The Book of Judges and American Life

In the middle of the main section of the book of Judges is the famous story of Gideon who defeated the Midianites with 300 soldiers. The layers of wisdom contained in this story call for repeated readings, but right now I want to focus on the aftermath to Gideon’s triumph.

What happens, in a word, is that the people, anxious as always, ask Gideon to be a tyrant, to rule over them and then to have his son rule over them and to have his son’s son rule over them.

It is hard not to love Gideon. He is man the that famously asked for a sign, asking for a fleece to be wet, no wait, dry. He is the one who was visited by an angel when he was threshing wheat in a wine press because he feared the Midianites, who were oppresing the Israelites.

But maybe his most lovable, his most honorable and praiseworthy moment, came when the people wanted to make him their tyrant. In Judges 8:23 he replied by saying:

I will not rule over you.
Neither shall my son rule over you.
The Lord shall rule over you.

Today in church school, Matt Joyner presented a panoramic view of the book of Judges, a fantastically useful exercise because in the Bible most of the stuff we’re supposed to see lies hidden on the surface. I saw things I had never seen before, but nothing more than the intimate relationship between anxiety and despotism.

At the beginning of the book of Judges, the Israelites are given explicit commands from the Lord to drive the idol worshippers out of the land of Canaan. From what the archaeological records indicate, these people were savages who offered up their children to their gods and who committed every kind of sexually immoral behavior. They were pragmatists, obsessed with peace and prosperity, and, as a result, they were subject to religious and political oppression.  

When Israel entered the land under Joshua they began the conquest. This is the part of the Bible that most bothers liberals because they can’t fathom how God could actually order the death of wicked people or of a whole nation. They compare it to the genecide of Darfur or Rwanda. You can see this same fear in their confusion of abortion with the death penalty, for they fail in every case to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.

In any case, the Israelites became “liberal” themselves and refused to drive the other tribes out and that is the root of all their troubles under the Old Covenant. God called Israel to be His exclusive people with the corresponding condition that He must be their exclusive God. They agreed to this covenant, and then proceeded to break it.

When they let the neighboring tribes remain in the land, they started to compromise with them. Pretty soon they were worshipping their gods, adding infidelity to sloth. The crucial point is to see this pattern develop through Judges and to see its source.

Put simply, the Israelites are afraid, anxious, unbelieving. They do not believe that God will keep covenant with them, so they don’t keep covenant with God. They don’t drive out the idolatrous tribes in the land because their unbelief and fear make them slothful. Then they compromise and commit idolatry because their unbelieving sloth makes them cowardly and greedy.

So God uses their sin to punish them. They failed to drive out the people of the land, so the Lord uses the people of the land to test them. When they worship their gods, they rise up and oppress Israel. Israel then cries out for help and the Lord, the God of Israel, delivers them by raising up a judge.

But the anxiety and fear that drive them into unbelief never really is purged. They continually slide back into it. First the Lord raises up Ehud the lefty; then he raises up Barak but he is afraid so He raises up Deborah, a woman, to replace Barak; then He raises up Gideon; then Jephthah; then Samson.

But you can see the centrality of the story of Gideon by noting this context. Why do the people want to make Gideon king (the word isn’t used, but that is obviously what they are talking about)? Because they have this constant anxiety to deal with: the surrounding people. They keep oppressing them. They are a permanent test.

Of course, if the Israelites had been faithful from the beginning this test wouldn’t be there. But there’s no going back; there they are and there they stay. So the Israelites need some sort of protection from this test that they have to deal with because they were anxious and unbelieving.

Perhaps you can see that the problem is that the Israelites didn’t believe. Well, they didn’t. They thought the problem was that there were oppressors around them. Well, if they are the problem, let’s make deals with them! Let’s get them to leave us alone, yeah, that’s it.

Only, it doesn’t work. Over and over again. So finally they say to Gideon: Look Gideon, we’re sick of this living free lives under local elders. When the enemies attack us, they can’t help us. That’s why we have you judges. Face it, you’re basically generals who come along to conquer the enemies. We need you to stay on and make this your full time job. In fact, we need you to put your son in line to replace you when you can’t do it anymore.

And that’s when Gideon treats them with a respect that modern politicians know nothing of and despise when they see it: he says, no, you can’t give me this power over you. You are going to remain free people whether you want to or not.

Which sort of puts the lie to the notion that freedom and democracy are synonymous. Has any democracy ever not ended up handing the reigns of power over to a tyrant? That’s what anxious people do. Take care of us; fight for us; make our decisions for us.

But Gideon says no. Perhaps he knows that if he asserts a rule over these people that is reduced to the judgement of one man’s house, it cannot see far enough to rule wisely. Perhaps he knows that if he asserts a rule rooted in military prowess, the people will lose their focus on what makes life worth living. Certainly he knows that when he defeated the Midianites he did it with 300 soldiers and the hand of God.

Faith in God, actual, daily, practical reliance on a God who makes and keeps promises, is simply no foundation for tyrannical government.

If you know the story of Samuel and Saul, when Samuel, the last judge, was compelled to anoint Saul king, you can see the parallels between Gideon and Saul (thanks Matt, for drawing this to my attention). Look closely at the warnings from Samuel to the Israelites.

What’s happening is quite simple. The people don’t believe that God will protect them so they must look to their government. Their government isn’t big enough and centralized enough, so they want it bigger and more centralized. The surrounding people have kings – i.e. strong, central governments – so they want strong, central governments. The enemy is building powerful armies, so they want powerful armies.

In short, if you do not believe in a God who will faithfully keep you secure, you cannot be free. Your psyche won’t be able to endure it, because there is simply too much to worry about.

I am prepared to argue that in the 20th century the American people made the same decision. We have sacrificed our freedoms over and over and over again in the name of security – military and social. Now we think freedom means being able to do what we want as long as noone is hurt (unless it’s an unborn baby) and we hand all the responsibility and decision making over to experts.

This is not accidental. This is rooted in the formal rejection of the God of the Bible. We have progressed far along the law of the catastrophic continuum.  We live furious lives crying for purpose, crying for “our children” while continually insisting that they matter ultimately not a whit. We should do everything for the future, largely because, like everything else, it causes us anxiety. God is there too, but not seeing Him here, how can we see Him there.

Perhaps God will raise up a Deborah for us, a woman who can take the place of the Barak who was afraid to lead God’s people into battle.

But He owes us nothing, for we have not kept covenant with Him.

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