by Rev. Julian Duckworth
The book of Judges is the seventh book in the Bible and is one of the historical books. It deals with a particular period in Israel’s history between the partial conquest of Canaan which is outlined in the preceding book, Joshua, and the later establishment of kings in Israel beginning with Saul, as recorded in the following books of Samuel and Kings. Just looked at purely historically, the period described in Judges would fit a typical historical development of a nation after a conquest and before any eventual unification. Someone described Judges as a swaying bridge between two solid areas of land.
The basic situation in Judges is that a number of local leaders defend the land against various enemies. There are twelve ‘judges’ and if their locations are plotted on a map of Canaan you will immediately see that they basically are spread over the whole of the land of Canaan. These judges were not what we know as judges – no wigs or gowns or even sitting in judgment – they were basically military leaders who took it upon themselves to lead various tribes and defend what had been conquered from marauding enemies. It is very clear too that the ‘conquest’ of Canaan was never fully completed but only partially accomplished – see Judges 3.1-6. Again, a map of this would show two conquered territories with a corridor running through the middle.
The enemies were of two kinds: the unconquered tribes within Canaan were pushed out and caused trouble. These were people like the Moabites, Ammonites, Canaanites. And with the Israelites being disunited – still tribal – a big feature in this book – and also with an incomplete conquest, outside enemies like Mesopotamia, Midianites and Philistines could come in and cause trouble, frequently ruling over Israel for many years.
The total period of Judges is estimated at 300 years but several of the judges may well have overlapped. In Judges 11.26 – in the time of Jephthah – it says that Israel had been in Canaan for 300 years by that time.
When you look at the whole book of Judges you see that there were exactly twelve of them, and that their period of judging and their exploits are not proportional to the account that is given of them. Some of the longest are written off in a single verse! It is also highly probable that each of these twelve judges came from a different tribe of Israel – and seven of them most definitely did according to what’s said.
Even some of the tribes of Israel fight one another or rebel (see chapters 9, 12, 20) and the one woman judge, Deborah, complains of various tribes refusing to help to defend Israel (5.17) Everything seems to degenerate until the final stark verse of the book (21.25) “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
If we look for themes in Judges we might highlight several: a basic template or pattern of 4 Rs – rebellion, retribution, repentance, rescuer. The people rebel against the Lord and are taken captive by an enemy, they repent and a rescuer – a judge – fights to bring them back into freedom and to the Lord. Another fascinating feature is the graphic nature of many of the stories: Ehud assassinates fat King Eglon and drives his sword right into his belly; a woman drives a tent-peg into a sleeping enemy commander’s temple and into the ground; Gideon tests God twice with a fleece; Jephthah makes a vow to sacrifice the first thing to come and meet him – his own daughter; and of course all the stories of Samson in chapters 13-16 which are almost mythological in quality like ancient Greek or Viking heroes. There is also a curious emphasis on left-handedness (see 3.21 and 20.16)
The message of Judges for ourselves seems to be a need in our spiritual life for us to have to fend for ourselves and bring the truth we know from the Lord down into the theatre of life and personal activity. The unconquered tribes seem to represent our own unspiritual or self-centred tendencies which are not destroyed but lie in wait to reassert themselves whenever we forget the Lord and go our own way. Confronting these involves great determination, courage and often wild doings and great slaughter.