I’m slow on the uptake at times. Until five days ago I thought Israel, prior to becoming a kingdom, only had a judge when they needed to be rescued from an oppressor. Hence the judges were, in essence, military heroes, but little else.
Except, I noticed as I read from Judges 4 this past week that Deborah was judging Israel before God called her to facilitate the end of the oppression of Jabin king of Canaan.
Now Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel at that time. She used to sit under the palm tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the sons of Israel came up to her for judgment. (Judges 4:4-5, emphasis added)
Finally, as I read further, something clicked inside my head. The book records a small group of judges who don’t have military credentials. I’d always thought Scripture skipped who they fought against and how long Israel was in bondage to these unnamed oppressors. But no.
Those judges didn’t come to their position in response to the need to free Israel from oppression. They simply were the designated judges that presided over the nation for those short years.
So apparently God selected judges throughout Israel’s pre-king years, not as military heroes, as I used to think, but as judges. (Imagine that!) They were to be the leaders of the nation, the ones who, like Moses before them, arbitrated between the people. No longer did leading include heading up the caravan of people traveling through the wilderness (as Moses had) or even conducting a military campaign (as Joshua had), though many of the judges did the latter.
In reality, the judges were God’s representative to the nation. Interestingly, many of them did free Israel from foreign oppression, but afterwards, they continued to judge the nation. For example, Gideon judged Israel for forty years after God used him and the measly three hundred to free the people from the iron fist of Midian. Before him, Deborah judged Israel for another forty years once she and Barak had freed the nation.
And the four who weren’t military leaders? They were in charge for a total of forty-seven years. Three consecutive judges, right before Samson, held the judgeship for seven, ten, and eight years respectively. So, for twenty-five years Israel knew peace.
Until they didn’t.
I’m not sure how the whole judge thing worked. Deborah, we know, stayed in one place and people came to her. But did people from the far away tribes make that trek? And what happened when God “gave them into the hands” of oppressors? Did that mean He did not choose a judge for that period of time? And how was the judge chosen?
We know God spoke to Gideon and Samuel. Deborah was a prophetess, so God spoke to her as well. Samson was set apart in his mother’s womb, and the Spirit of God came upon him when he needed superhuman strength, but did he actually judge the nation? Did God call him to do so? And what about the others—Othniel and Ehud and Shamgar and the rest—how were they chosen? Scripture doesn’t say.
So the process isn’t clear. Who exactly was in charge during those years?
The question comes to mind because after periods of peace, inevitably Judges records a verse like 13:1—“Now the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, so that the LORD gave them into the hands of the Philistines forty years.”
But when, exactly did the people do this evil? The oppression came as a result of the evil, so the doing of evil must have come during those years of peace.
I’m sure Israel wanted peace. They had put up with Moab and Midian on the east, the Canaanites in the north, and the Philistines in the west. At one point they were nearly starved off their land as the Midianites burned their crops right before harvest and killed off their livestock.
War was . . . well, you know what war is, and Israel lived through it over and over and over. But because of it, they turned to God and cried out for Him to rescue them. It was during peace that they turned their backs on Him and worshiped other gods.
So peace and prosperity and abundance are things we long for, things we strive for, things we enjoy. But in oppression, we call out to God.
So which is actually better for us?
I maintain it’s not the situation we’re in that is better for us or worse, though history seems to argue against me. I think it’s our heart attitude. Paul said he’d learned to be content in whatever circumstance he was in:
I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:12-13)
I’d rather have peace than oppression, prosperity than humble means, but do I want peace and prosperity more than I want Jesus? Do I want to know God and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings?
Peace actually tests our hearts to see if we want what tastes good and looks pleasing to the eye and promises to make us wise, more than we want to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Peace, more than oppression, then, should bring us to our knees praying for God to rescue us from the dominion of darkness, because the temptation of our souls is a bigger deal than the oppression of our bodies.