When I was young, stories were simple. There were good guys and bad guys, and everyone could be divided into one of those two groups. I grew up thinking the key players in the book of Judges were the good guys. You have Gideon putting out the fleece as an act of heroic faith. You have Samson with his unmatched strength pulling down a pagan temple with his own two hands. You have the left-handed Ehud getting the drop on the evil King Eglon.
As an adult, I find myself shifting uncomfortably in my chair as I read back through these stories that once seemed so simple. The book of Judges is complicated. The people I once took as the heroes of the story look less like role models the older I get. In fact, sometimes the people I once assumed were the good guys now seem downright villainous. That’s because they often are.
In Judges, Israel experiences a downward spiral of rebellion and rescue with each new judge. We witness their fall from obedience into desolation. We long for the seed of hope that rises from the books (like Ruth and 1 Samuel) that follow to take root. But this book does not resolve. It just ends with everyone doing whatever seems right to them. It ends with people needing God to intervene—for the righteous to cry out and for the Lord to hear them and rescue them from all their troubles (Psalm 34:17).
It wasn’t supposed to go this way. Before the people of Israel entered the promised land, the Lord warned them not to embrace the religion of the Canaanites: “When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not imitate the detestable customs of those nations” (Deuteronomy 18:9).
But the book of Judges shows us that this is exactly what they did. They embraced the Canaanite religion in spite of God’s warning. This rejection of God led to some of the most catastrophic and sad stories in Scripture.
Judges is not a collection of heroic tales. It is a tragedy, in both the literal and literary senses of the word. Judges recounts the true and tragic unraveling of the people of Israel as they chose to abandon God and live like their pagan neighbors. Like Macbeth or The Great Gatsby, Judges is told as a tragedy, where the arc of the story lands with a thud rather than a victory parade.
God is the hero of Scripture, and Judges demonstrates this in a pronounced way. I draw hope from the fact that God works through broken, morally compromised, deeply flawed people to bring about His perfect will. I draw hope because that perfect will is ultimately fulfilled in the finished work of our perfect Savior, Jesus Christ, who is also our righteous Judge. And His story does not end in ruin, but in peace and glory forever.
Written by Russ Ramsey