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The Judges of Israel

Dennis Bratcher

The Cycle of Judges (2:10-23)

A "judge" (Heb: shophet) was primarily a military leader of a particular tribe, although they could serve the role of both military and legal administrator. The book of Judges is primarily the negative theological counterpart to the book of Joshua.  In Joshua, Israel was faithful to God and stood unified around the single figure of Joshua.  As a result of allowing God to lead them they were successful and settled into the land with a minimum of major battles.  Theologically the book of Joshua presents the results of obedience and faithfulness to God, summarized by the statement "the land had rest from war" (Josh 11:23, 14:15; 21:44, etc.).

The book of Judges presents quite a different picture of Israel.  As the book opens, the tribes are not at all unified, are barely holding onto small pieces of land independently of other tribes, and are continually at risk from surrounding people.   There were echoes of this in Joshua, but there the negative elements were subsumed under the goal of presenting the settlement in the land as a reward for faithfulness to God (see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges).  Whether Judges intends to present a different historical picture of the same time period as Joshua or of a later period after the people had lived in the land for some time is a question for the historians to resolve.  Theologically, however, it is clear that Judges intends to portray the devastating effects of disobedience to God, especially in allowing the syncretistic worship of Ba'al among the Israelites.  The book is structured around a well defined theological premise, that the problems Israel had in securing the land were directly related to their ongoing love affair with Ba'al worship (see Ba'al Worship in the Old Testament).  This is summarized by the concluding statement in the book (21:25):  "all the people did what was right in their own eyes."

In terms of literary structure, the book is organized around a series of failures that occur in cycles reported in a specific literary pattern: oppression by surrounding peoples, repentance, deliverance, and then repeated failure.  This theme is presented clearly at the beginning of the book in a fivefold structure that serves as theological commentary on the entire period (2:10-23).

1. The Israelites forgot God's past deliverance and began worshipping Baal

(10) That whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the lord or the work that he had done for Israel. (11) And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Ba'als; (12) and they forsook the LORD, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them, and bowed down to them. . . (13) They forsook the LORD, and served the Ba'als and the Ash'taroth.

2. God gave them into the hands of their enemies

(12). . .and they provoked the LORD to anger. . .(14) So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them; and he sold them into the power of their enemies round about, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies.

3. They cried out to God for deliverance

(18) for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them.

4. God raised up a judge to deliver them

(16 ) Then the LORD raised up judges, who saved them out of the power of those who plundered them. . . (18) Whenever the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge;

5. When that judge died, they would again worship Baal

(19) But whenever the judge died, they turned back and behaved worse than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them; they did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways.

The Judges of Israel

1. Othniel (3:7-11)

a. son of Kenaz and brother of Caleb
b. defeated the Arameans; the spirit of the Lord was on him

2. Ehud (3:12-30)

a. left-handed
b. killed Eglon, king of Moab, by trickery

3. Shamgar (3:31, 5:6)

a. fought against the Philistines

4. Deborah (4-5)

a. woman tribal leader, both military and legal
b. campaigned against Sisera, Canaanite general under Jabin, the King of Hazor
c. Barak was military leader under Deborah
d. Jael, a Kenite woman, killed Sisera as he fled

5. Gideon (6-8)

a. came from a family of Baal worshippers
b. afraid to trust God, portrayed as an arrogant coward
c. God gave him a plan to defeat the Midianites
d. ended up worshipping Baal

6. Abimelech (9)

a. not a judge, attempted to make himself king but failed

7. Minor Judges: Tola and Jair (10:1-5)

8. Jephthah (10:6-12:7)

a. illegitimate child and an outcast
b. fought against the Ammonites
c. made a rash vow that led to the sacrifice of his only child (see Jepthah's Rash Vow)

9. Minor Judges: Ibzan, Elon, Abdon (12:8-15)

10. Samson (13-16)

a. born to a barren woman by promise
b. was a Nazarite, but broke his vows
c. was a womanizer and a drunk
d. God helped him bring relief from the Philistines
e. his fatal attraction to Delilah

The rest of the book of Judges (17-21) describes a situation deteriorating on two fronts, the breakdown of religious sensitivity (17-18) and finally the breakdown of social concerns that led to civil war among the tribes (19-21) in which the tribe of Benjamin was nearly annihilated.  The recurring comment that "there was no king" anticipates the rise of the monarchy that, while not the best religious move, brought some stability to a bad situation.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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