Understanding the Character of God in Judges

Introduction

Threaded through the cycles of Judges is the underlying character of God. Stitched with various literary techniques, three of God’s character traits rise to the surface: His desire for partnership with man, His anger over man’s betrayal, and ultimately His steadfast focus on His Will.

A Desire for Partnership

God desires a partnership with Israel based on mutual trust and vision. Presenting God’s point of view depicts God’s hope in this. The narrator opens Judges with God and Israel in complete partnership. In 1:2, God is the screenwriter and Israel, the star performer. God’s affirmation in 1:19 and 1:22, “the Lord was with them,” indicates a shared vision and mutual trust. From God’s perspective, the partnership was strong.

Eventual Israelite failures terminate the partnership at the national level (2:2). The writer presents God’s awareness of Israel’s unreliability by utilizing in quick succession such scathing phrases as “did not know the Lord” and repeating “forsook the Lord” (2:10-13). Nevertheless, He perseveres with the partnership at the level of the individual judge. In the Othniel and Ehud cycles, God’s concise orchestration illustrate once again a cohesive partnership.

Sadly, partnership in Judges was not meant to last. The narrator presents God’s observation of the fracturing partnership by highlighting Barak’s hesitancy in 2:8 followed by Deborah’s double-sided response, “I will surely go” versus “nevertheless there will be no glory for you.” Yet, despite failing trust and vision, God continues to work in partnership with Barak. The Gideon narrative further illustrates God’s desire to cling to the weakening partnership. Repeatedly, Gideon attempts to escape in fear, representing a lack of trust in the partnership with God. Yet, the narrator presents four miracles in vivid detail to illustrate God’s efforts to assuage His partner, Gideon. Where once God worked seamlessly with judges Othniel and Ehud, now God is forced to continuously rebuild faith in the partnership. Despite the shrinking trust of the judge, the writer expresses God’s persistence on maintaining the partnership with man. It is only with Abimelech, Jephthah and Samson that the partnership has reached a breaking point as God perceives man’s wholly selfish vision. The narrator presents a silent God, recognizing that partnership without communication is no partnership at all.

The narrator presents God’s vantage point that Israel broke the partnership in allowing the pagan religions to remain in the land. The writer weaves God’s point of view into the narrative to emphasize His determination in sustaining the partnership. Despite His efforts, God perceives the partnership in full collapse due to human lack of trust and selfish vision.

Anger Unleashed

Anger is a central characteristic of God throughout Judges. The narrator illustrates this through not only God’s tone and responses but also God’s revealed emotion.

The rebuke in chapter 2 presents God’s tone of unmistakable anger. God vindictively leaves the indigenous nations as “thorns in your [Israel’s] side” and “as a snare” (2:3). In frustration, God ends 2:3 in pleading, “Why have you done this?” Later in the Gideon cycle, God reiterates the same message in a much stronger tone (6:8-10). The narrator omits the softer pleading of the previous harangue, with God bluntly concluding, “But you have not observed my voice!” In God’s final diatribe in 10:11-14, beseeching frustration has transformed into rhetorical despair. In contrast with the first two rants, there is no plea, there is no simple critique; instead, God sarcastically ends with “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen; let them deliver you in your time of distress.” God’s chilling silence in the cycles of Abimelech, Jephthah, Samson and the concluding Levite stories is testimony to His anger. The narrator presents God’s tone in speech or silence as evidence to His anger.

If God’s words were not sufficient proof, the narrator depicts God’s emotion. The anger of the Lord is described as “hot” in 2:14, 3:8, and 10:7. The writer uses repetition to show the duration as well as the compounding nature of God’s anger. Adding further emphasis, the increasing severity in oppression, as told by the narrator, illustrates God’s growing anger. Beginning with tributes to oppressors, building to Midianite devastation of their livelihood, reaching a crescendo with the feared Philistines and Ammonites on both sides, each successive utterance of “they did evil in the sight of the Lord” sees an emotionally, angry God allowing an increase in oppression. Ultimately, the self-afflicted oppression of civil war shows God’s passive compliance in allowing the devastation of not one but two tribes, Benjamin and Jabesh-Gilead. The narrator brings to the forefront God’s seething anger through these indicators of God’s emotion.

Unwavering Focus on His Will

In the downward spiral of Judges, God’s Will remains constant. The general formula of the structure in each cycle is set as four stages identified in the initial Othniel cycle: 1) Apostasy, 2) Bondage, 3) Cry, 4) Deliverance. However, the only constants from cycle to cycle are apostasy and deliverance. Israel does not always perform stage 3 in crying out. In the case of Gideon and Jephthah, the repentance stage in the structure is given in appeasement, not devotion. Yet, God delivers. In the Samson cycle, God begins Israel’s deliverance despite Israel skipping the third stage. The Bondage stage itself is mitigated in the Samson cycle as Israel is content with Philistine rule. Through these variations of structure, the narrator demonstrates that the consistency of God’s deliverance was not a result of the repentance of Israel. In fact, the narrator shows that stage 4, deliverance, was not dependant on any of the prior stages. God’s purpose first and foremost was to uphold the promise to Abraham.

In addition, the narrator reveals that God’s perspective is focused upon His Will, with or without the consent of the judges. Jephthah fulfilled God’s Will by delivering the Israelites, yet his own will in establishing his lineage was forfeit. The narrator conveys that the Spirit of the Lord had already come upon him (11:29) prior to his foolish vow (11:30-31). The Lord delivers the Ammonites (11:32) without acknowledging the vow. God’s Will is served. Jephthah, himself, is left to His own demise. In the case of Samson, God schemes without His judge’s knowledge. In 14:4, the narrator makes this explicit in stating that “his father and mother [and Samson] did not know…that [the Lord] was seeking an occasion to move against the Philistines…” God no longer saw a purpose in divulging the plan. All have become unwitting participants in His Will. Finally, the narrator presents God’s carefully chosen words encouraging Israel to battle against Benjamin with the ulterior motive of punishing Israel, itself. The narrator shows God’s focus on His Will to the end.

Conclusion

Through cyclical structure, carefully chosen dialogues, and narrated details, the author of Judges presents God as a God who desires to work in partnership with humanity. The sad story of Judges is how this partnership fails due to man’s apostasy, and ultimate lack of trust, resulting in a God that is justifiably angry. However, the silver lining is that God is portrayed as a character who, though angered by his failed relationship with man, perseveres and determines to see His overall Will upheld.

Reflection

In light of the past month’s journey through the deteriorating cycles of the judges, there are valid reasons to be distraught in our opinion of God. However, in review of the aforementioned characteristics, under the negativity of Judges, there is truly a silver lining.

God’s desire for partnership may be one of the most powerful notions I have come across in my journey. In an individualistic society: God and man stand apart. God loves man. Man failed God. Christ saves man. Man accepts Christ. Christ lives in man’s heart. Man is saved. That is the extent of Christianity that I was taught in the Western culture. The concept of community is as foreign to the Western Christian as India is to America. However, God is shown as desiring a two-member community, a partnership, with Man, with the shared vision of His Will. We are chosen not just to be saved, but to bring about His Kingdom. For God to need me for His purposes, gives me more value than any societal estimation could offer.

God’s anger, though noticeably seething and somewhat intimidating in the book of Judges, illustrates that God is a God who is involved with man. One who is distant and disconnected, would not be angry. When one option fails, a disinterested God would simply move onto the next option. Yet, God’s anger is evident in the Book of Judges. The emotions of God are in relation to His interest in the individual lives and decisions of each man.

God’s Will will be done. The question is whether we choose to work with Him, or to work against Him. If the latter, the lives of Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, are witness to what can be expected. Despite this fear, it is an assurance to know that our flaws and shortcomings will not derail the Will of God.

Judges has presented a God that I have grown to love only in the last few years. The loving, gracious, and peaceful God of my childhood was a convenient tool. He served my will quite adequately. Until one day, I decided that I no longer needed that tool. This reversed position of myself as the willing tool in God’s Will is by far more meaningful. My hope for a life worth living is only made possible because God is a God who desires to bring about His Will in partnership with me.

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