Why read Judges today?
Isabelle Hamley reflects on why we should take Judges seriously.
I’m always slightly puzzled that Judges should be such an unloved book in the Bible. It isn’t really a book Christians read for comfort, or preach on much, or study in cosy homegroups. And yet, it has all the ingredients of a Hollywood blockbuster: swashbuckling heroes (and some heroines), cosmic battles, sex, violence and murder. Maybe it strikes a little too close to home.
After all, reading Judges isn’t that different from readings the newspapers. Political leaders who lie, mislead, and abuse their position; cronyism and self-interest; populist crowds who follow the wrong leaders; child abuse, sexual and domestic abuse; murder and violence, cycles of revenge between warring factions. In many ways, Judges holds a mirror to our world and asks, are you really that different? How much have you learnt in a few thousand years?
Judges disturbs the stories we tell ourselves about the world, about ourselves and one another. It doesn’t just describe a broken, painful and tumultuous world, it gives a diagnosis. The problem is the human heart, and a stubborn human takeover of ethics. The people, again and again, choose to do what is ‘right in their own eyes’ rather than what is ‘good in the eyes of the Lord’.
As the book progresses, the people move further and further away from the covenant and the shape of life that God had set for them, so they could have life and flourish in the Promised Land. The covenant had set a vision for what life could be like, with a thick network of mutual relationships between God, human beings and the land. A vision for the common good, the flourishing of all, and care for the vulnerable animated many of the laws. But this was the ideal. The vision was a gift from God to shape their identity, but the people always struggled with the gap between vision and reality, between their imagined identity and the relationships, culture and reality of their life as immigrants seeking to find a place in a new land.
Gradually, they move away from consensus on the common good, on how they should live together. As right and wrong blur and become defined by increasingly small groups, the nation falls apart, and the internal life of Israel is marked by unrest, conflict and injustice. Prophets are disregarded, leaders are self-interested and lead the people away from God, and justice turns into revenge. The further the people move away from a cohesive vision of their life together and the more ethics become individualised, the more individuals are lost and hurt. The most vulnerable suffer first – the women and children – but in a society where everyone does what is right to them, no-one is safe, and the end of the book sees civil war and the wanton extermination of an entire tribe, followed by a city, and the large-scale abuse of young women.
The portrait is disturbing, rightly so. But this is only a partial portrait. Sin, brokenness and hurt are never the full story. There are chinks of light, people who pray and listen. But above all, God hears. God moves in and out of the story, proactive in listening to his people pain, even when that pain is self-inflicted. God responds to Israel’s cries and distress, without waiting for repentance or change. God patiently walks with a people who aren’t sure they want him by their side. Leaders are not perfect, far from it, and yet God still works with them for the good of the nation.
Men and women who are frail and perfect not only are not a bar to God’s presence or action, but rather God deals patiently with them, and carries on working with human beings despite all their faults, frailties and hesitations. The story is one that carries hope at its very core, because it proclaims that no matter how bad things get, how much we get things wrong, God will still work with, within and among us. Ultimately, God’s presence and choice to keep to the covenant are the most important message of all: even when all seems lost, God is at work, because the God of Scripture is a God of grace. And that’s a pretty good reason for reading Judges.
Isabelle Hamley is currently Secretary for Theology and Ecumenical Relations and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishop. She has previously held posts as Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, taught Biblical Studies and Practical Theology at St John’s College, Nottingham, as well as being the vicar of the parish of Edwalton. She is a Visiting Research Fellow at Kings College London.