Book of Judges


Authorship, date, and background The title for Judges in the Hebrew is the word Shophetim, which means executive leaders or judges. It expresses what was the type of government or leadership of the people of Israel between the time of Joshua's death and the beginning of the monarchy under King Saul. The author's identity is unknown. Whoever he was, his use of original sources included materials from northern Israel with its dialect which differed from that of the southern section of the nation.

Dating the book of Judges depends upon a number of factors. One has to do with the length of the period under discussion. Undoubtedly some of the judges overlapped each other or were contemporaneous. Adding the years of each judge consecutively yields a period of approximately 410 years. A statement in 1 Kings 6:1 (this was 480 years after the people of Israel left their slavery in Egypt) leaves a time span of slightly less than three hundred years for the period between Eli and Othniel. Overlapping reigns account for the difference. What is more important is the date for the Exodus from Egypt. Some evangelical scholars date the Israelite conquest of Canaan at ca.1290 B.C. Other scholars date the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt at ca. 1440 B.C. The latter date appears to be the better choice as a result of the Tell el-Amarna letters concerning the dating of the conquest of Canaan. The best date for the composition of Judges is the eleventh century B.C.

Judges must be understood against the background of a recurring cycle of apostasy, repentance, and renewal. The theocracy had been set up by God through Moses, but the people backslid again and again. The period was a disordered one filled with times of violence. The book of Ruth shows how the common people lived, loved, and died amidst these great difficulties. Life simply went on despite the turmoil. The Judges were part of the total history of Israel, providing the indispensable connecting link between the beginning of the conquest of Canaan and the emergence of the kingship.

Characteristics and content Judges contains many statements such as "the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord"; and statements like "the land had rest" for x number of years (see here 3:7, 12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1; and 3:11, 30; 5:31; 8:28). It had been noted that Othniel and Samson "stand alone at the beginning and at the end of the series" of the fourteen judges, and that "those who come in between are usually connected in pairs." Shamgar and Ehud are linked together. Barak and Deborah are paired up. And Gideon and his natural son, Abimelech, are connected.

Judges clearly teaches that the people of Israel are covenant-breakers who fail to maintain the demands of God's theocracy. They are delivered from their oppressors again and again, only to fail into sin again sin and repeat the mistakes of their predecessors. The key phrase of the book is found in 21:25, the last verse in Judges: "There was no king in Israel in those days, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

The latter half of Joshua describes the division of the land among the tribes. The book concludes with Joshua's final charge to Israel wherein he points out that the Israelites are a covenant people who are to trust God and who are not to permit sins of disobedience to mar their relationship to him, lest they incur God's anger and feel the lash of his judgement upon them.

Judges depicts the strengths and the weaknesses of those who lead Israel in times of turmoil. Deborah, Gideon, and Samson are sharply etched. The story of Gideon's fleece, by which he determines the will of God for his life, stands out boldly. The Song of Deborah and Barak is a paean of praise to the wonderful victory God gives his people in their moment of distress. The tragic life of Samson is filled with pathos. His miserable departure from the faith of his fathers and his period of blindness when the Philistines take away his sight remind every Christian of the need for perseverance through all the days of this life. The closing section of Judges speaks about the strange case of the priest of Micah and the men of Dan who come to Micah's home. They take away his priest and his idols, which become a source of evil among them thereafter. The closing chapters picture the death of the unfortunate concubine and the war against the Benjaminites, whose tribal members are guilty of atrocity. The other tribes slay so many Benjaminites that the tribe faces extinction. But the survivors are allowed to take brides from among the maidens of Shiloh whom they kidnap and take home as their wives.