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Bible Commentaries

The Pulpit CommentariesThe Pulpit Commentaries

- Judges

by Editor - Joseph Exell


THE Book of Judges, called in Hebrew שוכּטים,[1] in the Septuagint ΚΡΙΤΑΙ, and in the Vulgate LIBER JUDICUM, or JUDICES, takes its name, like the other historical books, — the five Books of Moses, the Book of Joshua, the Book of Ruth, the Books of Samuel and of the Kings, the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the Book of Esther, — from its contents, viz., the history of certain transactions which took place in Israel under the judges. The judges were those extraordinary civil and military rulers who governed Israel in the interval between the death of Joshua and the foundation of the kingdom of Israel; except only that the judgeship of Samuel was a kind of connecting link between the two — Samuel himself being a judge, though of a different character from those that preceded him, and his government merging in the latter part of it into the kingdom of Saul; so that the times of Samuel occupy a middle place between the Judges and the Kings, belonging partly to both, but wholly to neither.

The age of the world in which the transactions recorded in the Book of Judges occurred was somewhere between the years B.C. 1500 and 1000. It was one marked by the same peculiar features in different parts of the earth It was the dim twilight of history; but, as far as we can judge from those mythological accounts which precede the existence of true history, it was a time of much movement, of the birth of heroic characters, and of the incipient formation of those nations who were destined to be foremost among the nations of the earth. The mythologies of Greece tell of exploits of heroes which imply unsettled and disturbed times, the clashing of race with race, fierce struggles for the possession of lands, terrible conflicts for dominion or existence. And as far as such mytho-logics contain, as they doubtless do, some shreds of historical truth, and reflect something of the character of the men of the period, they are in accordance with the picture contained in the Book of Judges of the times which were more or less contemporary. Instead of a comparison of the Greek mythologies leading to the conclusion that the history in the Book of Judges is mythological also, it rather lends a valuable confirmation of that historical character which the internal evidence of the book so abundantly claims for it. The features which are common to the Greek mythologies and the Hebrew history, the wars of new settlers with the old inhabitants, the recklessness of human life, the fierce cruelty under excitement, the heroic deeds and wild adventures of a few great leaders, the taste for riddles, the habit of making vows, the interference of gods and angels in human affairs, the frequent consultations of oracles, and so on, are the products of the same general condition of human society at the same epoch of the world. The difference between the two is, that the Greek traditions have passed through the hands of countless poets and story-tellers, who in the course of generations altered, added, embellished, confused, distorted, and invented, according to their own fertile fancy and their own creative imaginations; while the Hebrew records, by the special providence of God, have been preserved some 3000 years and upwards uncorrupted and unchanged.


The first thing one looks for in a scientific history is a careful and accurate chronology. But such is entirely wanting in the Book of Judges, for the reason that it is not a scientific history, but a collection of narratives having a moral and religious purpose; illustrative, that is, of the evil of idolatry, of God's providential government of the world, and of his special rule over the chosen race of Israel. We are obliged, therefore, to construct our chronology out of the indications which every true history contains in itself of the sequence and connection of events. But these are necessarily inexact, and cannot always be made to determine the time within a century or more, especially when there is no accurate contemporary history. There are also special circumstances which increase the difficulty in the case of the Judges. The date of Joshua's death, which is the terminus a quo of the book, is uncertain by about 200 years. Then the time occupied by the elders who outlived Joshua, which intervened before the action of the book commences, is indefinite; it may mean ten years, or it may mean thirty or forty years. Again, the point of junction of the close of the book with 1 Samuel which follows it is uncertain; we do not know certainly how far the latest events in the judgeship of Samson ran into the judgeships of Eli and Samuel. But there is another element of uncertainty which largely affects the chronology of the Book of Judges. The history is not the history of one kingdom or commonwealth, but of several almost separate and independent tribes. Except on great occasions, such as the national gathering at Mizpeh (and that was very soon after the death of Joshua), Gilead, i.e. the tribes to the east of Jordan, had little communication with Western Israel; and even on the west of Jordan, Ephraim and the northern tribes were divided from Judah and Simeon and Dan on the south. The great tribe of Judah is not so much as mentioned in the enumeration of the tribes which fought under Barak, nor in the victories of Gideon. Hence it is apparent that it is at least very possible that some of the events narrated may be not consecutive, but synchronous; that wars may have been going on in one part of Israel while another part was at rest; and that we may possibly be led into as great a chronological blunder by adding together all the different servitudes and rests, as a reader of English history would be if he made the reigns of the Anglo-Saxon kings of the heptarchy consecutive instead of simultaneous.

And there is yet another cause of uncertainty as to the chronology. Long periods of eighty and forty years are named without a single event being recorded in them. Now it is notorious that numbers are peculiarly liable to be corrupted in Hebrew manuscripts, as, e.g., in the familiar example of 1 Samuel 6:19; so that those numbers are very uncertain, and not to be depended upon.

On all these accounts an accurate and certain chronology is, in our present state of knowledge, impossible. There is, however, one source, though not in the Book of Judges itself, from which we may fairly look for some more certain help, and that is from those genealogies which span the time occupied by this history. The chief of these is the genealogy of David appended to the Book of Ruth, repeated in the First Book of Chronicles, and again reproduced in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. This genealogy gives three generations between Salmon, who was a young man at the time of the occupation of Canaan, and David. These three are, however, about equivalent to five, when we take into account the age of Boaz at his marriage with Ruth, and the probable age of Jesse at the birth of David. They may also admit of some further extension, if Salmon, whose exact age at the entrance into Canaan we do not know, did not beget Boaz till ten or more years afterwards, and if Jesse was a younger son of Obed. Reckoning, however, the generations as five, and allowing thirty-three years for a generation, we get 5 X 33 = 165 as the approximate length of the period from the entrance into Canaan to the birth of David; and, deducting thirty years for the time of Joshua and the eiders, 135 years from the beginning of the times of the judges to the birth of David. But this is probably rather too short, because, if we turn to other genealogies covering the same period, we find that the generations between those who were grown men at the entrance into Canaan and those who were David's contemporaries were six or seven, as in the genealogy of the high priests given in 1 Chronicles 6., where there are seven generations between Phinehas and Zadok the son of Ahitub. Again, the list of Edomitish kings in Genesis 36:0. and 1 Chronicles 1:43, etc., gives eight kings as having reigned before Saul was king of Israel, the last of them being Saul's contemporary, and one of them being king at the time of the exodus. If he was the first king, that would give six between the entrance into Canaan and David. The genealogy of Zabad (1 Chronicles 2:36, etc.) gives six or seven between the entrance into Canaan and David.

And it may be said on the whole, that of nine[2] genealogies, eight agree in requiring the addition of one or two generations to the five indicated by David's, while not one requires a larger number. The genealogy of Saul is of the same length as David's. If six is the true number, we have a period of 198 years between the entrance into Canaan and the birth of David. If seven is the true number, we get 221 years. Deducting thirty years for Joshua and the elders, and (say) ten years for the interval between the close of the times of the judges and the birth of David, we get in the first case 158 years as the time of the judges (198-40), and in the second 191 (231-40). But the consent of all the genealogies seems to preclude the possibility of such long periods as 400, 500, 600, and even 700 years, which some chronologists assign to the interval between the entrance into Canaan and the building of Solomon's temple.[3]

As regards the age in the world's history to which the events of the Book of Judges belong, we get at it by reckoning backwards from the birth of David. This may be assigned with some confidence to about the year B.C. 1083. If then we assume ten years to have elapsed between the close of the period of the judges and the birth of David, we get the year B.C. 1093 as the date of the end of the period of the judges; and if we then assume 158 years as the duration of the times of the judges, we get 1093 + 158 — 1251 as the date of the commencement of the times of the judges; and if we then add thirty years for Joshua and the elders, and forty years for the sojourning in the wilderness, we get 1321 for the date of the exodus, which is within eight years of the Jewish traditional date B.C. 1313, and brings us to the reign of Menephthah, or Menephthes, who is the most probable Pharaoh of the exodus who has been proposed. This is a considerable support to the system of chronology here advocated.


It has already been remarked that the history is not that of one united people, but of several separate tribes. The truth of this remark will appear if we consider the great length and detail of some of the narratives, quite out of proportion to their importance relatively to the whole Israelitish nation, but quite natural when we look upon them as parts of the annals of particular tribes. The preservation of Deborah's magnificent ode, the full details of the history of Gideon, the long story of Abimelech's reign, the highly interesting narrative of the birth and adventures of Samson, the detached accounts of the expedition of the Danites, and of the fall of the tribe of Benjamin, which close the book, are probably all due to the fact of their being taken from existing records of the several tribes. These were all brought into harmony and unity of purpose by the compiler, who selected (under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) those portions which bore upon his main purpose, which was to denounce idolatry, to confirm the Israelites in the service of the Lord the God of their fathers, and to illustrate the faithfulness, the mercy, and the power of their covenant God. And certainly if anything could confirm a fickle people in their faith and obedience to the living and true God, the exhibition of such deliverances as those from the Canaanite and Midianite and Ammonite invasions, and of such examples of faith and constancy as those of Barak, Gideon, and Jephthah, were well calculated to do so.

And this leads us to observe a very important feature which the Book of Judges has in common with the later historical books, viz., the union of contemporary narratives and documents with late editorship. The method of the Hebrew historical writers seems to have been to incorporate into their work large portions of the ancient materials without altering them, only adding occasional remarks of their own. The method of modern historians has usually been to read for themselves all the ancient authorities, and then to give the result in their own words. The information got from a variety of authors is all welded together, the unimportant details are omitted, and a harmonious whole, reflecting the author's mind perhaps quite as much as that of the original authorities, is presented to the reader. But the Hebrew method was different. The ancient records, the Book of the wars of the Lord, the Book of Jasher, the Chronicles of the kingdom, the visions of Iddo the Seer, the Book of the Acts of Solomon, the Chronicles of the kings of Judah, and so on, were searched, and whatever was required for the author's purpose was inserted bodily in his work. Hence in the Book of Kings the lengthened episodes concerning Elijah and Elisha, the great length at which the reign of David is given in the Books of Samuel, and so on. This same method is very apparent in the Book of Judges. It seems scarcely open to doubt that the mass of the book consists of the original contemporary annals of the different tribes. The minute and graphic details of the narratives, Deborah's song, Jotham's fable, Jephthah's message to the king of Ammon, the exact description of the great Parliament at Mizpeh, and many other like portions of the book, must be contemporary documents. Then, again, the history of Samson the Danite, and that of the Danite expedition to Laish, indicate strongly the annals of the tribe of Dan as their common source; while the importance attached to Gilead in chs. 10, 11, and 12. points to annals of Gilead. But at the same time the presence of a compiler and editor of these various documents is distinctly visible in those prefatory remarks contained in Judges 2:10-19; Judges 3:1-7, which review, as it were, the whole subsequent narrative, as well as in casual observations thrown in from time to time, as at Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 20:27, Judges 20:28; Judges 21:25, and in the general arrangement of the materials.

This sketch of the structure and contents of the Book of Judges must not be concluded without mentioning the light thrown upon the condition of the neighbouring nations, the Canaanite tribes, Mesopotamia, the Philistines, the Moabites and Ammonites, the Amalekites, the Midianites, and the Sidonians. Nor must a brief reference be omitted to the repeated angelophanies, as in Judges 2:1; Judges 6:11-23; Judges 13:3, etc. Again, we find the great institution of prophecy existing, as in Judges 4:4; Judges 6:8, and, in a certain sense, wherever the Spirit of the Lord came upon a judge, as Judges 3:10; Judges 6:34; Judges 11:29, etc. In other passages where the word of God comes to men it is not clear whether it is through prophets, through an ephod, or by direct operation of the Holy Ghost (see Judges 2:20; Judges 6:25; Judges 10:11; etc.).

It is also worthy of observation that there are in this book many direct references to the law and the books of Moses. The inquiry of the Lord (Judges 1:1; Judges 20:27); the mention of the commandments "which God gave by the hand of Moses" (Judges 3:4); the allusion to the exodus, and to the very words of Exodus 20:2 (Judges 6:8, Judges 6:13); the dismissal by Gideon of all that were fearful according to Deuteronomy 20:8 (Judges 7:3) the lengthened reference to the history in Numbers and Deuteronomy (Judges 11:15-26); the institution of Nazarites (Judges 13:5; Judges 16:17); the mention of the tabernacle and the ark (Judges 18:31; Judges 20:27, Judges 20:28); the reference to the high priest and to the Levites as the ministers of God (Judges 17:13; Judges 19:18; Judges 20:28), are among the many proofs that the law of Moses was known to the writer or compiler of the Book of Judges.

We must look, therefore, to some other cause for the singular silence in this history concerning the services of the tabernacle, and the high priests after Phinehas, and that change in the line of the high priests which must have taken place in the time of the judges between Phinehas of the line of Eleazar and Eli of the line of Ithamar. There must have been in all probability two or three high priests between Phinehas and Eli, whose names are not recorded, at least not as high priests. Josephus, however, says that Abishua (whose name is corrupted by him into Josepus) was high priest after Phinehas, and that Eli succeeded Josepus, being the first high priest of the house of Ithamar, and that the other descendants of Phinehas named in the genealogy of the high priests (1 Chronicles 6:4-8) remained in private life till Zadok was made high priest by David. However this may be, it is certainly strange that not a single allusion to a high priest occurs in the whole book except that one in Judges 20:28, while Phinehas was still alive. Perhaps the explanation is, that in the de-centralisation of Israel above spoken of the central worship at Shiloh lost its influence (as Jerusalem did after the ten tribes had revolted from the house of David); that in the troubled times that followed each tribe or cluster of tribes set up its own worship, and had its own priest and ephod; and that the descendants of Phinehas were weak men who could not make the priesthood respected, or even retain it in their own families. Add to these considerations that the narratives are all taken from tribal annals; that apparently not one is taken from the annals of the tribe of Ephraim (in which Shiloh was), seeing that in them all the great tribe of Ephraim appears to disadvantage; and, lastly, that we have in this book not a regular history of Israel, but a collection of narratives selected on account of their bearing on the author's main design, and we have perhaps a sufficient explanation of what at first appears strange, viz., the absence of all mention of the high priests in the body of the book.

The book consists of three parts: the preface, Judges 1:0. to Judges 3:6; the main body of the narrative, from Judges 3:7 to the end of Judges 16:0.; the appendix, containing the separate and isolated narratives concerning the settlement of the Danites and the civil war with Benjamin, and belonging chronologically to the very beginning of the narrative, very shortly after Joshua's death. The preface dovetails in an extraordinary manner into the Book of Joshua, — which, or the materials from which it was composed, the compiler must have had before him, — and probably also into 1 Samuel.


There is nothing peculiar in the language (except some strange architectural terms in ch. 3. in the part relating to Ehud, and some rare words in Deborah's song, in ch. 5.) from which to gather the date of compilation. But from the phrase in Judges 18:31, "all the time that the house of God was in Shiloh," and that in Judges 20:27, "the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days," and from the description of the situation of Shiloh (Judges 21:19), it is quite certain that it was made after the removal of the ark from Shiloh. From the repeated phrase (Judges 17:6; Judges 18:1; Judges 19:1; Judges 21:25) that "in those days there was no king in Israel," it seems equally certain that it was made after the foundation of the kingdom by Saul; while the mention of the Jebusites in Judges 1:21 as dwelling in Jerusalem "unto this day" points to a time prior to David. On the other hand, the phrase (Judges 18:30) "until the day of the captivity of the land" would make it probable that it was written after the deportation of the ten tribes, when it is likely the settlement at Dan was broken up by the Assyrian conqueror. This might be in the reign of Jotham or Ahaz. There does not seem to be any other special mark of time in the book itself.

But, on the other hand, the allusions to the Book of Judges, or to events which are recorded in it, in other books of the Old Testament must be taken into account. In 1 Samuel 12:9-11 there are not only allusions to the events which form the subject of Judges 3:4, Judges 3:6, Judges 3:7, Judges 3:8; Judges 10:7, Judges 10:10; 11., but verbal quotations which make it morally certain that the writer of 1 Samuel had before him the very words which we now read in Judges 3:7, Judges 3:8; Judges 4:2; Judges 10:10, Judges 10:15, and probably the whole narratives as they are now contained in Judges. It necessarily follows that either the Book of Judges was already compiled when Samuel spake these words, or that Samuel had access to the identical documents which the compiler of Judges afterwards incorporated in his book. The same argument applies to 2 Samuel 11:21, where the verbal quotation is exact. In Isaiah 9:4; Isaiah 10:26, spoken in the reign of Ahaz, the reference is more general, though in the last passage there is the production of three words from Judges 7:25 — upon, or at (Hebrews בְ), the rock Oreb. Again, in Psalms 83:9-11 there is a distinct reference to the narrative in Judges 7., Judges 7:8.; and in Psalms 78:56, etc., and 106:34, 45, there is a general reference to the times of the judges, as to one the history of which was well known. Taking, however, into account the fact that all the three psalms are of uncertain date, no very distinct argument can be brought to bear from them on the date of Judges. On the whole then it would meet all the requirements of the passages in the Book of Judges (except the reference to the captivity of the ten tribes), and in the other books in which reference is made to Judges, if we were to assign the compilation to the reign of Saul, the separate contents of the book being known even earlier; but it must be confessed that this conclusion is uncertain, and that there is much to be said in favour of a much later date.

The Book of Judges has always been contained in the canon. It is referred to in Acts 13:20, and Hebrews 11:32.

Note. — The chronology indicated in Judges 11:26 has not been taken into account for the reasons given in the note on that passage; that in 1 Kings 6:1 because it is generally given up by critics and commentators as an interpolation, and is unsupported by the Book of Chronicles and by Josephus; and that of the A.V. of Acts 13:20 because the true reading, "happily restored by Lachmann from the oldest MSS., A. B. C., and supported by the Latin, Coptic, Armenian, and Sahidic Versions, and by Chrysostom" (Bp. Wordsworth in l.c.), gives quite a different sense: "he divided their land to them by lot in about 450 years" — from the time, i.e., when he made the promise to Abraham.



ROSENMULLER'S 'Scholia,' in Latin, are very useful both for the Hebrew scholar, and generally for exegesis, and historical and other illustrations. He speaks very highly of the Commentary of Sebastian Schmidt. DE WETTE'S 'Introduction to the Old Testament' contains some valuable remarks, but must be used with caution. He refers to the commentaries of Schnurrer, Bonfrere, Le Clerc, Maurer, and others. BERTHEAU, in the 'Kurtzgefasstes Exegetisches Handbuch', is, as always, very able, very learned, and exhibits much critical acumen. The commentary of KEIL and DELITZSCH is useful, and orthodox, but deficient in critical discernment. It frequently differs from Bertheau. It has the advantage of acquaintance with the discoveries of the most recent travellers. HENGSTENBERG ('Dissertation on the Pentateuch') may also be consulted. POOLE'S Synopsis gives the views of the earlier commentators. Of English commentators it may suffice to mention Bishop Patrick, Bishop Wordsworth, and the 'Speaker's Commentary.' Bishop Wordsworth's list of the chief commentators among the Fathers contains the names of Origen, Theodoret, Augustine Procopius, Isidore, and Bede; and among the Jewish commentators those of Kimchi, Aben Ezra, and Jarchi. Of other books most useful in helping to understand the scenes where the dranmtic action of the Judges took place, may be mentioned especially Stanley's 'Sinai and Palestine;' also Robinson's 'Biblical Researches,' and the geographical articles in the 'Dictionary of the Bible;' Van de Velde's map, and especially the new 'Great Map of Western Palestine' by the Palestine Exploration Committee, from the recent survey, on the scale of an inch to a mile. For historical purposes Josephus's 'Jewish Antiquities' should be studied throughout, though he does not throw much additional light upon the narrative. Stanley's 'Lectures on the Jewish Church' contribute much vivid and picturesque description of the persons and scenes, and give great reality and fulness to the narrative. The historical articles in the 'Dictionary of the Bible' may also be consulted with advantage. Bishop Lowth, on Hebrew poetry, has some striking remarks on the song of Deborah, and Milton's 'Samson Agonistes,' besides its beauty as a poem, is a really good commentary on the history of Samson. For the very difficult chronology of the times of the Judges the reader may consult, besides the above-named commentaries, Jackson's 'Chronological Antiquities,' and Hale's 'Analysis of Chronology;' and, for the system adopted in this commentary, Lepsius's 'Letters on Egypt and Ethiopia,' Wilkinson's 'Manners and Customs of the Egyptians,' and the present writer's chapter on 'The Discordance between Genealogy and Chronology of Judges,' in his work on the genealogies of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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