How to read Judges


  • Content: the cyclical narrative of the time of the judges, with emphasis on Israel's repeated lack of covenant loyalty.

  • Historical coverage: from the death of Joshua to the beginning of the monarchy.

  • Emphases: the tenuous results of the conquest; God's constant rescue of his people, despite, their habitual failure to keep covenant with him; the desperate conditions and overall downward spiral during this period; the need for a good king.


The book of Judges, which tells the story of Israel between Joshua and the beginning of the kingship (1 Samuel), is a carefully composed narrative in three essential parts:

1:1-3:6 Introduction: An "overture" setting forth the main themes

3:7-16:31 Main Narrative Cycle: A series of "variations" on the themes

17:1-21:25 Epilogue: A "coda" illustrating the primary theme

As you read be looking for the ways these various parts interplay with each other so that the whole narrative presents a vivid picture of the times, concluding with the repeated refrain that much of this is related to Israel's not having a king.

The introduction is in two parts. Part 1 (1:1-2:5), which picks up and enhances some of the conquest narrative from Joshua, has two emphases, both found in the conclusion (2:1-5)-(1) that God did not break covenant with Israel, but that they broke covenant with him by not driving out the Canaanites ( 1:21, 27 -36), and (2) that God will no longer come to their aid in this cause; instead, the Canaanites "will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you" (2:3). Thus this part gives the basic reason for what follows.

Part 2 (2:6-3:6) rehearses in summary form how the narrative will unfold. Here the basic Deuteronomic cycle is introduced:

1. Israel does evil in the eyes of Yahweh by serving the Canaanite Baals (2:11- 13).

2. They experience Yahweh's anger in the form of failure in battle and oppression by their enemies (vv. 14-15).

3. The people cry out in their distress, and God rescues them by sending a judge-deliverer (vv. 16, 18).

4.When the judge dies, the cycle begins all over again (w. 17 ,19-23).

You will notice that the epilogue is also in two parts, giving in gruesome detail case studies of Israel's syncretism and failure to keep covenant with their God.

Between these two framing sections lies the main narrative itself, in which the cycle is repeated again and again, but with the emphasis on the stories of deliverance. Common to these stories is that God stands behind all deliverance, even though the deliverers themselves are seldom shining examples of devotion to Yahweh!

This central series appears to be carefully constructed presenting twelve 'Judges" corresponding to the number of Israelite tribes. It begins with Othniel, whose story is told only in summary and as a pattern for the rest. This is followed by the exploits of five judges (Ehud Deborah/Barak, Gideon/Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson), interspersed with what amounts to a list of other such judge-deliverers (Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, Abdon). This series is framed by accounts of two loners (Ehud, a Benjamite; Samson, & Danite). In the inner frame of stories (Deborah/Barak, Jephthah) deliverance is dependent on a woman and an outcast/outlaw. At the center is the account of Gideon and his son Abimelech (whose name means "father of the king"), and here surface the two central issues in the narrative: Who is the true God? Who is Israel's king? The narratives of Samuel and Kings pick it up from there.


So that you keep focused as you read Judges, you need to know three things in advance. First, the word traditionally translated "Judges" (shophetim) does not in this book refer primarily to judicial officials (although the word does carry that sense; see, e.g., Exod 18:13). Rather they were military leaders and clan chieftains whom God used to deliver Israel from enemies who threatened parts of Israel over a long period of time. Hence the NIV compromises by translating the noun in the traditional way, but uses "lead/led" for the verb.

Second, even though such terms as "led Israel" and "the Israelites,, regularly appear, you should not imagine that each (or any) of these judges was the leader of all Israel in the same sense that Moses and Joshua were. In fact, as the stories unfold, you will recognize that part

of the concern of the narrator is that precisely the opposite is true- that one or several tribes are oppressed and call on other tribes for help, which sometimes comes and sometimes doesn't, often resulting in intertribal strife. The irony of the narrative is that only at the end, in a case of intertribal disciplinary warfare, are all twelve tribes "united,,, as it were. Note, for example, the stinging words in Deborah's song about Reuben (5: 15- 16), who in a time of crisis and after "much searching of heart" stayed home "to hear the whistling for the flocks."

Third and related to this, is the matter of overall chronology. you will note that chronological language is frequently employed (,,after the time of . . ." and "the land had peace for . . . years") and that the overall scheme reflects the history of the times, beginning with sporadic oppression (Moab in the east) and concluding with philistine oppression, which is where the Samuel narrative picks up. Even so, you should not think of all of this as happening in chronological order. Peace in one place does not mean peace in another. And the parenthetical note in 20:27 -28 sets that story very early on in the period (the priest at Bethel is Aaron's grandson). The point is that the narrator is not as interested in a time line as such, as in the overall picture of the times

he is portraying.

But the one chronological matter that is crucial to his narrative is the gradual but unrelenting deterioration of things in Israel down to the time of Samuel. This is portrayed first of all by the structure itself, with its concluding stories in chapters 17 -21 . It is also reflected in the portrayal

of, the six major judges. The portrayals of Othniel, Ehud and Deborah are basically positive, despite some subterfuge on the part of Ehud and Jael (4:18-21). But beginning with Gideon, things begin to tilt. The Gideon story begins well, but turns out badly in the form of an idolatrous

ephod (8:24-27) and a murderous son, Abimelech (ch. 9). The Jephthah and Samson stories paint a picture of God's Spirit using less than exemplary leaders. Another way this theme is carried through is the use of "in the eyes of." Watch how each of the cycle stories begins: 'Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord." At the end we are told what this means: "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (17:6; 21:25 [NRSV]). The hinge point of this theme is an idiom that is usually expressed differently in English translation, where Samson rebelliously desires a young Philistine as his wife because (literally) o'she is right in my eyes" (14:3,7).

Yet despite all this, God's care for his people holds the story together. This is especially discernible in the repeated notice that o'the Spirit of the Lord [Yahweh]"-mentioned in the opening Othniel story but absent in the Ehud and Deborah episodes-does come upon Gideon (6:34), Jephthah (11:29), and Samson (13:25; 14:6, 19;15:14). Even so, what is noticeably absent from Judges is any mention of, or even any sense of, the presence of the Lord in the midst of his people. The Tent of Meeting that Joshua set up at Shiloh (Josh 18:1) reappears there in 1 Samuel 2:22. In Judges we are told that the idolatry of the tribe of Dan continues "all the time the house of God was in Shiloh" (18:31), but Israel never consults with Yahweh there to hear from him. Israel is a people who have lost their way and their primary identity, and only God in mercy can bring order to this chaos.



The Basic Problem: Failure to Destroy the Canaanites

Watch for the narrator's purposes to unfold. After a review of some victories in the south, led by Judah (1:1-18), he notes Israel's failure to dislodge all the Canaanites (1:19-21). The same thing happens again in the north-victory at Bethel ( 1:22-26), but mostly failure (1:27 -36). This failure is then denounced as an act of disobedience (2:1-5), so God will now leave Canaanites in the land as thorns in Israel's sides. And this means that the Canaanite gods "will be a snare" to them (2:3).


The Pattern Established

In 2:6- 19 you encounter the Deuteronomic cycle, which sets the pattern for the rest of the book: The people stop serving Yahweh; he abandons them to their enemies; they suffer subjugation; they pray for help; God's Spirit comes on a person who leads them to defeat their enemies; they then become complacent and repeat the cycle. Note that the rest of this introduction (2:20-3:6) picks up the theme from 2:1-5, but now indicating that God himself has left the hostile nations within and on the outskirts of the promised land to trouble the Israelites.


Othniel (from Judah/against the Arameans)

Note that in this initial judge episode, the cycle (2:6-19) is fully represented:

Israel abandons God (v.7), incurring his anger and their subjugation to the Arameans (v. 8); this results eventually in prayers for help that cause God to send a deliverer (v. 9). The "spirit of the Lord" then gives Othniel the wisdom to lead so that "the land had peace" (v. 11).


Ehud (from Benjamin/against the Moabites and Shamgar

"Once again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord," which leads to their subjugation to a (very fat) Moabite king. Note how his obesity and Ehud's being left-handed are the intrigue on which the story turns. Although this is basically the story of a loner, Ehud nonetheless prepares the way for an Israelite victory (vv. 26-30). The Spirit is not mentioned here, but "the Lord" is nonetheless responsible for the victory (3:28). The appended report about Shamgar (3:31) introduces the Philistines, who later become Israel's worst foreign foe.


Deborah (from Ephraim/against Northern Canaanites)

The intrigue of this story is its focus on two women, Deborah and Jael, who overshadow the actual "deliverer," Barak. Note that Deborah initiates the action in the name of the Lord, and that Barak's refusal to go to battle without her leads to the prophecy that the Lord will hand over Sisera to a woman-but the woman turns out not to be Deborah but Jael! Deborah's song (see 5:7, also sung by Barak, 5:1) retells the story with some added detail, while it praises God and shames the tribes that did not help.


Gideon (from Benjamin/against the Midianites and Amalekites) and Tola and Jair

Notice how in this case the narrator fills out the various parts of the cycle in more detail than before. As always it begins with, 'Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord" (6:1). The oppression is from hordes of easterners, led by Midian and Amalek, and is particularly desperate (6:2-6) so that Israel cries out to God, who again reminds them that they have broken covenant with him (6:7 -10). But the greatest elaboration is with the deliverer and the tale of victory. As you read, watch for signs of the book's downward-spiral motif within the narrative itself.

Gideon is portrayed as fearful and diffident (6:11-19), obedient but doubting (6:20-40). He starts well-by tearing down the altar of Baal (6:24-32) and "leading" a decisive, God-orchestrated victory over Midian (ch.7). But then a quite different Gideon pursues Zebah and ZaImunna (8:1- 18); nonetheless, even though his zeal represents something of a personal vendetta over the death of his brothers (8:19-21), he is still pictured as carrying on the holy war. But he ends up making an ephod that becomes idolatrous, and his son Abimelech is thoroughly degenerate.

Key to this episode is the demand of the Israelites that Gideon rule over them (8:22), which he rejects-a rejection that includes his son sin favor of the rule of Yahweh (v. 23). Note how the story hits a low point with Gideon's son, Abimelech, who makes himself a king after killing all but one of his seventy brothers. But also note the irony: An unnamed woman kills him with a dropped millstone (9:50-53). Israel is thus delivered from one of her own! The notices about Tola (10: 1-2) and Jair (vv. 3-5), who represent Issachar (and Ephraim) and Gilead (eastern Manasseh), conclude the Gideon cycle and prepare the way for Jephthah. By so briefly mentioning Tola and Jair, the narrator reminds you that his stories are purposely selective rather than exhaustive accounts

of all that transpired.


Jephthah (from Eastern Manasseh / against the Ammonites(and Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon

The downward spiral continues. Jephthah is something of a successful outlaw (11:3-6) at the time his fellow Gileadites appeal to him for help against the Ammonites. He is pictured as rash and self-centered, a man for whom a vow is more important than a daughter. He is successful in battle because the Spirit of the Lord was upon him (11:29), but he is also responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelites (12:1-6). The accounts of lbzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15) are apparently the author's brief reminders that God continued to work through judges in various locales.


Samson (from Dan/against the Philistines)

This final cycle story is the most tragic-and ambiguous-of all. Samson in his own person represents all that is wrong in Israel during the period of the judges: born of a barren woman, dedicated to be Yahweh's special servant from birth (ch. 13), unbeatable when the Spirit of Yahweh is with him--but he breaks his vows (see comments on Num 5: 1 -6 :27) by getting honey from a dead (Philistine) lion, by marrying a foreigner (Judg 14), and by dallying with a prostitute (ch. 16). Note how all of these mirror Israel's own story of prostitution with the Baals and Ashtoreths. Nonetheless the Spirit of God continues to come on him to defeat small groups of Philistines. Blind and imprisoned, Samson is enabled by God to kill a temple full of Philistines, &s he himself dies in the process (16:23-30).This narrative also sets the stage for the long struggle with the Philistines that marks the Saul and David stories that are to come, but more immediately it serves as a transition from the sins of Israel as a people to the sins of individuals narrated in chapters 17 -21.


Two Stories Illustrating Israel's Degeneracy

Note how this conclusion is carefully crafted around the phrase, "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as [they] saw fit [what was right in their own eyes]" (17:6;21:25; cf. 18:1 ; 19:1). With these words the narrator gives you the perspective from which the whole story has been told: Israel is in disarray; it has no central leadership-and no accepted central sanctuary, as had been commanded in Deuteronomy.

Thus, the first episode (ch. 17) in the first story illustrates Israel's syncretism (Micah's mother consecrates her silver to Yahweh for her son to make an idol), while the second (ch. 18) illustrates both the Danite context out of which Samson came and the unsettled conditions in Israel due to the failure of conquest with which the book began. Both episodes illustrate the failure of true worship in Israel.

The gruesome nature of the second story (chs. 19-21) illustrates both the depth of Israel's remembered moral decay (see Hos 9:9-10) and the reality that she teeters regularly on the brink of intertribal war. Israel needs God's a appointed king.

The tragic pattern in Judges points to the next phase of God's great

story of redemption, which will begin to move forward considerably

through the stories of Ruth and of her great'grandson David.