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Introduction to Judges


Summary of the Book of Judges

This summary of the book of Judges provides information about the title, author(s), date of writing, chronology, theme, theology, outline, a brief overview, and the chapters of the Book of Judges.


The title refers to the leaders Israel had from the time of the elders who outlived Joshua until the time of the monarchy. Their principal purpose is best expressed in 2:16: "Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of . . . raiders." Since it was God who permitted the oppressions and raised up deliverers, he himself was Israel's ultimate Judge and Deliverer (11:27; see 8:23, where Gideon, a judge, insists that the Lord is Israel's true ruler).

Author and Date

Although tradition ascribes the book to Samuel, the author is actually unknown. It is possible that Samuel assembled some of the accounts from the period of the judges and that such prophets as Nathan and Gad, both of whom were associated with David's court, had a hand in shaping and editing the material (see 1Ch 29:29).

The date of composition is also unknown, but it was undoubtedly during the monarchy. The frequent expression "In those days Israel had no king" (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) suggests a date after the establishment of the monarchy. The observation that the Jebusites still controlled Jerusalem (1:21) has been taken to indicate a time before David's capture of the city c. 1000 b.c. (see 2Sa 5:6-10). But the new conditions in Israel alluded to in chs. 17-21 suggest a time after the Davidic dynasty had been effectively established (tenth century b.c.).

Themes and Theology

The book of Judges depicts the life of Israel in the promised land from the death of Joshua to the rise of the monarchy. On the one hand, it is an account of frequent apostasy, provoking divine chastening. On the other hand, it tells of urgent appeals to God in times of crisis, moving the Lord to raise up leaders (judges) through whom he throws off foreign oppressors and restores the land to peace.

With Israel's conquest of the promised land through the leadership of Joshua, many of the covenant promises God had made to their ancestors were fulfilled (see Jos 21:43-45). The Lord's land, where Israel was to enter into rest, lay under their feet; it remained only for them to occupy it, to displace the Canaanites and to cleanse it of paganism. The time had come for Israel to be the kingdom of God in the form of an established commonwealth on earth.

But in Canaan Israel quickly forgot the acts of God that had given them birth and had established them in the land. Consequently they lost sight of their unique identity as God's people, chosen and called to be his army and the loyal citizens of his emerging kingdom. They settled down and attached themselves to Canaan's peoples together with Canaanite morals, gods, and religious beliefs and practices as readily as to Canaan's agriculture and social life.

Throughout Judges the fundamental issue is the lordship of God in Israel, especially Israel's acknowledgment of and loyalty to his rule. His kingship over Israel had been uniquely established by the covenant at Sinai (Ex 19-24), which was later renewed by Moses on the plains of Moab (Dt 29) and by Joshua at Shechem (Jos 24). The author accuses Israel of having rejected the kingship of the Lord again and again. They stopped fighting the Lord's battles, turned to the gods of Canaan to secure the blessings of family, flocks and fields, and abandoned God's laws for daily living. In the very center of the cycle of the judges (see Outline), Gideon had to remind Israel that the Lord was their King (see note on 8:23). The recurring lament, and indictment, of chs. 17 - 21 (see Outline) is: "In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit" (see note on 17:6). The primary reference here is doubtless to the earthly mediators of the Lord's rule (i.e., human kings), but the implicit charge is that Israel did not truly acknowledge or obey her heavenly King either.

Only by the Lord's sovereign use of foreign oppression to chasten his people -- thereby implementing the covenant curses (see Lev 26:14-45; Dt 28:15-68) -- and by his raising up deliverers when his people cried out to him did he maintain his kingship in Israel and preserve his embryonic kingdom from extinction. Israel's flawed condition was graphically exposed; they continued to need new saving acts by God in order to enter into the promised rest (see note on Jos 1:13).

Out of the recurring cycles of disobedience, foreign oppression, cries of distress, and deliverance (see 2:11-19; Ne 9:26-31) emerges another important theme -- the covenant faithfulness of the Lord. The amazing patience and long-suffering of God are no better demonstrated than during this unsettled period.

Remarkably, this age of Israel's failure, following directly on the redemptive events that came through Moses and Joshua, is in a special way the OT age of the Spirit. God's Spirit enabled people to accomplish feats of victory in the Lord's war against the powers that threatened his kingdom (see 3:10; 6:34; 11:29; 13:25; 14:6,19; 15:14; see also 1Sa 10:6,10; 11:6; 16:13). This same Spirit, poured out on the church following the redemptive work of the second Joshua (Jesus), empowered the people of the Lord to begin the task of preaching the gospel to all nations and of advancing the kingdom of God (see notes on Ac 1:2,8).


Fixing precise dates for the judges is difficult and complex. The dating system followed here is based primarily on 1Ki 6:1, which speaks of an interval of 480 years between the exodus and the fourth year of Solomon's reign. This would place the exodus c. 1446 b.c. and the period of the judges between c. 1380 and the rise of Saul, c. 1050. Jephthah's statement that Israel had occupied Heshbon for 300 years (11:26) generally agrees with these dates. And the reference to "Israel" in the Merneptah Stele demonstrates that Israel was established in Canaan before 1210 b.c..
Some maintain, however, that the number 480 in 1Ki 6:1 is somewhat artificial, arrived at by multiplying 12 (perhaps in reference to the 12 judges) by 40 (a conventional number of years for a generation). They point out the frequent use of the round numbers 10, 20, 40 and 80 in the book of Judges itself. A later date for the exodus would of course require a much shorter period of time for the judges (see Introduction to Exodus: Chronology; see also note on 1Ki 6:1).

Literary Features

Even a quick reading of Judges discloses its basic threefold division: (1) a prologue (1:1 -- 3:6), (2) a main body (3:7 -- 16:31) and (3) an epilogue (chs. 17 - 21). Closer study brings to light a more complex structure, with interwoven themes that bind the whole into an intricately designed portrayal of the character of an age.

The prologue (1:1 -- 3:6) has two parts, and each serves a different purpose. They are not chronologically related, nor does either offer a strict chronological scheme of the time as a whole. The first part (1:1 -- 2:5) sets the stage historically for the narratives that follow. It describes Israel's occupation of the promised land -- from their initial success to their large-scale failure and divine rebuke.

The second part (2:6 -- 3:6) indicates a basic perspective on the period from the time of Joshua to the rise of the monarchy, a time characterized by recurring cycles of apostasy, oppression, cries of distress and gracious divine deliverance. The author summarizes and explains the Lord's dealings with his rebellious people and introduces some of the basic vocabulary and formulas he will use in the later narratives: "did evil in the eyes of the Lord," 2:11 (see 3:7,12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6); "handed them over to," 2:14 (see 6:1; 13:1); and "sold them," 2:14 (see 3:8; 4:2; 10:7).

The main body of the book (3:7 -- 16:31), which gives the actual accounts of the recurring cycles (apostasy, oppression, distress, deliverance), has its own unique design. Each cycle has a similar beginning ("the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord"; see note on 3:7) and a recognizable conclusion ("the land had peace . . . years" or "led Israel . . . years"; see note on 3:11). The first of these cycles (Othniel; see 3:7-11 and note) provides the "report form" used for each successive story of oppression and deliverance.

The remaining five cycles form the following narrative units, each of which focuses on one of the major judges:

    1. Ehud (3:12-30), a lone hero from the tribe of Benjamin who delivers Israel from oppression from the east.
    2. Deborah (chs. 4 - 5), a woman from one of the Joseph tribes (Ephraim, west of the Jordan) who judges at a time when Israel is being overrun by a coalition of Canaanites under Sisera.
    3. Gideon and his son Abimelech (chs. 6 - 9), whose story forms the central account. In many ways Gideon is the ideal judge, evoking memory of Moses, while his son is the very antithesis of a responsible and faithful judge.
    4. Jephthah (10:6 -- 12:7), a social outcast from the other Joseph tribe (Manasseh, east of the Jordan) who judges at a time when Israel is being threatened by a coalition of powers under the king of Ammon.
    5. Samson (chs. 13 - 16), a lone hero from the tribe of Dan who delivers Israel from oppression from the west.

The arrangement of these narrative units is significant. The central accounts of Gideon (the Lord's ideal judge) and Abimelech (the anti-judge) are bracketed by the parallel narratives of the woman Deborah and the social outcast Jephthah -- which in turn are framed by the stories of the lone heroes Ehud and Samson. In this way even the structure focuses attention on the crucial issue of the period of the judges: Israel's attraction to the Baals of Canaan (shown by Abimelech; see note on 9:1-57) versus the Lord's kingship over his people (encouraged by Gideon; see note on 8:23).

The epilogue (chs. 17 - 21) characterizes the era in yet another way, depicting religious and moral corruption on the part of individuals, cities and tribes. Like the introduction, it has two divisions that are neither chronologically related nor expressly dated to the careers of specific judges. The events must have taken place, however, rather early in the period of the judges (see notes on 18:30; 20:1,28).

By dating the events of the epilogue only in relationship to the monarchy (see the recurring refrain in 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25), the author contrasts the age of the judges with the better time that the monarchy inaugurated, undoubtedly having in view the rule of David and his dynasty (see note on 17:1 -- 21:25). The book mentions two instances of the Lord's assigning leadership to the tribe of Judah: (1) in driving out the Canaanites (1:1-2), and (2) in disciplining a tribe in Israel (20:18). The author views the ruler from the tribe of Judah as the savior of the nation.

The first division of the epilogue (chs. 17 - 18) relates the story of Micah's development of a paganized place of worship and tells of the tribe of Dan abandoning their allotted territory while adopting Micah's corrupted religion. The second division (chs. 19 - 21) tells the story of a Levite's sad experience at Gibeah in Benjamin and records the disciplinary removal of the tribe of Benjamin because it had defended the degenerate town of Gibeah.

The two divisions have several interesting parallels:

Not only are these Benjamin-Dan parallels significant within the epilogue, but they also form a notable link to the main body of the book. The tribe of Benjamin, which in the epilogue undertook to defend gross immorality, setting ties of blood above loyalty to the Lord, was the tribe from which the Lord raised up the deliverer Ehud (3:15). The tribe of Dan, which in the epilogue retreated from its assigned inheritance and adopted pagan religious practices, was the tribe from which the Lord raised up the deliverer Samson (13:2,5). Thus the tribes that in the epilogue depict the religious and moral corruption of Israel are the very tribes from which the deliverers were chosen whose stories frame the central account of the book (Gideon-Abimelech).

The whole design of the book from prologue to epilogue, the unique manner in which each section deals with the age as a whole, and the way the three major divisions are interrelated clearly portray an age gone awry -- an age when "Israel had no king" and "everyone did as he saw fit" (17:6). Of no small significance is the fact that the story is in episodes and cycles. It is given as the story of all Israel, though usually only certain areas are directly involved. The book portrays the centuries after Joshua as a time of Israelite unfaithfulness to the Lord and of their surrender to the allurements of Canaan. Only by the mercies of God was Israel not overwhelmed and absorbed by the pagan nations around them. Meanwhile, however, the history of redemption virtually stood still -- awaiting the forward movement that came with the Lord's servant David and the establishment of his dynasty.


I.           Prologue: Incomplete Conquest and Apostasy (1:1;3:6)

A.   First Episode: Israel's Failure to Purge the Land (1:1;2:5)

                    II.        Oppression and Deliverance (3:7;16:31)

Major Judges

Minor Judges

A. Othniel Defeats Aram Naharaim (3:7-11)

B. Ehud Defeats Moab (3:12-30)

1. Shamgar (3:31)

C. Deborah Defeats Canaan (chs. 4-5)

D. Gideon Defeats Midian (chs. 6-8)

(Abimelech, the anti-judge, ch. 9)

2 .Tola (10:1-2)

3 .Jair (10:3-5)

E. Jephthah Defeats Ammon (10:6;12:7)

4 .Ibzan (12:8-10)

5. Elon (12:11-12)

6. Abdon (12:13-15)

F. Samson Checks Philistia (chs. 13-16)

  2. Epilogue: Religious and Moral Disorder (chs. 17-21)

──《New International Version


Introduction to Judges

The book of Judges is the history of Israel during the government of the Judges, who were occasional deliverers, raised up by God to rescue Israel from their oppressors, to reform the state of religion, and to administer justice to the people. The state of God's people does not appear in this book so prosperous, nor their character so religious, as might have been expected; but there were many believers among them, and the tabernacle service was attended to. The history exemplifies the frequent warnings and predictions of Moses, and should have close attention. The whole is full of important instruction.

── Matthew HenryConcise Commentary on Judges


00 Overview




Title and place of the book in the canon

The title, “Judges,” or “The Book of Judges,” which the book bears in the Jewish and Christian Bibles, is given to it because it relates the exploits of a succession of Israelite leaders and champions who, in the book itself as well as in other parts of the Old Testament, are called Judges. The significance of the Hebrew word is, however, much wider than that of the Greek κριτής, the Latin judex, or the English, judge. The verb shaphat is not only judicare, but vindicare, both in the sense of “defend, deliver,” and in that of “avenge, punish.” The participle shophet is not only judex, but vindex, and is not infrequently synonymous with “deliverer.” Again, as the administration of justice was, in times of peace, the most important function of the chieftain or king, the noun is sometimes equivalent to “ruler,” and the verb signifies “rule, govern.” In this sense it is most natural to take it in the lists of minor Judges (e.g., Judges 10:2-3; cf. Judges 12:7-8; cf. Judges 12:11; cf. Judges 12:14; Judges 15:20; 1 Samuel 4:18; 1 Samuel 7:15; cf. 1 Samuel 8:20). The title, “Book of Judges,” was in all probability meant by those who prefixed it to the book to correspond to that of the Book of Kings; the judges were the succession of rulers and defenders of Israel before the hereditary monarchy, as the kings were afterwards. In the Hebrew Bible the Book of Judges stands in the first division of the Prophets, the Prophetic Histories (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings) which narrate continuously the history of Israel from the invasion of Canaan to the fall of Jerusalem (B.C. 586). In the Greek Bible Ruth is appended to it, sometimes under one title ( κριτα߁), sometimes under its own name; and in manuscripts, the Pentateuch, together with Joshua, Judges, and Ruth, frequently forms a codex (Octateueh). In the history of Israel before the exile, Judges covers the time from the close of the period of conquest and occupation with the death of Joshua to the beginning of the struggle with the Philistines in the days of Eli. A better division, from our point of view, would have been the establishment of the kingdom of Saul. There is some evidence that, in one at least of the older histories which our author had before him, Eli and Samuel were reckoned among the judges (1 Samuel 4:18; 1 Samuel 7:15); but as Samuel is the central figure in the story of the founding of the kingdom, it was not unnatural to begin a new book with his birth. The character of the two works shows conclusively that Judges was not composed by the author of Samuel; the peculiar religious interpretation of the history which is impressed so strongly on Judges is almost entirely lacking in Samuel. (Prof. G. F. Moore.)

Date of Compilation of the Book

Its authorship--or rather, the authorship of any part of it, for it is drawn from more than one source--is unknown, and its final redaction, as is shown by the presence of Deuteronomic and other elements, cannot have taken place until after the exile. Its composite character is shown by the fact that it has two beginnings (see Judges 1:1 and Judges 2:6). The main section of the book, extending from Judges 2:6 to Judges 16:31, consists of an apparently consecutive narrative, grouped round six principal judges--Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson--the intervals being filled with the history of Gideon’s son, Abimelech, and references, more or less brief, to six minor heroes--Shamgar, Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. The religious pragmatism of this narrative is obvious; the history falls into running cycles, all corresponding to the scheme indicated at the outset (Judges 2:11-23). The apparently consecutive character of the narrative disappears when its chronological data are carefully analysed; from these we find that the chronology of the section is based on two artificial “alternative schemes, either of which, but not both together, can be reconciled with the datum in 1 Kings 6:1. Thus the narrative of the greater judges was originally separate from that of the minor ones. The religious standpoint of this main section, taken along with other points of internal evidence, shows that in the main it must have been composed about the eighth century B.C. There are signs of Deuteronomic redaction, however; but, on the other hand, the section contains elements that carry us much further back than the century named--such elements, e.g., as the Song of Deborah, and the history of Abimelech. Of the remaining portions of the book, Judges 1:1 to Judges 2:5 is relatively old--older than the Book of Joshua, which relates to the same subject, the conquest of Canaan, but treats it in a much later manner. The closing section of the book is made up of two unconnected and independent narratives of very different dates. The history of Micah and the Danites (Judges 17:1-13; Judges 18:1-31) is a piece of very old history: that of the Levite and the Benjamites is considered by Wellhausen to be post-exilic, and in any ease must be regarded as comparatively very late. (Chambers’s Encyclopaedia.)

The Chronology of the Book

The only guide to the chronology is to be found in the genealogies which span the period, for there are no materials in the book itself from which to construct an accurate rendering of the number of years between the death of Joshua and the commencement of Eli’s judgeship. There are ten genealogies in Scripture given with more or less completeness, which include the interval of time between the exodus and David.

Of these ten genealogies, of which those of David and Zadok especially have the appearance of being drawn up in their respective lifetimes, and carry every conviction of their completeness, and those of Saul and the Edomitish kings have also all likelihood of being complete, only one, that of Heman, differs, in appearance even, from the others in length; but this apparent difference is removed, and the line of Heman brought to the same length as the other nine, when we observe that Seven, or rather nine names from another genealogy (that of Ahimoth, verses 22-25) have apparently been interpolated bodily between Elkanah in verse 35 and Korah in verse 37. The evidence, then, of these ten genealogies concurs in assigning an average of between seven and eight generations to the time from the entrance into Canaan to the commencement of David’s reign, which would make up from 240 to 260 years. Deducting thirty years for Joshua, thirty for Samuel, and forty for the reign of Saul (Acts 13:21), in all 100 years, we have from 140 to 160 years left for the events related in the Book of Judges. This is a short time, no doubt, but quite sufficient, when it is remembered that many of the rests and servitudes there related are not successive, but synchronise; and that no great dependence can be placed on the recurring eighty, forty, and twenty years, whenever they are not in harmony with historical probability . . . The narratives which have the strongest appearance of synchronising are those of the Moabite, Ammonite, and Amalekite servitude (Judges 3:12-30), which lasted eighteen years, and was closely connected with a Philistine invasion (Judges 3:31); of the Ammonite servitude which lasted eighteen years, and was also closely connected with a Philistine invasion (Judges 10:7-8); and of the Midianite and Amalekite servitude which lasted seven years (Judges 6:1), all three of which terminated in a complete expulsion and destruction of their enemies by the three leaders, Ehud, Jephthah, and Gideon, heading respectively the Benjamites, the Manassites, and the northern tribes, and the tribes beyond Jordan: the conduct of the Ephraimites as related in Judges 8:1; Judges 12:1, being an additional very strong feature of resemblance in the two histories of Gideon and Jephthah. The forty years of Philistine servitude mentioned in Judges 13:1 seem to have embraced the last twenty years of Eli’s judgeship and the first twenty of Samuel’s, and terminated with Samuel’s victory at Ebenezer; and if so, Samson’s judgeship of twenty years also coincided in part with Samuel’s. The long rests of forty and eighty years spoken of as following the victories of Othniel, Barak, Ehud may very probably have synchronised in whole or in part. If the numerals are correct, and the rests are successive, we should have no less than 160 years (40+80+40) without a single recorded incident in any part of the twelve tribes, which must be deemed improbable. (Lord Arthur Hervey.)

The Object of the Book

In this sacred history we are authoritatively taught what the moral causes were, in the instances recorded in it, which led to the fall and rising again of Israel. The book is a record of the righteousness, the faithfulness, and the mercy of God. Again, as the preservation of the Israelitish people through this troublesome and perilous portion of their existence was not an accident, but a part of God’s eternal plan for the salvation of mankind, so is the record of it, and of the means by which it was brought about, an integral portion of those Holy Scriptures which were given by inspiration to God. This book exhibits the wondrous strength which man acquires from good and glorious works when his faith lays fast hold of the faithfulness of God. It exhibits, too, the fearful perils which they incur who seek for safety in weak and indolent compliance with the demands of sin, instead of in a bold and uncompromising adherence to the law of Christ. It teaches us by heart-stirring examples to “fight the good fight of faith,” and “lay hold on eternal life.” It holds out to us in figures the mighty victory of Christ over all His foes, and so stimulates our own hope of sharing His victory, and being partakers of His kingdom, when all enemies are put under His feet. (Lord Arthur Hervey.)

Contents of the Book

The Book consists of three parts: Judges 1:1-36; Jdg_2:1-5; Jdg_2:6-16:31; Jdg_17:21

Judges 1:1-21. The southern tribes: Judah, Caleb, the Kenites, Simeon, Benjamin.

Judges 1:22-29. The central tribes: Joseph (Manasseh, Ephraim).

Judges 1:30-33. The northern tribes: Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali.

Judges 1:34-35. Dan’s settlement in the west.

Judges 1:36. The southern border,

Judges 2:1-5. The angel of Yahweh reproves the Israelites for sparing the inhabitants of the land, and foretells the consequences.

Judges 2:6-23; Judges 3:1-6. Introduction: The religious interpretation and judgment of the whole period as a recurring cycle of defection from Yahweh, subjugation, and deliverance--The nations which Yahweh left in Palestine.

Judges 3:6-31; Judges 4:1-24; Judges 5:1-31; Judges 6:1-40; Judges 7:1-25; Judges 8:1-35; Judges 9:1-57; Judges 10:1-18; Judges 11:1-40; Judges 12:1-15; Judges 13:1-25; Judges 14:1-20; Judges 15:1-20; Judges 16:1-31. The stories of the Judges and their heroic deeds.

Judges 3:7-11. Othniel delivers Israel from Cushan-rishathaim, King of Aram-naharaim.

Judges 3:12-30. Ehud kills Eglon, King of Moab, and liberates Israel.

Judges 3:31. Shamgar kills six hundred Philistines.

Judges 4:1-24. Deborah and Barak deliver Israel from the Canaanites; the defeat and death of Sisera.

Judges 5:1-31. Triumphal ode, celebrating this victory,

Judges 6:1-40; Judges 7:1-25; Judges 8:1-35. Gideon rids Israel of the Midianites.

Judges 9:1-57. Abimelech, the son of Gideon, King of Shechem.

Judges 10:1-5. Tolah; Jair.

Judges 10:6-18. The moral of the history repeated and enforced; preface to a new period of oppression,

Judges 11:1-40; Judges 12:1-7. Jephthah delivered Gilead from the Ammonites; he punishes the Ephraimites.

Judges 12:8-15. Ibzan; Elon; Abdon.

Judges 13:1-25; Judges 14:1-20; Judges 15:1-20; Judges 16:1-31. The adventures of Samson, and the mischief he does the Philistines.

Judges 17:1-13; Judges 18:1-31. Micah’s idols; the migration of the Danites and foundation of the sanctuary of Dan.

Judges 19:1-30; Judges 20:1-48; Judges 21:1-25. The outrage committed by the inhabitants of Gibeah upon the Levite’s concubine. The vengeance of the Israelites, ending in the almost complete extermination of the tribe of Benjamin. (Prof. G. F. Moore.)

──The Biblical Illustrator