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Sunday, June 23rd, 2024
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

- Judges

by Various Authors



This book and the Books of Joshua, First and Second Samuel, and First and Second Kings make up a section in the Hebrew Bible termed the "Former Prophets." Modern scholarship associates these books with the Book of Deuteronomy and ascribes them to what is generally known as the Deuteronomic school of historians. This school of writers seems to have flourished towards the end of the pre-exilic period and during the Exile, that is, in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. It was characterized by the moral outlook of the great prophetic figures from Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah onwards, which had also shaped the final form of the Book of Deuteronomy, and it took many of its leading motifs from the latter book. These historians viewed history as the scene of moral retribution. They were convinced of the divine judgment on sin and, like the great canonical prophets, believed that it was worked out in history both at the national and at the individual level. If Israel sinned, its punishment was sure, and deliverance could come only through repentance. So also with individuals; they, too, could not expect to escape the consequences of their wrongdoing. Because of their prophetic affinities, these historians also showed an interest in the prophetic figures who appear in Israel’s history, and emphasized the place of the Spirit of the Lord and of "charismatic" or Spirit-possessed personalities in Israel’s early history.

The Historical Situation

The Book of Judges deals with the period of Israel’s history which followed the conquest of Palestine, when the people were settling down in Canaan. Two major issues faced the Israelites. The first was a social and national issue. It was concerned, in part, with the relations of the Israelites to the original inhabitants, the Canaanites. It seems clear that here there was no policy of wholesale extermination, but rather there were slow assimilation and intermarriage, commingled with some war and extermination. The first chapter of Judges discloses this slow process and makes it clear that pockets of Canaanites remained in Israel long after the Conquest. For example, the Jebusites at Jerusalem were not subdued until David’s time. Yet open conflict seems to have been rare after the initial period of conquest, and only in the story of Barak and Sisera (Judges 4, 5) do we find an account of war between the Israelites and the Canaanites. Much more significant at the social level were the foreign invasions. In these early days of unrest, when the land was changing masters and internal friction was present, surrounding nations like Edom, Moab, Ammon, and the nomads of the desert all sought to profit by the state of affairs. Invasions were frequent, and many of these are recorded in the Book of Judges.

Side by side with the social and national issue was the religious one. The Israelites, coming in from the desert, had brought with them a monotheistic and imageless worship and a high moral level, as the Decalogue reveals. Their life had been that of desert nomads, mainly pastoral in character, not directly dependent on the fertility of the soil and little concerned with the agricultural festivals associated with seedtime and harvest. The Canaanites, on the other hand, were an agricultural people, whose religion was bound up with sustaining the fertility of the soil and with the cycle of nature. They had many deities, as archaeology reveals, and these deities show few moral characteristics. They included male gods and female consorts whose sexual relations kept the cycle of the seasons in motion. Associated with their worship were sexual orgies which were believed to influence the gods by sympathetic magic and so produce fertility of soil and plentitude of crops. This type of religion is called a "fertility cult." In Canaan it was celebrated at high places or holy places on the hilltops. Sacrifices were offered here on the altars, and priests sought to obtain guidance from the deities by practicing oracular divination. Here were the stone pillar or "mazzebah" and the wooden stock or "asherah," possibly a remnant of a sacred tree. The names of the principal Canaanite deities were Baal, the male god, and Astarte, his female consort. Astarte was similar to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of love and fecundity, and the figure of a female goddess of this type was familiar throughout the ancient Near East. When the Israelites settled in Canaan and began to follow agricultural pursuits, it was natural for them to fall away from the desert ways of strict morality and "puritanic" principles into the loose and licentious worship of the Canaanite Baalism, associated as it was with the agricultural life of the community. Only in time of war and disaster would the mass of Israelites tend to remember God, the God of war who had delivered them from Egypt, brought them through the wilderness, and led them into Canaan, giving them victorious passage and conquest. In easier times they fell into the fertility worship and practices of their neighbors.

These two issues appear throughout the Book of Judges, and in the central section, from 2:6 to 16:31, they are linked together by the Deuteronomic editors of the book by means of the doctrine of divine retribution. In this part of Judges we find a repetitive pattern in the recorded history. Israel sins by going awhoring after the Baals (local manifestations of the chief "Baal"), and forsaking the Lord; God sends judgment in the form of invasion by some marauding host; Israel repents and cries to God; God raises up a "judge" or "savior." Thus the process is one of sin, judgment, repentance, and deliverance.

Literary Structure and Theological Treatment in the Central Section

We shall look at this central section of the book (Judges 2:6 to Judges 16:31) first, since it constitutes the most important part. The editors were undoubtedly dealing with very much earlier material, some of it contemporary with the events with which it is concerned. This material may have been preserved down through time, partly in oral and partly in written form, although it was probably all committed to writing in the early days of the monarchy, and there seems evidence for a shorter and pre- Deuteronomic edition of the Book of Judges. What the Deuteronomic editors did was to take this material, in whatever form it came to them, and put it into their framework of sin, judgment, repentance, and deliverance. This is not to imply that such elements were not present in the original situation, but rather that the editors drew them out and emphasized them for their purpose of teaching the prophetic lessons of history. If God reveals himself through history, then history must disclose his presence in judgment and in mercy. The Deuteronomic history writers recognized this, and thus sought to write the history of Israel in the light of God’s presence, underlining the lessons it taught and drawing out into the open the often hidden forces of human sin and divine judgment which lay in the deeps of historic events.

The Deuteronomists did, however, introduce a certain degree of artificiality into their history, by endeavoring to fit a series of detached and often local incidents into a more continuous and nation-wide scheme. This framework consists of an introductory formula, recounting Israel’s sin, God’s judgment in the shape of invasion, Israel’s repentance, and God’s sending a "judge" or "deliverer," and also of a closing formula which recounts the years of peace that followed under the judgeship of the hero concerned. The periods of oppression and judgeship are apparently artificial, consisting usually of multiples or fractions of forty years. Examples of those summaries are 3:7-9 and 3:11, in the story of Othniel; 3:12-15 and 3:30, in the story of Ehud; 4:1-3 and 5:31c, in the story of Barak and Deborah; 6:1-2, 6-10, and 8:28, in the story of Gideon; 10:6-16 and 12:7, in the story of Jephthah; 13:1 and 16:31, in the story of Samson. The deliverers and the incidents connected with them are also far more local than national. Only in the case of the campaign of Deborah and Barak against Sisera do we seem to have a national action in which all the tribes participate. Apart from this, the stories are mostly concerned with one of the following groups: the tribe of Judah, the people occupying the hill country of Ephraim, the groups on the border of the Philistine coastal strip, the Israelites across Jordan, and the Hebrews around Shechem. Although the Deuteronomic formula suggests all Israel, the stories seem to indicate that the judgeships were much more local. We note that the word "judge" here is best and primarily rendered "deliverer" or "savior," since these heroes were primarily concerned with delivering the people from foreign oppression. Quite evidently, however, once they had established their position by military prowess, they assumed also the other and, for us, more normal function of judgeship, that of administering justice and governing the community.

There were six major judges — Othniel, Ehud, Deborah and Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. To these the Deuteronomic editors added six more names — Shamgar (Judges 3:31), Tola (Judges 10:1-2), Jair (Judges 10:3-5), Ibzan (Judges 12:8-10), Elon (Judges 12:11-12), and Abdon (Judges 12:13-15). Concerning these minor judges very little of historical value is offered, and they seem to have played no significant role in the forward movement of the history of God’s people. It is difficult to understand why they were included, unless the editors were anxious to round off the number of judges at twelve.

The Introductory Section

The central section of Judges is preceded by an introductory section (Judges 1:1 to Judges 2:5), which is really a continuation of the story of the conquest in the Book of Joshua, and makes it evident that the conquest of Canaan was a slower and less thorough job than the Book of Joshua would lead us to suppose. This embodies some early and very valuable historical material.

The Appendix

The last five chapters of the Book of Judges constitute an appendix in which is preserved some valuable historical material (chs. 17-21). We have the story of the migration of the tribe of Dan from its original place of settlement in the center of Palestine to its final location in the north around Laish, together with the way in which it founded and furnished its famous sanctuary at Dan (chs. 17-18). We have also the story of the outrage at Gibeah and the tragedy that befell Benjamin (chs. 19-21). This preserves some valuable evidence about Israelite custom and practice and about the sacking of Jabesh-gilead; it also includes some folklore, like the story of the maidens of Shiloh, which has a historical core and may indicate a marriage ceremony.

The Chronology of Judges

The Deuteronomic pattern raises the question of the chronology of Judges. If we allow for the wilderness wanderings, the period of conquest, the judgeship of Samuel, and the reigns of Saul and David, we are left with a period shorter than the total chronology of Judges requires. If we allow that the judges were local rather than national figures, they may have overlapped. Furthermore, the artificial appearance of the periods of oppression and judgeship seems to indicate that we must not place too much reliance on the chronology of Judges itself. We may say that the events recorded go back to the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C. and that some may be even earlier if there were Hebrew groups in Palestine prior to the main invasion of the Josephite tribes across Jordan, which seems to be supported by archaeological evidence.

The Sources Behind Judges

The sources from which the Book of Judges was built were, we have suggested, written and oral traditions. Sometimes there seem to have been two traditions of the same incidents. Thus chapter 4 recounts the story of Deborah and Barak in prose and is paralleled in chapter 5 by a poetic account, which by its form and content seems much more realistic and early. Chapter 5 is generally regarded as contemporary with the campaign against Sisera. It clearly regards Sisera as the leader of the Canaanite forces and a king in his own right, whereas in the prose version of chapter 4 the leader is Jabin, and Sisera is only his general. It may be that two campaigns are involved — one of Zebulun and Naphtali against Jabin of Hazor and one by Deborah and Barak against Sisera — and that chapter 4 has sought to combine them. We shall see that the Gideon story contains two versions which have been skillfully woven into the single account of the Deuteronomists. There may originally have been two invasions. Gideon has two names, the other being Jerubbaal. He kills two pairs of kings of the Midianites — Oreb and Zeeb (Judges 7:24 to Judges 8:3) and Zebah and Zalmunna (Judges 8:4-21).

We need to remember that we are dealing in this book with the dawn of Israelite history. This was mainly preserved in oral form during the early period, and thus it raises real historical questions. But what matters is its theological significance, what God was seeking to teach Israel through these events, of whose details we cannot be altogether certain, and what word of God they have for us in our day and time.


The Invasion of Canaan and the Settlement. Judges Judges 1:1 to Judges 2:5

Israel Under the Judges. Judges Judges 2:6 to Judges 16:31

The New Generation — Apostasy and Judgment (Judges 2:6 to Judges 3:6)

Othniel (Judges 3:7-11)

Ehud and the Moabites (Judges 3:12-30)

Shamgar and the Oxgoad (Judges 3:31)

Deborah and Barak (Judges 4:1 to Judges 5:31)

Gideon and Abimelech (Judges 6:1 to Judges 9:57)

The Minor Judges — Tola and Jair (Judges 10:1-5)

Jephthah the Gileadite (Judges 10:6 to Judges 12:7)

The Minor Judges — Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Judges 12:8-15)

Samson and the Philistines (Judges 13:1 to Judges 16:31)

Appendix: The Story of Dan and the War with Benjamin. Judges Judges 17:1 to Judges 21:25

The Migration of Dan and the Story of Its Sanctuary (Judges 17:1 to Judges 18:31)

The War with Benjamin (Judges 19:1 to Judges 21:25)

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