The book of Judges follows Joshua and purports to cover the history of Israel from the time of the settlement until just before the establishment of the monarchy. The book's chronology is a problem since the sum of the periods mentioned in it comes to about four hundred years. The Exodus is usually dated to the thirteenth century BCE and the anointing of Saul to the middle of the eleventh century; consequently, the era of the judges as calculated by the book is far too long. The book presents the subjects of its narratives as referring to all Israel when originally these figures were associated with particular tribes. It is not possible to relate the stories of these savior‐judges to each other chronologically. The book of Judges is a collection of stories about ancient tribal heroes; the chronological sequence of these stories is certainly artificial, and the fact that the total number of heroes is twelve also suggests editorial design.

The book begins with an introduction (1.1–36) that serves to connect it with the book of Joshua. This introduction, in contrast with the account in Joshua, portrays the settlement as only partially successful and still somewhat incomplete (see Conquest of Canaan). A short discourse that follows (2.1–5) explains Israel's failure to complete the settlement successfully as the result of its disobedience. The purpose of this first introduction is to contrast the period of the judges with that of Joshua. Under Joshua's strong and effective leadership, the tribes enjoyed unity and success. No leader comparable to Joshua took his place, with the result that the unity of the tribes was broken: apostasy soon followed, then military defeat. Israel was faithful to Yahweh during Joshua's lifetime; after his death it fell away. Because Israel turned to other gods, it placed itself in mortal danger. The stories of the judges show how a number of tribal heroes were able to ward off this danger—but only for a time.

A second introduction (2.6–3.6) presents the period of the judges as one during which Israel was guilty of a series of apostasies. Each apostasy was followed by divine punishment, a prayer for help, the rise of a “judge” who saved Israel from destruction, and a period of peace when Israel was ruled by its savior‐judge. This pattern is not reflected in all the narratives themselves; rather, it represents the Deuteronomic interpretation of this period in Israel's life (see Deuteronomic History).

The stories about the judges themselves begin in 3.7 and conclude with 16.31. The portrait of Othniel (3.7–11) is rather ill‐defined, though it follows the Deuteronomic pattern: Israel sinned by worshiping the gods of Canaan; God gave Israel into the hands of its enemies for a time; the people repented and God raised up a warrior to deliver them; then Israel had rest for forty years. The story about Ehud (3.12–30) is a coarse Benjaminite saga about one of that tribe's ancient heroes who outwitted and then killed Eglon, king of Moab. There is no narrative connected with Shamgar but only the statement that he “delivered Israel” (3.31).

The story of the prophet Deborah and the commander Barak is told in both prose (4.1–23) and poetry (5.1–31). The poem of chap. 5 is known as the Song of Deborah and is the most authentic literary source from the period of the judges, probably composed a short time after the victory it celebrates. The story of Deborah and Barak exposes the conflicts that took place when the Israelite tribes that originally settled in the largely unoccupied highlands attempted to make their way into the more fertile and therefore more populated valleys. The tribal forces led by Deborah and Barak defeated a Canaanite army and secured the Esdraelon Valley for Israel. Archaeology has shown that Taanach was violently destroyed about 1125 BCE, when Megiddo was occupied (see 5.19).

The story of Gideon (6.1–8.35), also known as Jerubbaal, describes the fear with which Israelite farmers lived. There was the constant danger of having their harvest stolen by raiders. Gideon defeated the Midianites, whose raids threatened the Israelite population in central Canaan, but he refused the offer of kingship that the grateful tribes made. Gideon's son Abimelech, however, was quite different; he became king of Shechem. Abimelech was not really a judge but served as commander of the tribal militia. His story (9.1–57) describes the folly of the monarchy. When the people of Shechem withdrew their support from him, Abimelech did not hesitate to turn his army against them. The remains of ancient Shechem (Tell Balatah) give evidence of a violent destruction in the twelfth century BCE. Abimelech's story was recounted by those who considered the monarchy an infringement upon the rights of Yahweh.

Following Abimelech's story, there is a short note about Tola and Jair (10.1–4). They are credited with no military exploits. The lack of any information about their activities stands in marked contrast with the stories about the exploits of the savior‐judges. The two mentioned here, along with three others cited in 12.8–15, had some type of judicial and administrative authority during the period before the monarchy and therefore were known as judges; because details of their activity are so scant, they are sometimes called “minor judges.” Later their title was given to military heroes whose exploits are recounted in the major portion of the book; these are the “major judges.”

The story of Jephthah (10.6–12.7) shows that social class posed no barriers to exercising leadership within the Israelite community at this period; Jephthah was a son of a prostitute. He led a mercenary army in the north and was called by the elders of Gilead to deal with the Ammonites. Jephthah is remembered for the sacrifice of his daughter to fulfill a vow (11.34–40) and for his use of the password shibboleth during a civil war with the tribe of Ephraim (12.1–6).

Before the stories about Samson begin, there is another note about three judges who engaged in no military exploits but who, like Tola and Jair, were famous tribal leaders: Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12.8–15).

Samson hardly fits the figure of a judge. His stories (13.1–16.31) do not describe leadership he provided for the Israelite tribes against their enemies; rather, they recount a series of personal battles he fought with the Philistines. None of Samson's adventures have anything to do with the fate of Israel as a whole; he led no organized military campaigns. Samson is a tragic figure who was consumed in a Pyrrhic victory over his enemies. He is included among the judges because his final victory over the Philistines was remembered as a reaffirmation of God's presence with Israel.

The stories about the savior‐judges portray them as heroes who led single tribes or groups of tribes in military campaigns in order to liberate Israel from periodic oppression by its enemies. Their rule was temporary. They led certain tribes in a specific military campaign and then, after the military threat was removed, they returned home. None of the judges succeeded in gaining the allegiance of all the tribes. They held power briefly and the area under their effective control was limited. In the present framework, however, these stories receive greater significance. They are not simply tribal sagas about famous heroes of the past; they have become testimonies to the power of Yahweh, who frees Israel when it repents and calls out for deliverance.

The predominant motif in these stories is Yahweh's deliverance of Israel through the judges. The judges are charismatic leaders upon whom has come the “spirit of Yahweh” (6.34; 11.29; 14.6,19; 15.14). This spirit enables them to accomplish what is apparently beyond their natural abilities. In Gideon's story, this receives special emphasis through the narrative about his call (6.11–23).

The remainder of the book of Judges (chaps. 17–21) is taken up with stories that illustrate the self‐destructive forces at work within the Israelite tribes. These stories along with the introductions in 1.1–3.6 provide the work's basic theme. The introductory material raises the issue of strife among the tribes; the concluding chapters illustrate the extent to which this lack of unity threatened the very existence of the people of Israel.

Chaps. 17 and 18 deal with a certain Micah who set up his own shrine and introduced a Levite from Bethlehem to serve as his priest. This Levite was, in turn, recruited by the migrating Danites to serve as their priest. The tribe of Dan is depicted in a very unfavorable light. The Danites lack the courage to remain in their original place of settlement; they steal Micah's ephod, kidnap his priest, and massacre the peaceful village of Laish. The book ends with an internecine war between the tribes that almost succeeded in destroying the tribe of Benjamin (chaps. 19–21). The purpose of these last few chapters is to portray the period just before the emergence of the monarchy as a time of chaos. The book ends with this characterization of the era: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21.25). The picture of Israel in chaps. 17–21 makes the establishment of the monarchy inevitable if Israel was to survive.

Originally, stories about the most famous of tribal heroes circulated independently of one another. At some point during the period of the monarchy they were assembled in order to underscore the power and willingness of God to save Israel from those who would destroy it. This collection of stories did not involve extensive editing, which may explain some of the repetitions and apparent contradictions in the text. Under the influence of the book of Deuteronomy, the stories about the judges were incorporated in a much larger work that traced the story of Israel in the land from the entrance under Joshua to the exile under the Babylonians. The comprehensive purpose of this Deuteronomic history was to convince the people of Judah that their exile from the land was not due to some failure on God's part but, rather, that it was their own doing. Israel's peace in the land promised and given by God was constantly threatened by its disobedience and infidelity. The political and economic roots of Israel's problems with its neighbors were ignored in favor of a religious interpretation. Foreign invasions were divine punishment for Israel's infidelities with Canaanite gods. When Israel repented of its failure, foreign domination came to an end through the agency of a judge on whom had fallen the spirit of Yahweh.

For the Deuteronomists, the period of the judges was marked by apostasy after apostasy, which caused Israel to be given into the hands of oppressors. Though God saved Israel through the judges when the people cried for deliverance, Israel always repeated its infidelities. One result of this tendency to apostasy was God's determination not to drive out the nations, in order to test Israel's fidelity and to help instruct the people regarding the bitter consequences brought on by infidelity.

The book of Judges cannot be used to reconstruct the history of Canaan in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE except in the broadest possible terms. It describes this period as one of anarchy when the Israelites were competing with other peoples for the rich but limited resources of Canaan. It portrays the era of the judges as a time when Israel was in the process of achieving a sense of national unity and of laying its own claim to the land of Canaan. Both the book of Judges and archaeology have shown this time to be one of political, social, and economic disorder. The Deuteronomic history continues in the books of Samuel to show how Israel survived this difficult time.

Sometimes the perspective of the book of Judges is considered to be cyclical. The book does describe a cycle of apostasy, oppression, repentance, and deliverance followed by new apostasy, but this cycle is not endless: the anarchy of the era of the judges leads to the establishment of the monarchy. In addition, the text seems to be posing the question: How long can this cycle of apostasy, repentance, and deliverance go on? The conclusion of the Deuteronomic history states that there is a limit to the infidelities that Yahweh will countenance from Israel before expelling it from the land that had been promised and given to it.

See also Israel, History of; Social Sciences and the Bible, article on Cultural Anthropology and the Hebrew Bible

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Leslie J. Hoppe, O.F.M.