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"Judges Then ~ Judges Now"

A Special Lesson Set
from the Writing Team

Bible Background and Lesson Objectives



The lessons in "Judges Then, Judges Now"  teach your students the over-arching story and message found in the Book of Judges. The lesson plans make clear, as does Judges itself, that violence failed to solve Israel's problems. Each lesson plan teaches how the followers of the Prince of Peace should read the stories of Judges and how we seek to solve problems and "problem people" with the example of Jesus. This point of view on Judges and Jesus is why we named the set, "Judges Then, Judges Now."

Various lessons include the stories of Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, and Gideon. One in particular focuses on Gospel quotes from Jesus on the subject of enemies and violence.

Due to its length and complexity, the story of Samson the Judge is covered only briefly in two of the four workshops.

Because of the breadth of material, we recommend teaching the lessons one after another over several weeks.

Scriptures for this set

While the main scriptural objective of this set is to present an overview of the main stories in Judges, lessons in the set cover the following specific scriptures. In some cases, a particular Judge's story can be left out of a lesson due to time or age needs. One of the lessons includes a "Quotes from Jesus" handout whose scriptures are also listed below.

  • Othniel, Judges 3: 7-11
  • Ehud, Judges 3:12-30
  • Deborah and Barak, Judges 4:4-24
  • Gideon, Judges 6: 11-14; Judges 7: 1-8, 16-21
  • In brief: Samson, Judges 16
  • Quotes from Jesus: Matthew 5: 9, 11, 23-24, 22:37-39; Luke 6:27-29, 31

Memory verse for this lesson set:

"In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit."
– Judges 17:6 and again as the very last verse in the book, Judges 21:25 (NRSV)

Lesson Objectives

1) Students will become familiar with the Book of Judges, its theme and its outcome.

2) Students will become familiar with the stories of a number of judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, and Samson.

3) Students will understand that the violence of "Judges Then" failed to solve their problems, and that today (Judges Now) we follow the example of Jesus Christ.

4) Students will learn that Jesus taught us a better way to deal with those who are different than us. He taught us to love our enemies and seek peace with our neighbors.

Bible Background

Basic Overview

A "Judge" in biblical terms is something like a military leader or tribal leader that the people turned to in time of need. They were not courtroom judges in modern terms, though Deborah is described as someone you could find sitting under a palm tree dispensing advice, and judges did settle disputes. The Hebrew word for "judge" is "din" (pronounced "deen"). It is used in scripture to describe the act of governing, striving, deciding, or defending.

The Period of the Book of Judges (circa 1200 B.C.) comes right after the initial invasion and conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua, and is immediately followed by the story of Ruth, then 1st Kings' stories of Samuel, Saul, and David.  

The Promised Land is already settled by tribes and small city-states when the Israelites arrive, each of which is engaged in the worship of "false" gods. The Book of Judges is a collection of short stories about the various "judges" God sends to keep the people from falling in with these "other" people and their gods. It is a problem that began with the golden calf during the Exodus, and will continue throughout the period and books of Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings and Chronicles.

There are as many as 12 judges described in the book, though not all are called "judges," and most are mentioned only in passing. Deborah, Gideon, and Samson have the most developed stories, and interestingly, each of them represents a very different idea of what a "judge" did.

Each judge's story in the Book of Judges follows a similar literary form, sometimes described as "the cycle of apostasy."

  1. Israel "does evil in the eyes of Yahweh," –a stock verse found throughout Judges.
  2. The people are given into the hands of their enemies.
  3. Yahweh raises up a leader,
  4. The leader manages to defeat the enemy, often through fantastic means.
  5. Peace is regained --and then is lost again when people begin doing evil again.
  6. Repeat, ad nauseum.

Why teach about the Judges?

Because Judges is a cautionary tale about failing to follow God's ways, and instead, following the ways of the world around you. It's an old story and problem we continue to struggle with today. Judges is about failing to resist the worst of the culture we find ourselves living in, ...and what we can do about it. And on a personal level (as well as a communal level), Judges teaches us that without God's help, we are stuck in a cycle of doing evil, then right, then evil again. As we shall see, the failure of the judges and their descendants, and all the kings, will give way to a new Covenant of hope and truth embodied by the Messiah. And that this Messiah doesn't draw lines between people and tribes, but forgives, includes, and offers a new way of realizing God's Kingdom vision for all  that the Judges and Kings could only glimpse.

Judges is also a story about "the fear of others" ...people who worship, dress and talk differently than we do. How do we share faith in a faithless world? How do we treat people who do not worship like us, or share our values?  

But Judges is not a "final word" on the subject of "others." Indeed, the Book of Judges judges itself.* Judge after judge comes to Israel. They kill a lot of "others." They have few successes, and the book ends with this epitaph, "In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes." Judges 21:25.  

The Book of Judges



*It shouldn't surprise us to think that "Judges judges itself." The Bible is an amazing book that often talks to itself. It suffers through the failure of Judges to overthrow the "others," and then in the very next book makes "an other," Ruth the Moabitess, the hero of the story. There is a conversation going on here! ..and we are free to join it.

Numerous times Judges starts off another episode with the phrase, "and the people did what was evil in the sight of the Lord." Another judge arrives and it's the same old story. Every success is wasted. And (thankfully), each episode's violence comes to naught. That lesson alone is worth the price of teaching. Violence will not bring the Kingdom.

Yes, Judges is violent, almost cartoonishly so, ...which could be its saving excuse. At times it reads like your Uncle's attempt at a scary campfire story. We cheer the heroes and their larger than life stories full of odd details, humorous vignettes, and implausible outcomes. We cringe at the gory details. And we "scare straight" mis-behaving children with dastardly villains and "just desserts."

And through it all, a Word is heard...

  • Who do we need? God.
  • Which leader should we trust? None of them.
  • How long does it take people to backslide? Not long at all.
  • Who is our worst "enemy"? Our own faithlessness.
  • How do we deal with other religions and "tribes" we don't like?  Killing isn't the answer.
  • Does violence work against "others"?  No, the Book of Judges tells us that it changed nothing.
  • Are we supposed to draw exclusionary lines between people? Or is God's Kingdom of circle around all?

Judges is also quite funny at times.
Ehud the left-handed and the king's fat belly. God choosing for Gideon only the soldiers who drink like dogs. Moabites so confused they start fighting each other. 30 sons riding 30 donkeys. A judge so embarrassed, that he was mortally wounded by a woman, that he commands his servant to stab him. A man who's strength is his hair. So many receive their "just desserts" in Judges that you might almost think you were reading a comedy if it weren't so tragic. (And yet, maybe the comedy is a tip-off, a wink to the reader, that what we are reading isn't exactly history, but rather, truth  told in an indelible, and time-honored tradition.)

  Our "Drama" lesson in this set really brings out the humor of Judges without missing the point.

Christians cannot help but read Judges and ask, "What would Jesus have done?"
Several of our lessons in this set dig into that point. "Love Your Enemies" is in direct opposition to what the Book of Judges seems to be suggesting, and it is. What Judges does for us, however, is help us understand the "correction" Jesus brought to his people's understanding of scripture. Of Judges, Jesus would have said, "you have heard it said, but now I tell you...." Not only does Judges judge itself, Jesus judges Judges, and every other passage that suggests God condones violence. By teaching about the Book of Judges, we have the perfect opportunity to express this profound Christ-inspired freedom to interpret all scripture in light of his story.

Is Judges too much for children?

Or is it a message we dare not ignore?

Our children are growing up learning how to "Run-Hide-Fight," in school. Violence and bullying have worked their way down into the youngest grades. They know we live in a dangerous world. Like the Judges, we worry about our children becoming co-opted by the secular and selfish culture. We fear they will lose their faith and leave the church. Judges asks, "What is the solution?" Violence against foes? Purifying the culture? Hiding our kids? Read Judges and tell me how that works out.  

Judges doesn't provide an answer except to tell us what DOESN'T work. The answer is left to other stories, and ultimately, to the life-transforming presence of Jesus Christ. Jesus is commentary on the Judges --and the rest of scripture. He is the answer to its questions, and salvation from its failures. That's why we must teach Judges, order to understand Jesus.

It is important to remember when and by whom Judges was written down. Shaped hundreds of years "after the fact," these epics served as part of Israel's "back story" to exiled and post-exilic Jews who yearned for identify in a foreign land, and were learning how to survive in a brave new world. They were cautionary tales told large, with a message to those who thought all we needed was a new leader, a strong man, and more blood. "Didn't work then, doesn't work now," might well have been the subtext to those exiles returning to rebuild Jerusalem.  Or just turn to the last verse in Judges 21:25. You'll see Judges judging itself.

"There's Got to Be Something Better Out There"

Remember these lyrics?

We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.

Looking for something we can rely on
There's got to be something better out there.
Mmmm, love and compassion, their day is coming
All else are castles built in the air
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains.

We don't need another hero,
We don't need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome.

These prophetic lyrics might well have been sung by those in Israel who were SICK of all the wars and bloodshed of Judges, and those of us who are sick of the violence in our world today. The lyrics are from the Grammy-nominated song sung by Tina Turner as she plays the failed leader in the movie, "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome."  If you've forgotten this powerful song, check it out here on YouTube, or view the Youth lesson in this set.

Surprisingly, the pop lyrics profoundly summarize the disillusionment and longing believers THEN AND NOW have felt when confronted by fear, despots, failed religion, leaders, pastors, and prophets. In the movie, "Thunderdome" in the movie represents the world gone bad. Brutal, violent, full of fear and refugees --it could have been somewhere in Judge's Israel. A reluctant Christ-like figure (Mad Max) leads people to hope for "something better out there."  (No, the movie hero isn't perfect, but the theme is ancient and universal.) 

For many people struggling to live in peace and safety today, the world is still a "thunderdrome." A place where we are pitted against each other, or offered "spectacle" to mollify and distract us from the injustice and brutality many people live with in this world --a world that Jesus spoke about frequently, and called us to transform.

Jesus enters history calling people to "a life beyond," to "something we can rely on," a "love and compassion whose day is coming." (And they called him "mad" too.)  

Yes, I just connected Tina, Mad Max and Jesus to each other. So did Tyler Perry's "The Passion" story in 2016 with Pilate and Jesus singing this same song. You can find it on YouTube at (The two versions of the song have been turned into a "music video" lesson for younger and older youth, and is linked to this set.)  

And so we follow the Prince of Peace, not Deborah or Gideon, or Saul or David.

Jesus leads us into a new "Promised Land," a Kingdom of the heart, not won by the sword –but by compassion and peace.  Already God's land, it is populated with his children, and they need to hear their Father's gracious word, and believe in his way of living.

Written by Rev. Neil MacQueen for the Writing Team

For a teacher-friendly summary of the Book of Judges, read the SparkNotes summary online.


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