Bible Study on the Book of Judges Lesson 1: The Campaign for Canaan Judges 1

Readings: Joshua 23, Judges 1


Judges 1 serves an an introduction to the entire book of Judges, setting the stage with a list of triumphs and tragedies, fulfillments and failures.

A Positive Beginning

The Book of Judges begins by telling the reader that Joshua, the great leader of the conquest, has died. In his wak, the Israelites were left with a conflict—what were they to do now? They began by asking Jehovah which tribe should go first to fight against the Canaanites. In doing so, the Israelites began the period of the judges by doing something that they were supposed to be doing: asking God’s will instead of following their own will. They also asked, “Who will fight for us?” The “us” in their question referred to the whole nation of Israel. It shows the unity and community of the nation of Israel; a unity that will disappear quite rapidly throughout the book.

The Lord answered that Judah should go first and then promised that He had given the land into their hand. It was Joshua who had died, not the LORD. Their leader may have left them, but the covenant God who brought them into the Promised Land was still there. He was still with them (a good application for churches who just had a pastor leave them). All this was built around Joshua 23—Joshua’s farewell speech.

In response the the Lord’s command, Judah went out to battle, getting help from Simeon. This action could be interpreted as a lack of faith—Judah did not trust God enough to fight on their own. However, there are no bad consequences to this action, indicating that the action was not sinful. This action could be an application of the “us” in verse 1, which would not be a bad thing.

The best explanation for Simeon’s presence is found in Joshua 19:9. Simeon’s inheritance was inside Judah’s portion of the promised land. In the Lord’s allotment of the land, Simeon belonged to Judah. It makes perfect sense that they would fight together. Simeon’s involvement in Judah’s conquest, then, was a very good thing. Judges 1 begins in a very positive way—Judah and Simeon working together to fulfill the mandate given to them by Jehovah.

The Lord’s command that Judah should go first could mean that Judah was meant to be the leader of the other tribes. In Judges 20:18, where the LORD sends Judah led Israel in a civil war—a tragic turn-around from Judges 1—but it is clear that Judah was supposed to lead the other tribes.

The First Campaign

Verses 4–8 tell us of the first phase of Judah’s campaign. This section begins with Judah “going up” as opposed to the “going down” in verse 9. In Hebrew narrative, geographical pointers are often telling, not only of geographical, but also of spiritual direction, something to keep in mind throughout this study.

The first section deals with the campaign against Bezek and Jerusalem. We see in verse 4 that the campaign to conquer the land began well with a categorical victory over the people of Canaan.

Verses 6–7 tell us details of the campaign against Adoni-Bezek, a king of the Canaanites. This detailed little record is the first of two such vignettes that appear in the otherwise broad, sweeping narrative of Judges 1. Whenever we encounter such a seeming departure from what is expected in the narrative, we must ask why it is there and what purpose it serves.

This account first makes a point about the divine justice and power of God. Even Adoni-Bezek, the pagan and unbelieving king, made a theological statement about God’s justice. He declared, “As I have done, God has repaid me.” Adoni-Bezek was obviously a powerful man, having conquered seventy other kings, yet God gave him into the hands of His people.

Secondly, this passage about Adoni-Bezek shows us what Dr. Iain Duguid calls the “insipid Canaanitism” already present in the Israelites. Was it proper for Israel to cut the thumbs and toes off of this defeated king? It is a clear indication that the Israelites were becoming more like the Canaanites—doing what they did—for it was exactly how Adoni-Bezek treated those whom he defeated. The Israelites had been commanded to put all the Canaanites to death, but they chose instead to chop off the king’s toes and thumbs. Adoni-Bezek died in Jerusalem. It is a rather unclear death with no explanatory notes—did they kill him as they should have, or let him live to the end of his days as a prize prisoner of war? There is a hint already early in the book of Judges that Israel was adopting Canaanite practices.

Adoni-Bezek recognized the justice that was part of the rationale for the Israelite conquest—the sins of the Canaanites were full. Still, the Israelites were starting to act like Canaanites. The Israelites were not yet engaged in all out idolatry or dwelling with the Canaanites peacefully, but we can find seeds of the sin that would become prominent as this book progresses.

Caleb’s Campaign

Following the victory over Adoni-Bezek, Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron. Hebron was one of the cities visited by the twelve spies (Numbers 13:22). In verse 12, Caleb, one of the two faithful spies, resurfaces. Here we see the continuation of Caleb’s story that began in Numbers. Throughout the wandering in the wilderness, Caleb remained faithful. When all of his unfaithful generation died, he remained strong in faith. That faith continued in Judges, and with it, he won a victory. The inhabitants of Hebron were the Anakites (Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai, who are mentioned in Numbers), who were giants. The ten unfaithful spies ofNumbers 13 had said it could not be done, but here, by faith, it is done.

This account of Caleb and his family forms a second seemingly tangential vignette in Judges 1. In verses 11–13, Caleb offered a reward to any man who could lead his men into victory against the city of Debir. The reward was the hand of Caleb’s daughter, Achsah, in marriage. The real capture was not the city, but the girl.

Othniel was a nephew of Caleb. Two generations of Israelites were interacting—Caleb’s generation and Othniel’s generation. Recall that Caleb’s generation all had died in the wilderness because they refused to believe that they could take the land. The next generation (Othniel’s generation) ends the book of Numbers on the verge of entering the land.

The book of Numbers is structured according to these two generations. The story of the second generation in Numbers is bracketed by the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. They first appear in Numbers 27:1–11 at the beginning of the story of the second generation. These same women appear at the end of the book in Numbers 36. These are women of faith whose faith served as a godly example to Othniel’s generation and also to us. Their example appears at the beginning and the end of the tale of that generation, bracketing it with the prospect of women of faith.

The story of Achsah, Caleb’s daughter, shows us that faith will not die with Caleb. She was another woman of faith. The focus in this section is on the faith of Achsah. It seems that this story of a godly woman of faith fits into this pattern started in the book of Numbers. Godly women will continue the covenant line of faithful believers throughout the generations. We will meet many more of these great godly gals throughout the book of Judges.

Achsah realized how closely the covenant blessing was tied to land in the Old Testament. She was not afraid to ask her father for the land. She was not being greedy or ungrateful, but practical and trusting.

The Third Campaign

Verses 18–21 bring the reader to Gaza, Ashkelon, and other places by the Great Sea. If we look at a map of these places, we would see a progression from hill country, to Negev, to plains. This is a conclusion of the story about Judah.

There is no new Joshua to draw all the people together. Was that why Judah only took the hill country and did not go into the plains where the Canaanites had chariots? Should iron chariots have stopped them? Humanly speaking, they were a big problem, but if the Lord was on their side, they could have done it. Their inability to conquer suggests either the removal of the Lord’s blessing on their warfare or a lack of trust on Judah’s part.

Verse 21 introduces a major problem that all the previous verses only hinted at. It tells us that Judah failed to drive out the Jebusites in Jerusalem “to this day.” Cohabitation will remain a tremendous problem for the rest of the book.

The Campaign Against Bethel

Verses 22–26 tells us how the house of Joseph repeated the scenario of Joshua at Jericho. “Show us how to take over the town and we will deal kindly with you.” The Hebrew implies a covenantal relationship, which was the same thing Rahab desired. In answer to her request, Rahab was incorporated into the covenant line. However, the unnamed man ran away into the land of the Hittites, built a new city, and named it “New Luz.” Whereas Rahab gladly entered the covenant community, this man went and started a new pagan Canaanite city, recreating his wicked culture.

The Concluding Campaign

The rest of the chapter is a very sad list of the failings of the other tribes. In Hebrew, where repetition is a form of emphasis, the continuous drone of “…did not drive out…” over and over again is especially depressing. Everyone failed, and the chapter ends with a description of how the country’s boundaries were defined by the Canaanites, the old reality instead of the new reality. This whole section becomes progressively worse (it goes from “could not” to “did not” to “were not driven back”). It is clear by the end of this chapter that something needs to be done, setting the stage for the acts of God through the judges.

God’s Covental Campaign

This chapter seems more like a geography lesson than a part of Scripture that is “useful for teaching, correcting, etc.” It is an important part of Israelite history, but do we really need it today? This is a part of God’s redemptive-historic revelation. It shows us who He is, and how He works out His covenant in history.

Take the story of Adoni-Bezek, for example. God judged him and he got what was coming to him. However, this does not teach us that “if the Lord gives me the opportunity to give that bully what’s coming to him, I’ll go for it!” This story is not a justification for militantly shooting abortionists and blowing up abortion clinics. Redemptive history has changed. It is not the Christian students’ role to take over their high school and kill all the non-Christian pagans, even if they are pot-smoking atheists. Recall the passage in the gospels where James and John wanted to call down fire on the village. Jesus rebuked them. Why? It is not because Jesus is nice and cuddly while the God of the Old Testament was the God of Wrath. No, there is coming a day when Jesus will return to judge. Now, we are called to “go out into all nations … making disciples,” not burning cities and cutting off toes.

Also keep in mind-even in the Old Testament-God does not deal this way with every “Adoni-Bezek.” He also redeems people, sometimes the most unlikely of people. Ask yourself why God does not just judge all of us? We are all “Adoni-Bezeks.”  We all deserve to have our toes cut off, spending an eternity in the fires of hell! We should rather ask, how is God able to redeem us? He does so by exercising holy warfare through the ultimate act of destructing Christ on the cross. Our warfare against sin was completed in the death of Christ.

We can also learn from the story of Achsah, Caleb, and Othniel. Their faith led to obedience; their obedience led to blessing. But what does “blessing” mean? Is this a health and wealth gospel? Is “blessing” good grades, good friends, an acceptance letter to that perfect college? Is “blessing” that great job, a perfect relationship with your spouse, or an easy retirement?

These things, although they are nice, are all material things. They can easily turn to idols if they become our motivation for following Christ. We need to see what material blessings really point to; we need to see what the Promised Land is all about. The Promised Land intends to draw our eyes beyond earthly blessing. There is always more to blessing than just this earth. It intends to draw our eyes upward.

So, does this passage give us a checklist: “faith-check; obedience-check, so where is my blessing?” Or “I didn’t mix with those nasty Canaanite people at work, so I will be blessed.” Of course, as Calvinists, we know we are sinful, but all too often we think a little too highly of ourselves. We see ourselves as having a great part to play in our sanctification that “I’m not perfect, but I come pretty close.” However, if we are honest, we know how often we fail.

Israel failed to conquer the land but God remained faithful, specifically to sinners. This is a relevant message—we are sinners! We are not like Caleb, Othniel, Achsah, Judah, or Simeon. We have compromised like the other tribes of Israel. We are all sinners. To say that the Canaanites are a picture of the sins that remain among us is not all that far off track. That is what compromise looks like to us. Compromise is very tempting. It probably seemed very beneficial to the Israelites to co-inhabit with the Canaanites. There was relative peace, good trade, and they could mutually benefit each other. Too often, we are completely complacent in our sins. We have a lot of little sins that we think do not necessarily hurt us or anyone else. We are comfortable with them.

Our Lord was tempted with compromise, too. In Gethsemane, Jesus found Himself in the face of the ultimate difficulty and place of fear. He faced the ultimate test of whether or not to compromise. He chose to do what was infinitely hard and pressed on in faith and obedience. He did not automatically get blessing, though. He died, taking our judgment (a judgment much worse than getting His toes or thumbs cut off like Adoni-Bezek). Jesus suffered the complete agony of hell for us so that we do not have to! By His faithfulness, He allows our track to be redirected onto blessing. Our sin was laid on Him and placed Him under God’s judgment. We are now able to stand constantly in God’s blessing. His blessing can never be separated from us because nothing can separate us from the love ofGod in Christ.

Can we now do whatever we want because our obedience is irrelevant? After all, we may think, Jesus paid it all, so I can live in sin! But sin does have consequences in the life of a believer. Sin brings guilt, disgrace, shame, and pain (to ourselves and the ones around us). It breaks and ruins things. Sin is failing to please the God who has saved us. It leads to a complicated, miserable life. However, God does not turn His back on us when we sin. He still loves us and is faithful to us in Christ, and only because of Christ. God will be faithful and gracious to us because of Christ.

Lesson 1: Points to Ponder

1. Why did the Israelites adopt the ways of the Canaanites so quickly? Are we quick to adopt the culture around us? Give examples.

2. What was the role of the “woman of faith” in Numbers and Judges? How does Achsah exercise her faith?

3. What would account for the success of Judah, Simeon, and Caleb and the failure of the rest of the tribes?

4. Is there significance in the progression “could not drive out”, “did not drive out”, and they “were not driven back”?

5. How does Judges 1 introduce the need for the upcoming judges?

6. What blessing can the faithful expect from God? How should those blessings be used?

7. In what way do we compromise with Canaan?