The Characteristics of the Times. This is a period of transition for Israel Nothing was quite certain, and "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (17:6). In consequence of this there was lack of organization, cooperation or leadership. While we do not have all the history covered by the period and while we do not easily understand or explain its events, it is clear that things did not run smoothly. In Judges 2:16-19 the author gives a vivid picture of the conditions and characteristics of the time. The problems of the times may be outlined as follows: (1) Political problems. These arose, (a) because of the isolated conditions of the tribes, (b) because of their tribal government which lacked the bond of unity of former times, (c) because of the strength and opposition of the Canaanites. (2) Social problems. These grew out of: (a) the adoption of Canaanite customs and manner of life, (b) the intermarriage of the Jews with the new people. (3) Religious Problems. The source of these problems arose from two directions, (a) Baal worship ministered to their lusts and was therefore a snare to them, (b) the religion of Israel required purity and was, therefore, counted a burden. The problems of the times of peace were greater than those in the times of war.
The Judges. Now that there was no central stable government and no hereditary rulers the people accepted from time to time as their rulers certain military leaders whom God raised up and who, by their prowess, delivered them from the yoke of foreign oppression. It was, therefore, a period of personal efforts some of which are preserved for us in this portion of scripture. Fifteen Judges are named counting Eli and Samuel, who are by some not so named, but we know very little of any except six of the military judges and Eli and Samuel. These six are brought into prominence because of as many invasions by other nations as follows. (1) The Mesopotamians came down from the northeast and oppressed Israel until Othniel, Caleb's nephew, was raised up to deliver them. (2) The invasion of the Moabites and the deliverance through Ehud. (3) The oppression of the Canaanites, who came down from the north, was thrown off through the leadership of Deborah assisted by Barak. (4) The Midianites came in from the east and greatly oppressed Israel until Gideon defeated and destroyed these bold oppressors. (5) The invasion of the Ammonites and Israel's deliverance through Jephthah. (6) The Philistines were the next successful enemies of Israel and were enabled to do great harm to Israel until Samson arose and overthrew their power.
Eli and Samuel differed widely from the other judges and on that account are sometimes not counted among them. Eli was a good but weak man. His weakness in the control of his children ruined them and brought him to sorrow and also caused a severe defeat for Israel.
Samuel was the last of the judges and was also a priest and prophet. He is one of the outstanding Old Testament characters. Abraham founded the Hebrew race; Joseph saved them from famine; Moses gave them a home and Samuel organized them into a great kingdom which led to their glory. His birth was in answer to prayer and as judge or deliverer he won his most signal victory, that against the Philistines, by means of prayer. He founded schools for the instruction of young prophets at Gilgal. Bethel, Mizpeh and Ramah. In this he perhaps rendered his most valuable and most lasting service. These schools gave a great impetus to prophecy. After this time prophecy and prophets had a vital and permanent place in the life of the nation. Even kings had to consult them for instructions from God.
Ruth the Moabite. In contrast with the many stories of idolatry and sin of the times and especially in contrast with the story of the idolatry of Micah and the crime of Gibeah found in the last chapters of Judges, we have the beautiful little story of Ruth, the Moabite. Others had turned away from Jehovah the true God to false gods, but she turned from the false gods and received the true God.
Other Nations. Of the condition of the other nations of this period we are left largely to the monuments, but much has been discovered that throws light on the general world conditions. The following might be noted here. (1) Egypt. After the Exodus of Israel Egypt seems to have enjoyed several centuries of great prosperity during which the country was adorned with wonderful buildings, her religion prospered, her people were famous for their learning and, through colonization projects, she carried her civilization to many other climes. (2) Assyria was now a growing empire and destined to become, ere long, one of the most powerful of all. (3) Babylonia was now weak and generally at a disadvantage in contests with other nations. (4) The Elamites also became a people of considerable influence and at least on different occasions invaded Babylonia. (5) Mesopotamia, before being absorbed by Assyria was a powerful nation and ravaged Syria and Palestine. (6) Phoenicia was a country of great commercial progress with Tyre and Sidon as centers of great influence. (7) Greece. The most interesting of all the countries that began to show their strength during that period is Greece. The inhabitants were wonderful in physical energy, in war and conquest, in discovery and in capacity for education. They were fond of pleasure and had great capacity for the tasks of society, government, and religion. They contrived a religious system that was conspicuous for the absence of the great priestly class of the eastern systems of religion. However, it left the morally corrupt nature of man untouched and, therefore, did not contribute anything to the cause of pure religion.
Outline of The Narrative. The Scripture narrative falls into the following well-defined divisions: (1) An introduction or the condition in Palestine at the beginning of the period, Jud.1:1-3:6. (2) The Judges and their work, Jud.3:1:1-3:6. (2) The Judges and their work, (Jud.3:7-16 end). (3) Micah's idolatry, Jud. Chs.17-18. (4) The crime of Gibeah, Jud. Chs.19-21. (5) The story of Ruth, Ruth. (6) The career of Samuel including the judgeship of Eli, 1 Sam. Chs.1-7.
Ethical and Religious Standards. Since this is a transitional period we may expect great difference of moral and religions standards. Some things are stressed far beyond their importance while other matters of more consequence are overlooked. The following examples will indicate to what extremes they went in some matters. (1) Some things bad: (a) Murdering a heathen enemy was counted a virtue; (b) It was not a crime to steal from a member of another Hebrew tribe; (c) Might was right; (d) They would keep any foolish vow to God even though it cost the life of one's child as in the case of Jephthah. (2) Some things good: (a) The marriage relation was held sacred; (b) A covenant was held binding and sacred as in the case of the Gibeonites; (c) They counted inhospitality a crime. (3) Some strange inconsistencies: (a) Micah would steal his mother's silver, then rear a family altar to Jehovah; (b) Samson would keep his Nazarite vow, preserve his hair intact and abstain from wine and unclean food but give himself over to lying and to his passions, and selfish inclinations and fail to observe the simple laws of justice, mercy and service.
Lessons of the Period. (1) As to national decay: (a) It is caused by religious apostasy; (b) It evidences itself in religious blindness, political folly and social immorality; (c) Its curse results in political and social disorder, chaos and ultimate ruin. (2) As to punishment for sin: (a) He surely sends punishment on the offender whether an individual or a nation; (b) His punishment is a matter of mercy and is intended to prepare the way for deliverance. (3) As to deliverance: (a) It never comes until repentance is manifested; (b) It is always through a deliverer whom we can not find but whom God must raise up for us. (4) From the book of Ruth it is shown that circumstances neither make nor mar believers.
For Study and Discussion. (1) The names of the Judges in order with the length of time each served or the period of rest after the work of each. (2) The enemy each judge had to combat. (3) What each judge accomplished against the enemy and what weapon he used-an oxgoad or what? (4) The elements of strength and weakness in the character of the principal men of the period. (5) The New Testament truths illustrated in the life and work of Gideon and Samson. (6) The lessons of practical life illustrated by the stories of Jephthah and Deborah. (7) The facts of the story of Micah and Gibeah. (8) The career of Samuel as found so far. (9) The value of a trusting soul as seen in Ruth. (10) The main element in their religion. (11) The condition of Israel at the beginning and at the end of this period. (12) The subject of good and successful parents with bad and unsuccessful children. The importance they attached to the Ark of the Covenant.