Judges is filled with interesting, humorous and challenging stories about the politics and troubles of the Israelite people as part of the larger narrative found in Joshua through 2 Kings. Judges in the context of this book is not meant to be what we think of in the judicial system, but rather in the context of this story a judge was a leader chosen directly (or later in the book indirectly) by God to guide the people out of chaos. As a church that mostly follows the Lectionary, we spend very little time in Judges as only the story of Deborah is included in the 3 year cycle of texts.
The predominant theme running throughout the book of Judges that you will begin to notice as you read is the cycle of faithfulness of the Israelite people which is first laid out in 1:11-19. Each of the Judges will follow in this pattern, growing increasingly more ineffective, which is the author’s way of setting up a literary device that is easy for readers to follow while at the same time communicating a broader message about the efficacy of the judges and the Israelite people. It is interesting to see how the writer viewed faithfulness and the effectiveness of leadership as related, but all the while maintaining that faithfulness to God is always better than any judge. As First Christian sits in this time of transition, faithfully waiting for a new senior minister I wonder how these scriptures challenge or speak to our context?
One of the most comical stories in Judges is the story of Ehud and King Eglon. Ehud murders the evil king, who is so over-weight the sword disappears then Ehud escapes out the bathroom window, leaving the guards waiting outside. Another part of the humor of the text is lost in translation, as Eglon’s name means “fat calf” in Hebrew. Sometimes I think in our attempt to take scripture seriously we often forget that humor is one of the human emotions that is valuable to our faith and we can find that humor even in our sacred texts.
The story of Jephthah and his daughter found in Judges 11:1-33 offers an interesting look at the dynamics between commitment to God and faithlessness. The spirit of the Lord was already upon Jephthah, but out of fear of losing his battle he tries to make a deal with God—that he will sacrifice the first thing that walks out of his door upon returning home. This plan backfires when it is his own daughter comes out to greet him after battle. How often do we think that bartering with God is the right thing to do? In a desperate situation we may say, “God, if you help me with…I will never do…” But that is not what God requires of us, God is present even in the midst of chaos.
Speaking of chaos, the story of Samson (Judges 13-16) is one of the most familiar figures in Judges. Samson’s strength, wit, passion, and creativity are on full display. Yet, Samson has weaknesses too — not just if his hair gets cut. Samson was willing to trust others in way that left him open to being deceived. I wonder if we don’t relate to Samson’s weaknesses more than we might admire his strength. How many times have we trusted people close to us — people we thought were on our side — only to be let down by their deceptive actions (or maybe just their willingness to prioritize their self interests ahead of ours)? How many times have we immersed ourselves in a relationship only to find out they were willing to help us if it benefitted them too — employers/employees, friendships, colleagues, ministers, even family members?
In the midst of the chaos of the Samson story we find hope. Delilah finally convinced Samson to give up the secret of his strength — never cutting his hair. While he was sleeping, Delilah, with the help of the Philistines, shaved Samson’s head. Not possessing tremendous strength any longer, Samson was easily captured and tortured by the Philistines. Here’s the hope: Samson’s hair grew back. Samson’s hair was a symbol of God’s presence. Having it cut off, similarly, is a symbol of being cut off from God’s presence. Events in our lives cut us off from the reality of God’s active presence — by our choice or others’ actions. Yet, we maintain a thread of hope because hair grows and God continually seeks to be present with us. As we emerge from tragedies and downfalls that come our way, we discover glimpses of hope, openings to the future. These hints remind us that God is working in hidden ways to redeem and save and heal.
Throughout the Book of Judges, as true in Creation, God continues to create order out of chaos. May we be open to the ways God is doing the same today.