This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, “King & Country: The Story That Changes Everything,” coming in summer 2017.
The book of Judges easily wins the title of “Most Violent Book of the Bible.” From one murderous episode to the next, the pages of the narrative drip with the blood of innocent and guilty alike. Yet the gory stories of the book of Judges shouldn’t surprise us and are in fact the point of the whole narrative. With the serpent’s hold on the human heart unshaken, and without God’s King to lead God’s people, the story of God’s people in the Promised Land quickly devolves from fairy tale into nightmare.
The book of Judges is a key hinge point in the Old Testament narrative, designed to show just how badly we need God’s King to lead us. The same death spiral of kinglessness that we have seen play out over and over again in the Old Testament narrative—the descent through Cain’s murderous line, the descent to the flood, the descent to Babel—is repeated here in graphic detail, proving that we need more than God’s Country; we must have God’s King to lead us. The book cascades down from the promising beginnings of God’s people in God’s Country, through a series of decreasingly impressive judges, each one worse than the one before, to the final crash landing in a horror scene of idolatry, rape, murder, and genocide. Above it all flies the repeated banner verse: “There was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” With no king, there can only be chaos.
Let’s trace the downward spiral, to see how the well-known and less well-known characters and stories of Judges fit into the grand story of kinglessness. After settling in the Promised Land alongside the pagan nations that they failed to drive out, “there arose another generation who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Thus begins the repeated cycle of Judges: the people’s disobedience, followed by God’s discipline, followed by the people’s desperation, followed by deliverance by a judge that God raises up… and then the cycle repeats. The main point we’re supposed to see, however, is that each cycle is a little worse than the one before it, each judge a little more corrupt or cowardly than the one before him. The cycle begins with a faithful (and obscure ) deliverer named Othniel, followed by another faithful (although more violent) judge named Ehud, followed by even more violent Shamgar, followed by cowardly Barak, then even more cowardly (and ultimately idolatrous) Gideon, whose cruel sons plunge Israel into anarchy, out of which comes Jepthah—whose twisted view of God has more in common with the Canaanites than it does with truth—and after him the worst of the worst (and somehow most famous), Samson. Reading the account of Samson, we’re supposed to see how every single thing he does is wrong, from repeatedly violating his Nazarite vows, to taking foreign wives, to retaliating against his enemies with merciless and murderous vengeance. Read the story of Samson in Judges 13-16 and see writ large the same rapacious appetites of the serpent’s seed that we saw in Genesis 4-11. The family of Abraham, from whom the serpent-crushing, world-blessing seed was supposed to come, now looks no different from the rest of enslaved mankind.
And it gets worse. The book of Judges concludes with a gruesome episode seemingly ripped from the plotline of a slasher horror movie. A Levite—the family tasked with preserving the integrity of Israel’s worship—sets up an idolatrous altar and takes a concubine for himself. Then, through a violent turn of events that mirrors the perverted bloodlust of Sodom and Gomorrah, his concubine ends up gang-raped and murdered. Outraged, this Levite cuts up the concubine’s beaten, mangled body (I told you the story was gruesome) and sends the pieces throughout the land of Israel, calling for vengeance. The people of Israel respond with a genocidal civil war in which the entire tribe of Benjamin is exterminated. And thus ends the happy tale of the book of Judges.
To those wondering why in the world such stories are included in God’s Word, the answer comes in the sentence repeated throughout the final climactic horror story: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” This is the end result of demonic enslavement: God’s regal image-bearers reduced to anarchy and depravity. There can be no hope for humanity without a king to sit on the throne and reclaim the lost dominion of Adam. But there is no king in sight, and the satanic snake still sits on Adam’s throne, his ruthless reign of terror unchallenged, his upside-down values firmly entrenched even in the hearts of God’s chosen people.
Here we see the biblical story at its darkest and most desperate, the promise seemingly extinguished under the avalanche of human evil. And yet, just like at every other dark and desperate moment, it turns out that God has been working in and through that darkness to sow the seeds of evil’s demise. Turn the page from Judges to the little book of Ruth, which begins with the ominous words, “In the days when the judges ruled…” And yet it turns out that the tale of Ruth is a love story, a little ray of light amidst the turmoil and bloodshed of Judges.
And when you come to the end of the book, a short genealogy explodes with significance. It just so happens that the hero of the story, Boaz, is descended from Judah (remember the promise in Genesis 50?). And from his union with the foreigner Ruth, the lineage of grace unexpectedly reemerges:
Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. (Ruth 4:22)
Behind the scenes, once again, God has been shepherding the promise onward. And now, for those who know how the story goes, the end goal is on the horizon: David, the king after God’s own heart, is in sight.
Here amidst the ashes of the book of Judges, the darkness and ruination of God’s people in God’s promised land, it feels appropriate to once again quote that line from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be the blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.
The ending of the book of Ruth turns our focus to the approaching fulfillment of the hopes of the entire story up until this point. Here at last comes God’s King who alone can lead God’s people back into the kingdom that once was theirs.