Like a scratched record on which the stylus becomes stuck in a single groove, playing the same music over and over again, one refrain sounds repeatedly in the book of Judges: “And the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Judges covers a crucial period of Old Testament history. It is sandwiched between the books of Joshua and 1 Samuel (with the little book of Ruth squeezed in as well). Joshua records the history of the conquest of Canaan, the move of the Israelites from the wilderness into the Promised Land. Once the conquest was accomplished, Israel settled into the era of the judges, or what Biblical scholars call the period of the amphictyony.
Historians date this period as being roughly between 1200 and 1050 B.C. The Egyptian Empire was waning and Assyria had been weakened. The newest threat to the Israelites was the Philistines, who controlled the seacoast of Canaan and had a monopoly on the manufacture of iron.
During this time, Israel was structured politically into a loose federation of tribes. The judges arose during times of crisis, being especially endowed by the Holy Spirit for their leadership tasks. They were charismatic figures who led the people of Israel by divine empowerment. We read of the exploits of Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Samson, and others. All engaged in defensive war—in battles to save their people from foreign oppression.
The cyclical history of the amphictyony went like this:
- The Israelites sinned against God.
- God’s anger was kindled against the people.
- God delivered them into the hands of their enemies.
- The Israelites groaned under oppression.
- God raised up judges to deliver the people.
This scenario is repeated over and over again until we come to the end of Judges. The book ends with an ominous note of foreboding: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
This was a time of moral decadence. The law of God was ignored and the covenant religion of the nation was supplanted by pagan idolatry. In this state of shambles, it is a wonder that the amphictyony survived at all, let alone lasting almost two hundred years.
The end of the judges period coincides with a transition into the period of the monarchy in Israel. The last judge of Israel, Samuel, is introduced as the protégé of Eli, the venerable priest. Eli’s great sin was his failure to discipline his corrupt sons, Hophni and Phinehas.
The amphictyony basically ended on the field of battle. The Israelites had met the Philistines near Ebenezer. In this battle, Israel was soundly defeated and four thousand of its soldiers were killed. When news of this humiliating slaughter reached the elders of Israel, they decided to send Israel’s most powerful weapon into battle against the Philistines—the sacred ark of the covenant that symbolized the very presence of God. The Philistines were aware of the incredible victories Israel’s armies had won when they had carried the ark into battle. Thus, when the ark arrived and the shout came from the Israelite camp, the Philistines were stricken with terror at the prospect of doing battle with Yahweh.
The sons of Eli were assigned the task of accompanying the ark into battle. But when the battle ensued this time, it was much worse. Israel was defeated again, this time with the loss of thirty thousand of its soldiers. Among the casualties were Hophni and Phinehas. But the supreme humiliation was that the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines and carted off to be placed as a trophy in the temple of Dagon.
When news of this disaster reached the central sanctuary at Shiloh, Eli, who was 98 years old and blind, fell over backward, broke his neck, and died. And when Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, heard the news, she went into labor and gave birth on the spot to a son. She died in childbirth, but not before naming her son “Ichabod.”
The name of this forlorn infant encapsulated the situation of Israel at this point in its history. Eli and his sons were dead. The ark of the covenant was captured, Shiloh was taken, and the sanctuary of the amphictyony was destroyed. The line of judges that had served Israel for so long was in ruins. The sole surviving judge was Samuel. For a time, he acted as an itinerant judge in an effort to keep the amphictyony alive. But the people had lost hope in the system. They had no unified government, no national army, and now no real central sanctuary. The “old ways” were deemed to be no longer effective. It was a time when the glory (kabod) of God had departed from Israel.
When Samuel grew old, he made his sons to be judges over Israel, but they, like the sons of Eli, did not walk in the ways of their father. The people began to clamor for a king, saying, “Make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” God saw this desire to be like the pagan nations to be not a rejection of Samuel but a rejection of God Himself. He viewed it as a desire of the people to not have Him to reign over them.
God granted the wish of the people, giving them over to their own evil impulses. But He did not make this grant without a solemn warning:
This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots…. He … will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons…. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves…. He will take a tenth of your grain…. He will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys…. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day (1 Sam. 8:11–18).
The rest is history.