And also all that generation were gathered unto their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, that knew not the LORD, nor yet the work which he had wrought for Israel (Judges 2:10).
Humans are creatures of habit. We participate in “good” habits and “bad” habits; it is easy to perpetuate “bad” habits, and far harder to stop them, but the opposite tends to be true for “good” habits. What is true about us as individuals can also be seen in terms of larger groups and even on a generational level. Certain practices, for better or worse, get communicated from generation to generation. Other practices can be neglected and forgotten.
When it comes to habits, the beginning of the process is extremely important. Some say that it takes twenty-one days to start or break a habit; after that point, it is easier to keep on going (or not going, whatever the situation might be). Whatever starts well has a better chance of ending well.
The same is true when it came to God’s work amongst the Israelites. The generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt saw God’s powerful hand both defeating their enemies and keeping them alive. The generation afterward saw God’s hand in the conquest of Canaan. A legacy had been established which could be now communicated to successive generations of Israelites: the powerful story of God’s working on behalf of Israel. The story was to be perpetuated for generations so that Israel would always remember how YHWH delivered their fathers out of Egypt and knew that YHWH, not Baal, not any other god, was truly God (e.g. Exodus 12:24-27). It was intended to be a catalyst toward faithfulness for each successive generation.
Yet as soon as the Israelites enter the land, something goes wrong. Perhaps the fathers did not properly instruct their children; perhaps the children, as they grew up, rebelled against the teachings they received. Nevertheless, the next generation grew up without knowing YHWH nor the work which He had done for Israel.
The “good” habit had been broken; the “bad” habits began to perpetuate themselves. The Judges author goes on to describe the faithlessness of Israel, following the customs of the nations around them, turning to the Baals, provoking YHWH to anger (Judges 2:11-14). This will be the paradigm that marks Israelite history for another 800 years, culminating in the exile of Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:13-16).
The challenge makes sense: everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provided that story for Israel through His saving acts of deliverance, but for a generation who did not know YHWH and what He did, all was left was the story the Canaanites were telling.
The challenge remains to this day. Everyone has to get some sort of story about who they are and the world in which they live from somewhere. God provides that story for us in Scripture: God as Creator, man’s fall, God’s work to redeem mankind through the Patriarchs, Israel, and ultimately and completely through His Son, Jesus of Nazareth. As God did for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness, so God has done for all mankind in Jesus: God has acted powerfully to redeem us and rescue us from bondage (cf. Romans 5:6-11, 6:16-23). This is the story that should be told from generation to generation.
Yet rebellion persists. Some never learn of the story; some only receive a portion of the story; others learn it but reject it. Plenty grow up and live, never knowing God, and as a result, believe in whatever story they hear from their society and culture through its various agents.
While we all enjoy the creation which God has made for us, and should be able to perceive His hand within it (cf. Romans 1:19-20), we should not expect to see in our generation any of the powerful acts of deliverance akin to what God wrought for Israel in Egypt and the Wilderness and in Judea in the days of Jesus of Nazareth. This does not minimize the power of those events; it shows us how God acts decisively within human history in order to transform humanity, and it then becomes incumbent on every successive generation to communicate the message of God’s deliverance and to orient others back toward a reconciled relationship with their Creator. It is a never-ending process. Even if we have accepted it in the past and seek to communicate it to others, we must be reminded of it again frequently, lest we forget. And we must take special concern not to see the message confused and distorted by later adaptations and changes meant to make it all more palatable to the audience of the day.
Good habits are hard to start; bad habits are tough to break. Let us promote the Gospel of Christ, develop the “habit” of dependence upon God, lest we incur the same judgment and condemnation as those who did not know YHWH or what He has done!
Ethan R. Longhenry