The Book of Judges

The cycle of sinning and redemption.

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The Book of Judges is the second book in Nevi'im (Prophets), the second section of the Tanakh. It is considered part of the Deuteronomic history that begins in the last book of the Torah and ends with the second Book of Kings. These books tell of the Israelites' reign over the land of Canaan and have a heavy focus on Divine reward and punishment.

Judges begins shortly after Joshua's death and continues until Samuel's birth. Looking at the text itself and the various tribes on whom the stories are focused, there is evidence that the book is composed from several sources. Because each of the major judges comes from a different tribe of Israel, each with its own tradition, scholars theorize that these stories were originally separate regional texts woven together later. The redactor likely also added transitional passages, including the short accounts of the minor judges, to link the other stories together.

Cycles

Judges has two introductions (1:1-3:6), both of which give a summary of the Book of Joshua and a presentation of Israel?s pattern of failure. Judges also has two conclusions that are both framed around the repeated phrase, ?In those days there was no king in Israel,? filled in by stories of continued moral decay.

old leather bookIn between is the main section, which scholars refer to as the "cycles." These cycles contain a clear sequence of repeated events surrounding the stories of the six major judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. The cycle follows this pattern:
?    The Israelites sin.
?    God punishes them by sending an enemy to oppress them.
?    They serve the enemy for a number of years.
?    They cry out to God and pray for forgiveness.
?    God sends a deliverer (judge) to free them.
?    The judge conquers the enemy.
?    There is a peaceful reign for some time before the cycle begins again.
But with each cycle, the status of the Israelites deteriorates a little more and the moral lines are continually blurred by both the Israelites and the judges. At the time of Samson's reign, the cycle is barely recognizable--and Samson himself is hardly a role model for the Israelite ideal.

By the end of the book, there is complete anarchy. As the final line states: "In those days there was no king in Israel?All the people did what was right in their own eyes" (21:25). This leaves the Israelites ready for the stability of a monarchy that will soon arrive in the first Book of Samuel.

Othniel, Ehud, and Deborah

There are six major judges in the main cycle of the book, with a number of shorter stories about lesser judges mixed in. Each of the major judges comes from a different area of Israel and fights a different enemy.

Othniel Ben Kenaz (3:9-11), the earliest judge, fights and defeats the King of Aram. Under Othniel, Israel has 40 years of peace until his death. He is the only Judge mentioned who is connected with the tribe of Judah.

Ehud ben Gera (3:11-29), from the tribe of Benjamin, follows shortly after Othniel. He is called upon by God to end an 18-year-long oppression by Eglon, King of Moab. In a notorious story, Ehud tricks his way into the obese Eglon's chambers by saying he has a secret message for the king. When allowed in close, Ehud says, "I have a message for you from God" (3.20). He then brandishes his cleverly hidden, left-handed sword, and eviscerates the king. Because of Eglon's size, the sword gets swallowed up by Eglon's belly. After Ehud's subsequent victory over the Moabite army, the Israelites enjoy 80 years of peace.

Chapters 4 and 5 bring us Deborah the prophetess from the tribe of Ephraim, and Barak, her army leader. Deborah's story is notable as she is the only female judge and one of the only female leaders in the entire Tanakh. Her story takes two different forms, one in prose in Chapter 4, and then a poetic rendering in Chapter 5. In both accounts, the Israelites go to war, led by Barak against Jabin of Hazor. But the final defeat of Sisera, Jabin's captain, lies in the hands of yet another woman of strong character, Yael.

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Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.