Thoughts on Judges Chapter 1

The first two and a half chapters of the book of Judges offer us two very different perspectives on the Israelite conquest of the promised land.  In the first chapter, we have the story told from the perspective of the Israelites and as you might imagine they wish to cast the situation in the best possible light.  They emphasize their victories while at the same time minimizing and rationalizing their failure to drive the Canaanites out of the land.  In other words, they try to spin the story in such a way that amplifies the positive and mutes the negative.  If all we had to go on was this first chapter of Judges we would be tempted to believe that the conquest of the land was a great success.  Not perfect, not complete, but still a success.  We could be believe that if all we had was this first chapter but fortunately we have the rest of this book that gives us a far more comprehensive view of the situation. In the second chapter, we get to see the situation from God’s point of view.

In the second chapter of the book, God reminds the Israelites of a pesky little matter called the covenant and reminds them that at every point He has remained faithful to His promises.  In other words, He has kept up His end of the deal and would like to know why they have not done the same.  That’s the age old question isn’t it?  How is it that even though we know what we ought to do, what we should do, what God has commanded us to do, yet we don’t do it?  But we also get to see something else in these first two and half chapters, something that too often gets overlooked, namely the gospel.  In many ways, the book of Judges is one of the best examples of the gospel at work in the lives of everyday people in the Old Testament.  That is my ultimate objective in this book— to show you the gospel as it is displayed in the book of Judges and to help you to apply it to your life right now.

Far too often when we read the Old Testament we look only for object lessons or good moral examples to follow, but sadly we often miss the most important point that God is trying to teach us.  From cover to cover the Bible is about the gospel and when we read the Bible we need to read it with the gospel at the center of our thinking.  When we read Judges through the lens of the gospel it will change the way we see the book.  In fact, it will make this book far more relevant and amazing to us.  What it shows us is that as the people of God we must be constantly reminded of our need for the gospel.  The gospel is not just the means by which we enter into a relationship with God, but it is the way that we live out our relationship with God every single day of our lives.  In other words, the gospel is not simply the message by which we are saved from sin but instead it is the power by which we live every moment of our lives.  What we will discover in the two and a half chapters of Judges is that God sovereignly uses of our momentary failures and setbacks to remind us of and teach us about our constant need for the gospel.  With that in mind, let us turn to the opening chapter of Judges and see how the Israelites portrayed the conquest.

It was a stunning success but…

The first chapter of Judges starts off on a hopeful note and it looks like the remaining tasks of the conquest are going to come off pretty smoothly.  The chapter begins immediately after the death of Joshua with the people inquiring of the Lord about who will go up to fight against the Canaanites.  The Lord responds by saying, “Judah shall go up; behold, I have given the land into his hand.”  This command seems perfectly in keeping with the priority that this tribe is given both within this book and in the Old Testament in general.  But quickly we encounter a problem with how the tribe of Judah goes about carrying out this command.  Notice that in verse 1 God never mentions the need for Judah to go out a secure any help or assistance in carrying out this task.  In fact, God specifically says that He has already “given the land into his hand.”  But notice what the leaders of the tribe of Judah do in verse. 3, “And Judah said to Simeon his brother, ‘Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites. And I likewise will go with you into the territory allotted to you.”In some ways, we could just pass this off as a minor issue or a matter of mere practicality.  After all, why is it a problem that the tribe Judah secured the help of another tribe in carrying out the command of God?  After all, they got the job, right?  Isn’t that all that really matters?

The next set of verses (v.4-7) record how the allied tribes defeated two of their greatest enemies and how the pagan King Adoni-beze  even ended up acknowledging the hand of God in his defeat.  So it looks for a moment like the momentary lapse of faith and judgment that occurred when Judah sought the help of their fellow tribe was no big deal.  But as we proceed through the rest of this chapter we will see that this pattern of partial obedience becomes the identifying trait of the Israelites.  But even more importantly we are gong to see Israel’s partial obedience sets up a theological dilemma that will set the tone for the rest of the book, as well as the rest of the Old Testament. But before we look at the dilemma created by Israel’s disobedience let’s examine their excuses for why they failed in the first place.  Basically, there are three excuses given in the remainder of chapter one.

1. The Canaanites Had Better Military Equipment (v.16-21)

The author of this book gives us a list of Judah’s initial military victories.  At first, Judah and their allies are racking up victory after victory.  They defeat the Canaanites who inhabited Zephath, Gaza, Ashkelon and Ekron.   It looks on the face that Israel is racking up victory after victory, but then in v.19 the Bible says, “And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron.”  Think about that verse for a minute, God was with the people and gave them victories but still they couldn’t defeat the inhabitants of plains.

The reason becomes very clear at the end of the verse, the Canaanites had advanced technology on their side— they had chariots of iron.

In the hill country chariots would have been less than useless but in the river valley’s and plains the Canaanites were able to take full advantage of this new technology.  It must have been terrifying to the foot soldiers of Israel to have to face this new form of mechanized warfare, so who can really blame them for not being able to drive out the Canaanite from these areas, right? But let’s stop and think about that for a moment.  Essentially, what the Israelites were saying is that the chariots they faced were stronger than the God they served.  Furthermore, they were saying that the advent of iron age in Mesopotamia negated God’s promise.  Sure, God had said that He wold drive out the Canaanites and give the land to the people, but that was before the Canaanites got ahold of iron.  Surely, this new situation is a reasonable explanation of their failure.  But this explanation of their failure will not hold up to scrutiny.

If we go back to the book of Joshua 17:14-18 we will see that he had already faced the issue of this new technological advance and given the Israelites assurance of victory.  In this case, the people of Ephraim and Manasseh came to Joseph to request that they be given an additional allotment of land.  The reason for this need become clear as they explain the situation.  They had been able to conquer the hill country but down on the plains they had encountered the Canaanite chariots, so they came to Joshua to request that he give them an additional inheritance.  Their reasoning was simple, they tried to conquer the land but the Canaanites with their chariots were just too strong and could not be conquered, therefore, they needed another allotment of land so that they would have room to live and work.  But Joshua denies their request and assures them in verses 17-18 that they can and will drive out the Canaanites.  Put simply, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were being operating on the basis of what they could see rather than by faith in God’s promises.  Joshua, on the other hand, had learned through experience to trust God no matter what the circumstances and was operating on the basis of faith.

At first glance we might be able to sympathize with the Israelites in his situation, but on closer inspection we see just how insidious of an offense they were committing towards God.  Essentially they were saying that the Canaanites chariots were stronger than God.  If we think about it we often lose faith simply because we don’t believe God is powerful enough to deliver us or to give us the victory.  Even though God had promised them that He would deliver the Canaanites into their hands and would give the land to them as their possession, the Israelites chose to believe what they could see, rather than what God had promised them.  The truth of the matter is that we are all guilty of this same sin at various points in our lives.

We don’t like to admit it but we all know it is true.  Sometimes we look at the circumstances or opposition we are facing and decide to compromise simply because we have a momentary lapse of faith.  It has become almost taboo to talk about these situations in the church or to admit that we sometimes lose faith, but in truth we all encounter these moments in our lives.  Every believer has faced those moments when they decide not to take a strong stand for their faith because they fear the opposition.  In fact, one of the top reasons why people say they do not share their faith is the fear of being rejected or persecuted.  Even Pastors and church leaders are prone to this same weakness. It pains me to admit it but there have been several times in my ministry when I compromised on what I knew to be the will of God simply to avoid confrontation with opponents in the church.

Tim Keller reminds us in his book on Judges that when we say “I can’t” we are really saying “I won’t.”⁠1  The ability of God is never in question in the Bible.  God created the heavens and the earth by merely speaking them into existence and the Bible clearly affirms that all authority and power rest in God’s hands, therefore, His ability to carry out His promise is not in question.  The real issue is, what will we believe?  Will we believer the Word of God?  Will we believe His promises? Or are we going to listen to our opponents and believe the lies the world tells us?

2.) It made good strategic sense to let some of the Canaanites live. (V.22-25)

The Israelites go on to explain that in addition to the Canaanites possessing advanced military technology, there were other, more practical reasons why they had to sometimes compromise in carrying out the instructions that God had given them. The first of these is mentioned in 1:22-25 where the writer describes the strategy employed by the house of Joseph to take the city of Bethel.  Spies were sent into the city to get the lay of the land and these spies came across a man who was entering the city who was willing to help them find an easy entrance into the city.  In return for his cooperation the spies agree to deal kindly with him by allowing his escape when the armies of Israel enter into the city.  In turn the man does not simply disappear but instead goes into Hittite territory and rebuilds the city of Luz.  In his commentary on this book, Daniel Block notes that, “Technically Luz/Bethel was conquered, but in reality was simply transferred to a new site.  The mandate had been betrayed.  The new city functioned as a sanctioned symbol of  ‘the Canaanite in their midst.’”⁠2

Previously, in v.19,  the Israelites showed their lack of faith in God’s strength now in this episode they demonstrate the lack of faith in God’s providence.  God has specifically told the Israelites that He would deliver the land into their hand and the author of the book reminds us of this truth in c “the Lord was with them.”  Nevertheless, the spies decide that they need additional help and enlist the assistance of one of the townspeople in finding a suitable access point in the city.  Their action appear reasonable at first glance but in reality it shows their failure to trust God to provide everything they needed for the conquest.

Proverbs 14:12 says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”  In other words, sometimes what seems to be the best course of action to our human minds will often lead us down the path towards destruction.  It seemed tyhg`like a good idea to the Israelites to secure the help of an insider but in reality their decision was disastrous.  The new city of Luz became a constant reminder of their failure to do what God had commanded and a symbol of their coming downfall.  What makes for good strategy in our human eyes is often disobedience in God’s eyes.

3.) It made good economic sense to let some of the Canaanites live (v.27-36)

The final reason that Israel failed to carry out God’s command to drive the Canaanites out of the land was simply that it made better economic sense to let some of them live.  You will notice that three times in the remainder of this first chapter the author mentions that the Israelites put the Canaanites to forced labor (v.22,30,33).  From the Israelite position this made good economic sense.  Finding a source of cheap labor meant that the Israelites could get more work done and make life much easier on themselves, at least in the short run.  But from God’s standpoint their actions represented disobedience and rebellion.

As followers of Christ we have to recognize our tendency to rationalize or explain away sin.  Sin by any other name is just as evil, so giving it another name is really just an exercise in self-deception.


1 Keller, Timothy (2013-08-06). Judges For You (God’s Word For You) (Kindle Location 246). The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.

2 Block, Daniel I. “Judges, Ruth” Vol. 6 in The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) 104

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