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Old Testament: Judges

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Olives from Jordan, Nick Fraser (2005)The book of Judges presents the story of the individual tribes that became Israel from the death of Joshua to the birth of Samuel. Its title comes from the individuals called by God to be "judges" (charismatic leaders) of Israel, delivering the people from the oppression of neighboring peoples and leading them in faithful obedience to the Lord. Within the framework of the Deuteronomistic History, Judges illustrates the dire consequences of the lack of faithful leadership and paves the way for the discussion of monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings.

So What?

Judges makes very clear that everything depends upon faithful obedience to the Lord. At the same time we see God repeatedly offering the people a fresh start. This tension between God's justice and God's mercy will continue throughout the Deuteronomistic History and the rest of the Old Testament. Contemporary Christians live within this tension as well.

Where Do I Find It?

Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament. It follows Joshua and precedes Ruth.

Who Wrote It?

Jewish tradition identifies Samuel as the author of Judges, but there is no evidence to support this claim. Various older traditions have been gathered together and edited by the writers of the Deuteronomistic History.

When Was It Written?

Judges contains some of the oldest material in the Bible. The "Song of Deborah" (Judges 5) may be as old as 1125 B.C.E., based upon the archaeological evidence of the destruction of Taanach and Megiddo; however, the refrains of the narrator, "In those days there was no king in Israel" (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25), and mention of the captivity of Israel (18:30) and the destruction of Shiloh (18:31) indicate a much later time. Thus, Judges contains very old traditional material as well as later theological reflection and came together over a period of several centuries with a final editing in the seventh or sixth century B.C.E.

What's It About?

The book of Judges is a Deuteronomic interpretation of Israel's history from the death of Joshua up to the birth of Samuel that displays their need for a centralized government.

How Do I Read It?

Judges is a collection of older stories about tribal heroes that has been structured around a recurrent formula of apostasy, oppression, and deliverance. As this formula deteriorates we are meant to see Israel's ever-worsening decline. The editorial comment with which the book closes, "In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (21:25; compare 17:6; 18:1; 19:1), lifts up Israel's failure to deal with external enemies and internal dissention. The book is thus a theological exposé of that failure and a rationale for the centralized government of the monarchy.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

I. Introduction (Judges 1:1--3:6)
Judges begins with a double introduction lifting up the political problem of an incomplete "conquest" of the land of Canaan (1:1-36) and the religious problem of the people's recurrent apostasy (2:1--3:6).

A. The Political Problem (Judges 1:1-36)
The conquest of Canaan is presented as a gradual process with victories (1:1-26) and defeats (1:27-36) by various tribes. This is at some odds with the book of Joshua, which envisions a unified, successful conquest under the leadership of Joshua.
B. The Theological Problem (Judges 2:1--3:6)
This second introduction seeks to explain the defeats in Judges 1:22-36 as the result of a cyclical pattern: Israel's apostasy (2:11-12), followed by oppression by the enemy (2:13-15), and God's deliverance by means of a "judge" (2:16). The repetition of this pattern will structure the rest of the book.

II. Stories of the Judges (Judges 3:7--16:31)
The exploits of local charismatic heroes are collected to portray the downward spiral of the people due to their apostasy.

A. Othniel versus Cushan-rishathaim (Judges 3:7-11)
This first judge, from the tribe of Judah, exemplifies the cyclical pattern with little extra detail.
B. Ehud versus the Moabites (Judges 3:12-30)
Ehud, a Benjaminite, and left-handed, tricks and defeats the Moabite king, Eglon.
C. Shamgar versus the Philistines (Judges 3:31)
Shamgar is not assigned to a tribe, interrupts the story, fails to follow the cyclical pattern, and has a non-Semitic name. He may be included because he brings the number of judges to twelve, symbolic of the twelve tribes.
D. Deborah and Barak against the Canaanites (Judges 4:1--5:31)
Chapter four is a narrative account of the exploits of the Naphtalites Deborah and Barak, possibly at Esdraelon, while chapter five, possibly the oldest biblical material we have, is a poetic version of the same story. Deborah is treated here as a prophet rather than a judge.
E. Gideon against the Midianites (Judges 6:1--8:35)
Gideon, from the tribe of Manasseh, is raised up to deliver Israel from the Midianites but becomes a harbinger of the decline to come.
F. Abimelech, Gideon's Son (Judges 9:1-57)
Abimelech tries to become king of Shechem, but fails. Jotham's fable (9:7-15) illustrates the ambiguity concerning kings in the book of Judges.
G. Tola and Jair, Minor Judges (Judges 10:1-5)
Scant information is given about these minor judges from Issachar and Manasseh in Transjordan.
H. Jephthah against the Ammonites (Judges 10:6--12:7)
The tragic story of Jephthah, from Manasseh in Transjordan, culminates in his rash vow resulting in the sacrifice of his daughter.
I. Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon, Minor Judges (Judges 12:8-15)
Another brief group of minor judges from Zebulun and, in Abdon's case, Ephraim is listed.
J. Samson against the Philistines (Judges 13:1--16:31)
Samson, from the tribe of Dan, is unlike the other judges whom God raised up to deliver the people from oppression. Samson is, rather, a "hero" (or antihero) who exercises a personal vendetta against his opponents.

III. Two Supplements (Judges 17:1--21:25)
Judges closes with two appalling incidents that illustrate the anarchy that characterized the people when "there was no king in Israel, and all the people did what was right in their own eyes" (17:6; 21:25).

A. The Origin of the Sanctuary at Dan (Judges 17:1--18:31)
The migration of part of the tribe of Dan to the north is recounted through the story of the Danites' theft of Micah's idol to account for the establishment of the sanctuary at Dan.
B. Civil War (Judges 19:1--21:25)
Outrage at the rape and murder of a Levite's concubine erupts into the near elimination of the tribe of Benjamin by the other tribes. Both these supplements illustrate the truth of the refrain "There was no king in Israel" (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) and the depth of Israel's degradation without a leader. As such, they prepare the way for the books of Samuel.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

The period of the judges, from the settlement/conquest of the land of Canaan up to the time of the monarchy, roughly 1200-1020 B.C.E., was a decisive time in the history of Israel. During this time wandering nomads settled the land, grew into an established society, developed a sense of national identity with a cultural-religious heritage, and came to form the people of Israel.

The cultural and religious character of this period in Israel's history is not entirely clear. Some of the newly arrived seminomads continued with their flocks and herds; others chose to live in the cities or take up agrarian pursuits. The political situation is better understood. In the absence of a unified political state the tribes that would later become Israel enjoyed considerable independence. While each tribe was assigned a designated portion of the promised land, they were individually responsible for the settlement and retention of their tribal territory. The traditions hint at some kind of tribal structure before the rise of the monarchy, but the older idea of a loose confederation of tribes modeled on the Greek idea of an amphictyony gathered around a central shrine is generally dismissed these days for lack of evidence in the text.

Rather, the folktales of various tribal heroes from this early period have been gathered by the editors of the Deuteronomistic History and structured to critique the political structure and the tribal way of life and to drive home the message of Joshua's closing exhortation to the people as summarized in its final verse: "If you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God, which he enjoined on you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from the good land that he has given to you" (Joshua 23:16).

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

• Chronological notices. Judges contains a number of chronological notices. When the years judged (256) are added to the years of enemy oppression (144), they total 400 years from the settlement of the land to Samson's death. Some have argued that this figure is reasonably close to the 480 years between the exodus and the construction of the temple (1 Kings 6:1), indicating an early date for the exodus (1446 B.C.E.). Those favoring a late date for the exodus point out that the archaeological evidence suggests the reign of Rameses II in the thirteenth century B.C.E. Unfortunately, since the tribes act independently in Judges, we do not know if some of the judges were contemporaries, thus shortening the final total. The exact figure of 400 years arouses suspicion, as does the frequent occurrence of 20, 40, and 80 years (that is, one-half a generation, one, and two generations).

• Deuteronomistic History (Dtr). In 1943, Old Testament scholar Martin Noth argued that the books from Joshua through Kings (excluding Ruth, which is part of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible) formed a single literary and theological work presenting the history of Israel from the exodus from Egypt to the Babylonian exile, based upon the theological perspectives of the book of Deuteronomy. While subsequent debate regarding the date and editing of this extensive work continues, many scholars think there were at least two separate editions: one in the seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of Josiah, that emphasized the unconditional nature of the promise and a positive view of kingship; and one in the sixth century B.C.E., during the exile, when the conditional nature of the covenant and a negative view of the monarchy due to the failure of Israel's kings had become painfully evident. The history was written to explain why Israel had experienced exile by tracing the downfall of Israel and Judah to the people's apostasy and failure to obey the covenantal stipulations as presented in Deuteronomy and God's consequent handing them over into the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.

• Judge. Both the noun and the verb have broader meanings in Hebrew than in English. The Hebrew shophet means something like "one who brings vindication, who sets things right" and can be applied to military deliverers as well as magistrates. Only Deborah is portrayed as administering justice. In Judges, military and political leadership are far more important. Surprisingly, none of the twelve leaders of Israel whose stories fill these pages are actually called "judge" after the introduction (2:16-19), though nine are said to have "judged" Israel, and the Lord is called "judge" in 11:27. Within the category of "judge" it is common to distinguish between "major" and "minor" judges. The five minor judges (Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon) appear as leaders in lists (10:1-5; 12:8-15) that contain information about their birth and burial, families, and tenure, but little else. The seven major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) are military leaders related to particular tribes who seek to resolve situations of conflict. Shamgar is often considered a minor judge, thereby balancing the categories at six apiece.

• Lists of tribes. There are more than twenty lists of the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. Among the many differences, the most significant are variations in the number of the individual tribes:

  • Judges 5, among the oldest material in the Old Testament, arising in the twelfth century B.C.E., omits Judah and Simeon (Levi is frequently omitted in the lists as the priestly tribe with no territory) and thus has only ten tribes.
  • Deuteronomy 33 omits Simeon but arrives at twelve tribes by counting the tribe of Joseph as two, Ephraim and Manasseh (see Genesis 48:8-20).
  • Genesis 49 lists all twelve tribes and does not separate Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh. This is the standard listing (see Genesis 35:22-26; Deuteronomy 27:12-13; 1 Chronicles 2:1-2; Ezekiel 48:1-7).

• Not Deuteronomistic History (Dtr)? Deuteronomic theology is only partly evident in Judges. Most would agree that Deuteronomist theology is somewhat critical of the monarchy (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), envisions prophecy as superior (18:15-19), and requires a centralized sanctuary (12:2-7; 1 Kings 8:16-21) that houses only the name of the deity (Deuteronomy 12:5; 1 Kings 8:27-29). Judges has little to say about these, and the typical phraseology of Deuteronomy seems to be confined to 2:6--3:6, the second introduction. Judah, the major southern tribe, is the only tribe described as succeeding completely in driving out the Canaanites and remaining faithful (1:1-20), whereas the northern tribes are regularly disparaged; odd, considering the northern provenance of Deuteronomy. Perhaps the final redaction has allowed these materials to stand, using them to depict the situation that called forth the monarchy, centralized worship, and other tenets dear to the Deuteronomists.

• Relationship between Judges 4 and 5. Readers often wonder why the story of Deborah and Barak is preserved in both prose (Judges 4) and poetry (Judges 5). While both share a common sequence, they emphasize different aspects of the story. The praise of participating tribes and critique of those who refused (5:13-18), the Kishon River that swept Sisera's forces away (5:21), and the poignant scene of the family of Sisera mourning his death (5:28-30) are absent in the prose account that lifts up Deborah's prophetic role. No mention of Jabin (4:23-24), Deborah's summoning of Barak (4:6-9), or Barak's military pursuit (4:16, 22) appears in the poetic account that gives thanks to the Lord for the victory.

• Social structures in Israel. The social structure of Israel is somewhat obscure. A very general picture, helpful for reading the book of Judges, would include the following elements:

  • "people" (am)
  • "nation" (goy): a nation is a "people" with land. Thus, God promises to make Abram into a "great nation" (goy) in the divine promise of land (Genesis 12:1-2). Later, goy would come to mean Gentile in the sense of nations other than Israel.
  • "tribe" (shebet, matteh): the primary social unit that made up the nation
  • "clan" (mishpachah): a family or group of families--that is, those of common ancestry--that made up the tribe
  • "ancestral house" (bet ab): individual households, though a household might contain several families

• Tribal league. Until quite recently Judges was thought to depict a social structure in Israel known as the tribal league, or amphictyony. These social structures consisted of a group of six or twelve tribes organized around a central shrine. The tribes would pledge allegiance to each other, come to each other's aid if attacked, and share in the maintenance of the shrine. Central questions in the history of Israel were thought to be answered by this structure--most notably, that some of the minor officials or "judges" developed into the Old Testament prophets, and those judges charged with military deliverance ultimately developed into the monarchy. Subsequent comparisons with first millennium B.C.E. amphictyonies in Greece and Italy have shown little correspondence beyond the numbering of twelve tribes; and one of the primary themes of Judges is the lack of central authority that led to the anarchy Israel experienced in this period (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

• Two introductions. Judges seems to have two introductions. The first (1:1-36) forges a link with the book of Joshua. But the linkage is one of contrast. Whereas Joshua had provided strong, effective leadership resulting in military success, unity, and prosperity, Israel's failure to produce a leader of Joshua's stature results in apostasy, military defeat, and the loss of unity. The second introduction (2:6--3:6) provides a cycle of apostasy, oppression, prayers for God's help, answers to prayer in the rise of a judge who delivers Israel from oppression, and a period of rest before the cycle repeats.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament

• Angel of the Lord. Of the fifty-nine occurrences of "the angel [messenger] of the Lord" in the Old Testament, eighteen appear in Judges, or nearly one-third. Only Numbers 22, with ten references, comes close to this concentration. These appearances cluster around four episodes: Judges 2:1, 4; 5:23; 6:11, 12, 21 (twice), 22 (twice); and 13:3, 13, 15, 16 (twice), 18, 20, 21 (twice). This being seems to be a liaison from God's heavenly council (6:11; 13:3) whose primary purpose is to prepare for God's immediate appearance. In the story of Gideon this being is referred to as both "the angel of the LORD" and "the LORD" (6:12-16).

• Canaanization of Israel. Recently, the primary theme of Judges has been described as the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement. This suggestive phrase assumes the occupation of Israel to be one of settlement rather than conquest and presses the idea that Israel "conquered" the land by joining with the Canaanite inhabitants, intermarrying with them, and worshiping their gods (Judges 2:1-3; 3:5-6). As portrayed in the rest of the narrative, the people are seen participating in idolatry (for example, 6:25-32; 8:33--9:6), violence (for example, 8:13-17), and even murder (9:4-5). Especially telling in this regard is the description of Shiloh as still "in the land of Canaan" (21:12). There is much to commend this reading, though it probably depicts one theme in Judges rather than the theme.

• God's grace. The sordid description of Israel in the book of Judges tends to overshadow the theme of God's provision for these obstinate people. Time after time, God raises up deliverers who rescue Israel from oppression because of God's compassion and pity. Several times this is prompted by Israel's cries for help, confession, or repentance (for example, 3:9; 4:3; 6:6; 10:10), but not always. Even when Israel fell back into idolatry, God's angry response (though God's "anger" is only mentioned in the overview and the account of the first judge, Othniel) was to turn them over to the various peoples of the land of Canaan, but always as a time of testing, never as abandonment (2:22--3:4). This theme of God's grace in response to human failure will carry into Samuel, continue throughout the Deuteronomistic History and, indeed, into the New Testament and our own experience as well.

• God's relationship with Israel. All the segments of the Deuteronomistic History struggle with the question of God's relationship with Israel. Both unconditional promises of commitment and demands of obedience play prominent roles. Judges, perhaps more than any other segment, refuses to relax the tension between these seemingly paradoxical positions. Time and again, we see God sending deliverers to free Israel from oppressors. Yet the oppressors were sent by God in response to Israel's failure to obey.

• "Israel" as anachronism. The tribes that appear in the book of Judges were not known by the name "Israel" at this time. That was a later designation that arose in the time of the united monarchy. Nevertheless, the name "Israel" appears anachronistically throughout the book of Judges and will be used here as well.

• Land. The book of Joshua presents the settlement of the land of Canaan as the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. Judges is more concerned with the problem of Israel's failure to completely occupy the land God had promised to Abraham. The answer is clear: since Israel turned to the Canaanite gods and disobeyed by committing apostasy, God will not drive the Canaanites out of the land (2:1-3, 20-22).

• Settlement of Canaan. Three models for the settlement of Canaan have been proposed.

  • The conquest model, most closely aligned with the book of Joshua, defends the traditional view that the land of Canaan was settled through military force, by a united "Israel," under the leadership of Joshua. From his headquarters in Gilgal, Joshua waged three successive campaigns, seizing first the central highlands (Joshua 6-9), then the south (Joshua 10), and finally the north (Joshua 11). Joshua 11:23 provides a succinct summary: "So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments." Archaeological discoveries at some sites have proven problematic for this view, as scholars are unable to correlate their findings with widespread destruction and cultural innovation.
  • The immigration model, most closely aligned with Judges, proposes a long and somewhat peaceful infiltration of the unoccupied areas of Canaan by a variety of seminomadic groups who eventually intermarry with the indigenous population, instead of the invasion of a united Israelite army under the leadership of Joshua. Only much later, in the time of the Judges, did fighting break out; even then the fighting was sporadic and not the unified invasion envisioned in Joshua.
  • The revolt model rejects both the military-conquest and the peaceful-immigration models as inadequate. Rather, the small group of slaves who escaped from Egypt with Moses was soon joined by indigenous Canaanites who were attracted by their message of covenantal religion and social justice as an alternative to the oppressive rule of their kings.

There is probably some truth in all these views, as the different presentations in Joshua and Judges and the confusing archaeological evidence indicate.

• The spirit of the Lord. Four of the judges experience the spirit of the Lord: Othniel (Judges 3:10); Gideon (6:34); Jephthah (11:29); and, most often, Samson (13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Different verbs are employed ("come upon," "take possession of," "rush upon," "stir"), but all imply that the spirit has somehow empowered the judge for leadership. With regard to the first three, this leadership involves military confrontation. Samson's case is somewhat different, though the coming of the spirit upon him always results in confrontations with the Philistines. Whereas we might expect the coming of the spirit to result in a transformed life, quite the opposite appears in Judges. Gideon's less-than-exemplary behavior begins after the coming of the spirit in Judges 6:34, and Jephthah's tragic vow is made immediately after the arrival of the spirit (11:29-30). Again, the realistic view of Judges refuses to leave us in our preconceived notions of what God's spirit "does." In Othniel's case, a good man is empowered to do good (3:7-11). In the case of the other three, the coming of the spirit has brought out that which was in their hearts.

• What would the judges do? Very few would offer the catchphrase, "What Would the Judges Do?" (WWJD). Gideon and Samson, probably the best known of the judges, were hardly models to be emulated.

  • Gideon's promising start quickly devolved into ambivalence as seen in his repeated requests for a sign (6:36-40) and apostasy as seen in the making of an ephod that may have cloaked an idol (compare 17:4-5) and that eventually resulted in apostasy for him, his family, and all Israel (8:24-27).
  • Samson, in having contact with corpses (14:8-9), feasting (including drinking wine) at his wedding (14:10), and being shorn of his hair (16:17-19), broke all of the Nazirite vows (13:7; compare Numbers 6).

The judges were not models to be emulated; rather, they were human beings raised up by God to deal with the oppression of the surrounding peoples. At times, they did display faithful obedience to God (Gideon, for example, in 6:23-28), and this probably accounts for the positive view of Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah found in Hebrews 11:32. But the general portrait of the judges lifts up their sinful character as illustrative of this period in Israel's history.

• Women. Judges is surprisingly rich in women. At least twenty-two women (or groups of women) appear in these pages--far more than in an average Old Testament book:

Achsah (1:12-15); Deborah (chapters 4-5); Jael (4:17-22; 5:6, 24-27); Sisera's mother (5:28-30); Sisera's mother's "wisest ladies" (5:29-30); Gideon's concubine (8:31); the "certain woman" who murders Abimelech (9:53); Jephthah's mother (11:1); Gilead's wife (11:2); Jephthah's daughter (11:34-40); her "companions" in mourning (11:37-38); the "daughters of Israel" (11:40); Samson's mother (13:2-24); Samson's wife (14:1--15:8); Samson's Gaza prostitute (16:1-3); Delilah (16:4-22); the Philistine women (16:27); Micah's mother (17:1-6); the Levite's concubine (19:1-30); the "virgin daughter" of the Levite's host (19:24); the "four hundred young virgins" of Jabesh-gilead (21:12); and the "young women of Shiloh" (21:21). The majority of these women participate fully in their passages, either through action or dialogue. The fact that many of their actions consist of treachery, deceit, and even murder, simply reflects the pessimistic message of Judges as a whole.

AUTHOR: Mark Throntveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament