How to Read Judges Theologically (part one)
How do we read Judges theologically? A fine question and one which I love to be asked. Seldom an episode will pass and we don’t wonder what is going on in this book and how the bizarre and violent behaviour could possible instruct us theologically! Before jumping into the question about how to read Judges theologically, however, it’s probably worthwhile for me to explain (ever so briefly) what I think it means more broadly to read the Bible theologically.
I rather like Charles Quarles’ explanation of what he means by reading Matthew “theologically” in his article in this series (December 30, 2019). For Quarles, reading theologically does not fundamentally mean reading through a particular confessional grid or making connections to theological doctrines—or we might add, reading with the church fathers or other interpreters in the Christian tradition—as worthy and as helpful to the task of reading theologically as these activities may be. Rather, for Quarles, reading theologically means “reading Matthew like the apostle himself intended it to be read.” And how do we know precisely how the apostle intended his gospel account to be read? We must be attentive, careful readers of Matthew, discerning the clues, patterns, and content (“cues and prompts” to use Quarles’ terms) of his discourse. We put ourselves in the very best position to hear God’s communication to us today through the biblical texts by attending to what the biblical authors are communicating and how they communicate it.
This, as I understand it, is at the heart of “reading theologically” or “theological interpretation of Scripture”—that is listening attentively to the divine address in Scripture. It’s beyond this article for me to explain in detail the contours of this kind of theological reading but a very helpful and thoughtful discussion of this is published in the book A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation (Baker Academic, 2016) and I encourage readers to pursue that work. This idea of listening as the heart of theological interpretation is helpful for a number of reasons, not least because it holds in tension both the active and the receptive posture of the reader. Of course, reading theologically requires effort, attentiveness and care—it can be hard work and should involve analysis; however, reading theologically is at a fundamental level listening, requiring humility, silence, and meditation as we receive divine instruction.Reading theologically is at a fundamental level listening, requiring humility, silence, and meditation as we receive divine instruction. Click To Tweet
Judges is a bloody book. It opens with Israel going to war against foreign nations, it ends with Israel at war with itself (that itself is a clue), and every episode involves bloodshed and almost every one includes morally questionable behaviour. What’s more, precisely what we are to make of the bloodshed and bad behaviour isn’t always obvious on the first pass. How then do we read Judges theologically or, to put it differently, how do we put ourselves in the very best position to hear God’s address in and through Judges? The remainder of this short essay will tackle this vital question. I’m convinced that as we attune our ears to the message of Judges, it will instruct us about God, his kingdom, and our calling and purpose (i.e., our mission) as citizens of the divine kingdom amidst “the nations” as well as the various trappings that compromise our allegiance to Christ and his kingdom and inhibit our calling in this world.
Reading Judges as a Chapter in God’s Divine Drama of Redemption
Regular readers of Credo should be no strangers to the concept and practice of biblical theology. Apart from the many articles which implicitly or explicitly deal with the concept, a whole issue was devoted to biblical theology in 2013. Biblical theology is that discipline that discerns and articulates the unity of the Bible leveraging the categories derived from the Bible itself, and foundational to biblical theology is the grand redemptive narrative of Scripture.
Encountering the opening words of Judges (“After the death of Joshua…”) readers should immediately recognize that they are being plunged midstream into this larger story. These opening words cast our vision back to the previous book (Joshua) and the events which are recorded there. Moreover, these particular words echo the opening words of Joshua (“After the death of Moses…”) which in turn cast our vision back to Deuteronomy, which itself is a series of theological reflections on Israel’s story from their slavery in Egypt, to the Exodus from Egypt, to the identity forming covenant at Sinai, to the wilderness wandering, to their journey to the edge of the Promised Land (Exodus – Numbers). The story of Judges stretches even further back than Exodus, however, as the end of Joshua makes clear.
Absolutely key for understanding Judges (and its place in the divine drama) are Joshua’s summons to Israel at the end of the book of Joshua and Israel’s response. He accentuates (notice the repetition and emphasis) how pivotal their present moment is in Josh. 23:14 (ESV):
And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed.
Joshua is drawing attention back to those ancient promises that God made to Abraham—(1) that he would become a great and numerous nation, (2) that God would establish a relationship of mutual blessing with him and his descendants, and (3) that they would possess a land of their own. These promises to Abraham were God’s response to the evil and rebellion which were unleashed in the world through the fall (Gen. 3), such that in choosing Abraham and his descendants, God was deputizing them to be agents of his restoration and shalom in a now broken world—to bring back blessing into a world now cursed. With Israel’s conquest of the land and their possession of it all three of these ancient promises are fulfilled!
Joshua then goes on to summons the people to pledge their allegiance—either to Yahweh or to the foreign deities (Josh. 24:14-15)—and then to operate out of that allegiance. It’s worth pointing out that the Exodus and Sinai covenant cast Yahweh as the divine king and Israel as the earthly hub of the kingdom of Yahweh. The rules and regulations of the Torah are not designed to hamper the freedom of God’s people or to keep them under the divine “thumb.” Rather, they function as the boundaries within which Israel would manifest the kingdom of Yahweh, flourish and allow that flourishing to spill over to the surrounding nations. Israelite society—from farming practice, to family, clan, tribal and foreign relationships, to politics and economics and so on—was to reflect the character and values of King Yahweh as they enflesh their allegiance to him.
Perhaps surprisingly the people of God enthusiastically respond to this summons not once, not twice, but three times, expressing “We will service Yahweh” (24:18b, 21, 24). With these words echoing in our ears, the tribes retire to their allotted territories and the book ends. The end of Joshua leaves readers full of hope and anticipation—God has fulfilled all the promises made to Abraham, the people have pledged their allegiance to King Yahweh and are unswervingly committed to serving him and his purposes! We turn the page into Judges with a keen sense of anticipation to see God’s kingdom come and his will done in the Promised Land as it is in heaven—great flourishing and blessing are sure to come!
Of course, if you know anything about Judges you know that our expectations are utterly dashed as the Israelites consistently and repeatedly do the opposite of what they pledge at the end of Joshua—they “abandon” Yahweh and “serve” the gods of the Canaanites, which is clearly no good for Israel and it is no benefit to the nations Israel was called in their new home to bless. The profound tragedy of what we encounter in Judges is only seen in proper relief when we situate the book in the unfolding redemptive narrative. Moreover, only read in light of what the Sinai covenant (and its explanation in Deuteronomy) is trying to accomplish does what we encounter in Judges make sense. Had Israel remained loyal to Yahweh we would expect a society in Israel to emerge which was characterised by shalom, order, justice and blessing. By abandoning Yahweh and pledging allegiance to the Canaanite gods, a thoroughly Canaanite society emerges—one characterized by cycles of chaos, tribal and self-interest, violence, and misery.
 See also Craig G. Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics: A Comprehensive Framework for Hearing God in Scripture (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015); Craig G. Bartholomew and David J.H. Beldman (eds.), Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).
 See the helpful chapter “Listening and Biblical Interpretation” in Bartholomew, Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics, 17-47.
 See D. J. H. Beldman and J. Swales, “Biblical Theology and Theological Interpretation,” in A Manifesto for Theological Interpretation, ed. C.G. Bartholomew and H. Thomas (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 149-170.
 For these three dimensions of the Abrahamic promises see the very helpful book by David J.A. Clines: The Theme of the Pentateuch (JSOTSup 10; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1978).