After Joshua died there was no central leadership; in fact, no leader emerged at all. The book of Judges details the lives of several judges (mainly men) whom the Lord raised up to deliver his people from oppression. These judges are not legal judges (with the possible exception of Deborah) but military leaders.
Judges 1-2 serves as an introduction to the whole book. Individual judges themselves do not appear until chapter 3. Thus, the main themes in Judges 1-2 are the command of the Lord to drive out the inhabitants of the land; the presence and power of the Lord to do this; and the question of the obedience and disobedience of the Israelites.
It is very clear early in chapter 1 that Israel as a whole was not obedient to the Lord's command. While Judah obeyed the Lord and drove out the inhabitants of the land that they faced, the rest of the tribes were disobedient. Judah was initially successful (1:1-19) because the Lord was with Judah (v. 19). The exception to this is that Judah was not able to drive out the inhabitants of the plain because of their iron chariots, though they did drive out the inhabitants of the hill country.
Whether or not the inhabitants of the land (especially the Canaanites) were driven out is the main focus of chapter 1. The formula “[a tribe] did not drive out the inhabitants of [a city/territory]” is repeated seven times in verses 27-33 (pertaining to the northern tribes) and two other times pertaining to the southern tribes (1:19, 21). In these two incidents, Benjamin deliberately did not drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem, while Judah was not able to drive out the inhabitants of the plain. Judah's inability to drive out the inhabitants of the plain does not seem to be in the same category of the rest who refused to drive out the inhabitants of the land. This is seen by noting the change in language from “could not” (Judah) to “did not” (the other tribes).
This change in sequence is important. The first time inhabitants were not driven out, it is because Judah “could not” drive out them out (19). Judgment was not passed on this nor does it appear to be seen as a failure, as in the very same verse the presence of the Lord is said to be with Judah. However, after this incident, each time the phrase appears it is because different tribes “did not” drive them out. It became a choice on their part to obey or disobey, and they chose disobedience.
The reasons why Judah was initially successful are clear: they received divine direction (1-2a) and divine assurance (2b), and they experienced the divine power (4) and presence (19a). The northern tribes failed because they did not obey when they refused to drive out the inhabitants (see 2:1-5 and the sevenfold refusal to drive out inhabitants).
Further, the northern tribes subjected some of the inhabitants of the land to forced labor, in essence becoming the very thing they escaped when they were delivered from Egypt (1:28, 30, 35). The forced labor is a sign of success within disobedience. They were strong enough to fulfill the Lord's command and could have driven out the inhabitants (and had access to his presence and power to do so) but did not do so. This represents a “pragmatic success and spiritual failure” (Davis).
The failure of the northern tribes is seen progressively as a downward spiral:
1:22-26 initial success
1:27-30 incomplete conquest
1:31-33 incomplete conquest
1:34-36 conquest in reverse (Dan is driven out and up into the hills)
The initial success was immediately compromised by the refusal to drive out all the inhabitants and led to Dan's complete failure. From the text, Dan appears to have made some progress into the plain area but then was “pressed” back into the hill country.
Because of the refusal to drive out the inhabitants of the land, the Lord refused to drive out the rest of the people and declared that they would be thorns in the sides of the Israelites (2:1-5). They disobeyed God's voice, and yet, they appeared to repent at the word of the Lord; they wept and offered sacrifices.
There is a theological sequence in this section that revolves around covenant stipulations as described by the Lord. The speech by the angel of the Lord in 2:1-5 points out what God has done for the Israelites and what God expected from them:
God's actions on their behalf
I brought you up from Egypt (1)
I brought you into the land that I swore to give to your fathers (1)
I told you (I said) I will never break my covenant with you (1)
I will never break my covenant with you (1)
God's expectations of the Israelites
You shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of the land (2)
You shall break down their altars (2)
The Israelites' action within this covenant
BUT ... you have not obeyed my voice (2)
It was their disobedience that caused God to state that he would not drive out the inhabitants from them. Because these inhabitants remained, they would be thorns in the sides of the Israelites and their gods would be snares to them. When the people heard this, they wept and offered sacrifice.
They repented, but then what? Nothing. They were held together by Joshua's leadership but after Joshua died, they lost an entire generation. Did they really repent? The text doesn't indicate for sure, but it's likely that their “repentance” was sorrow over what they heard the Lord saying to them and not a commitment to fulfill his command, for they never did fulfill the command to drive out all the inhabitants.
Later, we discover another reason that the Lord left these nations in the land: to test Israel, to see if they would follow him...or them (2:20-23). This is a prophetic statement that foreshadows, sadly, what is to come in Judges.
All of this serves as an introduction to what is going to happen in Judges. After Joshua's death, a generation rose up who did not know the Lord or what the Lord had done for Israel (2:6-10). The phrase “did not know the Lord” probably means that they did not respect or fear the Lord. This lack of respect and fear, despite the covenant mentioned in 2:1-5, led to a cycle of sin and deliverance, seen over and over in Judges, as they followed gods of the people around them, the very people that they did not drive out (2:12).
The pattern of sin and deliverance in chapter 2 becomes a cycle that is a template for the stories of the judges. Most descriptions of the judges fit into this template:
1. The Israelites do evil (2:11-13).
2. The Lord's anger is kindled and he gives them over to enemies (2:14-15).
3. The people cry out while under oppression (implied in 2:18).
4. The Lord raises Judges who save the people (2:16).
5. After some prosperity and peace, the people revert to sin after the judge dies (2:16-17, 19).
Despite the tension in this cycle, there is still a note of grace. This is the way it is with God. Amidst their evil and God's anger, God gives grace by sending a judge. His people are delivered completely apart from their own effort and ability, as God raises up a judge on their behalf who delivers them for his sake.
I see a few points emerging from this.
First, we have a strong need to ensure faith from generation to generation. Whatever the Israelites were doing, it did not work. Faith departed with Joshua. We cannot rely on one strong leader to hold everything together. Each of us needs to take stock of our faith and spiritual development and look out for the faith of others.
Israel responded each time a judge was raised. They remembered the Lord enough to call out to him when they were oppressed. But after a judge died, they turned away from God. Our discipleship needs to be different than this. We should be inward focused, through prayer, Bible reading, and repentance, and outward focused in serving others.
This can be done in a number of ways. Why not pull others into your Bible reading? You can do this very easily at home with your family by reading from the Bible and praying together. You could meet with a couple of friends after work at a coffee shop for Bible reading and prayer. You could begin teaching a Bible class in your church.
My point is this: Find a way to take ownership of your own faith development and then serve others by helping and equipping them to do the same, first with themselves, and then with others.
Second, we have a need to follow the Lord completely. Do not leave remnants of impurity in your life to be a thorn in your side (2:3). We are often undone by the things we permit that result in a slow slide away from God. By reading Joshua and Judges together, it appears that the conquest of Canaan was largely successful. The Israelites moved in and ran many of the previous inhabitants of the land out. But when they went back to settle everything, they did not completely drive them out, against the Lord's command to do so. The Lord was very clear that this failure not only broke their covenant with him, but also resulted in a “thorn” that would be in their side (2:1-5). This became a test, to see whether the people would follow the Lord, or follow the false gods of the people around them that were not driven out (2:20-23). Sadly, they failed the test.
We do not need to fail the test. We don't have to follow in their footsteps. But avoiding their fate means we must reflect on how we have been unfaithful to the Lord in not driving out all the sin in our lives. Although God promises to help us grow in our faith development (Phil. 2:12-13; Jude 21, 24), we have a responsibility to actively drive out sin from our lives. Do not allow any to be left behind as a temptation or test.
Third, never forget the grace of God. Judges is a book of sin. But it is also a book of redemption and grace. Despite the ongoing cycle of sin that the Israelites fell into, and despite the fact that each time included a rejection of God, God still saved his people. Despite the fact that they broke their covenant with God, God still redeemed them. For those who are willing to repent and cry out to God, God will always answer with his grace. He expects us to grow up, for sure. But his grace is abundant, and his mercy is overflowing.
The judges themselves are signs of grace. They were raised up as unlikely heroes. They did not emerge until a time of sin and oppression and they did not emerge by their own power but by God's call as he raised them up. Many of them were very flawed, just like the Israelites. But in God's deliverance of his people through them, the judges anticipate another hero. Not a hero who is not flawed and sinful, but a true hero, one who is obedient to God and who delivers his people once for all, solving the problems of sin and loyalty and deliverance. This true hero is Jesus. In the end, Judges is all about him.