Judges Overview: Rebellious History


1. Name

The book receives its name from the various leaders whom God raised up to deliver Israel from its oppressors during the period between Joshua and Samuel. They were given the title “Judge” in Judges 2:11-19.

2. Theme

Rebellion and repentance; causes and cure in backsliding.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 193.[/footnote]

3. Purpose

To establish Israel’s need for a godly king from the line of David.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 346.[/footnote]

4. Key verse

In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes (Judg. 17:6).

5. Key truths

• The tribes of Israel failed to complete the conquest of the land and suffered from this failure.
• God’s provision of judges could at best only temporarily bring blessings to the people of God.
• God’s provision of the Levites also failed to bring effective leadership to God’s people.
• The people of God must have a godly king from Judah, not from Benjamin, to lead them.[footnote]Ibid., 346.[/footnote]


I. Author

See Lecture 7 “Historical Books Overview” for general comments on the authorship of Historical books.

1. Critical view

As noted in the “Historical Books Overview” most liberal scholars reject the literary unity of Judges and argue that it is a post-exilic compilation of different sources plus some additions from its post-exilic redactor.

2. Evangelical view

The critical approach to re-constructing a book’s compositional history based on different ideologies and vocabulary has already been discussed in “Lecture 1: Overview of the Pentateuch.” Most of the arguments against re-constructing a compositional history of the Pentateuch may also be used against the possibility of re-constructing a compositional history of Judges and other “Historical Books.”

More recent scholarship has shown less interest in recovering the compositional history of the DH (Deuteronomic History) and has instead turned to synchronic methods (literary criticism, narrative analysis, rhetorical criticism) that read the text as a coherent literary unit that is ideologically and theologically unified. Authors taking this approach are more interested in questions of organization, imagery and themes, characterization, plot development, ideology, and point of view. Instead of fragmenting the text as it stands into earlier and later materials, these approaches emphasize the overall design, coherence, and authorial skill of the text read as a unity.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 122-123.[/footnote]

In summary, the author of Judges is anonymous, although there are clues to the time he lived within the book itself. According to the Talmud, “Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth.”


II. Date

The repeated expression, “in those days there was no king in Israel” (Judg. 17:6; Judg. 18:1; Judg. 19:1) would suggest someone living after the Davidic monarchy had been established, but before the unhappy troubles of the divided kingdom. The fact that the author is favorable towards Judah and negative towards the Benjaminites would indicate the tension during the time that David was king in Hebron and Saul’s son Ish-Bosheth ruled in the north.

Even though Judges never mentions David’s name, it purposefully and prominently plays Judah and Benjamin against one another, probably at a time when a debate raged over which tribe would produce Israel’s king. The writer of Judges affirmed Judah’s leadership (Judg. 1:1-2; Judg. 1:3-20) and rejected any reliance on leadership from the tribe of Benjamin.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 347.[/footnote]

Dillard and Longman propose that the last few chapters of the book have a bearing on the date of composition. They see Judges 17-18 as highlighting idolatry in the northern tribes and the violence in Judges 19-21 as suggesting the violent nature of the northern tribes.

The story appears to advocate loyalty from the northern tribes to a family from Bethlehem, rather than to a family from the corrupt Gibeah (Saul and his descendants). This historical account is strongly pro-David and anti-Saul, suggesting a setting fairly early in the monarchic period.[footnote]Ibid., 121.[/footnote]

The Jebusites were still holding Jerusalem (Judg. 1:21), which they did until the seventh year of David’s reign in Hebron (1004 BC). Therefore the book must have been composed before the events recorded in 2 Sam. 5:6ff when David captured the city.
The only other clue to the date of composition is found in Judges 18:30-31, where the writer states that the priests who descended from Jonathan, the son of Moses, continued to serve until the “day of the captivity of the land.” This is one of the verses the liberal scholars use to argue for a date of authorship after the Assyrian captivity of Israel in 722 BC, or even after the Babylonian captivity of 586 BC.
However, the “captivity of the land” may refer to the Philistine incursions during the time the ark was at Shiloh (1 Sam. 4:1-11). Or it may refer to a time shortly after the death of Saul when David was ruling over Judah and descendants of Saul held a small kingdom in Transjordan.
Gleason Archer argues that the “captivity of the land” could be referring to a time when the city of Dan on the exposed northern border was briefly overwhelmed by foreign invaders.

Thus construed, Judg. 18:30 refers simply to the land of Dan, and does not necessarily indicate any later time of composition than the reign of David.[footnote]G L Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago: Moody Press, 1998), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


III. Historical Analysis

1. The “Office” of Judge

The first important issue we have to address is, “What were the Judges?” That they were not primarily judicial figures is suggested by the fact that they are called “deliverers” more often than “judges” and that only Deborah has an explicitly judicial function (Judg. 4:5).

The Judges in Exodus 18:21-26 were civil magistrates with judicial functions. However, the Judges in this book were primarily military leaders who were periodically raised up by God and empowered for different tasks in different areas among the tribes to effect deliverance from enemies threatening parts of Israel. After the victory they continued in leadership roles though none of them established a royal dynasty.

The Judges must be seen as governing Israel representatively on behalf of the Lord who is the true Judge (Judg. 11:27). This aspect of vice-regency is emphasized by the humble backgrounds of the Judges. On the whole they do not come from important families and they do not seem to have a significant “power base.” There is no great power or ceremony accompanying them and there is no succession.

2. Historical Context

The Book of Joshua was full of great success. The tribes of Israel had been unified under strong leadership and had successfully conquered the Promised Land. Though Joshua records momentary lapses such as Achan’s sin (Judg. 7), the book emphasizes Israel’s success in taking and dividing the land.

In Joshua, the tribes had united to conquer Canaan for seven years. After the back of Canaanite resistance had been broken, Joshua assigned the elimination of remaining Canaanite enclaves to the individual tribes. This began just before the death of Joshua in 1387 BC. However, slowly, instead of conquest, Israel departed from the Lord in tolerating, then accommodating and then assimilating with the Canaanites. So God sent against them a series of foreign invaders. This is when the era of the Judges began.

During this period (approximately two centuries), Israel continually sinned against God and broke his covenant. The chosen people of God seemed determined to embrace the for¬bidden Canaanite religion and to depend on their own ability to defend themselves from enemy nations. Lacking strong national leadership (Judg. 17:6; Judg. 21:25) and unwilling to trust God, the nation was morally bankrupt – and seemingly unconcerned about its state of affairs. Joshua had entered the promised land with ease. But the next period of Israel’s history showed that life in God’s land would be far from easy if his people persisted in their sin.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 182.[/footnote]

3. Chronology

Before we consider the chronology relating specifically to the book of Judges we will remind ourselves of the broad general backdrop of Old Testament chronology.

2100 Abraham
1900 Bondage in Egypt
1500 Exodus and Entrance
1400 Judges
1000 Kings
700 Captivity
500 Restoration
400 400 years of silence

Coming now specifically to the book of Judges, the events narrated in the book span approximately 350 years from the death of Joshua (c. 1380 BC) until just prior to the time of Samuel, who anointed Israel’s first king (c. 1050 BC). There are, however, three chronological problems in Judges.

a. Problem 1: Introduction

The opening verse announces the death of Joshua, and implies that the events recorded occurred after Joshua’s death. However, some of the events in Judges 1 have already occurred in Joshua and, to complicate matters further, Joshua’s death is recorded again in Judges 2. It would seem then, that the author began this book with a series of episodes, some of which happened before the death of Joshua and some of which followed his death.

b. Problem 2: The period of the Judges

The various cycles of the periods of the Judges total somewhere between 370-410 years. Those who argue for a late Exodus are forced to reduce this figure by almost fifty percent in order to make the period of the Judges fit between an Exodus in 1275 BC and the crowning of Saul at about 1043 BC, which seems highly unlikely. However, even scholars opting for the early date for the Exodus (1447 BC) cannot comfortably fit in a period of Judges lasting 370 years. Therefore, some compression seems necessary. We must conclude that instead of consecutive judgeships there was an overlapping of simultaneous judgeships in different regions.

The judges brought peace and security to a specific region for a limited period of time. Only a relatively small area was jeopardized by each military emergency. For example, Ehud stopped the limited intrusion of Moab affecting only the areas of Benjamin and Ephraim, and Gideon’s wars with the Midianites af¬fected only the tribe of Manasseh.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 186.[/footnote]

Evidently, the rulerships of some of the judges overlap because not all of them ruled over the entire land. Judges describes cycles of apostasy, oppression, and deliverance in the southern region (Judg. 3:7-31), the central region (Judg. 6:1-10:5), the eastern region (Judg. 10:6-12:15), and the western region (Judg. 13:1-16:31).[footnote]Nelson’s complete book of Bible maps and charts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

J E Smith suggests the following detailed chronology:

306 Years


* Overlaps previous period.

[footnote]J E Smith, The Pentateuch (Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co., 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

c. Problem 3: Conclusion

In the last five chapters we find a record of the Danite migration, and the civil war against the tribe of Benjamin. A careful study of the details in these episodes and comparison with Joshua (Joshua 19:47) suggests that these events may have occurred even before the death of Joshua.

4. Geography

5. International Context

It is highly surprising that Judges does not make any reference to the world events affecting major nations nearby at that time. It is as if Israel had turned into a historical cul-de-sac, which was totally isolated from world events. This might partly be because Israel was relatively weak and unimportant to the great world powers. However, more likely is the nature and method of biblical history in which the historian has no interest in the world outside Israel.

His is sacred history in the best sense of the term, and his interests coincide with the interests of Yahweh, the Lord of history, who wishes above all to tell the story of his own people as a redemptive factor in the world. Only when Babylonia, Assyria, or Egypt is important to the story of salvation will it take its place in the biblical narrative. Accordingly, until one comes to the record of the monarchy, a time when Israel became in its own right a significant kingdom, one looks in vain for a glimpse of the larger world.[footnote]E H Merrill, Kingdom of Priests (Grand Rapids: Baker Books House, 1992), 151-152.[/footnote]

We see here the providential and sovereign hand of God at work to incubate his people during this critical period of their development.[footnote]Ibid.,158.[/footnote]

6. Canaanite idolatry

From the period of the Judges on, the Canaanite religion was to pervade all levels of Israelite life and thought. The fundamental belief was that the forces of nature (the sea, river, sky, fertility, death) were expressions of divine presence and activity and that the only way one could survive and prosper was to identify the gods responsible for each phenomenon and by proper ritual en¬courage them to bring to bear their respective powers. The most important deity was Baal, the “master of the land.” There was only one Baal theoretically, but he was lord of many places. Coming from a background of slavery and desert wandering, Israel viewed the Canaanites as superior to them in art, literature, architecture, politics. They saw the Baal worship as supporting and even providing all of this and so were inevitably attracted to it. However, in following Baal (Judg. 2:11-13,17,19; Judg. 3:7; Judg. 8:33; Judg. 10:6; etc.) Israel was turning away from God, the true source of prosperity and fertility to a religion which confused the result of divine blessing with its cause.

7. Political Structure

What was the exact nature of the political organization of Israel during the judges period? Did the tribal structure of the wilderness wanderings continue to operate? Martin Noth and other scholars have suggested that Israel’s twelve-tribe system of government in the time of the Judges was similar to the amphictyony of Delphi in Greece, dated to around 600 BC.

The amphictyony was an association of twelve members centered around a central religious shrine at Delphi. The twelve members were committed to peaceful coexistence and united defense against foreign aggression. The sanctuary was the site of yearly religious festivals and provided an important unifying centre to otherwise disparate groups. The parallels with ancient Israel seemed obvious. The tabernacle as central shrine (located first at Shechem and then at Shiloh), the periodic covenant ceremonies, and the unified military efforts all seemed to support the idea of Israel as an amph-ictyonic structure.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 186.[/footnote]

More recently scholars have rejected this comparison. There does not really seem to have been an organizing principle and the exact status of the Israelite shrines at Shechem and Shiloh is unclear. There seems to be no centralized authority structure in Judges, which was part of the problem.

What should be clear is that the biblical writers were not so interested in political or religious structures per se, and it would be a mistake to read the book of Judges with the question of organization as the primary concern. The book’s main theme is Israel’s relationship to God and God’s character in responding to His people. The period clearly is a transitional one, showing Israel between its status as a landless people entering a new land, newly released from captivity (as found in the book of Joshua), and its status as an established political entity, with national boundaries and a king (as found in 2 Samuel). Its political and religious organization in all three periods, however, is not nearly as important as the relationship it fostered with the Lord, under whatever system.[footnote]D M Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


IV. Literary Analysis

1. Comparative Outlines

Dillard/Longman Pratt Nelson’s Bible Charts Murray

(Judg. 1:1-2:5)

(Judg. 2:6-16:31)

(Judg. 17:1-21:25)

Faltering Conquests
(Judg. 1:1-2:4)Cycles under the Judges
(Judg. 2:5-16:31)Anarchy under the Levites
(Judg. 17:1-21:25)
Living with the Canaanites
(Judg. 1:1-2:4)War with the Canaanites
(Judg. 2:5-16:31)Living like the Canaanites
(Judg. 17:1-21:25)

Judah’s failures
(Judg. 1:1-2:5)

Judges’ failures
(Judg. 2:6-16:31)

Levites’ failures
(Judg. 17:1-21:25)

2. Original Meaning: Pro-monarchy apologetic

The book of Judges is an apologetic for Israel’s Davidic monarchy. Why does Israel need a godly king? The book gives three answers in each of its three sections:[footnote]R Pratt, He Gave us Stories (Philipsburg: P&R, 1993), 290.[/footnote]

a. Faltering Conquests (Judg. 1:1-2:4): Without a king the tribes faltered in the conquest

b. Cycles under the Judges (Judg. 2:5-16:31): The office of judge could only bring sporadic relief from cycles of apostasy.

c. Anarchy under the Levites (Judg. 17:1-21:25): When there was no king, the Levites failed to provide stability in the cultic and social life of Israel.

The immediate purpose of the author of Judges was to record the major events from the death of Joshua to the founding of the monarchy. By so doing the author was attempting to explain the establishment of the monarchy as necessitated by the social and political chaos which resulted from disobedience to God’s word.[footnote]D M Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

The repeated cycles with the repeated refrains of ‘The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord’ (e.g., Judg. 3:7,12; Judg. 4:1) and ‘everyone did as he saw fit’ (Judg. 17:6; Judg. 21:25; see also Dt. 12:8; Dt. 31:16-17) served as a stiff warning to the Israelites in the early part of David’s reign concerning their peril if they failed to choose a covenant-keeping king.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 347.[/footnote]

3. Genre

There are two kinds of Historical narrative. There is first of all the straightforward chronicle of important year-by-year events. Here the emphasis is on the events themselves. Secondly there is a historical record which links the events into a single united document that attempts to explain and bring meaning and order to events. Judges falls into the latter category. Particular heroes and events are narrated in a particular manner and order with the intention of communicating an overall message.

4. Characterization

There is a rich diversity in the characters of the Judges. Ehud is a left-handed assassin, Deborah a woman prophetess who lives under a palm tree, Gideon is a peasant farmer, Jephthah is the son of a prostitute, Samson is a strong man whose secret is in his hair. They plan and conduct their strategies differently. Some are covert, while others are more direct. Here we see the range of deliverers God raises up and works through. They are often deeply-flawed characters raised up to deliver a deeply-flawed nation. They are not always examples of devotion to God but demonstrate God’s grace and mercy to His people.

Implicit in Judges is a conviction of the worth of different human gifts and human characteristics, a vast democracy of spirit, once this weak and worthless cast is transformed by God’s Spirit.[footnote]L Ryken and T Longman III (Editors), The Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1993), 146-147.[/footnote]

On a more devotional level, Judges illustrates the principle that God chooses weak and foolish things to confound the wise and powerful things of this world (1 Cor. 1:27). To gain the victory in Judges God used an ox goad (Judg. 3:31), a nail (Judg. 4:21), some trumpets, pitchers and lamps (Judg. 7:20), a millstone (Judg. 9:53) and the jawbone of a donkey (Judg. 15:15). Some of the deliverers God raised up were most unlikely candidates: a bastard son, a ladies’ man, a left-handed butcher, a mother, and a cowardly idol worshiper.[footnote]J E Smith, The books of history (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

5. Relation between Joshua and Judges

The first verse of Judges is remarkably similar to the beginning of Joshua. However, in contrast with Joshua, Judges describes a terrible situation in which a number of Canaanite strongholds have not been taken by the Israelites and pragmatic politics are taking over. The last chapter of Joshua (Josh. 24:19-28) anticipates continued blessing upon God’s people in the Promised Land. But Judges has hardly begun when it is clear that all is not well. The legacy of Joshua has already begun to break down.

Joshua presented a picture of a great military victory, but an incomplete conquest. Judges 1:1-2:5 describes the limited success of individual tribes. Judah and Simeon experienced measured success initially, but they were not able to drive out the inhabitants of the territory allotted to them (Judg. 1:19). Several other tribes were also unable to gain victory over the Canaanite inhabitants of the land. This unit prepares us for the rest of Judges by informing us that the Israelites lived side by side with Canaanites, who would inevitably influence the religion and culture of God’s people.[footnote]B Arnold and B Beyer, Encountering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 183.[/footnote]

A book that begins with the tribes co-operating in conquest (Judg. 1:1) will end with the tribes united against one of their own (Judg. 20-21). The failure to conquer Jerusalem (Judg. 1:19-21) will have ominous consequences at the end of the story (Judg. 19:10-13).

6. The Gideon pivot

[footnote]Source unknown[/footnote]

a Intro. I: Judah/Israel vs. Canaanite dismemberment (Judg. 1:1-2:5)

b Intro. II: Israel forsakes LORD for Baalim (Judg. 2:6-3:6)

c Othniel: Israelite wife secret of his success: (Judg. 3:7-11) (+Judg. 1:11-15)

d Ehud: takes ‘message’ [Heb. dbr] (v. 19) to a foreign king
Slays Moabites at fords of Jordan: Judg. 3:12-31

e Jael slays Sisera and ends war (Judg. 4:1-5:31 )

f The personal story of flawed Gideon

e’ A certain woman slays Abimelech and ends war: (Judg. 9:1-56)

d’ Jephthah: sends messages [Heb. dbr] to a foreign king (cf. Judg. 11:28)
Slays Ephraimites at the fords of the Jordan: Judg. 10:1-12:14

c’ Samson’s foreign women the secret of his downfall (Judg. 13:1-16:31)

b’ Epilogue I: Idolatry is rampant (Judg. 17:1-18:31)

a’ Epilogue II: Israel/Judah vs. Benjaminites and dismemberment (Judg. 19:1-21:25)

From Gideon onward, the behavior of Israel’s tribal leaders (Abimelech, Japheth, Samson) becomes increasingly questionable. Compare the following symmetrical contrasts from the above literary structure.

a. Othniel and Samson

What began well with Israel’s first judge – good Othniel – ends in disaster with Israel’s final judge – foolish Samson. The story ends with Israel in defeat and with Israel’s final disobedient judge dying as captive in enemy hands. The story’s direction is decidedly downward.

b. Ehud and Jephthah

In place of the intertribal cooperation at the beginning of the period of the judges, Israel plunges into bloody civil war near the end of the period. Ehud’s story ends with 80 years of peace. In contrast, the story of Jephthah ends in civil war and no rest for the land

c. Deborah and Abimelech

Both stories recount how a woman killed Israel’s archenemy. However in the latter instance Israel’s slain archenemy is none other than Israel’s own judge, wicked Abimelech. Moreover, instead of the tribal cooperation at the end of Deborah’s story, the Abimelech story features civil war.

d. Turning point – Gideon

Gideon’s story, like the book’s main body, begins well and ends disastrously.

Gideon’s stand against idolatry (Judg. 6:1-32)

Gideon’s battle against Israel’s enemy (Judg. 6:33-7:25)

Gideon’s battle against fellow-Israelites (Judg. 8:1-21)

Gideon’s lapse into idolatry (Judg. 8:22-32)


V. Thematic Analysis

In Lecture 21 we noted the theological and literary impact of Deuteronomy on Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, and we, therefore, referred to these books as the Deuteronomistic History. We also considered the themes which united the books in the Deuteronomic history. Our overview of each the Deuteronomic books will survey how each book relates to these themes.

1. The Covenant

The author evaluated national events in the light of the Mosaic covenant as expounded in Deuteronomy. He repeatedly highlighted covenant violations and pronounced the required covenantal sanctions (Judg. 2:1-5; Judg. 6:7-10; Judg. 8:27; Judg. 9:56; Judg. 10:11-13; Judg. 21:25).

The conditional element in the divine Promise of the Land is brought to the forefront in Joshua by God’s promise in the first chapter to be with Joshua if he obeys His law (Joshua 1:7). This pattern continues through to Judges with its emphasis on incomplete conquest and accompanying political chaos.

To enjoy the blessing of God the Israelites must be faithful to him. The promises of blessing from God in the covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15), and the obligations of faithfulness and obedience from Israel in the covenant with Moses (Ex. 6:2-8; Ex. 19:5-6; Ex. 20:1-17), form the central core by which the history of Israel is to be interpreted.[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 200[/footnote]

Throughout the Deuteronomic History (Joshua-Kings), the narrator explores and probes the nature of God’s relationship with Israel. Will God’s holiness and his demand for obedience to his commands override his promises to Israel? Or will his irrevocable commitment to the nation, his gracious promises to the patriarchs, mean that he will somehow overlook their sin? As much as theologians may seek to establish the priority of law over grace or grace over law, the book of Judges will not settle this question. What Judges gives the reader is not a systematic theology, but rather the history of a relationship. Judges leaves us with a paradox: God’s relationship with Israel is at once both conditional and unconditional. He will not remove his favor, but Israel must live in obedience and faith to inherit the promise. It is this very tension that more than anything else propels the entire narrative.[footnote]R Dillard and T Longman III, Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 127.[/footnote]

2. The Kings

Some argue that Judges is positive towards human kingship and other scholars believe that it is negative.

a. Negative

W J Dumbrell argues that the book of Judges is against human kingship and for direct rule by God. As God is able to raise up human deliverers when the nation is in danger, there is no need for Israel to rely on human kingship, and dynastic kingship in particular. The incident where Gideon refuses to be made king is used to support this argument (Judg. 8:22-23).

Gideon refuses Israel’s offer of a hereditary throne on the grounds that the Lord is the true King of Israel. While Moses had given directions for the appointment of a king over Israel (Deut. 17:14-20), the ideal was for Israel to function under a direct theocracy that is, the rule of God (1 Sam. 12:12,17).[footnote]G Crossley, The Old Testament Explained and Applied (England: Evangelical Press, 2002), 204.[/footnote]

The way kingship is ridiculed in the fable of Jotham (Judg. 9:7-15) and the negative portrayal of Abimelech, the only “king” in Judges is also used to lend support to a negative view of human kingship.

The Book of Judges emphasizes the character of Israel as a theocracy. Every-thing in these bizarre accounts commends God’s direct leadership of God’s people as the sole guarantee that Israel will have a future. The real judge behind the scenes is Yahweh (Judg. 11:27). It always had been and always will be the kingship of God that sustains the nation. The sad truth is that, because of Israel’s neglect of Yahweh’s rule, prompted largely by the inopportune and inadvisable behavior of her kings, Yahweh will finally give up on Israel and give her over to exile. But as the Book of Judges concludes, Israel still has a future. The closing verse foreshadows human kingship. It is another matter, however, whether it commends it. It merely sees Israel approaching a new phase in its political future. For the character of that future we turn to the Books of Samuel.[footnote]W J Dumbrell, The Faith of Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 80, 81[/footnote]

b. Positive

A more positive view of human kingship is taken by others. They focus on the downward spiral recorded in Judges “when there was no king in Israel but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” This would seem to show the need of a king, specifically a godly covenant-keeping king from Judah. The author pointed out that in the past the people of God had sinned because their appointed leaders in family, church and State had failed to lead the people of God to a faithful observance of God’s law. Only a covenant-keeping Judahite could lead the people into covenant obedience and accompanying blessing.

The standard for Israel was that a king was to lead the nation in true worship and truly trust in the Lord to fight Israel’s battles (see esp. Deut. 17:14-20 ). Under such a king, people would no longer do what was right in their own eyes but what was right in the Lord’s.[footnote]D M Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

In this view the Gideon incident is not a rejection of human kingship per se but only of the nature of human kingship offered.

Gideon, however, rejected the overture, for it violated the very essence of theocratic government – the divine election of nonhereditary leadership.[footnote]E H Merrill, Kingdom of Priests (Grand Rapids: Baker Books House, 1992), 168.[/footnote]

The motivation behind the offer also seems to be wrong. Israel offers him the kingship because they say it was Gideon who delivered them out of the hand of Midian, rather than the Lord. Not only was this dependence on human military prowess contrary to the instructions for kingship in Deut. 17:16 but it was also to completely miss the point of the story where Gideon’s number were so reduced as to make it clear that it was God’s deliverance (Judg. 7:2).

Gideon had no responsible choice but to refuse. The refusal is not a statement about the illegitimacy of the institution of kingship but, rather, a more limited comment about the circumstances under which Gideon was asked to rule.[footnote]D M Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition[/footnote]

The Abimelech narrative is not so much anti-kingship but anti-Abimelech and anti-Shechem. Abimelech is not condemned for becoming king but for killing his brothers.

Nothing in the book of Judges suggests that the final author was anti-kingship. Rather, he was clearly arguing that things would have gone better under a king. In this sense, then, the book functions as an introduction to – and a justification of – the monarchy. The end of the book serves as an appropriate preface to the next stage of the larger story related in 1 Samuel, the introduction of the monarchy.[footnote]Ibid., Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

This more positive view of kingship in Judges is more consistent with the announcement and regulation of it in Deuteronomy.

3. The Prophets

Although there is only one prophet mentioned in Judges, the standpoint of the author is prophetic as he measures Israel’s history by the standard of faithfulness to Jehovah’s covenant. E J Young points out that the tragic state of affairs in Judges “paved the way for the institution of prophecy as such under Samuel” .[footnote]E J Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (London: Tyndale Press, 1953), 166.[/footnote]

4. The Sanctuary

Shiloh and the Tabernacle are not mentioned in the Judges. Each tribe and family had its own idolatrous sanctuary.

After Gideon’s death the central part of the nation began to worship the pagan deity of Shechem, Baal-Berith. Shechem was where Abraham had built his first altar. Jacob had bought property there, Joseph was buried there, and Joshua had led the nation in covenant reaffirmation there. However, those opposed to the central Shiloh sanctuary used its sacred past as a justification for the establishment of a Baal cult centre. Baal-Berith (“Lord of Covenant”), probably refers back to the covenant traditions of the place beginning with Abraham and continuing through Joshua. In line with common practice, the covenant-making function of Yahweh was simply transferred to Baal so that he, not Yahweh, was viewed as the god who made Shechem a holy place.

5. The Land

The Pentateuch climaxed with the anticipated fulfillment of the promise of the land (Deut. 34:4). Joshua demonstrates the fulfillment of that promise, though 500 years after it was first given to Abraham. In Joshua, the conquest of the land (Josh. 1-12) is followed by the dividing of the land (Josh. 13-22). Judges continues the “land” narrative. But the question as to why Israel had not been able to possess the land completely is now at the forefront. The answer comes clearly that Israel’s disobedience was to blame (Judg. 2:1-3 , Judg. 20-22). So, the gift of the land is compromised by Israel’s apostasy.

6. The Apostasy

The absence of a king in Israel leads to idolatry and relativism. Political problems lead to moral problems. Relativism was the devil’s subtle tool to destroy the nation and line from which the Messiah would come.

7. The Punishment

To punish Israel, God gave her over to her enemies from within (the Canaan¬ites) and without (the Arameans, Moabites, Midianites, Ammonites, Amalekites, Amorites and Philistines). Latterly God gave up Israel to civil war (Judg. 20:18).

The period begins with Israel fighting the enemies it should have annihilated, continues with Israel fighting various other foreign enemies as a result of its apostasy, and concludes with Israelites fighting among themselves in the aftermath of a sordid breach of covenant. The only positive notes in the book are God’s constancy and the hints that things should get better under a new order.[footnote]D M Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]

8. The Repentance

When the people repented, the Lord raised up judges. They were men and women divinely qualified, authorized and endowed with extraordinary physical traits, raised up in times of distress to bring relief to weary people. The word for “deliver” and its cognates appear 49 times in the book.

The Book of Judges also illustrates the principle that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more (Rom. 5:20). Five times Israel “cried” unto Yahweh (Judg. 3:9,15; Judg. 4:3; Judg. 6:6; Judg. 10:10). Three times God spoke to his people, presumably through prophet-like individuals (Judg. 2:1-3; Judg. 6:8-10; Judg. 10:11-14). Only once is national repentance clearly indicated in the text (Judg. 10:10-16). Nonetheless, the Lord was moved to pity by the groaning of his people in the midst of their various oppressions (Judg. 2:18). Therefore, he raised up a deliverer for them (Judg. 3:9,15) through whom the current enemy was subdued (Judg. 3:30; Judg. 4:23; Judg. 8:28; Judg. 11:33). Then the land would enjoy “rest” for a time (Judg. 3:11,30; Judg. 5:31; Judg. 8:28). The lack of emphasis on the repentance of Israel in the text serves to underscore the amazing grace of God in this book.[footnote]J E Smith, The books of history (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), Electronic Edition.[/footnote]


VI. New Testament Analysis

1. Salvation by grace

What a collection of human beings in the book of Judges! It is easy at a distance to point out the foibles and failures of the leading characters in this downwardly spiraling story. But lest we get too proud, Paul reminds us: “And such were some of you” (1 Cor. 6:11). With similar mixtures of ignorance, frail obedience, and tangled motives, we, like them, were “washed, sanctified, and justified” by the grace of God.

2. Messianic Focus

We too need a champion to fight our battles for us, one raised up by God and invested with his Spirit in full measure; we too need a leader to secure for us the inheritance that God has promised, one who will perfect our faith.

The emphasis of the book of Judges on the need for a righteous kingship from the line of David points to the role that Jesus Christ would later fulfill as king. Jesus was of the family of David and the rightful heir of David’s throne (Mt. 1:117; Lk. 3:1-37), and he was David’s unique son in that he never failed to keep the law of God perfectly (Mt. 5:17). As a result, God raised Christ from the dead, seated him on his heavenly throne (1 Co. 15:25) and established the kingdom that will never end (Isa. 9:6-9). Although Christ is King already, all will recognize him as such when he returns in glory and rules over the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 22:1-3). The success of Jesus’ kingship stands in sharp contrast to the failing leadership others have provided for the people of God. Like the judges and Levites of Israel, sinful leaders cannot fulfill the need for a perfectly righteous king. Only Christ can meet that need.[footnote]Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 347.[/footnote]

3. Moral Absolutes

Israel needed an objective and ex¬ternal standard administered through the king in order to determine right and wrong. The lack of this brought disaster to Israel. The Christian has been given this external and objective standard which is administered and maintained by the heavenly King (Jn. 4:15).


VII. The Message of Judges

Original message: Israel should commit itself to the godly King of Judah for spiritual and social blessings on a personal and national level.
Present message: The Church should commit itself to the godly Judahite King (Christ) for spiritual and social blessings on a personal and national level.