To those who believe that the Bible in general and the Old Testament in particular are outdated and unengaging, one might ask, “Have you ever read the book of Judges?” From the beginning of the book to the end, Judges confronts contemporary readers with a series of timely ideas expressed primarily through characters that rival many of today’s superheroes. Whatever else one might say about the book of Judges, it is certainly neither outdated nor unengaging.
With respect to timely ideas, Judges explores a variety of issues that are of great importance, not only to those in the Anabaptist tradition, but to everyone who lives in today’s world. To name but a few, Judges makes clear that
- individuals are profoundly connected to, influenced by, and responsible for other members of their community;
- leaders, whether good or bad, profoundly shape the ongoing welfare of those under them;
- violence and other forms of evil spiral out of control if left unchecked;
- individuals and communities fall apart without a strong center to hold them together; and
- God is unwilling to share his rightful position at the center with anyone or anything else.
In terms of characters, the writer parades before us one unforgettable figure after another. Think, as examples, of Eglon, a grossly overweight king whose fat enveloped his slayer’s dagger; Jael, an unpretentious Israelite heroine who drove a tent peg through the enemy commander’s skull; Jephthah, an Israelite “hitman” whose big mouth resulted in the death of his only daughter; and Samson, a thoroughly undisciplined judge who yielded to one temptation after another.
When reading the book of Judges, you do not always know whether to laugh or cry—or both. One thing is for certain, however. The reader does not need to choose between meaningful content and rich artistry, transformative ideas and captivating entertainment. Both are on full display here.
Origin, Form, and Features of the Narrative
Samuel, according to Jewish tradition, wrote the book of Judges. Virtually no one, however, holds to such a view today. Most likely, the tradition resulted from the rabbis’ well-documented tendency to associate sacred writings with significant prophetic figures. In reality, little can be said about the authorship and origin of Judges apart from whatever clues might be gleaned from the book itself.
Three general categories of clues concerning date and origin are available: indications of time, the literary nature of the materials, and theological underpinnings.
Indications of Time
There are various allusions to time periods in Judges that might help us determine when and to whom the book was written. Unfortunately, these clues do not all point in the same direction (1:21; 1:29; 3:3; 17:6; and 18:30)! We know, for example, that the Jebusites’ control over Jerusalem, still ongoing in 1:21, ended in the tenth century BCE. We know as well that the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel, apparently referred to in 18:30 as a completed event, took place in 721 BCE.
The Nature of the Materials
Even a cursory reading of Judges reveals a series of “fantastic” stories that reflect many characteristics associated with the heroic literature found throughout the Mediterranean world in the twelfth and eleventh centuries BCE. These characteristics include unusually detailed reporting, as in the graphic description of Eglon’s physique, as well as intense interest in the heroes’ physical characteristics (Ehud was left-handed), craftiness (Deborah and Barak luring Sisera into the plains), shortcomings (Jephthah’s impulsiveness), thirst for revenge (Gideon’s destruction of Succoth), and remarkable accomplishments (Samson’s exploits with the jawbone of a donkey).
Scholars have long noted that various overarching themes and literary connectors not only tie the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings to each other, but to the book of Deuteronomy as well. From these observations emerged a now widely accepted view concerning the so-called “Deuteronomistic History.” According to this view, these books were gathered together and edited as a “multi-volume whole” in order to demonstrate from Israel’s experience the core teaching of Deuteronomy, namely, that obedience to God leads to blessing and disobedience to disaster (e.g., 2:1-4; 2:20-21; 3:7-8; 6:7-10; 8:33-35; 10:10-16; 13:1; 17:6; 21:25). More specifically, the Deuteronomistic History offers a much-needed explanation for the fall of Jerusalem, God’s chosen city, in 587 BCE.
On the basis of internal clues, then, all we might definitively say about the date and origin of Judges is that the book could not have reached its final form prior to 721 BCE. Unambiguous connections to both heroic literature as well as the books of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Samuel, and Kings, however, give us some license to imagine a process through which the book eventually took shape. Such a process most likely included these steps:
- Various “hero” stories were told and retold in the region and during the general time period in which the events actually occurred (ca. 1200–1020 BCE).
- Eventually, perhaps during the tenth and ninth centuries BCE, many of these stories were preserved in written form.
- As certain stories gained wider influence, either because of their entertainment value or instructional significance, they were gathered into a larger collection that now comprises the core section of the book of Judges.
- Introductory and concluding sections as well as editorial comments were added to the collection of stories, probably sometime soon after 721 BCE.
- The books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were by the sixth century BCE edited into a multi-volume collection intended to recount Israel’s story from the vantage point of Deuteronomy.
Although the book contains a variety of materials, including previously independent stories, songs, fables, and editorial comments, it would be a mistake to assume that Judges lacks unity and coherence. On the contrary, Judges is among the most carefully organized books in the Old Testament, if not the entire Bible. From the start, the writer set out to explain and demonstrate one overarching theme, namely, the Israelites’ eventual demise during the period of the Judges resulted from their failure to keep their eyes firmly on Yahweh. Not only does this theme appear in the individual stories of the book themselves, but also in the actual structure of the book as a whole.
Consider for a moment how the book is arranged. Virtually all scholars agree that the book of Judges divides neatly into three major sections. Of particular importance in understanding the book of Judges are the structural relationships that operate within and between these units.
The first section, 1:1–3:6, consists of two introductions (1:1–2:5 and 2:6–3:6) that pinpoint the cause of Israel’s impending decline in one word: disobedience. The Israelites disobeyed by failing to complete the conquest of the land (2:1-2) and by abandoning Yahweh in favor of other deities (2:11-12).
Summary of the Judges Cycle. In 2:11-23, the writer includes a summary of what will follow in 3:7–16:31. This summary outlines a series of six steps that comprise what is generally referred to as the “Judges Cycle.” These steps include the following:
- The Israelites do evil in the eyes of the Lord.
- The Lord summons an oppressor to punish and instruct Israel.
- The Israelites cry out to God for assistance.
- The Lord raises up a judge to deliver the people.
- The judge rescues the people from their oppressor.
- The land has rest.
Recurrence of the Judges Cycle with Erosion, 3:7–16:31
The second and longest section of the book, 3:7–16:31, consists primarily of stories about the exploits of Israel’s six major judges. These stories are recounted on the scaffolding of the Judges Cycle. In this way, the writer uses the literary erosion of the Judges Cycle throughout this section as a way of demonstrating the actual religious and political erosion of Israel alluded to in 1:1–3:6.
In the first of the stories (3:7-11), all six steps of the cycle are present. Israel sins, God summons an oppressor, the Israelites cry out, God raises a judge, the judge rescues the people, and the land has rest. The narrative is short and tidy, and Othniel completes his task as judge without difficulty or interruption. He is, in other words, a model judge.
In each of the following stories, however, slippage of one sort or another occurs, and it only worsens as the narrative moves along. In some instances, all of the steps are present, but they take longer to complete. Perhaps the judge is reluctant to accept his commission. Or maybe the people express little interest in being delivered at all! In other cases, one or more steps are either unclear or missing altogether. By the time Samson steps onto the stage, the entire sequence of steps is in disarray. The Israelites, of course, commit evil—as they always do! Never do they cry out, however, and neither do they experience freedom nor the land enjoy rest.
In the same way that the book of Judges begins with two introductions, so, too, does the final section consist of two conclusions (17:1–18:31; 19:1–21:25). The first conclusion, like the first introduction, deals with issues pertaining to the conquest, while the second conclusion focuses again on matters of worship and faithfulness.
In terms of its structural significance, the closing section of Judges presents a vivid depiction of the outcome of Israel’s disobedience. Gone completely are the steps of the Judges Cycle and whatever degree of order they provided, leaving in their wake nothing short of total chaos. Clearly, as the writer sought to convey, when Israel took their collective eyes off of Yahweh, everything did fall apart.
Summary and Comment
Principal Cause: The Disobedience of Israel, 1:1–3:6
The Conquest Abandoned, 1:1–2:5
The book of Judges begins with the Israelites inquiring of the Lord, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites?” Essentially the same question appears again in 20:18, although under entirely different circumstances. Here in 1:1, the mood is positive and the intention sincere. Faced with divine instructions to complete their takeover of the land of Palestine, the Israelites want to know which tribe should lead the way. “Judah,” the Lord responds.
From that point on in the unit, the narrative is arranged geographically. Beginning with Judah, the southernmost tribe, each tribe in succession sets out to gain control of the land allotted to them. As we move northward, however, the tribes experience less and less success. Indeed, the vast majority of tribes “did not drive out the inhabitants of…,” but instead “lived among them.” This failure to complete their task, the writer makes clear, was not simply an unfortunate oversight or misunderstanding, but a blatant act of disobedience (2:2). As a result, God opts to leave the Canaanites in the land, where they will remain a stumbling block for the Israelites for generations to come.
The Covenant Forsaken, 2:6–3:6
Following this rather dismal description of the “conquest,” the writer next introduces the Israelites’ fateful attraction to a host of pagan deities. Primary among those deities were the Canaanite god and goddess, Baal and Ashtoreth. Although Baal appears many times in the Old Testament, very little is said there about him. Apparently, the original audience already knew more than they should have!
Baal, we now know from extra-biblical sources, was a fertility god who controlled the weather. He was, therefore, the one to know if you hoped to put food on the table, particularly in a region like Palestine that lacked a major river. Rather than a juvenile obsession with hand-carved wood and stone, then, Israel’s attraction to Baal grew out of their desire for financial security.
This attraction to Baal is the first step in the six-step sequence of the Judges Cycle. After Israel sins, experiences oppression, and cries out for mercy, God in step four raises up judges. According to Deuteronomy 16:18, judges were to be appointed in towns throughout the tribes of Israel, where they would hear the peoples’ cases and render just decisions (cf. Exod. 18:13; 1 Sam. 4:18; 7:15-17). In the book of Judges, however, they function primarily as “on-call” deliverers (2:16) who are frequently summoned to free the Israelites from their oppressors. Only of Deborah are we specifically told that she overheard cases and settled disputes (4:5).
In spite of whatever freedom these judges provided, Israel remains caught in a vicious cycle. As a result, God grows weary and opts once again not to drive the Canaanites from the Land (2:21). By allowing them to remain, God will not only test the Israelites—"will they ever complete the conquest?”—but instruct them as well. At first glance, it appears as though God hopes to turn the Israelites into mighty warriors. Such an interpretation, however, runs totally contrary to the emphasis placed elsewhere on “reducing the troops” (e.g., Judges 7:1-8). Instead, God wants Israel to learn lessons that Joshua’s generation learned through the conquest; namely, God alone fights our battles and God gets the credit.
Worsening Effect: The Deterioration of Israel, 3:7–16:31
The Pattern Established: Othniel, 3:7-11
With the Judges Cycle outlined in “theory” (2:11-21), the writer now provides a series of examples of it in practice. In this first story, the Israelites find themselves oppressed by King Cushan-rishathaim. The name, meaning “Cushan of Double-Wickedness,” was most likely a descriptive nickname given to him by previous opponents.
Of primary importance in this brief section is the presence of all six steps of the Judges Cycle and the impressive performance of Othniel. A southerner and relative of Caleb (Num. 13:30), Othniel accepts his call from God without hesitation and quickly carries out his responsibilities with considerable effectiveness. Because of this, Othniel comes to serve as a model with which subsequent judges can be compared.
The Pattern Affirmed: Ehud’s Escapades, 3:12-31
With the model of Othniel firmly established, the writer next presents two judges who more or less live up to Othniel’s example. Ehud, a southerner from the tribe of Benjamin, is noteworthy for being “left-handed.” Rather than the traditional meaning, however, the phrase typically translated “left-handed” could refer to a learned military skill, i.e., the ability to utilize both the right and left hands in war. Either reading suits the context well.
Ehud’s call involves delivering the Israelites from the Moabites, their neighbor to the west. Eglon (“calf”), the king of Moab, is remembered here, not for his administrative skills or brilliant strategies, but for his massive girth. The humor of Eglon’s physique is clearly not lost on the writer—or the original audience!—as he describes Ehud’s rather adventurous conquest of the king. In slaying Eglon, Ehud slays the “fatted calf.”
The Pattern Affirmed: Deborah’s Adventures, 4:1–5:31
In the second story in this section, uniquely preserved in both narrative and poetic form, the Lord summons King Jabin to oppress the Israelites. Jabin himself plays no particular role in the story, being replaced by his military commander, Sisera, as the leading antagonist. From all indications, including the large number of Israelite tribes mentioned in chapter 5, the conflict depicted here was the most far-reaching of all those recorded in Judges.
As the story unfolds, a certain level of ambiguity surrounds the identity of the judge. While readers typically assume that Deborah serves in that capacity, she is instead the mouthpiece through which Yahweh calls Barak (4:5-6). His reluctance to accept his call, however, forces Deborah into an expanded role and eventually redirects the glory from Barak to an as yet unidentified woman (4:9).
The actual events behind the story took place in the Jezreel Valley, the site of endless battles throughout history. Sisera’s troops were from all indications at a strategic advantage, possessing chariots well suited for a level plain. In spite of this advantage, however, the Israelites somehow manage to totally overwhelm their enemy. While 4:15 simply suggests that Yahweh threw the Canaanites into disarray, the poem sheds further light on the matter. According to 5:20, a powerful storm occurred that caused the Kishon River to overflow and flood the plain, rendering Sisera’s chariots immobile. Assuming that Sisera was too experienced a military general to take his chariots into the Jezreel Valley during the rainy season, we must conclude that Yahweh—not the weather-god, Baal!—caused such a downpour during the dry and typically rainless season.
With the battle lost, Sisera flees for his life. Given both the unwritten rules of Middle Eastern culture as well as a peace agreement between Jabin and the Kenites (4:17), he understandably imagined that he would find safety in the tent of a Kenite woman. What Sisera did not understand, however, is that the Kenites had an even longer-standing agreement with the Israelites (1:16; 4:11). Undoubtedly mindful of that agreement, Jael kills Sisera and gains the glory alluded to in 4:9.
In the Song of Deborah preserved for us in chapter five, we find one of the oldest texts in the entire Old Testament. At first glance, the poem seems cruel and even sadistic, celebrating as it does the murder of the Canaanite commander, Sisera. What must be kept in mind when reading such a text, however, are the vastly different perspectives in the Old and New Testaments with respect to life after death. In the Old Testament, very little is said about the afterlife, so rewards and punishments are generally meted out here on earth, not in the life to come. When celebrating the death of Sisera, then, Deborah is not so much rejoicing over the death of an individual as she is celebrating the victory of good over evil.
In addition to celebrating the victory of good over evil, the Song of Deborah also celebrates the wonder of community and the importance of mutual cooperation. In the song, for example, various tribes are singled out both for participating in the battle (vv. 2, 9, 13-15a) as well as for refusing (vv. 15b-17, 23). As has long been emphasized by those in the Anabaptist tradition, the people of God comprise a community that serves as our “core” or primary group. In that group we have our identity and to that group we are fundamentally responsible.
The Pattern Threatened: Gideon’s Quests, 6:1–8:32
Following the celebration of Sisera’s demise and Israel’s deliverance from the hands of the Canaanites, the writer next leads us through a period of transition. In the combined stories of Gideon and Abimelech, the steps of the Judges Cycle erode more noticeably, although the overall pattern remains largely intact.
In the case of Gideon, the Israelites find themselves in a particularly difficult situation. The Midianites, their oppressor, are numerous, well equipped, ruthless, and ambitious (6:3-5). Importantly, when the Israelites cry out for divine assistance, God hesitates, sending a prophet to rebuke them instead (6:8).
After this unexpected delay, Yahweh summons Gideon to free the Israelites. The actual call, however, is postponed yet again by a lengthy discussion introducing Gideon. When the messenger of the Lord arrives on the scene, he finds Gideon threshing grain in a wine press. Unlike threshing floors, which require open space and gusty winds, wine presses function well in far less visible places. Clearly, Gideon fears the Midianites and wishes to remain unnoticed.
When the messenger of God approaches Gideon, he surprisingly addresses him as a “mighty warrior” (6:12). When this same messenger informs Gideon of his upcoming responsibilities, Gideon scarcely knows what to do. In rapid succession, he questions God’s presence (6:13), prepares a feast for his guest (6:19), destroys his father’s pagan altar (6:27), erects an altar to Yahweh (6:27), and requests a sign confirming his call (6:36-40). While such a sign should perhaps not have been necessary, the granting of the request illustrates God’s sensitivity to human frailty.
In terms of the sign itself, Gideon asks that a fleece be left out overnight on the stone floor of the wine press. If in the morning the fleece is wet and the floor dry, Gideon will know that the messenger and his instructions really did come from God. The request is granted and the fleece placed on the floor. The next morning, the fleece is indeed wet and the floor dry, just as Gideon suggested.
Rather than assure the reluctant warrior, however, Gideon realizes that the sign he requested was intrinsically flawed! Insofar as a fleece is a piece of cloth that absorbs liquid, it would of course remain wet from the dew long after the stone floor had dried. As a result, Gideon requests that the plan be repeated with one modification. The fleece must be dry and the floor wet. The second time around, that is what happened.
Rather than command his troops in chapter 7, however, Gideon actually dismisses them! To protect the Israelites from misassigning the credit for their upcoming victory over the Midianites, the Lord instructs Gideon to take only the three hundred least competent men along with him! The key to this interpretation is the placement of the phrase “with their hands to their mouths.” Some manuscripts position the phrase in v. 6, leaving interpreters with an unusually awkward reading: “Three hundred of them drank with cupped hands, lapping like dogs.” What dog cups his hands while drinking?!? A far more intelligible reading, and one that is more consistent with the themes of Judges, appears in the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the Septuagint, the phrase appears in v. 5 rather than v. 6, leaving us with the following reading:
- So he brought the troops down to the water; and the Lord said to Gideon, “All those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, you shall put to one side; all those who kneel down to drink, putting their hands to their mouths, you shall put to the other side.”
The ones who “put their hands to their mouths” (i.e., “cupped their hands”) and stayed alert are sent home! With the three hundred remaining men—those who got down on their bellies and lapped like dogs—Gideon subdues the Midianites.
With the outcome of the battle no longer in question, Gideon now turns his attention elsewhere. What began with a calm and reassuring response to the offended people of Ephraim (8:1-3) soon turns violent. While pursuing the defeated kings of Midian across the Jordan River, Gideon seeks supplies from the Israelite citizens of Succoth (8:5) and Penuel (8:8). When his request is denied, the rather squeamish and reluctant Gideon of chapter 6 turns into a bloodthirsty bounty hunter here in 8:13-17.
In spite of the earlier precautions taken to ensure that God receives the credit for Israel’s advances, the people here wrongfully assign the glory to Gideon (8:22). Although he wisely turns down their invitation to rule over them as king and acknowledges Yahweh’s lordship, Gideon foolishly collects jewelry from his subjects and fashions an idolatrous ephod or breastplate that will plague Israel for years to come.
The Pattern Threatened: Abimelech’s Atrocities, 8:33–10:5
Although Gideon refused to serve as king, his son, Abimelech, was more than willing to do so, even if only over the city of Shechem. So eager was Abimelech to rule, in fact, that he kills his brothers to get them out of the way. Only one brother, Jotham, survives, and he contributes significantly to Abimelech’s undoing.
In his now famous fable (9:8-15), Jotham warns the people, not against kingship in general, but against the type of corrupt king that Abimelech turned out to be. After only three years in power, the blood of Abimelech’s brothers comes back to haunt him. God, the writer informs us, stirred up enmity between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, resulting in a battle that costs Abimelech his life.
The Pattern Ignored: Jephthah’s Undertakings, 10:6–12:7
In the final two accounts of major judges, selected steps of the Judges Cycle are now severely eroded or totally missing. Even the ever-present first step is accentuated by a bit of literary cleverness. In the list of gods that the Israelites followed, seven names appear (10:6). Seven is the Hebrew number symbolizing completion or totality. By implication, the Israelites have abandoned Yahweh in favor of every god under the sun! If this seems coincidental, note Yahweh’s response when the Israelites cry out for relief from the Ammonites. In obvious frustration, the Lord lists the various opponents from whom he has delivered Israel (10:11-12). Once again, seven names appear! God, the writer implies, has delivered Israel over and over and over again. Like a weary parent, God’s patience is now running thin.
Importantly, God never calls Jephthah to deliver the Israelites from the Ammonites—that step of the cycle is missing here. Instead, the leaders of Gilead, impressed by Jephthah’s murderous exploits, ask him themselves (11:6). After negotiating with the leaders for greater power, Jephthah accepts their invitation and confronts the King of Ammon. When diplomacy fails to resolve the tension over land rites, Jephthah prepares for battle.
Up to this point in the story, Jephthah has bargained with the leaders of Gilead as well as the King of Ammon. Now, he boldly attempts to bargain with God. Importantly, nowhere in the story does God delight in Jephthah’s offering, nor does God encourage him to go through with it once his daughter wanders out of the house. Instead, Jephthah is simply left to face the consequences of his final and most brazen bargaining ploy.
The Pattern Ignored: Samson’s Stunts, 13:1–16:31
In the story of Samson, little remains of the Judges Cycle. Israel, as always, does evil in the sight of the Lord, and they find themselves oppressed by the Philistines as a result of it. Never do they cry out for deliverance, however. In fact, the Israelites have apparently come to terms with the Philistines and view their lordship as a normal and acceptable fact of life (15:11).
The call of Samson is unusually long and indirect. Even though his noteworthy credentials—a Nazirite and son of a barren woman—lead readers to expect great things, the writer assures us up front that Samson will only begin his assignment as Israel’s deliverer (13:5). As a result, the Israelites never experience freedom nor the land rest during Samson’s lifetime.
Of considerable importance in the Samson narrative are the themes of sight and vows, both of which reveal a judge running out of control. In terms of vows, Samson’s parents dedicated him at birth as a Nazarite (13:5). Accordingly, Samson was not to consume products of the vine, touch anything unclean, or cut his hair. In total disregard of these vows, Samson eats honey from the carcass of a lion (14:8), kills a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a (dead) donkey, and lies helplessly as his Philistine captors cut off his hair (16:19).
With respect to sight, the writer refers on two separate occasions to Samson “seeing,” and in both cases trouble brews. In the first reference (14:1-2), Samson “sees” and marries a Philistine woman, reveals the answer to his riddle (14:17), loses his Philistine wife (14:20; 15:2, 6), and slays one thousand Philistines (15:15). In the second reference (16:1), Samson “sees” a prostitute and takes two Philistine women, discloses the secret to his strength (16:18), loses his strength, sight, and the Lord’s presence, and kills himself and countless Philistines (16:30). In the light of Samson, one can better understand Jesus’ instructions to pluck out your eye if it leads you into trouble (Matt. 5:29)!
Given Samson’s tendency toward self-gratification and his inability to control his passions—even his prayer for God’s strength in 16:28 grows out of his desire for personal revenge—it is no wonder that he failed to complete his assignment. As a result, the people of Israel do not experience freedom from the hands of the Philistines, not does the land have rest.
Final Outcome: The Depravity of Israel, 17:1–21:25
The Danites’ Alternate Conquest, 17:1–18:31
In Judges 1:1–3:5, the writer offered two introductions that outlined the causes of Israel’s decline. Now, in 17:1–21:25, we find two conclusions that describe the chaotic results of that decline. The first of these conclusions focuses once again on Israel’s conquest of the land. In this case, however, the Israelites not only fail to complete the conquest, they give up and settle elsewhere!
Two separate yet integrated scenes here underscore the depths of Israel’s depravity. In the first, a man named Micah hires a Levite to serve as the personal priest over his idolatrous shrine. To make matters worse, Micah mistakenly assumes that the mere presence of the Levite will assure him God’s favor (17:13). In the second, the tribe of Dan abandons its efforts to secure its assigned territory in the south and settles instead in the northernmost section of the land. Along the way, they lure the opportunistic Levite away from Micah’s shrine by offering him priestly responsibilities over their entire community. As a result of such idolatry, disobedience, greed, and self-serving theology, the writer announces, as he will again, that “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).
The Death of Morality, 19:1–21:25
The concluding section of the book of Judges brings Israel’s ever-worsening decline to a nightmarish close. In what must be one of, if not the most, gruesome stories in all of Scripture, chapter 19 tells the story of another Levite from Bethlehem. In this case, the Levite wanders north from Bethlehem with his concubine and servant, stopping to spend the night in the city of Gibeah. When the citizens of Gibeah do the unthinkable and deny them hospitality, the travelers are left to spend the night with an elderly Ephraimite, himself a long-term “visitor” in the city. That night, a group of “hoodlums,” hoping to have sexual relations with the Levite, rape and leave for dead the concubine instead. In sheer dismay, the Levite dismembers the concubine and sends pieces of her body to each of the tribes of Israel. “Has such a thing ever happened in Israel?” he asks.
What remains is in fact the climax of the book. Horrified by the atrocity in Gibeah, the remaining tribes of Israel gather to seek out justice. As they discuss their anticipated response against Gibeah and the tribe of Benjamin, they eerily ask the same question that first appeared in 1:1: “Who of us shall go up first against…?” On this second occasion, however, all of the attenuating circumstances have changed. Rather than advancing against their foes, the Israelites are now retreating to destroy one of their own. Clearly, God does not need to punish his habitually disobedient people. They are doing a good job of that themselves!
When the dust from this in-house battle settles, the tribe of Benjamin has virtually disappeared. Only a devilish scheme to secure wives from among the people of Shiloh—a scheme that in essence duplicates the fate of the concubine two hundred times—spares Benjamin from total extinction. What more can be said? For lack of other words, the writer simply concludes, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (21:25).
The book of Judges, as entertaining as it may be, is on one level a very discouraging read. So complete is the Israelites’ disobedience and so steep their decline that one wonders why the book was ever written, much less preserved as sacred Scripture. With today’s news as disturbing as it often is, why waste time reading more of the same? The answer to this question most likely lies behind the bold acknowledgment of the book itself.
Over the years, explorers and archaeologists have uncovered texts from many of ancient Israel’s neighbors, including the Assyrians, Moabites, Phoenicians, and Egyptians. Among whatever else these texts share in common, their writers tend to gloss over or leave out altogether stories of weakness and defeat. Not the Israelites, who instead acknowledge both their communal shortcomings as well as those of their leaders! People had decided to make choices on the basis of their own perspective.
Why, however, preserve such an acknowledgement for everyone across the centuries to see? Why not simply confess their sins and move on? At least these reasons come to mind:
The brute honesty of the book of Judges enables subsequent generations, including our own, to identify more closely with the people of ancient Israel than we might have if the record was whitewashed. The further we read in the book, the more we understand that these people are our people and their stories our stories.
In recognizing our deep connection to the Israelites, we realize that we have more in common with them than we ever could have imagined. Like them, we chase after other gods in search of “food” and security. We make promises that we rarely keep. We succumb to temptation, condone violence, ignore our obligations, and long for revenge. No longer can we simply sit in judgment over the Israelites—we are too much like them, and need to make confession.
As disobedient and desperate as the Israelites in the book of Judges are, they are never without hope. Flip to any page and you will find God working, not only in the ongoing affairs of the Israelites, but in those of the wider world as well. For that reason, although all the people during the period of the Judges “did what was right in their own eyes,” a new day might very well lie ahead.
If nothing else, then, the book of Judges might help us recognize the importance of naming our sins and those of our community, assuming responsibility for them, and refocusing our sights on God so that he might restore us. In a profound sense, ensuring the welfare of the community in this way is largely what those in the Anabaptist tradition have meant by establishing the “visible” church. The book of Judges depicts a community that, like the Church of the medieval period, needs to be “rebuilt.” If we look carefully, we might see in that depiction a reflection of ourselves.
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
Historicity and Truth
Holy Spirit in the Old Testament
Prohibition against Images
Violence and War
- Boda, Mark J. Judges. Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 2022.
- Chisolm, Jr, Robert B. Interpreting the Historical Books: An Exegetical Handbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 2006.
- Matthews, Victor. Judges and Ruth. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
- McCann, J. Clinton. Judges. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: John Knox, 2003.
- Niditch, Susan. Judges. Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: Westminster john Knox, 2008.
- Pressler, Carolyn. Joshua, Judges, and Ruth. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
- Ryken, Leland. How Bible Stories Work: A Guided Study of Biblical Narrative. 2d ed. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018.
- Stone, Lawson. Judges. Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2012.
- Webb, Barry. The Book of Judges. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.
- Wilcock, Michael. The Message of Judges. The Bible Speaks Today Series. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992.
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|—Terry L. Brensinger|