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Introduction to the Book of Judges

Seventh Book of the Old Testament


What is the Book of Judges?

Among Christians the Book of Judges is categorized as the second of the Historical Books; among Jews it is the second book of the group called First Prophets. The stories in the Book of Judges are about a series of prophets, labeled Judges, called by God to bring the Israelites back to the faithful path of obedience.

Apparently, living among the residents of the land of Canaan has caused them to abandon the faith fo their ancestors and start worshipping foreign gods. This is curious because according to the Book of Joshua, all the inhabitants of Canaan had been killed — those were the instructions of Yahweh, after all. So there shouldn't be anyone left, but in the Book of Judges we find all sorts of non-Israelites living in the region.


Facts About the Book of Judges

  • Judges has 21 chapters and 618 verses
  • Judges is the seventh book of the Christian Old Testament


Important Characters in Judges

  • Samson: Judge of Israel, famed for great strength
  • Delilah: Philistine mistress of Samson who betrays him
  • Gideon: Judge of Israel, conquers the Midianites
  • Jephthah: Judge of Israel, conquers the Ammonites
  • Deborah: The only female Judge
  • Samuel: Prophet and High Priest
  • Saul: First King of Israel


Who Wrote the Book of Judges?

The author of the Book of Judges is unknown and it's not even certain how many hands worked on it, though many scholars believe that the final editing of the work was probably done by a single person who also did the final editing on the other parts of the Deuteronomist History: Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. Where the source material came from is unknown, though.


When Was the Book of Judges Written?

The events depicted in the Book of Judges are supposed to occur between the beginning of the 14th century BCE and the middle of the 11th century BCE, when the character of Saul was supposed to have lived. The original source material might be quite early, but scholars agree that it was edited together along with the rest of the Deuteronomist History — the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings — between the 7th and 6th centuries BCE.


Who Were the Judges?

There are six "major" judges and six "minor" judges, making a total of twelve judges which is the same number as the tribes of Israel.
Major Judges:

  • Othniel (1367 - 1327): Fought the Mesopotamians
  • Ehud(1309 - 1229): Fought the Moabites
  • Deborah (1209 - 1169): Fought the Canaanites
  • Jerubbaal (Gideon, 1162 - 1122): Fought the Midianites
  • Jephthah (1078 - 1072): Fought the Ammonites
  • Samson (1075 - 1055): Fought the Philistines

Minor Judges:
  • Shamgar: Fought the Philistines
  • Tola (1119 - 1096)
  • Jair (1119 - 1097)
  • Ibzan: Fought the Ammonites
  • Elon: Fought the Ammonites
  • Abdon: Fought the Ammonites


Book of Judges Summary

All of the stories in the Book of Judges follow a similar, cyclical pattern:

  • The people of Israel are disobedient and ignore Yahweh
  • Foreign enemies are permitted by Yahweh to oppress the Israelites
  • The people cry out for rescue
  • Yahweh sends a prophet, leader or savior to rescue the people
  • The savior triumphs against impossible odds because Yahweh wills it
  • Peace is restored and the Israelites are obedient to Yahweh once again

Generally speaking, all of those called to be a Judge are depicted as somehow unequal to the task — they appear as weaker or leading smaller numbers when compared to their opponents. This is important because it emphasizes the role being played by Yahweh. None of these Judges would have been able to accomplish their goals and save the Israelites without Yahweh's direct, personal involvement. Thus it's really Yahweh who saves the Israelites from the evils that Yahweh has imposed upon them, and then the Israelites thank Yahweh for this.


Book of Judges Themes

Covenant: As in other books of the Christian Old Testament, the covenant with Yahweh is a central, if not the central theme. Every story repeats this theme: when the Israelites are faithful and obedient to Yahweh they enjoy his blessings; when they disobey they are cursed. Obedience brings victory and peace; disobedience brings defeat and oppression.

Yahweh's Sovereignty: Another biblical theme that plays an important role in the Book of Judges is the sovereignty of Yahweh: whatever happens, happens because it's what Yahweh wants to happen. If the Israelites suffer, it's because that's what Yahweh wants. If the Israelites are happy, it's because that's what Yahweh wants. Whatever Yahweh wants, Yahweh gets and there's no one to tell Yahweh that something is unjust or immoral.

Monarchism & Anti-Monarchism: Expressions of both support for and opposition to monarchy can be found in the Book of Judges, but opposition to (or at least skepticism of) monarchy seem to be stronger. On the one hand, the repeated statement "In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes" suggests a pro-monarchist position. I contrasts the presence of a king with anarchy and willfulness. On the other hand, a repeated and fundamental theme of the book is absolute sovereignty of Yahweh and that Yahweh must be obeyed, not any other gods or any other rulers.

Women: For the most part women have little authority or power in the Christian Old Testament. In the Book of Judges, however, there are a few women play who are allowed to important and active roles. Deborah in particular stands out as an especially powerful figure because she is one of the "major" Judges.

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