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by Daniel Whedon
IN the Introduction to his Commentary on Judges, in Lange’s Bible-work, Cassel remarks that this book is, in a special sense, the first historical book of Israel. Its facts are not made to cluster round a single individual, as is the case in the Book of Joshua and the last four books of Moses. Genesis, though an historical book, is not properly a history of Israel; but rather, as its name denotes, a record of the beginnings of all nations and of all things. In the Book of Judges we see the Israelitish people rising into the position and character of a great State, with a dawning consciousness of their distinctive nationality. We see them not yet become historical among the nations of the earth, but in process of development. Though, under Joshua, they have gained a solid foothold in Canaan, there yet remains much land to be possessed, and many strong enemies to encounter. And several hundred years are to pass before that end is gained, and then not without repeated disasters and oppression. That end, in fact, is not gained until the people are brought under the authority of a strong central government, realizing their individuality, unity, and personality as a nation. Clearly apprehending that the want of such national organic unity was the source of the civil and social disorders of this formative period, the sacred historian again and again repeats, as an explanation of his dark record, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” That is, every man was largely his own master, lawgiver, and executive. There was no magistrate that wielded power in all the land, and whom all the tribes obeyed. Consequently tribe-jealousies, plunder, fearful retaliations, and great neglect of the laws which had been given as a sacred trust to the fathers, extensively prevailed.
But we are not to suppose that the age of the Judges was a period of universal anarchy or barbarism in Israel, and that there existed no courts of justice. The noble ideals furnished by the institutes of Moses were indeed not realized; but the simple and life-like narrative of the council of elders called by Boaz at the gate of Bethlehem (Ruth 4:1-12) is a sufficient indication that matters of ordinary litigation were not neglected. And there were long periods of peace and internal prosperity. “The land had rest forty years,” (Judges 3:11,) “fourscore years,” (Judges 3:30, etc.,) are statements which indicate domestic tranquillity; and the Book of Ruth reveals to us a picture of the more pleasant and beautiful side of this period. But there were also times of anarchy, and reigns of terror, and acts of barbarism, which strike the attention of every reader. There were times, too, when the highways were not travelled, and the Israelites sought refuge and security in caves and dens of the hills.
There were not wanting great lights of moral beauty and power in those dark ages. Deborah, and Boaz, and Samuel, present each a noble and estimable type of character and worth, and each, so far as we know, stands without a blot or stain. But we do not look to that age for our highest models of moral excellence, nor are we to bring the characters of the judges to the test of New Testament purity. “Other portions of Scripture,” says Stanley, “may be more profitable ‘for doctrine, for correction, for reproof, for instruction in righteousness;’ but for merely human interest, for the lively touches of ancient manners, for the succession of romantic incidents, for the consciousness that we are living face to face with the persons described, for the tragical pathos of events and characters, there is nothing like the history of the Judges, from Othniel to Eli. No portion of the Hebrew Scriptures brings us so near to the times described. It would seem, if one may venture to say so, as if the Book of Judges had been left in the sacred books with the express view of enforcing upon us the necessity (which we are sometimes anxious to evade) of recognizing the human, national, let us even add barbarian, element which plays its part in the sacred history. In other portions of the Hebrew annals the divine character of the revelation is so constantly before us, or the character of the human agents reaches so nearly to the divine, that we may, if we choose, almost forget that we are reading of men of like passions with ourselves. But in the history of the Judges the whole tenor of the book, especially of its concluding chapters, renders this forgetfulness impossible.
Like the rugged rock which, to this day, breaks the platform of the Temple area at Jerusalem, and reminds us of the bare, natural features of the mountain that must have protruded themselves into the midst of the magnificence of Solomon, so the Book of Judges recalls our thoughts from the ideal which we imagine of past and of sacred ages, and reminds us by a rude shock that, even in the heart of the chosen people, even in the next generation after Joshua, there were irregularities, imperfections, excrescences, which it is the glory of the sacred historian to have recorded faithfully, and which it will be our wisdom no less faithfully to study.”
But this history of the Judges is not without its divine element. While there may be other portions of Scripture more profitable than this, there may be, also, portions less profitable. This book gives us a vivid insight into the Divine Providence of history. In tracing the rise and growth of the Israelitish nation, the sacred penman gives us substantially the outline of the history of every great nation on the face of the earth. There has been no nation but some time had its clan or colony beginnings, its territorial settlement, its first comparatively rude and lawless ages, and its ultimate conscious attainment of authoritative and responsible nationality. In the early history of most nations we find a tendency to segregation; local and clannish feelings stifle or keep back the growth of the nobler sense of national unity and strength. This book shows us how sectional jealousies, together with moral perversity and apostasy from God, hindered the Hebrew people for more than three hundred years from realizing a true national unity. We must not think that God’s hand guided Israel, but not other nations. Greece and Rome had America, England, and the rest have a divine history and purpose as truly as had Israel. God’s hand has interposed in the history of all; but Israel’s pre-eminence and advantage were specially that “to them were committed the oracles of God,” (Romans 3:2,) and sacred history reveals to us, more clearly than other history, how “the powers that be are ordained of God.” No man or set of men ever purposely made a nation, or ever will or can; for nations, as truly as the elect sons of God, are “born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” And not only is every State of providential origin and growth, but, having attained a national self-consciousness and power, it becomes one of God’s mighty agents in governing the world. The miraculous element in the history of Israel no more made the nation a theocracy, than did the divine purpose of making it a mighty agent in the discipline of universal humanity. And this same purpose every nation, according to its several ability, must serve.
He makes a grave mistake who supposes that the government of Israel by Judges was a temporary, provisional arrangement, adopted by the people, or that these officers derived their powers from the people. They were providentially raised up, from time to time, as exigencies demanded, (see Judges 2:16-19,) but the law made no direct provision for such a class of officers. It spoke of judges, and of a national court of appeals, (Deuteronomy 17:8-9; Deuteronomy 19:17,) but these were to be associated with the priests and Levites at that central seat of government and of worship which the Lord should choose. It thus made sufficient provision for a strong, central government, and doubtless contemplated a national executive. It even made provision for a king, should the people desire one, (Deuteronomy 17:14-20,) but both the law and the subsequent history of Israel show that the Lord preferred for his people another form of government. The seventy elders who assisted Moses, (Exodus 24:1; Exodus 24:9; Numbers 11:16,) and who had, perhaps, their successors in Joshua’s time and afterwards, would seem to have been the responsible parties, and, after Joshua’s death, should, like the apostles after the departure of the Lord, have appropriated existing offices and forms, and given them national stability and power, thus organizing for the people a supreme national council, with one chosen executive whom the Lord himself might choose. It is very noticeable that while Jehovah gave abundant revelations on other things, he gave none directing any specific form of national government for his people. So, too, Christ revealed to his disciples no special form of Church government for their subsequent use. These were matters to be left to human wisdom and prudence, guided by prayer. But here the elders of Israel came short. Jehovah designated, both by prophecy (Genesis 49:8) and Urim, (Judges 1:1-2,) that Judah should lead the tribes; but the nation failed to seek in Judah a national executive, and Judah failed also to understand the Divine call; nor were immediate efforts made to ascertain the central seat of government which the Lord would choose. Accordingly, sectional jealousies soon sprang up, and the nation did not fulfil the divine commission to drive out the Canaanites; and so defeat, and disaster, and oppression came, and the people repeatedly fell into idolatry and fearful crimes. The Tabernacle was much neglected, and there were many high places where sacrifices were offered. The priests and Levites, failing to meet the full requirements of the law, and recognizing no central seat of worship, were sometimes found wandering idly through the land, and ready to sell themselves to a semi-idolater for food and clothes. Chap. 17. No wonder that national calamities came, and God sold them into the hands of their enemies.
In the absence of a united government, and in the midst of perils, Jehovah, not willing to cast his people utterly away, raised up these extraordinary JUDGES an order of rulers so unique in history. Some have compared them with the Athenian Archons, the Roman Dictators, and the Carthagenian Suffetes, but in only a few points are they alike. As a class or succession of rulers they stand alone in the history of the world. They formed no part of the regular machinery of the Hebrew government as contemplated in the Law of Moses, but were extraordinary ministers raised up of God in times of national peril and oppression to deliver Israel. Their work was not properly the administration of civil jurisprudence, but it often involved the giving of advice and counsel, somewhat after the manner of the prophets of a later age. Thus Deborah judged Israel, (Judges 4:4-5,) but it was chiefly by being a prophetess and delivering divine communications to the people who resorted unto her as unto an oracle. The Judges were, in fact, the seers or prophets of the time, though their more prominent work was to lead the people to battle and defeat the foes of Israel. Samuel appears more like a civil judge than any other, for he had a “circuit” (1 Samuel 7:16) around which he went yearly and “judged Israel.” But, unlike any other judge, he was brought up from early childhood in the sanctuary, “was established a prophet of the Lord,” and blessed the sacrifices of the people in high places.
It does not appear that any one of the Judges had jurisdiction over all the tribes. The expression “all Israel” is one of varying significance, and proves nothing in the case. Shamgar seems to have had no jurisdiction at all, but was raised up to execute one signal deed of vengeance. Gideon, after the defeat of the Midianites, seems to have had no rule or authority beyond the Abiezrites of Ophrah. Abimelech’s reign at Shechem was only a sectional and abortive attempt at kingly power. Samson had personally little or nothing to do with Israel outside the tribe of Dan. Jephthah’s authority extended only over the eastern tribes, and his election by the elders of Gilead at Mizpeh is no proof that all the other Judges of Israel were also elected by the voice of the people. At no time during all this period could the tribes of Israel be properly called twelve united States, for they were at best a loose confederacy.
The Authorship and Date of the Book of Judges cannot be positively determined. A part of it was evidently composed before the time of David, for the Jebusites still occupied Jerusalem along with the children of Benjamin, (Judges 1:21,) which was not the case after David made that city his capital. But the oft-recurring remark, that “in those days there was no king in Israel,” shows that the author lived as late, at least, as the reign of Saul. Plausible, therefore, is the Rabbinical statement, that the book was written by Samuel after Saul had become king of Israel, and had “delivered them out of the hands of them that spoiled them.” 1 Samuel 14:47-48. Keil thinks that this opinion “may be so far correct that, if it was not written by Samuel himself towards the close of his life, it was written at his instigation by a younger prophet of his school.” But the book is easily divisible into two sections, the latter of which (chaps. 17-21) bears marks of a different authorship, and has the form of an appendix. It is only in this latter section that the words “In those days there was no king in Israel” occur, and while the facts recorded belong to an earlier period than many of those recorded in the other section, it is not without fair reasons that many critics assign the composition to a different author and a later age. This appendix has as much internal evidence of being a distinct work as has the Book of Ruth, and we incline to the opinion that these two sections are to be referred to different authors, or, at all events, to an author who wrote the latter section a long time after he had finished the former.
Like other Old Testament books, this history was evidently compiled from various sources; and, like all the other historical books, it probably received slight additions and modifications from later editors. The words of the angel at Bochim, (Judges 2:1-5,) Deborah’s song, (chap. 5,) Jotham’s parable, (Judges 9:7-20,) and perhaps other parts, the author found ready at his hand, and he simply transferred them to his own pages.
The period covered by this book is usually estimated at about 300 years. The book itself furnishes dates which altogether make up a period of 390 years, as follows:
Events Years Scripture Chushan’s oppression 8 Judges 3:8 Othniel’s rule 40 Judges 3:11 Moabite oppression 18 Judges 3:14 Ehud’s rule, and period of rest 80 Judges 3:30 Jabin’s oppression 20 Judges 4:3 Deborah and Barak 40 Judges 5:31 Midianite oppression 7 Judges 6:1 Gideon’s rule 40 Judges 8:28 Abimelech’s reign 3 Judges 9:22 Tola 23 Judges 10:2 Jair 22 Judges 10:3 Ammonite oppression 18 Judges 10:8 Jephthah’s rule 6 Judges 12:7 Ibzan 7 Judges 12:9 Elon 10 Judges 12:11 Abdon 8 Judges 12:14 Philistine oppression 40 Judges 13:1 Total 390 But these figures furnish no absolutely certain basis from which to reckon the length of the entire period. Some of these Judges may have been contemporary, and there may have been other judges and other oppressions of which we have no record, for surely no one will claim that this book is a complete and exhaustive history of the times between Joshua and Samuel. Jael (Judges 5:6) and Bedan (1 Samuel 12:11) seem to have been Judges of whom no historical record has been preserved; and Judges 3:31, compared with Judges 5:6, intimates a dark Philistine oppression that troubled Israel long before the days of Samson. In view of all this, we think there is lack of sufficient data from which to construct a system of chronology that is not open to dispute. Paul says, (Acts 13:20,) “He gave them judges about the space of 450 years, until Samuel the prophet,” and in 1 Kings 6:1, we read that Solomon began to build the temple 480 years after the Exodus. Josephus makes the period 443 years. Here, then, are discrepancies which we do not attempt to reconcile or explain. We are not sure that these statements are irreconcilable, but we are not satisfied that any one of the current schemes of chronology thoroughly solves the problem. The opposing figures of the different Christian writers, and of the different chronologists, may stagger a mathematician like Bishop Colenso, but need not, we think, disturb the faith of any devout Christian in the genuineness and authority of the Holy Scriptures.
Plan and Contents.
The Book of Judges is properly divided into three parts: (1.) The INTRODUCTION, extending from chap. 1, to Judges 3:6, which gives a general account of the condition of the Israelites after the death of Joshua, and their relation to the remaining Canaanitish nations. (2.) The second division takes in the main body of the book, and is properly called by Bachmann, in his very able work on Judges, the PRINCIPAL HISTORICAL PART. It extends from Judges 3:7, to Judges 16:31. (3) Then follows an APPENDIX, chaps. 17-21, which was probably added by a later hand.
Part First-Introduction. Chaps. Judges 1:1 to Judges 3:6 .
THE LEADERSHIP Judges 1:1-2
LEAGUE OF JUDAH AND SIMEON Judges 1:3
DEFEAT OF ADONI-BEZEK Judges 1:4-7
CAPTURE AND BURNING OF JERUSALEM Judges 1:8
CONQUESTS IN THE TERRITORY OF JUDAH Judges 1:9
EPISODE CONCERNING CALEB AND OTHNIEL Judges 1:10-15
THE KENITES Judges 1:16
CONQUEST OF ZEPHATH AND THREE CITIES OF PHILISTIA Judges 1:17-19
EXPLOITS OF CALEB AND COWARDICE OF BENJAMIN Judges 1:20-21
CONQUEST OF BETH-EL Judges 1:22-26
COWARDLY INACTIVITY OF THE REST OF THE TRIBES Judges 1:27-36
THE NATION REBUKED Judges 2:1-5
GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF THE TIMES OF THE JUDGES Judges 2:6-23
LIST OF THE NATIONS LEFT Judges 3:1-6
Part Second-Principal Historical Part. Chaps. Judges 3:7 to Judges 16:31 .
CHUSHAN’S OPPRESSION, AND THE DELIVERANCE BY OTHNIEL Judges 3:7-11
MOABITISH OPPRESSION, AND THE DELIVERANCE BY EHUD Judges 3:12-30
EXPLOIT OF SHAMGAR Judges 3:31
JABIN’S OPPRESSION, AND THE DELIVERANCE BY DEBORAH AND BARAK Judges 4:1-24
THE SONG OF DEBORAH Judges 5:1-31
MIDIANITE OPPRESSION Judges 6:1-10
CALL OF GIDEON Judges 6:11-24
OVERTHROW OF THE ALTAR OF BAAL Judges 6:25-32
PREPARATIONS FOR WAR Judges 6:33-35
THE SIGN OF THE FLEECE Judges 6:36-40
GIDEON’S ARMY REDUCED TO THREE HUNDRED Judges 7:1-8
THE PRESAGEFUL DREAM Judges 7:9-14
DEFEAT OF THE MIDIANITES Judges 7:15-25
ANGER OF THE EPHRAIMITES Judges 8:1-3
PURSUIT AND DEFEAT OF ZEBAH AND ZALMUNNA Judges 8:4-12
PUNISHMENT OF SUCCOTH AND PENUEL Judges 8:13-17
EXECUTION OF ZEBA AND ZALMUNNA Judges 8:18-21
CONCLUSION OF GIDEON’S HISTORY Judges 8:22-35
ABIMELECH’S USURPATION Judges 9:1-6
JOTHAM’S PARABLE Judges 9:7-21
DOWNFALL OF ABIMELECH Judges 9:22-57
TOLA AND JAIR Judges 10:1-5
PHILISTINE AND AMMONITE OPPRESSION Judges 10:6-9
ISRAEL’S REPENTANCE AND HUMILIATION Judges 10:10-16
PREPARATIONS FOR WAR Judges 10:17-18
ELECTION OF JEPHTHAH Judges 11:1-11
JEPHTHAH’S MESSAGES TO AMMON Judges 11:12-28
JEPHTHAH’S VICTORY AND VOW Judges 11:29-40
EPHRAIM’S JEALOUSY AND DEFEAT Judges 12:1-6
JEPHTHAH’S DEATH Judges 12:7
IBZAN, ELON, AND ABDON Judges 12:8-15
PHILISTINE OPPRESSION Judges 13:1
SAMSON’S BIRTH Judges 13:2-25
SAMSON’S MARRIAGE AND RIDDLE Judges 14:1-20
BURNING OF THE PHILISTINES’ CORN Judges 15:1-5
SAMSON’S REVENGE FOR HIS WIFE’S DEATH Judges 15:6-8
SAMSON’S EXPLOIT WITH THE JAWBONE OF AN ASS Judges 15:9-20
SAMSON’S EXPLOIT AT GAZA Judges 16:1-3
SAMSON AND DELILAH Judges 16:4-20
SAMSON’S IMPRISONMENT AND DEATH Judges 16:21-31
Part Third-Appendix. Chaps. 17-21.
MICAH AND THE LEVITE CHAP. Judges 17:1-13
THE DANITE CONQUESTS IN THE NORTH Judges 18:1-31
THE LEVITE AND HIS CONCUBINE Judges 19:1-30
THE COUNCIL AT MIZPEH Judges 20:1-11
PREPARATIONS FOR WAR Judges 20:12-19
THE WAR AGAINST BENJAMIN Judges 20:20-48
THE REMNANT OF BENJAMIN PRESERVED Judges 21:1-25
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29