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Introduction to the Book of the Judges

Table of Contents

General Info

The name of the Book of Judges comes from the title given to the temporary leaders, serving Israel in both a civil and military capacity, between the death of Joshua and the birth of Samuel (~1375 – 1100 BC).  Actually, Samuel was the final judge, as the nation of Israel transitioned into the Monarchy, but this period is recorded in the books of Samuel.  In the Hebrew Bible, the Book of Judges (Shophetim) is a part of the Former Prophets (Nevi'im Rishonim), which also includes Joshua, Samuel, and Kings.  In the Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox canons, Judges is one of the twelve OT Historical Books (Joshua to Esther in the Protestant).

Joshua gave us the account of God fulfilling His covenant promises through the events and His dealings with His chosen people (Jsh 21:43).  In contrast, the Book of Judges reveals the consequences of Israel’s disobedience to God and failure to complete the conquest.  Nevertheless, God remains faithful in the midst of Israel’s apostasy, raising up inspired leaders to rescue His people time after time.  Yet, Israel’s depravity continued to spiral downward, eventually leading to total civil and social chaos.

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Brief Survey

The Book of Judges begins with two prologues (1:1-3:6), each introduced by the death of Joshua.  This section identifies the causes and consequences of Israel’s apostasy, notes Israel’s failure to properly complete the conquest, and provides a preamble summary of the entire book (esp 2:16-23).

The main central section (3:7-16:31) includes the stories of twelve judges whom God raised up to deliver Israel from crisis and oppression from various enemies.  We see repeated cycles of the people’s disobedience and apostasy, oppression by enemies, deliverance by God utilizing the judges, and a period of rest.  There is a turning point with the rule of the evil leader Abimelech (ch 9), after whose reign the recurring cycles become a downward spiral.  Jephthah (ch 10-12) made a foolish vow and offered his own daughter as a “sacrifice”.  Samson , the last judge depicted in the book (ch 13-17), typified the nation of Israel most of all, with a good beginning followed by increasing iniquity.  Yet, God was able to repeatedly deliver His people through these imperfect leaders.

The book then concludes with two sections that portray the nation sinking into the lowest depths of apostasy and depravity, resulting in both religious and social chaos.  The extent of Israel’s moral corruption led to a civil war and the near extinction of the tribe of Benjamin.  The final verse of the book accurately sums up the era, In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes (21:25).

See “Chronology of the Judges” below for more information about the various leaders.

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Key Verses

Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of a hundred and ten. And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. (2:8-9)

After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the LORD nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD and served the Baals. They forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They provoked the LORD to anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the LORD handed them over to raiders who plundered them. He sold them to their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the LORD was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress. (2:10-15)

Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders. Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. Unlike their fathers, they quickly turned from the way in which their fathers had walked, the way of obedience to the LORD's commands. Whenever the LORD raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the LORD had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways. (2:16-19)

Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and said, "Because this nation has violated the covenant that I laid down for their forefathers and has not listened to me, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations Joshua left when he died. I will use them to test Israel and see whether they will keep the way of the LORD and walk in it as their forefathers did." The LORD had allowed those nations to remain; he did not drive them out at once by giving them into the hands of Joshua. (2:20-23)

When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians.  And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land.  I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’  But you have not listened to me.” (6:7-10)

In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. (17:6, 21:25)

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Author and Date

The Book of Judges does not identify its author, nor does the reminder of Scripture.  Jewish tradition ascribes the book to the prophet Samuel.  The exact date is also unknown.  The appearance of the frequent expression “In those days Israel had no king” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) suggests a date after the establishment of the monarchy, and the notation that the Jebusites still controlled Jerusalem (1:21) probably indicates a time prior to David’s capture of the city (~1000 BC).

Therefore, the most likely date of composition would fall during the reign of Saul, or the first few years of David.  In the latter case, the prophets Nathan and Gad may have had a hand in the final assembly, since Samuel died (1Sam 25) after anointing David as king, but before the beginning of his reign.  The final form was compiled under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, probably from oral and written records.  In the end, the exact date and author (or authors) remain unknown.

The dates of the events occurred between the death of Joshua (~1375 BC) and the birth of Samuel (~1075 BC). See “Chronology of the Judges” below for more information on the timelines.

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Historical Background

In the five Books of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy), we observed the formation of the nation of Israel as God’s chosen people.  God preserved the family in Egypt during the great drought, but even though they greatly increased in number, they were later enslaved.  After about four hundred years in Egypt, God raised up Moses to lead His chosen people out of captivity, to receive the law at Mt Sinai, and to build the tabernacle (aka Tent of the Meeting) for the dwelling of His glory among His people.  Due to a lack of trust in God despite witnessing the miracles of the exodus, the people were sentenced by God to wander in the desert for about forty years until the adults of the first generation died (except for Joshua and Caleb, who would enter the land due to their faith).  The book of Joshua then records the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land that God promised to Israel’s patriarchs.

The period of the Judges begins with the death of Joshua (~1375 BC).  Under the successive leaderships of Moses and Joshua, the people of Israel were left with a well developed tribal system and allocation of the land which continued to benefit them up to, and into the monarchy.  The next generation after Joshua however, rejected God’s leadership, thus beginning the cycles of apostasy, oppression and deliverance.

The first part of the Judges period fell within the Late Bronze Age (~1550-1200 BC).  This age was marked by widespread prosperity.  The smaller, independent city-states were being replaced by larger centralized empires such as the Egyptians and Hittites.  In the beginning, the inhabitants were still able to live relatively undisturbed, the Israelites resided primarily in the hill country and the Canaanites in the valleys and coastal areas.

During the latter part of the Judges era, this age gave way to the Early Iron Age (~1200-1000 BC).  In contrast to the Late Bronze Age, this age was much darker.  Archaeological evidence shows widespread destruction, along with a dramatic shift in the population, from major cities to the outer lying fringe areas.  This coincided with the arrival of land and sea-farers such as the Philistines, who clashed not only with the inhabitants of Canaan, but with Egypt as well.  This chaotic period lasted until early into the reign of King David, when the civil structures became more defined, and the populous shifted back to the major centers.

This darker era also forms the background for the Book of Ruth, and for the transition to the monarchy as recorded in the Book of Samuel.

For information on the Geographical, Political, Historical, Cultural Settings and Religions of Canaan, see the Historical Background to Joshua.  For information on historical accuracy, see the Historicity of the OT History Books.

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See OT History for timeline of additional historical events.

~ 1406 BC (1) Death of Moses; Joshua assumes leadership of Israelites
~ 1405 BC Israelites Enter the Promised Land and Begin the Conquest
~ 1395 BC Israel Begins Settlement of the Land
~ 1375 BC Death of Joshua
~ 1375 BC Period of the Judges Begins
~ 1075 BC The Prophet Samuel as Last Judge (Book of Samuel)
~ 1050 BC Saul Becomes Israel’s First King (Book of Samuel)

(1) The date of Moses' death is based upon 1 Kings 6:1, which records that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the exodus from Egypt.  Extra-biblical records indicate that the temple building began about 966 BC, placing the exodus about 1446BC, and the death of Moses 40years later, or about 1406 BC.  Many scholars believe that the "480 years" is symbolic, placing the exodus in the early 1200s BC.  Many conservatives (including ourselves) tend to lean toward the earlier date.

Chronology of the Judges

The process of dating and ordering the judges is a bit complicated due to several factors.  First, we have the two proposed dates for the exodus and conquest. Dates in this section reflect the traditional early dates (see Joshua Timeline – Dating the Conquest for more info).  The second factor is the various time periods recorded in the Book of Judges itself.  From the chart below, we can add up a period of about 450 years.  From the timelines above, we see a time frame of only about 325 years (the later date for the exodus and conquest would reduce this time to about 175 years).  Thus, we know the reigns of some of the judges overlapped.  This is easily explained by the fact that each judge had a following of only a few tribes, usually those closest to his or her home city.

The following chart lists the judges in the order found in the Book of Judges:

Judge / Tribe Oppressor / Notes Conflict / Peace (Years) Reference
Othniel / Judah Mesopotamians 8 / 40 3:7-11
Ehud / Benjamin Moabites / killed Eglon, King of Moab;  led defeat of 10,000 Moabites 18 / 80 3:12-30
Shamgar Philistines / killed 600 Philistines with an oxgoad ? 3:31
Deborah / Ephraim Canaanites / assisted by Barak;  defeated Sisera (and his 900 iron chariots) 20 / 40 ch 4-5
Gideon / Manasseh Midianites and Amalekites  / appearance by Angel of the Lord; made a gold ephod which Israelites later worshiped as an idol 7 / 40 ch 6-8
Abimelech / Manasseh (the anti-judge);  murdered all his half brothers (70) except Jotham the youngest;  killed by a woman 3 / 0 ch 9
Tola / Issachar   ? / 23 10:1-2
Jair / Manasseh? Assisted by 30 sons ? / 22 10:3-5
Jephthah / Manasseh Ammonites and Philistines / son of Gilead by a harlot;  conquered about 20 Ammonite city-states;  sacrificed daughter due to foolish vow;  civil war with Ephraim 18 / 6 10:6-12:7
Ibzan / Judah or Zebulun? 30 sons and 30 daughters ? / 7 12:8-10
Elon / Zebulun   ? / 10 12:11-12
Abdon / Ephraim 40 sons and 30 grandsons;  very wealthy ? / 8 12:13-15
Samson / Dan Nazarite;  married Philistine;  killed lion with bare hands;  killed 1000 men with jawbone of a donkey;  betrayed by Delilah;  destroyed temple of Dagon, killing self and 3000 Philistines 40 / 20 ch 13-16

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

The primary purpose in recording the historical period of the Judges is to illustrate the consequences of religious apostasy and disobedience to God.  It also shows the need for a king, submitted to God, in order to lead the nation.  As we’ve seen, when led by godly leaders such as Moses and Joshua, the people (for the most part) were more likely to lead more godly lives.  The Israelites also tended to follow their earthly leader rather than God personally (Ex 20:19).  Thus, without a righteous leader, their spiritual and moral lives went into a downward spiral as they embraced the ways of the pagan Canaanites.

The period of the Judges also provides the background for the Book of Ruth, which ends with a genealogy which anticipates the godly king David, ancestor of the coming Messiah.  The transition to the monarchy is chronicled in the book of Samuel.

The book of Judges contains many historical and theological themes.  The primary theme is God’s continued faithfulness, in contrast to Israel’s apostasy, characterized by failing to complete the conquest, committing idolatry by worshipping the Canaanite false gods, intermarrying with the pagan Canaanites, and rejecting God’s moral and spiritual truth.  Yet, despite Israel’s continuing cycles of disobedience, God delivered His people each time in faithfulness to His promises to Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12:7, 15:18-21, 26:2-3, 35:12, Dt 6:10-11).

The next theme is tied to the book’s purpose, that of consequences for disobedience and apostasy.  Israel failed to complete the conquest, consistently breaking the covenant by worshipping the Canaanite gods and attempting to assimilate into the culture.  Actually, God allowing the people to be oppressed had the positive effect of preventing this assimilation, thus preserving His chosen people from extinction while the nation was still in its infancy.

In spite of God’s faithful rescues, Israel abandoned the Lord again and again.  Even the later Judges did little to stop the downwards spiral.  In fact, several such as Jephthah and Samson, actually contributed to the growing immorality, thus confirming the need for godly leaders as earthly mediators, with the Lord’s Kingship as the ultimate authority.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

The book of Judges offers many difficult interpretive challenges.  Many questions are unique to the era, and to complicate matters further, the Bible text often doesn’t provide an explicit answer.  While God’s revelation in the Bible is sufficient to meet His purposes (and our needs), it does not always offer the level of detail to satisfy all our curiosities.  In these cases, we can only draw principles from the context, both in the immediate and in the entirety of Scripture.

The first issue entails the time frame and chronology of the period. We’ve already addressed this above. Another overriding concern is the level of violence and warfare in the book.  We address this matter in The Ethical Question of War.

The first difficulty involving the leaders themselves is the apparent discrepancy between the assessment of the Judges in the book vs the descriptions in Hebrews 11, also known as the “faith chapter” or the “Hall of Faith”.  The writer of Hebrews portrays Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah as men of faith who conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, and became mighty in war, while Judges paints a much less flattering picture.  I think we can say that Hebrews presents a more idealized view, a broader view of the larger picture from the theological viewpoint of God’s will being accomplished through imperfect people.  If we look at the other people commended in the chapter, we find not a list of super saints, but ordinary people including former swindlers, liars, drunks, and even a murderer and prostitute.  Yet, each person’s acclaim is not based upon his or her personal greatness, but because of the work God was able to do in their lives through their trust in Him, even those with a meager faith.  In like manner, Peter calls Lot righteous (2 Pe 7-8) for standing up for the angels against the wicked men of Sodom, in spite of his incestuous encounter which produced the Moabites and Ammonites (Gen 19).  The author of Judges presents a more individualistic view of each leader.  Consequently, just as the righteous Lot was never considered perfect, the measure of occasional faith exhibited by the judges should not taken to mean that they were consistent models of faith.

This leads into one of the most frequent questions encountered regarding Judges, which is “Why did God choose leaders with such obvious character flaws?”  We must first note that, if God did not used flawed people, He could not use any of us at all.  We can also add that, despite their many flaws, they often exhibited acts of heroism.  They also acted alone in many cases, not enjoying the vast support of the people, unlike the later kings.  Furthermore, both Israel’s judges and kings, with all their imperfections and limitations, demonstrate the need for the coming of Jesus the perfect King.  The bottom line is that, God’s sovereign purposes and providence is never obstructed by imperfect people.  God can accomplish His plans entirely without us, yet He continues to use flawed people despite our many weaknesses.

The next question, which naturally follows is “Did God condone the methods used by the judges?”  The author often records an event or action historically or descriptively without commenting on its moral or ethical aspects.  Some examples are Ehud’s assassination of Eglon, Gideon continually pressing God for a sign, Jephthah sacrificing his daughter, and Samson violating his Nazarite vows.  On other occasions, an action is praised which might otherwise be condemned, such as the woman Jael murdering Sisera, the Cannanite army commander as he slept.

We’ll attempt to address these issues elsewhere in more detail, but at the risk of oversimplifying, we’ll touch on a few important points by appealing to principles from Scripture.  In Jael’s case, she was acting out of loyalty to God in protecting His people (see also Dt 20:16).  Although Gideon doubted, we see the principles of persistence in prayer when we are overwhelmed with challenges that are beyond our own power.  God is not bound to give visible signs, but we know our prayers will be answered according to His will.  Gideon’s inquiry stands in contrast to Jephthah’s foolish vow, who was relying on his own wisdom instead of depending on God.  Samson is probably the best example of God’s providence being fulfilled in the face of an imperfect leader.  Samson’s agenda was almost entirely his own.  Yet God used him to defeat the Philistines.

There are other questions that we’ve not dealt with, but we can say that most difficulties must be understood against the background of this very dark age in Israel’s history.  The peoples’ behavior was habitually at odds with the accepted norms.  Everyone was doing what was right in his or her own eyes.  Most of the interpretive difficulties arise from the vastly different cultures of the era.  Yet, in terms of the moral and ethical breakdown within society, the period eerily mirrors our own world today.

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The book of Judges can be divided into three sections, beginning with the deterioration of Israel due to their failure to complete the conquest (1:1-3:6).  Next, the main section of the book (3:7-16:31), chronicles the actual period of the Judges.  Finally, chapters 17-21 records the descent of Israel into a state of total depravity and apostasy.

1:1 – 2:5 The First Prologue: Failure of Israel ot Complete the Conquest
2:6 – 3:6 The Second Prologue: Consequences for not Completing the Conquest
3:7 – 3:31 Othniel (the first judge); Ehud and Shamgar
4:1 – 5:31 Deborah’s Victory over the Canaanites
6:1 – 8:35 Gideon Defeats the Midianites
9:1 – 10:5 Abimelech (the anti-judge); Tola; Jair
10:6 – 12:7 Israel’s Continued Apostasy; Deliverance from Ammonites by Jephtah
12:8 – 12:15 Ibzan; Elon; Abdon
13:1 – 16:31 Samson vs the Philistines
17:1 -18:31 Religious Corruption; Micah and the Danites
19:1 – 21:24 Moral and Social Corruption; The Crime at Gibeah; Civil War with the Benjamites

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