This is the context of Judges 1: the great leader Joshua had died, and now the Israelites need to find out what to do. They turn to the Lord Himself (it doesn’t say how they consult Him – I suppose they just went to Him in prayer and asked Him), and the Lord gives them instructions as to how to go about conquering the Promised Land. Turning to the Lord for counsel is always best, whether a leader is around or not.
The chapter then shows two examples of how the instructions of the Lord are followed. Two tribes, Juda and Simeon, fully carried out the Lord’s instructions, completely eliminating the Canaanites in the lands given to them. They even hack off the thumbs of one their kings (it appears that this king had a reputation of hacking off the thumbs of his enemies, and was now punished the same way).
Only in one area did Juda not succeed in ousting the inhabitants, and the reason given was they had “chariots fitted with iron” (v. 19). What is meant by these iron chariots? My first thought was this group had more advanced war equipment than the warriors of Juda. Still, how is it possible they could not win this battle if the Lord was by their side (“the Lord was with the men of Judah”, v. 19), and if they were simply carrying out the commandments of the Lord? No answer is given in the text, but these iron chariots are mentioned in other chapters.
Judges 1 also speaks of one battle, probably a particularly challenging one, in which the great explorer Caleb promises his own daughter Aksah in marriage as a reward “to the man who attacks and captures Kiriath Sepher” (v. 12). Speaking of incentives! But then the strangest thing happens: Caleb’s younger brother Othniel pulls the job, and ends up marrying his own niece. Othniel then presses his new wife to go to her father and requires him to give her more lands. The chapter does not say more about this very awkward episode, but does not explicitly approve it either. The author of the book of Judges considered it necessary to mention this, but gives no clue as to how to interpret this.
The other tribes did not follow the Lord’s instructions. Instead of eliminating the Canaanites as required, they did only half the work. They did vanquish most of the Canaanites, but instead of killing them, they turned them into slaves. This may seem a very humane thing to do, however, the point is that they failed to fully obey the Lord’s instructions. They did not go through to the end.
Why didn’t these tribes fully obey the Lord? I can think of a few reasons: 1) Pity with the Canaanites; 2) An overconfident feeling (“When Israel became strong, they pressed the Canaanites into forced labor…”, v. 28); 3) Greed (who doesn’t want to have slaves to work on the land for you that you have just taken possession of?); and maybe 4) Joshua’s leadership legacy who also did not follow through completely.
Was this disobedience something new? Of course not! In John 7:19, Jesus asks: “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law.”
At any rate, Judges 1 teaches that obedience to the commandments of the Lord is essential to good leadership. There are never any good reasons for not following the Lord’s commandments. In my own life, I realize I need to press through more often, and not do my job half. God wants us to be thorough in all we do.
And then, even if the Lord is with us, there can still be iron chariots we cannot vanquish. Of course, the Lord can vanquish them easily for us – after all, He is almighty –, but maybe he does not want us to. Maybe this is needed to avoid those things mentioned above: pity, overconfidence, greed. If things were too easy, we could easily fall into pride.