The book of Judges is a book of unfulfilled potential and broken promises. In this book, God chooses leaders from among the commoners in Israel to lead the people out of various harsh circumstances, particularly foreign oppression. However, each judge ultimately fails in their attempts to rescue the Israelites from evil.
In all cases among the various judges, the people fall back into wickedness, and thus because of the curse laid upon them in Deuteronomy, fall victim to raiders and foreign invaders. In some cases, notably Gideon and Samson, the people fall back into wickedness within their lifetime, or in the case of Samson, and to a lesser extent Gideon, the characters of the judges are inherently, fatally flawed.
In the case of Gideon, one of the two judges I plan to focus on, he has two primary character flaws that make him a failure among the judges. Firstly, Gideon is cowardly. In the opening of his story, he is working with grain in a wine cellar in order not to be noticed by the Midianites, who have been periodically, and destructively, raiding and stealing the grain of the Israelites. As Bretler notes, the place he is working entails that he is hiding from them. This however, is but one of several instances of Gideon’s cowardice.
The second instance of his cowardice comes from his first conversation with God. It has much in common with the first conversation between Moses and God and follows a similar pattern. When God tells Gideon that he is to lead the Israelites out of bondage, Gideon begins to list excuses as to why he is not fit for the task, for example, that his clan in Manasa is too small and weak to allow him to deliver Israel from the Midianites. Such a consistent lack of faith further shows how the judges were inherently flawed and why they ultimately failed to provide Israel a lasting time of peace and prosperity.
The third instance of his cowardice occurs in his destruction of his father’s alter to Baahl. He does not do this openly, but does so in secret in the middle of the night. In doing this Gideon shows a lack of faith in God as he feels he must destroy the alter stealthily rather than openly opposing the false God.
The fourth instance comes from when Gideon requires God to perform miracles in order to affirm that Gideon is indeed sent by god to free the Israelites from persecution. Gideon asks from these miracles on two occasions. First, Gideon asks for a fleece he puts on the ground to soak up no dew in the morning but for all the ground around it to be wet with this dew. After this miracle is performed, Gideon, not being satisfied with a single miracle to prove god’s support, asks for the opposite to occur. Testing god is a natural sign of lack of faith, and the fact that Gideon requires two miracles is particularly condemning of his character.
The Fifth and final act of cowardice Gideon performs occurs when he is preparing to attack the Midianite camp. God declares to him that if he needs assurance of victory, simply visiting and scouting the Midianite encampment will alleviate any doubts of the pending Israelite victory. Gideon and several others scout the camp and hear that the guards are particularly nervous due to unsettling dreams. Although this information ultimately leads to Gideon’s victory, when he throws the camp into chaos with horns and torches held by each of his 300 soldiers, his lack of faith is again demonstrated. The Lord presents the information to Gideon as a contingency in the event that he still has doubts. The fact that he scouted the camp for this reason demonstrates that he indeed, after two miracles, and direct conversation with God, Gideon still doubted the power and resolve of the Lord.
However, it is not Gideon’s cowardice that leads to his failure as a judge, but rather his greed. After a second campaign, Gideon is offered a chance to be king of the people. He rejects this offer. However, he asks for, and receives a large amount of treasure from Ismaelites that the book of Judges clearly states “Was a snare to him and his Descendants.” This statement is further enhanced by the appearance of one of his sons as an antagonist later in the Old Testament.
Samson, with his superhuman abilities and power, is both the book’s biggest hero and the book of Judges biggest disappointment. Unlike Gideon, Samson has no instance of cowardice or greed. However, He is rash and highly arrogant with all of his power. Also, his faith is misplaced in his abilities and his unwise trust of Delilah.
Samson is arrogant in many ways. Among the most obvious ways he does this is how he misinforms Delilah as to his actual weakness and puts himself in many dangerous situations, which he then escapes from to humiliate the philistines. This may be his goal, but he was sent as a hero to deliver Israel rather than to simply be a mythic figure among the philistines with whom he is consorting.
Also, Samson has misplaced faith in his allies and ignores his vow as a Nasserite to god. In direct violation to all of the Nasserite vows, Samson drinks intoxicating beverages, he marries a foreigner, and he has his hair shaved off. It is noteworthy that he must break all three vows before God removes his superhuman power.
The Book of Judges is not irrelevant to how one may look at modern history. Since the mid-18th century, revolutions have overthrown governments around the world and re-established new governments in their place. Such is occurring presently throughout the Middle East. However, as most of these revolutions have not significantly resolved, I have chosen to compare the failed judges, particularly Gideon and Samson, to leaders in the French Revolution. Like the period described in judges, the French revolution was full of unfulfilled promise. Many in the revolution hoped for an end to slavery, peace and prosperity, equality, and women’s rights, however, in all these areas the French empire would be disappointed. Some of this can be attributed to the prominent leaders of the Revolution. Robespierre was a member of the twelve-member “Committee of Public Safety,” and although he disapproved of the violence, he did nothing with his power to contain the out-of-control violence sweeping his country. In this way, with his hesitation to act, Robespierre is much like Gideon. Napoleon, who assumed power out of the chaos in 1799, Using popular appeals for liberty and equality to gain support as he assumed control, Napoleon would, in 1804, proclaim himself emperor. Even with his cries for freedom, Napoleon reinstituted slavery, which had been abolished, and brutally crushed any opposition in his way. Like Samson, Napoleon was known for his arrogance and also like Samson; he wound up betraying the original goals of the French revolution to which he proclaimed himself to be heir. Therefore, the idea of leaders ultimately failing, like the judges in the Bible, is not foreign to ideas of similar occurrences in the modern era.