The Bible: Exploring Judges

A man blowing on a hornWhat’s in a name?

Judges records the history of Israel during the generations that came after Joshua. One passage summarizes what happened:

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord had compassion on them as they groaned under those who oppressed and afflicted them. But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their fathers, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. (2:18-19)

These “judges” (shophetim in the Hebrew Bible and kritai in the Septuagint) were not officials like judges today. Their main task was to “obtain justice for the tribes of Israel in the face of their enemies, annihilate or drive out their oppressors, and so bring salvation, rest and peace to the land” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, vol. 2, p. 363). Very little is said about how these judges led the nation once they had delivered it.

Scholars sometimes distinguish between the “major” judges, whose feats are related at length in the book, and the “minor” judges, whose leadership is covered in only one or two verses.

Six judges played a significant role during this turbulent period in Israel’s history.

Major Judges

  1. Othniel (3:9)
  2. Ehud (3:15)
  3. Deborah (4:4)
4.  Gideon (6:11)
5.  Jephthah (11:1)
6.  Samson (13:24)


Minor Judges

  1. Shamgar (3:31)
  2. Tola (10:1)
  3. Jair (10:3)
4.  Ibzan (12:8)
5.  Elon (12:11)
6.  Abdon (12:13)

As listed above, six so-called minor judges are mentioned in the book, although very little is said about them.


After a prologue (1:1–3:6) describing the events immediately after Joshua’s death, the book is organized as a series of progressively longer stories, each concerning one of the major judges sent by God to deliver Israel from slavery. Brief descriptions of minor judges are sometimes inserted between these stories.

The first episode establishes a pattern that is repeated in the other stories: The Israelites sin, and so God allows them to be enslaved; they repent, and God sends a judge to deliver them (3:7-11). The first deliverer was Othniel, a nephew of Caleb, who judged Israel 40 years, or one generation.

After Othniel died, the Israelites started doing evil again, so God allowed the Moabites to enslave them. When the Israelites cried out to God, he raised up another judge, Ehud. Ehud assassinated the Moabite leader and then led Israel to victory (3:18-30). After Ehud came Shamgar (verse 31).

Then the Israelites sinned again and were subjugated by the Canaanites. Deborah and Barak eventually delivered them (4:1-24) and then sang a song to commemorate their victory (5:1-31). The Midianites were the next to enslave the backsliding Israelites, who were eventually delivered by Gideon (6:1–8:35). An interlude concerning Gideon’s wicked son Abimelech (9:1-57) is followed by accounts of two minor judges, Tola and Jair (10:1-5).

Israel returned to idolatry and was conquered by the Ammonites and Philistines. When the Israelites forsook idolatry, God gave them a victory through Jephthah (11:1–12:7). After Jephthah came three minor judges: Ibzan, Elon and Abdon (12:8-15). The last major judge mentioned in the book is Samson, whose story covers four chapters (13:1–16:31).

The book of Judges concludes with an epilogue relating two events that occurred during the period of the judges and illustrate the immorality of the nation at that time (17:1–21:25).

How to read this book

On one level, you can read the book of Judges as a history book about great Israelite leaders God sent to rescue his people from foreign oppression. In this sense, the book contains some of the most spectacular and inspirational stories in the Old Testament: With primitive weapons, Deborah and Barak destroyed Sisera’s army of 900 chariots (4:13-16). Gideon’s small band of warriors crushed the Midianites (7:19-22). Jephthah inflicted a massive defeat on the Ammonites (11:29-33). And, in perhaps the most famous story, Samson destroyed the Philistines in the temple of their god Dagon (16:23-30).

On another level, however, the book of Judges clearly describes the spiritual deterioration of a people who had forgotten what God had done for them. As you study the book, note how the Israelites failed to learn from their mistakes. Observe their tragic downward spiral into sin.

This dark age of Israel’s history culminates in the last five chapters of Judges (17–21), which relate some of the most gruesome stories in the Bible — episodes of idolatry, theft, rape, murder and civil war. In the end, “every one did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25, NKJV). As we shall see, one reason for this barbaric state of affairs was Israel’s failure to obey God’s command to conquer all the land and drive out the Canaanites.

The Israelites held the mountains, but the foreign-held valleys, cutting through the land, separated the tribes. Soon each group of isolated Israelites began operating independently. The next generation lost its sense of national identity…. Though descended from 12 brothers, [the Israelites] spent more time fighting each other than the foreign oppressors…. Though [the Israelites] forgot [God], he did not forget them. He gave innumerable new beginnings. Again and again he sent ‘judges’ to rescue them. He would not let them go. God is the real hero of Judges” (The New Student Bible, NIV, pp. 228-229).

Learning about God

Although anarchy existed in Israel during much of the period of the judges, the book leaves no doubt that God was still working out his purpose. The book tells us that:

  • God is Judge and Deliverer. When the Israelites fell into idolatry, God caused other nations to defeat and enslave them (2:11-15). But when the Israelites cried out to God for help, he delivered them (2:16-18).
  • God is Sovereign. This theme is emphasized throughout Judges. Perhaps this is most clearly seen when God told Gideon to reduce the size of his army “in order that Israel may not boast against me that her own strength has saved her” (7:2). On occasion, God manifested his supremacy in surprising ways: He empowered Samson to slay 1,000 Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone (15:14-15). He caused the Kishon River to sweep away the Canaanite army (5:21). He used a non-Israelite woman to kill a Canaanite leader with a tent peg (4:21-23).
  • God is patient and gracious. The book of Judges is a monument to God’s patience with his people. The refrain “The Israelites once again did evil in the eyes of the Lord” recurs like a monotonous litany. Yet, every time the Israelites repented, God forgave them and sent a deliverer.
  • God is righteous. Even as God extends his graciousness and patience toward us, he commands us to be righteous. The judges God used to deliver Israel, for the most part, led the people in God’s ways. The wickedness of a nation that had forsaken God, especially as portrayed in Judges 17–21, is in stark contrast to God’s holiness.

Other topics

  • Idolatry: The book of Judges vividly illustrates the consequences of sinning against God. Israel’s major sin was idolatry, especially the worship of the Canaanite storm and fertility god, Baal (2:11-13, 19; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6). God had repeatedly warned the Israelites against idolatry (Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 5:7-10; 12:2-3). The judges God used to deliver Israel got rid of the idols, and during those times Israel had peace. But as soon as these judges died, Israel relapsed into idolatry. This epitomized their rejection of God.
  • Moral leadership: During much of this period of the judges, Israel lacked strong spiritual direction. Against this bleak background, God inspired certain individuals to lead the nation. In the New Testament, we read of some of these heroic leaders: “Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah…who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised…and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Hebrews 11:32-34).

What this book means for you

The basic message of Judges is simple: Sin leads to slavery; repentance leads to redemption. The book rams its message home as story after story follows the same pattern: The Israelites abandon God, so he allows them to become enslaved. Then they repent and God delivers them.

This provides a fitting background for the teaching of the New Testament — that because Jesus Christ died for your sins and was resurrected, you can, when you look to him, be delivered from the bondage of sin and receive eternal life (Acts 3:19; Romans 5:21).

The period of the judges was one of the “dark ages” of Israel’s history and the irregularities and problems contained therein must be set against this general background. In its own way it is a faithful witness to the fact of man’s frailty and to his need not of a merely temporal deliverer, but of an eternal Saviour who can effect a perfect redemption. (Arthur E. Cundall, Judges, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, vol. 7, p. 45)

The Book of Judges: Variations On a Theme

The Old Testament book of Judges tells the story of what could be called the “Dark Ages” of the chosen people. When the book opens, the 12 tribes of Israel are on the edge of national success. Under Moses and his successor Joshua, they have been liberated from slavery and have begun to occupy and settle in their Promised Land.

But something goes terribly wrong. By the time the book closes, central leadership has broken down and the tribes are at each other’s throats. The people are oppressed on every side by enemies and in danger of national extinction. This book contains some of the most gruesome stories in the Bible – episodes of idolatry, theft, rape, murder and civil war.

What went wrong? In the book of Judges, God himself explains it:

I brought you up out of Egypt and led you into the land that I swore to give to your forefathers…yet you have disobeyed me. Why have you done this? Now therefore I tell you that I will not drive them out before you; they will be thorns in your sides and their gods will be a snare to you. (Judges 2:1-3)

This is exactly what happened:

The Israelites held the mountains, but the foreign-held valleys, cutting through the land, separated the tribes. Soon, each group of isolated Israelites began operating independently…. The next generation lost its national identity…. Though descended from 12 brothers, the Israelites spent more time fighting each other than the foreign oppressors. (New Student Bible 1)

Variations on a theme

Although anarchy existed in Israel during much of the period of the judges, the story shows that God was still working out his purpose with them. The entire story is a monument to God’s patience, love and mercy. Time after time, the people became trapped in a downward spiral toward moral degeneracy, and the refrain, ‘The Israelites once again did evil in the sight of the Lord’, recurs like a monotonous litany throughout the book. Yet, every time the Israelites repented, God forgave them and sent a deliverer (a “judge” – hence the name of the book).

The central section of the book (chapters 3:7-16:31) tells us of six judges God raised up to deliver his people from their enemies. These stories – with their pattern of Israel’s sin, sorrow, repentance and restoration – illustrate what is often called the “cycle of sin.” At first glance, the stories seem to follow the same theme. But there are subtle and important differences. These small divergences are important, like when a musician plays variations on a theme.

First we hear what could be called the “base” theme. Then it is played again, with a few variations. As the variations are developed, the base theme recedes further and further into the background, and may even be no longer recognizable to the untrained person. But the trained listener can appreciate what is happening.

The chronicler of Judges uses much the same technique, and we need to read carefully to appreciate the lesson. These are not just stories – they are variations on a theme.

The first story is of Othniel (Judges 3:7-11). He was the nephew of Caleb, one of the nation’s founding heroes (see Numbers 14:6,30). This short account of Othniel is the “base theme” – the one by which to view the others. As you read it, look for the following sequence:

  1. The Israelites do evil (verse 7).
  2. God allows them to become the captives of their enemies (verse 8).
  3. The Israelites repent and cry out to God for help (verse 9).
  4. God raises up a judge or deliverer (verse 9).
  5. God delivers the enemy leader into the hand of the judge (verse 10).
  6. The land has rest and peace under the judge’s leadership (verse 11).

The stories of the other five judges also have the first two elements: the people sinning and becoming captives. However, the later stories get progressively further from the model story as far as the other four elements are concerned. This progressive departure from the model story is a literary device that the author uses to reflect the moral decline of Israel.

The second story, of Ehud, follows the model story almost exactly (Judges 3:12-30).

In the third, however, Barak, a capable military leader, displays an initial lack of faith (Judges 4:8). Having been told by Deborah, a prophetess and judge, that God would deliver the enemy into his hands, Barak is still not prepared to deliver Israel until he has the additional assurance of Deborah’s presence at the battle (Judges 4:4-8). Consequently, the honor of killing the enemy leader, Sisera, goes not to Barak but to a non-Israelite woman, Jael (verses 9, 15-21).

The next judge, Gideon, requires even more than the support of a godly prophet or prophetess. He requests several specific signs from God before he is prepared to accept responsibility (Judges 6:17,36-37,39). With the background of Barak’s experiences in mind, it is not surprising that the glory of capturing two of the Midianite leaders, Oreb and Zeeb, goes not to Gideon but to the rival tribe of Ephraim (Judges 11:30-31).

Jephthah’s story deviates even further. The people, rather than God, elect Jephthah as their leader (Judges 11:1-40). And although God does grant Jephthah victory over his enemies, Jephthah’s triumphant return home is transformed into personal disappointment and anguish because of a rash vow he had made (Judges 11:30-31). Moreover, the land does not have peace under Jephthah’s leadership.

Articles in “Exploring the Word of God: Historical Books”

The final episode, that of Samson (Judges 13-16), represents the most radical departure from the ideal model of deliverance. The people do not even cry out to God for help, the land does not have rest under Samson’s leadership and Samson himself is a self-willed man, who at first seems more intent on fulfilling his own agenda than being a servant of God.

If Barak is to be criticized for depending too much on the presence of a faithful prophetess, Deborah, how much more so Samson, who puts too much trust in a Philistine woman, Delilah (Judges 16:21). Samson eventually delivers his people, but only after he himself is captured, blinded and enslaved by his enemies.

So what we have is a sad sequence of decline and moral decay. When the book opens, the Israelites were serving God under Joshua and the elders who outlived him. But it closes on this tragic note: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

Jesus Christ breaks the cycle of sin

Old Testament scholar Arthur Cundall identifies the central message of the book of Judges:

The period of the judges is a faithful witness to the fact of man’s frailty and to his need not of a merely temporal deliverer, but of an eternal Saviour who can effect a perfect redemption.

Cundall’s comment could also apply to the history of the modern world. We live in a society that is supposedly so much more sophisticated and enlightened than that of ancient Israel. And yet much of our behavior has been just as barbaric and faithless as that of the Israelites. Our society, just like theirs, continues to be “a faithful witness to the fact of man’s frailty and of his need for an eternal Saviour.”

The good news of the gospel is that there is an eternal Savior who has already broken the cycle of sin by offering a perfect redemption for the whole world. He is the God-man, Jesus Christ. And the basic message of the Old Testament book of Judges – that sin leads to slavery while repentance leads to redemption – provides a fitting background for the New Testament teaching: because Jesus died for our sins, God grants us repentance and delivers us from spiritual slavery.

Author: Jim Herst, Tim Finlay

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