The Book of Judges is ordinarily spoken of as part of the Deuteronomic history, thatsingle narration from Joshua through Kings, covering the period from Israel's entry intothe land through the time that the land was lost in the Babylonian exile. This group ofbooks is called "Deuteronomic history" because the authors/compilers viewed thehistory uniquely through the eyes of Deuteronomy. The theology of Deuteronomy, laws uniqueto that book, or perspectives emphasized there, became the spectacles through which thesesubsequent writers viewed the history of Israel. Two prominent themes from Deuteronomycapture much of the Book of Judges.
Conditionality versus Unconditionality; Grace versus Law. Throughout theDeuteronomic history, the narrator probes the nature of God's relationship with Israel.Will God's holiness, his demand for obedience to his commands, override his promises toIsrael? Or will his irrevocable commitment to the nation, his gracious promises to thepatriarchs, mean that he will somehow overlook their sin? As much as theologians may seekto establish the priority of law over grace or grace over law, the Book of Judges will notsettle this question. What Judges gives the reader is not a systematic theology, butrather the history of a relationship. Judges leaves us with a paradox: God's relationshipwith Israel is at once both conditional and unconditional. He will not remove his favor,but Israel must live in obedience and faith to inherit the promise. It is this verytension that more than anything else propels the narrative of the entire Deuteronomichistory. The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes both God's gracious commitment to thepatriarchs, his promise to give them the land ( Judges 1:7-8 Judges 1:21 Judges 1:25 Judges 1:31 ; 3:18-20 ; 6:3 ), and thefact that staying in the land is conditioned by obedience ( 1:35 ; Judges 4:1 Judges 4:10 Judges 4:21 Judges 4:26 Judges 4:40 ; 5:33 ; Judges 6:15 Judges 6:18 ).Moses foresees that Israel will not succeed in light of God's commands and that the storywill end in disaster ( 31:27-29 ).
It is the dialogue between God's promises and his law that underlies the cyclicalstories of the individual judges. Any reader who has even a cursory acquaintance with theBook of Judges is familiar with the series of stories that make up the core of the book(2:6-16:31). The accounts of the major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah,and Samson) are among the most familiar stories in the Bible. These stories are introducedby a brief "philosophy of history" (2:6-3:6) that summarizes the material tofollow. The accounts of the individual judges follow a fairly stable framework. Thechildren of Israel do evil in the eyes of the Lord ( 2:11 ; Judges 3:7 Judges 3:12 ; 4:1 ; 6:1 ; 10:6 ; 13:1 ). Although thenature of this evil is rarely spelled out, their sin prompts the anger of God and resultsin oppression at the hands of some foreign nation ( 2:14 ; 3:8 ; 4:2 ; 10:9 ). Because oftheir sin the Israelites are not only unable to expel the Canaanites, but they themselvesfall before foreign powers. During their oppression, the Israelites cry out to the Lord ( Judges 3:9 Judges 3:15 ; 6:6-7 ; 10:10 ). The Lordhears their cry and raises up a deliverer, one of the judges ( 2:16 ; Judges 3:9 Judges 3:15 ; Judges 10:1 Judges 10:12 ). Thedeliverer is chosen and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord ( 3:10 ; 6:34 ; 11:29 ; 13:25 ; Judges 14:6 Judges 14:19 ). It isoften reported that this deliverance was followed by the submission of the enemy and aperiod of peace during which the deliverer judged Israel, followed by the death and burialof the judge ( 3:10-11 ; 8:28-32 ; 10:2-5 ; 12:9-15 ).
God's irrevocable commitment to Israel is seen in his providing them with adeliverer/champion; but his holiness requires that he not ignore their sin, and so hebrings oppressors to chasten the nation and turn them back to himself.
Deuteronomy looked forward to a day when Israel would have rest from her enemies in theland God had promised, but it would not come during the days of the judges.
God's Rule over His People. The Book of Deuteronomy is the farewell address ofMoses. Moses had been Israel's judge, leader, lawgiver, ruler, and religious authority.How will Israel be governed when Moses is dead? This question is the focus of Deuteronomy16:18-18:22; here God provides through Moses the basic guidelines for governing Israelwhen Moses is gone. Israel will have judges ( 16:18-20 ), asystem of courts ( 17:2-13 ),a king ( 17:14-20 ),priests and Levites ( 18:1-8 ), and asuccession of prophets ( 18:9-22 ).
Although it may not appear so at first glance, it is the provisions for a king ( 17:14-20 ) thatparticularly concern the author of Judges. For that matter, one way an individual coulddivide the Deuteronomic history is into two parts: life without a king (Joshua, Judges)and life with a king (Samuel, Kings). The writer of Judges makes it quite clear that thisis a concern by the constant refrain at the end of the book, that "in those daysIsrael had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" ( 17:6 ; 21:25 ; cf. 18:1 ; 19:1 ). During theperiod of the judges, Israel had devolved into anarchy. Would kingship solve her nationalproblems? Would kings help the nation hold the land and have rest from their enemies?Would kings rule as faithful representatives of the Lord? The writer prepares us for theremainder of the story in Samuel and Kings.
The collection of accounts about the individual judges is often described as"cyclical." This designation is acceptable insofar as it catches the repeatedelements that make up the characteristic framework of the individual stories. However, itis misleading if taken to imply that the story lacks forward movement and direction. Abetter way to describe it would be as a "downward spiral": it is not that eachcycle is more or less a repeat of the earlier ones, but rather that there is adeterioration in the quality of the judges and the effect of their leadership. A survey ofthe major judges will demonstrate this.
Othniel ( 3:7-11 )appears first as the model of what a judge should be. He is raised up by God and investedwith his Spirit; he was an able warrior when Joshua lived ( Jos 15:13-19 ),and he leads Israel in successful warfare as Joshua had done. He provides the model fromwhich all subsequent judges depart to varying degrees.
In the case of Ehud ( 3:12-30 ) severalimportant items are missing. The author does not tell us that God raised him up as he haddone with Othniel; Ehud does not enjoy investiture with the Spirit of God, nor does he"judge" Israel. Ehud delivers Israel by deceit and treachery, and the text issilent about Yahweh's will and relationship to him.
Deborah (4:1-5:31) was a prophetess as she judged Israel. But in spite of heraccomplishments and those of Jael, her judgeship raises questions about the failure ofmale leadership in Israel. Both Barak and Sisera lose the glory that should have beentheirs to a woman ( 4:9 ).Is Israel unable to produce worthy male champions to lead in her wars for the land?Victory once again is less a feat of arms than a product of treachery. Jael, who finallydestroys Sisera, is neither a judge nor a prophetess, and only half-Israelite ( Judges 4:11 Judges 4:17 ; 5:24 ). Rather thana nation acting in concert and in faith, Deborah's song includes curses against othertribes that did not join the battle ( Judges 5:15-18 Judges 5:23 ).The account anticipates the factionalism and intertribal disunity that will ultimatelyculminate in the final episodes of the book.
Gideon the farmer (6:1-8:35) is slow to recognize and respond to God's call for him tolead Israel; three miracles are required to convince this reluctant champion. And hisobedience, when it does come, is not exactly courageous: he does tear down the Baal altarand the Asherah pole in his community as God commandedbut still a bit the coward andskeptic, he does it at night ( 6:25-27 ).Although Gideon earns the sobriquet "Jerub-baal" ("Let Baal contend [withhim]" 6:32 6:32 ), he himself eventually succumbs to false worshipthat leads Israel astray ( 8:22-27 ). Afterthe great battle when Gideon's three hundred prevail over a far greater number throughfaithful obedience, Gideon seems to forget the whole point of the exercise ( 7:2 ) and calls uphis reserves, an army of 32, 000 ( Judges 7:3 Judges 7:24 ). A greatvictory once again erupts in factional rivalry and quarreling among the tribes and clans ( 8:1-9 ). Beyond thevictory God had promised and given, Gideon pursues a personal vendetta ( 8:10-21 ).
After Gideon's death, Israel again does wrong ( 8:33-35 ), andone anticipates the appearance of another judge/deliverer. But not so! Instead, Abimelek,Gideon's son by a concubine, attempts to seize power. God does not raise him up or callhim to office. The intertribal rivalry ( 8:1-9 ) duringGideon's time now becomes intrafamily strife and murder. In spite of the good that Gideonhad done for Israel, his son becomes not a deliverer but an oppressor, not a servant tothe nation but a murderer of Israelites and of his own family. Gideon serves theDeuteronomic historian as an example of abortive kingship.
Jephthah is the next major figure in the book. Full of self-interest Jephthahnegotiates his way to power from his position as an outcast ( 11:1-11 ).Although God's Spirit had already come upon him for the battle with Ammon ( 11:29 ), as if morewere needed to secure the victory Jephthah makes a rash vow ( 11:30 ). The onewho had been so calculating in his self-interest ends up destroying that which he countedmost dear, his only child ( 11:34-40 ). Onceagain a victory erupts into intertribal squabbling and regional rivalry ( 12:1-6 ).
Samson is the last of the major judges, but he is a shadow of what a judge was supposedto be. He is full of self-indulgence and cannot control his sexual appetite. Samson'sproclivity for foreign women has become metaphorical for Israel itself, unable to resistgoing whoring after the enticement of foreign gods ( 2:17 ; Judges 8:27 Judges 8:33 ).Although like Israel he had been set apart to God from birth ( 13:5 ), Samson wouldnot fulfill his potential. Intermarriage with the Canaanites violated the command to drivethem from the land ( 3:5-6 ).How could Samson succeed as the leader of Israel? He was more successful in death than inlife ( 16:30 ).
Leadership like that of these judges would not secure the land for Israel. The legacyof a unified Israel left by Joshua had disintegrated into factional and regionalrivalries. Conditions promoting religious and political chaos called for a different kindof leadership if Israel were to secure the land. Would having kings make the difference?The last two stories prepare the way for Israel's experiment with kingship.
The account of Micah's idols and the migration of the tribe of Dan (chaps. 17-18)suggests that the author was making a point about idolatry in the northern tribes. Micah'sshrine and idols were initially located in the hill country of Ephraim (presumably nearBethel 17:1 ; 18:2 ) and werethen purloined and installed in Dan. The author may be making the point that the northerntribes were always involved in idolatry. From a point in time after the schism and theerection of golden calves at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam, the author could in effect besaying, "Look, this is no surprisethose tribes were always prone to falseworship and idolatry." These chapters both describe the idolatry in Israel during theperiod of the judges, and also make a political point against the northern tribes in favorof the temple-centered religion in Judah described in Samuel and Kings.
The account of the Levite and his concubine (chap. 19) and the subsequent war againstBenjamin (chaps. 20-21) also makes a few political points that contribute to the largerconcerns of the Deuteronomic history. In the earlier story a Levite from the hill countryof Ephraim travels to Bethlehem to retrieve his concubine from her father's house. InBethlehem he is treated royally and shown every courtesy. As he sets out with hisconcubine and servant for the return trip, the Levite is unwilling to stop in a cityIsrael had not conquered (Jebus or Jerusalem) and travels on to Gibeah in Benjamin beforeturning aside for the night. In Gibeah (the hometown of Saul) his party is not shown anyhospitality by the native citizens of the town; rather a man from Ephraim finally comes tohis aid. The Levite and his party are then confronted by great evil, evil reminiscent ofSodom and Gomorrah ( 19:22-26 ; cf. Gen 19:1-11 ).After the death of the concubine the Levite rallies the tribes to war against Benjamin.Underlying the details of the story is a political allegory addressed to those fromEphraim and the northern tribes: Who will treat you well? [someone from Bethlehem] Whowill treat you poorly? [someone from Gibeah] Who will remove the aliens from Jebus andmake it safe? Everyone reading the story knows that David and his lineage were fromBethlehem, and that David had made Jebus/Jerusalem a safe city. The story appears toadvocate loyalty from the northern tribes to a family from Bethlehem, rather than to afamily from the corrupt Gibeah (Saul and his descendants). This historical account isstrongly pro-David and anti-Saul, anticipating the stance of the Book of Samuel and theoverall concern of the Deuteronomic historian with God's faithfulness to his promise toDavid.
Judges in the New Testament. The concern in the Book of Judges with therelationship of law and grace and with the character of God's rule over his people isprominent in many passages in the New Testament.
Readers today cannot but identify with these ancient champions in their own strugglesand failures with godly living. Strange heros they werea reluctant farmer, aprophetess, a left-handed assassin, a bastard bandit, a sex-addicted Nazirite. It is easyat a distance to point out the foibles and failures of the leading characters in thisdownwardly spiraling story. But lest we get too proud, Paul reminds us "that is whatsome of you were" ( 1 Cor 6:11 ). Withsimilar mixtures of ignorance, rebellion, frail obedience, and tangled motives, we withthem were "washed, sanctified, and justified" by the grace of God. For all oftheir flaws, we can learn from their faith. For it was in faith that Gideon, Barak,Jephthah, and Samson "conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what waspromised" ( Heb11:32-33 ).
In spite of their failures, their faith was not misplaced. They are part of that greatcloud of witnesses calling for us to persevere and to fix our eyes on Jesus ( Heb 12:1-2 ). Wetoo need a champion to fight our battles for us, one raised up by God and invested withhis Spirit in full measure; we too need a leader to secure for us the inheritance that Godhas promised, one who will perfect our faith.
Raymond B. Dillard
See also Israel
Bibliography. D. R. Davis, Such a Great Salvation; K. R. R. Gros Louis, LiteraryInterpretations of Biblical Narratives; L. R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in theBook of Judges; J. P. U. Lilley, Tyn Bul18 (1967): 94-102; B. G. Webb, TheBook of the Judges: An Integrated Reading.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Judges, Theology of'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".