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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

- Judges

by Thomas Constable



The English title, Judges, comes to us from the Latin translation (Vulgate) that the Greek translation (Septuagint) influenced. In all three languages the title means "judges." This title is somewhat misleading, however, because most English-speaking people associate the modern concept of a judge with Israel’s judges. As we shall see, judges then were very different from judges now. The Hebrew title is also "Judges" (Shophetim). The book received its name from its principal characters, as the Book of Joshua did.

The judge in Israel was not a new office during the period of history that this book records. Moses ordered the people to appoint judges in every Israelite town to settle civil disputes (Deu_16:18). In addition, there was to be a chief justice at the tabernacle who would, with the high priest, help settle cases too difficult for the local judges (Deu_17:9). Evidently there were several judges at the tabernacle who served as a supreme court (Deu_19:17).

When Joshua died, God did not appoint a man to succeed him as the military and political leader of the entire nation of Israel. Instead, each tribe was to proceed to conquer and occupy its allotted territory. As the need arose, God raised up several different individuals who were judges in various parts of Israel at various times to lead segments of the Israelites against local enemies. In the broadest sense, the Hebrew word shophet, translated "judge," means "bringer of justice." These judges were similar to modern mayors of towns. God endowed them with certain qualities and identified them in various ways as being those He had chosen to lead His people. This leadership sometimes involved military command. As God had raised up Moses and Joshua, and as He would raise up David (1Sa_16:13), so He also raised up the judges. The writer also described Yahweh as a judge in Judges (Jdg_11:27). This points out the fact that the judges were God’s agents in Israel who judged under Him at this period in the nation’s history.

"Though the judge enjoyed great prestige, he was in no sense a king. His authority was neither absolute, nor permanent, nor in any case hereditary; it rested solely in those personal qualities (the charisma) that gave evidence that he was the man of Yahweh’s spirit. It was a type of authority perfectly expressive of the faith and constitution of early Israel: the God-King’s direct leadership of his people through his spirit-designated representative. . . .

"The judges were by no means men of identical character. Some (e.g., Gideon) rose to their task at the behest of a profound experience of divine vocation; one (Jephthah) was no better than a bandit who knew how to strike a canny bargain; one (Samson) was an engaging rogue whose fabulous strength and bawdy pranks became legendary. None, so far as we know, ever led a united Israel into battle. All, however, seem to have had this in common: they were men who, stepping to the fore in times of danger, by virtue only of those personal qualities (charisma) which gave evidence to their fellows that Yahweh’s spirit was upon them, rallied the clans against the foe." [Note: John Bright, A History of Israel, pp. 14-15, 156.]

William Wallace was such a figure in Scottish history.

Judges is the second book of the Former Prophets section of the Hebrew Old Testament. The fact that the Hebrews placed this book in this section of their canon is significant. It demonstrates that they recognized it as God’s selective history of the period designed to teach spiritual lessons more than simply to record historical facts. God revealed Himself through the events of life and history as well as through the messages of the prophets.


Internal references help us locate the approximate date of composition of this book. The clause, "In those days there was no king in Israel" (Jdg_17:6; Jdg_18:1; Jdg_19:1; Jdg_21:25), suggests that someone wrote Judges during the monarchical period that followed the period of rule by judges (the so-called "amphictyony"). Someone probably wrote it after 1051 B.C. when Saul became king. However, at the time of writing Jerusalem was still in the hands of the Jebusites (Jdg_1:21). David captured Jerusalem about 1004 B.C. Therefore the writing of Judges seems to date between 1051 and 1004 B.C.

Jewish tradition suggests that Samuel wrote Judges. This was the opinion of the writers of the Talmud, the collection of Jewish writings that grew up around revealed Scripture beginning very early in Israel’s history. Samuel is a likely writer because of his role in Israel when someone wrote Judges. Samuel’s ministry began about 1090 B.C. and apparently ended a few years before Saul’s death (ca. 1021 B.C.). If Samuel wrote Judges, he probably did so between 1051 and about 1021 B.C. [Note: See Tremper Longman III and Raymond B. Dillard, An Introduction to the Old Testament, pp. 135-36, for further discussion of authorship.]


In contrast to Joshua, which spans only about 35 years of Israel’s history, Judges covers a much longer period of time. The book opens shortly after the death of Joshua (Jdg_1:1). God did not give us sufficient information to enable us to fix the date of Joshua’s death. Leon Wood figured that he died about 1390 B.C. [Note: Leon Wood, Distressing Days of the Judges, p. 11.] Eugene Merrill calculated his death at about 1366 B.C. [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 225.] The latest event the writer of Judges recorded is probably the death of Samson (Jdg_16:30-31). Wood believed Samson died about 1055 B.C., [Note: Wood, pp. 14, 303.] and Merrill wrote that he died near 1084 B.C. [Note: Merrill, p. 178.] Consequently the Book of Judges records about 300 years of Israel’s history (cf. Jdg_11:26). According to Wood’s figures the book would span 335 years, and according to Merrill’s, 282 years. The period of rule by the judges, however, extended beyond the events the Book of Judges records to Saul’s coronation in 1050 or 1051 B.C. Wood and Merrill agreed on this date that Edwin R. Thiele established. [Note: Wood, p. 11; Merrill, p. 192; Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, pp. 51-52.] This date assumes that Saul reigned 40 years (Act_13:21), David reigned 40 years (2Sa_2:11; 2Sa_5:5), Solomon reigned 40 years (1Ki_11:42), and the kingdom split in 931 B.C. According to Wood’s chronology this was five years beyond the end of Judges and according to Merrill’s it was 33 years beyond. [Note: See also Gleason L. Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, pp. 276-77; the "Chronological Chart" in Wood, pp. 409-11; and the "Time Chart" in John Davis and John Whitcomb (Davis wrote the section on Judges), A History of Israel, p. 16; J. H. John Peet, "The Chronology of the Judges-Some Thoughts," Journal of Christian Reconstruction 9:1-2 (1982-83):161-81; Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth, pp. 59-63; Andrew E. Steinmann, "The Mysterious Numbers of the Book of Judges," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48:3 (September 2005):491-500; and the "Biblical Chronology of the Middle Israelite Period," from Daiqing Apollos Yuan, "A Proposed Chronology for Judges" (Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 2006), p. 56, which is reproduced as the Appendix at the end of these notes.]

The judgeships of some of the individual judges apparently overlapped. Some ruled in one area of Israel while one or more others ruled elsewhere, in some cases. The Book of Judges does not record the ministries of all Israel’s judges. Eli and Samuel were also judges whose work the writer of 1 Samuel recorded. Only the judges whom the divine Author selected for inclusion appear in this book. Each one is spiritually instructive for the reader.


Arthur Cundall suggested that one of the purposes of Judges may have been to provide apologetic justification for Israel’s monarchy. [Note: Arthur Cundall, "Judges-An Apology for the Monarchy," Expository Times 81 (October 1969-September 1970):178-81.] William Dumbrell believed its purpose was primarily to show the sovereign grace of God in preserving Israel in spite of Israel. [Note: William Dumbrell, "’In Those Days There Was No King in Israel; Every Man Did What Was Right in His Own Eyes.’ The Purpose of the Book of Judges Reconsidered," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983):30-31. Cf. Robert Boling, Judges, p. 293; and Alvin S. Lawhead, "Grace in the Book of Judges," Preacher’s Magazine 58:3 (March-May 1983):25-27.] Leon Wood wrote that its primary purpose was to show why Israel did not experience God’s promised blessings. [Note: Wood, p. 135.] Herbert Wolf believed the primary purpose was to show that Israel’s spiritual condition determined its political and material situation. [Note: Herbert Wolf, "Judges," in Deuteronomy-2 Samuel, vol. 3 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 378.] Daniel Block argued that it was to reveal the Canaanization of Israel in the pre-monarchic period of Israel’s history. [Note: Block, p. 58. See also idem, "The Period of the Judges: Religious Disintegration under Tribal Rule," in Israel’s Apostasy and Restoration: Essays in Honor of Roland K. Harrison, pp. 39-58.] David Howard wrote that the purpose was "to show the consequences of disobedience to God and to point the way to a king, who, if he were righteous, would lead the people to God." [Note: David M. Howard Jr., An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, p. 101.] All these explanations seem to me to be in harmony with what the book records.


I.    The reason for Israel’s apostasy Jdg_1:1 to Jdg_3:6

A.    Hostilities between the Israelites and the Canaanites after Joshua’s death Jdg_1:1 to Jdg_2:5

1.    Initial successes and failures ch. 1

2.    The announcement of God’s discipline Jdg_2:1-5

B.    Israel’s conduct toward Yahweh and Yahweh’s treatment of Israel in the period of the Jdg_2:6 to Jdg_3:6

1.    Review of Joshua’s era Jdg_2:6-10

2.    The pattern of history during the judges’ era Jdg_2:11-23

3.    God’s purposes with Israel Jdg_3:1-6

II.    The record of Israel’s apostasy Jdg_3:7 to Jdg_16:31

A.    The first apostasy Jdg_3:7-11

B.    The second apostasy Jdg_3:12-31

1.    Oppression under the Moabites and deliverance through Ehud Jdg_3:12-30

2.    Oppression under the Philistines and deliverance through Shamgar Jdg_3:31

C.    The third apostasy chs. 4-5

1.    The victory over Jabin and Sisera ch. 4

2.    Deborah’s song of victory ch. 5

D.    The fourth apostasy Jdg_6:1 to Jdg_10:5

1.    The story of Gideon Jdg_6:1 to Jdg_8:32

2.    Israel’s departure from Yahweh Jdg_8:33-35

3.    The story of Abimelech ch. 9

4.    The judgeships of Tola and Jair Jdg_10:1-5

E.    The fifth apostasy Jdg_10:6 to Jdg_12:15

1.    Renewed oppression Jdg_10:6-7

2.    Oppression under the Ammonites Jdg_10:8-18

3.    Deliverance through Jephthah Jdg_11:1 to Jdg_12:7

4.    The judgeships of Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon Jdg_12:8-15

F.    The sixth apostasy chs. 13-16

1.    Samson’s birth ch. 13

2.    Samson’s intended marriage to the Timnite ch. 14

3.    Samson’s vengeance on the Philistines ch. 15

4.    Samson’s final fatal victory ch. 16

III.    The results of Israel’s apostasy ch. 17-21

A.    The idolatry of Micah and the Danites ch. 17-18

1.    The idolatry of Micah ch. 17

2.    The apostasy of the Danites ch. 18

B.    The immorality of Gibeah and the Benjamites chs. 19-21

1.    The atrocity in Gibeah ch. 19

2.    The civil war in Israel ch. 20

3.    The preservation of Benjamin ch. 21


The Book of Joshua recorded Israel’s victory over her enemies through trust in, and obedience to, God. The Book of Judges shows the defeat of the nation by its enemies from without and within due to refusal to trust and obey God.

"No book in the Old Testament offers the modern church as telling a mirror as this book. From the jealousies of the Ephraimites to the religious pragmatism of the Danites, from the paganism of Gideon to the self-centeredness of Samson, and from the unmanliness of Barak to the violence against women by the men of Gibeah, all of the marks of Canaanite degeneracy are evident in the church and its leaders today. This book is a wake-up call for a church moribund in its own selfish pursuits. Instead of heeding the call of truly godly leaders and letting Jesus Christ be Lord of the church, everywhere congregations and their leaders do what is right in their own eyes." [Note: Block, Judges . . ., p. 586.]


"The principle theme of the Book of Judges is ’Failure through Compromise’ which is in contrast to the main theme in the Book of Joshua which is ’Victory through Faith.’" [Note: Davis and Whitcomb, p. 94.]


"The Book of Judges illustrates both God’s justice and His grace-justice in punishing sin and grace in forgiving sin." [Note: Lindsey, p. 414.]

The course of Israel’s decline progressed in a descending series of cycles. She went from blessing to apostasy to discipline to repentance to deliverance to rededication to blessing, etc. Her deterioration grew out of spiritual apostasy and manifested itself in moral degeneracy, political disorganization, and social disintegration.

"So the Book of Judges ends with a miracle. How after chapters 19-21, indeed, after chapters 1-21, can you account for the fact that there is still an Israel? It can only be because Yahweh wished to dwell in the midst of his people in spite of its sin. It can only be because Yahweh’s grace is far more tenacious than his people’s depravity and insists on still holding them fast even in their sinfulness and their stupidity. Nor is he finished raising up saviors for them (Act_13:23)!" [Note: Davis, Such a . . ., p. 227. See also McCann, p. 138.]

Joshua and Judges, therefore, give proof positively and negatively, of how the basic principles affecting the relationship that God intends people to enjoy, work out in national and personal life. The Pentateuch revealed these principles.


Biblical Chronology of the Middle Israelite Period [Note: Yuan, p. 56.]

"N" below refers to Nisan-year, a lunar-solar year that began on Nisan 1 (in late March or early April of the modern calendar) and ended the day before the next Nisan 1. And "T" refers to Tishri-year, a lunar-solar year that began on Tishri 1 (in late September or early October of the modern calendar) and ended the day before the next Tishri 1.

The Exodus, Wandering and the Conquest (1446-1399 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Exodus and Wandering40 years1446N-1407N1446-1406 B.C.
War of Conquest7 years1406N-1400N1406-1399 B.C.
The Early Judges (1399-1186 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Cushan Oppression8 years1399N-1392N1399-1391 B.C.
Peace years of Othniel40 years1391N-1352N1391-1351 B.C.
Eglon Oppression18 years1351N-1334N1351-1333 B.C.
Peace Years of Ehud80 years1333N-1254N1333-1253 B.C.
Jabin Oppression20 years1253N-1234N1253-1233 B.C.
Peace Years of Deborah40 years1233N-1194N1233-1213 (sic 1193) B.C.
Midianite Oppression7 years1193N-1187N1193-1186 B.C.
The Illegal Dynasty (1186-1143 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Peace Years of Gideon40 years1186N-1147N1186-1146 B.C.
Kingship of Abimelech3 years1146N-1144N1146-1143 B.C.
The Northern Judges (1143-1049 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Judgeship of Tola23 years1143N-1121N1143-1120 B.C.
Judgeship of Jair22 years1120N-1099N1120-1098 B.C.
Ammonite Oppression18 years1098N-1081N1098-1080 B.C.
Judgeship of Jephthah6 years1080N-1075N1080-1074 B.C.
Judgeship of Ibzan7 years1074N-1068N1064-1067 B.C.
Judgeship of Elon10 years1067N-1058N1067-1057 B.C.
Judgeship of Abdon8 years1057N-1050N1057-1050 B.C.
The Southern Judges (1143-1049 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Judgeship of Eli40 years1143N-1104N1143-1103 B.C.
Judgeship of Samson20 years1103N-1084N1103-1083 B.C.
Judgeship of Samuel34 years1083N-1050N1083-1049 B.C.
The United Monarchy (1049-930 B.C.)
Name of Time PeriodLengthAncient CalendarModern Calendar
Kingship of Saul40 years1049N-1010N1049-1010 B.C.
David, king of Judah40 years1010T-971T1010-970 B.C.
David, king of Israel33 years1002N-970N1002-970 B.C.
Kingship of Solomon40 years970T-931T970-930 B.C.


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_____. "Samson’s Riddle and Samson’s Magic Locks." Vetus Testamentum 36:2 (April 1986):225-34.

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_____. "On Cult Places and Early Israelites: A Response to Michael Coogan." Biblical Archaeology Review 15:4 (July-August 1988):45.

_____ "A Philistine Temple at Tell Qasile." Biblical Archaeologist 36 (1973):43-48.

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_____. S.v. "Mill, Millstone," by A. R. Millard.

_____. S.v. "Money," by A. F. Walls.

_____. S.v. "Number," by R. A. H. Gunner.

_____. S.v. "Sidon," by D. J. Wiseman.

_____. S.v. "Zalmon," by D. F. Payne.

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