Judges is the seventh book of the Old Testament, and it tells story of the time from Joshua’s death to the beginning of Israel monarchy under Saul. During that time “judges” ruled Israel. Contrary to what a modern reader might expect from their title, these judges were not settlers of legal disputes but warrior kings. After Joshua’s conquest had ended, these judges continued to lead Israel to their complete possession of the land. Ultimately, Israel’s judges were acting on behalf of Yahweh, Israel’s true judge and deliverer (Judges 11:27).
The reason given for Israel’s need to purge the land of it enemies is its failure to complete the job in the first place (Joshua 13 gives a list of lands that still needed to be taken). These remaining peoples were a thorn in Israel’s side, and so God’s judges were to lead Israel. All in all, there were twelve judges. Six are considered “major” judges and include Deborah and Samson. The stories of the judges are told in chapters 3-16.
As with the other books of the Old Testament, these stories do not recount straightforward history (at least in the modernist objective sense). The stories of the judges read more like legends. A good example is Samson, whose mighty strength (which came from his long hair) destroyed the hated Philistines. Even as legends, these stories carry with them a theological and political message (the two cannot be easily separated in the Old Testament). Whenever Israel fails to follow God faithfully, God will allow them to suffer oppression from outsiders, but then raise up a judge to redeem Israel from those oppressors. Israel’s behavior always has ramifications for the fulfillment of God’s promise to them to occupy the land. Later in the larger Old Testament narrative, this pattern will result in Israel being exiled from the land altogether for its disobedience.
A key verse for understanding the overall political motive of Judges is the last verse of the book: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit.” The book seems to be moving readers to accept the necessity of Israel having a king like the other nations around them, thus creating a hereditary line that would give Israel stability both internally and internationally. Without a king, corruption runs wild. Not only is Israel subject to the endless cycle of apostasy and oppression from other peoples, but Israel itself is continually falling into moral depravity.
Depravity is the topic of chapters 17-21. Israel’s worship is corrupt, as seen in chapter 17 and the incident with Micah’s idols, but its moral behavior is abominable. We see the latter in the famous incident of chapter 19. A man from Ephraim and his concubine were traveling and came to Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin. There, a resident of the town encouraged them to stay in his house rather than spend the night in the city square. Next, in a scene that parallels the story of Sodom and Gomorrahin Genesis 19, men from the town pound on the door and demand the owner give up his male guest in order to rape him. He refuses and offers instead his virgin daughter—which is morally shocking to us, but daughters were more treated as property then (see Exodus 22:16-17), and to give up the guest would have been an unforgivable breech of the ancient code of hospitality. But the crowd would not hear of it, so the guest took his concubine and threw her outside After being raped all night, she lay dead outside. The man cut her body up into twelve parts, sent one part to each of the twelve tribes to shock them into seeing the depravity of moral corruption among them, and swift punishment was brought on the tribe of Benjamin.
It is not a coincidence that Saul, Israel’s first king, who was corrupt, was also from the tribe of Benjamin. The book of Judges was written to defend Israel’s need for a king, but not just any king. Judges paints a picture of chaos and corruption that would only be remedied by God’ chosen king, Saul’s successor, David, who was from the tribe of Judah. Judges brings us to the beginning of the story of Israel’s monarchy and David’s status as Israel’s ideal king. That story begins in Ruth and is followed in 1 and 2 Samuel.
– Peter Enns