The word to know this week is ‘amphictiony’. It has its background in ancient Greece, when a bunch of nearby tribes would form a loose alliance with one another, whilst retaining most of the time their own tribal life. This is a good description of life in Israel during the period of the Judges. They were still identified strongly with their tribes and associated territories, but could club together in times of external threat into a loose affiliation.
But things were not good for the nation, and much of their trouble came from their failure completely to eradicate the nations already in the land, who remained thorns in their side for centuries to come, with the ever-present temptation to compromise, idolatry and immorality. So a cycle began to happen, which is spelt out most clearly in 2:10-19. The people forget God and turn to idols; God becomes angry and they find themselves under attack from nations around them; in their distress they turn back and call out to God; he raises up a charismatic leader (or ‘Judge’) to lead them to victory; life settles down again; they become complacent and turn to idols, and round the cycle goes again. In fact we see this happening 13 times during the course of the book, and the Judges are both household names, like Samson and Gideon, and relative unknowns like Jair, whose main claim to fame was that he had 30 sons who rode on 30 donkeys, and Ehud, whose gory exploit I preached on at my son’s wedding, but that’s another story.
Clearly this was no way to run a nation, and the book serves to both to create the need for and to set the scene for the rise of the monarchy, which we are going to encounter the week after next. Indeed the people are seeking a king even here: Gideon is asked to take on the role, and after slaughtering his 70 brothers Abimelek does actually get crowned king, at least briefly, thus creating a good trivia quiz answer that it wasn’t really Saul who was the first King of Israel as everyone was taught in Sunday School.
There are some great stories here if you like violence and gore, but as with much of the Deuteronomic history, the twin themes of the people’s vacillation and unfaithfulness contrasted with God’s patience and faithfulness are interwoven. Judges also has a thoroughgoing supernaturalism: God appears and speaks with people, brings victory in battle, and anoints his chosen judges with the Spirit. Samson is a Nazirite, a member of a group whom we first encountered in Numbers 6, who, rather like monks and nuns today, took certain vows, vows which he systematically broke one after another.
The book invites us to consider the nature of our discipleship: are we fair-weather Christians who treat God like a fire-engine: we only call on him in emergencies, and the rest of the time desperately hope we won’t need to? The judges are those who, even though they have their struggles, know themselves to be called by God, and know the anointing of the Spirit to lead others into the ways of godliness. They are ordinary people, but once God’s Spirit anoints them the lead supernaturally, and they encourage us to open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit, and seek the vocation God has put on us.