The angel of the Lord in the time of the judges

The Book of Judges introduces us to Israel’s arduous struggle to maintain control of the Promised Land between the death of Joshua and the anointing of King Saul. While conquest of the land is relatively quick, settlement of the tribal territories proves challenging. There are pockets of strong resistance, and worldly allures, that lead many of the Israelites to adopt a policy of coexistence rather than total conquest.

A loose tribal confederacy emerges after Joshua’s death. The Spirit of God empowers various leaders, called judges, to deliver the people from their common enemies. For the Israelites, there are six cycles of sin, distress, and salvation, which form the core of the book structured around six major judges and six minor ones (3:7 – 16:31).

The Hebrew word for judge (shophet) is closely related to the verb shaphat (“to judge”), and also to mishpat(“justice”). Judges maintain justice and settle legal disputes. The term also may apply to governors, and in the Book of Judges we see God raise up special leaders who judge, administer, and deliver. The word shophet in Judges is used once in reference to the LORD (11:27), six times in reference to those who deliver Israel under God’s power or Spirit (2:18; 3:9-10; 13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14), and seven times in relation to judges who serve as administrators (4:4; 12:8-9, 11, 13-14; 15:20). Throughout the Book of Judges, these Spirit-empowered leaders save the Israelites from their enemies as Yahweh judges their hearts and demonstrates divine grace. 

Some judges prove more godly than others, while a few are rogues. Many of them reveal weaknesses, oddities, or personal challenges. Ehud is left-handed; Deborah is a woman; Barak is tentative; Gideon is fearful; Jephthah is a prostitute’s son; and Samson is a Nazirite. The key to their success, however, is the Spirit of God, who empowers them (3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 15:14). Meanwhile, the people lack a single, towering figure like Moses or Joshua. As a result, the period of the judges is aptly defined in Judges 17:6: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him.”

Into this malaise, Yahweh sends his divine messenger, the angel of the LORD, on three occasions. First, the angel appears before the entire Israelite assembly, reminding the people of his covenant faithfulness and their spiritual adultery. Next, he comes to Gideon – a frightened young man secretly threshing wheat in a winepress – and stirs him to lead the Israelites to victory over the Midianites. Finally, he approaches Manoah’s wife, and then Manoah and his wife together, to give them strict instructions for raising their Nazirite boy, Samson, who is to deliver his countrymen from the Philistines.

The Book of Judges is a literary and theological roller coaster, and its precipitous plunges outpace its climbs. As the CSB Study Bible notes:

Though God raised up a sequence of deliverers – the judges – they were unable to reverse this trend [of downward moral, spiritual, and social spirals] and some even became part of the problem. By the end of the book, Israel had become as pagan and defiled as the Canaanites they had displaced. If this trend continued, it would be only a matter of time before the land would vomit them out, as it had the Canaanites before them.

To the Israelites

Joshua dies at the age of one hundred ten and is buried in the hill country of Ephraim. The Israelites are faithful to the LORD throughout Joshua’s lifetime. Their fidelity to Yahweh even extends through the generation of elders that witness the mighty hand of God under Joshua’s leadership (Josh. 24:29-31; Judg. 2:7-9). But now, with no successor to Joshua, the Israelites turn to Yahweh, their commander in chief. 

They ask the LORD, “Who will be the first to fight for us against the Canaanites?” The LORD replies, “Judah is to go. I have handed the land over to him” (Judg. 1:1-2). 

Judah and Simeon work together, setting a positive example for the twelve tribes. In quick succession, they defeat the Canaanites and Perizzites. Ten thousand men fall in Bezek, and their leader, Adoni-bezek, is relieved of his thumbs and big toes. Then, Jerusalem is put to the sword and set ablaze. Campaigns follow in the hill country, the Negev, and the Judean foothills. 

Judah marches against the Canaanites living in Hebron and then sets his sights on Debir. Judah and Simeon conquer the Canaanites in Zephath, then turn to Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ekron. The writer of Joshua summarizes: “The LORD was with Judah and enabled them to take possession of the hill country, but they could not drive out the people who were living in the valley because those people had iron chariots” (Judg. 1:19).

While Judah’s success is significant, there are chinks in his armor. First, he spares the life of Adoni-bezek, disregarding the LORD’s command to completely destroy the Canaanites and Perizzites (Deut. 7:1-2), opting for Adoni-bezek’s own strategy of punishment by removing his thumbs and big toes. Next, Judah is unable to displace the valley dwellers who ride in iron chariots. This is a fairly new weapon of war, but it’s certainly no challenge to the God of the universe. Perhaps we see an indication that Judah’s compromises are beginning to take their toll. 

Even so, Judah and Simeon are not lone conquerors. The house of Joseph also experiences victory, capturing Bethel because “the LORD was with them” (Judg. 1:22). 

But total triumph eludes the other tribes of Israel:

The Benjamites fail to drive the Jebusites out of Jerusalem (Judg. 1:21). 

The tribe of Manasseh is unable to defeat the inhabitants of Beth-shean and Tanaach, or the residents of Dor, Ibleam, and Megiddo (Judg. 1:27). 

Ephraim can’t displace the Canaanites living in Gezer (Judg. 1:29). 

Zebulun can’t remove the Canaanites from Kitron or Nahalol (Judg. 1:30). 

The tribe of Asher falls short in its quest to displace the residents of Acco, Sidon, Ahlab, Achzib, Helbah, Aphik, and Rehob (Judg. 1:31). 

Naphtali lacks the strength to overpower the Canaanites in Beth-shemesh and Beth-anath (Judg. 1:33). 

And the tribe of Dan is forced into the hill country beyond the valley where the Amorites reside (Judg. 1:34). 

At the end of these failed campaigns, the Israelites at best either manage to make forced laborers of the people, or they resign themselves to coexisting with their pagan neighbors. 

The victories seem few and far between, and many battles end in unsavory compromise. Are the glory days of Moses and Joshua gone forever? 

A divine envoy

Judges 2:1-5 picks up the story:

The angel of the LORD went up from Gilgal to Bochim and said, “I brought you out of Egypt and led you into the land I had promised to your fathers. I also said: I will never break my covenant with you. You are not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of this land. You are to tear down their altars. But you have not obeyed me. What is this you have done? Therefore, I now say: I will not drive out these people before you. They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap for you.” When the angel of the LORD had spoken these words to all the Israelites, the people wept loudly. So they named that place Bochim and offered sacrifices there to the LORD.

Judges 2:1-5

This is the first of nineteen times in the Book of Judges that we read the expression malak Yahweh, or “angel of the LORD.” Its variant, malak ha Elohim, or “angel of God,” appears three times. Each time, he is Yahweh’s official spokesman, the divinely appointed and authorized envoy of the heavenly court. Because we so often think of angels as feathery, winged, or even effeminate creatures that float effortlessly on the clouds and descend gently to earth, it’s best to think of angels as messengers or envoys, for that is what the term means.

The account in the first five verses of this chapter suggests the angel’s embodied presence. He goes up from Gilgal, where the Israelites first camped after crossing the Jordan, and where they obediently built a memorial of twelve large river stones, one for each tribe. Gilgal also is where the Israelites renewed their covenant faithfulness in circumcision. In addition, it was Joshua’s military headquarters and served as the first site of the tabernacle west of the Jordan. In a sense, Gilgal once served as Yahweh’s center of activity in the newly occupied Promised Land. Now, of course, it is forsaken. The angel of the LORD’s journey from Gilgal to Bochim (“The place of weeping”) perhaps symbolizes Israel’s decline from victory to defeat.

Next, we note the angel arrives at Bochim. Traveling from one location to another and speaking in an audible voice suggest a physical manifestation, although the text does not explicitly say so.

What is clear, however, is that the angel speaks as the LORD, not merely as the LORD’s mouthpiece. “brought you out of Egypt,” he reminds them, “and led you into the land I had promised to your fathers.” He also tells them, “I will never break my covenant with you” (2:1, emphasis added). 

We might ask: Who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and led them into the Promised Land? Yahweh, of course. And who made a covenant with the people? Certainly not a mere angel, but Yahweh. In these statements, the angel of the LORD harkens back to Genesis and Exodus, where both Yahweh and the angel of the LORD act in concert to deliver the Israelites from bondage. 

Further, it is reasonable to assume that this divine messenger is none other than the commander of the LORD’s army, whom Joshua encountered at Gilgal (Josh. 5:13-15). If that’s the case, the LORD may be reminding the people how the campaign to conquer Canaan began – with clear and decisive victories – and how it might proceed again if the people truly repent.

The angel of the LORD charges the Israelites with disobeying his commands to tear down the pagan altars and reject making covenants with the Canaanites. Now, the angel announces the consequences of the people’s sins. “I will not drive out these people before you,” he says. “They will be thorns in your sides, and their gods will be a trap for you” (2:3). In response, the Israelites weep loudly and name the place where the angel appeared “The place of weeping.” This may in fact be Bethel (Gen. 35:8; Judg. 4:5), but it is given the moniker Bochim as a sad marker on the Israelites’ pitiful state (Judg. 2:4-5).

The people exhibit outward signs of repentance, even offering sacrifices. Yet their actions in the rest of the chapter raise serious doubts about their sincerity. After a brief summary of Joshua’s death and burial, and the faithfulness of his generation (Judg. 2:6-9), we read, “After them another generation rose up who did not know the LORD or the works he had done for Israel” (2:10). This harkens back to the Israelites in Egypt, when a new king comes to power who does not know Joseph, thus beginning years of escalating oppression (Exod. 1:8). 

The Israelites in Bochim do what is evil in the LORD’s sight. They worship the Baals (localized versions of the Canaanite sun and storm god) and abandon the God of their fathers, who brought them out of Egypt. They follow other gods from the surrounding people and bow down to them. Ultimately, “They angered the LORD, for they abandoned him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths” (Judg. 2:12-13).

Throughout the Book of Judges, we see a recurring cycle of rebellion, rebuke, regret, and rescue. Judges 2:11 – 3:6 summarizes the cycle: 

First, rebellion. The Israelites do what is evil in God’s sight, worshiping the Baals and the Ashtoreths (varying forms of the moon goddess, also worshiped as the goddess of love and war) and abandoning God (2:11-12). 

Second, rebuke. The LORD’s anger burns against Israel, and he hands them over to marauders who raid their villages. He surrenders them to their enemies and grants them no strength to resist. “Whenever the Israelites went out, the LORD was against them and brought disaster on them, just as he had promised and sworn to them. So they suffered greatly” (2:15). 

Third, regret. The people cry out to Yahweh for help. They regret that their actions have led to suffering, yet they exhibit scant signs of genuine remorse and repentance. Nevertheless, the LORD is moved to pity whenever the people groan because of those who oppress and afflict them (2:18). 

Fourth, rescue. The LORD sends judges, who save the Israelites from their oppressors. Even so, the people do not listen to their deliverers. They prostitute themselves with foreign gods. And whenever a judge dies, the people act even more corruptly than their fathers. They do not turn from their “evil practices or obstinate ways” (2:16-19). They fail the LORD’s test, settling among the Canaanites, Hethites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. The Israelites exchange their daughters for pagan women and embrace their neighbors’ idolatry (3:1-6). 

And the cycle begins again. Finally, the LORD declares, “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I did this to test Israel and to see whether or not they would keep the LORD’s way by walking in it, as their fathers had” (2:21-22).

Next: The angel of the Lord appears to Gideon

This post is excerpted from Jesus Before Bethlehem: What Every Christian Should Know About the Angel of the Lord, available from Amazon and other retailers.