Book of Judges - Introduction
The book of Judges is the second book of the earlier prophets, following the
book of Joshua.
This book is called "Shoftim" (שופטים) in Hebrew. "Judges" is the meaning of "Shoftim" in
modern Hebrew, of which the singular is "Shofet." However "Shoftim"
a somewhat different meaning. The Semitic colony of Carthage was ruled by elected
persons who served as "magistrates" or the equivalent of Roman consuls. The
ruler was called a "Sofet" or "Sufet" as rendered by the Romans.
The Israelite "judges" had a similar office.
The book of Judges takes a more matter of fact approach to history than its
predecessors, including the book of
It is certainly intended to be didactic and edifying, but it is shorn of the
miraculous, and includes setbacks and embarrassing incidents that provide an air
of verisimilitude and probability. Some of this truth telling is probably
related to the didactic or propaganda function of the book, which was in part
intended to provide justification for the necessity of the monarchy, due to the
chaos that occurred during the period of judges. The phrase, "In those days there
was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes"
which appears, for example, in Judges 21
or just the first part, "In those days there was no king in Israel" always
introduces mayhem and evil, as it does in
On the other hand, the parable of Jotham, in
warns of the dangers of monarchy.
The book of Judges, by strict reckoning of the years given for each Judge and
period, gives a time period of at least 480 years from the death of Joshua when
the book opens, to the monarchy. Assuming that King David reigned about 1000
BCE, that would mean that the Exodus from Egypt would have had to occur in 1500
or before, much earlier than most authorities allow. This problem can be
resolved either by noting that some of the periods given are in "round numbers"
such as 40 years or 80 years. Forty is a number that was often used in the Bible
to signify "a lot" and the timing may not have been meant to be exact. Moreover,
it is possible that at least some of the Judges were in fact contemporaneous.
The book of Judges is a compilation of materials from different times and
therefore does not have literary or historic unity. The Song of Deborah
is likely to be very old, having the form of ancient Phoenician
ballads of the period prior to 1,000 B.C.E. The content of this song, which also
has an "edifying" political purpose, likewise indicates that it was composed
prior to the monarchy. Most of the poem is concerned not with victory and
thanksgiving to God, but rather with enumerating very carefully the different
tribes who shirked their duty and did not rally to the standard. The need to
exhort the tribes to unity became an anachronism under the monarchy, and would
have been of no interest whatever to exilic or post-exilic authors. We can
assume that this song was composed at about the time of the events it supposedly
Though "iron chariots" were used by Jabin (Yavin in Hebrew) king of Hatzor,
the book of Judges quaintly and naively notes as a sign of prosperity and power:
JUDGES 10:3 And after him arose Jair, a Gileadite, and judged Israel twenty and two years.
JUDGES 10:4 And he had thirty sons that rode on thirty ass colts, and they had thirty cities, which are
called Havothjair unto this day, which are in the land of Gilead.
The lowly ass, rather than the horse was in use at this time. Had the history
of judges been a fable composed only in the time of the monarchy or thereafter,
it is more likely that the powerful sons of the judge would have been portrayed
as mounted on horses.
As historian Michael Grant has noted, the Hebrew scriptures were unique in
the records of the early Middle East in that they judged according to a standard
that was independent of the state and ruler. Consequently, while they were not
necessarily objective or even history in the modern sense, they provide us with
a far more interesting understanding of the society and people than the records
of boastings and excuses of various potentates.
From the historiosophic point of view, the episodes of the book of Judges are
presented as a cycle of Israelite sin, following by divine retribution in the
form of an enemy attack, followed by emergence of a savior who also presumably
restored proper worship, followed by a period of quiet and then a "relapse."
The book of Judges contains these parts:
The introduction in
Judges 1 Judges 2
and a part of
is probably the result of a later redaction or redactions. In this introduction
it is stated that the action occurs after the death of Joshua, but then goes on
to recount some battles, such as those with Adonibezek and in Jerusalem, which
may be repetitions of battles described in the book of Joshua. The description
of the conquest of Jerusalem is either ambiguous or contradictory, claiming at
one point that Jerusalem was conquered (1:8) by the tribe of Judah, who set it
afire, but at another (1:21) that Jerusalem was not conquered by Benjamin,
who lived there among the Jebusites! Jerusalem is later described
as conquered by King David. It is believed that he conquered Mt Zion and the
"City of David."
The bulk of the book is concerned with the deeds of the different judges.
Some of these judges arose in peacetime and seem to have been a part of a system
of magistrates, not described explicitly, which others, like Gideon and Jephtah,
were heroes who were called to action. The
book of Judges provides a very odd set of facts that are taken for
granted. After the death of Joshua, the different tribes did not trouble
themselves to appoint a new ruler, if we are to believe the Book of Judges, nor did Joshua designate one. The tribes
formed a kind of amphictiony, held together by common religious worship.
However, it was not entirely like the amphictiony of Greek states, based on common
religious worship of different city states. For the tribes are associated with
the borders of the lands that they lived in, rather than with any cities, and
the various tribes had become worshippers of the local deities. In fact, one of
the Judges, Gideon had another less official name, that was probably his real
name: Jerubaal - (Yerubaal in Hebrew) - a fearer of the god Baal or
perhaps, the city of Baal.
|Locations of the Judges
The people of
Israel, according to the book of Judges lived among the other peoples of the
land, and did not necessarily conquer most of the cities. When they did, the
cities did not always become centers of rule or power. Furthermore, each judge seems to have
ruled from a different tribe and region, so that power was never concentrated in
one place, Deborah was exceptional, as she lived in the south and fought a
battle in the north, based on a levee of tribes that not all answered, and an
alliance with Barak, a judge of the north. This is the only hint we
have that there might be two judges at once. While their power seems to have been local and they fought battles
only in one region, the book of Judges does not generally record that two judges ruled at
the same time. Each judge dealt with a specific enemy. If there were other
enemies at the same time, they are not mentioned. Only one man, Abimelech,
is recorded as having attempted to set up a dynasty.
There were 12 judges (Abimelech is not counted) and those with known tribal
membership belonged to the following tribes:
Benjamin - Ehud son of Gera, and Debora
Naftali - Barak
Menashe - Gideon
Dan - Samson
Judah - Otniel
Issachar - Tola son of Puah
Zebulon - Ibzan and Elon
Ephraim - Abdon.
Judges like Tola, Ibzan, Elon and Abdon seem to have been selected to rule,
perhaps by the priests in Shiloh, as the tribe of Judah was chosen to rule by
lot at the beginning of the book of Judges. They did not have a specific enemy
to fight. In other others cases the people had to wait for a savior, like
Gideon, because there was no judge as well as no king.
- Othniel son of Knaz (3:9-11) fought and defeated Cushan-Rishathaim,
King of Aram. This story had been told a bit differently in Judges 1. Israel had 40 years peace until the death of Othniel
Ehud son of Gera (3:11-29) defeated Eglon king of Moab.
- Shamgar Ben Anat who killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad.
Deborah the prophetess and Barak son of Avinoam of Naphthali the army leader
defeat Jabin of Hazor and Sisera, his captain, when Jael (Yael) the wife of
Hever the Kenite, an Israelite ally, kills Sisera. Hazor is in the south of
Israel, but the action took place in the north, near the Kishon river.
Gideon (Yerubaal) Midian, Amalek, and the "children of the East."
- Abimelech (Avimelech - a crown name meaning - either "my father is king,
or "father of the king") son of Yerubaal (Gideon) becomes ruler in Shechem and
kills 70 of his brothers, leaving only Jotham. His reign is ended when a woman drops a
millstone on him.
- Tola, the son of Puah and Jair (Hebrew - Yair) the Gileadite are judges.
- Jephthah (Hebrew "Yifta'h" ) fought the Ammonites, pledging to
sacrifice the first thing that came out of his house to greet him if he won. The
first to come out was his daughter, whom he evidently sacrificed. The sacrifice
is glossed over, but the story is used to explain a custom of mourning among the
Israelite girls who would yearly lament the death of the unnamed daughter of
Jepthah. A strange story reminiscent of Iphigenia at Aulis.
- War between Jephtah and the Ephraimites; judgeships of Ibzan, Elon and Abdon.
- The story of Samson, Delilah and the Philistines, which ends with Samson
bringing down the temple of the Philistines around him.
An "appendix" consisting of
Judges 18, tells the story of the lawless conquest of Laish by the
tribe of Dan and establishment of an idolatrous cult there, and of the gruesome
story of the concubine in Gibe'a (in Hebrew, pronounced Geev ah') in
The tribe of Benjamin raped a man's concubine and abused her to death. After
which he distributed her body parts to the other tribes, calling for vengeance.
After several battles, the tribes totally vanquished Benjamin.
It is believed that the book of
was also once attached to the book of Judges, since the action took place at the
The introduction and appendices were evidently added in redaction to the
stories of the Judges, themselves, which may have been part of an earlier work.
Contents of the Book of Judges:
Judges 1 |
Judges 2 |
Judges 3 |
Judges 4 |
Judges 5 |
Judges 6 |
Judges 7 |
Judges 8 |
Judges 9 |
Judges 10 |
Judges 11 |
Judges 12 |
Judges 13 |
Judges 14 |
Judges 15 |
Judges 16 |
Judges 17 |
Judges 18 |
Judges 19 |
Judges 20 |