1. Title. The book of Judges takes its name from the titles of the men who governed Israel after the death of Joshua. Moses, in giving directions as to the government of the Israelites after their settlement in Canaan, had ordered, “Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Deut. 16:18). Accordingly, after Moses no longer lived to exercise legislative, nor Joshua, executive functions, judges were appointed, who constituted the highest civil authority in the land. The book of Judges is the history of the period that immediately followed the death of Joshua. In that period the governing authority in Israel was vested in judges.
The men after whom this book was named filled a larger office than the civil functions of the judges stipulated in the Mosaic law. They were, in most cases, summoned directly to their great work by divine appointment (ch. 3:15; 4:6; 6:12; etc.), and entered upon it more as deliverers from foreign bondage than as civil rulers. In fact, the very necessity for their call and their great deeds arose from the anarchy that rendered all ordinary procedures unavailing against the prevalent apostasy and oppression. The most illustrious of them were national heroes rather than civil or religious guides.
“Generals,” or “chieftains,” would probably be a more accurate title for them inasmuch as their exploits were largely military. However, after each judge “delivered” the people, he ruled over them for the rest of his life. Hence the name Judges seemed most appropriate for the book when it was written. Centuries later in Carthage, where the people were of the same racial and linguistic stock as the Hebrews, a political ruler was also known as a “judge,”sufet (Heb. shaphat; cf. English “suffete”).
2. Authorship. It is not known who wrote the book of Judges. According to ancient Jewish tradition, it was written by Samuel (see Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 14b, 15a). This is an obvious conjecture, and although it accords with many of the facts, other factors militate against the view. A favorite saying of the author of the Judges was, “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (ch. 17:6; 21:25; cf. ch. 18:1; 19:1). This is thought to suggest that the author may have been in favor of the kingship, as if he had said, in effect, “Such things would not be tolerated, but at that time there was no king in Israel to keep order, and everyone was able to do as he pleased.” Because Samuel was opposed to the idea of a king for Israel, some have thought it improbable that he was the author of these words.
Internal evidence points to the possible time limits between which Judges may have been written. The statement quoted above, “In those days there was no king in Israel” (ch. 17:6), indicates that the book was written after the institution of the monarchy under Saul. On the other hand, there is evidence that it must have been written before the reign of David, or at least early in his reign. Chapter 1:21 notes that the Jebusites had not been driven out from Jerusalem, but dwelt there with the children of Benjamin “unto this day.” Bible history points out that the Jebusites remained in possession of Jerusalem, or, at least the citadel of Zion, until the time of the capture of the city by David after the conclusion of his seven-year reign at Hebron (2 Sam. 5:6-9; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The book of Judges, therefore, was possibly written during the first seven years of David’s reign prior to his capture of Jerusalem.
3. Historical Setting. Although it is impossible to fix with any real certainty the exact time in the stream of Near Eastern history when the events recorded in the book of Judges took place, one would not miss it far to say that the book covers the period from 1400 to 1050 B.C. The exact time cannot be accurately determined until the date of the Exodus has been definitely fixed, and at the present time sufficient historical data are not available to enable one to decide with absolute certainty between the conflicting theories. For further comment on this point see Vol. I, pp. 188-196; Vol. II, pp. 124-126. The Amarna tablets and other inscriptions reveal that the Canaanites who held possession of the land had been settled there for centuries preceding the Hebrew invasion. Their civilization was of long standing, and under the influence of the great empires of Mesopotamia and Egypt had attained a considerable degree of development. The people were organized under petty rulers who owed common allegiance to Pharaoh. But despite this they fought constantly among themselves, thus becoming skilled in the art of war. Yet in the face of common danger they would more or less unite under one leader. Their fortified cities protected them in the hills and their chariots of iron made them formidable on the plains, as is evident from the material remains of their civilization that the archeologists have excavated. Art and architecture seem to show an immediate and marked decline after the invasion of the Hebrews. However, in the realm of spiritual truth, and thus in morals and philosophy of life, the Hebrews showed a vast superiority over the native inhabitants. The Canaanites were known all over the Near East as merchants and traders (later on in Hebrew the word Canaanite came to mean “trader”), but they were proficient in agricultural skills as well. Lacking the requisite faith in God, the Israelites were unable to drive out the Canaanites, so they settled down, after the first few years of war, to live beside them. During all this period the Hebrews were not a solidly united nation. Occasionally two or three tribes were able to form a temporary alliance against a common enemy. The song of Deborah in Judges 5 shows that even in time of great peril it was impossible to unite all the tribes into one federation. Inter-tribal strife was rather common (chs. 8:1-3; 12:1-6; 20:1-48). This was due in part to the lack of communication and intercourse between the tribes because of the chains of Canaanite forts that divided up the land.
Rather quickly the newcomers began to learn from the older inhabitants their methods of agriculture, for the Hebrews had been largely a nomadic people up to this time. The Canaanite religion centered around rites to ensure the fertility of the soil. There were many celebrations honoring agricultural deities for the rich harvests they had granted. In taking over the agricultural methods of the people of the land, many of the Hebrews were led to accept also the religion interlocked with these methods.
4. Theme. This book recounts the varied fortunes of the Hebrew people in the period after the death of Joshua until the time of Samuel, in whose days the monarchy came into existence. Joshua had been, in a special sense, chosen to carry out and bring to completion the program begun by Moses. When Joshua died, the Israelites—deprived of both the authoritative direction of Moses and the executive experience of Joshua— entered upon a period of independent management and attempted consolidation of their newly won homeland. Prior to this time the Hebrews had existed in a varied condition of unrest and movement, undergoing first enslavement, then prolonged wandering in the desert, and finally the hardships of camp and conquest. The book of Joshua, which is largely a biography of that great leader, recounts the final phases of this conquest. The book of Judges gives the next step in the history of the Israelites, exhibiting them as they met the challenges of making the transition from a migratory, pastoral people into a settled, agricultural nation. As we open the book we find ourselves in an atmosphere of warlike ardor. We are plunged at once into military preparations as the tribes begin to disperse after the united campaigns under Joshua. Councils of war meet; and then, as the tribes go up from the Jordan valley to take possession of the districts which had fallen to their lot to conquer, the clash of weapons is heard. Battle follows battle. Iron chariots hurtle along the valleys; the hillsides bristle with armed men. The songs are of strife and conquest; the great heroes are those who smite the enemies of Israel hip and thigh. Though the Hebrew tribes win the mountain country, they cannot drive the Canaanites from the plains. When the din of battle faded away the Canaanites were still in possession of a strong chain of fortified towns running east and west from Mt. Heres through Aijalon, Shaalbim, Gibeon, Beeroth, Kirjath-jearim, and Jerusalem. Farther to the north Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali were separated from the tribes in central Canaan by another barrier of strongholds from the sea through Dor, Harosheth, Megiddo, Taanach, and Ibleam to the Jordan River. The rich Valley of Jezreel leading down to the Jordan by the strong fortress of Beth-shan was still in the hands of the Canaanites. These two chains of strongholds intersected the land and made communication and unity among the tribes virtually impossible. Cut off as they were from one another by these unconquered cities, the Hebrew tribes were exposed to attack and could only with difficulty form partial confederations against their enemies in order to hold onto the centers they had won in the midst of a hostile population. Constantly recurring invasions of hostile peoples brought strife and bondage to the Hebrew tribesmen. From the northeast came Mesopotamian invaders; from the southeast, the Moabites; from the east, Midianites and Ammonites; and from the southwest, the Philistines. Because apostasy and idolatry had weakened the bonds of national unity that loyalty to their religion had wrought, the Hebrews were unable to resist these onslaughts. However, the sufferings of bondage produced repentance, causing the people to return to the worship of the Lord once more. Then, in pity for them, God would raise up a deliverer or “judge,” who would break the yoke of bondage and judge the people until his death. This is the subject material of the book. The main theme that the author of Judges expounds is that sin and apostasy from true religion bring upon a people the displeasure of God. In order to bring about a turning from sin, God permits suffering and disaster, which can only be averted by genuine repentance and a return to God. When true repentance occurs, God raises up persons or circumstances that bring deliverance and relief. The history of the period is recorded on a framework that sets forth these broad propositions: that righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is the reproach of any people; that evil companions ruin good intentions and training; that moral degeneracy always brings with it national weakness; that the affairs of the chosen people, Israel, were under the immediate care of divine Providence; that national sin brings divine punishment; that the punishment which sin involves is intended by the Lord to be educational, not vindictive; that the retribution is withdrawn when it has produced sincere repentance; that deliverance never comes from unaided human efforts, but from the strength and enthusiasm inspired by the Spirit of God. These principles of God’s rule explain, the author tells us, the alternations of apostasy and servitude, repentance and deliverance characteristic of the history of this period. These propositions, so admirably illustrated by the author in the stories he recounted, elevate the book of Judges from the realm of historical narratives to the position of a sacred philosophy of history. The inspired author of the book was more concerned about pointing out the lessons to be learned from the history he recorded than about the history itself. Even a cursory reading of the book of Judges reveals that the author intended to demonstrate that the hand of God was manifest in the events that befell the Israelites in their new homeland. The outcome was in God’s control, and He guided the experiences that came to the people in such a way that they should learn by experience that their only happiness and safety lay in serving Him. A minor theme in the book is that the troubles of Israel were due in a large measure to the evil influence of their heathen neighbors. Someone might ask why, if the idolatrous inhabitants of the land were agents leading the Hebrews into temptation, God did not drive out the Canaanites and Amorites, and thus prevent the apostasy of His people. The author evidently offers an answer to this objection in one section of the book (ch. 3:1-4). Here he states that the Lord recognizes the value of difficulties in the formation of character. For this reason God left the Canaanites in the land to prove whether Israel would serve Him.
A further purpose of the author was to describe how, under the leadership and blessing of God, a number of small tribes were able to achieve a permanent settlement in a strange and hostile land; how their heroes acquired fame; and how, in the midst of diverse interests and molding influences, loyalty to their one God prevented their absorption by other peoples. The book of Judges falls into five well-marked sections. It begins with a general historical preface (chs. 1:1 to 2:5) or survey of the partial conquest of the land after it had been parceled out to the different tribes by Joshua. The tribes attacked their particular inheritance alone, or sometimes several of them banded together when confronted by strong resistance. Despite their efforts, the Israelites were only partially successful in taking possession of the portions of the land allotted to them. The author presents the narrative in a way to show that the failure of the people was due to their lack of trust and faithfulness to the Lord. In this way he informs the reader of the basis of all the subsequent troubles of Israel, and why the Canaanites were allowed to remain in the land. The relations of Israel with the remaining Canaanites form the background of the history of the ensuing chapters and explain why the judges were necessary.
This historical sketch is followed with a second introduction (chs. 2:6 to 3:6), the object of which is to show how the religious apostasy that followed the death of Joshua continued unabated. The people sank into idolatry and provoked divine retribution. When the people repented, the Lord sent deliverance by means of successive judges.
Having stated his theme, the author then proceeds to recount the history of the tribes under 12 judges (chs. 3:7 to 16:31). It is a history of sin, ever repeating itself, and of divine grace, constantly devising new means of deliverance. The heroic deeds of six of these deliverers are related fully, and those of six are merely mentioned with brief detail. The episode of Abimelech’s usurpations is given at length to warn the people of the peril of choosing a monarch who does not meet the divine specifications (see Deut. 17:15).
The book ends with two appendixes, both of which describe events that happened in the early part of the judges period. The first (chs. 17 and 18) gives the narrative of Micah’s idolatry and of the northern sanctuary that housed his images in the tribe of Dan until the death of Eli. The second appendix (chs. 19 to 21) records the vile deed of the Benjamites at Gibeah, and the vengeance inflicted on that tribe by the other tribes. It ends with an account of the means taken to save the tribe of Benjamin from extinction after they were virtually extirpated for their support of the guilty Gibeonites.
I. General Historical Preface: The State of Affairs When the History Begins, 1:1 to 2:5. A. The tribes endeavor to consolidate their allotments in Palestine, 1:1–36. 1. Judah and the Kenites, 1:1-20.
IV. A Double Appendix; Two Events That Occurred During the Period of the Judges, 17:1 to 21:25. A. The origin of Micah’s idolatry and of the sanctuary of his idols in Dan (in the north), 17:1 to 18:31. 1. The construction of the images, 17:1-6.