Judges is best read as a chronicle of the fate of the separate tribes within the narrative. There appears to be some overlapping of events within the Book so that a strict 410 year chronology from first to last is doubtful. Further, there is the sad report that summarizes the first two stories in the so-called “Bethlehem Trilogy” at the end of the Book, that,
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 17:6
This report, repeated for emphasis in Judges 21:25, does not come from the close of the era of the Judges, but most likely from the beginning. Kaiser remarks,
The events narrated in these two appendixes to the Book of Judges probably fell early in the period of the judges, since a grandson of Moses, in one case, and a grandson of Aaron, in the other, would need to be contemporaneous with the generation that came after the Conquest.
After Judges 17 – 21 the third story involving Bethlehem is the Book of Ruth. Ruth 1:1-2 takes place within the era of the Judges, when there was a definite sense of dislocation between one tribe and another. This sense of estrangement almost, is only overcome in the aftermath of calamity, such as the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin retold in the last chapter of Judges (Judg. 21:1-5). It is evident that the writer of this little book wants the reader to connect Bethlehem, the place that Elimelech and Naomi originate from (Ruth 1:1-2; 4:11), to the line of David (Ruth 4:17-22); David of course, being from Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:1-13).
Samuel is the spiritual giant who dominates the narrative at the close of the Judges period. It is difficult to imagine David without the preparatory work which Samuel did in Israel in the previous two generations. Before Saul was anointed its first king Israel,
…had no statehood, no organized government, no administrative machinery and, above all, no king.
Yahweh was “its sole and sovereign Overlord.” Yet in Samuel’s day the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:11). Since it represented the Lord’s side of the Mosaic covenant and it was superstitiously brought into the camp of Israel attended by the two godless sons of Eli, it was not surprising that God allowed it to be captured. But by permitting such a thing God was in effect saying that since the people had defected from Him that He Himself would temporarily let the ark go to another people who at least would not treat the covenant disdainfully.
The Humiliation of Dagon
The story of the ark of the covenant in Philistine territory is instructional in itself. It ended up being placed in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod. Dagon was the fish-headed father of Baal and was the god of grain. The statue of Dagon did not fare well towering over the ark. God would not have the symbol of His Presence humbled before an idol. On two consecutive mornings the priests of Dagon came into the temple only to find the image of Dagon “fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD” (1 Sam. 5:3). On the second occasion the possibility of an accident was completely discounted when “the head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.” (1 Sam. 5:4).
Subsequently, the widespread suffering of the Philistine cities where the ark was moved persuaded them to give it back to the Israelites (1 Sam. 5:6-6:18). Their experiences with the ark would have taught the Philistines that the covenant of Israel with its God was powerful when they were obedient to Him. Sadly, Israel was in such a sorry state spiritually that they could not handle the ark of the covenant properly for many years (1 Sam. 7:2). (more…)