The book of Judges has a pivotal role in the world-making epic that we know as the Bible. In the sequence of Torah and Former Prophets, that is, the books of Genesis through Kings that David Noel Freedman referred to as “the Primary History,” the era of the Judges depicts a narrative nadir. As Israel walks through history with God in the saga that begins the Bible, the plot is punctuated with ups and downs, rises and falls, covenants made and broken. Judges is one of those places where things fall apart. It follows the book of Joshua, an era the biblical narrative celebrated, despite the ambivalence and skepticism subsequent generations might feel about the genocides it recounts as Israel conquered Canaan. Judges precedes the books of Samuel and the emergence of a traditional hero, King David, second only to Moses. The opening words of Judges are “After the death of Joshua” (Judg 1:1). Its closing verse is “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 21:25). The “judges” are the tribal leaders who led Israel in this transitional period between the days of the covenant-making heroes Moses and Joshua from the preceding books (i.e., Genesis through Joshua) and the nation-making heroes David and Solomon in the subsequent books (i.e., 1-2 Sam and 1–2 Kgs).

The book of Judges is the Bible's end-of-the-frontier epic. It depicts the first generations of Israelite life in Canaan and portrays a series of memorable protagonists, the “judges,” who were wild enough to tame a wilderness, but too wild to persist into the next era of royal courts, central shrines, and political states. The core of Judges consists of a series of narratives about the outlaws, warlords and war-ladies, mercenaries, and jackleg priests and prophets whose exploits set in the late second millennium B.C.E. were remembered, then recounted in a book completed centuries later, probably in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.

And wild they were: the left-handed assassin Ehud, the mercenary Shamgar, the female prophet Deborah, the nomadic woman Jael who lulled a warlord to sleep and then drove a tent peg into his temple, the insecure hero Gideon who led a few hand-picked men to victory over a swarming army, the conniving fratricidal Abimelech and the poetic justice he received, the tragically flawed Jephthah who won a battle only to kill his daughter, and finally, grandly, Samson with his dreadlocks, who never lost a fight or found a love.

This anthology of heroic narratives at the core of Judges (3–16) is framed, however, by material of a different texture. The introductory section of the book, Judges 1–2, continues the story from Joshua by offering brief anecdotes and miscellaneous notes about how the various tribes fared in securing their respective territories against the indigenous peoples of Canaan. But Judges 1–2 also confuses the story in its portrayal of the mixed success and uneven progress of the Israelite settlement, a picture at odds with the miraculous triumphs depicted in Joshua.

Judges 17–21, the concluding section of the book, does have sustained narratives similar to those in the book's core, but without their heroism. It consists of sad stories about the religious and social chaos that characterized the era for the book's final author/redactor.

Furthermore, these opening (Judg 1–2) and closing (Judg 17–21) frames around the narrative core of the book (Judg 3–16) have a clear regional and cultural bias. The initial two chapters portray the southern tribe of Judah as uniquely successful and the other, northern, tribes as faithless and hapless. The final five chapters of Judges focus on the misdeeds of the tribe of Dan (in the far north) and Benjamin (just north of Judah), the very sites of shrines that rivaled Judah's own Temple in Jerusalem. But the heroes in the central section of the book are from the very northern regions and tribes that are portrayed so negatively in the initial and final brackets of the book. The contrast between these frames and the portrait in the middle makes any simple interpretation of Judges unstable. On the one hand, the book's grim conclusion in Judges 19–21 with its sexual assaults, dismemberment, civil war, and bride capture threatens to bedim the bright heroism of the heroes at its center, such as “Sunny” (i.e., Samson) and “Honeybee” (i.e., Deborah). On the other hand, the boisterous northern heroes in the central panels of the book refuse to be contained within the didactic, moralizing Judahite frame around them; their exploits continue to amaze, inspire, and confound readers.


The title of the book in Hebrew is shofeṭim (šōpĕṭîm), affirmed as early as the Talmudic period (ca. 250–500 C.E.), and reaffirmed in the era of the church fathers, in Origen's Hexapla (230–245 C.E.), and Jerome's Vulgate (ca 400 C.E.). The Septuagint translated shofeṭim into Greek as Kritai, hence the Latin Vulgate's Iudices and English “Judges.” A shofeṭ (the singular) is not a “judge” in a forensic sense, although it is possible that some of these tribal leaders and warlords settled disputes. The verb shafaṭ means “to rule.” Better to think of the term as denoting a leader from the premonarchic period, with judicial and (especially) martial aspects. The implicit contrast in the title of the book is with the leaders who emerge in the succeeding books of Samuel and Kings, that is, the “kings.”


The date of composition is unknown. The date of the Leningrad Codex, the Hebrew manuscript that includes the version of Judges that serves as the basis for contemporary Jewish and Christian Bibles is ca. 1008 C.E. This is our oldest complete version of the Hebrew Bible, although a critical edition of the earlier Aleppo Codex (ca. 895 C.E.) is in preparation. The reference to the “Law and the Prophets and the Other Books” in the prologue to Sirach, that late second century B.C.E. Jewish book now found in the Apocrypha, is our earliest evidence for the existence of the three-fold division of the Hebrew Bible. Since it is part of “the Prophets” section of the canon, some form of Judges must have been extant before then, especially since the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), including the book of Judges, dates to around 200 B.C.E. and fragments from Judges found among the Dead Sea Scrolls date to the first century B.C.E.

Some of the material in the extant book of Judges could be nearly contemporaneous with events at the close of the second millennium, especially the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, a poem written in an archaic form of Hebrew. The reference to the Assyrian invasion of Samaria in Judges 18:30 makes it clear that as it stands Judges was not completed before 722 B.C.E. Correspondences between Judges and the other books of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Samuel, Kings) led the German biblical scholar Martin Noth to posit the existence of a “Deuteronomistic History,” a continuous narrative extending over four scrolls that traced Israelite and Judahite peoples' history from their entrance into Canaan through the Babylonian exile. If he was right, then Judges is part of a work that depicts events as late as ca. 560 (cf. 2 Kgs 24:10–12) and could not have been completed until the mid-sixth century B.C.E. at the earliest. Thus, we can speculate that the book achieved something approximating its current form (allowing for the dynamics of scribal transmission over many centuries) between 550 and 200 B.C.E., though, as noted below under “Literary History,” it is possible that the book grew in stages and that this process was initiated in the First Temple period.

Place in Canon.

The book of Judges was understood in two different ways by the ancients, as a prophetic oracle and as a historical chronicle. The former is the more ancient and the more Jewish, counting Judges among the Former Prophets where to this day it appears in Jewish Bibles sequenced between Joshua and 1 Samuel. The latter view, which was likely used by the Jewish community of Alexandria who produced a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, around 200 B.C.E., would eventually become dominant in Christianity. In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, Judges is one of the “Historical Books”; it follows Joshua and is succeeded by Ruth because the latter work is also set “in the days of the judges” (in Jewish Bibles, Ruth appears among the Writings, typically between the Song of Songs and Lamentations).


We do not know who wrote Judges. The Bible nowhere indicates its author though in Jewish tradition, as noted in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Bat. 14b–15a), Samuel wrote Judges. This tradition must be seen in the light of the common ancient practice of associating texts with heroic figures from the past in order to lend them authority. This is clearly the case with the pseudepigraphical works from the late biblical period that purported to be the writings of worthies such as Abraham, Enoch, and Moses who, if historical, lived more than a millennium before the testaments and apocalypses associated with them were composed. We can only assume that the practice in early Judaism of associating, for instance, the Pentateuch and Job with Moses, the Psalms with David, much of the wisdom literature with Solomon, and, in the present case, Judges with the ancient priest Samuel is also part of the same phenomenon, the mentality of traditional cultures that respected their elders.

Since with Judges we are dealing with traditions that may have been transmitted orally for generations and that, once committed to writing, were certainly copied and recopied, and amplified and edited for centuries, the very definition of “author” is complicated. Does it mean the initial or the final composer? Does it mean the composer of the bulk of the work, if it can be demonstrated that there are sections of Judges that have a unity of literary and stylistic features? Rather than think about a single author, we should think instead of a series of authors or of networks or schools of like-minded scribes who composed, handled, and edited this text within their circles over several generations and centuries. One of the judges, Jephthah, is described as the “son of a prostitute” (Judg 11:1); as a result, his father was, the text implies, “[all] Gilead.” Just as Jephthah had many fathers, the book of Judges has many authors, the cohort of composers of its distinct sections and of the scribes who molded together many discrete stories, songs, lists, and religious teachings in order to create the extant book.

Dates of Composition and Historical Context.

The uneven texture of Judges is evidence that it was not composed in a single moment by a single author. The primary fabric of Judges is prose narrative, but there are other materials embedded in this matrix, such as the poem in Judges 5 with its archaic style, grammar, and diction, and the highly formulaic list of ancient potentates, the “Minor Judges,” in Judges 10 and 12. Different sections of the book have distinct editorial formulas and refrains: the formula described below that dominates the core of the book (Judg 3–16; best seen in Judg 3:7–11), and the refrain (“There was no king then and every man did what was right in his eyes”) that unifies Judges 17–21. This variegated texture suggests that Judges emerged through a complicated process. Many scholarly attempts have been made to, first, separate the extant book into constituent parts, and, second, arrange these parts chronologically in order to expose how the book developed, edition by edition, over time. Unfortunately, there are no objective bases to recommend one of these enterprising hypotheses rendered by competing scholars in alphabet-soup codes (J, D, Dtr, H, M, R, S, etc.) over another since there is no ancient manuscript evidence for any document other than some version of the full book.

Let us begin by noting two general and related truths about ancient literature. First, the ancients revered tradition. Second, texts themselves had a magical or sacred aura around them in the early centuries of alphabetic literary. For these reasons, ancient scribes were reluctant to jettison whatever texts they had received and were more likely to adjust, amplify, and reinterpret texts entrusted to them through addition rather than subtraction.

What core document got the book of Judges rolling? There are two main schools of thought. The German biblical scholar Wolfgang Richter (1963) posited the existence of a First Temple anthology of narratives about Ephraimite heroes, which he called the “Retterbuch,” or “Book of Rescuers,” and that roughly conformed to what now appears in Judges 3–8. These stories about Ehud (Judg 3:12–30), Deborah and Barak (Judg 4:1—5:31), and Gideon (Judg 6:1—8:28) are united by a common editorial


Geography of Judges.

Square boxes indicate Philistine cities.


formula (the Israelites sin; an enemy overpowers them; the Israelites cry to the LORD; the LORD hears their cry and sends a “Rescuer”; the enemy is defeated; and “the land has rest”). These stories have a common geographic horizon, the central Samarian highlands, and with their recounting of Israelite victories share a celebrative tone. The alternative thesis, represented by Barnabas Lindars (1995), is that there was no Retterbuch; rather, the book of Judges first emerged as part of Noth's putative Deuteronomistic History around the time of the Babylonian Exile. It was then, according to Noth's thesis, that priestly historians, the Deuteronomist(s), collected written oral traditions about the frontier time as part of a longer didactic chronicle of Israelite and Judahite fortunes from the Israelites' entrance into the promised land after the Exodus to Judah's exile from the promised land to Babylon.

Richter, a student of Noth, assumed that Judges was part of this longer work spanning Joshua through Kings, but imagined the Deuteronomistic edition of Judges (i.e., Judg 2:6—16:31) to be its secondary stage, an expansion of the Retterbuch of Judges 3–8. At present, there is no external evidence based on primary sources with which to resolve the question of whether the origins of the scroll that became Judges stem from a preexilic Ephraimite Retterbuch or from the Judahite priestly historians who composed the Deuteronomistic History just before, during, or right after the Exile (there are now dozens of competing refinements of Noth's thesis, and no consensus about its precise era of composition).

The book probably had at least one more stage of development subsequent to its Deuteronomistic edition. As noted above, the initial and final chapters of Judges portray a distinct pro-Judahite bias and concomitant anti-northern sentiment. The introduction to the book in Judges 1:1–2:5 emphasizes the courage, faithfulness, and success of Judah, even while none of the major narratives in the core of the book concern a Judahite hero (Othniel in Judg 3:7–11 could be considered a Judahite though the text does not identify him as such, and there is little content to the narrative about him beyond the formuliac). The conclusion of the book, Judges 17:1—21:25, has two major stories, one about the illicit origins of a shrine in Dan and the Danites unprovoked conquest of the “quiet and unsuspecting” inhabitants of Laish in northern Galilee (Judg 17:1—18:31), and a second about a civil war setting Benjamin against the rest of the tribes that was sparked by the sadistic behavior of a Benjaminite mob in Gibeah (Judg 19:1—21:25). Since the regions of Dan and of Benjamin were the sites of the main religious shrines of the north, this is clear evidence that the opening and closing frames of the book valorize southern interests and demonize the north.

But what historical era was the context for this presentation? The conflicts and rivalry among regions and subcultures within ancient Israel must, finally, be attributed to natural causes emerging from topography and diverse cultural and economic differences since such tensions were perennial. The early Iron Age saw the conflict between the House of Saul (whose hometown was Gibeah, in Benjamin) and the House of David (who was from Bethlehem in Judah; both Gibeah and Bethlehem appear in Judg 19). A generation later, after Solomon's death, conflicts between north and south led to the emergence of two states, Israel and Judah, that related uneasily with each other for two centuries. On the eve of the Babylonian Exile, during the Josianic era, there were conflicts emerging from the attempt of the Judahite royal house to centralize religious life in Jerusalem. In the exilic period, the north/south conflict was centered in a competition between Mizpah (in Benjamin) and Jerusalem over which town would serve as the center of Judahite culture during Babylonian colonial rule. These tensions continued in the Second Temple period in the form of antipathies between Samaritans and Judahites/Judeans. Interpreters can take, and have taken, their pick among all these eras as the historical horizon of the composition of the introductory and concluding sections of Judges. And let us note clearly: given all these ambiguities, many recent analyses of Judges, such as those by Webb (1987) and Klein (1988), have abandoned the elusive quest for a reconstructed history of the development of Judges and have concentrated on a literary analysis of the book in its extant, canonical form.

Why then suggest a post-Deuteronomistic horizon for the addition of the introductory and concluding sections of the book? We return to our remarks about the mentality of biblical scribes. The Bible reflects on every page reinterpretation and changing viewpoints. But new ideas had to be packaged in the wrappings of antiquity and tradition. Prophetic rhetoric permitted the boldness of “You have heard it was said, but now I say unto you,” but scribal convention did not. Biblical authors and redactors had to be subtle when they engaged and revised the traditions entrusted to them. The literary structures inherited by scribes were the sacred shrines of their ancestors and not to be tampered with, but they could be expanded and remodeled through new anterior and posterior construction. Though Judges had many authors from many eras, they all played by a common set of rules. Each person in the chain (whom scholars now call a “tradent”) was obliged to pass on the revered tradition he received, while at the same time commenting on it and adjusting it through prefacing and extending the existing material, and adding new sections around the inherited core. That leads us to imagine that the evolution of the book was centrifugal, from the center out. The book of Judges moved like a snowball down the slope of its literary history, growing larger with every scribal revolution.

At its center was a core anthology of narratives about northern heroes that stems from the First Temple period (roughly Judg 3–8). When this first edition of Judges was incorporated into the Deuteronomistic History in the sixth century B.C.E., the material of Judges (roughly Judg 2–16 at this stage) was part of a narrative that ended in Kings with cultural devastation attributed to religious infidelity. In order to adapt the celebratory heroic anthology to its new setting, priestly historians prefaced the Retterbuch with an editorial in the Deuteronomistic style (Judg 2:6—3:6; cf. also 10:6–9), a narrative about a southern hero (Othniel in Judg 3:7–11), and then at the back end of the Retterbuch appended a downbeat coda to the Gideon narrative (Judg 8:27, 33), stories about morally deficient or ambivalent protagonists (Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson), and the list of Minor Judges (Judg 10:1–5; 12:7–15). This redactor inserted the notice about Shamgar (Judg 3:31) in the thin recess between the Ehud and Deborah narratives in order to clarify the otherwise enigmatic reference to Shamgar that appears in the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:6). Like the Deuteronomistic History of which it was a part, the negative tone of this edition of Judges contained muted hopes for kingship tempered by prophetic critique (Judg 9), the inclusion of northern and southern tribes in the community, and a commitment to a single ritual center for the culture going forward.

The extant book of Judges emerged when this Deuteronomistic work was incorporated into a still larger whole by the addition of the frames that begin (Judg 1:1—2:5) and end (Judg 17–21) it. Though the Deuteronomistic circle was active in Judah, it treasured the heritage of northern prophets (Samuel, Elijah, Elisha), but the composers of this final exterior stratum of Judges were more partisan, emphatically pro-Judahite and anti-Ephraimite. Still, their scribal artistry can be seen in Judges 1. Though most of the chapter is formulaic, crediting Judah for faithfulness and accusing the northern tribes of perennial assimilation to foreign culture, the places where Judges 1 adds narrative details anticipate events in the book's core that needed clarification. Who is Othniel, the hero who appears in Judges 3:7–11? His backstory is given in Judges 1:11–15. Who are the Kenites who appear in the narratives about Deborah (Judg 4:11; 5:24)? Their backstory is given in Judges 1:16. Why must the Danite Samson descend from the Judean Shephelah to scrum with Philistines on the coastal plain (e.g., Judg 14:1)? Judges 1:34 explains: the Amorites had pressed the Danites back into the hills.

Literary History.

To summarize, there were three stages of the growth of the book of Judges.

The Book of Rescuers (Judg 3:12—8:28).

This consists of a narrative cycle about Ephraimite frontier heroes—Ehud, Deborah/Barak, and Gideon—united by geographic contiguity, editorial and plot uniformity (the consistent use of the Judges formula), and a celebrative tone. This work is the heroic epic of the Israelite tribes in the Samarian highlands. This region was the homeland of earliest “Israel” according to many biblical archaeologists and this is its story. It sketches an era with decentralized worship of the LORD at monoliths, under trees, and in remodeled Canaanite shrines. It depicts successful military campaigns that secured the eastern boundary of Israel against Moabites and Midianites from Transjordan, and which checked the advance of lowland Canaanites from the Jezreel Valley. It captured the provisional egalitarianism of the frontier era that allowed for female prophets such as Deborah, and of the winning underdog mentality of early Israel: left–handed heroes assassinating a king in his inner sanctum, militias without “shield or spear” (Judg 5:8) triumphing over chariotry corps (Judg 4:13), and a handful of men besting an enemy swarm through a mixture of courage and brilliantly bizarre tactics, as Gideon's band made its nocturnal raid on the Midianite camp with torches ablaze and ram's horns blaring (Judg 7:15–22).

“Chapter Two” of the Deuteronomistic History (Judg 2:6—16:31).

This edition of Judges incorporates the Book of Rescuers, prefaces it with Judges 2:6—3:11, and extends it with Judges 8:29—16:31. It begins where the previous chapter of the Deuteronomistic History leaves off (cf. Judg 2:6–9 and Josh 24:28–31). It leaves off where the next chapter of the Deuteronomistic History begins (compare the parallel accounts of special births that begin the Samson and Samuel narratives, Judg 13:1 and 1 Sam 1:1, respectively).

The Scroll of Judges (Judg 1–21).

With the addition of a new introduction in Judges 1:1—2:5 and conclusion in Judges 17–21, the extant book emerged, emphatically affirming the centrality of Judah (and indirectly Jerusalem) and its twin institutions of the Davidic royal house and the Temple on Mount Zion.

Structure and Contents.

A.The introductory section (Judg 1:1—2:5)

1. The success of the Judahites (Judg 1:1–20)

2. The failures of the northern tribes (Judg 1:21–36)

3. Initial theophany (Judg 2:1–5)

B.The heroic anthology (Judg 2:6—16:31)

1. The rescuers (Judg 2:6—8:28)

Deuteronomistic introduction (Judg 2:6—3:6)

The test case: Othniel (Judg 3:7–11)

a. Ehud (Judg 3:12–30)

A word to the reader: Shamgar (Judg 3:31)

b. Deborah, Barak, and Jael: the story (Judg 4:1–24)

the song (Judg 5:1–31)

c. The Gideon cycle (Judg 6:1—8:28)

2. The empty men (Judg 8:29—16:31)

a. Abimelech (Judg 8:29—9:57)

The minor judges, part 1 (Judg 10:1—5)

Deuteronomistic update (Judg 10:6—18)

b. The Jephthah cycle (Judg 11:1—12:15)

The minor judges, part 2 (Judg 12:8—15)

c. The Samson cycle (Judg 13:1—16:31)

C.The concluding section (Judg 17:1—21:25)

1. The Danites and the corrupt origins of their shrine (Judg 17:1—18:31)

2. The Benjaminites and their perverse violence (Judg 19:1—21:25)

A. The Introductory Section (Judg 1:1—2:5).

The book begins with a resumptive phrase, “After the death of Joshua” (Judg 1:1; cf. Josh 24:29) so that the ancient scribes who pulled this scroll out of a sacred repository would know immediately what they had and where they were in the story. Following this, the hero of the first chapter of Judges is not a person, but a tribe, the tribe of Judah (Judg 1:1–20). Through an oracle (Judg 1:1–3), Judah is given the martial honor of initiating the warfare against the indigenous peoples of Canaan. Along with Simeon, its neighboring tribe to the south, Judah campaigns successfully in the Judean highlands, from Jerusalem (Judg 1:8) south to the Negev (Judg 1:9, 15), and even supposedly conquers southern Philistia (Judg 1:18), though this region is depicted as fiercely independent in the Samson narrative of Judges 13–16.

This conquest account sounds a lot like those in Joshua, but the differences between Joshua and Judges regarding the Judahite claims are instructive. According to Judges 1:9–13, the tribe of Judah took Hebron and Debir; in Joshua 10:36–40, Joshua had been given credit for both. According to Judges 1:21, the failure to secure Jerusalem is blamed on the Benjaminites; in the nearly identical verse in Joshua 15:63, it was the Judahites who failed to drive out the Jebusites from Jerusalem. Not only is Judah mentioned more than the other tribes in Judges 1, but a comparison with parallel sections in Joshua demonstrates that Judah is being portrayed in the most favorable light possible.

As for the other tribes, the House of Joseph (i.e., Ephraim and Manasseh) is given credit for taking Bethel (Judg 1:22–26), but every other northern tribe is portrayed as unsuccessful at ridding its territory of the indigenous peoples whose presence would later bedevil them (Judg 1:27–34). The introductory section ends with the account of a theophany in which the angel of the LORD explains that the failures of the non-Judahite tribes are the result of their ritual impurities (Judg 2:1–5).

B. The Heroic Anthology (Judg 2:6—16:31).

The resumptive phrases in Judg 2:6–9 that repeat word-for-word some of the final verses of Joshua (cf. Judg 2:6–9 with Josh 24:28–31) clearly marks a new section, and raises the possibility that these were once the initial verses of an earlier, Deuteronomistic, form of the book, as Martin Noth first observed. Thus oriented—this is the continuation of the story left hanging at the end of the scroll of Joshua—the reader enters the central chamber of Judges, an anthology of heroic narratives governed by a coherent editorial formula: the Israelites cry to the LORD; the LORD hears their cry and sends a “Rescuer”; the enemy is defeated; and “the land has rest.”

The first “judge” is Othniel (Judg 3:7–11), though many readers have noted that there is little in this section apart from the formula, except for the insertion of the name of a hero, Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother or kinsman, and the name of an enemy, Cushan-rishathaim (“Double-Trouble”) of Aram-naharaim. But then the parade of frontier legends begins, starting with the story of Ehud in Judges 3:12 and ending with Samson in Judges 16:31. The editorial formula is an element of all the sections, stories about Ehud, Deborah and Barak, Gideon and Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson, though it is inconsistently applied. It is fullest in the first three stories, about Ehud, Deborah and Barak, and Gideon. It barely touches the stories of Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson, and this editorial shift seems to parallel the contents of the narratives and allows us to divide the heroic anthology into two parts. After the death of Gideon, never again will “the land have rest” (Judg 3:11; 3:30; 5:31; 8:28). That is why I refer to the chief protagonists of the first half of the heroic anthology (Judg 2:7—8:28)—Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon—as “the Rescuers,” and Abimelech, Jephthah, and Samson in its second half (Judg 8:29—16:31) as “the Empty Men” (Heb. ʾanašîm reqîm, cf. Judg 9:4; 11:3). Near the end of the Gideon cycle, the presentations of protagonists pivots from heroes to anti-heroes, from culture heroes to outlaw heroes.

The story of Ehud (Judg 3:12–30) is a terse masterpiece full of scatology, wordplay, and ironic reversals. A left-handed Benjaminite (and Benjamin means “son of the south” or “son of the right hand”) undertakes a solo mission into the inaccessible fortress of King Eglon of Moab, assassinates him, and escapes to safety. The story details how Ehud crosses threshold after threshold—the monoliths outside Jericho, the palace antechamber, the royal apartment and back out again—and in the central chamber of this labyrinth slays the royal “Baby Bull” (the meaning of Eglon's name) and manages to escape past the Moabite guards who mistakenly assumed the odor of Eglon's eviscerated intestines was evidence that their king was engaged in “private business,” allowing Ehud time to escape their sphere of control, sound the shofar (the ram's horn alarm), and rally the Israelite attack.

The story of Deborah, the only female judge in the book, follows, recounted in prose (Judg 4:1–24) and poetry (Judg 5:1–31). The poetic “Song of Deborah” in Judges 5 is one of the oldest pieces of Hebrew writing; as a literary specimen it has more in common with the Late Bronze Age Canaanite mythic poetry from Syria than with Hebrew poetry from the Iron Age. It narrates a battle between the Israelite militia led by Barak and the Canaanite forces of King Jabin under the command of Sisera. According to the poem, it was a cloudburst (Judg 5:4–5; 20–21) that providentially mired the Canaanite chariotry in the suddenly sodden Wadi Kishon, allowing the outnumbered and underarmed Israelites to rout their opponent. The story that begins with a woman, Deborah, in a position of authority, ends with the cameo appearance of a second woman, the Kenite Jael, who steals the show and more (Judg 4:17–22; 5:24–27). The narrative artistry in the description of Jael's heroism is clearest in the prose account (Judg 4:17–22) which has Jael “coming out” of her tent “to meet” two different men (Judg 4:18, 22). From the Canaanite warlord Sisera, she steals life when she invites the fleeing, weary general into her tent, lulls him to sleep, and then murders him. From the Israelite warlord Barak, she steals martial honors, depriving him of the opportunity to gain the scalp of his warrior peer. The juxtaposition of an older poetic and later prose treatment of the same narrative, side by side in Judges 4 and 5 has drawn the attention of scholars curious about the earliest horizon of Hebrew literature. If the Deborah and Barak account is diagnostic (and a similar phenomenon can be seen in the poetic and prose versions of the crossing of the Red Sea from Exod 14–15), then in the beginning was the Song. Early Israelite hymns, such as in Judges 5 and Exodus 15, were later converted into the registers of prose narratives.

The Gideon cycle is the longest narrative in Judges (Judg 6:1—8:35) and parts of it defy analysis, though its plot is clear. Gideon leads a select corps of hand-picked men, “the three hundred” (Judg 7:8; 8:4), to victory over a swarm of Midianites “as thick as locusts” (Judg 6:5; 7:12) from Transjordan who were invading Israel at harvest time in this grim Iron Age competition for food. The Three Hundred Spartans, the Seven Samurai, the Dirty Dozen: Gideon and his band are another variation on the perennially popular story of a small group that valiantly battles a vast army.

The Gideon narrative contains many picturesque details. When we are introduced to our unlikely hero, the “youngest” male of the “smallest” clan (Judg 6:15), Gideon is threshing wheat in an unlikely place, a wine press (Judg 6:11), in order to hide it from the agricultural marauders. Our insecure hero requires special oracular reassurance of divine support before entering battle and concocts two tests in which God must perform miraculous feats involving fleece, a threshing floor, and the morning dew (Judg 6:36–40). In turn, the LORD concocts two tests of “his” own that reduce Gideon's troops from thousands to hundreds (Judg 7:2–7) to keep our anxious hero humble (Judg 7:2). Gideon's band of three hundred triumphs with unconventional tactics. In the middle of the night they carry torches concealed in jars and ram's horns to the periphery of the sleepy Midianite camp. At Gideon's trumpet blast, they break the jars and sound the shofars, and the special effects of light and sound panic the enemy. The narrative that had begun with Gideon's call at the site of a winepress ends with the killing of the final surviving Midianite general at a different winepress (Judg 7:25).

Gideon is not finished yet. Another narrative follows (Judg 8:1–21) that tracks the symmetrical and murderous three-stage itinerary of Gideon and his war party across the Jordan to exact revenge on the Midianites for the death of Gideon's brothers in an earlier skirmish. A final scene completes a ritual subplot from earlier in the busy narrative. Gideon had constructed an altar to the LORD at Ophrah (Judg 6:24) and had desecrated a local shrine to Baal (Judg 6:25–32). At the end of the cycle of Gideon narratives, Gideon recasts the plunder of jewelry and finery taken on his reprisal mission into sacred paraphernalia for the shrine at Ophrah (Judg 8:24–27). The story's ultimate verdict on Gideon is positive: at the end of his adventures, “the land has rest” (Judg 8:28) and, according to Judges 8:32, “Gideon died at a good old age.” But the penultimate measure taken of Gideon finds him wanting; according to Judges 8:27, the oracular device that Gideon crafted from Midianite plunder was used for occult purposes and “became a snare to Gideon and his family.”

The juxtaposition of these confusing and contradictory views of Gideon in neighboring verses affects not only our reading of his adventures, but the trajectory of Judges as a whole. Should we understand Gideon's insecure obsession with oracular tests (the fleece) and devices (the ephod) as the kind of humanizing vulnerability that is part of many portraits of biblical heroes? Or should we understand Gideon as yet another northerner in Judges who did “the evil thing in the eyes of the LORD,” that is, incorporated Canaanite motifs into his religious practice?

This ambiguity at the end of Gideon's story may very well mark the boundary between literary strata in Judges, as suggested above under “Dates of composition and historical context.” After Gideon the cyclical plot of Judges spirals toward the chaotic whirlpool at the end of the book: the heroes after Gideon are morally ambiguous, and never again will an episode end with the status quo of the land having “rest.” At the same time, the extended narrative about Gideon presents literary puzzles that remain unsolved. There is still no adequate explanation for the bundle of doublets in the cycle: at times, it seems like there are two of everything: the hero goes by two names (“Gideon” or “Jerubbaal”; cf. Judg 7:1), there are two tests with fleece, two ordeals that reduce Gideon's troops, two methods of inducing panic in the climactic raid (how could a single warrior carry a jug-incased torch and a trumpet at the same time?), two pairs of Midianite commanders (Oreb and Zeeb according to Judg 7:25; Zebah and Zalmunna according to Judg 8:4–21), and distinct episodes that prefer one or the other principal divine name (usually “the LORD,” but exclusively “God” in Judg 6:36–40).

The narrative about the first of three explicitly flawed protagonists, Abimelech, follows (Judg 9:1–57). It is a didactic story about Gideon's son Abimelech, his murderous plot to inherit his father's warlordship in the Shechem region, and the poetic justice of his demise. On a stone (i.e, a rock slab that served as a butchering platform) Abimelech has his brothers executed, eliminating all rivals to his father's power base (Judg 9:5). At the end of this story in which Abimelech seems to outlast an entire generation of faithless and ruthless warlords who take turns double-crossing and conspiring against each other in the shadow of Shechem's temple which bears the ironic title Baal-berith [House of the] Lord-of-the-Covenant” (Judg 9:4), Providence guides a stone dropped by a woman from a town wall to fall on Abimelech's head (Judg 9:53), exacting divine retribution for his initial crime (Judg 9:56).

Immediately following the Abimelech narrative is the first section of a list of “Minor Judges” (Judg 10:1–5; it continues in 12:7–15). The function of this list of ancient potentates along with information about their hometowns, the length of their chieftaincies, and burial places, is unclear. The inclusion of this tradition (picked off the floor of the scribal workshop?) does allow biblical authors and redactors to arrive at the numerically charmed number of twelve judges in the book as a whole if we eliminate Abimelech from consideration: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Tola (Judg 10:1–2), Jair (10:3–5), Jephthah, Ibzan (12:8–10), Elon (12:11–12), Abdon (12:13–15), and Samson (chs. 13–16).

The Jephthah narrative (Judg 10:17—12:7) has two parts. In the first part (Judg 10:17—11:40), the elders of Gilead recruit Jephthah, a shady exile (“the son of a prostitute”) from Gilead who had subsequently become a powerful warlord, to help them combat invading Ammonites. Jephthah succeeds, but he is infamous for his “vow.” On the eve of battle, in exchange for divine support, Jephthah vows to sacrifice whomever or whatever (it is not clear what he envisioned: a goat? a person?) “comes out of the house to meet” him should he arrive home victorious (Judg 11:30–31). When his daughter, “his only child,” comes out “with timbrels and dancing” to greet her victorious father in the customary style (cf. 1 Sam 18:6), the traditional pageantry of a homecoming rite turns into a perverse scenario that is literally unspeakable: though the text of Judges contains many descriptions of violence, it cannot manage to detail the final scene of this story. The ritual incineration of an innocent girl is narrated by the


Jephthah's Vow (11: 29–35).

Jephthah returns from defeating the Ammonites and is greeted by his daughter. Painting by Edwin Longsden Long, 1886.


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note that Jephthah “did with her according to the vow he had made” (Judg 11:39).

In a transition shocking in its abrupt resumption of heroics following the end of the account of Jephthah and his daughter, a new episode about Jephthah begins (Judg 12:1–6). It seems that the Ephraimite militia were offended that Jephthah had not mustered them to enter the campaign against the Ammonites. This initiates intratribal feud warfare between the Gileadites and Ephraimites on Jephthah's adopted home turf in Transjordan. When fleeing Ephraimites seek to return home, Jephthah's men seize the fords of the Jordan River in order to finish the fight. Since there was nothing physical to distinguish Ephraimites from Gileadites, Jephthah's men force every man they apprehend at the river to pronounce the word, “ear-of-corn,” in Hebrew “shibboleth,” whose initial sibilant was enunciated as “s” (i.e., “sibboleth”) in the Ephraimite dialect. The common theme that unites both parts of the Jephthah narrative is that words have the power of life and death, an idea especially powerful in a primarily oral culture in which speech had ultimate and sacred significance.

The account of ancient Israel's wildest and best known outlaw hero, Samson, completes the heroic anthology. Samson's superhuman strength and subhuman ferocity, his comic and tragic misadventures, and the story's admixture of sex and violence have combined to elevate Samson from the parochial ranks of the biblical judges to join his rightful peers, the legion of universal heroes. Riddling, brawling, coupling, boasting, always wandering: Samson, as depicted in Judges 13–16, is one of the world's great literary creations, a walking, talking incarnation of a certain brand of hypermasculinity.

The Samson narrative has two parts: the story of his birth (Judg 13:1–25) and adult adventures (Judg 14:1—16:31). In the birth account, Samson's mother is visited by an angel and promised a heroic son whose hair should remain uncut throughout his life. Samson's adventures follow our long-haired, prodigiously strong hero on his often comic but ultimately tragic search for love in Philistia. Samson has liaisons with three women, a woman from Timnah (Judg 14:1—15:20), a prostitute from Gaza (Judg 16:1–3), and Delilah (Judg 16:4–31). On the surface, Samson appears motivated by nothing more than amorous wanderlust; for instance, the story implies that Samson's interest in the Timnite is impulsive (Judg 14:3, “She pleases me,” is more literally in Hebrew, “She is right in my eyes”). Under the surface, however, as Judges 14:4 states, Samson's libido is in the service of a divine mission. “The LORD was seeking a pretext against the Philistines,” launching Samson into enemy territory where this hairy force of nature looking for love inadvertently initiates a chain reaction of violence and arson that finally leaves Philistia devastated.

C. The Concluding Section (Judg 17:1—21:25).

The book of Judges ends with unhappy stories, each closed by a sad refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judg 17:6; 21:25; cf. 18:1; 19:1). The first story (Judg 17:1—18:31) is about the tortuous and tainted origins of the artifacts and priesthood of the shrine at Dan, which was to become one of two central pilgrimage sites of the northern kingdom during the era of the divided monarchy. That story is followed by the graphic and horrific account in Judges 19–21 that serves as the final statement about the social and religious chaos of the era.

A Levite man from Ephraim marries a Judahite woman from Bethlehem. She is displeased with her husband and returns to her parents, where her husband pursues her. After several days with the in-laws, they leave, near nightfall over the objections of her father (Judg 19:3–10). On the road north from Bethlehem to Ephraim, they pass through Gibeah of Benjamin (Saul's hometown) and take shelter there in the home of a man originally from Ephraim (Judg 19:13–21). Then the nightmare begins.

With echoes of the story of Sodom (Gen 19:1–11), men from Gibeah form a mob and demand that the Ephraimite surrender his Levite guest to them, so they might sexually assault him (Judg 19:22). The host refuses, but offers the mob his own daughter and the Levite's wife instead. When the mob refuses this travesty of hospitality and kinship—the Ephraimite host was loath to endanger a fellow male from Ephraim—the Levite acts, “seizes” his wife and hands her over to the mob which repeatedly assaults her (Judg 19:25).

The next morning, the Levite man opens the door and sees his wife, presumably dead, on the threshold. He “seizes” (Heb. Judg 19:29) her a second time, and cuts her body into twelve pieces which are distributed throughout the land. This postmortem assault by her husband is designed to outrage and arouse the bloodthirst of the remaining Israelite tribes against the Benjaminites. When the Benjaminites refuse to hand over the participants in the mob—once again male bonding triumphs over justice—a civil war begins. It has twists and turns—though outnumbered the men of Benjamin are fierce—but it ends with the utter defeat of the Benjaminites. No civilians, no animals, no buildings survive the massacre (Judg 20:48), except for six hundred Benjaminite warriors who had escaped.

Then the Israelite chiefs, who had vowed during the hostilities that no son of Benjamin would ever marry their daughters (Judg 21:1), incredibly, grow anxious about the state of those six hundred homeless, childless, wifeless warriors who had taken refuge in the wilds. But how do they get around their vow not to give their daughters to Benjaminite sons? They must have wives; the patriarchal family of twelve tribes must be preserved. As befits the book of Judges, their reasoning is both despicable and bizarre. Since the village of Jabesh-gilead did not answer the tribal muster against Benjamin, their women are fair game. The Israelite militia attacks Jabesh-gilead and kills everyone except the nubile young women, “young virgins who had never slept with a man” (Judg 21:12). But this secures only four hundred head of breeding stock for the Benjaminites. How to get two hundred more?

Skirting the edge of one taboo—the sacred vow they took to refuse to allow their daughters to marry Benjaminites—the elders of Israel reason that, although they cannot give their daughters away, there is no reason why the Benjaminites cannot take their daughters by force. The Benjaminites are guided by these fathers to sneak up on the annual festival at Shiloh where young women customarily perform a traditional dance, and there abduct them. And that is what happens (Judg 21:15–24). An entire cohort of Jephthah-like fathers conspire to sacrifice a generation of Israelite daughters in order to fulfill a vow. An entire cohort of men follow the ethics of the Ephraimite host earlier in the story, handing over their daughters to the mob from Gibeah.

Abruptly, mercifully, the books ends immediately after this atrocious conclusion to the Benjaminite civil war, with the self-evident final refrain that betrays the most jaundiced characterization of northern society: “in those days there was no king [read: Judahite, Davidic king], and everyone [literally “every man,” which is more accurate than the inclusive translations in contemporary Bibles] did what was right in their [his] eyes” (Judg 21:25).

Interpretation History.

We begin, not with the extant book of Judges, but with its hypothetical core, the heroic anthology of Judges 3–8, Richter's “Retterbuch,” the Book of Rescuers. If that was the first edition of Judges, then the book was initially a story of flawed, larger-than-life underdog heroes from the northern culture of Ephraim. In its earliest incarnation, Judges was an anthology of frontier legends from the time “when locks were long in Israel” (Judg 5:2). This hypothetical stage in the development of the book must certainly be preexilic and possibly prior to the fall of Samaria in 722 B.C.E.

Once the Book of Rescuers was bound within the introductory and closing frames of the book, the trajectory of the book and our view of the heroes changed. The cyclical pattern—sin/cry to the LORD/emergence of a rescuer/victory—began to spiral downward toward the chaotic lawlessness of the final story. The Ephraimite heroes now served a Judahite purpose, to demonstrate that southern kingship and religious centralization in Jerusalem were necessary for cultural survival. This stage in the development of the book could only have taken place when the legacy of Israelite religion was firmly in Judahite hands, no earlier than the seventh century B.C.E., but as late as the postexilic period when hopes still remained for a Davidic renaissance.

Once the book of Judges itself was sequenced into the two major canonical collections of the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, respectively, around the turn of the Common Era, this negative view of the era of the Judges continued, though with a subtle uptick. Yes, the era of the judges paled with what preceded and followed it: decentralized tribal leaders could not take Israel forward. Kings, not judges, were the leaders who would assume the mantle of Moses and Joshua, and not just any kings, but Judahite kings of Davidic descent whose shrine was the Temple in Jerusalem. “There was no king” is the final refrain of Judges and so the answer was to get a king and to centralize political and religious authority, though the central institutions of palace and Temple should always be tempered by prophetic critique.

Still, in the Jewish canonical sequence, the violence toward women in the book's final chapters is ameliorated, slightly, by the portrait of a virtuous woman granted her own voice and blessing, Hannah, in the initial chapters of the following book of 1 Samuel. In the Greek Bible, the negative portrait of the era is softened by its placement before the book of Ruth, explicitly set “in the days when the judges judged.” With its pastoral idyll about harmony between men and women, and peaceful relations between Judahites and foreigners, Ruth functions as a canonical antidote to the venomous events in the final chapters of Judges.

Also around the turn of the Common Era, we can see the heroes of Judges being recast as pious exemplars of courage and faithfulness in Sirach 44:1–15; 46:11–12 (“Let us now sing the praises of famous men…  the judges also, with their respective names”) and in Hebrews 11:1–3 (“By faith, our ancestors received approval.”), and 11:32—12:2 (“Time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah…  who through faith…  became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight”).

In the rabbinic period, however, after the failure of the Bar Kochba rebellion (132–35 C.E.), when Judaism redefined heroism and tempered its martial values, the judges emerged as dangerous role models and so were remade into sages, into warriors of Torah. This changing view is typified by the Talmudic legends about the gladiator-turned-rabbi Resh Lakish, a character who would have been right at home in the book of Judges. According to the Talmud, Resh Lakish left his rowdy ways in order to devote his prodigious strength to Torah study. Similarly, in rabbinic sources, heroes from Judges such as Othniel and Deborah were recast as bookworms, experts in study and teaching, and the failings of an antihero such as Jephthah were attributed to his lack of Torah knowledge and devotion.

In Christian tradition, in general, the heroes of Judges were reinterpreted, like all the protagonists of the Hebrew Bible, in polemical ways. When it suited Christian polemicists to use Judges as a negative example, the final refrain of Judges, that “there was no king in those days,” was amended to, in so many words, “there was no Savior in those days.” The chaotic, lawless and violent events depicted in the book demonstrated that without the new covenant of grace through Christ, it was impossible to live up to the demands of the Mosaic


The Samson Narrative.

Upper left: Samson drinks from a divinely provided spring at Lehi (“jawbone” cf. 15:9–19). Upper right: Samson carrying the gates of Gaza (16:1–3). Lower left: Samson with Delilah (16:18–20). Lower right: The Philistines blind Samson (16:21). Illustrations from the Morgan Picture Bible (Maciejowski Bible), MS 638, fol. 15r, c. 1244–1254.


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covenant. At the same time, the heroes of Judges could be appropriated as heroic in Christian preaching and, especially, in African-American spirituals where Gideon and Samson figure prominently as models of resistance to injustice. The fact that Samson gave his life to deliver his people has not been lost on many an enterprising Christian preacher. Whether positively or negatively, the book of Judges was interpreted to suit Christian interests.

In modern biblical scholarship, Judges has become increasingly central in several different areas of inquiry. In biblical archaeology, the book of Judges is at the center of the contentious debates about the origins and early history of Israel. In feminist biblical interpretation, Judges with its vivid female characters and graphic depictions of violence by and against women has become a central text. And with the advent of literary approaches to biblical study, Judges has been rediscovered as a neglected masterpiece of Hebrew literature.

It is as if interpretation of Judges has come full circle, and has made its way back to the Retterbuch, to the narratives at the core of the book, focusing on the individual stories themselves with their memorable characters and engaging plots, and rediscovering why Gideon's trumpet and Samson's long hair remain enduring cultural motifs, why the wise among us still avoid “shibboleths,” and why so many girls continue to be named “Deborah” and not “Delilah.”

Reception History.

The vivid narratives of and memorable protagonists and villains of Judges have had a robust afterlife in cultures where the Bible has been a central medium. In popular speech, the phrase “Samson and Delilah” alone is an emblem of amorous passion. The names of the Judges wax and wane in popularity among the various onomastica (name collections) of Christian and Jewish cultures, but their ubiquity (“Deborah”) and rarity (“Elon” as in name of the university) equally testify to the often unnoticed hold this book maintains on our attention. The heroes of Judges have been the subjects of works of art in every media. In music there are, for example, Handel's oratorios “Deborah” (1733), “Jephtha” (1751), and “Samson” (1741), and two nineteenth-century African American spirituals, “De Band o' Gideon” and “Samson and Delilah.” The entire book of Judges can be illustrated from works in European art.

Of all the judges, Samson has generated the most attention in Jewish and Christian culture. This biblical version of the enduring folklore character of the wild man is perennially popular, both because of the vivid quality of the narrative about him and because his ambiguities perfectly sum up the liminal, transitional aspect of the book of Judges as a whole. The most famous literary treatment from Judges is John Milton's Samson Agonistes (1671), where the blinded Danite warrior, “eyeless in Gaza” (line 41), serves as an emblem for the tragic artistic hero, as well as Milton himself who elsewhere pondered the justice of his own disability—“Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd?” Samson has appeared and continues to appear across the broadest spectrum of literature, from epics to comics. And Samson and all the other ambivalently portrayed judges continue to elicit mixed responses. Nowhere is this more true than with the case of Samson in the past century of culture in Palestine and Israel. Samson appeared in Ze'ev Jabontinsky's 1927 novel Samson the Nazarite as a model for militant Zionism. Contemporary social critics in Israel fret about “the Samson Complex” and “the Samson Option,” as ways of describing the contradictions inherent in the use of military power by a Jewish state. Whether as hero, terrorist, or playboy, Samson's continued vitality in culture is representative of the wide-ranging and persistent influence of the book of Judges.

[See also JOSHUA; 1 AND 2 KINGS; and 1 AND 2 SAMUEL.]


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Gregory Mobley