In our 2022 Bible Reading plan, I have us reading only Judges chapters 1-3:6. The purpose of this reading is so we are able to follow the plotline of the OT narrative.
The book of Judges covers the time (100’s of years) between the conquest of Canaan under Joshua until the rise of the monarchy under Israel’s first king, Saul. The period is characterized by political disorder, violence, and the prevalence of anarchy in the land. This setting is confirmed by the theme of the book, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (17:6,18:1, 19:1) Not only does that refrain echo throughout the book but concludes with it (21:25) as a kind of a summation of the time period following the entrance of the Promise Land.
From a reading of Judges 1-3:6, it appears that after the initial Israelite victories, the pace of conquest varied considerably. In many cases tribes were responsible for bringing their own territories under control. With the passage of time, however, it seems to have become unstated policy, as the Israelites grew stronger, not to chase the Canaanites from the land, nor to exterminate them, but to subjugate them or even enslave them, to make them “drawers of water and hewers of wood,” to subject them to forced labor (Judges 1:28).
The inevitable result is that a great deal of religious paganism of the ancient Canaanites was still practiced in the land. The pagan religions and false gods inevitably became a “snare” to the covenant community (Judges 2:3). Angry with their refusal to break down the pagan altars, the angel of the Lord declares that if the people will not do what they are told, he will no longer provide them with the decisive help that would have enabled them to complete the conquest of the land. The people weep over the lost opportunity, but it was too late (Judges 2:1-4).
Dr. John Currid in his commentary on Judges, says, “The main thrust of the book, shot through with tragedy, is the cyclical failure of the covenant community, and how God intervenes to rescue them again and again. Initially, the people remained faithful throughout Joshua’s lifetime and the lifetime of the elders who outlived him. But by the time that an entirely new generation had grown up — one that had seen nothing of the wonders God had performed, whether at the Exodus, during the wilderness years, or at the time of the entrance into the Promised Land — fidelity to the Lord dwindled away. Syncretism and paganism abounded; the people forsook the God of their fathers and served the Baals, i.e., the various “lords” of the Canaanites (Judges 2:1-10). The Lord responded in wrath; the people were subjected to raids, reversals, and military defeats at the hands of surrounding marauders. When the people cried to the Lord for help, he raised up a judge — a regional and often national leader — who freed the people from tyranny and led them in covenantal faithfulness. And then the cycle began again. And again. And again.”
The period of the judges is a dark, grim hour in the history of the people of the covenant. Yet, this time is also a tremendous testimony to God’s faithfulness to his people even during their idolatry. God’s grace to them in their iniquity is truly staggering. God’s promises to his people are sure and true, and no matter how the powers of darkness attempt to thwart God’s plans, they will never succeed. The entire book of Judges, with its slew of fallen deliverers and anti-heroes, cries out for the coming of the true deliverer. Whereas any deliverance from the enemies of God’s people in the book of Judges is merely temporal and short-lived, the promised Messiah will bring eternal redemption.
(Much of the above content is adapted from the shared resources of Gospel Coalition and Dr. John Currid)