Anti-heroes of the faith in the book of JudgesWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Sometimes flawed faith can be as powerful, in its own way, as great faith. Witness the heroes in the book of Judges, a record of one of the darkest eras in the history of Israel. The book covers a period of about three or four centuries between the conquest of Canaan under Joshua and the rise of King David.
It was a time of spiralling chaos, during which there was no king in the land and everyone did what was right in their own eyes – including acts of brutal violence, sexual assault, inter-tribal warfare, public idolatry and human sacrifice.
There was a repeating pattern to this downward spiral. The people would sin, whereupon God would hand them over to a hostile foreign power. They would then cry out to God and he would raise up a judge – a military leader who would deliver them from their oppressor and usher in a period of peace before the cycle would begin again.
With one notable exception, these judges were morally ambiguous figures, hardly models to emulate. And yet, the letter to the Hebrews includes several of them in a list of heroes of the faith. Perhaps anti-heroes would be more appropriate. Nevertheless, their stories show that God works even through the most flickering faith. Taken together, these heroic tales point to the grace and mercy of God, who will not abandon his people, even at their worst.
Ehud: Left-handed assassin
The book of Judges lists a dozen individuals who fulfilled that role in a variety of ways. For about half of them, however, little more is recorded than their name, their tribal origin, and the number of years they judged Israel. Only a handful receive an extended narrative account of their activities as judge.
The first of these is Ehud, a left-handed assassin whom God raises up to deliver Israel from oppression under their neighbouring cousins, the Moabites. Ehud uses his position as envoy to get close to the Moabite king, Eglon, and stab him in the belly with a short sword. The narrative pauses to indulge in some graphic detail about the execution, describing the fat of Eglon’s belly closing around the blade and the dung oozing out of the wound. Ehud then makes his escape and rallies the troops of Israel, who kill 10,000 Moabites trying to flee back to their side of the Jordan.
The story of Ehud raises an interpretive challenge that recurs throughout the book of Judges: How to square the goodness and righteousness of God with the brutal (and often sinful) actions of most of the judges? The temptation is either to disavow God’s involvement in these dark stories altogether, or else to whitewash them as righteous acts, neither of which the text will allow.
In Ehud’s case, at least, it could be argued that covert assassination is a justifiable act in time of war. Overall, however, it’s best to hold in tension the book’s honest depictions of human depravity with its underlying theme of God using broken people to accomplish his redemptive purposes.
Deborah: Woman of torches
Deborah is the only woman among the judges, but she’s unique in a number of other ways. She’s the only judge whose ministry was well-established before the crisis at hand. She’s also the only one to serve in a capacity resembling a modern judge – as a civic, judicial and moral leader of her people. Alone among the judges, she’s described as a prophetess, making her a spiritual leader as well.
She’s introduced as the wife of Lappidoth, a title that has an intriguing alternate reading in the Jewish tradition. Lappidoth is the Hebrew word for torches, with a range of meaning that includes fire, flashes, sparks and splendour. It’s unusual as a proper name, especially for a man. Moreover, the word for wife and woman is the same in Hebrew. As a result, some Jewish scholars have argued that the phrase is a personal epithet that should be read as “woman of torches” or “fiery woman” or “woman of splendour.”
The linguistic evidence is inconclusive, but the epithet would be fitting for Deborah. Like many of her fellow prophets, she is indeed a fiery, exuberant personality, fiercely devoted to the glory of God. She is in fact the only judge who isn’t morally or spiritually compromised in some way. She does rather stand out as a shining light against the murkiness of her era, and of the rest of the book as a whole.
Deborah’s story begins when she launches a plan to free Israel from a Canaanite army led by Sisera. She summons Barak for the task and assures him God will give him the victory. When Barak proves unenthusiastic, the prophetess tells him the glory of triumph will go to a woman instead. This turns out to be Jael, who lures the fleeing Sisera into her tent, lulls him to sleep and then pounds a tent peg through his skull. Barak only arrives later to find his adversary dead at the woman’s feet.
Like other prophets, Deborah has a gift for poetry, which she expresses in her song of victory after the battle. The song is a passionate outpouring of glory to God unlike anything else in the book of Judges. Deborah appeals to metaphors from nature – stars of heaven and torrents of water fighting against the Canaanites. She praises the tribes that took part in the battle and condemns with sharp irony the ones that didn’t. She notes her own role as a mother of Israel – a matriarch who helped restore peace and order to the land. And she revels without apology in Jael’s violent act of execution.
Deborah was a wise and godly woman, but she was also a product of her time, a fierce war leader in an era defined by warfare. In the opinion of some Jewish commentators, she’s not only the greatest among the judges, but also the greatest woman in the Old Testament. Based on the textual evidence, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.
Gideon: Hesitant war hero
Following Deborah’s lofty song of worship, the life of Gideon brings the history of the judges back down to earth. In many ways, Gideon is the pivotal figure in the book. His story marks the beginning of an accelerated decline in the life of the nation and the quality of its leaders. And unique among the judges, only Gideon is recorded as having conversations with God.
Because of this, Gideon is often pictured as a bold and faith-filled war hero, even though the text suggests otherwise. He is in fact a timorous man by nature, slow to believe God and hesitant to obey him, constantly seeking signs from God to prove that he means what he says. The story isn’t so much about Gideon’s heroics, as it is about God’s patient grace working through a flawed individual.
Before the battle with Midian, God whittles down Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 men, to remove any doubt that deliverance would come from the Lord and not from human prowess. And the battle strategy is unusual, to say the least. The small cohort surrounds the vast Midianite camp in the middle of the night and begins waving torches, blowing trumpets and shouting. In response, God drives the Midianites to confusion and flight so that they wind up fighting and killing each other.
Sadly Gideon’s story takes a left turn at this point. After defeating the remaining Midianites, he engages in vicious acts of reprisal against the cities that didn’t support his campaign. He wisely refuses to become Israel’s permanent ruler, recognizing that the role belongs to God alone. However, he asks his men for a share of the war spoils totalling about 20 kilograms of gold. Gideon’s family, like the rest of the nation, had become entangled in the worship of pagan gods. And Gideon returns to his roots, building an idol with the gold that would become a snare to him, his family and all of Israel.
Jephthah: Rash gang leader
Although the land enjoyed periods of peace after each judge, the downward trend in the nation and its leaders continues with Jephthah, an illegitimate son of Gilead, born of a prostitute. His family drives him into exile, where he’s joined by a group of worthless men, as the text calls them. This roving band shouldn’t be romanticized as adventuring rogues. In modern terms they’re a gang of thugs, with Jephthah as the gang leader.
Nevertheless, the Lord uses Jephthah to deliver his people from the Ammonites, but this is only summarized in brief. The heart of Jephthah’s story is his rash, tragic vow concerning his daughter. Before the battle, Jephthah vows that if God will grant him the victory, he’ll offer as a burnt offering the first thing that comes through his door to meet him when he returns. And of course, this turns out to be his daughter, his only child, who greets him with songs and dances after the battle.
Jephthah’s faith is a murky blend of trust in God mixed with the most horrific aspects of pagan religion, including human sacrifice. He seems unaware that God would never expect him to follow through on such a vow, or that the Law of Moses provided exemption from vows that led to sin. In one of the saddest accounts of Scripture, Jephthah lets his daughter mourn and say goodbye to her friends, and then does with her as he had vowed.
Almost as an anticlimax, the story ends with the tribe of Ephraim threatening to kill Jephthah for not inviting them to the war with Ammon. Rather than diffusing the conflict, Jephthah escalates it and slaughters 42,000 Ephraimites as they try to flee back home across the Jordan. There’s no record of peace in the land at the end of Jephthah’s story, only a comment that he’d judged Israel for six years, died and was buried in Gilead.
Samson: God’s blunt instrument
In many ways, Samson represents both the low point and the climax of the book of Judges. As the last judge, his story is longer and more elaborate than the rest, stretching back before his birth, which the angel of the Lord announces to his parents. Samson is thus part of a select group that includes Isaac, Samuel, John the Baptist and Jesus himself – children born by divine agency to fulfill a divine purpose. In stark contrast to the others in that group, however, Samson is no model of faith or virtue. In fact, he grows up to be the most morally and spiritually compromised of all the judges.
None of this is a surprise to God, of course. From the womb, the Lord has known – and has ordained – the kind of person Samson is going to be and the things he’s going to do. Samson is to become God’s blunt instrument against the Philistines, a living weapon who would begin to break the Philistine power over Israel, a mission that would only be completed a century or two later by King David.
Samson doesn’t perform his calling with any apparent regard for the glory of God or the welfare of his people. He’s driven almost entirely by his passions and appetites, engaging in a cycle of violence and revenge with the Philistines that he pursues on his own, with no army behind him. His actions betray a callous disregard for people, animals and property, and he proves to be as weak of character as he is strong of body. He gets entangled in forbidden relationships with three Philistine women, the last of whom, Delilah, proves his undoing. In due course, he violates every stipulation of his Nazirite vow, culminating in the cutting of his hair, at which point God leaves him.
During his entire story, Samson calls upon God only twice: the first time because he was thirsty, and the second to plead with God for one final empowerment, so he might die avenging himself on his Philistine enemies. God grants both requests, and Samson’s last act is to bring the house down on 3,000 Philistines, including most of their ruling class. The final assessment of Samson’s time as a judge is that he killed more people at his death than he had during his lifetime.
The book of Judges can be a challenging read. Most of its stories lack happy endings or clear moral principles to emulate. Instead, they offer a wealth of dark material that can be hard to reconcile with God’s kind and loving nature.
And yet for all that, its narratives are compellingly heroic. All of its central figures – the covert assassin, the fiery prophetess, the cowardly hero, the foolish adventurer, and the human weapon of mass destruction – are presented as heroes of the faith (or rather anti-heroes, except for Deborah). Their lives demonstrate that God works through every expression of genuine faith, from the strongest and purest to the weakest and dodgiest.
It’s best to approach the book on two levels, being aware of its dual plot structure. The individual stories trace the downward spiral of human depravity and make no excuses in doing so. But taken together, they form a thread of God’s faithfulness as he preserves his people through one of the bleakest periods of their history.
Even more important, Judges should be read through a Gospel lens. After all, Jesus said that all of the Old Testament – the Law, the Prophets and the Writings – testified about him. This doesn’t mean every detail contains a hidden moral or allegorical symbol. Ehud’s sword isn’t a picture of the Word of God. It’s just a sword. Narratives must be allowed to speak on their own terms, conveying truth through organic, compelling stories that appeal to the mind as well as the imagination.
What truth (or truths) does a book like Judges – as well as its individual heroic tales – convey about Jesus and the Gospel? Exploring the answer will lead to a lifetime of challenging yet pleasurable reading.
Sources and further reading
Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (The New American Commentary), Holman Reference, 1999.
Timothy Keller, Judges for You, The Good Book Company, 2013.
Timothy Mackie, “Judges and Messianic hope,” Bible Project, accessed February 20, 2021.
Miles V. Van Pelt, “Why study the book of Judges?” Crossway, April 10, 2018.
Barry G. Webb, Judges and Ruth: God in Chaos, (Preaching the Word), Crossway, 2015.
“Tragedy and hope in the book of Judges,” Bible Project, accessed February 20, 2021.
“Introduction to Judges,” Biblica: The International Bible Society, accessed February 20, 2021.
“Introduction to Judges,” ESV Study Bible Online, accessed February 20, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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