The place of Judges in the Old Testament
The book of Judges is part of the Bible’s account of Israel’s history from its entry into the land of Canaan (in the book of Joshua) to its eventual removal from it (at the end of 2 Kings). Much of this part of the OT is devoted to accounts of the reigns of Israel’s kings, beginning with Saul, David and Solomon. But between Israel’s arrival in Canaan and the setting up of the monarchy there was a period of about two hundred years (roughly 1200–1000 bc) known as the period of the judges. In this period Israel had no formal, centralized administration and depended on specially gifted men and women that God raised up to provide leadership. They were called judges because they carried out God’s judgment, either by driving out enemies or by settling disputes among the Israelites themselves. The activities of these judges are described in the book of Judges (hence its name) and in the opening chapters of 1 Samuel.
In the traditional arrangement of the OT (still reflected in Jewish Bibles today) the books Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings occur in a section called ‘The Prophets’ along with Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve so-called ‘minor prophets’ (Hosea–Malachi). As a sub-group, Joshua–2 Kings are known as the ‘Former Prophets’. They are so called because they are traditionally thought to have been written by prophets, but also (and more importantly) because they are prophetic in their style and interests. They clearly have a very strong historical dimension to them, but like the other prophetic books they are not concerned simply with history for history’s sake. They are not mere chronicles of events. Rather, they are interested in how God was at work in the events they describe. In particular, they are concerned with God’s special relationship with Israel and how this was expressed in both judgment and salvation in Israel’s history. This special relationship was based on the covenant which God made with the Israelites at Mt Sinai after he brought them out of slavery in Egypt (Ex. 19–20), and this in turn was based on the promises which God had made to Abraham centuries before (Gn. 12:1–2). As we shall see, the book of Judges is clearly prophetic in this sense. It is a theological account of Israel’s history in the judges period. And like the other prophetic books, it contains a message which is still relevant for the present and the future.
Israel in the period of the judges
Little is known about Israel’s way of life in the judges’ period apart from what can be gleaned from the OT. The chief source of information is the book of Judges itself, but the books of Ruth and 1 Samuel also shed valuable light on the period.
Israel’s territory at that time was divided into tribal areas (see Jos. 13–21 and map on Israel’s tribal territories in Deuteronomy). Of the twelve tribes, nine-and-a-half occupied the region between the Jordan River (including the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea) and the Mediterranean coast. The other two-and-a-half occupied the plateau region east of the Jordan. Conquests by neighbouring peoples such as the Midianites, Moabites and Ammonites (to the east) and the Philistines and other so-called Sea Peoples (to the west) usually involved only part of Israel’s territory, which meant that only one or two tribes were directly affected.
The essential bond between the tribes was their common history and their allegiance to the Lord (Yahweh). He himself was their supreme Ruler or Judge (11:27) and his law was their constitution. It was this covenant relationship with the Lord which bound them together and gave them their identity as a distinct people. At least once a year a religious festival was held at which the people were reminded of their identity and of the obligations which this entailed. These gatherings were probably held at Shiloh, which was centrally located and was the place where the Tent of Meeting had originally been set up after Israel’s arrival in Canaan (Jos 18:1; Jdg. 21:19; 1 Sa. 1:3). This probably remained the place of the central sanctuary throughout the judges period, although the ark of the covenant was sometimes moved to other places, especially in times of crisis (20:27). How well attended these festivals were and exactly what happened at them is not definitely known but almost certainly thanks were given for blessings received (e.g. good harvests), prayer was made, sacrifices were offered, the law given at Mt Sinai was read, and a fresh oath of loyalty was taken (to the Lord and to one another). Probably it was the judge in office at the time who read the law, assisted by the priests (2:17; 18:27). What all this amounted to was a renewal of the covenant and a fresh commitment to live by it (cf. Jos. 24).
For the most part, day-to-day administration of justice and oversight of community affairs was provided locally by the elders of the various clans and tribes (11:4–11; Ru. 4:1–12). But matters which could not be settled locally were brought for settlement to the judge who was in office at the time, either at some central location (4:4–5) or at certain designated towns which the judge visited regularly (1 Sa. 7:15–17). From time to time, as occasion warranted, ad hoc assemblies of representatives from the various tribes were convened to deal with matters of common concern, such as serious misconduct by one of the tribes or an enemy attack on one or more of them. On such occasions decisive, concerted action was required to preserve the integrity of Israel. There was no standing army, so it was necessary to raise a fresh force of volunteer fighters each time a national emergency arose, and the personal charisma of an individual often played a crucial role in getting this done quickly. It seems that at least some of the judges rose to office precisely because of their ability to provide inspiring leadership on such occasions (11:1–10). Others seem to have been appointed in more peaceful circumstances, though exactly how this was done is not known.
In practice, however, the ‘system’ (if that is the correct term for it) rarely if ever worked as smoothly as this. There was in fact little effective unity among the Israelite tribes in the period of the judges. For a start, they were separated from each other by settlements of unconquered Canaanites (1:19, 27–36; 4:2–3). Unlike the Israelites, these people had farmed the land for generations and attributed their success at raising crops to their worship of various male and female nature gods, the Baals and the Ashtoreths. They believed that these controlled the soil and weather and hence the fertility of field and flock. The Israelites were very attracted to these gods and increasingly mixed the worship of them with their worship of their own God, Yahweh. This inevitably led to a weakening of their loyalty to God and to one another, and resulted in a spiritual and moral decline that was so serious that it threatened to destroy Israel from within. The tribes were slow to help one another in times of crisis (5:16–17; 12:1–7) and even fell to fighting among themselves (8:1–3; 12:1–6; 20:1–48). Most people were concerned only for their own interests and took advantage of the absence of central government to do as they pleased (17:6; 21:25). This inner decay threatened to destroy the very fabric of Israel and, in fact, constituted a far more serious threat to its survival in the judges period than any external attack.
As always in such circumstances, however, there were faithful Israelites who continued quietly to pursue lives of genuine piety. The book of Judges focuses mainly on the frequent crises that Israel faced and thus gives a rather turbulent impression of the period. But it also clearly indicates that there were long periods of peace and relative prosperity in which life at the local level could settle down into a more even tenor (3:11, 30; 8:28; 10:3–5; 12:8–10). In this respect, Judges is nicely complemented by the book of Ruth with its gentle, moving story of one family’s affairs in Bethlehem. Here farmers struggled against the vagaries of the weather, people met and fell in love, and the elders sought to guide the affairs of the community along the tried and proven paths of covenant law and local custom. Both books testify to the fact that, whether in the turbulence of national crisis or the more even tenor of village life, God was deeply involved and sovereignly at work in the lives of his people, preserving and disciplining them, and overruling all things for their good.
The origin and date of the book of Judges
Precisely how the book of Judges came into existence and when it was completed in the form we now have it continues to be a matter of debate among scholars. The traditional Jewish view is that it was written by the prophet Samuel, and this may contain at least an element of truth. But there are indications that the process of the book’s composition was far more complex and protracted than this traditional view suggests.
The bulk of the book appears to be based on source material which was either contemporary with, or very close to, the events themselves. The notices concerning the so-called ‘minor judges’ in 10:1–5 and 12:8–15 (framing the Jephthah story) are probably drawn from a documentary source of this kind. And the accounts of the exploits of the deliverer-judges such as Ehud, Barak, Gideon and Samson, are most probably derived from an early collection of such hero-stories in either oral or written form. The fact that Jephthah seems to have featured in both may have given the original author of the book his cue to combine these two sources. Much less seems to have been known about the exploits of Othniel, the first deliverer, and so the account of his career is expressed in fairly general, stereotyped terms by the author himself (3:7–11). The poetic Song of Deborah and Barak in ch. 5 is composed in very early Hebrew and is acknowledged by most scholars to have originated very close in time to the events it describes. Other early source material seems to be reflected in the opening chapter of the book (especially vs 4–7, 11–15, 22–26) and in the two vividly told stories of chs. 17–21.
The hand of an editor who has worked with the source materials is clearly discernible in the overview which is provided in 2:6–19, and in the repetitive introductions and conclusions to the major episodes in chs. 3–16. These provide a kind of editorial framework which unifies the central part of Judges. Another clear instance of editorial work is in the refrain of 17:6; 18:1; 19:1 and 21:25, which binds together the two major narratives that conclude the book.
The evidence for early source material is clear, as is the evidence for editorial shaping. But whether the latter was done by a single author or by two or more authors in succession is difficult, if not impossible, to say.
It is also difficult to know for certain when the final shaping of the book took place. As is explained more fully in the commentary itself, the detailed description of the location of Shiloh in 21:19 suggests a time of writing when the destruction of Shiloh (an event of uncertain date) was remembered, but long since past (cf. Je. 7:14), and the expression ‘the captivity of the land’ in 18:30 probably refers to the final devastation of the northern kingdom of Israel by Assyria in the eighth century bc. More significantly, the overview of the judges’ period in 2:11–19, the speeches in 2:1–5, 6:7–10 and 10:11–15, and the repetitive introductions and conclusions to the major episodes in chs. 3–16 are all strongly reminiscent of both the style and theological concerns of the book of Deuteronomy. This suggests that the author who added this material lived after the reforms carred out by king Josiah in the seventh century bc (1 Ki. 22). The nature of these reforms leaves little doubt that the ‘Book of the Law’ that was discovered in the temple at that time was some form of the book of Deuteronomy. Certainly the influence of Deuteronomy is clear in the next couple of centuries in the preaching of Jeremiah and in the books of 1 and 2 Kings, and it seems to be present in Judges also.
Most scholars believe that Judges is part of what was originally one long piece of historical writing spanning what is now the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. It is thought that this history of Israel from the conquest of Canaan until the Babylonian exile was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 bc (2 Ki. 25:1–2) to explain why this disaster had happened. It did so by showing how Israel had begun to slide into apostasy soon after its entry into Canaan, and how this had continued in subsequent centuries until God’s judgment had finally fallen on the nation. The disaster of 587 bc was thus seen to be the fulfilment of the covenant curses of Dt. 28. The style and theology of the whole work from beginning to end was strongly influenced by the book of Deuteronomy, and for that reason it is commonly referred to as the ‘Deuteronomic history’. One of the strongest pieces of evidence for this theory is that the statement in 1 Ki. 6:1 that Solomon began to build the temple 480 (40 × 12) years after the exodus from Egypt appears to be part of a chronological scheme which spans Deuteronomy to 2 Kings and is reflected in the book of Judges itself. This can be seen in the ‘round’ numbers (40 years or 80 years) used for the periods of peace (3:11; 3:30; 5:31; 8:28). Contrast the more unpredictable figures which appear in the material drawn directly from early sources (e.g. 3:8, 14; 4:3; 10:2–3).
Scholars are divided over whether the Deuteronomic history was first conceived as a whole and later divided up into separate books, or whether the books first existed independently and were given their final shape by someone who had the larger picture in view. Probably a combination of these two processes was involved. The books of Kings were probably written directly by the author himself from various sources, while in the earlier part of the history he worked with books that already existed in some form. In any case, the result we now have is a series of closely related books rather than a single composition in the strict sense. But given its close relationship to the other books in the series, it is probable that Judges was given its final shape at the same time as they were, namely, in the sixth century bc during the Babylonian exile. Samuel may well have had a hand in the early stages of its formation, but the identity of the final author or editor is unknown.
Structure and themes
Whatever its history, the book of Judges as we now have it is a well-rounded literary unit with a very definite structure and clearly developed themes.
The main body of the book, which deals with the careers of the various judges themselves, extends from 3:7 to 16:31. This is preceded by an introduction in two parts (1:1–2:5 and 2:6–3:6) and followed by an epilogue, also in two parts (chs. 17–18 and 19–21). The question that is asked at the beginning of the book (1:1–2) is asked again in very different circumstances at the end (20:18). Thus, as we come to the end of the book we are invited to reflect on the point from which we set out and on all that has happened in between.
The first part of the introduction (1:1–2:5) is about the progressive deterioration in Israel’s relationship with the Canaanites that followed the death of Joshua (1:1). The efforts of the various tribes to possess and occupy the lands that had been allocated to them (Jos. 13–19) ran into increasing difficulties as the Canaanites, particularly on the coastal plain and in key fortified cities in the north, put up very determined resistance (see especially vs 19, 27–28). This led to a tense stalemate situation in which Israelites and Canaanites lived side-by-side. The Israelites held the upper hand, but were still excluded from significant parts of the land. The tribe of Dan, in particular, was confined to the hills and was unable to get a secure foothold in its allotted territory near the coast (1:34). It was a situation that fell far short of the expectations with which Israel had set out, expectations grounded in the promises God had made to their ancestors (Jos. 23:1–5; cf. Gn. 12:1–3; 15:12–21; 28:13–15). This section of the introduction ends with the Israelites weeping before the Lord at Bokim (Bethel) and being told what has gone wrong (2:1–5). The reason for their failure has not been the iron chariots or strong fortifications of the Canaanites, but their own unfaithfulness. In the territory which they had succeeded in taking they had begun to compromise by allowing the pagan altars of the Canaanites to remain standing, and because of this the Lord had withdrawn his help from them. As well as looking back, this key speech by the ‘angel of the Lord’ also looks forward with the prediction that the Canaanites and their gods will continue to be snares and stumbling-blocks to the Israelites.
The second part of the introduction (2:6–3:6) then returns to the beginning (notice how Joshua reappears in 2:6) and makes this underlying spiritual problem the main focus of attention. In a few deft strokes Israel’s initial decline into apostasy is sketched in (2:6–10), and then the whole pattern of the ensuing judges’ period is laid out (2:11–19). It is presented as a period of persistent apostasy, in which the Lord alternately judges the Israelites by handing them over to foreign oppressors, and then (when they are in great distress) has pity on them and raises up a judge to deliver them. At these times the Israelites temporarily give up their apostasy, but quickly return to it as soon as the judge dies (19a). In short, despite the Lord’s many attempts to retrieve them from their evil ways, the Israelites persist in them (19b). This leads to another crucial speech in 2:20–22, in which the Lord announces what he intends to do as his final response to all that has taken place. The nations which were originally left (at the time Joshua died) to test Israel’s faithfulness are now to be left permanently as a punishment for her unfaithfulness (see the commentary on these verses). This is the climax of this second part, and of the introduction as a whole. The verses that remain (2:23–3:6) simply summarize what has already been said.
So the introduction, as well as diagnosing what went wrong and laying out for us what is to follow, makes it very clear what the central issue of the book is, namely, Israel’s persistent apostasy in the judges’ period and the Lord’s response to it. The book answers the question, ‘Why didn’t Israel ever fully possess the land that God promised to their ancestors?’ And the answer is given, ‘Because of the apostasy that followed the death of Joshua’. Judges explains the Lord’s action as fully justified in view of Israel’s persistent unfaithfulness. The later books of the Deuteronomic history go on to explain and justify his more drastic act of evicting Israel from the land altogether (see above).
The central section of the book (3:7–16:31) fills out the outline already given in the introduction (2:11–19) and develops a number of sub-themes in the process. It records the careers of twelve judges in all: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Barak, Gideon, Tola, Jair, Jephthah, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon and Samson. Deborah and Jael both play very significant roles in the Barak episode, and Deborah is even said to have ‘led’ (lit. ‘judged’) Israel (4:4–5), but in terms of the overall design of the book, chs. 4–5 must be seen as essentially an account of Barak’s career. And although the activities of Gideon’s son, Abimelech are recounted in some detail, he is not a judge at all in terms of the way that office has been described in the introduction.
Just as the first part of the introduction began with Judah and ended with Dan (1:1–34), so this central section begins with Othniel from Judah (3:7–11) and ends with Samson the Danite (chs. 13–16). Othniel’s career exemplifies what a judge was meant to be and do. The following judges represent a series of variations on this basic pattern, culminating with Samson, whose behaviour is so bizarre that he is barely recognizable as a judge at all. The pattern of this part of the book has frequently been described in terms of a repeating cycle of apostasy, oppression, calling on the Lord, deliverance, peace and renewed apostasy. There is certainly much repetition, but there is also progressive change, so that the result is better described in terms of a downward spiral than a simple repeating pattern.
Disunity among the Israelites first appears in the Barak episode (5:16–17, 23), and grows worse under later judges. After the forty years which followed Gideon’s victory (8:28), the land is never again said to enjoy peace, and by the time of the Samson episode is reached the Israelites no longer even cry out to the Lord to save them. And as these chapters run their course the judges themselves gradually become more and more implicated in the wrongdoing of the nation as a whole. The climax is reached in Samson, whose personal waywardness and reluctance to embrace his calling perfectly epitomize the waywardness and struggle of the nation as a whole. As Israel had been set apart from other nations by God’s covenant with them, so Samson is set apart from other men by his calling as a Nazirite. As Israel had gone after foreign gods, Samson goes after foreign women. Israel had wanted to be as other nations; Samson wants to be as other men. And as Israel had repeatedly called on the Lord in its distress, so too does Samson. In short, the sub-themes that run through the whole central section of the book (Israel’s struggle against her destiny and the Lord’s perseverance with her in judgment and grace) are finally brought to a sharp focus in the story of Samson. His story is the story of Israel as a whole in the judges’ period.
The two stories which form the epilogue (chs. 17–21) are located very generally in the judges’ period but do not follow chronologically from what has gone before. In them the focus shifts from the sin of Israel as a whole to the sins of the individuals and communities which comprise it: ‘everyone did as he saw fit’ (17:6). The first story (Micah and his idols; chs. 17–18) is about the religious chaos of the period, and the second (the Levite and his concubine; chs. 19–21) is about the accompanying moral chaos. Together they show that Israel was even more endangered by its own internal decay, morally and spiritually, than by any external attack. The second story in particular shows how the very institutions which should have provided stability (the levitical priesthood, hospitality and family life, eldership and the assembly of tribal leaders) were all rendered ineffective, and even positively harmful, because of the moral bankruptcy of individuals. The epilogue leaves us in no doubt that it was certainly not the quality of its leadership or its institutions that held Israel together. Israel’s survival was a miracle of God’s grace.
The refrain which runs through the epilogue (‘In those days there was no king in Israel … ’, 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) brings down the curtain on one period and anticipates another. Kingship, like judgeship, will have its place in Israel’s ongoing history and prove useful in its time, but it too will fail through human sinfulness. As the Deuteronomic history as a whole shows, no institution, however valid, holds the key to Israel’s future. it is only the Lord’s ongoing commitment to his people that does this, ‘For he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal.’ (Jb. 5:18).
Relevance for Christians today
The NT contains very few clear references to the book of Judges. There is a passing reference to the judges period as a whole in Acts 13:20, and Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah are named as heroes of faith in Heb. 11:32. Apart from this, there are only, at best, veiled allusions. For example, Mary was hailed in terms that suggest that her blessedness was comparable to that of Jael (Lk. 1:42; cf. Jdg. 5:24), and there appear to be allusions to Samson (Jdg. 13:4–5) in the birth announcements of both John the Baptist (Lk. 1:15) and Jesus (Mt. 2:23).
These few references and allusions point, however, to a far deeper continuity between Judges and the NT than may at first appear. For the coming of Christ, preceded by John the Baptist, was the culmination of all God’s acts of judgment and grace in the OT period, including the period of the judges (Lk. 1:54–55, 68–79). And if the Israelites of the judges period failed through unbelief to enter into their full inheritance, that did not mean that God’s ultimate purposes for this people had been frustrated. God remained committed to them, and through Christ would finally atone for their sins and so bring to full realization all that he had promised, including the inclusion in his kingdom of people of all nations. As the apostle Paul put it, ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ’ (2 Cor. 1:20). This means that the Israelies of the judges period are our spiritual ancestors, and that the God who showed himself to be so committed to them is our God too. He is none other than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It may surprise us to find men with such obvious faults as Gideon, Barak, Jephthah and Samson held up as heroes of faith. But perhaps, on reflection, it is not so surprising after all, for the one thing they all knew was that, in the end, it was only the Lord himself that could save Israel (11:27). To know that and to act upon it, as these men did, is what faith is all about. In this respect, the stories of the judges have something to teach us all, and especially those who are called to the leadership of God’s people. But more importantly, in spite of their many faults, all the judges were forerunners of the greatest Saviour of all. And perhaps it is as much by their imperfections, as by their divinely empowered exploits, that they point beyond themselves to him. The book of Judges is about faithless people and a faithful God. The story of the Israelites in the period of the judges is our story too.
A. E. Cundall and L. Morris, Judges and Ruth, TOTC (IVP 1968).
M. Wilcock, The Message of Judges, BST (IVP, 1992).
D. R. Davis, Such a Great Salvation: Expositions of the Book of Judges (Baker Book House, 1990).
D. Jackman, Judges, Ruth, CC (Word, 1991).
B. G. Webb, The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading (JSOT Press, 1987).
OT Old Testament
NT New Testament
TOTC Tyndale Old Testament Commentary
BST The Bible Speaks Today
CC The Communicator’s Commentary
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (Jue 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.