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Judging the Judges: Searching for Value in these Problematic Characters


Having established that at least one purpose of the hero list of Hebrews 11 is to offer hope and encouragement to the hearers of the epistle, let us now examine the place of the four judges within the list. The hero list begins with Abel and proceeds to name Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses’ parents, Moses, the Israelites, and Rahab in chronological order. In each case, at least one event from the life of the hero is presented as an example of trust in the promises of God. At verse 32, however, the writer expresses a need to conserve time, and the pattern of reportage changes.22 The faith of the judges, David, and the prophets is described in general terms, without reference to specific events and out of sequence chronologically. Commendation of the judges, David, Samuel, and the prophets is given for the following praiseworthy actions: they ‘conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight’ (Heb. 11.33-34; NRSV). For the purposes of this paper, we need not connect each action to a particular Old Testament figure, but we should consider a few general observations:23 1. All of these actions are interpreted by the writer as expressions of faith, even though the word ‘faith’ is not found in the book of Judges;24 2. All of these actions are related closely to strength and victory in warfare, except for the four phrases in the middle of the list (‘administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire’); 3. The phrase ‘obtained promises’ is a motif that is prominent in Hebrews;25 4. The phrases, ‘shut the mouths of lions’ and ‘quenched raging fire’, suggest escape from dangers that may not be directly related to warfare; 5. The judges are not venerated for moral virtues, except that they ‘administered justice’ (eirgasanto dikaiosunēn), which can mean ‘did what was right’,26 but which, coming after ‘conquered kingdoms’, more likely means that they restored order and justice after vanquishing enemy forces. The administering of justice is lauded by the Old Testament prophets as a quality of godly rule and as a mark of the eschatological kingdom of God.27 As will become evident when we examine the book of Judges, the mention in Hebrews 11 of the administering of justice reveals a point of agreement between the perspectives of Hebrews and Judges.

Our uncertain response to the judges is symptomatic of our uncertain response to contemporary leadership failure.

Therefore, we might observe that in Hebrews 11 the judges are not commended for their holiness, compassion, generosity, meekness, or self-control.28 This observation is not surprising, however, when we compare the writer’s treatment of the other Old Testament heroes. In fact, none of the heroes of Hebrews 11 are praised for their moral purity and few are presented in the Old Testament as blameless.29 Noah begins well, but then succumbs to drunkenness and ends up cursing his son. Abraham’s life is a series of ups and downs, checkered with lies and doubts. When Sarah hears God’s promise, she laughs incredulously. Moses is a murderer; Rahab is a prostitute; David is an adulterer and a premeditated murderer. By faith the Israelites passed through the Red Sea (Heb. 11.29), but the next day they grumbled against Moses (Exod. 15.24). By faith the walls of Jericho fell down (Heb. 11.30); but in their next battle, the Israelites were soundly defeated because of disobedience (Josh. 7.1-15). Samuel was nearly perfect, but he failed in the end by installing his unscrupulous and immoral sons as judges (1 Sam. 8.1-4). As examples of endurance, therefore, the Old Testament characters are acceptable; but as an example of victory over sin, only Jesus is sufficient (Heb. 4.15).30

In spite of their sins, however, the heroes of Hebrews 11 embraced the promises of God and pressed forward beyond their encumbering circumstances and their personal flaws. I contend that the inclusion of the judges in the list of heroes is not a blanket approval of their every act; it does not exonerate them from their crimes.31 The book of Hebrews, by highlighting the positive qualities of Old Testament characters, provides examples of heroic acts that are worthy of appreciation and emulation.32

Although the writer of Hebrews does not choose to point out the failures of the Old Testament characters,33 those failures are not ignored in the Old Testament and they would be well-known by the intended audience of the book of Hebrews. The Old Testament, by showing both the positive and negative qualities of its characters, is able to utilize these characters in complex and realistic events that register a variety of subtle theological messages. The book of Judges, as narrative, is able to paint a picture of the judges that is more holistic than is possible within the confines of an epistle.34 Hebrews, therefore, focuses only on the positive characteristics of the judges that might encourage the early Christians to endure faithfully.

In spite of its commendation of the judges, then, Hebrews 11 does not provide justification to disregard the moral and ethical problems that are reflected in the book of Judges.35 For example, it is not legitimate for us to assume, on the basis of his presence in Hebrews 11, that Jephthah would not have sacrificed his daughter. Nevertheless, the inclusion of the judges among the heroes of faith suggests that our search for something of value in these problematic characters is canonically legitimate.36 We move now to the book of Judges to continue that search.


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Category: Biblical Studies, Fall 2010

About the Author: Lee Roy Martin, D.Th. (University of South Africa), is Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, TN; and editor of the Journal of Pentecostal Theology. He has served as a Church of God pastor for 27 years and is the author of a number of books and articles, including The Unheard Voice of God: A Pentecostal Hearing of the Book of Judges (Deo Publishing, 2008).

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