The Book of Judges is the second book in Nevi’im (Prophets), the second section of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). 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.
Judges has two introductions (Judges 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.
In 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.
Gideon, Jephthah and Samson
In Chapters 6-8, God calls upon Gideon, from the tribe of Menashe, to free the Israelites from a heavy oppression by both the Midianites and the Amalekites. Gideon displays great reluctance to heed the call, very reminiscent of Moses: “[Gideon] responded, ‘But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Menashe and I am the least in my family'” (6:15). Humility is a trait often seen in Israel’s most prominent leaders and secures Gideon’s place in the line of Israelite redeemers. His victories in battle are rewarded with 40 years of peace in Israel.
The next judge, Jephthah (11-12:7), comes from even humbler beginnings as the son of a prostitute. He frees the eastern tribes, Menashe and Gad, from the oppression of the Ammonites. Though he only ruled for six years, one of the more notable stories comes from his reign.
Before his battle against the Ammonites, Jephthah makes an oath: “If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s to be offered up by me as a burnt offering” (11:30-31). Sadly, it is his daughter who greets him at the door, and thus an unprecedented act of human sacrifice takes place at the hands of an Israelite.
The last major judge is the Herculean figure Samson (13-16), from the tribe of Dan. Like Samuel, whose story follows shortly after the Book of Judges, Samson was a nazir, dedicated from birth to serve God. Part of this oath meant that “no razor shall touch his head” (13:5), a trait which also ends up giving him superhuman strength.
Samson rises to redeem the people from the Philistines. Delilah, the Philistine seductress, eventually teases the secret of Samson’s strength out of him. With the shaving of his head, which violates his vows from birth, God abandons him. But Samson’s death becomes his legacy. Held captive by the Philistines, Samson is bound to two temple pillars. And with a final prayer to God, he strains against the pillars and collapses the temple, killing everyone inside: “Those he killed at his death were more than those he killed during his life. He had judged Israel 20 years” (28:31).
Women in Judges
Judges contains several of the more dynamic women in the Hebrew Bible. Many scholars see a parallel between the general decay in Israel and the treatment of women as the Book of Judges progresses. Early on we find Deborah and Yael (Judges 4-5), who are both strong and courageous.
But they are followed up by the daughter of Jephthah, who allows herself to be sacrificed (Judges 11:35), Delilah, who seduces and betrays Samson (Judges 16:4-22), and the most troubling of all — the unnamed concubine in Judges 19.
After suffering at the hands of her master, this anonymous woman is eventually killed and cut up into 12 pieces, each of which is sent out to the tribes of Israel as a message (Judges 19:29). When the book takes this gruesome turn, it becomes clear that the moral decay of the Israelites can go no further. It is time for the monarchy to be established.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: tah-NAKH, Origin: Hebrew, Hebrew Bible (an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im and Ketuvim, or the Torah, Prophets and Writings).