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Judging the Judges: Searching for Value in these Problematic Characters


The Judges Are Among Us

I have shown that due to the tension between Hebrews 11 and the book of Judges we have struggled to find an appropriate interpretation of and response to the judges. On the one hand, the judges can be helpful as examples of charismatic leaders who devote themselves to the saving mission of God; on the other hand, their reputations are stained by moral flaws. I would suggest that our struggle with the judges parallels in some ways the contemporary integrity crisis in Christian leadership. The Holiness-Pentecostal movement is mired in a culture that is unable to deal effectively with issues of discipline. We rightly affirm the Wesleyan tradition of Christian perfection, but we have unwittingly created an idealized view of leadership, which tends to follow one of two extremes. Either ministers are not held accountable for their sins because it is believed that the ‘success’ of their ministry is proof that they are in good standing with God; or ministers are forced out of their pastorates because of sins that might demand disciplinary action, but which should not disqualify the person for ministry.58 Either we refuse to require accountability for moral failings (even when the person is convicted for criminal behavior), or we demonize any leader who is suspected of a moral lapse.

Spirit-filled leaders should not be immune from the demands of biblical holiness.

It is clear that the endowment of the Spirit does not grant infallibility to humans. It is also clear that Spirit-filled leaders should not be immune from the demands of biblical holiness. Barak is celebrated for his victory, but he is rebuked for his hesitancy (Judg. 4.9). Gideon is praised for leading 300 brave soldiers against a mighty army of Midianites, but he is reprimanded for constructing a golden ephod (Judg. 8.27).59 I am not suggesting that the Church should use the Old Testament as the primary resource for the development of a theology of leadership, but I am suggesting that our uncertain response to the judges is symptomatic of our uncertain response to contemporary leadership failure. In a nutshell, when leaders fail, we do not know what to do!


The positive representation of the judges in Hebrews 11 must not be seen as a blanket endorsement of their lives and character, but neither should the Old Testament’s portrayal of the negative qualities of the judges cause us to doubt the appropriateness of the judges inclusion in Hebrews 11. Pre-critical interpreters, who come to the text with a predisposed sympathy toward biblical characters, tend to be unable or unwilling to wrestle with difficult texts that expose the spiritual inadequacies of those characters. Thus, pre-critical commentators often minimize the undesirable aspects of Old Testament characters while focusing upon their heroic traits. Critical interpreters, however, with no vested interest in defending the biblical characters, often highlight their shortcomings and flaws. I would argue that neither approach fully appreciates the richly textured portrayals of the biblical characters and neither does justice to the biblical text as narrative theology.

The Old Testament’s portrayal of the negative qualities of the judges should not cause us to doubt the appropriateness of including the judges in Hebrews 11.

We find similar inappropriate polarizing responses when faced with contemporary leadership failures. Church leaders who stumble are either demonized as worthless hypocrites or their sins are minimized through the uncritical use of the clichés: ‘nobody’s perfect’ or ‘s/he is only human’. On the one hand, even a small error can lead to complete ruin, or on the other hand, a gross moral failure can result in no more than a brief embarrassment, depending upon the prevalent mood of the public. Unfortunately, genuine dialog, reflection, and discernment are rarely employed as responses to leadership transgressions.

Early holiness and Pentecostal Christians are well known for their devotion to the mission of God in the world; but the contemporary Church, much like Israel, is tempted to accommodate itself to the dominant culture, to be seduced by the idols of the powerful, and to abandon God’s mission of salvation for the poor and oppressed. In many places, the Church itself is in bondage to the Canaanites. Like Israel, the Church has settled down with the Canaanites, intermarried with the Canaanites, and served the gods of the Canaanites (Judg. 3.5-6). Let us cry out to God for deliverance, trusting that he will raise up Spirit-filled leaders who will sound a call that mobilizes the Church to repentance, renewal, and mission.





1 Unless noted otherwise, Scripture citations are my own translation.

2 Interpreters from a number of traditions have questioned how it is possible for God to use these judges who seem to be morally deficient. E.g., Herbert Wolf, ‘Judges’, in F. E. Gaebelein (ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), III, p. 381, calls this tension a ‘problem’; and J. Clinton McCann, Judges (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2002), p. 1, admits that Judges is ‘an embarrassment to most church folk’.

3 On the pre-critical exegesis of Judges, see ch. 2 of Lee Roy Martin, The Unheard Voice of God: A Pentecostal Hearing of the Book of Judges (JPTS, 32; Blandford Forum, UK: Deo Publishing, 2008). Most interpreters prior to the reformation resorted to allegory and typology as the way to make sense of the judges; see David M. Gunn, Judges (Blackwell Bible Commentaries; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), who traces the reception history of the entire book of Judges.

4 John Wesley and G. Roger Schoenhals, Wesley’s Notes on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Francis Asbury Press, 1987), p. 171. One stream of the Jewish tradition asserts that God’s choosing of the judges is evidence of their spiritual qualifications. Cf., e.g., Nosson Scherman, The Prophets: Joshua/Judges. The Early Prophets with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings (Artscroll; Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah Publications, 1st Rubin edn, 2000), p. xiv, who writes, ‘The judges were chosen by God as individuals of outstanding merit’.

5 One of my former teachers, Jerome Boone, suggested that the brevity of the stories of the judges makes their flaws more conspicuous than those of David, whose failures are a small part of a longer story.


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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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