Conflict and Crisis: The Judges
The time of the judges was a chaotic period in sacred history. God’s people did evil in the sight of the Lord, the Lord “sold” them into the hands of an oppressor, the people cried out to the Lord, and the Lord raised up a deliverer who brought peace to the land. That is, until the same sad cycle started again.
Deborah, one of Israel’s judges, was remarkable for the confidence that she inspired in the men around her. She and Jael are heroines, while the men needed encouraging because of their timidity and lack of faith. A recurring subtheme in the great controversy is also seen in the story of Gideon, when God’s people face impossible odds.
Samson was one of the last of the judges. After him, the nation descended into anarchy and hopelessness. He was the reluctant hero, one who was more interested in chasing women than in following God, a parallel to his countrymen who were more interested in worshiping idols than in serving the Lord.
Samuel brings hope to the nation. Under him, a new leadership structure with kings was established, and one of his last acts was to anoint the future King David.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, January 23.
The story of Deborah adds interesting details to the great controversy theme. Here we see the people of God suffering oppression and facing impossible odds. This parallels what we observed in Revelation 12, with the incredibly unfair contest between a seven-headed dragon and a newborn baby (see Tuesday’s study in Lesson 1).
The main characters in this story include Jabin, king of Canaan; Sisera, his army chief; and Deborah, a prophetess and a judge (one who settled civil disputes between opposing parties) who had a very unusual degree of authority and influence for a woman of that time.
The heroine of the story is Heber’s wife, Jael, who is not afraid to identify with God’s people and who played a crucial role in the defeat of God’s enemies. Judging her actions from our perspective today isn’t easy. The last thing we should do, though, is use her deeds to justify deception and violence in order to achieve our ends, no matter how right those ends might be.
In the discussions leading up to the conflict, Deborah assures Barak that the battle will be God’s (an echo of the great controversy, for sure). Two verbs are used to describe how God would do this (Judg. 4:7). He will “draw” Sisera (the word suggests catching fish in a net) to the river Kishon, where He will “deliver” him into Barak’s hand. Deborah’s song of thanksgiving (Judges 5) reveals some of the details. Sisera’s chariots become bogged down in the narrow passes near the river Kishon because of heavy rain. The heavens and the clouds “pour” and the mountains “gush” water (Judg. 5:4, 5, NKJV), producing a flash flood that sweeps away many enemy soldiers (Judg. 5:21), and Israel is delivered.
After Deborah, the land enjoyed peace for the next 40 years, but soon Israel was back in the hands of oppressors. This time it was the Midianites, who, with their allies, would enter Israel and destroy all the newly planted crops and steal the livestock (Judg. 6:3–5). Israel became greatly impoverished and cried out to the Lord (Judg. 6:6, 7). They realized that their fashionable gods were of no use now.
Despite Gideon’s complaint, which was unwarranted (they were disobedient; that’s why they were oppressed), God was ready to deliver, again, but this time through Gideon. How interesting that God would call Gideon a “mighty man of valor,” even though Gideon viewed himself as something else entirely: “O my Lord, how can I save Israel? Indeed my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judg. 6:15, NKJV). No question, a crucial component of Gideon’s strength was his own sense of unimportance and weakness.
Notice, too, what Gideon had asked of the Lord, in Judges 6:36–40. That is, aware of the odds against them and his own weakness, he sought for special assurance of God’s presence. Thus, we have here a man who fully realized his utter dependence upon the Lord. We can read in Judges 7 about Gideon’s amazing success against the oppressors of his people and God’s deliverance of Israel.
The battle lines between good and evil are blurred in the story of Samson. His life starts in impressive fashion with an announcement from the “angel of the Lord” that he is to be a Nazarite from birth. The angel instructs Samson’s parents on how to prepare for their special baby. The mother is told not to drink alcohol or to eat forbidden food (Judg. 13:4, 13, 14; see also Leviticus 11). God, indeed, had special plans for Samson; unfortunately, things didn’t work out as well as they could have.
“Just as he was entering upon manhood, the time when he must execute his divine mission—the time above all others when he should have been true to God—Samson connected himself with the enemies of Israel. He did not ask whether he could better glorify God when united with the object of his choice, or whether he was placing himself in a position where he could not fulfill the purpose to be accomplished by his life. To all who seek first to honor Him, God has promised wisdom; but there is no promise to those who are bent upon self-pleasing.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 563.
Samson “moved” against the Philistines in a number of ways, each in angry response to personal slights. First he killed 30 men and took their clothes back to his wedding feast to pay a debt (Judg. 14:19). Then he destroyed their crops when his wife was given to his best man (Judg. 14:20, 15:1–5). Then Samson killed many in revenge for the Philistines killing his wife and her father (Judg. 15:6–8). When the Philistines tried to avenge that action (Judg. 15:9, 10), he killed one thousand with a donkey’s jawbone (Judg. 15:14, 15). Finally he pulled down their temple and killed three thousand for blinding him (Judg. 16:21, 28, 30).
Rather than talking about vast enemy armies that threaten God’s people, the story of Ruth speaks about something smaller: a family almost dying out but, instead, being revived. While it includes two larger themes—God’s creation being destroyed and His people being under threat—Ruth also tells of the great controversy on a personal level, where it is, in reality, always being waged.
It is no surprise that the land of Judah suffered a famine during the time of the judges (Ruth 1:1, Deut. 28:48, 32:24; see also Judg. 17:6, 21:25). This was a sign that the people of the covenant had forsaken God. Sin and rebellion had reduced the land flowing with milk and honey to a barren dust bowl, but in the book of Ruth, God “visited” the land and put life back into it, “giving them bread” again (Ruth 1:6).
When Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their two young sons first went to Moab, they did so because they wanted a future. The land of the enemy gave temporary relief, but with her husband and two sons dead, Naomi finally decided to go back home.
Ruth was from an enemy nation that had on many occasions tried to destroy Israel, but she chose to identify with God’s people and worship their God. In addition, she found favor in the eyes of her adopted homeland, not just by Boaz (Ruth 2:10) but also by the people who knew of her (Ruth 2:11). Boaz was confident that she also found favor in God’s eyes (Ruth 2:12), and taking his admiration for her a step further, he agreed to marry her (Ruth 3:10, 11).
However, there was a closer relative than Boaz who had first claim to the land of the dead man if he married Ruth. The nearer relative was not interested in another wife, however, because it complicated his financial plans (Ruth 4:6). At this point the assembly of witnesses blessed Ruth, likening her to the great women of Israel’s history (Ruth 4:11, 12), which was fulfilled when she became a forebearer of the Messiah (Ruth 4:13, 17; Matt. 1:5, 6).
Talk about a living-happily-ever-after story. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many of those in the Bible. Of course, there are not too many outside of the Bible either. Here, too, though, we can see how, despite the ebb and flow of life, God’s will shall prevail in the end; and that’s good news for all who love and trust Him.
What does the beginning of the book of Samuel have to do with the great controversy? There is no obvious threat to the created order, and there are no vast armies at the border. The attack of evil is more subtle but no less real.
“But although he [Eli] had been appointed to govern the people, he did not rule his own household. Eli was an indulgent father. Loving peace and ease, he did not exercise his authority to correct the evil habits and passions of his children. Rather than contend with them or punish them, he would submit to their will and give them their own way.”—Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 575.
In contrast to them, we see a small boy dressed as a priest (1 Sam. 2:18, 19), who, like Jesus, “grew in stature, and in favor both with the Lord and men” (1 Sam. 2:26, NKJV; Luke 2:52). This Samuel, of course, went on to become a powerful and faithful leader in Israel. “And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord” (1 Sam. 3:20, ESV).
This does not mean, however, that everything went well. The nation faced war with the Philistines, and the two sons of Eli were killed; the Philistines captured the ark of God, and 98-year-old Eli died when he heard the news (1 Sam. 4:14–18).
Unfortunately, Samuel was to face the same problem that Eli did: sons who didn’t follow in his footsteps of faithfulness and fidelity (1 Sam. 8:1–7).
Samuel marked a transition point in the history of God’s people. He was the last of the judges and a key figure in the developing great controversy. His stable influence guided the people at a critical time. It’s a pity his sons did not follow in his steps, but God is not dependent on human dynasties. As a result of their apostasy, the elders demanded a king—not the best move, as centuries of later history would reveal.
Further Thought: The Bible is known for not glossing over human sin, human evil. If it did, how could it accurately portray the state of humanity? An especially sharp depiction of human evil is found in 1 Samuel 2:12–25, when the sons of Eli are presented in contrast to the young Samuel. 1 Samuel 2:12 reads, “The sons of Eli were sons of Belial; they knew not the Lord.” Notice, first, the contrast: lineage played an important role in biblical life, and in this one line “the sons of Eli” are now, instead, “the sons of Belial.” Belial is a rich word, used in a number of forms and contexts, almost always negative. In fact, it is related to the Hebrew bl and bli, which mean “no” or “not” or “without.” Belial itself means “worthless,” “useless,” and in other places is used in the same way as it was in regard to Eli’s sons; that is, other men were called “sons of Belial” (2 Chron. 13:7, 1 Kings 21:13). In Proverbs 6:12, it is equated with the wicked. (In other ancient Near Eastern literature, Belial is seen as another name for Satan himself.) In almost every use in the Bible, it appears as a negative. As human beings, created in the image of God, they were created for a purpose and to have meaning; and yet, according to the Bible, these men were all but worthless, “sons of worthlessness.” What a tragic waste of life. We are either for the Lord, doing something of meaning and purpose for Him, or we are, in the end, worthless. That makes sense, too, considering that our whole existence and purpose for life comes only from Him.