The Book of Judges

The Book of Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament. It takes its name from the leaders who guided the destinies of the tribes of Israel during the period immediately following the conquest of Canaan. Between the death of Joshua, and the rise of the prophet Samuel, the herald of the kingdom, there was an interval of about two centuries during which Israel was trying to "find itself" as an independent nation. This was difficult enough in the light of the years of bondage in Egypt; it was made the more difficult by the influences, now hostile, now hospitable, of the peoples already in Canaan. The danger to Israel's life was of extinction, either by violence, or equally effective, by absorption. Against this dual threat the Judges strengthened and guided Israel. One cannot think of them as possessing power in the sense that a modern ruler would hold it. Many times they seemed to represent only a tribe or a small collection of tribes rather than Israel as a whole, and, as in the case of Samson, they sometimes represented nobody but themselves. But they were raised up in the providence of God to show a confused and bewildered people at least the next step along the hard journey to nationhood. The historical material which Judges contains is recorded, not for itself alone, but for a wider purpose. That purpose is moral, indeed religious. These ancient stories, many of which probably endured as oral traditions for a long period before being committed to writing, were, by later editors, gathered together and placed in the framework of their religious faith. The narratives are arranged in a series of cycles, each following the same pattern, namely: (1) Israel's defection and falling away from Yahweh and engaging in the worship of the idols of the Canaanitish peoples; (2) the punishment which God allows to be wrought upon Israel through the assults of other nations; (3) Israel's repentance and return to God; and (4) the raising up of a leader, a judge, who by heroic deeds conquers Israel's enemies, restores her to self-respect and independence, and rules over the nation for the rest of his life. Once the judge dies, the cycle is repeated, until the next leader or hero is raised up. The lesson is obvious - unfaithfulness to God results in humiliation; penitence and loyalty result in strength and peace.

This lesson was the one which the prophets of Israel continually stressed, notably Hosea in the 8th century in the northern kingdom, and Jeremiah in the 6th century in Tudah. It was natural that the devout mind, looking back over Israel's history, should see that history in the light of the divine purpose as he understood it. Various editors have dealt with the basic material in Judges, the writers of the bulk of the Pentateuch, J and E, probably gathering these stories together into their first connected form, this document to be taken later by a writer of the Deuteronomic school, in the 7th century, and put into the framework of his theological convictions. The Deuteronomic formula of defection  - suffering - restoration is stated (Judges 2:11-18) and in briefer form is applied to the evem-as they arise thereafter. While a total of thirteen judges are named, some of them are passed over with bare mention; others and their deeds are described with a detail and vividness which has given these stories a permanent place in our literary and religious traditions. Notably among these are the stories of Deborah, Gideon, Jeph-thah, and Samson. To these should be added Abimelech, who while not a judge in the sense of the others, raised himself by violent means to the position of a precarious kingship for a three-year period. The Song of Deborah (chapter 5) is one of the oldest pieces of poetic composition in the Old Testament, and is probably contemporaneous with the events it celebrates. "The stars in their courses fought against Sisera," is a famous phrase from this poetic record. These events are recorded in prose form in the preceding chapter. It is of interest that two women figure prominently in this record of events so far back in Israel's history: Deborah, without whom Barak would not have been strong enough to win his victory, and Jael who, in a deed of primitive brutality, accomplished Sisera's death. Gideon's personality is delineated with great skill, and he stands forth as a figure characterized at once by genuine humility, shown in his youthful reticence and in his later refusal to be made a king, and by great courage, as in his triumph over Midian. His band was reduced to three hundred in order that the glory of the victor}- might clearly be seen to be God's and not man's. The story of Jephthah, and his obedience to his unfortunate vow to sacrifice "whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me" (Judges 11 :31), if God would give him the victory, has a poignancy unequaled in the' Old Testament save by David's lament over his son Absolam. The stories of Samson are the stuff of which great legends are made among every people, based no doubt on fact, but embroidered in the telling from generation to generation. His exploits against the Philistines, revealing great strength and courage, were the outbursts of an utterly undisciplined power, as he misused the great talents which had been bestowed upon him, thwarted the career for which his parents had prepared him, and in his death, carried multitudes of his enemies down with him. Yet through all these records, even of Samson, there runs the realization, perceived now dimly, now clearly, that Israel is dependent upon God for her help, and that man's exploits are significant only as they serve to forward the divine purpose.

In addition to the actual stories of the judges, which are contained in chapter 2:6 to chapter 16:31, there are two sections, chapter 1:1 to chapter 2:5, and chapters 17-21, which are additions made by different hands from either the original authors of the hero-stories or the Deu-teronomic writer who put them into this theological framework. Chapter 1:1-2:5 is an account which parallels certain portions of the Book of Joshua, describing the settling of Canaan, the conflicts with the local inhabitants, and the dangers which were inherent in any attempt at co-existence. The author obviously regards it as a great misfortune that, in all cases, the Israelites did not, or could not, drive out those who were already there, and must therefore remain exposed to an alien culture and religion. The original Book of Judges probably began with chapter 2:6, a passage which repeats part of the closing portion of Joshua, including the account of Joshua's death.

Chapters 17-21 contain two narratives. The first, 17-18, records the movement of the tribe of Dan from their location in the south to a more favorable area far north, and the establishing of their shrine at Laish. It is accompanied by a touching narrative regarding Micah, a devout man, whose religious relics and whose chaplain were cruelly taken from him by the tribe as it migrated. Chapters 19-21 contains the story of an outrage committed at Gibeah by certain men of the tribe of Benjamin, of the retaliation which an aroused and united Israel wrought against the offending tribe, and of the way in which, once defeated, Benjamin was helped by others to reestablish itself, lest one of the original tribes be blotted out.

The book is of strategic importance in understanding this time of transition in Israel's history. Looking back upon this period, the late editor of chapters 17-21 repeats the refrain, "There was no king in Israel; every man did that which was right in his own eyes." The difficulties, he thinks, can be attributed to the fact that the monarchy had not yet been established. But Israel was not yet ready for a king; she was not yet a nation. The tribes were as often in conflict with one another as with their Canaanitish neighbors. A period of testing and training was necessary before sufficient unity could be achieved to make a monarchy possible. The judges were the precursers of the kings; they did their work scarcely knowing what they were doing save that they had been summoned to a place of authority over a portion of Israel, and were challenged to meet a special crisis in Israel's life. Beneath the confusion which this record, itself confused, portrays, one can discern the gradual welding of the people into a nation, conscious of its unique traditions and endowments, and aware, over all, that it would stand or fall according to the degree of its faithfulness to the God who had led it out of bondage. It was the repeated reminder of the divine authority which constituted the chief contribution of the heroes who judged Israel during those days of trial and transition.

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