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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Judges

Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4
Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8
Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12
Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16
Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20
Chapter 21

Book Overview - Judges

by Charles John Ellicott

THE BOOK OF JUDGES.

Judges.

BY

THE VERY REV. F. W. FARRAR, D.D. FRS.,

Late Dean of Canterbury.

INTRODUCTION

TO

THE BOOK OF JUDGES.

Name of the Book.—The English name “Judges” corresponds with the Hebrew Shophetim, as with the Greek Kritaí, and the Latin Liber judicum. A similar magistracy (suffetes) existed among the Phœnicians. Officers of this title are mentioned in Numbers 25:5, Deuteronomy 1:16; Deuteronomy 16:18, &c., but they were only appointed for subordinate civil functions, whereas the judges whose history is recorded in this book were chiefly summoned to their great work by Divine appointment (Judges 3:15; Judges 4:6; Judges 6:12, &c.), and were “deliverers” from foreign bondage (Judges 3:9; Judges 18:28) rather than civil rulers. (See note on Judges 2:16.) In fact, the very necessity for their call and their deeds arose from the anarchy which rendered all ordinary functions unavailing against the prevalent corruption and misery. The most remarkable of their number were national heroes rather than civil or religious guides.

Plan.—The Book of Judges falls into five well-marked sections, namely:—

I. GENERAL INTRODUCTION (Judges 1:1 to Judges 2:5).—In the note on Judges 1:1 reasons will be given for believing that this section is entirely retrospective. It furnishes a sketch of the imperfect conquest of the land previous to the death of Joshua, in order to show the want of faithfulness and obedience which was the cause of all subsequent troubles. It ends with the solemn reproach addressed by God’s messenger to the assembled people at Bochim.

II. SECOND INTRODUCTION (Judges 2:6 to Judges 3:6).—It is the object of this section to show that the neglect which had begun before the great conqueror passed away continued after his death, and that it was the cause of deep religious degeneracy. The people even sank into idolatry, and provoked the Divine retribution, from which they were delivered by successive judges. In spite of this, they constantly relapsed when the judgment was removed. In this section the moral purpose of the book is most distinctly sketched in outline. It shows that the presence of the Canaanites and the revival of their dominion were alike the cause and the consequence of the troubles of Israel, while, at the same time, God was so far from having utterly forsaken His people that even their sins and sufferings were made to subserve the purposes of their Divine education, and were overruled for their ultimate advantage. (See Judges 2:22; Judges 3:1-4.)

III. MAIN SECTION OF THE BOOK (Judges 3:7 to Judges 16:31).—This section contains notices of the history of twelve judges. The heroic deeds of six of these deliverers are related in detail, and six are mentioned with brief allusion. The episode of Abimelech’s usurpation is given at length, partly perhaps—as in the later story of Eli—to point the lesson of the perils which result from imperfect paternal control, but mainly to warn the people of the perilous and abortive character of a royalty unsanctioned by Jehovah (Deuteronomy 17:15).

The sub-sections are:—

1. The servitude to Cushan-rishathaim, and the judgeship of Othniel (Judges 3:5-11).

2. The servitude to Eglon, and the deliverance wrought by Ehud (Judges 3:12-30). Brief reference to Shamgar (Judges 3:31).

3. The servitude to Jabin, and the deliverance wrought by Deborah and Barak (Judges 4, 5).

4. The oppression of the Midianites, and the deliverance wrought by Gideon (Judges 6-8). Episode of Abimelech, the bramble-king (Judges 9). Brief notices of Tola and Jair (Judges 10:1-5).

5. The oppression of the Ammonites, and the deliverance wrought by Jephthah (Judges 10:6 to Judges 12:13), with the sequel of Jephthah’s history (Judges 11:34 to Judges 12:7). Brief notices of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Judges 12:8-15).

6. The servitude to the Philistines, and the deeds of Samson (Judges 13-16).

IV. APPENDIX I.—The story of Micah’s idolatry; of Jonathan, grandson of Moses; and of the conquest of Laish by the Danites (Judges 17, 18).

V. APPENDIX II.—The story of the deed of Gibeah, and the vengeance inflicted on Benjamin, with the means taken to save that tribe from extirpation.

It is clear that the Book of Judges is formed on one general plan, because it is intended to illustrate definite moral facts, and to narrate the providence of God as shown continuously in a long series of different events. The arrangement is not strictly chronological, for (as will be seen by the notes on Judges 17-21) the appendices belong to an epoch antecedent to the earliest judge. Nor, again, is the arrangement intended to be geographical, for the earlier notices of the book refer mainly to the south of Palestine; the story of Deborah takes us to the north, and that of Gideon to the central region; that of Jephthah to the west, and that of Samson once more to the south. Three of the chief judges—Othniel, Ehud, Samson—were southrons; two—Barak, Gideon—belong to the north; one—Jephthah—to western Palestine.

We are, therefore, naturally led to infer that the main section of the book is a homogeneous narrative, which has, however, been compiled with a free incorporation of older documents; and that the two prefaces and two appendices, which come from a different hand, were added to it, with the Book of Ruth as a third appendix, by some early editor, or perhaps by the author himself. The efforts to trace parallel Jehovistic and Elohistic documents, even in the history of Gideon, much more in other parts of the book, fail to establish any probable result.

Date.—The freshness, vividness, and minuteness of the details with which some of the stories of the judges abound show that the writer was in possession of almost contemporaneous records, or had access to very early traditions. There is an Homeric plainness in the description of many of the events, as well as in the clear delineation of the leading characters. The character and the circumstance of each hero are completely different from those of all the rest. Ehud first acts independently, and then arms the people; Barak stands at the head of a confederacy; Gideon at first only invites the aid of his immediate neighbours; Jeph-thah is a chief of freebooters; Abimelech avails himself of Canaanite jealousies against Israel, and Ephraimite jealousies against Manasseh; Samson only engages in a series of personal adventures. Local traditions and records have evidently been utilised. The style is inimitably graphic in its very simplicity. We smile at the grim humour which alludes to the “fatness” of Eglon and his Moabites; we hear the shrill accents of the daughter of Caleb; we see the very flash of Ehud’s dagger; even the rough jests of Samson, and the trenchant irony of the Danites, and the shadows cast by the troops of Abimelech, and the female vanity of the ladies of Sisera’s harem are, with many other minute incidents, immortalised in a few strokes. Again, the picture of the manners prevalent at the epoch described is such as could not have been delineated so naturally at a later period. In its primitive hospitality, its awful degradation, and its terrible savagery, it recalls some of the earliest annals of the Scripture history. (Comp. Judges 6:19 with Genesis 18:1-8; Judges 6:21 with Genesis 15:17; Judges 19 with Genesis 19; Judges 8:16; Judges 9:38 with Genesis 34, &c.)

But while there can be no doubt as to the antiquity of the documents utilised by the writer, it is not so easy to determine with precision the date at which the book was drawn up in its present form. The phrase “to this day” (Judges 1:21; Judges 19:30) shows that some years must have elapsed since the events recorded. That the appendices could not have been written earlier than the reign of Saul is clear from their constant formula: “In that day there was no king in Israel” (Judges 17:6, &c.). On the other hand, the absence of any allusion to the exploits of David confirms the decisive inference, suggested by Judges 1:21, that the book existed, in part at any rate, before his days; for in Judges 1:21, as well as in Judges 19:10-12, Jerusalem is still called Jebus, and is regarded as a city of the Canaanites, and as nominally belonging to Benjamin (Judges 1:21). The attempts to connect Judges 1:27-29 with events in the reign of Solomon (1 Kings 4:7-19; 1 Kings 9:16) are entirely futile. On the other hand, the expression in Judges 18:30, “until the captivity of the land,” would bring the date of the redaction of the book down to a very late period, if that phrase certainly referred to either the Assyrian or the Babylonian captivity. But even if we do not accept the very slight change in two Hebrew letters which will make it mean “to the captivity of the ark” (see note on Judges 18:30-31), it seems almost demonstrable that the allusion may be to that Philistine invasion which culminated in the massacre at Shiloh, of which the terrible incidents are preserved for us in Psalms 78:60-65. In Judges 21:12 we find the expression “Shiloh, which is in the land of Canaan,” and this, too, has been pressed into an indication that the book is not earlier than the time of the exile. It is much more obvious to explain it by way of contrast to Jabesh-gilead, which was on the other side of Jordan; or possibly the phrase may point to the circumstance that after the sack and massacre of Shiloh the very site of the place seems to have sunk into an oblivion from which it has never since emerged. But if these phrases are of later origin, the evidences of antiquity which confront us on every page of this book would lead to the conclusion that a few expressions were merely added by way of glosses in the final edition of the sacred canon by Ezra and his school. The expressions and sentiments which are common to the Book of Judges, with the other historical books (see 1 Samuel 13:6; 1 Samuel 13:20; 2 Kings 2:17; 2 Kings 8:12; 2 Kings 12:20; 2 Kings 17:20; 2 Kings 21:15; 2 Kings 22:14; and especially comp. Judges 2:11-23 with 2 Kings 17:7-23, and Judges 2:1-3 with 2 Kings 17:35-39), may easily have been borrowed by the later from the earlier writers. The pure Hebrew of the Book of Judges is far too untainted with Chaldaisms and modernisms to allow any probability to the theory of its late authorship. Its many isolated expressions (hapax legomena, Judges 1:15; Judges 3:22; Judges 4:4-19; Judges 5:10-28; Judges 15:8; Judges 18:7) show the use of ancient records, and the Aramaisms which have been pointed out (e.g., the prefix in Judges 5:7; Judges 6:17, and expressions in Judges 17:2; Judges 19:1, &c), since they occur in those parts which are incontestably the oldest, are now generally admitted to be poetic forms, and forms peculiar to the idiom of Northern Palestine.

The general conclusion, then, as to the date of the book in its earlier shape is that it was compiled in the reign of Saul; and if there was any recorder (mazkir) in his primitive court, as there subsequently was at the court of David (2 Samuel 8:16), these histories might have been drawn up from older sources by such an officer; or possibly even by the Prophet Samuel (see below). With this would agree very well the almost unbroken silence respecting Judah (which would otherwise be inexplicable); the prominence of Gibeah and of Benjamin, with the narrative which explained why it was “the smallest of the tribes” (1 Samuel 9:21), and the tone of hostility towards Ephraim (Judges 8, 11, 12). With this hypothesis would also agree the absolutely unsacerdotal character of the book. In David’s reign the priesthood rose into great prominence and activity, whereas in the days of the judges and of Saul it seems to have sunk to the very nadir of inefficiency and neglect. Not once in the main narrative of the Book of Judges are priests appealed to. After Phinehas, they did not furnish one national hero from their ranks; nor did they once strike a blow for freedom or religion. The Levites shared in their decadence. The name of the wandering Levite of Bethlehem-Judah (Judges 19) has already been forgotten; and the other Levite, though no less a person than a grandson of Moses himself (see note on Judges 18:30), is content to serve a shrine of private idolatry for the reward of a few shillings a year.

There are other allusions to the judges in 2 Samuel 11:21; Psalms 78:56-64; Psalms 83:7-11; Psalms 106:34-45; Isaiah 9:4; Isaiah 10:26; Hosea 10:9; Nehemiah 9:25-31.

Chronology.—The chronology of the Book of Judges offers immense difficulties, and the difficulties are increased by the uncertainties which affect both the reading and interpretation of the passages which bear upon it.

The elements of decision are briefly as follows:—

I. If the stories of the judges are taken to be consecutive, and the periods of forty or eighty years’ rest (Judges 3:11; Judges 3:30; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28) are supposed to be stated accurately, and not in round numbers, then, adding up the separate totals, we get:—

Servitude under Cushan

8 years

Judges 3:8

Rest under Othniel

40 years

Judges 3:11

Servitude under Moab

18 years

Judges 3:14

Rest under Ehud

80 years

Judges 3:30

Servitude under Jabin

20 years

Judges 4:3

Rest under Deborah and Barak

40 years

Judges 5:31

Oppression of the Midianites

7 years

Judges 6:1

Rest under Gideon

40 years

Judges 8:28

Tyranny of Abimelech

3 years

Judges 9:22

Judgeship of Tola

23 years

Judges 10:2

Judgeship of Jair

22 years

Judges 10:3

Oppression of the Ammonites

18 years

Judges 10:8

Judgeship of Jephthah

6 years

Judges 12:7

Judgeship of Ibzan

7 years

Judges 12:9

Judgeship of Elon

19 years

Judges 12:11

Judgeship of Abdon

8 years

Judges 12:14

Oppression of the Philistines

40 years

Judges 13:1

Judgeship of Samson

20 years

Judges 15:20

410 years.

If to this 410 years we add 40 years for Saul’s reign, and 40 years for David’s, we get 490 years; and as (on this principle of consecutiveness) we must allow about 10 years for the events before Cushan’s tyranny (Judges 3:10) began, and 20 for the judgeship of Samuel, and 1 for Shamgar (Judges 3:31), we get at once at the traditional Jewish reckonings, which is the basis of much of our received chronology, and which assigns to the epoch between Joshua and Solomon a period of five centuries, in round numbers twelve generations.

II. In 1 Kings 6:1 we find that Solomon built the Temple “in the 480th year after the children of Israel were come out of Egypt.” It is doubtful whether the words are genuine, since they are omitted by Origen and other Fathers, were unknown to Josephus, and furnish the only Old Testament passage in which an era is taken as a starting-point. If genuine, there is no obvious way of reconciling them with the previous computation, though it has been suggested that “after the children of Israel came out of Egypt” may mean “after their settlement in Canaan.”

III. In Acts 13:20. St. Paul says that “the judges unto Samuel the prophet” occupied a period of 450 years. But here, again, the reading is not certain, and the order of the words seems to have been tampered with.

Characteristics of the Epoch.—The Book of Judges gives us an insight into a definite and well-marked epoch of Israelitish history, and we shall understand the book and its object better if we summarise the peculiarities of that age. We mark—

I. The deepening disunion between the tribes. While some of them pursued that agricultural mode of life which was specially fostered by the Mosaic institutions, others of them—as Dan, Asher, and the northern tribes—began to engage in navigation and commerce. This may have been one of the tendencies which led each tribe to act more and more as an independent body, while the fierce claim to the leading position advanced by Ephraim (Judges 8, 12) was only partially conceded, and at last entirely rejected. There were even separate towns—like Shechem—that could successfully assert their independence of the body of the nation, and choose their own rulers. Shechem thus stood at the head of a confederacy, like those of the German and Italian towns in the Middle Ages, under the protection of Baal-berith—the lord of the covenant—whose temple also served as a strong fortress (Judges 9).

II. This civil disunion resulted in part from the religious disintegration. There was, indeed, a central sanctuary at Shiloh, but the ark itself was at Bethel; and since in these wild times it became all but impossible to carry out the regulations of the Levitic law—which seems, indeed, to have fallen into absolute abeyance—all sorts of local sanctuaries and high places sprang up. Altars were freely raised at any place hallowed by Divine messages or providences, and the irregular and reprehensible, if not directly idolatrous, cult of ephods and teraphim (Judges 8:27; Judges 18:18) proved to be an irresistible temptation. A nation which had gone so far would be hardly likely to hold out against the manifold seductions and fascinations of the wild forms of nature-worship by which they were on every side surrounded. The sensual temptations of these

“Gay religions, full of pomp and gold,”

could only be effectually resisted by the influence of one religion, firmly established and faithfully obeyed.

III. Another element of degeneracy lay in the extreme depression of the priesthood and Levite-hood. The only priest of whom we hear is Phinehas (Judges 20:28). The grandson of Aaron towers immeasurably above the dreadful degeneracy of Jonathan, the grandson of Moses (Judges 18:30). It is with a positive sense of pity that we witness the pauperism and homelessness into which the near descendant of the great lawgiver had fallen (Judges 17:8-10). If for a mere pittance he could be induced to give his office and his life to the service of a private and semi-idolatrous chapel, we cannot but see that the salt of his order must have lost its savour. The splendid zeal which Phinehas had shown on former occasions (Numbers 25:11; Numbers 31:6; Psalms 106:30; Joshua 22:13) would have led us to expect from him the exertion of an influence which should have rendered impossible the state of degradation which marks the whole story of “the deed of Gibeah.” It is clear, however, that he had sunk into impotence or into apathy. We never hear of him after this time; and it is a mysterious and unexplained circumstance that the next high priest who is mentioned—Eli—does not even belong to the line of Eleazar and Phinehas, but to the younger line of Ithamar. The elder line was only restored to its rights in the reign of David, and in the person of Zadok.

IV. “Like people, like priest.” If the priests and Levites had not abnegated their true functions, the people could hardly have sunk to a moral standpoint so low as that which is involved in the conduct of the tribe of Benjamin, or in Jephthah’s vow; much less into the condition which left unpunished the hideous massacre by Abimelech of his father’s sons. Even Ehud and Samson, though they were redeemed into nobleness by the faith and patriotism which animated their deeds, adopted methods which are regarded by purer ages as deeply reprehensible.

V. Sin is weakness, and the spiritual degeneracy of the people reduced them to that state of feebleness which made them the easy prey of the Canaanites in the north, the Ammonites in the west, the Midianites and Amalekites whose hordes overran the Plain of Jezreel, and the Philistines in the south, who in course of time extended their authority beyond the confines of the tribe of Judah.

Moral Characteristics.—In considering the moral characteristics of the Book of Judges. we must distinguish between its general purport and the details of its special narratives.

Its general purport, as the incomplete record of a transitional period, is to illustrate certain broad propositions, which are of the utmost importance to mankind. It is meant to prove that righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is the reproach of any people; that evil companionships ruin good dispositions; that moral degeneracy always brings with it national weakness; that the affairs of the chosen people were under the immediate care of Divine Providence; that national sin is never left unpunished; that the punishment which it involves is intended always to be educational, not vindictive; that the retribution is withdrawn when it has produced sincere repentance; that the deliverance never comes from unaided human efforts, but from the strength and enthusiasm inspired by the Spirit of God. These and similar lessons elevate the Book of Judges into the position of a sacred philosophy of history, which clearly explains the laws and the objects of a sacred Nemesis. They are summed up not only in the Book of Judges (especially in Judges 2:11-22), but also in other passages which have been suggested or deeply influenced by its teachings; such as Psalms 106:34-45; 2 Kings 17, 2 Kings 24:2-4; 2 Chronicles 26:11-21; Jeremiah 11:2-10; Nehemiah 9:16-38. The whole book may be regarded as an historical comment on the promises and threatenings of the Book of Deuteronomy.

But when we look from the general lessons to the special deeds even of heroes who were summoned by God’s calling to the work of deliverance, we see abundant traces of the imperfection of that moral enlightenment which God vouchsafed to the chosen people only by slow degrees as the result of ever deepening experiences. Both in its pathos and in its passion, the book is intensely human, and its heroes are the children of their own day, alike in their wrath and their tenderness, their laxity and their superstition. It must be now clear to every Christian that the exterminating wars of Joshua, the fearful and indiscriminate vengeance inflicted by Israel on the offending tribe of Benjamin, the treachery of Ehud and of Jael, the wild revenge of Samson, the blood-vengeance of Gideon, and other events herein narrated, are not to be quoted as examples for modern times. They are entirely alien to the whole drift of all that is best and highest in the moral teaching even of the Old Testament Scriptures, and still more alien to all the teachings of Christ. The view which we take of these actions will be found in the notes; and it will be seen that while no attempt is made to gild with imaginary sanction deeds which in themselves were due to times of ignorance and the passions of men on whose minds the full light had not yet dawned, yet, on the other hand, the faith and the courage by which these old heroes were animated receive their full recognition, and they are judged solely by the standard prevalent in their own age and country. In adopting this line of judgment we follow the example set us by Christ Himself (Matthew 5:38; Matthew 19:8, &c.). We recognise the nobleness and courage of these heroes of faith, while we guard against the dangerous error of admiring their ignorance or consecrating their imperfections.

Among the books consulted in writing the following commentary I may mention Josephus, Antiquities, bk. 5; Rosenmüller’s Scholia; Ewald, Gesch. d. Volkes Israel; Eisenlohr’s Das Volk Israel; Stanley’s Jewish Church and Sinai and Palestine; Reuss, Hist. des Israelites; Bertheau, Das Buch der Richter (Kurzgef. Exeget. Handbuch); Keil and Delitsch; Prof. Cassel in Lange’s Bibelwerk; Lord Arthur Hervey, On the Genealogies, and in the Speaker’s Commentary; Bishop “Wordsworth’s Commentary; Davidson’s Introd. to the Old Testament; articles in Dr. Smith’s Bible Dictionary; Kitto’s Bible Cyclopœdia; Herzog’s Real. Encyclop., &c.

THE BOOK OF JUDGES.

“And concerning the Judges, every one by name, whose heart went not a whoring, nor departed from the Lord, let their memory be blessed. Let their bones flourish out of their place, and let the name of them that were honoured be continued upon their children” (Sirach 46:11-12).

“Temporibus Judicum, sicut se habebant peccata populi et misericordia Dei, alternabant prospera et adversa bellorum” (Aug. De Civ. Dei. xvi. 43).

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