under Joshua. They would be those who made a covenant with God as recorded in the final chapter of the Book of Joshua:
14 Now obey the Lord and worship him with integrity and loyalty. Put aside the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and worship the Lord. 15 If you have no desire to worship the Lord, choose today whom you will worship, whether it be the gods whom your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. But I and my family will worship the Lord!” 16 The people responded, “Far be it from us to abandon the Lord so we can worship other gods! 17 For the Lord our God took us and our fathers out of slavery in the land of Egypt and performed these awesome miracles before our very eyes. He continually protected us as we traveled and when we passed through nations. 18 The Lord drove out from before us all the nations, including the Amorites who lived in the land. So we too will worship the Lord, for he is our God!” 19 Joshua warned the people, “You will not keep worshiping the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God who will not forgive your rebellion or your sins. 20 If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, he will turn against you; he will bring disaster on you and destroy you, though he once treated you well.” 21 The people said to Joshua, “No! We really will worship the Lord!” 22 Joshua said to the people, “Do you agree to be witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to worship the Lord?” They replied, “We are witnesses!” 23 Joshua said, “Now put aside the foreign gods that are among you and submit to the Lord God of Israel.” 24 The people said to Joshua, “We will worship the Lord our God and obey him.” 25 That day Joshua drew up an agreement for the people, and he established rules and regulations for them in Shechem. 26 Joshua wrote these words in the Law Scroll of God. He then took a large stone and set it up there under the oak tree near the Lord’s shrine. 27 Joshua said to all the people, “Look, this stone will be a witness against you, for it has heard everything the Lord said to us. It will be a witness against you if you deny your God” (Joshua 24:14-27).
This generation should have been familiar with the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament – the Law of Moses), and they would have witnessed the hand of God in Israel’s victories over the Canaanites under the leadership of Joshua. They were surely aware of God’s instructions regarding the taking of the land, of His assurances of victory, and of His warnings regarding coexistence with the Canaanites and resulting apostasy.5
6.We need to approach our text with the assumption that everything our author has chosen to report is significant. Unlike some of my college term papers, there is no “filler” material in our text. The missing thumbs and toes of Adoni-bezek are important to us, as is the story about Caleb, his daughter Achsah, his newly acquired son-in-law Othniel, and the upper and lower springs. We may find the reference to so many cities a little less than stimulating, but rest assured that these details are likewise important. The repetition of all those cities is often the repetition of Israel’s failure. When God repeats something, we had better take note of it. Furthermore, we need to recognize that while these cities are rather unknown commodities to us, they were very well known to the original Jewish readers.
A look at a topographical map will quickly reveal that much of Israel is mountainous. Mountains are a good thing when it comes to building a fortified city that will withstand an attack by the enemy. This is one of the reasons why Jerusalem was such a strategic city. But mountains also restrict travel. Thus, travelers and commerce were restricted to a very few crucial routes. Cities that were taken or lost at critical locations spelled the difference between communication and commerce or isolation and marginalization. And thus we find an explanation for the author’s emphasis on cities in our text.
Let’s begin by considering Israel’s request for divine guidance regarding who should lead the Israelites in taking possession of their inheritance.
1 After Joshua died, the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who should lead the invasion against the Canaanites and launch the attack?” 2 The Lord said, “The men of Judah should take the lead. Be sure of this! I am handing the land over to them” (Judges 1:1-2).
These two introductory verses serve to clue the reader in to some important information. First, we see that the Israelites seem to start out on the right foot (so to speak). They are eager to begin to possess their inheritance, and they take the initiative in seeking God’s guidance concerning who should lead the attack. The way the book (and this chapter) starts is with a focus on leadership. “Going up first” refers to leadership in battle. There is not yet a king in Israel, and so there is no designated individual to lead in battle; thus, Israel’s inquiry of God. It is the judges who will provide military leadership throughout the book. We should expect leadership to be a topic that is frequently addressed in our study of Judges.
God designates Judah, which hardly comes as a surprise.
8 Judah, your brothers will praise you.
Your hand will be on the neck of your enemies,
your father’s sons will bow down before you.
9 You are a lion’s cub, Judah,
from the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches and lies down like a lion;
like a lioness – who will rouse him?
10 The scepter will not depart from Judah,
nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he comes to whom it belongs;
the nations will obey him (Genesis 49:8-10, emphasis mine).
In 2 Samuel 7, we read of God’s “Davidic Covenant” with David, a man from the tribe of Judah. David and his descendants will rule as kings over Israel. Note, too, that God not only identified Judah (that is the tribe of Judah) as the leader, God also gave the Israelites the assurance that this military campaign would be successful, and it was, as we will now find in verses 3-7:
3 The men of Judah said to their relatives, the men of Simeon, “Invade our allotted land with us and help us attack the Canaanites. Then we will go with you into your allotted land.” So the men of Simeon went with them. 4 The men of Judah attacked, and the Lord handed the Canaanites and Perizzites over to them. They killed ten thousand men at Bezek. 5 They met Adoni-Bezek at Bezek and fought him. They defeated the Canaanites and Perizzites. 6 When Adoni-Bezek ran away, they chased him and captured him. Then they cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings, with thumbs and big toes cut off, used to lick up food scraps under my table. God has repaid me for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, where he died (Judges 1:3-7).
A number of commentators seem intent to either justify or condemn Judah for asking Simeon to join with him in battle. Was it wrong for Judah to seek Simeon’s help? They shared adjoining territory, and these two were “blood brothers,” both the son of Leah. One could object that Judah lacks faith, something like Barak, who was not inclined to commence war with the Canaanites without Deborah at his side (Judges 4:1-10; note especially verse 8). I see no clear evidence of wrongdoing on the part of Judah here, and Davis’ argument that unity is a theme in Judges6 leads me to assume that the author is not trying to show us a failure on the part of Judah. That is soon to come, in my opinion, but not here; not yet.
3 The men of Judah said to their relatives, the men of Simeon,7 “Invade our allotted land with us and help us attack the Canaanites. Then we will go with you into your allotted land.” So the men of Simeon went with them. 4 The men of Judah attacked, and the Lord handed the Canaanites and Perizzites over to them. They killed ten thousand men at Bezek. 5 They met Adoni-Bezek at Bezek and fought him. They defeated the Canaanites and Perizzites. 6 When Adoni-Bezek ran away, they chased him and captured him. Then they cut off his thumbs and big toes. 7 Adoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings, with thumbs and big toes cut off, used to lick up food scraps under my table. God has repaid me for what I did to them.” They brought him to Jerusalem, where he died (Judges 1:3-7).
Adoni-bezek (the lord or ruler of Bezek) was apparently a powerful man. The combined forces of Judah and Simeon enabled the Israelites to defeat 10,000 Canaanite and Perizzites at Bezek. The king fled, but was apprehended. His thumbs and big toes were removed, and he was taken to Jerusalem where he eventually died. I do not read this text as saying that Adoni-bezek died by execution in Jerusalem, but rather that He died of old age in Jerusalem. The appearance is that at the time of Adoni-bezek’s capture, Jerusalem was not yet under Israelite control.8 It is my sense that Adoni-bezek was captured, mutilated, and then kept on display as a kind of war trophy.9
I’m amazed at the way the commentaries I consulted sought to justify the capture and treatment of Adoni-bezek. There is a strong inclination to see the treatment of this king as acceptable, sanctifying it by referring to it as just retribution, as sort of eye-for-an-eye judgment. I would agree that the readers of this account would be inclined to conclude that Adoni-bezek got what he deserved. After all, even the captured king said as much. But was Israel’s treatment of this king acceptable to God? I think not. Now is the time for me to apply my hermeneutical principle introduced earlier.10
In the first place, God had instructed the Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites, and this most certainly included their kings:
22 “He, the God who leads you, will expel the nations little by little. You will not be allowed to destroy them all at once lest the wild animals overrun you. 23 The Lord your God will give them over to you; he will throw them into a great panic until they are destroyed. 24 He will hand over their kings to you and you will erase their very names from memory. Nobody will be able to resist you until you destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:22-24, emphasis mine).
Just as the command to kill the Canaanite kings (along with the rest) is clear, so is the practice of the godly leaders of Israel before the capture of Adoni-bezek:
16 The five Amorite kings ran away and hid in the cave at Makkedah. 17 Joshua was told, “The five kings have been found hiding in the cave at Makkedah.” 18 Joshua said, “Roll large stones over the mouth of the cave and post guards in front of it. 19 But don’t you delay! Chase your enemies and catch them! Don’t allow them to retreat to their cities, for the Lord your God is handing them over to you.” 20 Joshua and the Israelites almost totally wiped them out, but some survivors did escape to the fortified cities. 21 Then the whole army safely returned to Joshua at the camp in Makkedah. No one dared threaten the Israelites. 22 Joshua said, “Open the cave’s mouth and bring the five kings out of the cave to me.” 23 They did as ordered; they brought the five kings out of the cave to him – the kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon. 24 When they brought the kings out to Joshua, he summoned all the men of Israel and said to the commanders of the troops who accompanied him, “Come here and put your feet on the necks of these kings.” So they came up and put their feet on their necks. 25 Then Joshua said to them, “Don’t be afraid and don’t panic! Be strong and brave, for the Lord will do the same thing to all your enemies you fight. 26 Then Joshua executed them and hung them on five trees. They were left hanging on the trees until evening. 27 At sunset Joshua ordered his men to take them down from the trees. They threw them into the cave where they had hidden and piled large stones over the mouth of the cave. (They remain to this very day.) (Joshua 10:16-27, emphasis mine)
It is even more instructive to consider what is described later in 1 Samuel 15. There, God gave King Saul very clear instructions concerning the treatment of the Amalekites:
1 Then Samuel said to Saul, “I was the one the Lord sent to anoint you as king over his people Israel. Now listen to what the Lord says. 2 Here is what the Lord of hosts says: ‘I carefully observed how the Amalekites opposed Israel along the way when Israel came up from Egypt. 3 So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t spare them. Put them to death – man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike’” (1 Samuel 15:1-3).
And yet when Saul and his army defeated the Amalekites, he did not fully carry out God’s command:
8 He captured King Agag of the Amalekites alive, but he executed all Agag’s people with the sword. 9 However, Saul and the army spared Agag, along with the best of the flock, the cattle, the fatlings, and the lambs, as well as everything else that was of value. They were not willing to slaughter them. But they did slaughter everything that was despised and worthless (1 Samuel 15:8-9, emphasis mine).
Saul’s disobedience would cost him his kingdom (1 Samuel 15:17-23), and it was Samuel the prophet who dealt with Agag as God had directed:
32 Then Samuel said, “Bring me King Agag of the Amalekites.” So Agag came to him trembling, thinking to himself, “Surely death is bitter!” 33 Samuel said, “Just as your sword left women childless, so your mother will be the most bereaved among women!” Then Samuel hacked Agag to pieces there in Gilgal before the Lord (1 Samuel 15:32-33, emphasis mine).
Now, on the basis of what we have found in the Scriptures, how should Judah and Simeon have dealt with Adoni-bezek? I think the answer is obvious – they should have immediately put him to death. Why, then, did they cut off his big toes and thumbs and keep him alive? Adoni-bezek tells us himself: this was Canaanite justice. This was the way Adoni-bezek dealt with his enemies.
And so our author has chosen to make Judah the centerpiece of this narrative, and already we find that Judah’s actions disregard God’s command and conform to human wisdom, Canaanite wisdom, as it were:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 21:25).
The treatment of Adoni-bezek was based upon human wisdom, not divine command. This is the first clear indication that things did not bode well for Israel during the days of the judges.
11 Then from there he went against the inhabitants of Debir (now the name of Debir formerly was Kiriath-sepher). 12 And Caleb said, “The one who attacks Kiriath-sepher and captures it, I will even give him my daughter Achsah for a wife.” 13 Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, captured it; so he gave him his daughter Achsah for a wife. 14 Then it came about when she came to him, that she persuaded him to ask her father for a field. Then she alighted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, “What do you want?” 15 She said to him, “Give me a blessing, since you have given me the land of the Negev, give me also springs of water.” So Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs… . 20 Then they gave Hebron to Caleb, as Moses had promised; and he drove out from there the three sons of Anak (Judges 1:11-15, 20).11
Without getting into all the details and difficulties of this text, let me tell you how and why I understand it as I do. Let me begin with some observations.
1. These three are the only individual Israelites named in our text. Judah, Simeon, etc. are tribes, not individuals. One must ask why these three are named.
2. This story about Caleb is recorded earlier in Joshua 15:15-19 and is now repeated in our text in Judges.
3. Caleb and Othniel are clearly “good guys.” Caleb and Joshua were the only two spies who returned to Moses and the Israelites with an encouraging report and the recommendation to go up and take the land, as God had promised. Othniel not only takes Caleb’s challenge and captures Debir (Kiriath-sepher), he will later (Judges 3:9-11) be identified as one of Israel’s judges.
I believe that just as Caleb’s courage inspired the previous generation to take the Promised Land in the days of Joshua, his leadership in the days of the judges inspired others to be brave and courageous as well. (I am tempted to think that Caleb is the one leading the tribe of Judah.) The Book of Judges makes it clear that the Israelites did not pass the faith on to the next generation. I believe that Caleb is the exception and that this story is told to reveal how Caleb’s leadership inspired the next generation to be “brave and courageous” (Deuteronomy 31:6-7, 23; Joshua 1:6-9, 18; 10:25).
As I read the story, I see that Caleb is still a man of great faith and courage. But he also recognizes that he must pass the torch of leadership on to the next generation. He therefore challenges one of the young men to lead the charge against Kiriath-sepher, offering his daughter as an incentive and reward. Going beyond this (and thus, perhaps, into more speculation),when I read about the role played by Achsah, I believe that it must be significant. Achsah is not just a passive “prize” for a military victory. She aggressively seeks a portion of land, not (I would contend) so differently from her father (see Joshua 14:6-15).
I would refer the reader to an article written by my friend, Hampton Keathley, entitled, The Role of Women in the Book of Judges.12 Achsah fits well with the other women, like Deborah, who are women of faith and courage. I believe that Achsah was likewise a woman of faith and courage, just like her father, the perfect match for the man destined to be one of Israel’s judges. By the way, one of my friends suggested to me that the land (and springs) which Achsah sought may not yet have been fully “possessed.” It is one thing to ask for land where the Canaanites have already been thrust out. It is quite another when the job is not yet finished. Othniel took Kiriath-sepher in battle, but the possession may yet remain to be accomplished. Also, having been given both her father’s blessing and a portion of his land, Achsah knows that water will be essential to achieving success, and so she asks for the resources that are necessary to accomplish the task at hand. It is not hard to see how this text could serve as a pattern for prayer, which is precisely what Charles Haddon Spurgeon did.13
The Lord was with the men of Judah. They conquered the hill country, but they could not conquer the people living in the coastal plain, because they had chariots with iron-rimmed wheels (Judges 1:19).
Of all the tribes of Israel, our author has devoted the greatest amount of attention to Judah. This is the finest example of faith and obedience in Israel, and Caleb is our hero, flanked by Othniel and Achsah. But even Judah has his flaws. The treatment of Adoni-bezek is the first clear example of disobedience. And now we come to his failure on the coastal plain. The reason, we are told, is because the inhabitants of the valley had high tech weapons – chariots of iron. And because of this, we are told, Judah was not able to drive out those living in the coastal plain.
Strangely, I somehow find myself accepting this justification as though it made perfect sense: “Of course, how can I expect Judah to drive out an army equipped with iron chariots?” Once again, the Scriptures set us straight on this matter. In the first place, God promised Israel that He would give them the victory over their opponents. Are iron chariots somehow beyond God’s sovereign power? Not only did God promise the Israelites that He would make them victorious over their enemies, He specifically instructed them not to be intimidated by the chariots of their enemies:
1 “When you go to war against your enemies and see chariotry and troops who outnumber you, do not be afraid of them, for the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, is with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1).
Further, we must remember that this is not the first time the Israelites have been pursued by a powerful army equipped with chariots:
5 When it was reported to the king of Egypt that the people had fled, the heart of Pharaoh and his servants was turned against the people, and the king and his servants said, “What in the world have we done? For we have released the people of Israel from serving us!” 6 Then he prepared his chariots and took his army with him. 7 He took six hundred select chariots, and all the rest of the chariots of Egypt, and officers on all of them.
8 But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he chased after the Israelites. Now the Israelites were going out defiantly. 9 The Egyptians chased after them, and all the horses and chariots of Pharaoh and his horsemen and his army overtook them camping by the sea, beside Pi-hahiroth, before Baal-Zephon. 10 When Pharaoh got closer, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians marching after them, and they were terrified. The Israelites cried out to the Lord, 11 and they said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the desert? What in the world have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Isn’t this what we told you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone so that we can serve the Egyptians, because it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!’”
13 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand firm and see the salvation of the Lord that he will provide for you today; for the Egyptians that you see today you will never, ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you, and you can be still.”
15 The Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. 16 And as for you, lift up your staff and extend your hand toward the sea and divide it, so that the Israelites may go through the middle of the sea on dry ground. 17 And as for me, I am going to harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will come after them, that I may be honored because of Pharaoh and his army and his chariots and his horsemen. 18 And the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord when I have gained my honor because of Pharaoh, his chariots, and his horsemen” (Exodus 14:5-18, emphasis mine).
Pharaoh set out after the Israelites with his horsemen and chariots and as they drew near, the Israelites were terrified, certain that they would die. God informed them that by means of these seemingly impossible circumstances He would glorify Himself by delivering His people from their enemies. And so He did.
24 In the morning watch the Lord looked down on the Egyptian army through the pillar of fire and cloud, and he threw the Egyptian army into a panic. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving, and the Egyptians said, “Let’s flee from Israel, for the Lord fights for them against Egypt!”
26 The Lord said to Moses, “Extend your hand toward the sea, so that the waters may flow back on the Egyptians, on their chariots, and on their horsemen!” 27 So Moses extended his hand toward the sea, and the sea returned to its normal state when the sun began to rise. Now the Egyptians were fleeing before it, but the Lord overthrew the Egyptians in the middle of the sea. 28 The water returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen and all the army of Pharaoh that was coming after the Israelites into the sea – not so much as one of them survived! (Exodus 14:24-28, emphasis mine)
The magnitude of that victory is reflected by Israel’s song of praise recorded in Exodus 15. Note especially what they sing about those dreaded Egyptian chariots:
1 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord. They said,
“I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously,
the horse and its rider he has thrown into the sea.
2 The Lord is my strength and my song,
and he has become my salvation.
This is my God, and I will praise him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt him.
3 The Lord is a warrior,
the Lord is his name.
4 The chariots of Pharaoh and his army he has thrown into the sea,
and his chosen officers were drowned in the Red Sea… .
10 But you blew with your breath, and the sea covered them.
They sank like lead in the mighty waters (Exodus 15:1-4, 10, emphasis mine),
I love this last line: “They sank like lead.” The very weight of those impressive, terrifying chariots became the instrument of the Egyptians’ destruction. After the Israelites stepped out of the midst of the Red Sea “on dry ground,”14 God let the sea bottom return to its normal muddy, slippery state, which now rendered the chariots virtually useless, and worse. These instruments of destruction now became the undoing of the Egyptian army. The Israelites did not die because of these chariots – the Egyptians did! So much for fearing chariots.
Someone might object, “Ah, but these chariots that the Canaanites used were iron chariots, the very latest in chariot technology.” So they were, so let us look ahead in time to see how God deals with the “cutting edge” technology of iron chariots, swords, and spears:
12 When Sisera heard that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he ordered all his chariotry – nine hundred chariots with iron-rimmed wheels – and all the troops he had with him to go from Harosheth-Haggoyim to the River Kishon. 14 Deborah said to Barak, “Spring into action, for this is the day the Lord is handing Sisera over to you! Has the Lord not taken the lead?” Barak quickly went down from Mount Tabor with ten thousand men following him. 15 The Lord routed Sisera, all his chariotry, and all his army with the edge of the sword. Sisera jumped out of his chariot and ran away on foot. 16 Now Barak chased the chariots and the army all the way to Harosheth Haggoyim. Sisera’s whole army died by the edge of the sword; not even one survived! (Judges 4:12-16, emphasis mine)
This text in 1 Samuel 13 is important because it informs us that the Philistines had the advantage over Israel because they had iron-making technology which the other nations – including Israel – did not possess:
19 A blacksmith could not be found in all the land of Israel, for the Philistines had said, “This will prevent the Hebrews from making swords and spears.” 20 So all Israel had to go down to the Philistines in order to get their plowshares, cutting instruments, axes, and sickles sharpened. 21 They charged two-thirds of a shekel to sharpen plowshares and cutting instruments, and a third of a shekel to sharpen picks and axes, and to set ox goads. 22 So on the day of the battle no sword or spear was to be found in the hand of anyone in the army that was with Saul and Jonathan. No one but Saul and his son Jonathan had them (1 Samuel 13:19-22).
When the Israelites gathered at Mizpah, it was to repent and to ask for divine deliverance from their enemies. Mizpah was on “high ground.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says this about the site that is likely the location of Mizpah:
A more probable identification is with Neby Samwil, a village on high ground 4 1/2 miles Northwest of Jerusalem, the traditional burying-place of Samuel. It is 2,935 ft. above sea-level, and 500 ft. higher than the surrounding land (emphasis mine).
The Philistines heard that the Israelites had assembled, and they (wrongly) concluded that they were mustering their forces to do battle with them. And so the Philistines assembled their forces and converged upon Mizpah, intending to put down this uprising. Here’s the significant portion of the account in 1 Samuel:
5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord on your behalf.” 6 After they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the Lord. They fasted on that day, and they confessed there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” So Samuel led the people of Israel at Mizpah.
7 When the Philistines heard that the Israelites had gathered at Mizpah, the leaders of the Philistines went up against Israel. When the Israelites heard about this, they were afraid of the Philistines. 8 The Israelites said to Samuel, “Keep crying out to the Lord our God so that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines!” 9 So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. Samuel cried out to the Lord on Israel’s behalf, and the Lord answered him.
10 As Samuel was offering burnt offerings, the Philistines approached to do battle with Israel. But on that day the Lord thundered loudly against the Philistines. He caused them to panic, and they were defeated by Israel. 11 Then the men of Israel left Mizpah and chased the Philistines, striking them down all the way to an area below Beth Car (1 Samuel 7:5-11, emphasis mine).
I admit a bit of speculation here, but every translation I looked at used some form of the word “thunder” in translating verse 10 above. Given that Mizpah was “high ground” and that God seems to have created panic with a thunderstorm, I believe it is quite likely that lightening was also involved. If this is so, an iron chariot (not to mention iron swords and spears) would hardly be one’s weapon of choice. Can’t you just see the Philistine commander holding his sword high in the air and shouting “Charge!” to his troops? He’s the one who got the charge. And so God made the iron chariots of the Philistines a liability, rather than an asset. So just why was it that the men of Judah felt it impossible to prevail against these Philistines when God had promised them victory and told them not to fear the enemies’ chariots? Thus, Judah’s failure to defeat the chariot-equipped Canaanites was just that – failure.
22 When the men of Joseph attacked Bethel, the Lord was with them. 23 When the men of Joseph spied out Bethel (it used to be called Luz), 24 the spies spotted a man leaving the city. They said to him, “If you show us a secret entrance into the city, we will reward you.” 25 He showed them a secret entrance into the city, and they put the city to the sword. But they let the man and his extended family leave safely. 26 He moved to Hittite country and built a city. He named it Luz, and it has kept that name to this very day (Judges 1:22-26).
This account of Joseph’s “victory” over the Canaanite city of Luz is interesting. Some seem predisposed to justify the actions of “the men of Joseph,” drawing an analogy between Rahab and the Israelites taking of the city of Jericho and Joseph’s capture of Luz, with the assistance of this “turncoat.” I would contend that there is little similarity between Rahab and this traitor, or between Israel’s victory under Joshua and the victory of the men of Joseph over Luz (Bethel). Let me call your attention to several points of contrast.
1. The man from Luz is never named, as Rahab is.
2. Rahab risked her own life to save the two Israelite spies; the man from Luz merely sought to save his own life.
3. We are told that Rahab embraced the faith of the Israelites; no such indication is given regarding the turncoat from Luz. His actions do not appear to be prompted by faith, but by fear and self-preservation.
4. Rahab proclaimed her faith and appealed for the lives of her family, after she had already risked her own life to save the lives of the two spies. The man from Luz simply accepted an “offer he could not refuse.”
5. The man from Luz did not throw in his lot with the people of Israel; instead, he went away and started another “Luz.”
6. Rahab married an Israelite and became a part of the messianic line. The man from Luz simply set out to preserve and perpetuate his Canaanite heritage.
It would therefore seem to me that the men of Joseph should have trusted God for their military victory, instead of relying upon intelligence obtained from a Canaanite who should have been put to death (rather than allowed to replicate his heathen culture somewhere else). Victory obtained at the price of disobedience or compromise is not really victory.
What, then, are we to do with the statement that “the Lord was with him [Joseph]”? Does this not sweep aside all that I have said to the contrary? No, I think it validates it. Do you remember when Jacob went through all of his manipulations to prosper at the expense of Laban? Jacob wrongly assumed that it was his scheming that prospered him, until God revealed otherwise:
10 “Once during breeding season I saw in a dream that the male goats mating with the flock were streaked, speckled, and spotted. 11 In the dream the angel of God said to me, ‘Jacob!’ ‘Here I am!’ I replied. 12 Then he said, ‘Observe that all the male goats mating with the flock are streaked, speckled, or spotted, for I have observed all that Laban has done to you. 13 I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed the sacred stone and made a vow to me. Now leave this land immediately and return to your native land’” (Genesis 31:10-13).
God reveals to Jacob that it wasn’t his scheming and manipulating that prospered him; it was God who caused the male goats to mate with those goats that would produce offspring for him. Similarly, I believe that in our text the author is indicating to us that Joseph’s taking of the city of Luz was God’s doing and not really the result of the deal the spies made with the man from Luz. Granted, the sons of Joseph made their deal with this man, but the victory was the Lord’s.
“Living with the Canaanites” becomes the theme from verse 16 to the end of the chapter. The Kenites lived among the Canaanites as we see in verse 15.15 While Caleb’s faith enabled him to drive out the three sons of Anak,16 the sons of Judah found themselves unable to defeat the Canaanites (with their iron chariots) on the plain (1:19). Manasseh failed to take possession of many Canaanite cities, so that the Canaanites continued to live in the land (1:27). The best that could be said was that when Israel became strong, they used the enemy as labor (1:28). This is not a good thing, as I will point out shortly.
So, too, Zebulun (1:30), Asher (1:31-32), and Naphtali (1:33) failed to drive out the Canaanites. But the worst is yet to come. Up till now one could say that when the Israelites failed to drive out the Canaanites, there were still some Canaanites dwelling among the Israelites. But the sons of Dan failed even more miserably. They were driven into the hill country by the Canaanites and were not allowed to come down into the valley (1:34-36). It was only when the house of Joseph grew strong that the Amorites became forced labor. Now, the best that could be said is that the Israelites were dwelling among the Canaanites. So Israel’s failure begins with Canaanites living among the Israelites, and it ends with Israelites (the sons of Dan) living among the Canaanites. This does not bode well.
1 The Lord’s angelic messenger went up from Gilgal to Bokim. He said, “I brought you up from Egypt and led you into the land I had solemnly promised to give to your ancestors. I said, ‘I will never break my agreement with you, 2 but you must not make an agreement with the people who live in this land. You should tear down the altars where they worship.’ But you have disobeyed me. Why would you do such a thing? 3 At that time I also warned you, ‘If you disobey, I will not drive out the Canaanites before you. They will ensnare you and their gods will lure you away.’” 4 When the Lord’s messenger finished speaking these words to all the Israelites, the people wept loudly. 5 They named that place Bokim and offered sacrifices to the Lord there (Judges 2:1-5).
In a way, these words from the Angel of the Lord come to us like a bolt out of the blue. Up till now, it may have been possible to read most of chapter 1 sympathetically. We can empathize with Judah for dealing with Adoni-bezek as they did: “Serves him right,” we may reason. And we can certainly understand how the house of Joseph made a deal with the man from Luz. The host of iron Canaanite chariots seems like a good reason for Judah’s failure to defeat the Canaanites who lived in the lowlands.
But these first words of chapter 2 really get our attention, as they did that generation of Israelites who heard this rebuke from our Lord.17 Notice that the rebuke begins with a reminder of our Lord’s great work at the exodus, when He delivered the Israelites from their Egyptian bondage, defeated the most powerful army on earth at that time, and brought them to the land He had promised (Judges 2:1a). In addition to this, He made a covenant with the Israelites, one He would never break (2:1b). Consequently, He also instructed His chosen people not to enter into any other covenant with the people of the land which they were to possess. Instead, they were to annihilate them and tear down their altars.18 But the Israelites did not obey (2:2).
And so it was that the sons of Israel broke their covenant with God, but God kept His covenant by bringing upon them those things about which He had warned. Specifically, the Lord indicated that He would not drive out the Canaanites ahead of them, but would leave them in the land as a “pain in the neck” and as a “snare” to them (2:3). Thus, we can see that the presence of the Canaanites among the Israelites was a manifestation of divine discipline.
It is difficult to know how to take verses 4 and 5. The response of the people to God’s words of rebuke outwardly appeared to be genuine. They wept, and they offered sacrifices to the LORD. Here, the first introduction to the Book of Judges ends, with weeping and the offering of sacrifices. But what does this produce in the long term? Is this genuine repentance? Perhaps the second introduction will help us with the answer to this question.
As we reach the end of the author’s first introduction, what are the things that we are to learn from this passage? What are we supposed to see here? I would suggest that we might begin by comparing how the text begins with how it ends. The text begins with the Canaanites fleeing from the more powerful Israelites (Judah and Simeon) and ends with the more powerful Amorites driving the Israelites (Dan) into the hills. We find the men of Judah seemingly unable (“could not” – see verse 19) to drive out the Canaanites on the plain, and from there on most of the other Israelite tribes were unwilling (“did not” – see verses 21, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34) to drive them out completely. And so we first find the Canaanites dwelling among the Israelites (Benjamites) in Jerusalem (verse 21), and soon thereafter we read that the Israelites were dwelling among the Canaanites (see verses 32 and 33). In the beginning, the Israelites are driving out the Canaanites and eventually (at their best) the Israelites are using the Canaanites as forced labor.
So what do these things mean? Let me suggest some areas of application.
First, we see that failure came quickly for Israel, but it was not immediately evident as failure. While the sanctification process is slow and often painful, the reverse process can happen so quickly that we may not even realize that it has happened. I’m reminded of Samson, who didn’t even realize that the Lord had departed from him (Judges 16:20). The uphill climb is slow; the downhill stretch is amazingly fast. We may be failing and not even recognize it as such.
Second, failure may even appear to be justified. As we read the account of the attempts of the various tribes of Israel to possess their inheritance, we might easily conclude that their failure was unavoidable. We might reason that the Canaanites were in a very inaccessible place (as the Jebusites were in Jerusalem), or that they were too numerous, or that they had iron chariots. But God had promised the Israelites victory, and they had settled for less, much less.
Third, failure might even be viewed as success. I think here of the failure of the Israelites to drive out the Canaanites, allowing them to live among the people of God. But, we are told, when the Israelites became strong – when they could have defeated and driven them out – they chose to make slave laborers of them (as they had done earlier with the Gibeonites – see Joshua 9:25-27). Why didn’t the Israelites destroy or drive out the Canaanites? It was because they could seemingly profit from their presence. The Israelites attempted to use sin, rather than to destroy it, and in the end, it nearly destroyed them.
How often do we seek to sanctify or justify compromise with evil because it makes us more prosperous, or because it makes us feel good, or because it makes our church grow larger? Just remember, sin sometimes looks like success, but it is just the opposite.
The wicked person earns deceitful wages,
but the one who sows righteousness reaps a genuine reward (Proverbs 11:18).
Fourth, we fail (sin) when we limit our obedience to what we deem “possible.” Just this morning in our worship around the Lord’s Table, one of the men shared from John 11. He called attention to the fact that when Jesus was told that Lazarus was ill, he did not go to Bethany until Lazarus was “good and dead.” Jesus waited to go to Lazarus until making him well was impossible. That is because the glory God receives is often proportional to the level of difficulty of the task. So He places the Israelites between the Red Sea and the advancing Egyptian army, with all of its horsemen and chariots. He brings fire to Elijah’s sacrifice only after it has been repeatedly doused with water. God is not limited by the “possible” because with Him “all things are possible.”19
I’ve been thinking about this particular point, as I know others have as well. As I think back over my life, and as I think back over the history of our church, I wonder how many things I, or we, have not done based on the assumption (or excuse) that it was not possible. Some people say that the way we function as a church is not possible. Is God not glorified when we obey His word and we defy all the odds? As the church seems more and more patterned after the successful secular business models, do we not limit ourselves to the “possible,” the things that feasibility studies tell us will work, and the “how to” books assure us are the key to achieving God’s purposes? What is it that you have been reluctant to attempt because you are not sure that it is possible?
Fifth, how can we be sure that what we are doing is right or be informed that what we are doing is wrong? We know what is right or wrong in God’s sight from His Word. Judges is the book that describes people who “do what is right in their own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). How do we know that we should be doing something or that we should not? We need to live according to what is right in God’s eyes, and what is right (or wrong) in God’s eyes is what He reveals to us in His Word.
“You must not do like we are doing here today, with everyone doing what seems best to him” (Deuteronomy 12:8).
“Thus you must obey the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am giving you today and doing what is right before him” (Deuteronomy 13:18).
Sixth, our text teaches us to be merciless concerning sin. When we attempt to live with sin, or to use sin, we have chosen the path that leads to trouble. I have dealt with this matter in the first lesson, so I will not address it again here, but let us learn a very important principle from our passage: You can’t coexist with sin. We must put it to death. We must be merciless about it. We dare not tolerate it, either in us,20 or in God’s church.21
Seventh, thank God that His work in us is not based upon our perfection. Man’s obedience is never perfect. As we look at our text (in my mind, at least), Judah’s treatment of Adoni-bezek fell short of God’s instructions, as did the manner in which the sons of Joseph took the city of Bethel. Our obedience is never perfect, whether in our motivation or in our methods. The victory of the Israelites over the Canaanites required faith and obedience, but in the end, the fulfillment of God’s promises and purposes is God’s work, based upon His faithfulness and power. If we are to learn anything from the Book of Judges, it is that God uses flawed instruments to achieve His purposes.
Eighth, our text teaches us the important impact leadership has, both for good and for evil. The first two verses of Judges 1 inform us that leadership is going to be an important topic in this book. The NET Bible renders verses 1 and 2:
1 After Joshua died, the Israelites asked the Lord, “Who should lead the invasion against the Canaanites and launch the attack?” 2 The Lord said, “The men of Judah should take the lead. Be sure of this! I am handing the land over to them” (Judges 1:1-2).
The issue here is leadership. Who will lead the attack against the Canaanites? And it is surely the case throughout the book, as God raised up judges to lead the Israelites in battle against their foes. And we dare not forget this theme in Judges:
In those days Israel had no king. Each man did what he considered to be right (Judges 17:6).22
Is it not interesting that in our text the only individual leaders who are named are Caleb and Othniel, his son-in-law. In contrast to the Israelites who failed to overcome great opposition, we find Caleb, who possesses his inheritance by driving out the sons of Anak, who were all “Goliaths” – the very giants who terrorized the first generation of Israelites so that they refused to possess the Promised Land. My contention is that Caleb’s leadership not only inspired the men of Judah, but all Israel. It is also my belief that his boldness in leading was reflected in his daughter and son-in-law (Othniel, who will be one of Israel’s judges – see Judges 3:9).
Just as the days of the judges were dark days, so we live in dark days as well. This is a time when wicked leaders can greatly impact a nation for evil, just as godly leaders can inspire men and women to courage and righteousness. A godly king is a blessing; an ungodly king is a curse. Leadership greatly impacts a nation:
The divine verdict is in the words of the king,
his pronouncements must not act treacherously against justice (Proverbs 16:10).
Loyal love and truth preserve a king,
and his throne is upheld by loyal love (Proverbs 20:28).
4 Remove the dross from the silver,
and material for the silversmith will emerge;
5 remove the wicked from before the king,
and his throne will be established in righteousness (Proverbs 25:4-5).
A king brings stability to a land by justice,
but one who exacts tribute tears it down (Proverbs 29:4).
A king sitting on the throne to judge
separates out all evil with his eyes (Proverbs 20:8).
When the righteous become numerous, the people rejoice;
when the wicked rule, the people groan (Proverbs 29:2).
A king brings stability to a land by justice,
but one who exacts tribute tears it down (Proverbs 29:4).
If a ruler listens to lies,
all his ministers will be wicked (Proverbs 29:12).
Leadership greatly impacts the people of God and the church. The example and actions of godly leaders is indeed a blessing to the church. Leaders can instill fear and reticence, or they can inspire others to faith and courage. Now is the time for good and godly leadership in the church. May God grant that we, as elders, lead well, and that many others lead in their spheres of responsibility and influence as well.
1 Copyright © 2009 by Robert L. Deffinbaugh. This is the edited manuscript of Lesson 2 in the series, The Dark Days of Israel’s Judges, prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on August 23, 2009. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit.
2 Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1990), p. 11. If you were to purchase only one commentary on the Book of Judges, this would be the one I would recommend.
3 See Dale Ralph Davis, No Falling Words: Expositions of the Book of Joshua (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 89, especially footnote 12.
4 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at: www.netbible.org.
5 See Exodus 23:22-28; 34:12-17; Numbers 33:50-54; Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 16-26; 9:1-6; 12:1-14; 20:1-4; Joshua 23 & 24.
6 Dale Ralph Davis, Such a Great Salvation, pp. 20-21.
7 While I am critical of the NET Bible’s translation in verse 16, I believe the translators got it right here. When the text is read literally, one might suppose that the author is speaking of men named Judah and Simeon, rather than of two tribes (the founders of which are long gone).
8 Compare Judges 1:7 with 1:8 and 1:22.
9 This is what the Philistines did when they defeated Israel and captured the ark (see 1 Samuel 4:10-11; 5:1-2).
10 In short, the principle of interpretation is that the events described in our text in Judges must be understood in the light of earlier (Genesis-Joshua) revelation and also later revelation (1 and 2 Samuel).
11 Let me mention that there are some differences of opinion regarding how this passage should be translated. (1) Is Othniel Caleb’s nephew or younger brother? (2) Does Achsah convince her father or her new husband regarding the need for a gift of land? Here is the translator’s note in the NET Bible: “19 tn Heb him.” The pronoun could refer to Othniel, in which case one would translate, "she incited him [Othniel] to ask her father for a field." This is problematic, however, for Achsah, not Othniel, makes the request in v. 15. The LXX has “he [Othniel] urged her to ask her father for a field.” This appears to be an attempt to reconcile the apparent inconsistency and probably does not reflect the original text. If Caleb is understood as the referent of the pronoun, the problem disappears. For a fuller discussion of the issue, see P. G. Mosca, “Who Seduced Whom? A Note on Joshua 15:18 // Judges 1:14,” CBQ 46 (1984): 18-22. The translation takes Caleb to be the referent, specified as “her father."
14 See Exodus 14:16.
15 See also 1 Samuel 15:6-7.
16 These are some of the “giants” whom the Israelites feared, leading to the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea (see Numbers 13:25-14:10). Now in his old age, Caleb defeats three of these giants and possesses his inheritance.
17 I’m inclined to assume that the “angel of the Lord” here is a theophany, an Old Testament pre-incarnate appearance of our Lord.
18 I find it interesting to see how the author seems to have linked “making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land of Canaan” with “tearing down their heathen altars.” To say this in reverse, to fail to destroy Canaanite altars would lead to their worshipping at these altars, and thus entering into a covenant with the Canaanites. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10, where he contrasts partaking of the table of our Lord with partaking of the table of demons. Thus, it would seem that worship is a covenant matter, whether that be heathen worship or true worship.
19 Matthew 19:26.
20 Matthew 18:8-9; Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5.
21 See Matthew 18:15-20.
22 See also 18:1, 19:1.