The book of Judges deals with a period in the history of Israel which some scholars call the “dark age.” The reason scholars use this description to identify this period in the history of Israel is because the information found in the book of Judges is not sufficient to provide a comprehensive understanding of the history of the transition between the time of Joshua and the establishment of the monarchy.
The period of the Judges provides a chaotic view of the social and religious life of Israel that followed the death of Joshua. During this time, the nation did not have a central government to provide a modicum of stability to Israelite society. The book of Judges also reveals that Israel was not firmly established as a nation.
The book of Judges reflects the chaotic time in Israel’s history when there was no king in Israel and every person “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Because Israel had been unfaithful to Yahweh and had neglected the responsibilities of the covenant they had to suffer the judgment of God.
The Song of Deborah (Judges 5) reveals there was disunity among the tribes. Religious syncretism was rampant in the worship of Yahweh and the nation faced a crisis of leadership. As punishment for their violation of the demands of the covenant, several of the tribes were conquered by some of the surrounding nations and the people lived many years under the bonds of oppression. Only repentance could bring deliverance.
The life of Israel in Canaan prior to the monarchy is presented in the book of Judges in a literary device of a cycle of apostasy and repentance that reflects the writers’ understanding of Israel’s judgment:
1. The people of Israel sinned against God
2. God sent an oppressor
3. The people cried to God
4. God raised a judge to deliver Israel
5. There was peace as long as the judge lived
6. Israel sinned again after the death of the judge.
The time of the judges followed the period of Joshua and the generation of Israelites who had taken possession of the land Yahweh had promised to their fathers. After the death of Joshua, the lack of a successor left the nation without a leader who could unify the tribes to defeat the inhabitants of the land and bring the tribes together in the ways and the laws of Yahweh.
Before Joshua died, he renewed the covenant with the new generation of Israelites who had taken possession of the land of Canaan. Joshua 24 retells the history of Israel from the days of the patriarchs to the stories of the Exodus and of the Conquest.
During the covenant renewal with the new generation of Israelites at Shechem, Joshua invited new converts to Yahwism and other peoples who had joined Israel to replace their gods and accept Yahweh as the only God. The commitment of the people was a reaffirmation of the sacredness of the covenant between God and Israel made at Sinai. This covenant at Shechem included the people who came out of Egypt and the new converts to the Mosaic faith.
However, Joshua 13-21 and Judges 1 indicate that several of the cities of Canaan were left unconquered. Among them were the five cities of the Philistines (Joshua 13:1-3), the land of the Canaanites to the north (Joshua 13:4-7), the Jebusites in Jerusalem, (Joshua 15:63), and many more. As a result, the people of Israel did not drive out the nations that lived in Canaan and instead of destroying them, they settled among the peoples of the land and allowed themselves to be influenced by their religious practices.
The book of Judges shows that the people of Israel needed a leader who could guide them and lead them to completely conquer the land which they had received as an inheritance from Yahweh. However, because Joshua and his generation had failed to subjugate the original inhabitants of the land, the generation which lived in the time of the judges was not firmly established in the land. Rather, they lived among the Canaanites, trying to survive in a land that was not still completely theirs.
In his commentary on the book of Judges, Goslinga says that the concept of national identity was not very strong. Each tribe was concerned for its immediate private interests and jealousy among the tribes was not conducive to promote the concept of a united nation. The sense of unity that came from faith in the God of the covenant had almost vanished. The sense of solidarity among the tribes of Israel was not very strong and for this reason, the various tribes of Israel had to struggle alone as they tried to break the yoke of their oppressors.
The book of Judges reveals that if the nation had continued without a central government that could bring the tribes together to fight against their oppressors and subdue the original inhabitants of Canaan, Israel would have been assimilated by their neighbors and ceased to exist as a national entity and as the people of Yahweh.
During this chaotic time in the history of Israel, Yahweh chose a group of people whom the author of the book of Judges called shophetim, a word generally translated as “judges.” Yahweh used the judges to save Israel from the hands of their oppressors. These judges were endowed with the Spirit of God to have authority to raise armies and to exercise leadership during times of oppression in order to liberate Israel from the hands of their enemies.
There were twelve judges who provided leadership during this chaotic time in the life of Israel, six major and six minor judges. The six major judges were Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. They are called “major judges” because their stories are presented with some details of their activities.
The six minor judges were Jair, Tola, Ibzan, Elon, Shamgar, and Abdon. These six judges are called “minor judges” because the texts do not give any information about their work.
Scholars differ concerning the function or the role of these judges in Israel. Most scholars, however, agree that the main function of the judges was to deliver Israel from their oppressors. In addition, the judges functioned as Yahweh’s representative to his people. They discharged their duties by carrying out the responsibilities which were assigned to them by Yahweh, the king of Israel.
Israel was the people of Yahweh. Israel was set apart on Mount Sinai to be a special people with a mission in the world: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). What separated Israel from the other nations was their worship of Yahweh. The worship of Yahweh was the bond that kept the tribes together as a nation, for during the time of the judges, Israel had no central government nor a king.
The twelve tribes of Israel were bound together by their worship and faithfulness to Yahweh, the God of the covenant. As the people of God, Israel was bound by common religious and legal responsibilities expressed by the demands of the covenant.
This kind of tribal structure posed a problem for the nation. The people of Israel were not faithful to the demands of the covenant the nation had established with Yahweh. After the death of Joshua and the people of his generation, “another generation grew up after them, who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10).
This new generation of Israelites forgot the mighty acts of Yahweh on their behalf. They incorporated some of the religious practices of the people of the land. As Israel became more syncretistic in their religious practices, the lines that distinguished Israel from the nations of Canaan became more blurred. Israel no longer worshiped and served God alone. Yahweh was placed alongside the gods of Canaan and worshiped together with Baal and Asherah.
The book of Judges ends with several stories that illustrate the troubled times Israel experienced prior to the establishment of the monarchy. The story of Micah and the Levite (Judges 17:1-13), the story of the migration of the tribe of Dan (Judges 18:1-31), the story of the Levite and his concubine (Judges 19:1-30), and the story of the civil war among the tribes of Israel (Judges 20:1-21:25) reveal the reasons Israel needed a strong central government to bring stability to the nation.
The threat posed by the Philistines proved that Israel was poorly organized and not strong enough to deal with the Philistine menace. Shamgar fought against the Philistines, but could not overcome them (Judges 4:31). Samson defeated the Philistines, but could not deliver Israel from the threat posed by the Philistines.
The last words in the book of Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) is a cry of hope for better days. The writer believed that a king would bring better days for Israel. However, neither the judges nor the kings could help Israel. Yahweh was the true and only hope of Israel.
Claude F. Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Other Studies on the Book of Judges: