Even though few of us have ever worked with sheep, the line "sheep without a shepherd" resonates for all of us. A scene flashes before our mind's eye of kids on a playground with no adults: it's Lord of the Flies. So it was this imagined scene that frosted Moses' mind when God told him he could not enter the Promised Land with Israel. Atop Mt. Abarim, the Promised Land panorama gracing Moses' eyes, the Lord informs Moses that he would not lead the people into the honeyed hills of Canaan, but that he would die in the desert as had Aaron. Moses does not protest his fate, but he does implore the Lord, "May the congregation of the Lord not be as sheep that have no shepherd" (Num. 27:17). Moses knew that without a leader, without a shepherd, Israel would quickly be starring in their own Lord of the Flies reality show.
The Lord grants Moses' prayer by appointing Joshua to lead the people out and to bring them in. Under Joshua's brave and upright leadership, Israel takes possession of the Promised Land. It is hardly idyllic, but Joshua presides over one of the better periods of Israel's history. But what happened after Joshua? Moses certified his successor, but did Joshua? This is the issue that presents itself with the closing of the book of Joshua and the opening of Judges. But the suspense is not exactly drawn out as Judges tells us, "The people served the Lord all the days of Joshua" (2:7). Joshua did not appoint a successor. So, after Joshua and the elders of his generation died, what happened? The people did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they served the Baals (Judg. 2:11). With the shepherd dead, the sheep became lost.
And so begins what is commonly called the Judges' cycle: Israel rebels; they are oppressed and cry out; a judge arises and delivers; and there is peace for a time. The vacuum of leadership and the absence of kingship are what give birth to this cycle. The arising of the judge is what brings relief from oppression. But questions float on the horizon like clouds: What sort of leader does Israel need? What is this leader to do? Who is the true enemy that plagues Israel?
Well, the conquests of the judges stand tall. Equipped with the Spirit, Othniel bulldozes Cushan-Rishathaim. Ehud's left-handed dagger impales Moab. When no man will step up, Deborah marshals a landslide victory with the hammer of Jael. Gideon's three hundred trumpets scatter the hordes of Midian. The Ammonites are leveled before Jephthah's overhead wave. And with Superman arms, Samson plays with the Philistines like a cat toys with a mouse. What marvelous victories of the Lord!
And yet, amid the victory parades, a foul odor arises. The oppressors of Israel were the Lord's rod to discipline his idol-addicted people, merely the presenting symptom for the real cancer within—sin. How then did the judges fare in assaulting this foe? Ehud casually strolls by idols on the way to feed Eglon his blade (3:19). Gideon wimps out from taking on the duty of a king; yet he happily receives the plunder of a king, from which he fashions an ephod for Israel to whore after (8:27). Gideon tears down the altar of Baal only to raise up an idol of his own making. And Gideon's heir, Abimelech, ends up being the very oppressor from whom Israel needed deliverance.
Jephthah's staggering ignorance of the law leads him to sacrifice his own daughter and to slaughter 42,000 of his Ephraimite brethren. Running after Philistine women, Samson kills Philistines not because they were God's enemies, but simply out of personal revenge. Having scorned his Nazirite status, Samson uses his strength to serve the desires of his flesh; sex is his kryptonite.
Moses had made clear that the slopes of Sinai could only be ascended with righteousness and not with the sword. But the hands of these judges knew only the hilt of a sword. Then comes the final episode of the book. The Levite, who treats his concubine like a sex-slave, seeks hospitality in Gibeah of Benjamin, thinking it safer than the foreign Jebus. But what does he find in this village of Israel? Welcome to Sodom. The village sleazebags besiege the house, demanding to have their way with the Levite. The Levite tosses his concubine out to them like fresh meat to a pack of wolves. After the all-night gang rape (and Scripture indicates that it was every bit as horrible as this), the poor concubine dies with her hands on the threshold, reaching out for deliverance, for justice.
The only justice given, however, is more savagery. The Levite dissects and priority mails his concubine to the eleven tribes, who then assemble and decimate their brother Benjamin. Once they awake to the evil they committed, the only remedy they can drum up is to steal women for the few surviving Benjamite men. Israel answers the sin of Sodom with genocide and kidnapping. Lord of the Flies gets an Emmy in Israel: "There was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes." The true enemy of Israel is not without but within. It is sin, and the victory is righteousness.
The judges triumphed militarily, but they failed miserably to lead in righteousness and obedience to God. Without a royal shepherd, Israel was like sheep dashing off into every ravine of sin. Standing before the holy inclines of Sinai, Israel needed a king to lead them in righteousness, one to obey for them and with them. They required a king to slay the true enemy within—their own sin. The book of Judges reveals that Israel needed Jesus Christ as their king—the Righteous One who defeated our sin on the cross. The judges impress deeply upon our souls that we too need a righteous shepherd. The palms of the concubine on the threshold symbolize our bondage to sin: "Who will deliver me from this body of death?" Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! The Father has not left us without a shepherd, but he has given us his own Son, the Living One who died but is alive forever more—Jesus Christ. He shepherds us by his own righteousness and love, from sin and death to the honeyed hill of the heavenly Mount Zion.
Zach Keele is pastor of Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Escondido, California.
Issue: "Wired & Tired" May/June 2013 Vol. 22 No. 3 Page number(s): 16-19
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