Summary: Lessons from history as found in the book of Judges
One of my favourite lines from the TV series, Mash, was the statement that this was the latest ’war to end all wars’. The point they were making of course was that we never seem to learn from history. No matter how bad our experience of history is, we never seem to be able to learn our lesson so we avoid the same mistake the next time.
But that begs the question of course, whether there are patterns in history from which we can learn. Historians and thinkers have debated that question over many years. Some would say, "Yes, there is a meaningful pattern to history, and if we can find it we can do something to change the way things happen." For example, Karl Marx thought that if you examined history you could find a pattern revolving around the unequal distribution of power and resources. If you followed his model you would eventually arrive at a Utopian, classless society based on Socialism. Well, however much truth there may have been in his analysis, his conclusion was clearly wrong. Socialist societies have been found to fail just as badly as the capitalist societies he was critiquing.
But that’s no surprise to the other side of the debate, to those who argue that there’s no such pattern to be found in history. They argue that so often the course of history is a matter of pure chance. For example, in 1768 the Italian city state of Genoa ceded Corsica to France. That sounds like a fairly minor political decision, until you realise that if it had happened a year later, Napoleon, who was born in Corsica in1769, would have been an Italian! And how would that have shaped world history? And how often has history depended on individuals doing something extraordinary or unexpected. How often have scientific discoveries, for example, come about by accident or chance? How often has the course of history depended on the actions of one individual, one great leader?
The fact is, history is dependent on an extremely complex, unpredictable combination of factors such that if there is a pattern it’s almost impossible to find. Yet, having said that, I want to suggest that there are patterns to be found if we look in the right place, or with our eyes open to the right factors. The reason I say that is that here in the book of Judges we find just such a set of factors, such a pattern.
The book of Judges begins after the death of Joshua, with the people of Israel attempting to finish their occupation of the land of Canaan. At first they have some success, but as time goes on, they fail to follow up the victories that God has given them. Groups of Canaanites are left behind all over their territory despite the warnings God had given them to rid the land of all other nations. As a result, in Judges 2, the angel of the Lord appears in Bochim with this message: (Judg 2:1-3 NRSV) "I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had promised to your ancestors. I said, ’I will never break my covenant with you. 2For your part, do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land; tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my command. See what you have done! 3So now I say, I will not drive them out before you; but they shall become adversaries to you, and their gods shall be a snare to you."
The narrative that follows fills out the ramifications of this dire warning. The Israelites, having failed to drive out the Canaanites are corrupted by their pagan worship and turn away from the Lord. Then develops a pattern of history that sets the tone essentially for the rest of the Old Testament. The people turn away from worship of the True and Living God to worship pagan idols. This moral deterioration results in the LORD becoming angry with them so he gives them up to the attacks of the surrounding nations. They’re defeated, but when they turn back to God, he raises up judges, or charismatic military leaders who save them from the hands of their enemies (2:16). Yet this respite from the attacks of their enemies is always short lived. Why? 2:17: Because they would "not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the LORD; they did not follow their example."
And as time goes on it gets worse and worse. The pattern of history that emerges is a downward spiral, in which every step they take forward is matched by 2 backwards, until in ch 2:20 God is so angry with Israel that he says he will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left behind when he died.