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by Peter Pett
Commentary On The Book of Judges.
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Book of Judges.
The Book of Judges was contained in the prophetic section of the Hebrew Scriptures, which indicates its purpose, which was to draw lessons from history and to proclaim the truth about Yahweh through them. It was not intended to be a full history, but a revelation of salvation history, the working of God on behalf of His people, and covers the period from the death of Joshua to the rise of the judges Eli and Samuel.
The book commences with an accumulation of records which continue the account of the conquest of Canaan in Joshua, with an occasional flashback, and depicts the various struggles taking place in order to capture and retain the land for Israel. It then goes on to depict the failure of Israel in this, due to its disobedience to God, its resulting misfortunes, and it demonstrates how God raised up ‘judges’ to deliver them from these misfortunes.
By ‘judges’ we must recognise not legal decision makers (although they did perform that function as well) but rulers, people in authority, recognised by the tribes, who ruled and administered sections of the people (Ruth 1:1). The term included charismatic war leaders who rose in time of trouble from among the landed aristocracy. These latter are the most prominent in the book due to its emphasis. There were thus a number of judges at any one time and those dealt with in the narrative may well have overlapped.
Twelve judges are mentioned in the book of Judges (thirteen if we include Abimelech).
Judge Oppression Peace Area Enemy Othniel 8 years 40 years Judah Mesopotamia Ehud 18 years 80 years Benjamin Moab, Ammon, Amalek Shamgar not stated not stated Judah? Philistines Deborah after Ehud’s death 20 years 40 years Zebulun and Naphtali Hazor Gideon 7 years 40 years half tribe of Manasseh Arabs Abimelech after Gideon 3 years Shechem Tola after Abimelech 23 years Issachar (Ephraim hill country) Jair After Tola 22 years Gileadite Jephthah 18 years 6 years Gileadite Moab, Ammon Ibzan 7 years Bethlehem Elon 10 years Zebulun Abdon 8 years Ephraim Samson 40 years 20 years Dan and Judah Philistines
In looking at this list we should remember that:
1). No judge appears to have ruled the whole of Israel. While they could call on other tribes for help in accordance with the requirements of the amphictyony (the treaty combining the twelve tribes), their actual jurisdiction appears to have been limited to their own particular area.
2). Where judges are appointed in different areas ‘after --’ need only mean ‘after the appointment previously mentioned’ except in the cases where ‘after his death’ is stated.
3). The number 40 occurs so regularly that it must probably be seen as a round number, possibly signifying a generation (which would be closer to 25 years).
4). If we see Zebulun and Naphtali as indicating the north (affected by the northern Canaanites), Manasseh and Ephraim as indicating the centre (affected by enemies coming across the Jordan through the Jericho pass), Judah/Dan as indicating the South (affected by the Philistines), and Gilead as indicating Transjordan (affected by Moab, Ammon), it will be clear that the judgeships occur in different areas and that some could occur during the same period, in each case dealing with different enemies.
All this being so it would be quite arbitrary to add up all the periods mentioned in order to obtain an indication of how long the period of the judges was. Discernment needs rather to be used taking into account the above factors.
The truth is that in ancient times historians did not seek to synchronise lists as we would today. We can compare how the Egyptians simply listed each series of rulers and reigns separately one after the other, regardless of the fact that some were contemporary with each other (see the Turin Papyrus for an example). The same phenomenon occurs in Sumerian and Old Babylonian lists.
The name ‘judges’ (shophetim) is paralleled elsewhere in the shapitum of Mari, who were local provincial governors, and the shuphetim, the regents of Phoenicia. On the whole these judges ruled well and were responsible not only for deliverance but for subsequent periods of blessing and faithfulness. Samson may have been a loveable rogue but he was not on the whole a good judge, although effective in the end.
The judges, like Israel’s leaders before them, were men who were seen as chosen by God and supported by the elders and the voice of the people. Their position was not hereditary, it was dependent both on God, and on the people who had to recognise their calling. Moses was chosen by God (Exodus 3:0) and was recognised by, and acted through, the elders of Israel (Exodus 4:29-30), Joshua was appointed by God (Numbers 27:16-18) with total support and recognition from priests, elders and people (Numbers 27:18-23), Deborah was a prophetess and accepted as such by the people (Judges 4:4-5), Samuel was chosen by God from birth and called the people together to determine the way ahead and from then on judged Israel (1 Samuel 7:15). Once appointed they had authority of life and death, and to disobey them was treason and meant death (Deuteronomy 17:12; Joshua 1:18). But that authority came from God Whose will they had to seek and obey (Numbers 27:21). He was their Overlord.
The main message of the book is that it depicts how easily Israel allowed themselves to slip into idolatry, sin and godlessness, how Yahweh then allowed them to suffer for it, and finally how good Yahweh was to them when they turned back to Him. That is its emphasis. But we should note that the periods of faithfulness and subsequent blessing, which are depicted as ‘the land had rest’ so many years, are quickly passed over, but were considerable. It was not all doom and gloom. The background to the book is unquestionably the going forward of God’s purpose by His Spirit in spite of man’s failure.
God’s purpose for Israel was depicted as that of a theocracy, where Yahweh was their King and the ‘twelve tribes’ were on the whole independent but were united by God’s covenant around a central sanctuary. Three times a year they were to go to that central sanctuary to renew the covenant, and to rehearse the significance of the feast, and to hear the Law of God. And every seven years they were to hear the reading of the full Law (Deuteronomy 31:10-13 see Joshua 8:34-35). And each was to be available if the call to arms came because one of the tribes was in distress. To refuse the call was looked on as a very serious matter and a breach of the covenant. This general organisation was known elsewhere and is called an amphictyony.
The conquest of Canaan was never going to be easy. Towns were occupied, but then repossessed by the enemy. Sometimes tribes were strong and stretched their borders, at other times they were weak and retracted. The same enemies had to be fought again and again. And sadly it was not long before the tribes of Israel settled down, began to intermingle with the Canaanites in direct disobedience to God’s instruction, and absorbed much of their idolatrous and sexually distorted religion.
Two things were in their favour. The hill country was relatively sparsely populated because until the discovery of lime plaster, which enabled reliable cisterns for the preservation of water, water was in short supply. And secondly because parts of the plains were covered in large forests which provided cover and shelter in times of weakness, and virgin sites for establishing themselves. And most of all, God was with them. In spite of their disobedience He did not totally forget them. This in the end is what the book is all about. God’s deliverance of an undeserving people.
But all this was only possible, humanly speaking, because in the providence of God all the great nations, Egypt, Assyria, the Hittites, and Babylon were at the time mainly weak or occupied elsewhere and thus left Canaan, especially the hill countr, alone.
Note on the Writer’s Use of ‘Israel’ and ‘Children of Israel’.
The use of these terms in Judges is striking. Before an active verb the writer almost always uses ‘the children of Israel’ or equivalents (men of, tribes of, all of, daughters of), in all sixty times. The exceptions are Judges 6:3; Judges 7:2; Judges 20:29 and when in conversation with a foreigner (Judges 11:13-26 - ‘Israel’ all through because that is what the foreigner called them (Judges 11:13). See on those verses).
The exceptions are mainly explicable. In Judges 6:3 the verb is preceded by ’im and the statement is general and the activity is that of the enemy (Israel’s activity is in the past. We would use the pluperfect). In Judges 7:2 ‘children of Israel’ would be unsuitable, for the action is theoretical, and Yahweh would not expect His covenant ‘children’ to actually ‘vaunt’ themselves against Him. Thus only Judges 20:29 cannot directly be seen as being exceptional, although it may be intended to indicate that the writer viewed with disapproval the need for the liers in wait as an unnecessary tactic when Yahweh was with them. Alternately he may have seen setting liers in wait as a rather ‘passive’ activity preparatory to the main action, or he may have intended it to be taken as a pluperfect equivalent, action in the past.
Before a passive verb or equivalent he always uses ‘Israel’ (three times). When in the predicate he almost always uses ‘Israel’ (seventy times) except in specific circumstances. These are:
1). When the personal covenant relationship is specifically in mind (Judges 2:4; Judges 4:3; Judges 4:23; Judges 6:8; Judges 10:11; Judges 19:12; Judges 20:7).
2). When it is in close proximity to ‘the children of Israel’ or equivalent as a subject (Judges 3:9; Judges 4:3; Judges 4:23; Judges 6:8; Judges 10:8; Judges 10:11; Judges 20:24-25). These all also appear under the other headings as well.
3). When the enemy were subdued by Yahweh, in accordance with the covenant, on their behalf, or the children of Israel were delivered by Yahweh (Judges 3:9 (see also 2).; Judges 4:23 (see also 2). ; Judges 8:28 - this last is the equivalent of a subject before an active verb and is also in contrast with ‘Midian’ (see 4).).
4). When it is in contrast with others who are called or thought of as ‘the children of --’ (Judges 8:28 - in contrast with ‘Midian’ (see also 3).); Judges 10:8; Judges 10:11; Judges 11:27; Judges 11:33; Judges 20:3; Judges 20:13-14; - in contrast with ‘the children of’ either Ammon or Benjamin’; Judges 20:25 (and possiblyjdg Judges 20:13) - in contrast with ‘Benjamin’). Judges 11:27 especially illustrates this as previously Jephthah has spoken of ‘Israel’ in reply to the king of Ammon. It is noteworthy however that it is not so in contrast with ‘the hand of Midian’ (Judges 6:2; Judges 6:14) or with ‘Midian’ when ‘Israel’ precedes a passive verb (Judges 6:6).
Thus while ‘children of Israel’ is used in the predicate sixteen times in all, it is only on these special occasions. From this it is clear how specific the writer is in his use of the terms.
So the term ‘the children of Israel’ very much has the covenant in mind, and is used to indicate their activity, whether good or bad. These constant and consistent usages demonstrate the unity of the book.
When we contrast this with the use in Joshua the difference is quite remarkable. No such pattern occurs in Joshua.
(End of note.)
the Week of Proper 13 / Ordinary 18