4.34 Judges -- Reflections
Judges provides us with two main objects of incomprehension:
a. the action of God in raising up judges. This sovereign and manifest act of raising up a man or woman to political and spiritual leadership is alien to the experience of believers, not to mention non-Christians. The Christian revelation provided a democratization of the Spirit -- everyone gets a little bit. Though the fullness of Christ dwells in believers, only a smidgeon manages to leak out of most of us to impact the world. Nor is there any modern parallel to the bizarre character of a number of these God-appointed leaders. They were not chosen from the clergy, nor from the intelligentsia. One has to look to the fringes of modern Christianity to see such characters: Mariah Woodworth-Etter, John Alexander Dowie, William Booth, William Branham, Aimee Semple McPherson.
It's almost as if God was experimenting with finding the best way of ruling over this motley people. He tried the single "man of God" with absolute authority (Moses and Joshua), which worked fairly well while the people were on the march. Then He took His hands off, and allowed tribal elders to run things -- and the country went to seed quickly. Periodically, He raised up temporary deliverers, ordinary people that were elevated to authority by an enduement of His Spirit. But there was a lack of legacy, of continuity, of consistency among these leaders. They were all brought in "ad hoc" in a time of crisis. Soon, God would settle (reluctantly) on borrowing another custom of the Canaanites -- kingship, hereditary monarchy. Still, it is important to realize that the political problem of the people of God -- how they constituted themselves in history -- was never satisfactorily resolved in the Old Testament, and even less so in the New.
b. the question of genocide. Here is a fascinating fact of Old Testament history. For all the noise some critics make about how the Old Testament endorses racial genocide, it is clear that in actual practice, Israel's enemies were not exterminated. The closest example of the extinction of a racial group was not one of the Canaanite nations, but the tribe of Benjamin (Judg 20), in the incident we have just covered.
Although God was not able to mobilize Israel to accomplish His purposes in Canaan -- subduing the land, obliterating the native peoples -- Israel was quite capable of conducting a holy war against her own blood. There were several layers of misconduct here:
-- the "Sodomites" of Gibeah
-- the Levite who delivered up his concubine
-- the inhabitants of Gibeah who refused to surrender the rapist-murderers
-- the tribe of Benjamin who allied itself to Gibeah
-- the army of Israel who slaughtered every living thing they could touch in Benjamin
-- the men of Jabesh-Gilead who failed to answer the call to assemble
-- the army of Israel who destroyed Jabesh-Gilead and kidnapped the virgin daughters
It was a parade of violence, where the close of one episode initiated another and escalated the conflict. God's role in this was to direct Israel's attack on Benjamin, which actually fared badly for several days (Judg 20:19-25). As the NIV points out (p. 360 footnote), God probably did not speak directly to Phinehas or the Israelite leaders, but only answered through the casting of the Urim and Thummim. The morality of the entire enterprise is appalling, and the folly of it manifest, so that the modern reader may very well question whether God had any part in it.