The idea isn’t novel; in fact, it is very much at the forefront of the arsenal of many who disbelieve there is a connection between the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). Further, it is likely these who assail the beliefs of Christians who place themselves in the rankings of the great Atheists. There is a slew of questions we could answer. Let us answer one.
Is God, in Judges 1:19, impotent?
“So the Lord was with Judah. And they drove out the mountaineers, but they could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.” (NKJV)
We know the claim. Now let’s establish the issue and the difficulty.
The issue is this: Even though God was with (or for, in support of) Judah, they were unable to overcome chariots of iron. God could not surmount chariots, although he created the world ex nihilo. If the chariots were of stone or brass, surely God would have prevailed; but if they were iron? Hogwash!
One difficulty is the clarity of the antecedents. As I’ve noted in parentheses below, they, both (1) and (2), are vague in our English translations. They lend toward a more dynamic or readable translation, but they aren’t as formal or literal.
“So the Lord was with Judah, and they (1) drove out the mountaineers, but they (2) could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.”
(1) is rendered in Hebrew way-yo-resh, which is in singular 3rd person form of yarash, not plural; in other words, it is he (Hebrew has no neutral form, like it), not they as was rendered in NKJV. Who, then, is he?
If we look earlier in the narrative, we see in v. 8 one primary subject is introduced as “children of Judah,” a plural noun. Yet, in the following verse, the subject is reduced to “Judah,” and now takes a singular form; thus, its verbs are singular. This indicates that there is an interchangeability between plural and singular nouns as long as it is made contextually clear. The trend carries on as we see in v. 17: “And Judah went (singular) with his brother Simeon, and they (plural, way-yak-ku) attacked the Canaanites….” As the “children of Judah” was plural and was represented by singular “Judah,” so we see in v. 18 [the children of] Judah (and perhaps Simon) take Gaza. (There is also a parallel expression in v. 21 when the children of Benjamin “did not drive out the Jebusites” who inhabited Jerusalem.)
Now, in our key text it says, “and he drove out (way-yo-resh) the mountaineers,” which means that “he” refers to the most recent antecedent, Judah, not to the Lord. Therefore Judah, the singular noun representing a plural entity (the children of Judah and perhaps Simeon his brother), is the subject who “could not drive out the inhabitants of the lowland, because they had chariots of iron.” The English translation may obfuscate the pronoun, but with Hebrew it is clearly seen to be Judah.
The second difficulty is the question Why? Even if it was [the children of] Judah driving out the inhabitants of the lowland, why could they not drive out chariots of iron if the Lord was with them? In other words, does the Lord’s presence in Judah’s conquest guarantee military success? Is this not the pattern when the Lord of Hosts is involved?
There is a bigger pattern, however, when we see God and war. He is a God of covenant as much from the beginning of creation and his involvement with Adam and Abraham as he was with Judah and their regional schisms. He did not promise success just so that Judah (or Israel) could reach the Promised Land. Indeed, he did not shorten the time that Israel was in the wilderness because he initially stated a duration for them: no, he extended it because of their disobedience. They disavowed the covenant and reaped the consequences. No trust in God equals no blessings. If we carefully veer a bit from the Prosperity Gospel idea, it works quite a bit like that today.
So, was Judah disobedient so as to give grounds for why Judah failed to overthrow the inhabitants of the lowland even though the Lord was with them? Yes, if we read on.
There is a narratival shift from v.19 and onward, where Judah no longer was successful in its combat. The children of Benjamin could not drive out the Jebusites (v. 21); Manasseh did not drive out the inhabitants of Beth Shean and many other villages (27); Ephraim could not (29); Zebulun could not (30); neither could Ahser (31) nor Naphtali (33). Then the Angel of the Lord appears in chapter 2.
He says, “‘I will never break my covenant with you. And you shall make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land; you shall tear down their altars.’ But you have not obeyed my voice. Why have you done this?” He continues, “Therefore I also said, ‘I will not drive them out before you; but they shall be thorns in your side, and their gods shall be a snare to you.'”
Judah’s inability to overcome the chariots of iron–even though God covenanted with them and was with him–was a repercussion of their disobedience. It made Israel unable to drive out many enemies; and it even caused enemies to dwell with them, so that their gods would become their snares (2:3).
If, in Judges 4:23 Barak and Sisera overcame hundreds of chariots of iron with the Lord, is God impotent in Judges 1:19? No. The type of chariots didn’t matter, just as Israel’s sacrifices didn’t matter. God cared (and cares) about the heart of his creation: He will keep his, but you keep yours; he wants a contrite heart, not an oblation.
“Therefore by him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to his name.” (Hebrews 13:15)
Do you find this verse particularly convincing or unconvincing? What are your thoughts?