The book of Judges describes violent and disturbing events in the history of the 12 Israelite tribes said to have occurred from around 1225 B.C.E. until around 1075 B.C.E.—over 3000 years ago—from shortly after the death of Joshua until a few decades before the anointing of the first king of Israel.
During this time, the tribes were living in or near the land that became known as Israel and Judea, but were not united as a nation. There was no national leader. They fought one another. They also worshipped gods besides YHWH, the God of Abraham.
The book of Judges tells the tale of a descending cycle of violence. The Israelites would worship YHWH for a while, but would begin worshipping other gods. God would allow an oppressor—a neighboring nation or city—to conquer the Israelites, who would cry out to God and, after a while, God would bless an Israelite leader—a chieftain or judge—who would then conquer or drive off the oppressor. The people would worship YHWH again and things would go well for a while. Then, the chieftain would die and the people would begin worshipping other gods again.
The cycle would repeat, with things getting worse each time.
Samson, Gideon, and Deborah are some of the more-familiar chieftains of the book.
This post describes 7 interesting things we learned about the book of Judges in our Old Testament Interpretation class at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.
1. The English name of the Book of Judges is a bit misleading.
The book is not about “judges” as we use that term today. The Hebrew name of the book is Shofetim. It was traditionally translated as “Judges,” but scholars now view “Chieftain” as a better translation. The “chieftains” described in the book are leaders of some of the Israelite tribes from various backgrounds, including military leaders, warriors, prophets, priests, and those who sat in judgment.
2. Parts of the book conflict with what is said in the book of Joshua.
Judges describes the conquest of the Promised Land as “limited to certain regions in which the indigenous populations had no interest: desert, steppe, mountains and wooded country. This made the settlement of the new arrivals [(the Israelites)] automatically either a matter of no interest to the city state or in some cases even desirable. The settlement took place, but only in small groups. … [Judges] shows how most of the time the attempts of the invaders to occupy better territory … came up against the resistance of the inhabitants, who almost always proved victorious.”
Joshua talks about “violent warfare by all Israel,” killing all the Canaanites, “while [Judges] picture the individual tribes or clans taking their own territory and settling alongside Canaanites.” Moreover, some of the cities reported as conquered in Judges 1 are described in Joshua as already conquered.
This is discussed further in one of my earlier blog posts.
3. Judges 19 tells a horrible story of rape.
Chapter 19 describes a man’s visit to the city of Gibeah, populated by one of the Israelite tribes, with his concubine. When one of the city dwellers hosted them in his home, the other men of the city surrounded the house and demanded that the visiting man come out so that they could have sex with him. In response, the offered his daughter and the visiting concubine instead.
When the city men rejected this offer, either the visiting man or the host shoved the concubine outside the house, at which point the men of the city raped her all night.
4. The “good guys” kill all the non-virgin women in a city.
The other tribes of Israel attacked the tribe inhabiting Gibeah and killed nearly everyone—men, women, and children—in it. Only 600 men survived.
The other Israelite tribes pledged that none of their women will marry any of the 600. They felt sorry for the 600, though, since they had no one to marry.
So, the other Israelite tribes identified an unfaithful city, killed all the men and non-virgin women, and kidnapped the 400 virgin women who remained for wives for the 600.
5. The “good guys” facilitate kidnapping of more women.
Short 200 wives to give to the 600 men, the other Israelite tribes instructed the 600 to go up to the city of Shiloh, where a festival was taking place, and to kidnap young women dancing at the festival to serve as their wives.
The other Israelite tribes said “[i]f their fathers or their brothers come to complain to us, we will say to them, ‘Be generous and allow us to have them; because we did not capture in battle a wife for each man. But neither did you incur guilt by giving your daughters to them.”
6. God says he will “no longer” drive out people from Canaan / Palestine.
When the Israelites worshipped other Gods, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel; and he said ‘Because this people have transgressed my covenant … and have not obeyed my voice, I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died.”
7. The stories in the book are not in chronological order.
The stories at the end of the book about the conquest of Dan and war with Gibeah (chapters 17-21) are dated by the book in the third generation after the exodus from Egypt (18:30, 20:28), which would be early in the time-period of the book, for example.
Presumably, the writer wanted to express a theological theme, rather than a chronological history. Is the same true for the book of Joshua?
The book of Judges thus describes some horrible actions by the Israelites.
These actions are some of the reasons God appointed a king for Israel.
The closing line of the book of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.”
(The picture is a picture I took in January of this year near the traditional site of Gibeah, Israel.)
Sources & Notes
The HarperCollins Study Bible. New Revised Standard Version. Harold W. Attridge, ed. San Francisco: HarperOne. 2006. Pages xxxiv, 346-347.
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 2003. Pages 343-45.
John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 2nd ed. (Fortress, 2014).
For Section 1: The Jewish Study Bible 2d ed. Oxford: University Press. 2014. Pages 495-497.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1998. Page 723.
2: “… limited …”: See, e.g., J. Alberto Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament, 3d. ed. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press (1989), page 191.
“violent warfare … settling alongside Canaanites …. already conquered”: J. Maxwell Miller & Gene M. Tucker, The Book of Joshua, London: Cambridge University Press (1972), pages 10-11.
See my earlier post on this subject and the sources cited there.
3: Chapter 19 of Judges.
4: Judges 21:1-14.
5: Judges 21:15-24 (quoted text is 21:22).
6: Judges 2:20-21.
7: The Jewish Study Bible 2d ed. at 495.
Conclusion: Judges 21:25.
All scripture quoted is from the New Revised Standard Version.