Samson is born to lead Israel’s deliverance from the rule of the Philistines (Judges 12:5). The sheer strength Samson demonstrates in killing 30 men by himself (not to mention many more to come) at the end of our reading shows the sort of leader he could have been. Instead the character issues that plague Samson’s life will end up preventing him from winning anything more than a few minor skirmishes. The first sign something is amiss is Samson’s eagerness and demand for a Philistine wife. Secondly, when Samson takes honey from a dead unclean animal and gives it to his devout parents while hiding the truth, he shows his dishonesty and disregard for Israel’s laws. Lastly, in our story, Samson’s gambling through his “lion riddle” shows his recklessness (Judges 14:12-14). Of all Israel’s judges, Samson should have been the greatest. No other judge was set apart from birth like Samson and given the strength he received from God. Tomorrow we will find out the fate of the man full of wasted potential who could have won Israel’s greatest victories.
Two tragic events occur while Jephthah is judge. The second tragic event chronologically occurs as Gilead and the Ephraimites go to battle, Israelite against Israelite, and 42,000 Ephraimites are killed. This number tells us that a large portion of Ephraim’s tribe was destroyed. Yet the first tragic event portrays the decay of Israel’s understanding of YHWH just as profoundly. This is of course the vow Jephthah made about sacrificing the first creature to meet him when he returns from battle. Making this vow shows how little Jephthah understands God’s preferences, for the God of Israel desires faith and mercy over sacrifice (1 Samuel 15:22, Psalm 51:16, Hosea 6:6). Similarly, had Jephthah known God’s laws, he would have recognized two truths: YHWH detests human sacrifice (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2, Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10), and exceptions were made for rash or disobedient vows (Leviticus 5:4-6), even though an appropriately made vow for animal sacrifice should be kept. In this case Jephthah could have sacrificed a lamb or goat as compensation instead of his daughter. Unfortunately, by this time, Jephthah knew only Canaanite religion, and he assumed that YHWH would prefer a human sacrifice. This story shows us that when God’s word is ignored, everyone suffers, and this willful ignorance may cause children to suffer worst of all.
Israel’s treachery swells during the time of Abimelek, son of Gideon. After Abimelek kills all but one of his brothers, the surviving brother, Jotham, recites a fable predicting Abimelek’s destruction. This fable then warns that the people of Shechem and Beth Millo will face destruction also because they have anointed a poisonous leader. Don’t let this aspect of the fable go unnoticed: “the trees went out to anoint a king for themselves” (Judges 9:8). It is subtle, but the problem begins when these Israelites lean on their own understanding. In search of their own leader instead of God’s appointed judge, Israel shows a desire to be rid of God’s rule, and after rejecting it, the people of Israel naturally take to fighting one another. Like the Canaanites who before them had ongoing tribal wars, so Israel has resorted to internal skirmishes instead of focusing on dispossessing the Canaanites. God’s commands have been rejected, and the consequences come as promised. To no surprise, the summaries of the reigns of two judges, Tola and Jair, are missing a familiar closing line—absent are the words, “and the land had peace.” Long gone are the days when this was true.
After Gideon defeats Zebah and Zalmunna, Israel is bent on folly, calling upon Gideon to be their king without seeking guidance from YHWH. Thankfully Gideon refuses this uncalled-for coronation; unfortunately, however, he forms other plans which exploit his newfound status. Gideon already has possession of camel’s jewelry belonging to Zebah and Zalmunna, but desiring more jewelry, he asks the victorious soldiers for one earring per person. Gideon uses this bounty to make an ephod like the one made for Aaron and Aaron’s sons. The original ephod was meant for the priests only. One purpose God had for original ephod was to give prophetic messages to Israel. In one go, Gideon and Israel seek to establish the authority of king, priest, and prophet without discerning God’s authority. Unsurprisingly Gideon’s ephod is formed in fashion reminiscent of the golden calf, and it becomes a graven image for these people to replace true worship of God with idolatry. God gives Israel peace during Gideon’s life, but the reader can already anticipate another round of intense bondage for Israel due to their foolishness. In the land of promise, God’s chosen people became wicked like the Canaanites around them, just like He predicted. Judges really does repeatedly invite us to ask the question: will there be a savior to deliver Israel from the evil of the nations? When God finally gives Israel an ultimate savior, it will be one with God’s vested authority as Prophet, Priest, and King.
By the days of Gideon, Israel had not only become comfortable with idolatry, they had forgotten true worship altogether. The presence of idols is obvious because Gideon has to destroy the idols belonging to his city and family. Perhaps more distressing, Gideon’s interaction with the angel of the Lord and God indicates that he knows little about God’s ways at all. Gideon, unsure what to do, brings a food offering to the angel of the Lord, suspecting that this figure is supernatural. When Gideon brings the type of food offering Canaanites give to their idols, the angel of the Lord destroys it. God then helps Gideon understand that worship of YHWH does not work like worshipping Canaanite deities. God will save Israel and provide for them, and Gideon will certainly not feed God.
God continually condescends to Gideon’s lack of understanding, as demonstrated by the fleece incident and Gideon’s directives to declare, “For the Lord and for Gideon” while entering battle. In the first instance, God is patient with Gideon’s lack of faith and constant testing. In the second instance of battle, God never commands Gideon to call the people to shout in this way. God uses Gideon, but we are starting to see that the judges are more ignorant of God’s ways and thus are less effective in leading Israel the way God intends. The downward spiral of Israel continues even as God does great works in their midst through Gideon.
We must understand that the book of Judges is not written with a perfectly linear timeline. Some of the wars and reigns of Judges overlap in time because different tribes of Israel were simultaneously at war with unique Canaanite peoples. That will help you make sense of the many years that seem to pass. In fact, if we do the math from our reading today, we would believe that our events cover 188 years, but this is not the case.
With that noted, I want reflect on the end of Deborah’s famous song. The narrative about Deborah and Jael is replete with male-female tensions. Deborah is a more godly and responsible leader than Barak, and the woman Jael defeats a Canaanite king when Barak could have received that honor. The irony of women being instrumental in the defeat of Sisera and the Canaanites is fleshed out in Deborah’s last words. At the end of her song, Deborah imagines Sisera’s mother waiting for her son to return from war (Judges 5:28-3) and declaring that his delay occurs because he is enjoying the spoils of war—meaning Israelite women.
Deborah’s ending shows the tyranny that women experienced at the hand of Canaanites, but it also recognizes that God has used the weak things of this world to shame the strong. Women were treated as little more than possessions in the Canaanite world, even by other women. Judges does not idealize the fact that Jael was placed in position to kill Sisera, for Barak could have been the one to gain victory with proper trust in God. Still, God does delight in confounding the powers of that day through those mistreated like the women of our story.
The writer of Judges plainly spells out God’s purposes for the generation after Joshua and also tells us why this new generation failed. Joshua’s generation did not completely drive out the Canaanites, for God had two purposes in allowing a Canaanite remnant. God intended to train a new Israelite generation in warfare and to test this generation’s faithfulness to God (Judges 3:2 and 3:5). Israel would have their fill of war, but they would also fail to obey God’s commands and remain true (Judges 2:12-15). This information from today’s reading is part of the second introduction of Judges. There we also learn what role the judges, after whom the book is called, played in Israel’s history. The judges were meant to rescue Israel (Judges 2:16), and in fact some have suggested that the word translated as “judges” could be better translated as “saviors”. Even so, these savior judges could not save Israel from themselves, and thus we will see God’s increasing judgement on His chosen people, allowing them to experience the results of their idolatry, or as some have called it “Israel’s Canaanization”. Then, like now, there are grave consequences for everyone when God’s people lose their distinctive identity through spiritual infidelity. The book of Judges will tell the story of those consequences.
Agapé Chicago’s main preaching diet in September 2015-February 2016 came from the book of Judges. The main idea for that sermon series was: God’s rule leads to freedom, but our will leads to bondage. This is an adequate summary of the message found in Judges. The book of Joshua, just before Judges, speaks of how much Israel did to accomplish God’s command to dispossess the Canaanites; however, the beginning of Judges tells how Israel stops short of obeying God and fails to drive out enemy nations.
Judges 2 begins with a visitation from the angel of the Lord. Many believe the angel of the Lord’s appearances are theophanies (i.e., physical appearances of God) rather than an angel simply speaking as God’s appointed messenger. Either way, the clear message of this angel is that YHWH is displeased with Israel’s failure to do as He intends. This sets the tone for what follows in Judges. This book will drive home the significant consequences Israel faces when they live according to their will and wisdom instead of living in obedience to God’s rule.
Even though we are just finishing the sixth book of the Bible, we have already read a few brief summaries of Israel’s history like the one found in Joshua 24. This consistent recounting of Israel’s history is important for community formation and also staying true to God. Israel’s history has been a few hundred years long, so it is impressive to find a few words that summarize Israel’s situation so well as Joshua 24:13. God says, “ So I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant.” Israel’s main role in their story is as recipients of God’s lavish grace. God reminds Israel of this not to belittle them or coerce future obedience. Rather, God wants Israel to recall their history and remember that no explanation outside of unique favor from an all-powerful God can explain their current situation. YHWH desires that this recollection would lead to ongoing faith that such kindness to them will continue. Every child of God who has ever lived has been in this same situation. All good things we have we owe to God, and thanksgiving for God’s goodness is meant to bolster future trust. May we have eyes to see the symbolical lands, cities, and food that we enjoy without having earned them. We pray for God to increase our faith in His future goodness today.
In Joshua 23 Israel almost experiences a civil war between tribes living on different sides of the Jordan River. This event shows us two practices of Israel which please God. First, they do not tolerate idolatry. The tribes living on the east side of the river have grave concerns over the building of an altar to rival the altar to YHWH already built. These concerned tribes do not wish to repeat of the sins of Achan and others, so they are willing to address idolatry through grave measures if necessary. Secondly, Israel seeks peace. Thankfully, the eastern tribes do not sack the western tribes without first addressing their concern. In doing so, they find out that this altar is not built as a rival altar, but rather to represent a witness of the peace they intend to exist between the tribes. This new altar is simply a symbol that testifies to Israel’s unity. Both the intolerance of idolatry and the pursuit of peace honor and obey YHWH’s commands. Thus, Joshua could say that God has done everything promised due the obedience of Israel during this time (Joshua 23:14-16).
In the next book, Judges, we will see that Israel does begin to disobey and again threatens civil war, but with a much different outcome. When one considers our reading today, it should cause us to reflect on the simplicity of what God expects of us; one could boil down the Ten Commandments the way Jesus would later (Matthew 22:37-40). This is very similar to the two lessons we learn today: to avoid love for any God but the true God and always to pursue peace with our neighbor.
Israel obeys God and establishes the locations for the cities of refuge while ensuring that the Levites have lands among the tribes. Considering Israel’s recent history and future actions, Israel by and large seems to be realizing the blessings of obeying God as promised in Deuteronomy. This leads one to ask, “Why was the generation of Joshua and Caleb so different from other generations of Israel?” Joshua does not seem to have experienced anything like the opposition Moses faced.
One can’t help but believe that the discipline born during their futile wandering in the wilderness because of the sins of their parents strengthened Joshua’s peers. During Joshua’s era, Israel experienced the curses of disobedience in their early years, but they also witnessed the blessings of obedience in their later years. Though it is surprising to see mostly uninterrupted obedience, we do well not to over-analyze the particular features that led to such widespread faithfulness. The truth is we cannot replicate this situation, nor should that be our desire. Rather it is good to acknowledge that when a people obey God, both leadership and what one pastor friend calls “followership” play crucial roles. Though Joshua is faithful, so are the people. When both leaders and followers are obeying God together, it truly is beautiful to witness.
Joshua helps the remaining Israelite tribes acquire and divvy up last of the lands. As Joshua wraps up this work, let me summarize my extended argument about God’s justice in Joshua and His purposes in using Israel to drive out and dispossess the Canaanites living in the land of promise.
- God wills to bless the world through Israel, as Israel is blessed by God to become holy.
- God intends to use Israel not because Israel is great, but because God loves them (Deuteronomy 7-9).
- The Canaanites participate in morally egregious sins—some we know about, including child sacrifice, and likely other evils of which we are unaware—that would tempt Israel to live unholy lives and endanger their blessings.
- Even as God intends to use Israel to defeat the Canaanites, the language of utter destruction occurs less frequently than language suggesting Israel will see the Canaanites “flee,” “driven out,” or “vomited out.” This leads some Biblical scholars to argue that God intends for Israel first to cause the Canaanites to run in fear, and second to destroy all those who choose to remain and fight.
- Those who fight against Israel do so knowing that Israel has legal rights to the land, even if they don’t know God’s purposes for Israel in the land.
- Besides these particulars, some of God’s commands to Israel can strike us as harsh. At these moments, it is important to remember God’s unique prerogatives as creator, sustainer, and judge to give life and take it away. It is also important to remember God’s perfect love and infinite knowledge when we do not receive exhaustive defenses or explanations of God’s justice.
Finally, it is important to note something I had omitted previously. Israel’s rules for warfare make it clear that, while God grants exceptions in the instances found in Joshua, these exceptions should not apply to Israel’s future relations with surrounding nations.
Perhaps this entire extended argument is not as helpful to you as it has been for me. As a child, the book of Joshua did not pose the same intellectual and emotional problems as it has in more recent years. Taking the opportunity to dive further into God’s actions, including much learning that I could not put into this blog, has been helpful to deepening my faith in the goodness of our God.
Israel continues to divide up the land of Canaan, and we continue to know God’s ways in delivering Canaan into Israel’s hands. Today, I will offer one last truth before tomorrow’s summary of our discussion on God’s justice in the book of Joshua. God’s intrinsic and infinite goodness necessitates that God’s judgements and actions are always good. This is of course a statement of faith based on scripture’s testimony about God’s character. Though I end our discussion on God’s actions in Joshua with this truth, it colors my reading from beginning to end. For example, it is easy for me to reasonably believe that adult Canaanites were evil and thus deserved their punishment from God. It is harder for me to make the same argument about an 8-month-old killed by Israel. Yet I stand by my belief that God uniquely gives life to that 8-month-old and uniquely can, with goodness, take its life through any means He chooses. I take this on faith, but doesn’t make it untrue. For example, I could theorize that such an 8-month year old would eventually turn out to be a terror and God knows this. I don’t have proof that I am right, nor does defending God’s goodness require such proof. God could have other reasons. Even though my entire extended argument is intended to give rationale for God’s actions, I do so not because God owes explanations, but because in love God often helps us understand. When God doesn’t give us rationale, we would dishonor God to assume the worst. For in all creation and new creation in Christ we have sufficient reason to believe the best of God’s goodness.
As today’s reading shows, Israel has a great number of families by time they arrive in the land of promise. As we continue through Israel’s conquest of Canaan, let me add yet another layer of truth to help us understand God’s work in this book: God’s right to use Israel to remove, judge, and punish the Canaanites is equivalent to God’s right to do the same through other means. YHWH”s rights as creator, sustainer, and judge accord with Him sending a flood upon the world, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, and expelling the Canaanites. No human being ever creates another; rather, we can only procreate. No person sustains another in every single moment and every single breath. No man or woman is pure and good in all their ways. As creator, sustainer, and a being uniquely righteous, God has a holy and heavy right to give and take away (Job 1:21). When God decides to take, He has the right to use floods or warfare or whatever means He pleases.
I hasten to add that though this truth should undergird our reading of Joshua, if we consider this important theological point alone, we easily can miss an opportunity to better understand God’s work and character in this part of Israel’s history. If we stop at this truth and don’t pay attention to what God is doing in Joshua, we might begin pitting God against Jesus. The God of Joshua is the same as the God of Jesus. God is love, and He also is judge who has rights to judge how He pleases in both Old and New Testaments. Tomorrow, I will clarify how this sort of reasoning does not mean God’s judgement of right and wrong is arbitrary.
In Joshua’s later years, we are told that God still has more land for Israel to settle. As you read today, let me take a step back from the details of the story and insist on one truth about God’s purposes as Israel dispossesses the Canaanites: God is protecting Israel from Canaanite corruption, and thus protecting the world from Canaanite corruption. The Canaanites deserve punishment, but God does not direct Israel to destroy them for this reason only; He also recognizes the corruptive influence a powerful and evil nation or group of nations can have over smaller ones.
In a previous post, I mentioned that idolatry and injustice always go together. When a powerful nation is filled with idolatry, injustice thrives wherever that nation has strong influence. In destroying the Canaanites, God is not just punishing evil, but calling Israel to quarantine it and prevent it from spreading to other nations. As Joshua continues to conquer more lands for Israel, recognize that, from God’s all-knowing perspective, Israel is containing the idolatrous contagion.
Reading the list of kings in Canaan killed leads to the question, “What right does Israel have to destroy these kings and take their land?” This question naturally segues to today’s truth: On top of other evils committed, the Canaanites wrongfully were trespassers on Israel’s land. God promises the land to Abraham (Genesis 12:7, Genesis 17:7-8), then to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-4), and finally to Jacob (Genesis 28:13, Genesis 35:11-12). Abraham and Jacob (i.e., Israel) were the legal landowners before going down to Egypt (Genesis 23:17-20, Genesis 33:19-20), and when Jacob and his sons left the land, it was certainly meant to be a temporary absence. Thus, when Israel comes out of Egypt, they can reasonably believe they have the right to have their land back. Tellingly, Rahab declares the local recognition that the land rightfully belongs to Israel: “I know that the Lord has given you this land” (Joshua 2:8). When Israel goes up to attack the Canaanites, they are not just attacking workers of wicked deeds; they are attacking thieves engaged in active combat who refuse to return the land to its rightful owners.
Tomorrow, I will begin to step back from the historical details and deal more directly with our assumptions about justice and righteousness.
In our reading today, the Gibeonites deceive Israel, and the sun stands still. The Gibeonites prove that God will show mercy to those who will recognize YHWH’s lordship, even if they do so with cunning and trickery. Today let me continue to defend God’s righteousness in using Israel to expel the Canaanites. Today’s truth is: God intends for Israel to dispossess the Canaanites and kill those that fight Israel; but God does not intend the complete extermination of the Canaanites. This might be confusing based on the language used throughout Joshua, even in our readings today; Joshua “left no survivors there,” he won so that “no survivors were left,” and the city is “totally destroyed and everyone in it” (Joshua 10:30,33,37). The problem with our reading is we can easily forget what God told Israel long before this conquest. God makes clear in Exodus 23:27-30 and Deuteronomy 7:17-23 that He intends to “make all your enemies turn their back and run,” and also “little by little I will drive them out (emphasis mine) until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.” Even throughout Joshua, many Canaanites clearly remain in the land (Joshua 10:20, Joshua 11:22). This is not because Israel disobeys God, but because God did not intend complete annihilation. The entire book of Judges (Joshua’s sequel) relies on the premise that the Canaanites remained in the land. Even with events like the Gibeonite incident and Achan’s sin, we are not to believe that Israel failed in their mission in the book of Joshua.
What does all of this mean? If a Canaanite was killed by Israel, it was because he had not evacuated the cities or fled from Israel. Many Canaanites obviously left the cities, and God allowed such people—even those like the Gibeonites—to live, so long as they did not resist Israel and God’s plan to bless the world through them. Tomorrow, we will read about why the Canaanites were wrong to stay in the land or cities in the first place.
Israel sacks Ai in our reading today, and this compels us to continue to reflect on what God is doing through Israel’s expulsion of the Canaanites. Before I add another truth, I want to acknowledge the work of Matt Flanagan and Paul Copan in their book Did God Really Command Genocide? If you desire more help on this topic, their insight has proven helpful to me.
Today’s truth is: Canaan is being dispossessed because they commit atrocious evil. This is not just God’s arbitrary viewpoint or Israel’s weak justification for war crimes. In fact, many years before Joshua’s time, God prohibited Abraham from taking this same land until later generations because, “the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:16). In other words, That is, God barred Abraham from taking the Amorites’ land because their deeds were not as evil as they would later become. Closer to the time of Joshua, Leviticus 18 lists these latter crimes committed by the Canaanites: incest, adultery, and bestiality. Two of those crimes are punishable by law today. Worst of all, the Canaanites sacrifice their children to their gods (Leviticus 18:21). In the U.S., such a crime would be a capital offense or punished with life in prison. Scripture hints that such practices were not occasional but ubiquitous among the people in the land of Canaan. We ought to bear in mind that, if informed, we would consider the Canaanites worthy of severe punishment as we read about their God-ordained defeat at the hands of Israel.
Today I begin an extended argument which defends God’s justice in calling Israel to violently dispossess the Canaanites. In the next few days, I will highlight one truth per day in hopes of amassing an adequate defense against the charge that God commands genocide, as well as widespread claims that YHWH is morally corrupt in the book of Joshua.
Today’s truth is: Israel is dispossessing the land because the Canaanites are evil, not because Israel is good. Achan proves the rule when he takis items devoted to destruction, directly disobeying God’s one command for Israel. Achan and Israel are receiving the land promised to them; all they need do is obey God, and all will go well. Achan rebels and brings punishment upon his entire family (Joshua 7:24), in contrast to Hagar’s family being spared (Joshua 6:25). These events exemplify what God told Israel in Deuteronomy, in a passage I passed over initially to bring it to your attention today. God tells Israel, “It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Deuteronomy 9:5). Many notorious genocides begin with the idea that one group is superior to another (e.g., Nazis, Hutu). God never suggests this as the basis for Canaanite expulsion. Yes, God is destroying Canaan because they are evil; God is not using Israel because they themselves are good, but rather because God is good to Israel. Of course, this truth alone is not adequate. May God grant me wisdom in the days ahead to help you continue to trust God’s goodness in working through Israel.
Echoes of Israel’s Exodus abound in today’s reading from Joshua. The parting of the Jordan River recalls God taking Israel through the Red Sea. Joshua and the people of Israel commemorate Passover. Finally, God tells Joshua to call the place of Israel’s circumcision “Gilgal” (this word sounds like “rolled” in Hebrew) because God has “rolled away” Egypt’s reproach (Joshua 5:9). God makes a point effectively; at the Exodus, God takes Israel out of Egypt, but this mass circumcision reflects God’s desire to take Egypt’s ways out of Israel. For too long, Israel has practiced the idolatry and rejection of God prevalent in the practices of their former slave masters. As Israel moves into the land of promise, God yearns for them to live as the unique people He envisions. Today’s reading is a sort of second Exodus where Israel receives land instead of law. But the biggest question lingers: “Has Israel thrown off the evil practices of Egypt?” The answer to that will shortly become clear.