Israel entered the land of Canaan under Joshua with much success, destroying several cities and capturing vast swaths of land. However, the Israelites did not heed the Lord’s command to completely destroy the pagan inhabitants of the promised land (Deut. 20:16–17). When they gained the upper hand in Canaan, they decided to force many of the Canaanite peoples into serving them (Judg. 1). They thought themselves able to resist the pull of Canaanite idolatry despite God’s warnings (Deut. 20:18).
God would have been just to abandon Israel for this disobedience, but as we see in today’s passage, that is not what He did. Instead, He chose to cease driving out the nations before Israel and to leave them in the land as a test (Judg. 2:1–5). The false gods of Canaan would be allowed to present themselves as alternatives to the one true God, and the Israelites would have to decide whom they were going to follow.
As Judges 2:6–13 explains, the people of Israel failed to make the right choice consistently during the era of the judges. With the passing of Joshua and the generation of Israelites that entered Canaan with him, “another generation” arose “who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (v. 10). They forgot who God is and what He had done, and the result was rebellion. As one commentator puts it, “amnesia produces apostasy.”
The Israelites turned away from the Lord in order to serve “the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (v. 13). Baal was the Canaanite storm god and Astarte was his female consort, and these pagan deities were thought to provide fertility to the land of the ancient Near East. Here the plural forms “Baals” and “Ashtaroth” are used because Baal and Astarte were worshiped under various names across Canaan and the surrounding lands. The worship of these deities frequently included child sacrifice and cult prostitution to get the gods to pour out rain and make the land fertile. Without a strong leader in Israel, the Israelites were, on the whole, unable to resist the lure of these false worship practices.
Thus began the tragic cycle of the judges, wherein God would hand His disobedient people over to their Canaanite enemies, send them a judge to lead them out of defeat and bondage, and then hand the people over again when they resorted to unfaithfulness after the judge passed from the scene (vv. 14–23). God did not abandon Israel entirely, but the people suffered for their errors.