If the book of Joshua highlighted the triumphant entry of God’s people under the faithful leadership of Joshua into the land of Canaan as promised by God, the book of Judges narrates the tragic aftermath of Israel’s subsequent generations who struggle to maintain themselves in the land due to a recurring cycle of disobedience.
Our text opens with an appearance of the angel of the LORD. We last encountered an angel in Josh 5:13-15. In the Old Testament, the angel of the LORD serves as a mouthpiece for God. It is the angel of the LORD who appears to Hagar (Gen 16:7), Abraham (Gen 22:11), and Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:2). Remarkably, in many of these contexts, the voice of the angel shifts into a direct communication from God. Here in 2:1, we find God’s people being addressed directly by the LORD. God reminds his people of the exodus out of Egypt and their entrance into Canaan. The emphasis on this reminder is on the action of God. The LORD was the agent responsible for their deliverance from Egypt and inheritance in the promised land as the LORD had promised Israel’s ancestors. God also reminds Israel of the unconditional nature of his relationship with them–God will not ever break his covenant. In other words, God begins his address of his people by rooting his words in grace. God has acted graciously on behalf of his people.
The expected response to grace is faithful obedience. As Israel entered Canaan, they were commanded to refrain from making covenants or treaties with the Canaanties and to tear down their places of worship. Yet Israel chose to disobey God. This created a predicament that required discipline. God delivered Israel and gave them the land so that they could serve as his missional people through whom God would one day bless the nations (Gen 12:3, Exod 19:4-6). Faithful obedience was the key to Israel’s success (Josh 1:7-8).
In response to Israel’s disobedience, the LORD declared in verse three through his angel that he would not drive out the nations any longer and that they would become Israel’s adversaries. This causes God’s people to cry out with weeping. Israel named the place Bochim (“Weepers”) and offered sacrifices to the LORD in recognition of the shift that has taken place in their lives as God’s people.
In these verses, we are carried back to the memory of the golden era of Joshua. Judges 2:6-10 in essence repeat Joshua 24:28-31. Verses 6-7 remind God’s people of the success and faithful obedience found under the leadership of Joshua. That generation acted in obedience and took possession of their inheritance in the promised land. Moreover, they worshipped the LORD alone during the days of Joshua and his elders. All of these people had witnessed the mighty acts of salvation that God had done for his people. Our text makes the connection between experiences with God and obedience. It also raises the issue of the responsibility and importance of passing on the faith to the next generation.
Joshua lived to be one hundred ten years old (verse 8). This is a significant number that Joshua shares with Joseph (Gen 50:22). Joshua was buried in the land of his inheritance. God had promised his clan the region of Timnath-heres and was faithful in driving out its inhabitants before Joshua. He dies with the same title as Moses: servant of the LORD (cf. Josh 1:1).
Verse ten sounds an ominous tone for the future of God’s people. Joshua and his entire generation died in the promise land, but the subsequent generation did not know the LORD or the mighty acts that he had done. This is a recipe for disaster. Obedience in the Scriptures is rooted in a relationship with God based on memory or experience of God’s saving work. It is remarkable that Joshua’s generation for all its successes did not pass on its faith experience to its children.
Verse 11 is the initial occurrence of a refrain that will characterize the ethic of God’s people during the days of the Judges (cf. 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 10:6, and 13:1). Rather than following God faithfully, God’s people chose to break the fundamental commandment to worship only the LORD (Deut 5:7-9 cf. Deut 6:4-5). Instead Israel worshipped the Baals. Baal was an important deity to the Canaanites. He was the storm god whose rains brought forth crops and made fertile the soils of Canaan. We find the plural form “Baals” because there would have been various formulations and understandings in the different cities and valleys across Canaan. For example, Israel had fallen into apostasy in Moab by being enticed to worship Baal of Peor (Num 25:1-13).
Verses 12-13 describe the extent of Israel’s apostasy. God’s people abandoned the LORD whom its ancestors served and who had delivered them from the land of Egypt. Notice the irrationality of Israel’s actions. The LORD was the God of Israel’s ancestors. This was a long-standing relationship. The LORD had delivered Israel from slavery in Egypt and given Israel a new life in the land of Canaan. The Canaanite deities had done nothing for Israel nor would they, but nonetheless God’s people forsook the LORD for the deities of Canaan. These were the very gods who had been unable to protect Canaan from the incoming Israelites. Yet these deities proved too enticing for Israel. Israel had disobeyed God by not pushing the Canaanites out of the land and destroying their idols and places of worship. Now the Israelites were openly following their deities and bowing down to them in worship. In sum, they turned from the God who had saved them to the gods and goddesses of the remaining peoples of Canaan. This caused the LORD to become angry.
The Israelites’ apostasy had immediate consequences. In verses 14-15, the LORD’s anger manifested in his allowing of Israel’s enemies to gain the upper hand against God’s people. Instead of enjoying victory and peace as they had in Joshua’ day, God’s people now faced defeat and the instability caused by conflict and constant oppression.
But God remained gracious. In spite of Israel’s disobedience, they remain God’s people and God remains faithful to his covenant (2:1). In response to the oppression of Israel’s enemies, the LORD raised up a series of extraordinary individuals called judges who acted to lead and deliver Israel (verse 18). In the book of Judges, readers will encounter men and women such as Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. Notice that God responds to the cries and groaning of his people under persecution and oppression. Just as God responded to the cries of his people in the days of Egyptian servitude (Exod 2:23-25), God continues to respond to the cries of the oppressed.
Verses 17-18 report that Israel continued in sin despite the graciousness of the LORD sending a judge to deliver them.
Verse 19 informs us that deliverance was a short lived experience for God’s people during the time of the Judges. The issue was not God’s ability to save Israel; it was Israel’s inability to turn fully to God and abide in him. Our text tells us that as soon as a particular judge died God’s people would immediately backslide into an even worse situation. Notice the language of intensification: they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers. Our text is not merely observing a recurring pattern of disobedience—it is suggesting a downward spiral in which each subsequent generation acted more corruptly than the one before it. This is one of the dangers of idolatry. It thwarts the mission of God’s people by moving them further and further away from the true God. The end of turning from God is the service and worship of a pseudo-deity. Israel replaced its allegiance to the LORD with the worship of the gods and goddesses of the Canaanites.
The end of verse 19 reflects on the causes of Israel’s apostasy: bad practices and stubbornness. God’s people continually fell into idolatry because they remained mired in sinful habits. They may have wanted to follow God but they did not change their practices to match the way of the LORD. Moreover, they remained stubborn or hard in their ways. The words translated stubborn is identical to one of the words used in Exodus of Pharaoh’s hard heart (Exod 7:3 and 13:15) and in the phrase stiff-necked that is sometimes used to describe Israel (Exod 32:9, 33:3, 33:5, and 34:9).
Israel’s pattern of disobedience resulted in judgment. God became angry with his people. Verse 20 emphasizes that it is Israel’s actions that are the cause of God’s anger. God has been faithful and gracious to his people. Instead of living as the people whom God called them to be—a missional people who served as agents of God’s blessing to the nations—God’s people have turned to serve other deities. As a consequence of disobedience, God declares that he will no longer drive out any of the nations that remained in Canaan after the death of Joshua. The peoples that remained in the land (see 3:1-6) would serve now as a test of Israel’s faithfulness. What kind of people would Israel become? Would they return to the LORD wholeheartedly and reengage his mission, or would they completely turn from the LORD and simply integrate into the population of Canaan? The book of Judges stands as a testimony to this danger that every generation of believers faces. Judges also testifies to the graciousness of God who will continue to raise up Judges to lead Israel even in spite of the unfaithfulness of God’s people.