In the last chapters of Joshua, we read the last testament of Joshua, prophetic in its nature and scope. Like the prophets that would follow him, Joshua speaks for God and reminds the subjects of God’s nation of their covenant with God, calls them to remain faithful, and warns them of the consequences of failure and forgetfulness. The last chapter reads like a formal renewal of God’s suzerainty treaty with Israel, with both parties reviewing what God their Suzerain has done for them, what he expects of them, how he will reward their fealty and punish their disloyalty, and with the subjects’ declaration of their loyalty. Then Joshua dies. We saw a similar treaty renewal ceremony happen just before Moses’ death. Especially touching is the final note about the disposition of Joseph’s remains, something that Joseph himself had requested near the end of Genesis. We speak logically and rightfully of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, being a unit sharing the common feature of law-giving, among others. We call that collection “Torah,” which is Hebrew for “instruction.” But the interplay and commonality of features between Joshua and the Pentateuch has led some Old Testament scholars, no less respected than Gerhard Von Rad, to speak of a Hexateuch, an essential thematic unity of the first six books of the Bible (check out http://www.cresourcei.org/hexateuch.html for more information).
But the unity will reach into successive books of the Old Testament as well. Joshua prophesied in Chapter 24: 19, “You won’t have the strength to serve the Lord your God.” And so it happens in Judges, from the earliest chapters on. “There arose a generation that did not know the Eternal, nor what he had done for the people (2:10).” Successive stories will follow a cyclical pattern: people will abandon God; Moabites, Arameans, Philistines or others will oppress them; the Israelites will repent, confess and cry out to God for deliverance; God will raise up a deliverer (a judge); this deliverer/judge will be God’s tool to vanquish the oppressor (who may be a client or vassal king to a foreign suzerain like the Pharoah); God’s people will backslide into injustice and idolatry, sometimes along with the deliverer/judge, who is usually a morally mixed and complicated figure, like any of us. The moral and spiritual ambiguities and complexities of God’s servants, like Gideon and Jephtha, stand in stark contrast to the usual propaganda of Israel’s neighboring states about their kings and heroes. They were usually perfect, fearless, invincible and sometimes even divine. Then the cycle of backsliding, oppression, repentance, renewal, and deliverance recommences. But overall, there is a definite downward progression to the cycle throughout Judges. The stories get uglier, leading to civil war (Abimelech, chapter 9) and worse.
The judges are spiritual and military leaders; they are not meant to be kings. God is to be Israel’s king. But human nature presents a dilemma: the justice, dignity and freedom from imperial oppression that God’s covenant envision only works when people discipline and submit themselves to God. Centralized imperial and administrative control may stem some of the chaos and abuse, but inevitably also becomes abusive. Yet Judges is not making the case for centralized, imperial control to constrains the chaos and abuses of Israel’s empire-free, grass-roots rule of divine law, because Israel’s oppressors are subjects and hirelings of centralized and idolatrous empires. Judges leaves us longing for the kind of hero, leader and warrior whom we will only meet in the Gospels, Jesus, the Second Joshua. And it leaves us longing for the kind of covenant that Jeremiah foresaw, one in which God’s Spirit would write the law on our hearts (Jer. 31).
Of special note are the prominent roles of women in Judges. One of the judges is the prophetess Deborah (chapter 4). She is probably the strongest and godliest of Israel’s leaders after Joshua and before Samuel. Even without bearing a weapon, she combines Joshua’s roles of prophet, politician and tactician. Her final military aim, the capture and killing of Sisera, is accomplished by another woman, Jael, whose only weapons are a hammer and a tent peg. The only person who could kill Abimelech was an un-named woman, armed only with a piece of a millstone. Looking ahead to another judge, Jephthah (ch. 10), the only hero of that tragic and disturbing story will be his daughter. The annual rites of young women in her honor give us a glimpse into aspects of religious life unique to Israel’s women.