Introduction to Judges

INTRODUCTION TO

JUDGES

The book of Judges is the second of the Historical Books in the Old Testament (Joshua-Esther). In the Hebrew Bible, these books are called the Former Prophets; the theological and spiritual concerns found in the Pentateuch and the Prophets take precedence over simply recording historical facts. The book derives its name from the Hebrew designation of the principal characters, shophetim (2:16), which could also be translated as “governors.” These judges were the Lord’s agents of deliverance. The Lord is both the central character and the hero of Judges.

Megiddo, a highly strategic Canaanite city, was an essential acquisition for conquering Canaan. During the period of the Judges, the tribe of Manasseh failed to take Megiddo.

Megiddo, a highly strategic Canaanite city, was an essential acquisition for conquering Canaan. During the period of the Judges (1:27), the tribe of Manasseh failed to take Megiddo.

CIRCUMSTANCES OF WRITING

AUTHOR: No author is named in the book of Judges, nor is any indication given of the writer or writers who are responsible for it. The three divisions of the book are on a different footing regarding the sources from which they are drawn. The historical introduction presents a form of the traditional narrative of the conquest of Palestine that is parallel to the book of Joshua. The main portion of the book, comprising the narratives of the judges, appears to be based on oral or written traditions of a local observer.

BACKGROUND: The period of the Israelite judges lay between the conquest of the promised land under Joshua and the rise of the monarchy with Saul and David. The events described are thus to be dated from the early fourteenth century BC to the latter part of the eleventh century BC, a period of around three hundred fifty years. This was a time of social and religious anarchy, characterized by the repeated refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did whatever seemed right to him” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

We cannot ascertain exactly when the book of Judges was composed. The reference in 18:30 to the fate of Dan at “the time of the exile from the land” suggests a date of final editing after the exile of the northern kingdom by Assyria around 722 BC. Meanwhile, the suggestion that readers could visit the site of Gideon’s altar at Ophrah in 6:24 suggests a date prior to the exile of the southern kingdom, Judah, in 586 BC. Its message would have resonated strongly at several points of Israel’s history, and it has been argued that it fits well during the dark days of Manasseh (686-642 BC; 2Kg 21:1-18). However, it is not possible to date Judges with precision.

MESSAGE AND PURPOSE

The book of Judges chronicles the moral and spiritual descent of Israel from the relative high point at the beginning of the book through a series of downward spirals to the depths of degradation in chaps. 17-21. Though God raised up a sequence of deliverers—the judges—they were unable to reverse this trend and some even became part of the problem. By the end of the book, Israel had become as pagan and defiled as the Canaanites they had displaced. If this trend continued, it would be only a matter of time before the land would vomit them out, as it had the Canaanites before them (Lv 18:28).

HUMAN DEPRAVITY: The book of Judges demonstrates what happens to the Lord’s people when everyone does whatever they want. It shows that Israel cannot presume upon God’s grace, and neither can Christians. If we abandon his commandments and pursue the idols of our own imaginations, the result will be moral and spiritual chaos. This is where we would all end up if the Lord left us to ourselves.

THE GRACE OF GOD: The book of Judges offers a profound commentary on the grace of God. Left to their own devices, the Israelites would surely have destroyed themselves. Only by the repeated gracious intervention of God did they emerge from the dark premonarchic period as a people and nation distinguishable in lifestyle and beliefs from surrounding pagan groups.

THE NEED FOR GOD’S LEADERSHIP: While it is possible that the repeated refrain “there was no king in Israel” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) paints this book as an appeal for a monarchy, it is better to see it as a call to return to God as their King. Rather than lifting up the kings as an ideal above the confusion of this period, the addition of “everyone did whatever seemed right to him” (17:6; 21:25) reduced the population to the moral and spiritual level of Israel’s kings in later years. In other words, rebellion against God is democratized. Israel did not need a king to lead them into sin; they could fall into immorality all on their own. The Israelites had abandoned the God of the covenant to follow the fertility gods of the land. The writer, by exposing this problem, sought to wake up his own generation. This is an appeal to the covenant people to abandon all forms of paganism and return to Yahweh.

CONTRIBUTION TO THE BIBLE

The book of Judges shows us that the nation of Israel survived the dark days of the judges entirely by the grace of God. In mercy he sent oppressors as reminders of their rebellion. In mercy he responded to their cries and raised up deliverers. Judges also illustrates the fundamental problem of the human heart. When God’s people forget his saving acts, they go after other gods. Judges also illustrates the link between spiritual commitments and ethical conduct. In the end the book of Judges illustrates the eternal truth: the Lord will build his kingdom, in spite of our sin and rebellion.

STRUCTURE

The book falls into three parts. The prologue (1:1-3:6) deals with the failure of the second generation to press on with the conquest of Canaan. This is followed by a sixfold cycle of sin and salvation (3:7-16:31), which forms the core of the book structured around the six major judges with six minor judges interspersed. Finally, there is an appendix (chaps. 17-21) that shows the full effects of total depravity let loose upon the people. This structure demonstrates not only the repetition of patterns of sin and judgment but also regression. The midpoint of the narrative is the linked episode involving Gideon and Abimelech, which serves to highlight further the significance of the issue of kingship.

OUTLINE

I.Prologue (1:1-3:6)

A.Israel’s failure to possess the land (1:1-36)

B.The pattern of sin, judgment, and restoration (2:1-3:6)

II.The Judges (3:7-16:31)

A.Othniel (3:7-11)

B.Ehud (3:12-30)

C.Shamgar (3:31)

D.Deborah and Barak (4:1-5:31)

E.Gideon and Abimelech (6:1-9:57)

F.Tola and Jair (10:1-5)

G.Jephthah (10:6-12:7)

H.Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15)

I.Samson (13:1-16:31)

III.Epilogue (17:1-21:25)

A.The religious degeneration of Israel (17:1-18:31)

B.The moral degeneration of Israel (19:1-21:25)

1500-1400 BC

Joshua 1490?-1380?

Events in Deuteronomy 1406

Miraculous crossing of the Jordan River 1406

Events in Joshua 1406-1380?

Musical notation, Ugarit 1400

Chopsticks are used in China. 1400

1400-1200 BC

Deborah 1360?-1300?

Division of the land into twelve allotments 1385?

Deborah and Barak defeat the Canaanites. 1320?

Pharaoh Horemheb creates a river security unit to board and search boats suspected of smuggling. 1320

Pharaoh Merneptah (1212-1203) memorializes his victories against Libya and Canaan on a granite stele, the so-called Merneptah Stele. This is the first Egyptian document in which Israel is mentioned. The Merneptah Stele was discovered in AD 1896 by Flinders Petrie at Thebes.

1200-1175 BC

Jephthah 1250?-1175? Ruth 1225?-1125?

Events in Judges 1380?-1060?

Gideon defeats the Midianites and Amalekites. 1200?

Invasion of the Sea Peoples 1200?

The Phoenicians become the world’s first maritime power. 1200

The Phoenicians develop warships with battering rams on the bow. 1200

The Egyptians make several attempts to connect the Nile River with the Red Sea by digging canals. 1200

1175-1100 BC

Samson 1120?-1060?

Jephthah defeats the Ammonites and Philistines. 1170?

Ramesses III, Egypt’s last great pharaoh, dies. 1155

The Amorite king Nebuchadnezzar I captures Babylon. 1124

Body armor made from rhinoceros hide, China 1100

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