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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Judges, Book of

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Second book of the group called the Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. In English Bible arrangement following the Greek Septuagint it is the second of the Historical Books. Judges relates important episodes in the period of Israel's settlement in Canaan between the death of Joshua and the advent of Samuel.

The Book of Judges is arranged according to its theological theme of the cyclical nature of Israel's obedience to God in the process of their gradual expansion in the land. This theme is most clearly spelled out in Judges 2:16-19 . Israel would forsake Yahweh and follow after other gods, and Yahweh would give them into the hand of an oppressor. Israel would cry out for deliverance, Yahweh would send a deliverer, and Israel would be obedient to Yahweh until the death of the deliverer, when the cycle would begin again.

The book of Judges may be outlined as follows:

I. Introduction (Judges 1:1-3:6 )

A. Judah's conquests and the land yet unconquered (Judges 1:1-36 )

B. Israel's cycles of apostasy (Judges 2:1-3:6 )

II. Individual Judges (Judges 3:7-16:31 )

A. Othniel (Judges 3:7-11 )

B. Ehud delivers from Moab (Judges 3:12-30 ).

C. Shamgar (Judges 3:31 )

D. Deborah (and Barak) deliver from the Canaanites (Judges 4:1-5:31 ).

E. Gideon delivers from Midian (Judges 6:1-9:57 ).

F. Tola and Jair (Judges 10:1-5 )

G. Jephthah delivers from Ammon (Judges 10:6-12:7 ).

H. Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (Judges 12:8-15 )

I. Samson begins the deliverance from the Philistines (Judges 13:1-16:31 ).

III. Illustrative Incidents (Judges 17:1-21:25 )

A. Idol worship and idol theft in Israel (Judges 17:1-18:31 )

B. The Levite's concubine and the near destruction of Benjamin (Judges 19:1-21:25 ).

The deliverers were called sophetim , “Judges.” The term had a broader connotation than “judge” does today in the English-speaking world. A shophet , or “judge,” was a military leader, civil administrator, and decider of cases at law, very likely acting as an appellate court. The Book of Judges records mostly the military exploits of five of the judges; because of this they are often called “major judges.” The other judges, who receive only minimal notice, are often called “minor judges.” The major judges are Ehud, Deborah (the only woman among the judges), Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. The minor judges are Othniel, Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. Abimelech, the son of Gideon, attempted to establish the dynastic principle in Israel on the strength of his father's accomplishments but was unsuccessful.

It would appear that in no case was a single judge leader over all the tribes of Israel at once. Several of the narratives make a point of noting the absence of one or more tribes from the fighting forces under a judge (Judges 5:15-17; Judges 8:1; Judges 12:1 ). Also, in working out the chronology of Israel's occupation of the land from Joshua to David, a very strong case can be made that some of the judges were contemporaries, one leading one group of tribes while another led another group of tribes.

The last five chapters (17–21) of Judges record two separate incidents unrelated to the tenure of any individual judge. The first is the setting up of an illegitimate priesthood by an individual Ephraimite named Micah, followed by the theft of Micah's priest and his “gods” by a part of the tribe of Dan who were migrating from their territory (on the west of Judah) to the northern part of the Hula Valley in the extreme north of Israel. The second episode is even more reprehensible; it concerns the rape and murder at Gibeah in Benjamin of the concubine of a nameless Levite. The eleven tribes rallied to the Levite's call for justice; Benjamin defended the town of Gibeah, and civil war followed. Benjamin was annihilated, except for six hundred warriors. Facing the destruction of one tribe of the twelve, the eleven tribes devised a dubious way around their oath not to allow any of their daughters to marry into the tribe of Benjamin. The book closes with the author's assessment of the period, which has been illustrated particularly well by these two episodes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes,” (Judges 21:25 ).

The Book of Judges presents a selective and theologically oriented account of the settlement of Israel in the land of Canaan in the centuries following the initial entry under Joshua. The campaigns under Joshua meant that the Canaanite population could not deny Israel entrance into the land. The pattern of settlement, as outlined in the Book of Judges, is confirmed by archaeological survey and excavation. Archaeology has revealed a pattern of many small, brand-new settlements in large areas of the Central Hill Country of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Also, the southern Negev, which has been sparsely or not at all inhabited by the Canaanite population, exhibits the same pattern. Gradually, over the course of several centuries, Israel became stronger; and the Canaanite peoples became absorbed into Israel, until, under David, Israel controlled all the land of Canaan and even beyond.

Some scholars have held that the Book of Judges reflects an Israelite version of the amphictyony, a group of six or twelve tribes organized around a central shrine. A comparison with Greek and Italian amphictyonies of the first millenium B.C. reveals very little similarity beyond the fact that Israel numbered twelve tribes.

The Hebrew text of Judges is among the best preserved of the Old Testament. The Song of Deborah (Judges 5:1 ) is recognized universally as one of the very earliest poems of the Bible.


I. Disobedience Causes Chaos (Judges 1:1-3:6 ).

A. Partial obedience is disobedience (Judges 1:1-36 ).

B. Disobedience exposes people to further temptation (Judges 2:1-5 ).

C. Leaders who neglect God's covenant lead the people into punishment (Judges 2:6-15 ).

D. Failure to heed God's leaders leads to defeat (Judges 2:16-23 ).

E. God tests His people to see if they will obey (Judges 3:1-6 ).

II. Repentence Is the Only Hope of Deliverance (Judges 3:7-16:31 ).

A. God listens to the agonized cries of His people (Judges 3:7-31 ).

B. God uses women leaders to achieve His purpose for His people (Judges 4:1-24 ).

C. A delivered people praised God for His gift of victory (Judges 5:1-31 ).

D. God provided a prophet to correct His people (Judges 6:1-10 ).

E. God called people even from insignificant families to deliver His people (Judges 6:11-24 ).

F. God proved more powerful than Baal (Judges 6:25-32 ).

G. God's Spirit gives power to God-called leaders (Judges 6:33-40 ).

H. Divine power, not human numbers, provides victory for God's people (Judges 7:1-25 ).

I. God is King and can rule His people without power groups, institutions, or symbols (Judges 8:1-35 ).

J. God does not honor self-seeking leaders of His people (Judges 9:1-57 ).

K. God's deliverance comes only to a confessing, repenting people (Judges 10:1-16 ).

L. God uses leaders considered unworthy in human eyes (Judges 10:17-11:11 ).

M. God honors leaders who learn the lessons of history (Judges 11:12-40 ).

N. God does not honor power-seekers (Judges 12:1-15 ).

O. God blesses families who honor Him (Judges 13:1-25 ).

P. God can turn human trickery, treachery, and hatred to accomplish His purposes (Judges 14:1-15:20 ).

Q. Unfaithful leaders cannot follow selfish lusts and expect God's blessing (Judges 16:1-21 ).

R. God delivers His people by the prayers and efforts of His leader (Judges 16:22-31 ).

III. Chaos Is the Moral and Social Result of Disobedience (Judges 17:1-21:25 ).

A. Leaderless people use unscrupulous means even in religion (Judges 17:1-18:31 ).

B. Sexual crimes can lead to civil war (Judges 19:1-20:48 ).

C. Worship can become a ruse (Judges 21:1-25 ).

Joseph Coleson

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Judges, Book of'. Holman Bible Dictionary. 1991.

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