In other words, the history of Israel as depicted in Joshua-Judges-Ruth covers a period when the nation was not yet a state (without a king). These three books not only explain why kingship was needed in Israel but also why God made the covenant with David. Our exposition of these books will highlight this central theme.
Nation Without King
We already know that for Israel to enter and remain in the Promised Land the nation must observe the Mosaic Covenant. To do so they needed to have complete trust in God. So in Deuteronomy Moses not only reaffirmed Joshua as his successor but also prepared the nation to trust in God. Now in the book of Joshua we will learn that a God-fearing leader whom the people feared was needed to lead the nation in trusting God and observing the Mosaic Covenant.
After Moses died God commanded Joshua to lead the people into Canaan (Joshua 1:1-8). He promised to be with Joshua as He had been with Moses. On Joshua’s part he needed to be strong and courageous and be careful to observe the Mosaic Law himself. To ensure this, God commanded Joshua to meditate on it “day and night.”
When Joshua assumed leadership over the nation, the people pledged that they would obey him just as they had obeyed Moses, but added, “only may the LORD your God be with you as He was with Moses” (1:17). To demonstrate to them that He would be with Joshua as He was with Moses, God performed a miracle through Joshua similar to one He had performed through Moses (Joshua 3:7-4:23). For Joshua commanded the nation to cross the river Jordan into Canaan at a time when it was overflowing its banks. And the waters in the river were cut off allowing them to cross over, reminding them of how the nation had crossed the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses. As a result the people feared Joshua all the days of his life as they had feared Moses (4:14).
The first city to be captured was Jericho. God commanded Joshua to take the city through an extremely abnormal, in fact ridiculous, means (see Joshua 6). They would not have to fight at all. Joshua obeyed God and the people obeyed Joshua. When they captured Jericho they could not claim any credit at all; it was God who quite literally handed the city over to them. Subsequently the people had to fight to capture a city. What then is the purpose of this one-off abnormal means against Jericho?
Prior to crossing Jordan God fed them with manna. But when they arrived in Canaan and ate some of the produce of the land the manna stopped (5:12). Recall that (in Deuteronomy 8:3) God’s feeding them with manna was to teach them to live by (depend on) God’s word and not only “by bread” (depend only on the normal means of making a living). This is so that when they use normal means, which God expected them to unless He instructed otherwise, they would still trust in God and not in the means. Similarly, the capture of Jericho without a fight was to teach them to trust in God only and not in their fighting ability. This is to ensure that when they have success, whether in terms of a good harvest or victory in a battle, they would continue to trust and obey God.
To reinforce this lesson, God caused them to be defeated the first time they tried to capture the second city, Ai (Joshua 7). Someone had secretly taken a spoil in Jericho, which was forbidden by God for the capture of that city. This was obviously to test whether they would obey God completely, before allowing them to take spoils in the capture of subsequent cities. They were able to capture Ai only after the culprit was discovered and dealt with (Joshua 8). This would have impressed upon them more deeply that even when they used human means, it was God who gave them success.
When they had captured enough cities throughout Canaan (Joshua 10-12), and when Joshua was advanced in age, the Promised Land was officially divided among the tribes (Joshua 13-22). The individual tribes had to complete the task of taking possession of all the land within the territory allotted to them. God had promised that anywhere within the Promised Land that they set foot on would be theirs (1:3). It is now up to them to trust in God and occupy the land that remained to be possessed.
Before Joshua died he gathered the nation twice (Joshua 23-24). The first gathering, which involved only the leaders of each of the tribes, was held (presumably) at Shiloh (Woudstra 1981: 332), where the Tabernacle was then located (18:1; 21:2; 22:9). Joshua reminded them of God’s faithfulness and exhorted them to remain faithful to the Mosaic Covenant.
The second gathering was held at Shechem, where the nation had previously observed a ceremony to fulfill a command given by Moses (8:30-35; cf. Deuteronomy 27). This time it involved all the tribes together with their leaders. It was essentially a covenant renewal ceremony. Joshua put to the people, “choose for yourselves today whom you will serve,” and added, “as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD” (24:15). On that day the people renewed their commitment to serve God and obey His voice.
On the whole we can say that under the leadership of Joshua the people obeyed God and the political vision of Deuteronomy, with a constitutional form of leadership, was put into practice in Israel (McConville 2006: 116-17). This political accomplishment demonstrates that Joshua represented the kind of leadership needed to ensure the nation remained faithful to the Mosaic Covenant. This conclusion becomes painfully obvious when we look at the condition of Israel after Joshua died. For this we turn to the book of Judges.
Judges 2:6 picks up the account of what happened after Joshua had dismissed the people from the second gathering (Joshua 24:28). We read that, “the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work of the LORD which He had done for Israel” (2:7). But when that generation passed away, “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD, nor yet the work which He had done for Israel” (2:10).
In other words, the impact of Joshua’s leadership outlived him for a while. But soon the nation lacked the kind of leadership needed to keep Israel faithful to God. The outcome was that the people repeatedly fell into the temptation to worship foreign gods. Whenever this happened, as already forewarned in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, God would allow a foreign king to oppress them. When they could no longer bear the oppression they would cry out to God, who would then raise up a “judge” to deliver them (Judges 2:11-16).
Gordon McConville (2006: 121-22) has clarified what the term “judge” really means. The Hebrew word for the noun “judge” is derived from a verb that “may mean ‘judge’, ‘rule’ or ‘deliver’, depending on the context, and the noun has corresponding meanings.” This semantic range of the verb “corresponds to political actuality, since administrative [rule], military [deliver] and judicial [judge] roles were closely linked in the ANE [world of the Old Testament], and often embodied in the king.” Though the military role (3:9-10) is highlighted in the book of Judges, the administrative (10:2) and judicial (4:4-5) roles are also indicated.
After being delivered by a judge, the people would experience peace for the rest of the judge’s lifetime. But after the judge died, they “would turn back and act more corruptly than their fathers” (2:18-19), which means, not only the whole cycle is repeated, but also each time they would become more corrupt than in the previous cycle (Block 1999: 132). We have enough details on only six out of the twelve judges named in the book for us to evaluate them. The spiritual and moral decline of the nation is reflected in the decline in the quality of these six judges.
In the first cycle the judge was Othniel (3:9-14), Caleb’s nephew. In contrast to the accounts of the subsequent five cycles, nothing is said that implies anything negative about Othniel spiritually or morally. The second judge was Ehud (3:15-30). He served God by delivering Israel through deception. This indicates a decline in the moral condition of the time.
Ehud was followed by Deborah (4:1-5:31). Deborah was a God-fearing and faithful woman. But the fact that a woman had to become a judge, whose responsibility included leading an army into the battlefield, indicates a decline in the spiritual condition of the time. When it was time for the judge to go into battle God had to call Barak to go in her stead. Though God promised victory, Barak refused to go unless accompanied by Deborah; he was not able to claim God’s promise on his own.
Gideon (6:1-8:35), the next deliverer, was raised in a family that outrightly worshipped idols. God had to teach him to trust in Him step-by-step. This indicates a further decline in the spiritual condition of the time. And after being used by God to deliver Israel, Gideon used the army God raised up for him to take personal revenge. In the process he also physically abused fellow Israelites who did not support him and his army when he pursued his personal agenda. Compared to Ehud, whose moral fault was using deception against the enemy, Gideon thus represents a further decline in the moral condition of the time.
Then came Jephthah (11:1-12:7). He was a gangster when the elders approached him to fight the Ammonites, who were oppressing them. Though the Spirit of God had already come upon Jephthah, he vowed to God that if God would grant him victory he would offer as a burnt offering “whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return in peace” (11:29-31). It has been argued that Jephthah had in mind specifically human sacrifice because only a human being would come out to receive a returning conqueror (Block 1999: 367-68; Webb 2012: 329-30). Even if not, since it was his daughter who came out and he became extremely grieved and eventually “did to her according to the vow that he had made” (11:39), he did not exclude human sacrifice in his vow. This means his view of God had been corrupted by the Moabites and the Ammonites, who were known to sacrifice their children to their gods (Leviticus 18:21; 2 Kings 3:27; cf. Judges 10:6). Jephthah represents the lowest point in the spiritual condition of Israel.
Finally, Samson was called to deliver Israel from the Philistines (13:1-16:31). He is known for his tremendous strength and for being a compulsive womanizer. Gideon and Jephthah, though also flawed morally or spiritually, were at least intentionally doing God’s work when they fought the enemies. But when Samson delivered Israel he was only thinking of taking personal revenge against the Philistines. As a judge, he represents the lowest point in the moral condition of Israel. The fact that the Spirit of God came upon even these three judges (6:34; 11:29; 15:14) and used them mightily shows that we cannot evaluate an individual’s faithfulness to God and His word on the basis of his success in doing God’s work.
The book of Judges ends with two accounts that illustrate respectively what the lowest points in the spiritual and moral conditions of Israel were actually like.
In the case of Micah (17:1-18:31) his mother said, “I wholly dedicate the silver … to the LORD for my son to make a graven image and a molten image [as objects of worship].” She and her son did not seem to realize that what they were doing was an abomination “to the LORD.” And Micah not only had a private shrine full of idols but also consecrated one of his sons, who was not even a Levite, let alone a descendant of Aaron, as priest. He later hired a Levite to become his private priest and said, “Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, seeing that I have a Levite as priest.” This Levite turned out to be a descendant of Moses (18:30). This is not even the whole story, but enough to show how low the spiritual condition was.
In the last two chapters of Judges an attempted homosexual gang rape of a Levite was averted, but this was only achieved through sacrificing the Levite’s concubine as a substitute. Thus the offenders were actually able to have sexual relations with women but had given in to their perverted lusts to cross the line to commit not just a homosexual act, but a homosexual rape. The death of the concubine from the brutal assault led to a civil war that almost decimated the Benjamites, the offenders’ tribe. There is no need to recount the tragic details of the story. It is hard to imagine a lower moral condition than that depicted here.
The narrator repeated the theme of Judges four times when recounting these two tragic stories, which illustrate the theme so vividly: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25; cf. 18:1; 19:1). Considering Ehud, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson, even the judges themselves did what was right in their own eyes! Read against the backdrop of Joshua this implies that a God-fearing king was needed.
Nation Awaiting King
The book of Judges depicted the overall declining condition in Israel. But this is not the complete picture. Because the fear of God is innate to the human heart and God so works that people should fear Him, there were evidently pockets of exceptions even during that overall dark period.
The historical setting of the book of Ruth is spelled out as “the days when the judges ruled” (1:1). The delightful love story told here is part of the family history of David, Israel’s model king. It recounts how a God-fearing Israelite man (Boaz) and a virtuous Moabite woman (Ruth) met, got married, and had a son who became the grandfather of David. And the narrator makes it clear that God was behind the twists and turns in the plot of the story.
For “at two key points [one at the beginning and the other at the end of the story] the narrator posted signposts to signal God’s guiding presence over the tale” (Hubbard 1998: 69). We are told at the beginning that the widow Naomi returned from Moab to Israel with Ruth, her widowed daughter-in-law, because she had heard that God “had visited His people by providing food for them” (1:6). Without this particular move of God, Boaz and Ruth might never have met. And after they got married, it was God “who enabled her to conceive and she gave birth to a son” (4:13). This is the narrator’s way of saying God was involved from the beginning to the end.
It then comes as a surprise when the narrator highlights that it was completely by chance that Ruth walked into Boaz’s field to glean, the crucial turning point in the plot that resulted in them meeting each other (2:3). What this means is that God often works out His plan through what appears to us as sheer chance. And in this case, it was through a mundane activity—Ruth was just making a living as a widow through a means provided for in the Mosaic Law. And this means God often works out His plan through what we consider mundane chores.
Boaz not only allowed Ruth to glean in his field, but also instructed his workers not to mistreat her. He himself treated her with exceptional kindness, having heard how she was exceptionally kind towards her mother-in-law. He asked her not to go elsewhere to glean; she had every reason not to. All this contributed to the eventual outcome of their unplanned encounter—marriage.
What interests us most is that the text ends with a genealogy linking David to Perez (4:18-22). This genealogy extends the one in Genesis 46:12, which links Perez to Judah. David is thus a descendant of Judah. Why link David to Judah? We have seen that in Genesis 49:8-10 God promised through Jacob that kingship over Israel would remain with the descendants of Judah until the coming of the Messiah. This promise is the basis for the Davidic Covenant.
During the dark period of the judges, God-fearing Israelites would ask, “Why is God not doing anything?” God was actually working behind the scene to fulfill the promise He made through Jacob. This would provide a short term (kingship) as well as the long term (Messiah) solution to the problem highlighted in Judges. Since the Davidic Covenant was indirectly promised (way back in Genesis) even before Israel became a nation, kingship in Israel was not an afterthought.
We appreciate why kingship was anticipated when we recognize that, given fallen human nature, a nation without a king was not a viable option. This is the message of the book of Judges, though it does not expressly promote kingship as an option. Though the book of Ruth shows that even without a king there would still be some people who would do what is right in God’s eyes, the book of Judges shows that most people would do otherwise. Taking a cue from Joshua that a God-fearing leader whom the people fear is needed we can see why (constitutional) kingship is needed.
While clarifying the somewhat enigmatic text of Judges 2:16-19, Barry Webb (2012: 144) comments that in their role as deliverers “the judges were successful, liberating Israel from foreign oppression all the days of the judge (v.18). However a different role, in which the judges were less successful, is implied in verse 17a: ‘the Israelites did not listen to their judges’.” In other words, the people honored their judges as deliverers but did not fear them as rulers. The people feared Joshua because God performed a miracle through him that was similar to one that God had performed through Moses (Joshua 4:14). But God did not repeat this process every time a new leader was needed. Thus there was a need for a political institution that the people would fear because it had the power to uphold justice without fear or favor.
We have noted that God introduced through the Noahic Covenant the institution of the state or government (Genesis 9:6), which Paul acknowledges as a servant of God called to punish what is evil and praise what is good (Romans 13:1-7). By definition the state has the power to require obedience through the legitimate use of physical force. However, given fallen human nature, the state is known to abuse its power. But we have seen how the Mosaic Law prescribes a constitutional government that is required to uphold the Golden Rule. Together with a God-fearing king or head-of-state this political system would ensure that justice is upheld in the nation without fear and favor. So kingship in ancient Israel was specifically designed to be not abusive.
Israel is often viewed as a “theocracy,” which has a rather negative (abusive) connotation. This term, when applied to Israel, needs to be qualified. For the political vision of “Deuteronomy knows nothing of an authoritarian priestly rule” (McConville 2006: 86); instead, it knows only of an equivalent of what we now call the “rule of law,” to which even the king is subjected. God’s rule in the “theocracy” of Israel was expressed through “the rule of the Mosaic Law,” which embodied (within their context) God’s will for humanity and the nation. This “subjection of the whole life of a nation under God [through the Mosaic Law] leads, not to tyranny, but a wholly different type of society…. The nationhood imagined in Deuteronomy describes the freedom that precisely repudiates the ‘slavery’ of Egypt” (98).