Copyright 1997MWSC/Jeanie C. Crain All rights reserved.

Ancient Tribal Heroes: The Book of Judges

Cultural background: Canaan was organized into city-states with separate governments when the Hebrews came into the land; at times, the city-states organized into loosely as confederate allies, and they often aligned with major powers, like Egypt; Israel was organized as a tribal structure, each clan descended from Jacob's sons having its own leaders; unity maintained has much to do with ethnic ties as opposed to loyalty to a central sanctuary.

Purpose: theological rather than historical; ignores struggles of major empires--Egyptians and Hittites competing with each other for trade toutes and seaports; Assyrians provided another power whose shifting allegiance could shift the balance of power; time of powerful and distinguished kings, such as Rameses the Great, but major empires seemed to have little impact on Israel, until the end of the thirteenth century, when sea people invaded from the Mediterranean; Hittite empire fell, Egyptians struggled internally, and trade was devastated with the destruction of several ports; Palestine was left in a political vacuum with no major international powers; Philistines (sea people) gain influence.


I. First Introduction: (1.1-36)

Joshua's Portrayal of Settlement in Canaan:

Seems to be complete;

Tribes enjoyed unity and success under Joshua's leadership;

II. Short Discourse (2.1-5)

The Book of Judges' Portrayal of Settlement in Canaan:

Settlement is only partially successful and still incomplete;

Israel has become disobedient;

Unity of tribes is broken;

Apostasy follows, then military defeat;

Israel experiences mortal danger;

Tribal heroes warn off danger


III. Second Introduction (2.6-3.6)

Apostasy, divine judgment, prayer for help, rise of judge who saves from destruction, followed by peace

IV. The Stories (3.7-16.31)

1. Othniel (3.7-11): Israel sins by worshipping gods of Canaan; Yahweh gives Israel into the hands of the enemies; people repent; God raises up a warrior; Israel experiences rest for forty years.

2. Ehud (3.12-30): coarse Benjamite saga; tribal hero outwits and kills Eglon, king of Moab.

Shamgar (3.31) delivers Israel.

3. Deborah and Barak (4. 1-23 prose; poetry 5.1-35): Song of Deborah in chapter 5 is some of oldest literature, probably composed shortly after the victory it celebrates; tribes settled originally in the hill country and then tried to move into the more fertile and populated valleys; Deborah and Barak led tribal forces against Canaanites and acquired Esdraelon valley.

4. Gideon (6.1-8.35): hero also known as jerubbaal; describes farmers and fear in which they lived, raiders threatening to steal harvests; Gideon defeated Midianites, whose raids threatened central Canaan; he was offered, and refused, kingship; his son, Abimelech is different.

5. Abimelech (9.1-57): becomes king of Shechem; not a judge but served as commander of tribal militia; his story describes the folly of the monarchy; Abimelech turned his own army against his own people when they did not support him.

6. Tola (10.1-4), and

7. Jair (10. 1-4): credited with no military exploits; they and three who follow have some type of judicial and administrative authority during the period before the monarchy.

8. Jepthah (10.6-12.7): social class opposes no barriers to leadership; Jepthah is son of a prostitute; leads a mercenary army in the north and is called to deal with the Ammonites; remembered for the sacrifice of his daughter and for his use of a password (shibboleth) during a civil war with Ephraim.

9. Ibzan (12.8-10); minor judge

10. Elon (12. 11-12): minor judge

11. Abdon (12. 13-15): minor judge

12. Sampson (13. 1-16.31): not a judge; recounts personal battles with Philistines; battles have nothing to do with fate of Israel as a whole; his final battle with the Philistines is interpreted as a reaffirmation of Yahweh's presence with Israel.


V. Predominant Themes: Yahweh's deliverance of Israel through the judges; judges are charismatic leaders enabled by Yahweh; accomplishments seem beyond natural abilities.


VII. Stories Illustrating Destructive Forces

Lack of unity threatens existence of people of Israel.

Micah (17, 18): sets up his own shrine and introduces a Levite from Bethlehem as his priest; this priest is recruited by the migrating Danites; Danites lack courage to stay in their original settlement; they steal ephod and priest from Micah and massacre village of Laish.

War between the tribes (19-21): almost destroys Benjamite tribe; period before monarch is a time of chaos; monarchy is inevitable if Israel is to survive.