Introduction to Judges: Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods

This post introduces a commentary on the Old Testament book of Judges; I will put it up in weekly installments here at Steadfast Lutherans.

But Jeshurun grew fat and kicked –
you became fat, you became thick, you became engorged –
and he gave up God who made him,
and he considered the Rock of his salvation foolish.
They provoked him to jealousy with strangers;
with abominations they provoked him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons that are not God,
to gods they had not known,
new ones who had come recently,
with whom your fathers were not acquainted.

    (Deuteronomy 32:15-17)

Approaching the Land of Promise

The Lord had redeemed his people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. He brought them out of Egypt with acts of judgment and with signs, great and ruinous. Pharaoh’s chariotry lies buried beneath the waves; the corpses of the Egyptians have sunk, and bloated, and suffered the ravages of God’s water. Their bones and weapons are subsumed into the ocean floor while the Israelites prepare to enter the land of the promise.

The Israelites have long been sojourners on the face of the earth. By faith Abraham heeded when he was called to go out into a place that he would later receive for an inheritance (Heb. 11:8). In the land that was promised to him he dwelt as a foreigner and lived in tents. Other peoples knew of masonry and brickwork and planting and farming. But Abraham and his seed were transients. Abraham knew walls of hair and skin, and the only stonework he practiced was the building of altars. Abraham was a herdsman – the animals could migrate with him. Yet with farming he was only a passing acquaintance.

And this way of life was all Israel knew. When Joseph brought his father, Jacob, and all his family to Egypt they continued as shepherds and herdsmen. As far as we know the Israelites did not take up farming. In fact Pharaoh told Joseph that if he knew of any able men among the Israelites to put them in charge of the royal livestock.

For four hundred thirty years Israel sojourned in Egypt (Ex. 23:9), until the Lord brought them out. And then the Israelites continued their sojourning in the wilderness for forty years, a year for each day that the twelve spies spied out the land. A whole generation died because they did not believe that the Lord would keep his Word. They thought the Lord was bringing them into Canaan to make them fall by the sword. The devil taught man a fine way of understanding God’s Word back in Genesis 3, and man has been employing it ever since: regard the promises of God with suspicion, as if by them he meant to kill you, and disregard the commandments of God entirely. So they did, and so they died.

But not Joshua and Caleb. They were two of the twelve spies, and while they acknowledged the mighty appearance of the people and fortresses of the land, they also considered God to be faithful and not a liar. The Lord could easily give them the land! And only those who believed his Word above all else lived to see the land of promise.

The name Joshua means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus shared his own name with a man over a thousand years before he would take it up himself. The first we hear of Joshua is in Exodus 17 when Israel warred with Amalek. Joshua attacked and, as long as Moses held up his hands, Joshua prevailed. The outstretched arm of Moses and the victorious Yahweh-saves would later meet in the same person, a crucified person. The first Joshua, like the second and greater Joshua, would always be remembered as the saving warrior.

The faithless died. Their flesh was parched instead of bloated, their bones dry instead of wet, but it would have been just as well if they had drowned in the Red Sea. Because they didn’t cross the river. They were baptized into Moses but they did not pass through the Jordan to inherit the promise. They rejected the promise and longed to return to the land of Egypt, the iron furnace, the house of slaves. In the end the souls of the apostate were reunited with the souls of the Egyptians: not gathered around the meat pots sating themselves with flesh, but boiling in the meat pots of Sheol, awaiting the day when Hell will receive their flesh and never be sated. This isn’t the last time I’ll say this: Apostasy damns, so take heed to yourself.

Joshua, Caleb, and the faithful children of the faithless crossed the Jordan River, which the Lord had miraculously stopped up. Then began the military conquests. Joshua led the Israelites in battle. They devoted whole peoples to destruction according to the Word of the Lord. Jericho fell, as did Ai. Various kings allied against Israel. Joshua put them all to flight, and the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them. There was a campaign against southern Canaan, a campaign against northern Canaan. You can read about all this in Joshua 1-12.

Once the campaigns came to an end, Joshua allotted the land to the various tribes. Those who had formerly inhabited the land had been sufficiently weakened and the Israelite army could now disband, at least for the time being. Certain cities and peoples had not received the attention of the entire Israelite host, but they could be dealt with on the local level by the tribes and clans of Israel. You can read about the allotment of the land in Joshua 13-21.

The Idols of Canaan

And now we come to the scene that immediately precedes the book of Judges: Joshua chapters 23 and 24. Joshua knew he was about to die, and the Israelites had dwelled in the land for a time. This land had temptations not completely unlike the temptations Israel had faced before in Egypt or in the wilderness. Yet the temptations that stewed in Canaan were variations on sinful themes, they were apparently unlike anything that Israel had faced before, and thus there was danger of succumbing to temptation without realizing it.

These temptations all come down to idolatry. For instance, the sinful heart of man is aThese temptations all come down to idolatry. For instance, the sinful heart of man is always tempted to worship Mammon, that is, money and possessions that exceed the necessities of daily bread. The Israelites had known Mammon. Israel had prospered greatly when he and his family moved to Goshen. The Israelites had walked out of Egypt carrying great fortunes bestowed on them by the fearful and oddly sympathetic Egyptians.

But the land of Canaan was an influx of Mammon that Israel had never known before. Recall that at the time of the spies’ bad report the Lord had said, “of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun” (Num. 14:29-30). For forty years the Lord killed off an entire generation.

By the time the Israelites entered the promised land only those around the age of sixty and upward even knew what it meant to live in a house, and they hadn’t done so for forty years or more. The greater majority of the Israelites may have seen others dwelling in houses, but they had never done so themselves. Like their father Abraham they only knew walls of hair and skin, walls that are not meant to be permanent, walls that collapse and fold and move, walls that serve to remind us that we are sojourners in this world.

But here in the land of Canaan there are actual houses. Yes, permanent structures built of brick and stone. And they’re ours! There are fields and vineyards, groves and orchards, wells in the ground. We can live high off the land instead of using it as one endless road!

Moses had seen the temptation coming from afar. In his great sermon to Israel (the book of Deuteronomy) Moses said,

And when it happens that Yahweh your God brings you to the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give it to you: cities great and good that you did not build, and houses full of every good thing that you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out that you did not hew, vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied – Take heed to yourself lest you forget Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. Yahweh your God you shall fear, and him you shall serve, and by his name you shall swear. You shall not go after other gods from the gods of the peoples around you – for Yahweh your God who is in your midst is a jealous God – lest the anger of Yahweh your God be kindled against you, and he exterminate you from upon the face of the ground.

    (Deuteronomy 6:10-15)

So Mammon rose up to tempt like the bright molten calf, like the glittering statue of Nebuchadnezzar. Except Mammon presented itself in houses, and pottery, and ovens, and picket fences, and luxuries. Mammon seemed so ordinary, so common. And it became all the more dangerous.

Then, of course, there were the remaining peoples who had previously dwelled in the land of Canaan. They had their religion: the worship of Baal. The Canaanite religion was an agricultural religion. The god Baal is married to his sister, the goddess Anath. Each year Baal descends to the underworld, the realm of Mot (Death). Baal becomes trapped there, and winter ensues. Then Anath comes and slays Mot and chops him to bits and plants them, then Baal returns to life. The earth becomes fertile again. Somehow Mot returns to life as well, and the whole thing repeats. Hence the seasons.

You can picture the conversations the Canaanites had with the Israelites, “So you worship Yahweh, eh? He made heaven and earth? Ok. And you’re… a bunch of shepherds. Got it. Look, buddy, you need a lesson in how things work in these parts. We’re farmers. Yahweh may have made the earth, but Baal controls the land, and if you’re going to live off the land, you’d better make nice with Baal. So go to your tabernacle or whatever and worship your Yahweh. We’re tolerant. Kind of. Then when you leave the tabernacle, worship Baal. Boom, best of both worlds. Plus we have cult prostitutes, so, uh… yeah. See you at the high places.”

And then marriage. Why is it always marriage? Such a good gift, and so I suppose we shouldn’t wonder that the devil is always trying to twist it to his purposes. Do not marry the Canaanites! Thus saith the Lord. This is inescapably clear, right? “But there are kind and beautiful people, and they’re my neighbors (never mind that I was supposed to drive them out), and I’m in love, and she’s right in my eyes, and we’re soul mates, and maybe Yahweh and Baal aren’t all that different after all.”

Such were the temptations that lurked in the land of Canaan.

Joshua’s First Sermon: The Lord Your God

At last we come to Joshua’s first sermon to the people of Israel. “And it came to pass after many days – after Yahweh had given rest to Israel from all their enemies around them, and Joshua was old, coming into days – that Joshua called for all Israel, for its elders and for its heads and for its judges and for its officers, and he said to them,

‘I have grown old, I have come into days. And you have seen all that Yahweh your God did to all these nations before you. For Yahweh your God, he is the one who has warred for you. See, I have allotted to you these nations that are left in the inheritance, to your tribes: from the Jordan, through all the nations that I have cut off, and unto the Great Sea where the sun sets. And Yahweh your God, he himself will drive them out before you and dispossess them from before you. And you shall possess their land, just as Yahweh your God has said to you.

‘Therefore be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the Torah of Moses, not to turn aside from it to the right or to the left, not to come in to these nations, these that are left with you. By the name of their gods you shall neither make remembrance nor swear, and you shall neither serve them nor bow down to them. But to Yahweh your God you shall cleave, just as you have done unto this day. Yahweh has dispossessed before you nations great and mighty. And you, no man has withstood your face unto this day. One man from you pursued a thousand; for Yahweh your God, he is the one who has warred for you, just as he said to you.

‘Now take great heed unto your souls, to love Yahweh your God. For if you turn back and you cleave to the remnant of these nations, these that are left with you, and you intermarry with them and you come in to them and they in to you, then know for certain that Yahweh your God will no longer dispossess these nations from before you, and they will be for you a trap and a snare, and a scourge in your sides and thorns in your eyes until you perish from this good land that Yahweh your God has given to you.

‘Now behold, I am going today the way of all the earth, and you know with all your heart and with all your soul that not one word has fallen from among all the good words that Yahweh your God has spoken unto you. They have all come to you; not one from them has fallen. But it shall be that just as every good word has come unto you that Yahweh your God has spoken to you, so also Yahweh will bring on you every harmful word until he exterminates you from this good land that Yahweh your God has given to you, when you transgress the covenant of Yahweh your God that he has commanded you and you go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of Yahweh will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land that he has given to you.’

    (Joshua 23:1-16)

“Thou shalt have no other gods.” And why would we need them? What could they possibly do for us that the Lord our God has not already done, and done immeasurably better? The Lord has redeemed us, the Lord has given us rest from our enemies round about us, the Lord continues to fight for us.

Martin Luther wasn’t the first to see the great gift that the Lord gave us in the First Commandment, but he has put it very well. “Thou shalt have no other gods.” “What this means is: ‘See to it that you let me alone be your God, and never search for another.’ In other words: ‘Whatever good thing you lack, look to me for it and seek it from me, and whenever you suffer misfortune and distress, crawl to me and cling to me. I, I myself, will give you what you need and help you out of every danger. Only do not let your heart cling to or rest in anyone else” (Large Catechism, I.4, K-W).

Joshua’s Second Sermon: Dethroning Idols

And this leads quite well into Joshua’s second sermon to the people. Once again Joshua calls all Israel to himself, and this time we learn that the place is Shechem. Shechem is the first Canaanite city mentioned in Genesis 12 when we hear of Abram’s journeys through the land. It was at Shechem that that Lord had first appeared to Abram and promised him, “To your seed I will give this land” (Gen. 12:7). It was also at Shechem that Abram built his first altar to the Lord. Now Joshua stands at this place: the place where the former-pagan Abraham built his first solid structure in the land that he was to inherit, the place in the midst of Baal country where Abraham had confessed the one true God with solid stone and with sacrifice.

And Joshua said,

Thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel: ‘On other other side of the River your fathers dwelt from of old, Terah the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, and they served other gods. And I took your father, Abraham, from across the River, and I led in him all the land of Canaan, and I multiplied his seed, and I gave him Isaac. And I gave to Isaac Jacob and Esau. And I gave to Esau Mount Seir to possess, but Jacob and his sons came down to Egypt.

‘And I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt as I acted in its midst, and afterwards I brought you out. And I brought your fathers out from Egypt and you came toward the sea. And the Egyptians pursued after your fathers with chariotry and with horsemen to the Red Sea. And they cried out to Yahweh, and he set darkness between you and Egypt, and he brought the sea upon him and covered him. And your eyes saw what I did against Egypt.

‘And you dwelt in the wilderness for many days. And I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who dwelt on the other side of the Jordan, and they warred with you. But I gave them into your hand and you possessed their land, and I exterminated them from before you. Then arose Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, and he warred with Israel. And he sent and called for Balaam son of Beor to curse you. But I was not willing to listen to Balaam, and he blessed you greatly, and I delivered you from his hand.

‘And you crossed over the Jordan and you came to Jericho, and the baals of Jericho warred with you, the Amorites and the Perizzites and the Canaanites and the Hittites and the Girgashites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, and I gave them into your hand. And I sent the hornet before you and it drove them out before you – the two kings of the Amorites – not with your sword and not with your bow.

‘And I gave you a land on which you did not toil, and cities that you did not build, and you dwelt in them. Of vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant, you eat.’

And now: Fear Yahweh and serve him in totality and in faithfulness. And take away the gods that your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh. But if it is evil in your eyes to serve Yahweh, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods that your fathers served that are from the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But I and my house, we will serve Yahweh.

    (Joshua 24:2-15)

Where are the gods that came from the other side of the River? Where are the gods of Egypt? Where are the gods of Canaan? They have all unwillingly bowed the knee to the Lord, the one true God. So choose, Joshua says. And he’s not some Arminian encouraging Israel toward decision theology. He’s addressing those who already believe. He makes them understand, “You have a choice before you. You might not even realize that you have such an important choice, so let me tell you about it. This is a choice between gods. The land in which you dwell is filled with temptations, many of which you have only begun to suspect. The devil is calling to you, trying to lure you away from the Lord. But ignore the devil, and realize how utterly obvious this is: You can serve the gods who have been defeated, or you can serve the God who has defeated them. For me the choice is quite simple. My house will serve the Lord.”

The people likewise said that they would serve the Lord. They said this while they still had foreign gods with them, gods they had carried along just in case, or out of habit, or out of the perverse love that drives all of us to desire our idols. Would the people remain true to their word? Would they serve the Lord in totality and faithfulness and cleave to him alone? Or would they go after other gods?

Why Judges?

Our Joshua has conquered our enemies on every side. By his death and resurrection he felled the devil’s Jericho and slew Death. Jesus is the victor, he is the God who has already won. We have passed through the waters, we have been baptized into his name, and therefore his victory is our victory.

And yet…

The sinful flesh loves Mammon. This is as true of us as it was of the Israelites. And we have houses and garages stuffed with Mammon. The Lord has given us Mammon as a trust; in truth it is our neighbor’s daily bread. Yet Mammon calls, “Believe in me, accumulate me, and I will secure your future.”

The sinful flesh loves the world. The world says, “I don’t know what you do in church, but out here we had better see you acting like this. But, by the way, you can engage in all the sexual promiscuity that you want – the more deviant, the better – and we won’t bat an eye. Just leave your whole ‘one true God’ business within the walls of your sanctuary.”

The sinful flesh loves the passions. God’s Word doesn’t make the flesh feel good, but that heretic or schismatic does? Well then! Let’s set the wedding date! This happens spiritually when we give in to the allure of false teaching. This also happens physically: we don’t have Canaanites, but Christians are still marrying outside the faithful confession of Christ. The worst part is, many don’t suspect that there’s anything wrong with it. “He’s atheist, she’s Buddhist, I’m Christian.  What’s the problem?” Or, “He’s Baptist, she’s Roman Catholic, I’m Lutheran. What’s the problem?” The problem is we love our passions more than we love the Word of God.

Our sinful flesh is no different than the sinful flesh of the Israelites. And like them, we stand in need of a Savior. The book of Judges chronicles the utter failure of God’s people to serve him as they should. As a result, time and time again the enemy looms over them and breathes down their necks, until the Israelites turn from their foreign gods and implore the Lord’s mercy. In the book of Judges we see the Lord’s faithfulness and long-suffering. We see how he disciplines his children: not as an exterminator, but as a Father. We also see in each judge a shadow of Christ. The Savior who casts the shadow becomes more and more clearly defined as the book progresses, even as the sinful shadows themselves become ever more grievously sinful.

Today we find ourselves in a scenario eerily similar to that in the book of Judges. And so we take to heart the history of our fathers, we learn to recognize the temptations that beset us, and like them we repent of our sins, pray, and receive the aid of the Savior.

For Yahweh will minister judgment for his people,
and on his servants he will have compassion,
for he will see that their strength is gone,
that there is no one kept back or remaining.
And he will say, ‘Where are their gods,
the rock in which they took refuge,
who ate the fat of their sacrifices,
who drank the wine of their libations?
Let them arise and let them help you;
let them be a shelter over you.
See now that I, I am he,
and there is no god besides me,
I myself kill and enliven, I smash and I myself heal,
and there is none to deliver from my hand.’

    (Deuteronomy 32:36-39)

I have edited this post to correct a possible overstatement regarding Abraham’s agricultural practices and a definite misstatement concerning Israel’s dwellings in the land of Egypt. See the comments below for more details.

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