Both the Hebrew and Greek titles for this book is 'Judges'. The name comes from the leadership of Israel from the death of Joshua until the accession of King Saul.
Authorship and date of writing
The book of Judges was probably composed at an early stage of the Monarchy. Twice, it refers to a time when "there was no king in Israel" (18:1, 19:1), referring back to a time of anarchy and instability from the perspective of current stability of the Monarchy. The reference to the Jebusites dwelling in Jerusalem to this day (1:21) imply that it was written before David conquered Jerusalem around 990 BC. A suggested date of the writing of the book would be 1000 BC. There is no clear evidence as to the name of the author, Samuel or one of his students is a good suggestion.
The period of Judges coincides with the Iron Age in the Middle East, this is when an effective and economic process of smelting iron was discovered, which requires a high temperature. The iron age began around 1200 BC. This is reflected in the OT, including the iron chariots of the Canaanites (Josh 17:16), Sisera's 900 chariots of iron (Judges 4:3), and the Philistines monopoly of iron working (1 Sam 13:19).
The period of judges includes the books of Judges, Ruth, and 1 Samuel ch 1-12. Othniel (Caleb's nephew) was the first judge, and Samuel was the last judge. This period lasted 400 years, working with a fifteenth century BC date for a late date Exodus, or is reduced to 200 years, using a thirteenth century BC date for an early date of the Exodus.
After the conquest under Joshua, the tribes were a long way from occupying the entire promised land. They only controlled the hill country, not the lowlands. The other areas were still occupied by Canaanites and other peoples, who raided or oppressed Israel at various times. The most powerful of the enemies were the Philistines. The land not conquered is listed in Joshua 13:1-6 and Judges 3:1-4. This included the land of Philistines, the area east of the Sea of Galilee, and all the land north of Mt Hermon to Hamath. However, they were still instructed to divide up the land, including these areas (Josh 13:7). By the time of the judges, Israel had occupied land east of the Jordan (Josh 13:13), and the central hill country. They did not yet control the lowland.
The office of judge
The judges were the 'saviours' of the nation. The Spirit of Yahweh came upon fairly ordinary people to impart power, strength, courage and gifts of leadership. The judges often had little natural ability, and had no formal appointment of lineage. The office of Judge was primarily someone to administer justice to and for the people (Deut 17:8ff). The people sought advice for their conflicts and problems from the Judge, including Deborah (4:4) and Samuel (1 Sam 8:1-3).
Some judges were only deliverers, with no reference to them administering justice, like Jephthah or Samson. Others did not deliver, but just judged, like Tola, Jair, Ibzam, Elon and Abdon.
At this time, the nation was little more than a loose group of tribes. There was no central government, no capital city, and no national administration. God was King and ruled His people through judges. Each tribe was independent from any central authority, with its own elders, run in a patriarchical manner. The technical term for this type of system is an 'Amphicotyony', an assembly of tribes united together only by a religious bond, with its focal point in a central sanctuary at Shiloh. There was no statehood, central government, capital city or administration. This is not unique to Israel, as this kind of government was found later in the Delphic League in Greece, the Etruscan League in Italy, and the twelve Edomite tribes.
The nation was held together by the covenant Yahweh made with Israel, the central shrine (at Shiloh) and the religious cult centred there, together with the yearly festivals (Judges 21:19, 1 Sam 1:3-21). It is likely that each of the twelve took turns in caring for the tabernacle, one each month.
In the book of Judges, the nation is not united. "Every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (21:25). Usually, only one tribe or a small group of tribes fought the oppressors. There was no national standing army. Only as many as were needed rose to the call to arms.
The situation for Israel was difficult. The people of the land had not been driven out. Israel was confined to the hill country, and because of the topography, was divided into three separate units, divided by the Jordan valley, and the Valley of Jezreel. This made communication difficult. Border skirmishes and pressure from the people around them was a common feature. It became apparent recognised that the 'amphictyony' was a weakness, causing the lack of unity in the nation. The author of judges sees the problem being that there was no king to bring unity to the nation.
Most of the invaders were able to be fended off, but when the Philistines began to cause problems, the people of Israel decided that something should be done. The Philistines are first mentioned when Shamgar killed 600 of them with an ox goad (Judges 3:31). Samson was to begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines (Judges 13:5). Later, the Ark was captured (1 Sam 4:1), and the Philistines were routed after Samuel's prayer (1 Sam 7:5ff). The Philistines became too strong, so the people wanted a king to fight their battles (1 Sam 8:6,20). Samuel warns them of the negative consequences of a central government (1 Sam 8:10-18). Very little is heard of the Philistines after King David. Samson began to deliver Israel (Judges 13:5), and David finished the job at Rephaim (2 Sam 5:17-25).
Why did the nation fail to drive out the Canaanites?
The book of judges gives several reasons for Israel’s failure to drive out the Canaanites: One was the superior arms and fortifications of Canaanites (1:19), even though Joshua expected their chariots to make no difference (Josh 17:18). What they needed was faith in God and obedience to his word. Another was that Israel made alliances with the inhabitants (2:1-5), compromising with the enemy and disobeying God. The main reason was Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, when they broke the covenant by worshipping other gods (2:19-20). God was also using the situation. God wanted to test Israel to see whether they would walk in the way of their fathers (2:21-22), and he wanted his people to learn how to fight (3:2), and to trust him to deliver them.
The basic problem was Israel's sin. God had said that they would drive out the inhabitants little by little (Deut 7:22, Ex 23:30), but they were not to make any covenant with them. After the initial successes under Joshua, compromise set in, so that land that was rightfully theirs was not taken (Judges 1). The remaining peoples were continually a problem.
To the author, history is seen as the story of God's dealings with his people and the surrounding nations. The author has carefully selected historical material to make a point. The outworking of Israel's history is related to the covenant made on Sinai (Ex 19-24, Lev & Deut). As with the other 'history' books of the OT, God was dealing with Israel in relation to His Suzerainty Covenant.
Yahweh was their King, and He made a covenant with His chosen people which they must keep. The laws were in two categories: the first was to love God alone, and have no idols; the second was to love their neighbour. God had commanded that they should destroy the peoples in the land, so that they would not copy their evil practices (Deut 20:16-18). The Canaanites were in such gross sin that God was bringing judgement (Gen 15:16, Lev 18:24, Deut 18:12).
Israel had to learn that Yahweh was to be seen as totally different from the local pagan gods. He was not localised to any geographical region in heaven or earth. He was not a fertility god, yet he did control fertility. He was not to be identified with any natural force, even though he controlled all natural forces as the all-powerful, omnipresent almighty God, who controlled the universe and nature.
The people of Israel failed to possess all the promised land and the book of Judges shows the consequence of that. They became mixed with the Canaanites and apostasy crept in, causing the people to forsake the true God. This caused the nation to come under the covenant curses of Lev 26 and Deut 27 & 28.
When the tribes kept God's covenant and walked in his ways, they were united and strong and enjoyed God's blessing. When they committed apostasy, they became fragmented and weak, losing God's blessing, and judgement came upon them in the form of aggressive neighbouring nations. Repentance brought God's forgiveness through the intervention of the judges. The time of repentance and deliverance lead to a united spiritual vitality and blessing until the corruption of the Canaanite religious cults pulled them down once more. This is known as the Deuteronomic interpretation of history. It can be summarised by: Rebellion, Retribution, Repentance, Restoration.
Judges is a story of repeated apostasy, and repeated demonstrations of the grace of God. The structure of the book brings this out clearly:
|1:1 - 2:5
||Israel's failure to possess the land
|2:6 - 3:6
||Introduction to the cycle of sin, oppression and salvation
|3:7 - 16:31
||Six cycles of apostasy
|17:1 - 18:31
||Apostasy: Micah, the Levite and the Danites
|19:1 - 21:25
||Revenge: The Levite and the Benjaminites
The cycle is introduced in 2:6 - 3:6. The people served the Lord all of the days of both Joshua and the elders who outlived him (2:6). But a generation arose who did not know the Lord, or the work which He had done for Israel (2:10). These are the six stages in the cycle:
1. People forsook the Lord and served other gods (2:11-13)
2. The Lord gave the people over to their enemies... they could not withstand them. The Lord's hand was against them (2:14-15)
3. They were in sore straits (2:15)
4. The people groaned and cried out to God (2:18)
5. God heard their cry, and raised up judges to deliver them (2:16)
6. They were delivered all the days of the judge (2:18)
There are six of these cycles in the Book of Judges
||Oppression by Cushan-Rishathaim of Mesopotamia for 8 years
||Deliverance by Othniel for 40 years
||Oppression by Moabites (Eglon), Ammonites and Amalekites for 18 years
||Deliverance by Ehud for 80 years
||Oppression by Canaanites for 20 years
||Deliverance by Deborah and Barak for 40 years
||Oppression by Midianites for 7 years
||Deliverance by Gideon for 40 years
||Oppression by Ammonites for 18 years
||Partial deliverance by Jephthah for 31 years
||Oppression by Philistines for 40 years
||Partial deliverance by Samson for 20 years
The cycle begins to break down after Gideon’s son Abimelech tried to seize power. The last two main judges, Jephthah and Samson, are never able to bring peace to the land.
The spiritual life of the nation was at a low point: Gideon's father (6:28) and Micah (17:1) had idols, 42,000 Ephraimites were killed in civil war (12:6). There was sexual perversion, including homosexuality (19:22). There were priests not belonging to the tribe of Levi, Micah's (of Ephraim) son was priest (17:5). They people did not pay tithes (17:8). Gideon made an ephod (8:27). Jephthah seemingly made a human sacrifice (11:34). Superstition became stronger; Micah installed Levite as priest, thinking they should do better as a result (17:12-13). Only Deborah stands out as someone faithful to Yahweh.
Lack of the Word of God
The Book of Samuel refers to the time when "the word of Yahweh was scarce" (1 Sam 3:1). The book of judges reflects this in that only 41 out of 618 verses are predictive (7%). Eli needed to hear three times before he understood that God was speaking. Thankfully, things changed with Samuel (1 Sam 3:21-4:1). It was Israel's 'Dark Ages', the result of disobedience. The repeated phrase, "and the people of Israel did was evil in the sight of the Lord", sums up the book (2:11; 3:7,12; 4:1; 6:1; 8:34; 10:6; 13:1).