How a Nation Becomes Paganized
Judges Lesson #005
July 9, 2000
The basic cause of deterioration in Israel wasn’t because they didn’t have the right kind of government, it wasn’t a problem of human monarchy, it was a problem of the Divine Theocracy—that Israel rejected the authority of God. The authority of God is the fundamental core issue in our lives. If we are not properly oriented to God and His authority in our lives then we can rest assured that we will personally go through the same cycles of discipline that Israel goes through as a nation in the book of Judges.
In Judges 2, there is a significant break between verses five and six. In Judges 1:1 we read “after the death of Joshua”; in Judges 2:6 we read “And when Joshua had dismissed the people.” In chapter one the first verse sets the temporal context of when these events take place: after the death of Joshua.
Chapter one simply traces the history of the military mopping-up operation. There are hints there in terms of the compromise of the people with the thinking of the Canaanites, the pagan population of the land. But it is not until we get to Chapter two that we see the divine interpretation of those events. Chapter one gives the deterioration; then the angel of the Lord announces the end of holy war, that this will no longer continue, that they are no longer supposed to annihilate the Canaanites. They are to defeat them but as part of divine discipline for their compromise, now they have to coexist with paganism in the land: this would be a problem since God would not drive them out totally from the land.
Starting in Judges 2:6 we go back to before Joshua dies. The writer is going to give us under inspiration the interpretation of why the things happened the way they did in Chapter one—what were the real underlying causes?
“And when Joshua had dismissed the people.” Joshua 24 is Joshua’s departing challenge to the nation. They presented themselves before God. This is the function of the theocracy. God is the King of the nation and so when they gather together in official function they are in the presence of God.
They gather at Shechem; this is significant and will become a significant site in the book of Judges, so we need to review a little about its importance. It is an ancient city established not long after the flood and we know that it was in the possession of the Canaanites when Abram first entered the land. It is located in the tribal area of Ephraim near the city where Jesus would come to speak to the woman at the well, near Mount Gerizim. In Joshua 24 we are looking at about three million people here who come before the presence of God.
Two generations after Abram came into the land this is the scene of an extremely odd episode with Jacob’s daughter, Dinah. She has an affair with Shechem, a person named after that particular city, the son of Hamor. Shechem seduces Dinah and then her two brothers come in and kill everyone in the city.
It is here, earlier in Joshua after their initial conquest of the land, when the nation comes together that they commit themselves again to the Mosaic Law. What happens is that the whole nation has to read the Law and they gather half the tribes on Mount Ebal and half the tribes on Mount Gerizim, and they read the Law antiphonally, specifically the cursing and the blessings of the Law. The blessings are the way God will bless them if they are obedient to Him, and the cursings are the five cycles of discipline that God will bring upon the nation if they are disobedient to the covenant.
Shechem also has significance in Judges because it is the men of Shechem that will come together in rebellion and will crown Abimelech, the illegitimate son of Gideon, as the king of Israel. That lasted about three years until that episode fell apart. But Shechem is a significant site of the nation coming together to affirm the Law on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. This location has a rich history, an emotive connotation for the patriotism of the nation.
So Joshua gathers all the tribes to Shechem, he has all the leaders there, and he rehearses for them what God has done for the nation. He goes all the way back to Abraham, Joshua 24:2.
There is a reason for this. One of the problems we have in our society today is that people just don’t care too much about history any more, they don’t think that history is very important. One of the signs of paganism is that history is diminished and not considered to be very significant. But from Christianity we know that history is the outworking of God’s plan in human history, so only from a biblical framework do you see that history has meaning and significance.
History in its full sense is interpreting the significance and meaning of events—why they happened and where history is going. If you don’t have a linear view of history which Christianity provides—that history is going somewhere, that it has a purpose and a function and will culminate in the kingdom of God, the Messianic rule of Jesus Christ in the Millennium—then you don’t see the significance of history, you don’t see that it has purposes, it is just random events repeating themselves over and over again.
So the only thing that matters is here and now, the past is basically irrelevant. If you don’t pay attention to history, as Hegel said, “what we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. That is because we don’t pay attention to it. History is important to a nation because it helps us to understand what is happening nationally and why it is happening and it is important in our spiritual lives.
We need to take time to reflect in terms of our own personal history as to what God is doing in our lives and how we are being transformed by the Word of God and growing toward spiritual maturity. The nation that forgets its history will be impoverished and the believer who ignores the history of God’s grace in his own life is going to be doomed to misery, failure, and complete disorientation to reality.
History is the outworking of the plan of God and it is only when we understand that personally, nationally, both in terms of the human race and our own individual spiritual life history, that we can see where things are going and how God is working. So Joshua focuses on the historical root and ground of the nation and on what God has done for them, Joshua 24:2–13.
Then in Joshua 24:14 comes the challenge. Christianity is grounded in historical reality. One application is that this has been basically providing an apologetic, a defense of who we are and why we are here. Joshua is telling the nation: this is why we are here, why you are a nation; God has a purpose for your life.
It is comparable to Peter’s statement that we are to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us, 1 Peter 3:15. We need to know why we are here. We are here because Christ died for our sins on the Cross, He redeemed us as a royal people, a royal family of God, and God has given us a mission.
There is an analogy between these facts: what Christ did on the Cross—He then gave the disciples and the church the great commission that we are to be involved in witnessing—and in the same way Israel had this redemptive event of coming into the land. God gave them the land, not for them to spend on their own pleasure, to do whatever they wanted to in self-absorption and self-indulgence, but for them to advance to spiritual maturity and to be a witness to all the nations around them.
So in verse 14, after grounding them in historical reality (for us that would be the Cross and the Resurrection) Joshua says, “Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him” [Hebrew abad, we are here to serve God]. This is their specific task, to serve God as a vassal to Him, the great King. The emphasis is on serving the Lord and not the gods of the pagans.
Joshua 24:15, “… choose you this day whom you will serve.” He is making a point. He has rehearsed everything for them that God has done and now it is time to make a decision. He is not calling for a one-shot revivalistic decision. He is forcing them to look at everything that God did and come to a decision. But that decision is not determinative because, you see, the Christian life is not based on a one-shot decision. Christianity is made up of a series of decisions, moment by moment, where we have to make that decision to serve the Lord or whether we are going to serve some other pagan system of thought—whether it involves an overt, external religious system, or whether it involves just an internal subjective idolatry where we are worshipping self and the things that we want for self. So Joshua now challenges the people as to what their priorities are. They have basically three choices:
1. They can be faithful to the Lord. This is their responsibility because God has entered into a covenant with them.
2. They can choose to go back to the Mesopotamian religions of their ancestors prior to Abraham.
3. They can adopt the Canaanite religions, the idolatry of the Amorites in whose land they are living.
Then Joshua makes his famous statement: “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
So the issue here is a volitional decision. God is not going to override our volition. The issue is, Who is your priority? Is your priority going to be you and what you want in your self-absorbed agenda, or is your priority going to be what God defines as the priority in Scripture?
That was the call to the nation Israel. They had to decide whether they were going to pursue their own plans and procedures and their own agenda for life or whether they were going to put their focus on what God defined that purpose to be in the Mosaic Law. The purpose for the nation in the Mosaic Law was ultimately to provide a witness for Him—a witness both to mankind and in the angelic conflict, to be a nation that would be after God’s heart, a nation that when people came they would hear the gospel, hear the truth, they would see a society, a true counter-culture movement based on divine viewpoint, they would see freedom in action, and then they would go back to their respective cultures. To do that would mean that Israel would have an impact on the entire world.
Joshua 24:16–18, “We also will serve the Lord for he is our God.” They meant well, but the issue is not simple sincerity. They meant it at the time and they had good intentions. Truth is the issue, and alignment with God’s policies as outlined in the Scriptures.
Every culture is a reflection of the core religious values, because what happens in any culture is you make choices based on a value system. Your value system is determined by what you think is right and wrong, what you think the purpose of life is and how you relate to that ultimate reality. So depending on your concept of God and how God relates to man—whether or not there is a God, whether God has spoken to man, whether there are absolutes or relatives—that changes everything.
That is why Joshua is focusing their attention on the spiritual issues, and that is why throughout the entire book of Judges we see that what destroys the nation isn’t that the nation as a corporate entity rejects God but it is a corporate rejection of God because the individual rejects God. As goes the individual so goes the nation, and the most important thing in the nation is for the individual to have his focus on God and that doctrine is the number one priority in terms of spiritual growth. Then the nation is blessed by association.
One of the reasons why Satan is continually attacking believers is because he attacks the nation through believers by getting them distracted from the grace of God. This is the whole point in Joshua’s challenge here. He is reminding the nation of grace and is saying that if they are not grace oriented then no matter what else happens they are going to be a failure as a nation. The most important thing is to put God at the center of everything.
We can’t make a one-shot decision for the Lord and then suddenly everything else is going to be fine. That is how they were handling this. This is superficial. Doctrine has to be our entire life, it is our purpose, our reason for being here, because only by being committed to doctrine are we going to see our mind transformed.
Joshua sees the problem very clearly. We know this from his response in Joshua 24:19. He is not at all fooled by the apparent sincerity of the people: “You will not be able to serve the Lord.” People even deceive themselves that God is a priority in their lives when He is not.
The fundamental issue in Israel is their arrogance, and that is the fundamental issue in the life of every believer. Arrogance is self-absorption; self-absorption leads to self-indulgence; self-indulgence leads to self-justification; self-justification leads to self-deception.
What we see here is that the nation is arrogant, is involved in self-deception. They have deceived themselves saying they really want to serve the Lord, He is really a priority. They go through all of the external motions and therefore they must be right. What Joshua sees is that they are just going through the motions. They talk the talk, but they are not committed in their souls to following the Lord. And he knew what the consequences would be. The people are in self-deception because they are in arrogance, and that is the underlying problem. That is the background for Judges 2.
Judges is about the paganization of the nation Israel. By paganization, it is meant that there are basically two ways to look at life; God’s way and cosmic/worldly thinking (sometimes called human viewpoint). Pagan thought is not a pejorative term, it refers to all thinking that is apart from the Word of God. When a nation rejects God and God is no longer the authority and source of truth in that nation then they look to themselves, to something inside the system as the source of authority.
That is what happened in Israel, they did what was right in their own eyes, they set themselves up as the final authority as to what was right and what was wrong and reject the absolutes of Scripture.
In Judges 2:6 the writer is going to give an interpretation of the events in the first chapter; He goes back to the events before the death of Joshua and then helps us understand what the underlying significance is. “When Joshua dismissed the people” is a poor translation. What we have here is the Hebrew word shalach which in the piel and has the idea of sending someone on a mission or commissioning them to a particular task. It is not just, “Okay go home”. It is, “You are being sent on a mission”.
It is no different from the fact that Christ has sent the church on a mission in the world, and that is to be a witness for Him. We are to be a witness to man by communicating the gospel to those around us and we are to be a witness to the angels to our positive volition and our advance to spiritual maturity. So it shouldn’t be translated, “When Joshua had dismissed the people,” but, “When Joshua commissioned the people.” He sent them on a mission; they have a task. Now they are going out to seize and control the allotment given to each one of them. This is what precedes Joshua 1:1.
Judges 2:8–10, “Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord [servant: he fulfills his covenant role under the Mosaic Law to serve the Lord], died at the age of one hundred and ten, and they buried him in the territory of his inheritance.” This is not far from Shechem and the scene at Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. We see the end of Joshua and his time.
Joshua and his generation saw first-hand the work of God in their lives. They witnessed God bringing them into the land, the parting of the river Jordan, the collapse of the walls of Jericho, of God giving them victory at Ai, of all of the miraculous acts of God throughout all of this period. They have empirical evidence that God was working in their lives.
But they didn’t have to have faith as strong as others because they could say they didn’t need to just have faith because they had actually seen the things that God has done in history. But at the time of their death another issue arose, verse 10—“… there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel.” What happened was that another generation arises and they have failed in the process of transmitting the reality of the empirical evidence to that generation.
The priesthood had failed in that, according to Leviticus. They were to teach the people the Word of God and what God had done. According to the principles in Deuteronomy 6 and following, the parents were to drill the children on the Mosaic Law and they were to teach their children. It is primarily the parents’ responsibility to teach doctrine to their children. Ultimately it is the father’s responsibility in Ephesians 6; and he is held accountable and is given the specific command to raise up children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
So the younger generation comes along and they haven’t seen the empirical evidences because the parents failed in their job to transmit the information about God’s grace.
You can’t keep faith going without communicating the empirical evidences of how God has worked in history. In Christianity our faith is objective, it is based on the fact that God has entered human history and He has worked through events and our faith is based on facts, not on some subjective feeling or psychological state.
Faith is based on fact. Saving faith is based on the fact that Jesus Christ went to the cross and there He was crucified and died on the cross for our sins as our substitute; that He died, that He was buried, and that He rose on the third day. It is not based on some subjective expression or having some experience in coming to church.
Joshua challenged the people on the basis of what God had done for them in history and that was to remind them of God’s grace. A nation and an individual is always going to be on the slippery slopes of disaster once they start taking God’s grace for granted and start treating His grace lightly, rather than realizing that every day we live is due to the favor of God.
When God no longer plays a significant role in your decision-making process or in your problem-solving approach, then you are on the road to personal disaster because what happens is that you lose any sense of responsibility to God, to serving the Lord, and obligation to serving the Lord. The root cause for all of this is arrogance.
Back to Judges 2:7, “And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua.” What happened is that the people of Joshua’s generation who had observed the spiritual realities of God continued to obey the Lord; “and all the days of the elders who survived Joshua, who had seen all of the great works of the Lord, which he had done for Israel”. The spiritual trend there is that they had a memory of Yahweh’s work and they served God.
But in the following generation, when all of the surviving witnesses had died and gone to be with the Lord, the people did not know the great work of the Lord. There was no empirical evidence upon which to respond. They did not serve Yahweh, they did exactly what Joshua had warned them would take place back in Joshua 24. God would then have to discipline the nation.
Judges 2:11–15—the nature of Israel’s apostasy and the cycle of reversionism. The cycle that takes place in Israel takes place personally in every single believer that goes negative to doctrine. “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and they served the Ba’als.” They get involved in the religious systems of the Canaanites around them, and, Judges 2:12—“they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed after other gods of the people who were round about them.”
Judges 2:13, “And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth.” The result was divine discipline, Judges 2:14–15, “they were severely distressed.” Life was miserable. What did they do? Did they repent? Did they turn back to the Lord? Did they confess their sins? That is left out.
Then in Judges 2:16, the Lord raised up judges to deliver them. This is grace. This is what happens in our lives. We screw up and we go through some negative consequences and divine discipline, and then things kind of even out and we think it wasn’t so bad. We haven’t really dealt with anything and we are not advancing to spiritual maturity, we are not really applying doctrine, and we think that because things leveled out that everything is okay spiritually. Wrong!
That is just a sign of the grace of God. He doesn’t dump all the discipline on us all at once, it comes in cycles. He disciplines us and then gives us a reprieve, the opportunity to come back to Him, then He disciplines us.
One thing that we see over and over again: the nation cries out to God but they don’t solve the underlying spiritual problem of compromise with pagan thought. So God has to discipline them again. It is a tremendous testimony to the grace of God but it is also a tremendous example of how miserable our lives can be under divine discipline because we are not making doctrine the number one priority in our lives, advancing to spiritual maturity, and challenging all of the pagan thought in our own lives.