If the Book of Judges is an accurate guide, the ancient Israelites can perhaps best be compared to a herd of sheep: without a shepherd, without a strong guide, they flounder and, inevitably it seems, end up breaking covenants and worshipping the wrong deity.
If, thus far in the Old Testament, we didn’t already understand this well enough, the Book of Judges is quick to remind us: after the death of Joshua, God’s chosen people are having problems.
In earlier posts, I blogged about how the Book of Judges was not in fact about “judges,” but rather about “chiefs,” ad hoc leaders of the Israelites who, before a proper kingship was established, led the people. So after one of them, Joshua (not identified as a “judge” per se, but practically speaking, he was a charismatic ad hoc leader) dies,
that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel (Josh. 2:10).
The resulting dearth of the faithful has some deleterious consequences:
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; 12 and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger (Josh. 2:11-12).
We should note two things about this: first, we must be reminded again that Israel still had a long way to go before it became truly monotheistic. This is yet another example of “monolatry,” which, as I wrote before, is “the worship of a single god–but not the holding that no other Gods exist beside the one you worship.” Should this make us think twice about the Old Testament’s divine inspiration? Maybe.
And second, we should probably begin to doubt how obvious many of these so-called miracles were that were happening right in front of the Israelites. Just as, ostensibly after seeing seas part in front of them, Moses’ people abandoned faith in YHWH, here a good chunk of the first chapter of the Book of Judges details how God has delivered the Israelites through many travails. Then, apparently, without some smooth-talking dude to remind them to be respectful to the God who saved their asses repeatedly, they turn to Baal. Does this make any sense?
It does, at least, if we consider monolatry: they just didn’t believe in YHWH alone; he was one of many possible deities. Not for many years would the Israelites become monotheistic. It also makes sense if we consider that it’s likely the “miracles” or acts of God were often exaggerated, or, in fact, later additions to the text.
And while the “judges” helped, even when God brings and inspires them to help, the people, apparently, still don’t listen:
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example (Judg. 2:16-17).*
Chapter 2 ends with an etiological explanation for some events, which mirrors the beginning of the chapter (how Bochim got its name). It also recalls the theme of the people’s rejection of important leaders, which would of course be later used by Christians after the execution of Jesus.
But most of all, this chapter brings home an important point: the people of the Book of Judges are wildly inconsistent, prone to disobeying leaders and disobeying God’s laws—even with their divinely-inspired leaders. The author of the book chalks this up to their insufficient faith in God. Reading between the lines, it is really because they are insufficiently monotheistic. It is a pattern repeated throughout the Old Testament.
*Actually it seems like the disobedience of the people here is exactly what their ancestors did in Exodus 32.