The book of Judges covers the period from the death of Joshua to the dawn of the Jewish monarchy, approximately 400 years. It was a time of political and religious turmoil. Adversaries rose up against them from their tribal neighbors to marauding armies from outside their borders who periodically invaded to plunder the land. At times the Israelites even fought among themselves. Ephraim was ravaged by Manasseh (Judges 12), and Benjamin was almost annihilated by the other tribes (Judges 20-21).
Between the days of Joshua and Samuel, Israel plummeted to moral and spiritual disaster. Over and over the pattern of sin followed by oppression was repeated. Occasionally God raised up a leader, a “judge,” like Deborah or Gideon to turn the people back to Himself, but those intervals of repentance, revival, and restoration were all too brief. Judges is the story of a people in a downward spiral intent on playing the fool with God.
Judges might be called “epic” literature, a form associated with the heroic age. Parallels between Judges and the Greek epics have been noted, specifically the Iliad and the Odyssey. Cyclical stories about individual heroes characterize both literatures. The Iliad’s description of the wrath of Achilles can be compared with Samson’s anger and revenge.
Epic literature of a heroic kind deals with military and romantic themes, giving details of both. Little is left to the imagination such as Ehud’s sword thrust into the belly of Eglon or what Jael did to Sisera. Relations between men and women aren’t as prominent in Judges as in heroic literature, though the marriage of Othniel and Acsah is mentioned, and the immoral escapades of Samson are an important feature of his story.
A Study in Human Depravity
Few books portray so complete a picture of human depravity as does Judges. A nation that before Joshua solemnly swore to obey God quickly intermarried with pagans and turned to other gods. Morality sank to great depths as son stole from his father and a whole tribe condoned homosexuality and a rape-murder.
Israel’s sins made God angry, so He turned her over to her enemies. The nation that broke the covenant felt the wrath of a righteous God. He could not condone the people’s behavior; every time they lapsed into sin, judgment followed. God even strengthened their enemies against them!
Purpose of the Book of Judges
The primary purpose of the Book of Judges is to show Israel’s spiritual condition determined her political and material situation. When the nation turned to God in obedience, God graciously sent deliverers to rescue the people from their oppressors. When they disregarded God and turned away from him to worship the gods of Canaan, they fell into the hands of the tyrants surrounding them.
As the book progresses, Israel’s plight worsens. The stunning victories of Deborah and Barak and of Gideon are followed by the less decisive efforts of Jephthah and Samson. Jephthah’s victory over Ammon failed to prevent civil war. Samson’s personal heroics did not throw off the yoke of Philistine oppression. The Book of Judges shows Israel failed to realize her divinely intended goal—she was unable to govern herself according to the Mosaic Law. So rather than the higher theocracy, she proved she needed and wanted the lower monarchy.
Judges and Their Adversaries
The stories of the judges are not presented in chronological order; this is how they appear in the text:
- Othniel (Judges 3.9-11) vs. Cushan-Rishathaim, King of Aram; Israel had 40 years peace until the death of Othniel. (The statement that Israel has a certain period of peace after each judge is a recurrent theme.)
- Ehud (Judges 3.11–29) vs. Eglon of Moab
- Deborah the prophetess and Barak the army leader (chapters 4–5) vs. Jabin of Hazor (a city in Canaan) and Sisera, his captain
- Gideon (6–8) vs. Midian, Amalek, and the “children of the East” (apparently desert tribes)
- Abimelech (9) (who is traditionally counted as a king not a judge, and is considered evil) vs. all the Israelites who oppose him
- Jephthah (11–12.7) vs. the Ammonites
- Samson (13–16) vs. the Philistines
There are also brief accounts of “minor” judges: Shamgar (3.31), Tola and Jair (10.1–5), Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12.8–15). Some scholars have inferred that the minor judges were actual adjudicators, whereas the major judges were leaders and didn’t actually make legal judgments. The only time a major judge is said to have made legal judgments was Deborah (4.4).