Judges - Introduction
The book of Judges continues Israel's story in the land from the death of Joshua (1.1; 2.8) to just before the birth of Samuel, who is depicted as Israel's last judge (1 Sam 7.15 ). After Israel's failure to conquer all the land (described in this book's initial chapters), the nation's life fell into a downward moral and religious spiral that reached its low point under the leadership of the judge Samson. The final portion of the book, in which “judges” are absent, describes Israel's further deterioration into idolatry and civil war. The title “Judges” should not be interpreted in a strictly judicial sense; the “judges” are really rulers in the wider sense (see 2.16–19 ), often with significant military roles.
It is apparent that the book is a collection of various blocks of material concerning different tribal heroes. Some of the stories may have existed in oral or written form before they became part of the book, but none are attributed to any particular source in the text. Most scholars believe that at one point this collection became part of a larger work, the Deuteronomistic History (see “Introduction to the Historical Books”). The author of that history utilized these stories of local tribal judges, adding introductions and conclusions at various points to underscore his message. The book does not attempt to fully depict this time period; not every oppression that Israel suffered during the judges’ era is fully narrated (see 10.11–14 ). A precise chronology of the period of the judges is unknown since the oppressions and judgeships noted were local or regional, and may overlap. The book is not primarily interested in the real history of this period. Rather, the book's selective presentation is clearly designed to instruct the reader, to communicate a coherent, didactic message concerning the consequences of disobedience to God.
The double introduction is symmetrical to the double conclusion, framing the “cycles.” The first introduction (A: foreign wars with the “h.erem” being applied, 1.1–2.5 ) is balanced by the second conclusion (A': domestic wars with the “h.erem” being applied, 19.1–21.25 ). The second introduction (B: difficulties in Israel with foreign idols, 2.6–3.6 ) is balanced by the first conclusion (B': difficulties with domestic idols, 17.1–18.31 ). For the meaning of “h.erem” see the Introduction to Joshua.
The double introduction initiates paradigms that create literary expectations for the main “cycles” section. Judges 1.1–2.5 introduces the reader to the pattern of Israel's increasing failure to drive out the Canaanites, which will be mirrored in the degeneration of the “cycles” section. It also reveals the geographic sequence pattern of Judah to Dan reflected in the major judge cycles (Othniel to Samson). Judges 2.6–3.6 introduces the reader to the all‐important “cycles” pattern, the very framework of the “cycles” section.
The double conclusion is unified by the four‐time repetition of a distinctive refrain: In those days there was no king in Israel; twice this is supplemented by all the people did what was right in their own eyes: A (17.6), B (18.1), B' (19.1), A' (21.25). Although this refrain serves as a bridge to the book of 1 Samuel, in which the monarchy is introduced, this is more than simply a promonarchic statement; it also has implications in light of the Deuteronomistic, covenantal concerns about the theocracy (see 8.23 , the LORD's rule as king over Israel).
The “cycles” section ( 3.7–16.31 ) contains six major judge stories built around a basic literary cycle made up of the following components: (1) Israel does evil in the eyes of the LORD; (2) the LORD gives them into the hands of oppressors; (3) Israel serves the oppressor for x years; (4) Israel cries out to the LORD; (5) the LORD raises up a deliverer (i.e., a judge); (6) the spirit of the LORD is upon the deliverer; (7) the oppressor is subdued; (8) the land has “rest” for x years.
It is very important that the six major judge cycles (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson) be read within the larger narrative complex of 3.7–16.31 . The components are varied in such a way as to contribute to the book's message. With each major judge, the cycle unravels. In turn, this unraveling enhances the communication of the moral deterioration taking place throughout the period of the judges. In fact, by the time of Samson, the cycle has almost disappeared. The Samson cycle serves as both the literary climax and the moral nadir of the “cycles” section.
Moreover, this moral decline can also be seen in the characterization of the women of the book, degenerating from the outspoken Achsah ( 1.12–15 ), to Deborah and Jael ( 4.1–5.31 ), to the “certain woman” ( 9.53 ), to Jephthah's daughter ( 11.35 ), to Delilah ( 16.4–22 ), and finally to the completely dependent and silent women of 19.1–21.25 .
Finally, this section also contains interspersed stories of minor judges ( 10.1–5; 12.8–15 ), occurring in a one, two, three sequence. The exact function of these minor judges, however, remains unclear.