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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Judges

by John Dummelow


1. The Times. In the order of the Bible, the book of Judges follows that of Joshua. But there is a great difference between the two. Joshua tells us of a carefully planned attack by the whole people of Israel upon the seven nations who inhabited Canaan, and its complete success; and the bulk of the second half of the book is occupied by the distribution of the territory among the twelve tribes. At the beginning of Judges we find the Israelites either setting out on the conquest of parts of Canaan, or dwelling in an only half-conquered country, side by side with the Canaanites; they are subject to a long series of attacks from enemies inside and outside the country; united action between the different tribes is at best rare and never complete; and the book closes with two episodes which have nothing to do with foreign foes, but in which the wildness and even savagery of the period (including general lawlessness, massacre, treachery, mutilation and human sacrifice), clear enough in each of the earlier narratives of the book, is placed in peculiarly strong relief.

The picture, however, is an entirely natural one. The Israelites had been living the life of desert nomads; and when they invaded the rich sown lands of Canaan, to which other tribes from the desert had already found their way, they preserved something of the character of Bedouin raiders. Under a recognised leader like Joshua, they could combine and gain victories as striking as they were transitory; when Joshua was dead, they were as ready to split into independent tribal groups, and to refuse to ’come up to the help of Jehovah.’ Thereupon they either became slaves where they had been conquerors, or fell beneath the hands of fresh invaders in their turn.

But their nomad character was quickly lost. From shepherds they soon turned into farmers like the Canaanites. In language and even in religious observances there was little to separate the old inhabitants from the new-comers. But there was one difference. The Canaanites worshipped local deities or Baals; Israel had one God, Jehovah (AV ’the Lord,’ really a proper name). He had led them out of Egypt. A common and undisputed allegiance to Him bound together the twelve tribes and severed them from every one else. To forget Him was to fall into the loose and dangerous ways of the Canaanites; to turn to Him was to unite in politics, in social order and in religion. (See sections 6 and 7.)

2. The Book. The contents of the book fall into three divisions: Judges 1:1 to Judges 3:4; Judges 3:5 to Judges 16:31, and Judges 16:17-21. The first is introductory, striking the keynote of the book—ease, forgetfulness, disobedience, enslavement, repentance, deliverance, and ease once more. The second describes in more or less detail the various occurrences of these mutations under the Judges. The third, an appendix, contains an account of the early migrations of the Danites, and the feud between Benjamin and the rest of the nation. These divisions are not the work of a single hand. Like the other historical books of the OT., Judges is a compilation. The unknown author of the book as it now stands evidently-had before him much material which is now lost (cp. Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:17), and he preserved this or made selections from it as he thought best. Thus, Judges 5 is certainly a triumph-song going back to the time of Deborah herself. The tone of the first division is almost entirely moralising or religious. Similar passages are inserted in the second division, pointing the moral of each disaster; but in the body of the narratives this moralising element is absent, while to the story of Abimelech there is no moral at all. This tendency is often spoken of as ’deuteronomic,’ because it finds its fullest expression in the book of Deuteronomy, under whose special influence, it is supposed, Judges, like other historical books, was put into its present shape. In the third division the writer has taken over two ancient stories, without adding his own reflections to them save in isolated notes. To a modern reader this may seem an uncritical attempt to make history instructive. But there can be no doubt that history, rightly understood, is calculated to instruct; and in the case of the Hebrews, to forget the commands of the national God, and to drift into social and domestic relations with the Canaanites, was simply to invite disaster. Thus the real meaning of the older Hebrew narratives (themselves by no means devoid of religious feeling) is explained for the reader by means of the religious insight of the later compiler.

3. The Name. The word ’judge’ implies to us something very different from what it implied to a Hebrew. The Hebrews, unlike the ancient Babylonians with their elaborate codes, knew nothing of the complex machinery of the law-court; disputes were settled by the head of the family, the elders of the tribe or of the village or town, or by the priests; later on, in the more serious cases, by some person of national influence, and even by the king. The procedure was informal, and regulated at most by custom and a general sense of what was right. The sentence could only be enforced when public opinion was behind it. But a man who was qualified by age or experience, or both, or by special nearness to Jehovah, to settle disputes, could also do something more; men would naturally look to him for counsel, guidance, deliverance. To judge was thus to lead and to govern. In this sense, after our period, Samuel was said to judge Israel (1 Samuel 7:6: see also 1 Samuel 8:2). It is in this sense that Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and the other heroes of this book are judges. In each case their rise is the result of divine selection. Deborah is a prophetess, and she summons Barak to her side; Gideon is called by the angel of Jehovah; the spirit of Jehovah comes mightily upon Samson (Judges 4:6; Judges 6:11; Judges 13:25). The result of this is some signal achievement against the common foe; after which, the people, having learnt to trust the wisdom of their ’judge’ in war, willingly follow it in peace (Judges 8:22; Judges 12:7). All the judges mentioned in this book appear to have been military leaders; later, however, we find the peaceful Eli holding this office for the nation; and Samuel, who used to go ’on circuit’ to a certain number of towns (1 Samuel 7:16), though he was constantly asked for advice in a war, is never said to have acted as general. Of the extent of the judges’ authority we know nothing; after their victories have been gained, the historian tells us no more about them. But Saul and even David in his earlier years seem to have been little more than very powerful ’judges’; the son of Gideon himself gains the title of king with no great difficulty (Judges 9:6). The main business of a Hebrew king, from David onwards, as of an Indian rajah or a Mohammeden caliph, was to lead his people in war, settle their quarrels, and protect the poor. No one could do this satisfactorily unless he were a strong personality; in the rough period of our book, the only way of impressing the community was by warlike prowess. But no greater service than settling disputes without fear or favour could be rendered; and the noblest function of the Messiah Himself was to judge the poor and needy, to break in pieces the oppressor, and bring forth judgment to the Gentiles (Psalms 72:4, Psalms 72:12; Isaiah 11:4; Isaiah 42:1, Isaiah 42:3).

4. The Dates. Where there is no fixed era, chronology is necessarily obscure. The historian of Hebrew antiquity could of course give us no dates; he could at most tell us the duration of the lives of men or of periods of time. Dealing with times long past, of which exact chronological records were not easily obtainable, it is not surprising if the various writers are not always exact themselves, and if their notices of time do not always agree. The period of Judges, we know, extends from the death of Joshua, a certain number of years after the forty years which followed the exodus, to about the birth of Samuel, i.e. perhaps two generations before the accession of David to the throne of Judah. The exodus is now generally placed about 1250 b.c. David came to the throne about 1000 b.c. But in 1 Kings 6:1 the interval between the exodus and the founding of the Temple in the 4th year of Solomon, i.e. 44 years after David’s accession, is said to be 480 years. From the numbers given in Judges, the interval would appear to have been still greater. Othniel, Ehud, Barak, Gideon and Samson are accountable for 220 years (40, 80, 40, 40, 20); the ’minor judges’ (Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon, so called because their story is not given in detail), Jephthah, Abimelech, and the periods of oppression amount to 190. (See Chronological Table.) If we add to these 40 years each for Moses (Deuteronomy 2:7, etc.), Eli (1 Samuel 4:18;) and David (1 Kings 2:11), with more years still for Joshua, Samuel and Saul, we shall get a period nearer to 580 than 480. It has accordingly been pointed out that the round numbers (40, 80, 20) are probably not intended to be taken as exact, but as=a generation, two generations, and half a generation respectively, although the other figures appear to be based on precise records. It has further been suggested that the years of oppression are not to be counted in with the rest, and also that some of the judges (though the book itself gives no hint of this, probable as it would seem) were synchronous with others. Many ingenious manipulations of the figures have been made to reach a result agreeing with the 480 years of 1 Kings 6 but this number may very possibly be an exaggeration, and in any case it is not easy to see how such a period as that of the Judges could ever have lasted much longer than 200 years. The two certain facts seem to be that, even through those wild years, in the case of some of the judges, more or less exact records were preserved, and that the periods of peace were very much longer than those of foreign oppression and war.

5. The Oppressors. Our book makes it clear that while the Israelites failed to conquer the whole country, they kept a firm hold on one part, the central mountain range W. of the Jordan. The desert wanderers, on entering Palestine, were forced to become mountaineers. In the plain of Esdraelon, which cut like a wedge into this range, as well as up and down the country elsewhere, were the Canaanites, with their walled towns and formidable chariots. To the W., in the low lands between the mountains and the sea, were the Philistines. E. of the Jordan valley (which was too tropical to be largely inhabited), on rolling uplands of corn and forest and heath, were the lands assigned to Reuben, Gad (Gilead) and Manasseh, but really much more in the power of Ammon and Moab. Further to the E., on the borders of the desert, were wandering but powerful tribes of Midianites, Amalekites, and others. Far across the desert to the E. were the great powers of Assyria and Babylon; to the N. were Syria and the empire of the Hittites, while beyond the southern desert was Egypt. During this period, however, all these powers were, for various reasons, engaged within their own borders; and Palestine, which had in previous centuries been the battle-field of their armies, and was to be so again, was left unmolested. The oppressors of Israel, therefore, were people little if at all stronger than herself. Entrenched within her mountains, she ought to have feared nothing from Moab, Ammon and Midian.. The Canaanites, though they had the doubtful advantage of wealth, and by their strongholds in the plain of Esdraelon could for a time prevent Israelite unity, never regained footing in the hill-country; nor had they any political cohesion among themselves.

All these peoples (except the Midianites) were closely allied in race with Israel; the Philistines, who had a better political organisation than any of their neighbours, and who did not practise circumcision, are often thought to have come from Crete, and therefore not to be Semites at all. Their hostility was by far the most serious; Israel never succeeded in really menacing any one of their five cities; Samson himself never led an Israelite force into their territory; and it was the impossibility of making head against them, even under the guidance of Samuel, that led the Hebrews to change the leadership of the judge for the more settled rule of a king (1 Samuel 8). Apart from the Philistines, Israel had more to fear from peace than war. An enemy, once repelled, never throughout this period attacked her again; and, placed as she was between foes inside and outside her territory, she could yet lift up her eyes unto the hills, and know that her help came from thence.

6. The Historical Value of the Book. What then is to be made of these fragmentary records of invasion, foray, muster and vengeance? Far more than appears on the surface. When Israel followed Joshua across the Jordan, she was a collection of tribes; when Samuel handed over his authority to Saul, she was a nation. During those wild years were being forged the bonds of a nationality which has survived unprecedented shocks till the present day. Not even at the time of Saul was the nation complete; Judah is curiously isolated from his brethren, and in the song of Deborah is never mentioned (Judges 1:2: cp. Deuteronomy 33:7). Ephraim is regarded as the leading tribe, though his rôle was by no means the most glorious (Judges 8:1-2). But these repeated shocks of invasion did what nothing else could have done. Consciousness of a common foe gave Israel the consciousness of a common aim, destiny, and religion. This book shows more clearly than any other that the history of Israel was an evolution, a progress. National unity, indeed, might seem no further advanced under Samson than under Barak. But this is an error. The Judges made a wider appeal than to their own tribes alone; the Hebrews were learning that they were brothers; and this sense of brotherhood, however strangely manifesting itself, is shown clearly throughout the book.

But can we credit all the marvellous exploits, it will be asked, of individual judges? When these are examined in detail, they offer comparatively little diffculty. True, there may be exaggeration, as so often in Hebrew writers, in the numbers; and is it not natural that other details should be magnified when told round the camp-fire or at the village gate? Our ideas of accuracy, it must be remembered, were unknown in the 10th cent. b.c. In the case of Samson, this tendency to glorify the exploits of a beloved champion was more marked, and reminds us of the stories told of William Tell. On the other hand, there is not an episode that is not full of most graphic and striking touches; Judges 5 is one of the finest lyrics inside or outside the Bible; the last four chapters contain most valuable material for the religious and social history of the Hebrews; nor is there a book in the Bible which shows us more clearly the strength and the weakness of the Hebrew nature, its rugged independence and its readiness to assimilate, the meanness and cowardice that it was prone to show, and the courage, the resolution, and the tragedy of its chosen heroes.

7. The Religious Value of the Book. What have these early stories to do with our religious life? Is not their morality far below that of the present day? Are not the historical conditions completely different from our own? Do we not know far more of God than their boldest spirits could ever teach us? These three questions suggest the following answers: (a) In the primitive character of the morality of the book lies much of its value. The Israelites were not completely different from their neighbours. They could be rash, cruel, vengeful (like the men of the Scottish clans), and even licentious; a prophetess could exult in an act which to us spells sheer treachery (see on Judges 5:24); and for their cruelties they could, like their neighbours, assume divine sanction (e.g. Judges 20). Yet in spite of this, they knew that Jehovah was their God; and, unlike the other gods, He had a definite character; certain kinds of conduct He hated, others He loved. And this knowledge gradually taught them the love of truth, justice, humanity, purity, and the deep piety that breathes in Psalms 23, 84. In our book one can watch this love just beginning to grow. If the nation that produced Judges 20 could also produce, first Judges 5, and, later on, Isaiah 53, what can be deemed impossible for the Spirit of God?

(b) The conditions of life in ancient Israel were very different from our own; but the principles were the same. Racial animosity and greed are as strong today as then. National peril always rose from the desire to ’get on’ or to follow the line of least resistance. National strength lay in self-forgetting enthusiasm for a common cause and devotion to the commands of God. It lies nowhere else today. Further, history shows that wherever there is a faith like Gideon’s, whether in a Judas Maccabaeus, a Wilberf orce, or a Mazzini, the results are just as surprising, and just as beneficent.

(c) The God we worship is not merely ’the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob.’ He is ’the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’ But the lesson that God can only be worshipped aright when the whole nation recognises its unity and the duty of mutual care and protection, is not learnt yet. The fatal distinction between God’s interest in the religious life and in the social well-being of His people, we must learn to reject. Religion, patriotism and national health are unmeaning apart from each other; and all alike are impossible unless the cause of disaster is traced to disobedience and sin. The victories of the Hero-judges, as the Epistle to the Hebrews asserts, are victories of faith; this faith is also ours; and of this faith the ’author and perfecter’ is Jesus (Hebrews 11:32; Hebrews 12:2).

List of Oppressions and Judges

Yrs. of
Yrs. of
Oppression under Chushanrishathaim8
Peace under Othniel40
Oppression under Eglon (Moab)18
Peace after Ehud’s deliverance80
Oppression under Jabin (Canaan)20
Peace after Barak’s victory40
Oppression under Midianites and allies7
Peace after Gideon’s victory40
Abimelech’s ’reign’3
Oppression under Ammonites18
Peace under Jephthah6
Oppression under the Philistines40
Activity of Samson20
Total length of Oppressions and Deliverances reckoned consecutively412
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