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The four phases of the 'Sin Cycle' in the Book of Judges
Judges 2:10 introduces us to a concept known as "the Sin Cycle" where the recap of the earlier period ends and verse 11 introduces us to the new generation of Israelites who now occupy the land, a generation that "knew not the Lord," and verse 11 tells us that they "did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim" (the Hebrew plural of Baals) indicating that they worshipped localized Baal deities. Baal was a fertility god looked upon as the chief vegetation god of the Canaanites and was thought to bring productivity to crops, animals, and men. He was also associated with the occurrences of weather and was usually depicted in Canaanite carvings as holding a lightning bolt in his hand. Thus, he was also called the "god of fire," indicating the significance of Elijah's challenge to the prophets of Baal (I Kings 18). The Hebrew word baal means "master," or "Lord" and when the Israelites settled in Canaan, they soon discovered the local Baal deities were looked upon as the individual Lords of the land. Thus, by worshiping him they were forsaking the Lordship of their God for the Lordship of Baal! The text also refers to their serving "other gods … of the people" among whom they lived. As they forsook the Lord, "they … served Baal and Ashtaroth". The Hebrew ending ot is also a plural ending,11 indicating they worshipped localized Ashtar deities that were multi-breasted female fertility deities, whose worship often included bizarre sexual practices. The Babylonian form of this deity was Ishtar, and the Roman form was Easter (whose fertility signs, interestingly, for churches today who involve these symbols in their Easter services, were a rabbit and an egg). In this chapter, we are introduced to this sin cycle that continues through the rest of Israel's national history and to God's chastisement of His disobedient children. The new generation no longer seeks after God but immediately begins to worship the Baal system that God had made clear was an abomination to Him and they forsake the Lord their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.
When God wants to chastise an individual for consistent sin He may use any number of circumstances, such as poor health, loss of your job, or tragedy in the family, but when God chastises a nation He uses means equal in size to the object being chastised and we learn from the Old Testament that He will reach out and use another nation to chastize His nation. We read in the book of Judges of a consistent series of chastisements occurring. Since their worship of Yahweh God was the unifying factor among the Israelite tribes, the apostasy into Baal worship also tended to decentralize the strength of the nation. Their neglect of the covenant which bound them to the Lord, and also bound them together, caused them to present a divided front to their enemy invaders. We see how God reaches down and take the nation of Moab and use them as a chastening rod then He takes the Philistines and uses them in the same way and He takes other nations around the general area and brings them in as chastening rods to harm His children because of their disobedience. In this way He brings a remedial judgement in an attempt to bring the people who have forsaken him back to Himself..
The description of the four stages of the sin cycle begins in verse 131: "And they forsook the Lord, and served Baal and Ashtaroth." When the people forsook God they sinned by involving themselves with the idolatrous worship system of the land and God's anger was kindled against them and so phase two of the cycle begins as described in verse 141:
"And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about, so that they could not any longer stand before their enemies."
The occupation by foreign "troops" would last for a given period of time until eventually the people could no longer bear the oppression, but would groan and cry out in repentance. This would initiate phase three of the cycle as described in Judges 2:18b1: "It repented the Lord because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them."
So we notice phase three repeatedly in the Old Testament as the Israelite nation begins groaning in repentance, 'O Lord, we can't take this anymore, we can't stand it. Please deliver us, we repent, we'll never do it again.' We notice that, following this repentance, verse 161 summarizes phase four of the cycle: "The Lord raised up judges which delivered them out of the hand of those that spoiled them." This is the complete cycle of sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance.
However, we notice that the sin cycle does not end there. Unfortunately, after the four phases of the sin cycle are completed, and the people seemed to have learned their lesson, their obedience lasts only as long as the Judge lives. Then, with the next generation, the cycle began all over again. This is summed up in verse 191:
And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they returned, and corrupted themselves more than their fathers, in following other gods to serve them, and to bow down unto them; they ceased not from their own doings, nor from their stubborn ways.
And so the sin cycle continued over and over and over again - sin, oppression, repentance, deliverance. As we read the book of Judges, we want to cry out, "When will final deliverance come?" Not only did the sin cycle continue over and over, but it was a descending sin cycle and each new generation sinned "more than their fathers." At first they rallied behind the judge, but each successive generation rallied less and less wholeheartedly behind the God-appointed Judge. As time went on the involvement of Israel in support of the judge became less and less until, finally, the last Judge, Samson was such a sinner himself that he was actually bound by the people of Israel (Judah) and turned over to the enemy (Judges 15:11-13). So the cycle becomes progressively worse as time goes by throughout the book of Judges.
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