Despicable people doing deplorable things. That pretty much sums up the book of Judges. Why would the Bible even contain such trashy tales about dysfunctional characters? As I read the book, I find it difficult to find any sympathy for those—even the heroes—involved in these violent and abusive accounts.
Who can love people who maltreat others? Who would care about people who complicate and sabotage their own lives and then refuse the hope that is offered? Who would have patience with people who refuse to learn from their mistakes but instead pass them on as a legacy to the next generation? The answer is that only God could care about creatures such as these. So the book of Judges is not really about the judges who held court in Israel. It is about the God of mercy and patience who loves even the most dysfunctional and resistant among us.
The book of Judges covers the history of Israel between the death of Joshua and the appearance of Samuel (approximately 1220-1050 B.C.). For Israel this was a time without a formal government. The people were supposed to look to God for leadership, but when they failed to do so, they were doomed to a continuing cycle of disobedience, suffering, cries for help and deliverance.
How can you benefit from the book of Judges? You will learn of the great depth of God's love and mercy as you see it continually offered to people who do not deserve or appreciate it. You will be able to learn from the mistakes of others. Perhaps you will be able to break cycles of dysfunction which persist in your own life or home. Most of all, the study of Judges should help you to hand the throne of your life over to God, the true king. The writer of the book of Judges often uses the phrase "in those days Israel had no king." Without God reigning in our hearts, our lives are destined to become as disastrous as the characters of this book.
To gain these benefits, it is important to study the book of Judges correctly. If you look to the characters of these stories as role models, you will be sorely disappointed. Even the judges whom God uses to save Israel are depraved and fallen creatures. The point of these stories is not the character qualities of the judges, but the fact that God works through people such as these. The only true hero of this book is God.
It is also important that you refrain from becoming smug about your own enlightenment. As you read Judges, you will encounter characters who treat women as possessions and who settle problems with angry outbursts of violence (and these are supposedly the good guys!). These are stories of people in a much more primitive time who were struggling to understand God, themselves and forgiveness. Although they acted out in a much more dramatic and childish way, their passions and their rebellion against God were the same as yours and mine. So as you read, look for the sins you have in common with the characters and ask yourself what would happen if you were to give full reign to every passion.
In your quiet times, may you come to understand the condition of humankind and the mercy of God with new clarity and depth.