1 Now the angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim. And he said, “I brought you up from Egypt and brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers. I said, ‘I will never break my covenant with you, 2 and you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall break down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. What is this you have done? 3 So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” 4 As soon as the angel of the LORD spoke these words to all the people of Israel, the people lifted up their voices and wept. 5 And they called the name of that place Bochim. And they sacrificed there to the LORD.
The Death of Joshua
6 When Joshua dismissed the people, the people of Israel went each to his inheritance to take possession of the land. 7 And the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the LORD had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel.
11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 12 And they abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They abandoned the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth. 14 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. 15 Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them for harm, as the LORD had warned, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress.
The Lord Raises Up Judges
16 Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. 20 So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he said, “Because this people have transgressed my covenant that I commanded their fathers and have not obeyed my voice, 21 I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died, 22 in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the LORD as their fathers did, or not.” 23 So the LORD left those nations, not driving them out quickly, and he did not give them into the hand of Joshua.
After forty years of wandering in the desert, Moses died and God raised up Joshua as his successor. Joshua was a strong and courageous leader, and he led God’s people into the Promised Land. The book of Judges takes up the story of God’s people after they had conquered the land of Canaan.
In an article published in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Redefining God,” reporter Lisa Miller addressed the phenomenon of personalized definitions of God:
Across the country, the faithful are redefining God. Dissatisfied with conventional images of an authoritarian or paternalistic deity, people are embracing quirky, individualistic conceptions of God to suit their own spiritual needs…
They are cobbling together a spiritual life from a variety of religious influences, along with a dash of yoga and psychotherapy or whatever else moves them.
“People seek out these new gods the way they seek out new products in the marketplace,” says Randall Styers, assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. “It’s the ultimate form of individualism.”
Miller then gave an example from America’s heartland.
Take Ken Zweygardt, a 43-year-old lawyer in Oskaloosa, Kansas. Growing up in a strict, Lutheran household, he says he used to imagine God as a “Santa Claus type,” a provider and a judge. But as he matured, Mr. Zweygardt became frustrated with the church, and started waking early Sunday mornings to go fishing instead.
Today, for him, God is being alone “on a lake, seeing the fog lift up at sunrise and hearing the water bell.” When he teaches his children, now two and three years old, about God, “I plan to take them outside and say, ‘Here it is.’”1
This Wall Street Journal article brings the book of Judges out of the mists of ancient history and right into the twenty-first century.
A Generation Who Did Not Know the Lord
After the generation that had conquered the land of Canaan died, there arose another generation “who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). This is one of the saddest verses in the Bible, and it sets the scene for the book of Judges, which tells us what happens when a generation grows up not knowing God.
How could this have happened in one generation? Perhaps it was simply that the parents were busy in a prosperous land. These people had seen God do wonderful things in their own lives, but they clearly neglected the systematic teaching of their children. And within one generation the knowledge of God was lost.
So here in Judges we have a generation that was born in prosperity, fascinated with the search for spiritual meaning, but not knowing the Lord or what He has done.
This crisis in Israel reminds us of our priorities. We are to teach our children who God is and what He has done. These are the essentials, and without this knowledge faith is impossible.
As the apostle Paul puts it, “How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” (Romans 10:14). Knowing who God is and what He has done must be the core of our curriculum. When our children know this, then they will be in a position to make a meaningful response of faith and obedience.
It only took one generation for the knowledge of God to be lost. But what can be lost in one generation can be restored in another.
Going Around in Circles
The book of Judges records a cycle of events that was repeated many times over a period of several hundred years.
First, people forsook or abandoned the Lord and turned to idols: “The people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. And they abandoned the LORD… They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them” (Judges 2:11–12).
Second, God became angry and gave His people into the hands of their enemies: “They provoked the LORD to anger… So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them” (2:12–14).
Third, the people cried to God for help, and God raised up a military leader, or “judge,” to deliver them: “Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them” (2:16).
Fourth, when the judge died, the people returned to their previous ways and the whole cycle started over again. God’s people were going around in circles—idolatry, judgment, crying out to God, deliverance, and then back to idolatry again (2:18–19).
The Attraction of Idols
As you read through the Old Testament, you will keep coming across the theme of idolatry. It may seem rather remote, but the fact that it comes up so often shows that it is important.
The article in the Wall Street Journal provides a helpful definition of idolatry: “[People] are redefining God… [They] are embracing quirky, individualistic conceptions of God to suit their own spiritual needs.”
Idolatry is powerfully attractive because it puts you in a position of control. Suppose you invent a fictional character and call him “Wayne Ford,” a sort of mixture of John Wayne and Harrison Ford. You decide that Wayne will be a pioneer, and you sit down at the computer and begin to write about him. Wayne is rugged and muscular. He has a black mustache… No, wait! You press the delete key. He has a brown mustache.
You describe Wayne’s encounter with a bear in the Rocky Mountains. But then you need a bit of romance in the story, so you give Wayne a sensitive side. Underneath that rough exterior, all his life Wayne has been looking for true love.
As you build the story, you are absolutely in control. Wayne is under your power. You can make him whoever you want him to be, and he will do whatever you want him to do. This is the attraction of idolatry. Instead of worshiping the living God, many people prefer to create a god that suits their own spiritual needs.
Inventing a character is all very well in writing a novel, but try doing this with a real person and you will find yourself in court for libel or defamation of character! Idolatry is powerfully attractive, but it is also deeply offensive.
God responds to our idolatry by saying, “I am who I am. You cannot redefine Me, and if you try to, I will take away My protection and deliver you into the hands of your enemies.” If we pursue idols, God will allow us to live with the consequences of our own choices. But thank God that is not the end of the story.
The God Who Delivers
Idols may be attractive because we are the ones who shape them, but they are powerless because they are nothing more than projections of our own imagination. So when God’s people were overrun by their enemies, they turned back to God and called out to Him for help. God raised up judges. The Spirit of the Lord came upon Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Barak, Gideon, and Samson, enabling them to deliver God’s people.
In the conclusion to her article in the Wall Street Journal, Lisa Miller wrote: “These are relatively peaceful and prosperous times. So even as many Americans search for deeper connections with God, they aren’t facing the kinds of crises that often prompt people to seek protection or salvation from above… Tough times or sudden hardships could change all this in a hurry… no matter how broad or far flung people’s conceptions of God, they revert to God the Father when the going gets tough.”2
That is very perceptive. It’s exactly what we learn in the book of Judges. When the going gets tough, the question becomes very simple: “Is there a God who is able to help you?” When that is the question, the idols are no longer attractive. They may be convenient because they don’t make moral demands. But when you are in a crisis, how will it help you to call on a figment of your own imagination?
As you read through the book of Judges, it is clear that while these military leaders achieved remarkable things, they also had significant limitations.
Most of them were seriously lacking in character. Ehud seems like a cowardly assassin (Judges 3:12–23). Gideon was so lacking in faith that he needed multiple confirmations of what God was telling him to do (6:36–40). Jephthah made a disastrous choice that involved sacrificing his daughter (11:30–40). Samson’s moral failures are legendary (Judges 14–16). There is no one in this book that you can truly admire.
Reading through the book of Judges will leave you thinking, We need a better deliverer, and Jesus is the deliverer we need. The contrast between Jesus and the judges is striking. The judges made their mark by taking the lives of others; Jesus came to give his life for us. The judges addressed the external circumstances of God’s people; Jesus focused on the heart. The achievements of the judges were short lived; the deliverance Jesus brings lasts forever.
Defining God as you would like Him to be will only lead to your life going around in circles, just like the book of Judges. Jesus came to break that cycle. He is the great deliverer, and He is able to save you from a futile journey in which you never make progress, by bringing you to know who God is and what He has done.
Idolatry is redefining God. Across the centuries people have repeatedly chosen to invent their own gods rather than bow before the living God. The gods we create are attractive because we can control them, but they only exist in our minds and are powerless to deliver us from sin, death, and hell. Only God can deliver us, and this is why He sent His Son into the world.
1. Lisa Miller, “Redefining God,” Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2000.
2. Miller, “Redefining God.”
- What is idolatry?
- Why is idolatry/redefining God attractive to some people?
- How does God respond to idolatry?
- When do idols tend to lose their appeal?
- Why is Jesus better than any idol?