The book of the Judges is about the easiest portion of the Bible to get Sunday School children to engage in. Wild, riotous, entertaining stories that spin out like tales from the wild, wild west of America’s past, the only difficulty to be had is to choose what to leave in and what to leave out. In the section to follow I will recap several of the more spectacular stories, though it may prove profitable for the instructor to select one or two of these stories and let that suffice.
If there is one line that you want to remember from this week’s story it is this one: “And everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes.” This refrain recurs again and again throughout the book of Judges. It’s too bad that we call it the book of Judges. That makes things more confusing. The judges in this book are certainly nothing like those people whom we call judges today. The judges of Old Testament Israel didn’t wear long, black robes and sit behind a big, high bench, pounding a little, wooden hammer called a gavel. The judges of the Old Testament were men and women who rose to the challenge when local crises arose in order to help their fellow tribesmen out of a jam. The judges described in this book of the Bible were colorful and dashing characters.
Before I describe a few of these interesting figures for you, let’s go back and remember where we have been and how we got here.
Last week’s lesson was about the event in Israel’s history called–The Conquest. The people of Israel, having been lead through the desert by Moses for 40 years after their expulsion from slavery in Egypt, finally got to cross the Jordan River and enter into the land of Canaan–a land to make their own. But, as you recall, the land of Canaan was already owned by someone. There were people living there. So, in order to occupy that land that was already occupied, the people of Israel had to drive out and destroy the people already living there.
This is a somewhat troubling feature of the Old Testament story for people; especially, I think, sometimes for Americans who have grown conscious of the injustices that were often perpetrated against Native Americans by European colonialists. The biblical narrative tries to handle this discomfort by stating again and again that the people whom the people of Israel expelled in order to take over the land were exceptionally wicked. Whether that satisfies the troubled mind of the modern reader or not, it certainly is useful for us to think about how it applies to ourselves as individuals. Wickedness is not tolerated by God. God does not make peace with what is evil. He expels it. The forgiveness of sins, after all, does not mean the sending away of punishment or consequences for sin. It literally means what it says. Sins, sinning, the love of sinning are to be sent away. The biblical notion of judgment is that of separation or division. God divides sharply and distinctly between what is right and what is wrong (just like he divided the light from the dark at creation) and banished the wrong.
Anyway, Israel, under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ successor, successfully entered the land of Canaan and began the process of subduing the land for themselves by expelling its occupants and capturing their cities. The conquest was not total and complete. It’s unrealistic to think that you can totally purge a land of every one of its occupants. That would take a great long time. And Joshua and his armies wanted to be able to set up homes for themselves and their families and to enjoy what they had won. So Israel began to settle into a land only half-conquered. And the presence of these residual, local inhabitants were a constant irritant and source of difficulty for the newly arrived settlers. This was both a good and a bad thing. Certainly the remaining Canaanites caused Israel no lack of trouble. But, on the other hand, sometimes people need a little sharp spur to inspire growth. A grain of sand starts as an irritant in the oyster’s shell and is turned into a pearl.
Well, the people of Israel settled into life in their new land, in loose, tribal confederations. Most folks were farmers. City life wasn’t yet the thing. And there wasn’t a lot of government or oversight. And when there is not a lot of government there is a lot of freedom and sometimes a lot of chaos, because everyone does what he sees as right in his own eyes.
The people of Canaan, some of whom were left to stick around after Joshua’s conquest-machine rolled through, kept being a bother to the people of Israel.
One such local bully by the name of Eglon would demand money from the Israelites living nearby him in exchange for his not beating them up. It was kind of a shakedown. Well, one Israelite had had enough. His name was Ehud. Great name, eh? Ehud had a plan. Ehud took his payment to Eglon to pay him off, but he also snuck in a knife, hid under his clothes. When Eglon’s thugs frisked Ehud for weapons they missed the knife. They must have done a sloppy job. So Ehud carried in the cash and then said to Eglon, “Oh, also…I have a secret message for you.” Eglon loved secret messages. He was that kind of a guy. So, Eglon sent out of the room all of his pals and thugs so that they couldn’t hear the secret. Then Ehud pulled his knife out from under his clothes. Here’s your message he said, as he stuck the knife into Eglon’s belly. Now Eglon was a great, big, huge, incredibly fat and obese fellow, so that when the knife went in it just kept going in. Eglon’s fat belly just swallowed the knife, blade, handle and all. Ehud let go and barely got his hand out of there before he got sucked into that big gut too. Eglon fell on the floor dead. Now for Ehud to make his escape. The guards, of course, were waiting just outside the doors. So Ehud leapt out the window and bolted down the road. Meanwhile, inside, the witless guards thought that this secret was taking a long time. They started to get suspicious and worried until they took a deep smell and smelt something foul. What they suspected is that Eglon was going to the bathroom and that they must be out of air-freshener. So they waited and waited. Sometimes really obese people take longer on the pot. Finally, it got to the point of being ridiculous, so that guards broke down the door that had been locked, and there lay Eglon, dead on the floor. Oops. And they had waited so long that they had given Ehud plenty of time to get a head start and get away. So much for local bullies. They are always prone to assassinations.
Another famous judge was Deborah, the rare female leader. Deborah directed a fellow named Barak to lead his people’s forces to overthrow another local bully, whose armies were led by a fellow named Sisera. Now Barak wasn’t too keen on going into battle without Deborah, so high was his respect for her. But Deborah said, “It’s not really a woman’s place to lead armies into a fight. And because you can’t be more brave the credit for this victory will go to a woman. I guess Barak was okay with that. So the forces of Israel met Sisera’s men on the field of battle and routed them. And Sisera fled. Looking for a place to hide he knocked on the door of a woman named Jael, whose husband wasn’t at home. “Hide me,” he cried. So Jael agreed. She gave him a little warm milk since he was so thirsty from his running away. Then she laid a blanket over him and urged him to get a little sleep. When Sisera started snoring, Jael took a hammer and a big tent peg and drove it through his head, ending Sisera’s life. Those were violent times.
Another judge, maybe the most famous one, was Samson. Samson was the strongest man around–like a super-hero. His parents had been told that they should never cut his hair. Samson grew up to be a bit of a bully himself. He took his great strength for granted and used it mostly for personal gain. One day a group of fed up Philistines (neighbors of theirs) got a girl whom Samson had a crush on to try to trick him into giving away the secret to his great strength. Samson tried to put her off for as long as he could, but she kept whining and complaining that he didn’t really love and respect her, and that if he did he would tell her the truth. Finally the big fella caved in and said, as he supposed to be the case, that his strength was related to his long locks of hair. “I’ll fix that,” the woman Delilah, said to herself. So, while Samson was sleeping she gave him a haircut. When he awoke he was weak as a kitten. The Philistines then pounced upon Samson and blinded him, chained him up and made him work and dance. Samson was humiliated. But his hair began to grow back. One day the Philistines, looking for a little light entertainment to go with their party, brought Samson out of prison to do a little dance. “Let me lean upon the pillars of this house,” the blind man requested. And then, to everyone’s surprise he gave a great push and toppled those pillars. The roof caved in killing everyone, Samson included.
The book of Judges is filled with lots of other good short-stories as well. They are wild and wooly and all boil down to basically the same point: that people’s sense of right and wrong had gotten all muddled up. And because this was so the fortunes of the people were just as crazy and up and down. The people’s lack of self-discipline left them wanting some sort of arrangement and order to keep them in line. That’s when they began to think about the idea of having a king.
One of the appendices to the catechism is the Table of Duties. In this little addition there is delineated a list of duties and responsibilities that are proper to people in their various relationships and stations in life. This listing is a concise condensation of the idea of vocation; that is–the notion that we must know our responsibilities on the basis of specific roles into which we have been placed. Not everything is–one-size-fits-all. While the Ten Commandments neatly and briefly summarizes in general the duties proper to all people everywhere, the Table of Duties, in more detail, teaches us that a father’s duties toward his children, for example, are not identical to a child’s duties towards her parents. Likewise, what a civic leader owes his subjects or his constituents is not the same as what those citizens owe to their leaders. We are to think of ourselves and our duties from the perspective of our places and stations in life. Of course, all of this falls apart when everyone does what is right in his own eyes. The other part of the catechism that captures this call to good order and arrangement in social living is the fourth commandment. Honoring our fathers and mothers; and by extension, all authorities; means that we have to think about our placement within society and exercise good, self-discipline on our own part for the good of ourselves and for all. Just doing whatever you want to is a recipe for disaster that quickly unravels.