Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Judges, Theology of
The Book of Judges is ordinarily spoken of as part of the Deuteronomic history, that single narration from Joshua through Kings, covering the period from Israel's entry into the land through the time that the land was lost in the Babylonian exile. This group of books is called "Deuteronomic history" because the authors/compilers viewed the history uniquely through the eyes of Deuteronomy. The theology of Deuteronomy, laws unique to that book, or perspectives emphasized there, became the spectacles through which these subsequent writers viewed the history of Israel. Two prominent themes from Deuteronomy capture much of the Book of Judges.
Conditionality versus Unconditionality; Grace versus Law . Throughout the Deuteronomic history, the narrator probes the nature of God's relationship with Israel. Will God's holiness, his demand for obedience to his commands, override his promises to Israel? Or will his irrevocable commitment to the nation, his gracious promises to the patriarchs, mean that he will somehow overlook their sin? As much as theologians may seek to establish the priority of law over grace or grace over law, the Book of Judges will not settle this question. What Judges gives the reader is not a systematic theology, but rather the history of a relationship. Judges leaves us with a paradox: God's relationship with Israel is at once both conditional and unconditional. He will not remove his favor, but Israel must live in obedience and faith to inherit the promise. It is this very tension that more than anything else propels the narrative of the entire Deuteronomic history. The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes both God's gracious commitment to the patriarchs, his promise to give them the land (1:7-8,21, 25,31; 3:18-20; 6:3), and the fact that staying in the land is conditioned by obedience (1:35; 4:1,10, 21,26, 40; 5:33; 6:15,18). Moses foresees that Israel will not succeed in light of God's commands and that the story will end in disaster (31:27-29).
It is the dialogue between God's promises and his law that underlies the cyclical stories of the individual judges. Any reader who has even a cursory acquaintance with the Book of Judges is familiar with the series of stories that make up the core of the book (2:6-16:31). The accounts of the major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) are among the most familiar stories in the Bible. These stories are introduced by a brief "philosophy of history" (2:6-3:6) that summarizes the material to follow. The accounts of the individual judges follow a fairly stable framework. The children of Israel do evil in the eyes of the Lord (2:11; 3:7,12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). Although the nature of this evil is rarely spelled out, their sin prompts the anger of God and results in oppression at the hands of some foreign nation (2:14; 3:8; 4:2; 10:9). Because of their sin the Israelites are not only unable to expel the Canaanites, but they themselves fall before foreign powers. During their oppression, the Israelites cry out to the Lord (3:9,15; 6:6-7; 10:10). The Lord hears their cry and raises up a deliverer, one of the judges (2:16; 3:9,15; 10:1,12). The deliverer is chosen and empowered by the Spirit of the Lord (3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19). It is often reported that this deliverance was followed by the submission of the enemy and a period of peace during which the deliverer judged Israel, followed by the death and burial of the judge (3:10-11; 8:28-32; 10:2-5; 12:9-15).
God's irrevocable commitment to Israel is seen in his providing them with a deliverer/champion; but his holiness requires that he not ignore their sin, and so he brings oppressors to chasten the nation and turn them back to himself.
Deuteronomy looked forward to a day when Israel would have rest from her enemies in the land God had promised, but it would not come during the days of the judges.
God's Rule over His People . The Book of Deuteronomy is the farewell address of Moses. Moses had been Israel's judge, leader, lawgiver, ruler, and religious authority. How will Israel be governed when Moses is dead? This question is the focus of Deuteronomy 16:18-18:22; here God provides through Moses the basic guidelines for governing Israel when Moses is gone. Israel will have judges (16:18-20), a system of courts (17:2-13), a king (17:14-20), priests and Levites (18:1-8), and a succession of prophets (18:9-22).
Although it may not appear so at first glance, it is the provisions for a king (17:14-20) that particularly concern the author of Judges. For that matter, one way an individual could divide the Deuteronomic history is into two parts: life without a king (Joshua, Judges) and life with a king (Samuel, Kings). The writer of Judges makes it quite clear that this is a concern by the constant refrain at the end of the book, that "in those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (17:6; 21:25; cf. 18:1; 19:1). During the period of the judges, Israel had devolved into anarchy. Would kingship solve her national problems? Would kings help the nation hold the land and have rest from their enemies? Would kings rule as faithful representatives of the Lord? The writer prepares us for the remainder of the story in Samuel and Kings.
The collection of accounts about the individual judges is often described as "cyclical." This designation is acceptable insofar as it catches the repeated elements that make up the characteristic framework of the individual stories. However, it is misleading if taken to imply that the story lacks forward movement and direction. A better way to describe it would be as a "downward spiral": it is not that each cycle is more or less a repeat of the earlier ones, but rather that there is a deterioration in the quality of the judges and the effect of their leadership. A survey of the major judges will demonstrate this.
Othniel (3:7-11) appears first as the model of what a judge should be. He is raised up by God and invested with his Spirit; he was an able warrior when Joshua lived (Joshua 15:13-19 ), and he leads Israel in successful warfare as Joshua had done. He provides the model from which all subsequent judges depart to varying degrees.
In the case of Ehud (3:12-30) several important items are missing. The author does not tell us that God raised him up as he had done with Othniel; Ehud does not enjoy investiture with the Spirit of God, nor does he "judge" Israel. Ehud delivers Israel by deceit and treachery, and the text is silent about Yahweh's will and relationship to him.
Deborah (4:1-5:31) was a prophetess as she judged Israel. But in spite of her accomplishments and those of Jael, her judgeship raises questions about the failure of male leadership in Israel. Both Barak and Sisera lose the glory that should have been theirs to a woman (4:9). Is Israel unable to produce worthy male champions to lead in her wars for the land? Victory once again is less a feat of arms than a product of treachery. Jael, who finally destroys Sisera, is neither a judge nor a prophetess, and only half-Israelite (4:11,17; 5:24). Rather than a nation acting in concert and in faith, Deborah's song includes curses against other tribes that did not join the battle (5:15b-18,23). The account anticipates the factionalism and intertribal disunity that will ultimately culminate in the final episodes of the book.
Gideon the farmer (6:1-8:35) is slow to recognize and respond to God's call for him to lead Israel; three miracles are required to convince this reluctant champion. And his obedience, when it does come, is not exactly courageous: he does tear down the Baal altar and the Asherah pole in his community as God commandedbut still a bit the coward and skeptic, he does it at night (6:25-27). Although Gideon earns the sobriquet "Jerub-baal" ("Let Baal contend [with him]" 6:32), he himself eventually succumbs to false worship that leads Israel astray (8:22-27). After the great battle when Gideon's three hundred prevail over a far greater number through faithful obedience, Gideon seems to forget the whole point of the exercise (7:2) and calls up his reserves, an army of 32,000 (7:3,24). A great victory once again erupts in factional rivalry and quarreling among the tribes and clans (8:1-9). Beyond the victory God had promised and given, Gideon pursues a personal vendetta (8:10-21).
After Gideon's death, Israel again does wrong (8:33-35), and one anticipates the appearance of another judge/deliverer. But not so! Instead, Abimelek, Gideon's son by a concubine, attempts to seize power. God does not raise him up or call him to office. The intertribal rivalry (8:1-9) during Gideon's time now becomes intrafamily strife and murder. In spite of the good that Gideon had done for Israel, his son becomes not a deliverer but an oppressor, not a servant to the nation but a murderer of Israelites and of his own family. Gideon serves the Deuteronomic historian as an example of abortive kingship.
Jephthah is the next major figure in the book. Full of self-interest Jephthah negotiates his way to power from his position as an outcast (11:1-11). Although God's Spirit had already come upon him for the battle with Ammon (11:29), as if more were needed to secure the victory Jephthah makes a rash vow (11:30). The one who had been so calculating in his self-interest ends up destroying that which he counted most dear, his only child (11:34-40). Once again a victory erupts into intertribal squabbling and regional rivalry (12:1-6).
Samson is the last of the major judges, but he is a shadow of what a judge was supposed to be. He is full of self-indulgence and cannot control his sexual appetite. Samson's proclivity for foreign women has become metaphorical for Israel itself, unable to resist going whoring after the enticement of foreign gods (2:17; 8:27,33). Although like Israel he had been set apart to God from birth (13:5), Samson would not fulfill his potential. Intermarriage with the Canaanites violated the command to drive them from the land (3:5-6). How could Samson succeed as the leader of Israel? He was more successful in death than in life (16:30).
Leadership like that of these judges would not secure the land for Israel. The legacy of a unified Israel left by Joshua had disintegrated into factional and regional rivalries. Conditions promoting religious and political chaos called for a different kind of leadership if Israel were to secure the land. Would having kings make the difference? The last two stories prepare the way for Israel's experiment with kingship.
The account of Micah's idols and the migration of the tribe of Dan (chaps. 17-18) suggests that the author was making a point about idolatry in the northern tribes. Micah's shrine and idols were initially located in the hill country of Ephraim (presumably near Bethel 17:1; 18:2) and were then purloined and installed in Dan. The author may be making the point that the northern tribes were always involved in idolatry. From a point in time after the schism and the erection of golden calves at Dan and Bethel by Jeroboam, the author could in effect be saying, "Look, this is no surprisethose tribes were always prone to false worship and idolatry." These chapters both describe the idolatry in Israel during the period of the judges, and also make a political point against the northern tribes in favor of the temple-centered religion in Judah described in Samuel and Kings.
The account of the Levite and his concubine (chap. 19) and the subsequent war against Benjamin (chaps. 20-21) also makes a few political points that contribute to the larger concerns of the Deuteronomic history. In the earlier story a Levite from the hill country of Ephraim travels to Bethlehem to retrieve his concubine from her father's house. In Bethlehem he is treated royally and shown every courtesy. As he sets out with his concubine and servant for the return trip, the Levite is unwilling to stop in a city Israel had not conquered (Jebus or Jerusalem) and travels on to Gibeah in Benjamin before turning aside for the night. In Gibeah (the hometown of Saul) his party is not shown any hospitality by the native citizens of the town; rather a man from Ephraim finally comes to his aid. The Levite and his party are then confronted by great evil, evil reminiscent of Sodom and Gomorrah (19:22-26; cf. Genesis 19:1-11 ). After the death of the concubine the Levite rallies the tribes to war against Benjamin. Underlying the details of the story is a political allegory addressed to those from Ephraim and the northern tribes: Who will treat you well? [someone from Bethlehem] Who will treat you poorly? [someone from Gibeah] Who will remove the aliens from Jebus and make it safe? Everyone reading the story knows that David and his lineage were from Bethlehem, and that David had made Jebus/Jerusalem a safe city. The story appears to advocate loyalty from the northern tribes to a family from Bethlehem, rather than to a family from the corrupt Gibeah (Saul and his descendants). This historical account is strongly pro-David and anti-Saul, anticipating the stance of the Book of Samuel and the overall concern of the Deuteronomic historian with God's faithfulness to his promise to David.
Judges in the New Testament . The concern in the Book of Judges with the relationship of law and grace and with the character of God's rule over his people is prominent in many passages in the New Testament.
Readers today cannot but identify with these ancient champions in their own struggles and failures with godly living. Strange heros they werea reluctant farmer, a prophetess, a left-handed assassin, a bastard bandit, a sex-addicted Nazirite. It is easy at a distance to point out the foibles and failures of the leading characters in this downwardly spiraling story. But lest we get too proud, Paul reminds us "that is what some of you were" (1 Corinthians 6:11 ). With similar mixtures of ignorance, rebellion, frail obedience, and tangled motives, we with them were "washed, sanctified, and justified" by the grace of God. For all of their flaws, we can learn from their faith. For it was in faith that Gideon, Barak, Jephthah, and Samson "conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised" (Hebrews 11:32-33 ).
In spite of their failures, their faith was not misplaced. They are part of that great cloud of witnesses calling for us to persevere and to fix our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-2 ). We too need a champion to fight our battles for us, one raised up by God and invested with his Spirit in full measure; we too need a leader to secure for us the inheritance that God has promised, one who will perfect our faith.
Raymond B. Dillard
See also Israel
Bibliography . D. R. Davis, Such a Great Salvation; K. R. R. Gros Louis, Literary Interpretations of Biblical Narratives; L. R. Klein, The Triumph of Irony in the Book of Judges; J. P. U. Lilley, Tyn Bul 18 (1967): 94-102; B. G. Webb, The Book of the Judges: An Integrated Reading .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Judges, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bed/j/judges-theology-of.html. 1996.