The history of Israelite Judges is an account of a series of so-called deliverers. Each one, in sequence, appears to have been victorious over this or that people group, in this or that way, for some length of time. John Bright has offered a neat historical portrait:
It must be understood that the Israel of the early days in Palestine was not at all a nation as we would understand the term. On the contrary, she was a tribal League, a loose confederation of clans united one to another about the worship of the common God. There was no statehood or central government of any sort. The clans were independent units unto themselves. Within the clans there was the recognition there was recognition of the moral authority of the sheikhs, or elders, but organized authority was lacking. . . . [At Shiloh] the tribesmen gathered on the feast days to seek the presence of their God and to renew their allegiance to him. This tribal structure corresponds perfectly to the covenant-people idea and may be assumed to be an outworking of it. The covenant league was a brotherhood; it was ruled only by the law of the covenant of God.
One may best to see how the primitive order in Israel operated from a reading of the book of Judges. Here we see the clans maintaining a precarious existence, surrounded by foes but without government, central authority, or state organization of any sort. In times of danger there would arise a hero, one upon whom the spirit of Yahweh rushed (Judg. 3:10; 14:6), called a judge (shôphēt). He would rally the surrounding clans and deal with the foe. While his victories no doubt gain him prestige, he was in no sense a king. His authority was neither absolute over all Israel nor permanent; in no case was it hereditary. -John Bright, The Kingdom of God, 31
I’ll add just a comment or two here. First, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to paint all the “judges” as men over whom “the spirit of Yahweh” rushed. The judges were a motley crew, so I’d like to guard against a monolithic view that considers only the stories, say, of Gideon, Samson, and maybe Deborah.
Next, Bright has observed some important limitations. The Judge was not a king; s/he was not absolutely or broadly in power; and there were no dynasties.
Also important from a higher vantage point is this textually based, yet also philosophical probe: Texts may have multiple aspects or even “purposes” in different times, with different audiences. A reader in, say, 500 B.C.E. would naturally have read the Judges text differently in his historical/cultural context than you and I read it in our situation. And that variance ought not to threaten the sincere student; rather, if we’ll allow it, the cognizance of different contexts can illuminate.
In this brief series on the Judges, I have offered but a few snippets. I didn’t care to go into Ehud or spent much time with a few others. I’ll conclude this series before the sad case of Eli’s sons and Samuel’s unique influence. Overall, in reading and observing, I think of all the history of God and his people—not only during the actual time of the Judges, but during the centuries and millennia to follow. And I’m essentially led to wonder this: Is the whole history of Judges/Deliverers recorded for ancient Israel and New Israel to see that those deliverers were nothing but human, whereas God is the only One who delivers and is sovereign? Although some times of peace lasted 40 years or more, no one could ultimately deliver Israel except God.
Did Israel ever comprehend God’s utterly singular sovereignty? Do we?
In the tale of Abimelech, a son of Gideon, the name Ebed or Obed appears. I suppose it’s doubtful that this would be the same Obed who was the son of Boaz, since Abimelech’s clan is said to have lived quite a bit north of Boaz’s. Yet the later Israelite reader might connect the two stories, and, after all, the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz is set in the time of the Judges (Ruth 1:1). At least, we might note that Abimelech (meaning something like “father-king” or “my father is King”) figures into the Judges narrative, in which the Israelites are hopelessly un-delivered. On the other hand, Naomi’s husband is Elimelech (meaning something like “my God is king”). Something tells me the reader would pick up more than a name here. Not only Naomi is given renewal and hope; Ruth, a Moabite outsider of all things, is also given a place within God’s providence. Here, God is a benevolent, gracious King. We remember here, with John Bright, that “the idea of monarchy [had been] consciously rejected. This was Illustrated in the words with which stout Gideon spurned a crown: ‘I will not rule over you. . . .'” Bright, 32
As Bright observed re: the “primitive theocracy” with a given Judge, “it was the direct rule of God over his people through his designated representative.” (32) In a very real sense, the entirety of the Christian believer’s life may be summed up in two aspects: the perceived place/role of God the King, and doing His will. More succinctly put: Kingdom and discipleship. God is our Emperor/King, and we owe Him allegiance, which might also be termed loyal living as a disciple of Jesus, who was God’s “designated representative.”
N.T. Wright has asserted these truths:
“[T]the call to faith is also a call to obedience. It must be, because it declares that Jesus is the world’s rightful Lord and Master. (The language Paul used of Jesus would have reminded his hearers at once of the language they were accustomed to hearing about Caesar.) That’s why Paul can speak about “the obedience of faith.’ Indeed, the word the early Christians used for “faith” can also mean “loyalty” or “allegiance.” It’s what emperors ancient and modern have always demanded of their subjects.”
Living by “faith,” therefore, is not merely saying “Jesus, I trust in You,” although that attitude and posture are important. Living by faith is also living loyally, acting obediently, being a disciple of the one everlasting “emperor.”