Let's admit it: geography has fallen on hard times. Our local paper recently carried a blurb about a convention of geography teachers and buffs. At the convention they bemoaned widespread geographical illiteracy and the minimal attention geography receives in the educational schema. Geography was in the pits. And the newspaper proved it, for whoever supplied the headline for the story had written 'Geology Courses Get Low Grade.' Geography is so low that when editors read the word – repeatedly – it just doesn't register!
A year or so ago I found in my father's study a scrapbook he had begun. It was an old elementary-school geography book in which he had taped and pasted family mementos. That's what old geography books are for – to keep you from having to invest in a proper scrapbook. Not that I can blame newspaper editors or my father. I myself can remember only one item about fourth-grade geography – we studied about Baghdad. And I can only remember one thing about that – I was not interested in Baghdad.
Now I should guess a reader's reaction to Judges 1 is much the same. Such a catalog of Palestinian places. Readers wonder: 'What have I hit upon? An ancient geography book? I'm not interested in geography. I'd better meditate in the Gospel of John today!' Don't turn that page. The living God has a word for you from this conglomeration of locations and squiggly trails. There is vital teaching here. We'll get right to it as soon as we deal with several preliminaries.
First, remember that Judges 1 deals with a second movement of the conquest of Canaan. The Book of Joshua, especially in chapters 1-12, tells of 'taking' the land, breaking the back of Canaanite resistance in something of a blitzkrieg style. Judges 1 emphasizes the process of 'possessing' the land in which separate tribes or tribal groups were to follow up the previous conquest and nail down and settle their assigned territories. I am not going to substantiate this matter, because I have already done so in Joshua: No Falling Words (pp. 88-90, 99-100, 110-11, 133-35, 142-43).
Second, for many readers Judges 1 raises once more the so-called moral problem of the conquest. How horrid that Israel butcher innocent Canaanites, wreak havoc and misery, grab their land – and all, allegedly, at Yahweh's command! If only the Canaanites could know how much emotional support they receive from modern western readers. And the conquest was frightful. But people who bemoan the fate of the poor Canaanites don't view the conquest from the Bible's own perspective. They forget one vital fact: the Canaanites were not innocent. Moses was emphatic about that; he humbled the Israelites by insisting that Yahweh was not giving them Canaan because they were such godly folks but because the Canaanites were so grossly wicked (Deut. 9:4-6). If you want all the gory details, see Leviticus 18:6-30 and Deuteronomy 18:9-14. These texts show that the conquest was an act of justice, Yahweh's justice. Israel was the instrument of his just judgment upon a corrupt and perverted people. The Bible, of course, does not claim the conquest will be palatable; but it does insist it was just. Anyway, contemporary western church members who vicariously and avidly gorge themselves on violence via television and cinema have forfeited any right to throw the first stone at the biblical conquest.
Third, let us set forth the structure of 1:1-2:5 so that we can see at a glance how this material develops and holds together, for, contrary to appearances, this section is not simply a pile of stuff but a carefully organized pile of stuff:
Yahweh's guidance and assurance, 1:1b-2
Success of Judah, 1:3-21
Joint tribal effort, 1:3-7 (Bezek)
Assault on Jerusalem, 1:8
Against the Canaanites, 1:9-18
Hill country, 1:10-15
Coastal area, 1:18
Summary, 1:19-21 (Yahweh's presence, 19a)
Failure of the north, 1:22-36
Initial success, 1:22-26
Joint tribal effort
(Bethel) (Yahweh's presence, 22)
Canaanites among Israel, 1:27-30 (Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun)
Israel among Canaanites, 1:31-33 (Asher, Naphtali)
Conquest in reverse, 1:34-36 (Dan)
Yahweh's accusation and threat, 2:1-5
Review of covenant of grace, 2:1
'I brought you up...'
'I brought you in...'
'I told you...'
Statement of covenant stipulation, 2:2a
Accusation of covenant transgression, 2:2b
Announcement of covenant judgment, 2:3 Response of the people, 2:4-5
Several observations about this structure: (1) The opening section of 'Yahweh's guidance and assurance' (1:1b-2) forms a contrast with 'Yahweh's accusation and threat' (2:1-5) at the close. (2) The two major sections of chapter 1 likewise stand in sharp contrast: the 'success of Judah' (vv. 3-21) finds its antithesis in the 'failure of the north' (vv. 22-36). (3) The 'failure of the north' (vv. 22-36) follows a step-by-step declension intended to depict the steadily downward direction of northern tribal fortunes. (4) In the material about Judah, verse 9 seems to hold the structural clue for verses 10-18, for it specifies the three areas of combat (the hill country, the Negev, and the Shephelah) to which the following record conforms (vv. 10-15, hill country; vv. 16-17, Negev; v. 18, Shephelah and beyond).
An additional observation is not apparent from the preceding outline: the writer uses a form of the verb ʿalah (to go up) to open each of the major divisions of 1:1-2:5 (see 1:4, 22; 2:1; note also that 'alah is used in 1:1, 2, 3 as well).
Let us now seek to hear the witness of these opening sections.
First, observe how we meet a picture of divine adequacy in 1:1-21. Israel and/or Judah receives divine direction (vv. 1-2a) and divine assurance (v. 2b) and experiences the divine power (v. 4) and presence (v. 19a). It is in light of all this that readers are to view the 'success of Judah': their victories at Bezek (vv. 4-7), Jerusalem (v. 8), Hebron (v. 10), Debir (vv. 11-15), Zephath/Hormah (v. 17), and the towns on the coastal plain (vv. 18-19).
We must ask then in what circumstances this divine adequacy shows itself. It shows itself in historical crisis. Don't pass by the opening clause of the book, which may be translated, 'Here's what happened after the death of Joshua' (1:1a). I take this as a general title for the book. Probably not everything reported in chapter 1 occurred after Joshua's death (cf. vv. 10-15 with Josh. 15:13-19). But, generally, 1:1a provides the backdrop against which we are to view chapter 1 and the whole book.
Have you ever noticed how new beginnings are punctuated by the earthly end of God's servants?
Exodus begins with the death of Joseph.
Joshua begins with the death of Moses.
Judges begins with the death of Joshua.
1 Kings begins with the death of David.
And yet for all that, God's kingdom does not collapse, not even when Sheol takes God's most useful servants. The kingdom of God continues though the servants of God die. That is the witness of Judges 1. Joshua died, but 'Yahweh said, 'I have given the land into Judah's hand'' (v. 2). Joshua died, but 'Yahweh gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand' (v. 4). Joshua died, yet 'Yahweh was with Judah so that he possessed the hill country' (v. 19). The point should not be lost on contemporary Christians. Your help is in the name of the Lord, not in the name of your favorite Christian hero. Even when the Lord himself 'went away,' it proved a boon for his church (John 16:7).
But the divine adequacy also appears as God's people operate in corporate unity. 'Judah said to Simeon his brother, 'Go up with me into my portion and let us fight against the Canaanites, and I too shall go with you into your portion'; so Simeon went with him' (1:3). 'Then Judah went with Simeon his brother and they attacked the Canaanites who live in Zephath' (1:17). When 'the sons of Joseph' – presumably Ephraim and Manasseh acting in concert – accost Bethel, 'Yahweh was with them' (1:22) and gave success. Each time Israel acted in some sort of tribal unity Yahweh granted victory.
We can easily think 'so what?' about these observations. Probably, however, we shouldn't, for the unity of Israel seems to be one of the author's primary concerns. He makes his point by his fragmentation-of-Israel theme; throughout the book he depicts Israel's unity as progressively deteriorating – and with it Israel's fortunes. We need not trace this theme in detail here. We simply note it in order to argue that the notes about tribal unity and cooperation in chapter 1 are not sentimental little ditties for our author. He regards them as significant – as Yahweh's people assist one another they receive Yahweh's help.
One does not torture this text by applying it to the body of Christ at large or to any group of worshiping believers. The Lord's people thrive on mutual assistance; God has given us one another as channels of his help and strength. Indeed, the apostle prayed 'that you, having your roots and foundation in love, might have the strength to grasp together with all the saints how wide and long and high and deep Christ's love is' (Eph. 3:17-18, italics added). Getting a grip on the staggering limitlessness of Christ's love for us is not something the believer does in blissful isolation. It can only be done/attempted 'together with all the saints'! The unity and fellowship of God's people is not a wimpy idea weaker Christians dote on. It is an essential condition for experiencing the strength of our God.
One of the unique marks of this chapter is the inclusion of interesting little episodes related to the tribal conflicts and settlement. This leads me to suggest that when Yahweh shows how adequate he is, he does so in fascinating detail.
Could we interview Adoni-bezek he likely would testify that Israel's God acts in justice (1:4-7). Yahweh granted Judah victory at Bezek. Adoni-bezek fled but was captured and mutilated. Judah's troops cut off his thumbs and big toes, which, at the very least, would force his early retirement from military service, not to mention life (v. 7b). What can Adoni-bezek be but philosophical? 'Seventy kings,' so he claims, 'with their thumbs and big toes cut off have been picking up food under my table; as I have done, so God has paid me back' (v. 7).
A second vignette contains a touch of romance. Othniel thought attacking Bookville (Kiryath Sepher/Debir) worth the risk if it meant winning Achsah, Caleb's daughter. Achsah urged Othniel to ask for some additional cultivatable land from Caleb. Who knows whether Othniel did so? But at least Achsah was sharp enough to know they would need guaranteed water rights for such land, and she pressed her father to grant that (v. 15).
The third little incident (1:22-26) breathes intrigue. The Joseph tribes persuade a resident of Bethel/Luz to show them the entrance to the city, which was obviously not the city gate but likely a secret, hidden entrance to the fortified area. It proved a splendid way to surprise and conquer a town.
Granted, you may not get excited over what happened at Bezek, Bookville, and Bethel. You may not be greatly interested in Adoni-bezek's toes or Achsah's springs or Bethel's camouflaged entrance. But I think such anecdotes of justice, romance, and intrigue are fascinating. And the testimony of the text is that 'Yahweh gave' Israel's enemies into their hands (v. 4) and that 'Yahweh was with them' (v. 22). And that is typical of the God of the Bible. When he shows how adequate he is, he usually gives us some stories to tell. God seldom gives his people up to monotony but leaves them vivid episodes to remember.
Secondly, we are taught a lesson in theological geography in 1:22-36. Please look back at the outline of the structure set out earlier in this chapter and note again the section called 'the failure of the north' (1:22-36). These verses show a progressive failure of the northern tribes to possess their territories. After an initial success by the Joseph tribes, tribal efforts wane until, with the Danites, the conquest hits a reverse flow. The section has been put together very carefully.
Naturally, western readers are apt to regard this incessant listing of places with impatience. Some will wonder if the pen of inspiration wasn't picked up by a frustrated cartographer. No – by a preacher. And the preacher keeps pounding home his message: such-and-such a tribe 'did not drive out' (or: dispossess, a form of the verb yarash). Seven times he accuses in this way (vv. 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33). What we have here is not geographical tedium but theological accusation, that is, theological geography.
Without doubt there were pragmatic reasons why Israel needed absolute control over many of these sites. Somewhere along the time line they would likely see the strategic folly of failing to possess Beth-shan (v. 27), a massive site guarding the juncture of the Jordan and Jezreel valleys, through which 'passed the main arteries of the ancient world.' They would live to regret the failure to dominate Taanach, Ibleam, and Megiddo (v. 27), crucial fortresses along the Plain of Esdraelon. Maybe they could have prevented cocky Sisera (chs. 4-5) from strutting all over Israel. We could also point out how strategic Gezer (v. 29) was; but no more of this, for we are getting away from our author's concern.
The motivation for driving out Canaanites was not pragmatic but spiritual. Yahweh had warned through Moses: 'Do not let those people live in your country; if you do, they will make you sin against me. If you worship their gods, it will be a fatal trap for you' (Exod. 23:33 TEV). Remaining Canaanites would not be so much a military threat as a spiritual cancer (see Exod. 23:23-33; 34:11-16; Deut. 7:1-5). That's why Israel was to eliminate the Canaanites and other '-ites.' That's why Israel was to wreck and demolish all their worship centers (every Saint-Baal-on-the-Hill Shrine and Our Lady of Harvest Chapel). To be sure, Yahweh would make them able to do this in a somewhat gradual manner (Exod. 23:29-30). But it was to be done. If Canaan's native populations tolerated, it will lead Israel willy-nilly to intermarriage with them – and you can kiss covenant faith good-bye (Exod. 34:15-16; Deut. 7:3-4). Grandkids will know Yahweh as an also-ran fertility god. So our writer's '(they) did not dispossess' rings with spiritual emergency. It is the preacher's accusation of God's people for covenant failure. They are like a surgeon who removes only part of the cancer because even cancer has a right to grow and find fulfillment. Tolerance and suicide are congenial bed-fellows.
Though our writer repeatedly accuses Israel of covenant failure (she 'did not dispossess'), he nevertheless describes her military success. This point is frequently missed. Four times he tells us that the Canaanites or Amorites became subject to 'forced labor' (vv. 28, 30, 33, 35). What does this mean? It means that if once Israel's tribes were not strong enough to expel the local residents (cf. vv. 19, 27), the time came 'when Israel grew strong' (v. 28) and could dominate the Canaanite population. But instead of expelling, instead of driving out these enclaves – which, according to the biblical text, Israel was now perfectly able to do – she put them to forced labor, in violation of Yahweh's commands. The picture Judges 1 gives us is of an Israel in substantial control of Canaan, a people clearly successful though certainly disobedient. Pragmatic success and spiritual failure – a strange but possible combination. So Israel is dominant if not obedient; she enjoys superiority even if she does not maintain fidelity.
This text carries its admonition for God's people in any age. For one thing, it tells us that it is possible for the believer's life to display the marks of success and yet be a failure in the eyes of God. Christian success (whether personal or in the form of a glossy evangelical enterprise) is not necessarily the same as pleasing God.
The text also underscores the importance of 'small' faithfulness. Certainly nothing is too tragic by the end of chapter 1. Israel has not dispossessed the Canaanites, but does hold them under forced labor. Israel is – to a large degree – in control. Hence her lethargy seems to have been 'minor' disobedience. Precisely here, however, we need to see a larger picture. Hence the following general structure for 1:1-3:6:
The conditions for apostasy develop, 1:1b-36
Sorrow over Yahweh's word, 2:1-5
Transition: The new generation, 2:6-10
The course of apostasy described, 2:11-3:4
Summary and digest, 3:5-6
3:5 summarizes 1:1b-2:5
3:6 summarizes 2:11-3:4
By looking at the two largest blocks of material (1:1b-36 and 2:11-3:4) in this structure, one can readily see how crucial Israel's failure in chapter 1 was. In chapter 1 Israel permitted conditions which brought no instant disaster. The impact of her failure became visible later (2:11-13, 19; 3:5-6). What began as toleration became apostasy. What seemed so reasonable proved lethal. Living with Canaanites led to worshiping with Canaanites. Tolerate Baal's people and sooner or later you bow at Baal's altar. But it seemed like a rather small matter at the time. After all, Sinai didn't smoke when Israel 'did not dispossess' the Canaanites. 'Faithful in little' (cf. Luke 16:10) hardly describes our idea of a glamorous career, but nothing else much matters in the kingdom of God. Let each man examine himself.
Third, the Bokim (or Bochim) episode poses for us a question of genuine repentance (2:1-5). Uncertainties about the text in verse 1b do not obscure the message. In the Angel of Yahweh's speech Yahweh himself addresses Israel, as the repeated 'I' shows. Yahweh accuses Israel of breach of covenant (v. 2b) and announces the discipline and judgment they would endure (v. 3) They have now forfeited the promised help in 1:2, 4. The primary peril, however, will be spiritual (v. 3c).
Note the response. There are tears all over the place. 'The people lifted up their voice and wept' (Hebrew, bakah, v. 4b). The place was even named for their tears – Bokim ('Weepers,' vv. 1, 5). And the tears led to sacrifice (v. 5b). So far so good. It is usually a good sign when God's people can still weep, when we can be moved to tears. Would that it would happen more often! We are either too sophisticated, too refined, too hardhearted, or, what's worse, all of these, to cry over our sins.
Yet the text keeps us hanging. There is no neat closing, no answer to 'What happened then?' So they wept and sacrificed. What did all that produce? The Angel of Yahweh's sermon induces weeping, tears, and profound impressions. Does anything go beyond Israel's tear ducts? Is anything more lasting than water produced here?
While a pastor in Wales, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was accused of encouraging emotionalism. Lloyd-Jones's retort was that 'it is very easy to make a Welshman cry, but it needs an earthquake to make him change his mind!'
Our response to Yahweh's accusing word should be more than wet eyes. It is good to be moved to tears but better to be brought to repentance. God wants to produce 'good grief' in us (cf. 2 Chron. 7:8-11). Yahweh's demand via Joel keeps the perfect balance and needs no hermeneutical doctoring for the church: 'Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning, and tear open your heart, not your garments' (Joel 2:12-13).