The events in the book of Judges took place after the children of Israel had entered into their promised land. It gives accounts of eleven men and one woman who served as “judges” among the Israelites, in between the periods of the prophets Joshua and Samuel. The judges ruled the people of Israel, settled disputes, and led the children of Israel in battles against the Canaanites. In some cases, they fulfilled prophetic roles.
The book of Judges is characterized mostly by a glaring pattern which is similar to that found in the Book of Mormon and often referred to as “the Nephite cycle.” This cycle repeats several times in Judges and usually includes the following features, each one leading to the next:
Righteousness/Peace/Prosperity → Pride/Wickedness/False Gods → Unheeded Warnings → Destruction/Suffering → Humility/Repentance → Deliverance → Righteousness → Falling Back into Sin → The Cycle Repeats
Look for lessons in the book of Judges that we can take to heart in our quest to remain worthy before God, in all times and seasons, regardless of our life circumstances.
In chapter 1 the Lord assigned the tribe of Judah to lead out in Israel’s quest to conquer the Canaanites (verses 1-2). They conquered various cities and peoples, but “could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron” (verse 19). Why does that matter? The battle is the Lord’s and He conquers for His people, regardless of their enemies’ numbers or armaments. We must conclude that their failure to conquer portions of the promised land (which continues in verses 27-34) is due to their lack of faith and obedience.
Judges 2 Judges Instead of Prophets
An angel of the Lord appears and reminds the people of Israel of the Lord’s promises, saying, “I will never break my covenant with you” (verse 1), yet asserting, “but ye have not obeyed my voice” (verse 2):
- What did the angel say would be the result of the Israelites’ failure to drive out all the Canaanites? (verse 3).
- How did the people respond? (verses 4-5).
- But what then followed? (verses 10-13).
- And what did the Lord then do? (verses 14-16).
- Now read verses 17-22. This is the dreadful cycle.
Judges 3-4 Judges Othniel and Deborah
Chapter 3 repeats the same sad cycle:
- Read 3:5-8 to see what happened next.
- Now read 3:9-11 and note that the story of the first judge, Othniel, again shows the Lord’s benevolent willingness to forgive and assist us, even when we go far astray and have broken our covenants repeatedly.
- But then, see verses 12-14.
- Next, read 4:1-4, 14-16, 24 and look for further lessons in the story of the fourth judge, Deborah.
Judges 6-8 Judge Gideon
Gideon is perhaps the most heroic of the twelve judges:
- Read the story of Gideon in Judges 6:1, 5-16; 7:1-12, 16-22; 8:22-23, 28, 32-35.
- What attributes do you see in Gideon?
- What do you learn from these chapters about the Lord? (see also Deuteronomy 31:6; 1 Nephi 4:1-2; 2 Nephi 4:34).
- What other things do we sometimes rely on, instead of God?
President Spencer W. Kimball said, “In all ages when men have fallen under the power of Satan and lost the faith, they have put in its place a hope in the ‘arm of flesh’ and in ‘gods of silver, and gold, of brass, iron, wood, and stone, which see not, nor hear, nor know’ (Daniel 5:23)—that is, in idols…. Whatever thing a man sets his heart and his trust in most is his god; and if his god doesn’t also happen to be the true and living God of Israel, that man is laboring in idolatry” (“The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976).
Judges 10-11 Some Bad, Some Good
Note the continuation of the cycle, as summarized in the heading for chapter 10: “The children of Israel worship false gods, are forsaken by the Lord, and are distressed by their enemies—They repent and ask the Lord for deliverance.”
It is worthwhile to add chapter 11 to your study; being the story of Jephthah, an “underdog.” He was born to Gilead through his relationship with a harlot. Gilead’s wife and their sons rejected Jephthah and prevented him from being an heir with them, so Jephthah left to dwell in another land, where he spent his time with “vain” men. But he was a “mighty man of valour” (verse 1) and when the Israelites were being attacked, he was recruited to be their military captain. Jephthah led them to victory and became the eighth judge over Israel. But Jephthah ruled only six years, then died, and Israel returned to wickedness.
Judges 13-16 The Story of Samson
Samson was the last of the twelve judges, and his story is one of the best-known Old Testament accounts. As a contrast to Jephthah (in chapter 11), Samson seemed to have the advantages that would make him a successful instrument in the Lord’s hands, including:
- His birth to a formerly barren woman, which was foretold by an angel (Judges 13:2-3).
- The angel instructed Samson’s mother to raise him according to the Nazarite tradition, thus being dedicated to God (verses 4-5; see also Numbers 6:1-5).
- The angel prophesied that Samson would grow up to “deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines” (verse 5), to whom they had been in bondage for forty years (verse 1).
- The angel gave additional instructions to Samson’s parents, and they made a burnt offering unto the Lord (verses 8-20).
- As Samson grew, “the Lord blessed him” (verse 24).
Thus, the stage is set for the unfortunate dramatics, wherein Samson becomes an example of one whose strength becomes a weakness:
- What were Samson’s desires and his choices in 14:1-20? What were the consequences of those choices?
- What desires and choices did Samson display in 15:1-16? What were the consequences?
- Find also Samson’s desires and choices, as recorded in 16:1-30. What things occurred as a result?
Note: Some Bible translations and commentators suggest that although the unknown writer of the book of Judges infers that the Lord guided or approved of Samson’s behavior, it is likely not so. Samson’s gift of physical strength came from God, but the ways in which he used his strength were not in fulfillment of God’s purposes.
The Book of Judges We Can Return to God
The final verse of the book of Judges summarizes the sad condition of much of Israel’s history during the time of the judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25; see also Judges 17:6) Read Helaman 4:20-24, which describes what happens to people when they lose the Spirit of God.
Let us remember that—as with the Israelites—the Lord is always ready and eager to take us back, regardless of our past. One of Satan’s greatest lies is that we can become irretrievable—that we have been too far away from God, or for too long, or have broken too many commandments. But such sentiments are a denial of the loving plan and Atonement of our Savior Jesus Christ; who was the Israelites’ great God, Jehovah. He awaits with open arms.