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Sefer Shoftim Chapter 2

Chapter 2 serves as an introduction to the whole book of Shoftim. It begins with a rebuke of the people for failing to chase out the inhabitants of the land. As a result, they will be saddled with the Canaanite nations as a “trap”. The people cry in response, naming their location “bochim”, meaning crying (Shofetim 2:5). The rebuke did have a short-term effect. However, it is clear from the rest of the chapter that there was no lasting impact.

The chapter then relates Yehoshua’s death (2:6-10). This is puzzling. Yehoshua’s death has been recounted twice before, why repeat it a third time? The text is refreshing our memories, in the same way a television series often begins with the highlights from the previous week’s episode. But there is also a deeper level. These verses emphasise that Yehoshua’s death signifies a transition to a new period in Jewish history. It states: “a new generation arose that did not know God, or the deeds that He had performed for them” (2:10).

This lack of knowledge of God indicates  that the new generation will struggle to serve God.

Indeed, the rest of Chapter 2 is an outline of the ongoing cycle that will characterise the book of Shofetim.

 

The Jewish people abandon God, instead worshipping Canaanite idols. This angers God, causing Him to send an enemy to punish them. Suffering from defeat and distress, the Jewish people cry out to God for deliverance.  God then sends a Shofet (judge) to rescue them from their enemies. However, on the death of the Shofet, the people would once again descend into the sin of idolatry, causing the whole cycle to begin again. The tragedy of this period is that this continues endlessly until the crowning of King Shaul, the first king of Israel, which breaks the cycle. By introducing this cycle at the outset, the Tanach is foreshadowing the upcoming disasters. Sadly, these will become progressively worse as the people descend into anarchy.

How do the people keep getting it so wrong?

The many challenging stories in Shoftim can make it difficult to study. However, it is important to remember that the book takes place over the course of nearly 400 years. The medieval commentator Rashi (1040-1105) states that this period included only 110 years of national sinfulness (Rashi’s commentary to Yechezkel 4:5). The text elaborates on the negative stories, but this does not mean that there were no periods of tranquillity and calm. Imagine studying the last 400 years of British history. A focus on all the various wars from the Civil war through to the last two World Wars might well create a picture of a country in a constant state of chaos! But it is important for us to put this into context. While the 400 year period in Shoftim is characterised by a cycle of sin, there are good leaders who inspire the people to serve God and lead good lives. We will see that when strong leadership disappeared things often broke down. The oft repeated refrain: “there was no king in Israel, each man did what was proper in his own eyes” reflects this need for strong centralised leaders. As we study this challenging book together, we will endeavour to understand exactly what went wrong, and how it could be corrected.

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