Introduction to Judges

INTRODUCTION TO JUDGES

The book of Judges doesn’t identify its author. However, Jewish tradition as recorded by the Baba Bathra 14b-15a holds that the prophet Samuel wrote it: “Samuel wrote the book which bears his name and the Book of Judges and Ruth.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, rather than being located after the Book of Judges, the Book of Ruth is placed after the Song of Solomon. The HCSB introduction to Judges notes that there are at least three objections to Samuel’s authorship, preferring either an anonymous writer or King Solomon:

(1) The books refer to the time of the judges as having taken place in distant memory (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25; Ruth 1:1; 4:17, 22) (2) The books take the time to explain past customs or events (Judges 11:39; 14:10; 20:27-28; Ruth 4:7). (3) The text says, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel,’ seemingly writing from the perspective of a time when Israel had a king, and Samuel died before David reigned as king (Judges 21:25; 1 Samuel 25:1).”

However, the same source includes more than sufficient answers to these challenges:

(1) The time of the judges technically ceased with the ascension to the throne of Saul, who was anointed king by Samuel (1 Samuel 10:1; 11:14-15). Thus Samuel could easily have written these books after the time of the judges. (2) Sufficient time had passed between the actual events or customs and the recording of those events or customs for memories to have faded and certain customs to have fallen out of vogue; hence the need for explanations for later generations of readers. (3) The references to a king in general in the book of Judges (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25), and the references to David in particular in the book of Ruth (4:17, 22), fit acceptably within Samuel’s life span since he saw the coronation of Saul and later anointed David as king.”

The NLT Illustrated Study Bible does an excellent job of describing the setting for the book of Judges. “…Moses and Joshua did leave the Israelites with an organized society. According to the biblical text, the tribal structure was well-established and the lands were clearly apportioned.” The same source adds, “Israel had conquered Transjordan during the time of Moses, and the hill country of Canaan during the time of Joshua (see Joshua 11:16-12:24), but the rest of the land remained largely unconquered (Joshua 13:1-7)….In addition, the cities of Philistia were under Philistine control.” The map below helps the reader envision the scenario:

Image via NLT Illustrated Study Bible p. 446

The same source describes the following structure for the book:

Judges follows and A-B-A structure, beginning with two prologues. Each is introduced by the death of Joshua, thus picking up the narrative from Joshua 24:28-31 by means of this pivotal event in Israel’s national life..”

    • The first prologue (Judges 1:1-2:5) recalls the failure of the individual tribes to follow through on God’s covenant…”

    • The second prologue (2:6-3:6) turns from the failures of the tribes to introduce the individuals whom the Lord used to keep the flame of conquest and settlement alive in a chaotic time. The story moves from Joshua to the elders who outlived him but who had experienced God’s power in the wilderness and conquest, and finally to the third generation ‘who did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel.’ The account then introduces the central feature of the book (2:16), the judges whom God raised up to rescue Israel and call them back to covenant obedience…Judges 3:1-6, like the close of the earlier prologue, informs readers in advance that the effort will end in failure.”

    • The central section (3:7-16:31) contains ‘cycles’- longer accounts of six major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson), and shorter accounts of the six minor judges (Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon).”

    • Judges culminates in two epilogues (chs 17-18; 19-21) that highlight the historical and theological feature of Israel under the judges, and the ensuing spiritual and social chaos…”

David Guzik writes, “During this period of the judges…there was no standing ‘office’ of national leadership. Israel had no king, no president, and no prime minister on earth – only God in heaven. Yet at the necessary and appropriate times God brought forth a leader for the nation. For the most part these leaders would rise up, do his (or her) job, and then return to their obscurity. This required that the people of Israel maintain a real, abiding trust in God…These national deliverers were not elected, and they didn’t come to leadership through royal succession. They were specially gifted by God for leadership in their times, and the people of God recognized and respected that gifting… When this book uses the term judge, it doesn’t mean someone who sits in a court and decides legal issues; the Hebrew word shaphat has more the idea of a heroic leader.” Citing Morgan, Guzik adds, “The Hebrew word Shophetim is derived from a word meaning to put right, and so to rule, and this is exactly what these men did.”

Judges (as well as Ruth, for that matter) is full of extremely controversial material and not for the squeamish. However, as the HCSB points out, “…by being written as straightforward accounts, the books display a higher degree of credibility than if they presented sanitized histories. Neither book attempts to gloss over any of the sins, foolishness, or errors of the people described in them.”

Any in-depth study of the book will reveal that the chronology of the Judges era is notoriously complicated. There are many factors contributing to this difficulty: whether one holds to an early or late Exodus date; translation disagreements regarding the appropriate rendering for Acts 13:19-20; reconciliation of Acts 13:20 and 1 Kings 6:1; and whether or not the judges served only sequentially or could some have overlapped; etc.

The interested reader may refer to the following sources for additional information on Judges chronology issues. Various views are represented:

The “Period of the Judges” and a Young Earth (Apologetics Press)

The Times of the Judges- A Chronology (Dr. A.J.M. Osgood)

Chronology of Judges Timeline (bible.ca)

Compilation of Commentaries on Acts 13:20 (Biblehub)

The Judges of Israel- Internal Chronology (Old Testament Studies)

Bible Chronology- The Judges of Israel (Bible insight)

Perhaps the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible section titled Judges 1 As Annalistic Military Reporting sheds a little light on the chronological difficulties in its discussion of a possible literary genre for the Book of Judges:

…Jdg 1 is dependent upon the narrative account of the conquest of Canaan found in Jos 13-19, the literary form adopted here resembles that of Assyrian summary inscriptions of military campaigns. Although these accounts often begin with a chronological note, they arrange events not necessarily chronologically, but according to geography. The inscriptions tend to be short, telescoping relatively long periods of time into brief spans of reading time.”

Referring to the Book of Judges, the same source adds, “…the present document is intended as a summary of Israel’s fortunes after the death of Joshua. Even so, since Jdg 1 recounts more failures than successes, a summary inscription of military conquests is transformed ironically into an anti-conquest account. Unlike most ancient military reports, the aim of this document is not to celebrate the achievements of the generation of Israelites that survived Joshua, but to lament their sorry response to the divine mandate to occupy the land and eliminate the Canaanites.”

The Octagonal clay prism (ca. 1100 BC) with the annals of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.). This text spoke of a campaign of king Tiglath-pileser against the land of aatti. It comes from the temple of Anu and Adad in Assur. Cuneiform inscription. British Museum, London, United Kingdom (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

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