The book of Joshua ends on a positive note. Although Joshua dies and is buried, the overall redemptive-historical position of Israel is good. Joshua 24:31 states, “Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.” Under Joshua, Israel went into the land of Canaan and gained effective control. And whereas they did not completely dispossess the land of its inhabitants as had been instructed (Joshua 13:13; 15:63; 16:10; 17:12-13), as a whole they are presented as maintaining covenant faithfulness.
As we enter into the book of Judges, the outlook is far grimmer. Judges tells the story of the next generation and beyond who were, simply put, unfaithful. In contrast to Joshua 24:31 above, Judges begins with the following description (Judges 2:10-12): “And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. 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.”
What is a judge? It’s not what you might immediately think – gavel, robe, and an afternoon time slot on the CW. An Old Testament judge was simply a ruler or governor who may have exercised legal duties (e.g. Deborah) but more typically led the people by delivering them from their enemies. They were to be righteous leaders acting as God’s agents of salvation from foreign oppressions. Sadly, many of them fell short. Consequently, there is a discernable pattern to the book: faithlessness > oppression > crying out > deliverance through judge > death of judge > faithlessness (repeat cycle).
There are four prominent theological themes that are presented throughout the book:
1) Faithlessness – This can be summarized thusly: instead of dispossessing the land of foreigners, they instead lived among them and became like them, especially with respect to worship (syncretism will always provoke the Lord’s anger – 2:11-15, 19-21).
2) Mercy – God judges Israel’s sin, yes, but He also spares powerfully. Anytime the people repented of their sin and cry out to God, He would send a judge to bring order and deliver them from the hand of their enemies (Judges 2:16, 18).
3) Deliverance – It is God who determines the winners and losers. The battle is His. Time and again the text reminds us of this: “The Lord was with the judge and delivered them…” (Judges 2:18a), “the Spirit of the Lord came upon [Othniel]… and the Lord gave Cushanrishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand” (Judges 3:10a), “the sons of Israel cried to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer…” (Judges 3:9a; 3:15; 4:3; 10:10).
4) Righteousness – The judges came and went. And so did seasons of righteousness. Israel was faithful when they had a faithful leader, but faithless when that leader died. They needed a king (cf. Deuteronomy 17:18-20) who would uphold God’s law and keep the people accountable to covenant faithfulness.
The last five chapters of the book of Judges show forth Israel’s need for a king. The complete apostasy and utter wickedness of the people was repeatedly summarized with the following refrain: “In those days there was no king in Israel, (everyone did what was right in his eyes)” (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25). The implication is that a king was needed to lead the people in righteousness. And whereas such a need prepares us for the books of Samuel and the Davidic dynasty, it ultimately orients us to the King of kings, Jesus Christ, the embodiment of righteousness.
One final idea that is important to note heading into the book of Judges: the punishment always fits the crime. Consider one of the most memorable stories in Scripture, Ehud’s murder of Eglon, king of Moab (Judges 3:12-30). In short, God raises up Ehud, “a left-handed man” (3:15). Ehud designs his own special sword that he fashions to his right thigh. He presents the Moabite king with a tribute and informs him, “I have a message from God for you” (3:20). At that point, Ehud took his special sword that had gone unnoticed by the guards (since it was both smaller in stature and carried uncharacteristically on his right side, rather than left) and plunged it into Eglon’s bulbous belly – “And the hilt also went in after the blade, and the fat closed over the blade, for he did not pull the sword out of his belly; and the dung came out” (3:22). Why did this punishment fit the crime? The deathblow occurred at his stomach, which had gotten fat off of Israel’s produce. Such a correlation of punishment to crime prepares us for the sacrifice of Christ and impresses upon us the magnitude of our sin and the lengths God went to redeem us. Our sin had to be dealt with and the death of His only begotten Son was the only answer.
As always, please feel free to ask questions. You can either email me directly (email@example.com) or, if you’d like to start a broader conversation, you can post a public comment/question here on the blog. Thanks for reading.
 I credit Dr. Jay Sklar for these insights and summaries, many of which have been gleaned from his class notes from Old Testament History (OT330, Covenant Theological Seminary, Spring 2004).