A new study on the book of Judges was recently released by The Good Book Company based on your original writings. Perhaps not the most obvious choice! Why is Judges a great book for 21st-century Christians to study?
All Scripture is inspired and profitable, but Judges may be especially profitable for us to read. We see believers living in the midst of pagan communities all around them. The failure of the Israelites to take possession of all the land given to them meant they ended up living in a pluralistic culture. And that’s where many Christians find themselves today—we, too, are living in a pluralistic, pagan culture. And we’re doing so, in part, because of our own past failures to live and teach as we should have.
Theologically the book shows us human depravity, the weakness of human nature, and the need for a true king and savior. Human beings cannot save themselves; they need a deliverer.
I’ve always believed it was both themes, pointing to Jesus. Yes, I think the book at one level was written as an “apologetic” for the monarchy in general and David in particular. Without a true king (to use a modern phrase) “things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” But within the entirety of the canon, this message supports the theme that we are sinners who cannot save ourselves, and therefore “salvation is of the Lord”—by his grace and power alone. Though the human author couldn’t have consciously foreseen it, Judges points toward the ultimate David and true monarch, Jesus Christ.
Yes, in teaching the book of Judges you simply have to deal with this issue—you can’t ignore it. And in this brief space I can’t even list the issues and the various objections and answers. Maybe the most fundamental thing to say is that if you believe the rest of what the whole Bible teaches—that there’s only one true God, that for a period of time he spoke directly to Israel through prophets and through the Urim and Thummim in the priest’s breastplate, but that now, since Christ, he speaks to us through his inscripturated Word—then the conquest of Canaan makes sense.
Why? First, God alone has the right to judge people—only he knows what they deserve and what they will do if not stopped. He alone has the right to take a life. Second, in “holy war” Israel did not seek to imperialistically expand its wealth and power but acted as an instrument of God’s judgment on a particular set of people. Third, if you believe in the authority of the Bible as the only infallible way to know God’s will for us—then holy war today is impossible. God gives no warrant for it. That’s what we see when reading the Bible is read as a whole, with the New Testament completing and fulfilling the Old. Jesus specifically forbids Christians to take up the sword in his name, to spread the Christian faith by force. In short, if you believe the rest of the things the Bible teaches, the period of holy war makes sense. Holy war is not, therefore, a reason to reject what the rest of the Bible says about God.
He’s the ultimate judge—the perfect and unflawed Gideon and Samson. He is the ultimate king we don’t yet have but whom we need. Even at the terrible end of Judges, where a man gives up his spouse to death to save his own skin, we can’t help but think of Jesus our true husband who gives himself up to death in order to save us. Jesus in Judges, as usual, is everywhere.