What do a left-handed assassin (Judg 3:12-30) and a head crushing wife who is grotesquely handy with a tent peg and a hammer (Judg 4:17-22) have to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ? This is a dilemma that every person preaching, teaching, or studying the book of Judges has to grapple with. One response is to suggest that the book of Judges is simply sub-Christian literature. Evangelical Christians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible cannot affirm that proposition but frequently express squeamishness with the notion that the book reveals deliverers who can genuinely be called heroes of the faith along with the prophets and patriarchs (Heb 11:32-35).1
Without a doubt, few verses from the book of Judges ever make it on Hallmark greeting cards or will accompany precious moments Jael figurines. The warfare, blood, gore, and wide-eyed depiction of sin and costly salvation in the book of Judges does not fit too well with much of the baptized sentimentality passed off today in the name of Christianity. But the actual biblical story is one of cosmic warfare and kingdom conflict from beginning to end. One in which the promised Seed born of woman, the great Warrior-King, would crush head the head of the Serpent and destroy his parasitic kingdom (Gen 3:15; Rom 16:20; Rev 12:9). When Jesus of Nazareth came as the fulfillment of this ancient promise His arrival marked the onset of the last days (Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2; 1 Pet 1:20). After His crucifixion and resurrection He issued His followers a battle plan in this cosmic warfare known as the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20).
When the book of Judges is considered as a part of the fabric of the grand narrative of redemptive history then the books dramatic, suspense filled stories of sin, salvation, and violent warfare do not seem as foreign to us as followers of Jesus. In fact, we begin to realize that we are the ones who have lost touch with the biblical storyline of the unfolding triumph of the Kingdom of Christ. Jesus is at the center of God’s Kingdom plan and purposes for all eternity as unfolded in the unified, progressive drama of redemption recorded in Scripture. There are twists and turns, trials and triumphs, myriads of authors, diverse settings and genres of literature but every word must be understood in the context of one story line that centers on Jesus and His Kingdom (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47). Theologian Millard Erickson rightly points out that any approach to interpretation that rules out later revelation from informing our understanding of earlier revelation is ignoring God as the divine co-author of Scripture and is proceeding on antisupernaturalist assumptions.2
We do not have to wonder whether or not the message of Judges is applicable for believers over 3,000 years after it was initially written, the apostle Paul reminds us that events in Old Testament history were “written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Cor 10:11). All Old Testament narrative, including the book of Judges, was meant to be interpreted and applied in light of Jesus Christ, the One who, in His very person, brought the glory of the age to come into this present evil age. Jesus is our hermeneutical key for preaching the book of Judges and the entire Scripture. Because the book of Judges is about Him we can know that its message applies to all who are in Him.
The traditional translation of the title of the book as “Judges” does not aid our understanding of the books Christocentric focus. The word could be translated as leaders, deliverers, heroes, or perhaps best as warrior-saviors. Our modern thought of judges who wear long robes and sit in clean, safe courtrooms obscures our ability to comprehend how these judges functioned. They were charismatic military leaders raised up as an expression of God’s mercy to deliver a stiff-necked and rebellious people. The book of Judges describes the task of the judges in this way, “Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them (Judg 2:16)” and “But when the people of Israel cried out to the LORD, the LORD raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them” (Judg 3:9). The LORD provided these warrior-saviors who fought for an undeserving people who could not save themselves. Rather than being titled the book of Judges it could be fittingly titled the book of Saviors.
These warrior-saviors functioned over a period of over 300 years from the death of Joshua to the rise of the monarchy in Israel. They were raised up during a period of rebellion and apostasy in Israel when the people “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (Judg 2:11; 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). Their rebellion aroused God’s anger and he chastised them by allowing them to be conquered and oppressed at the hands of foreign invaders. The people eventually cried out to the LORD who heard their cries and provided them a warrior-savior to deliver them from the hands of the enemy. The pervasiveness of the reality of Israel’s sin and rebellion must not be minimized by anyone who preaches Judges but neither should the triumph and the heroism of the warrior-saviors God provided to deliver an undeserving people. The very framework of the book of Judges mirrors the framework of the gospel of Jesus Christ which deals with the problem of sin by providing salvation (Rom 3:23-24).
The first promise of the gospel was a declaration of a promised future Messianic Seed who would be born of woman, engage in mortal combat with the serpent, and ultimately crush his head (Gen 3:15). Throughout redemptive history there is a recurring echo of this glorious promise as seeds born of women crush the heads of the enemies of God (John 8:44). There are various saviors in the Bible who serve as types of the promised skull crushing Savior. Death by head wound marches through the book of Judges with Sisera and Abimelech and continues in the Old Testament narrative with the likes of Goliath and Absalom.3 Jael’s handiness with a tent peg on display in Sisera’s temple is described as the means of God subduing the enemy (Judg 4:23) leads to a song of praise in the next chapter (Judg 5:24-31).
Many modern commentators seem tormented by the fact that these warrior-saviors who are rescuing a rebellious people are so sinful and flawed themselves. After all a reluctant farmer, left-handed assassin, sex addicted strong man and others less than loveable characters provide us a rather strange list of heroes and saviors. Nevertheless, the text of Judges makes plain that these deeply flawed, odd people were indeed saviors of Israel (Judg 2:16; 3:9). Without these warrior-saviors rebellious Israel would have remained in bondage to the enemies of God.
The New Testament commits all who affirm the unity and inerrancy of the Bible to the truth that these flawed warrior-saviors often had misplaced actions but not misplaced faith (Heb 11:32-35). In fact, they are a part of that great cloud of witnesses calling us to look unto Jesus who fulfills the promises they hoped in (Heb 11:39-12:2). Their sinful actions and flawed reasoning reminded God’s people that these God given warrior-saviors were but echoes of the ancient promise that would be fulfilled in the incarnation of the Warrior-Savior-King who was a mighty horn of salvation raised up for us in whom there was no sin (Luke 1:69; 1 John 3:5).
After preaching verse-by verse through the book of Judges over a period of several months one elderly lady in our congregation stopped me after the last sermon in the series with tears in her eyes and said, “That is one of the most powerful series of gospel sermons I have ever heard in my life. Thank you pastor, I understand the gospel better.” Either that is a terrible indictment on my New Testament preaching or the book of Judges is a tragically neglected portion of the Word of Christ (Col 3:16) for the preaching of the gospel. The narrative surrounding each warrior-savior in the book of Judges provides a suspense filled, literary rich, inspired Word from God for proclaimers of the Kingdom of Christ. The book of Judges is messy and bloody and so is Christianity. As much as we wince at the sin and rebellion we read about in the book of Judges, the picture of our own hearts is desperately wicked and the only answer is a Warrior-Savior with a bloody robe who says, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
See, Daniel I Block, Judges, Ruth, New American Commentary, vol. 6 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1999), 70-72. Block argues rightly that the point of the book of Judges is not to present the deliverers as virtuous heroes whom Christians should pattern their lives after. Nevertheless, Block wrongly rejects understanding the book of Judges in light of the New Testament (specifically Heb 11:32) because he argues, the writer of Hebrews is simply embracing “the idealizing tendency” found in other Jewish writings of the time.
Millard J. Erickson, Evangelical Interpretation: Perspectives on Hermeneutical Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 30-31.
In the David and Goliath narrative (1 Sam 16-17) the author points out four times in twelve verses that David the anointed king removes the head of Goliath, the representative enemy of God (1 Sam 17:46, 51, 54, 57).