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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" evidently had 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 Joshua. 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 Judges 18 and Judges 19. On the other hand, the parable of Jotham, in Judges 9, 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 in Judges 5  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 describes.

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 Judges 3 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.

Judges: Map of Geographic locations
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. 

Judges 3 - 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

Judges 3 Ehud son of Gera  (3:11-29) defeated Eglon king of Moab.

Judges 3:31 - Shamgar Ben Anat who killed 600 Philistines with an ox goad.

Judges 4  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. 

Judges 6  - Gideon (Yerubaal)  Midian, Amalek, and the "children of the East."

Judges 9  -  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.

Judges 10  - Tola, the son of Puah and Jair (Hebrew - Yair) the Gileadite are judges.  

Judges 11 -   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.

Judges 12 - War between Jephtah and the Ephraimites; judgeships of Ibzan, Elon and Abdon.

Judges 13 - 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 Judges 19Judges 20 and Judges 21. 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 Ruth was also once attached to the book of Judges, since the action took place at the same time.

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 | Judges 21

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The bible and Zionism

The Bible, the Old Testament, has become a mainstay of human culture, but it is first and foremost a historical document of the Jewish people and our culture. It tells the story of our ancient kingdoms and civilization in the Land of Israel, and therefore it kept alive the tie of the people of Israel to the land of Israel for 2000 years. It forms the moral and cultural basis of Zionist ideology and aspirations.

The Bible, the Old Testament, is accepted by the three major Western faiths. It is a major work of Western civilization. The Bible documents the historic connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, even for those who do not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, and even for those who do not believe in God at all. It is the historic epic of the Jewish people in our land.  

Additional Background

Maps of Israel (Canaan, Palestine)in Bible Times

Map of Canaan (Israel) in the time of Joshua (Black and White)
Map of ancient Canaan (Palestine) after the Conquest by the Israelites
Palestine (Israel, Canaan) in the Time of the Judges
Map of Ancient Israel (Canaan) in the reigns of Kings David and Solomon (Black and White)
Map of Judah (Judea) in the Divided Kingdom
Map of Judah (Judea) in the Maccabean Kingdom of Alexander Janeus (Yannai)
Map of the Roman Province of Judea

Map - Canaan Before the Hebrews

Map - Canaan and the Early Israelite Kingdom

Map - The kingdoms of Israel and Judea; Judea and Samaria in the time of Jesus

Map and article - Judea (Judah) and Judea and Samaria

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