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Judges: Securing the Land

1 Introduction

2 Deuteronomic Introduction

3 Judge-Heroes

4 Judges as a Book

Study Guide


Deborah, Ehud, Gideon, Jephthah, Judge, Midianites, Nazirite vow, Philistines, Samson

Philistine Warrior

Philistine Warrior

The Philistines arrived on the southern coastal plain about the same time the Israelites crossed the Jordan River. The Philistines were Israel’s most serious rivals for the land of Palestine and its most formidable foe during the period of the occupation of Palestine.

Source: Detail of a captured soldier based on a relief from the time of Ramses III (1193–1162 BCE), south tower, second pylon, Twentieth Dynasty (1196–1080 BCE), New Kingdom, Medinet Habu, West Thebes, Thebes, Egypt. Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra.

1 Introduction

Adventure heroes are a perennial source of fascination and entertainment. From Batgirl to Spider-Man, their tales reinforce the hope that good will triumph over evil, even against the greatest odds. Although they are often flawed, heroes can be empowering. They demonstrate that dedication coupled with courage can accomplish great deeds. The biblical judges of the book by this name were really heroes who valiantly defended the Israelites from powerful, often superior, forces. And they did so in creative and (sometimes) courageous ways.

The book of Judges differs radically in style and character from the book of Joshua. The book of Joshua surges with excitement at the Israelite victory upon entering the Promised Land. By the end of that book, Israel was secure in the land thanks to the faithful leadership of Joshua.

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In the era of the judges, Israel is cowering in the forests, hiding in the hills, afraid of being wiped out by Canaanites and other assorted opponents. The book of Judges finds Israel in that transitional period after the great leadership of Moses and Joshua and before the coming era of the monarchy—and things are not going well.

The age of the judges was a time of threat and danger. Internally, Israel seemed to be losing the faith of its ancestors. Externally, other groups were threatening Israel with extinction. Significant regional political developments were afoot as newcomers were searching for living space. The pressures of the age forced the diverse groups who identified with the deity named Yhwh to come together in a union that transcended tribal interests. It forced them to see that Israel could exist only as a federation of tribes who helped each other. It prompted them to see that they could be held together in this federation only by their common faith in Yhwh.

1.1 Securing the Land—A Summary

After the death of Joshua, the Israelites were attacked by various forces in and around Canaan (Judges Chapter 1). The narrator explains that this happened because the Israelites continued to serve Baal rather than Yhwh (2–3). A series of leaders, called judges, arose to deliver the Israelites. The more interesting ones are Ehud (3), Deborah (4–5), Gideon (6–8), Jephthah (10–12), and Samson (13–16). The remaining chapters tell of Israelite intertribal conflicts. Micah had a shrine and hired a Levite to be its priest but was attacked by Danites who were migrating to the north of Canaan and took the Levite with them (17–18). The concubine of another Levite was raped and murdered in the town of Gibeah in the territory of Benjamin, and this provoked a devastating attack on Benjamin by the other tribes, which almost wiped them out (19–21).

Go to the companion website and see the “Inventory of the Territories.”

Reading Guide

Judges 1 contains an inventory of towns not taken in the Joshua conquest, and this is probably as much as you need to know. But you must read Judges 2. It contains the most concise articulation of the Deuteronomic theme, described as a repeating cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, and deliverance. This cycle is critical to the construction of the book of Judges because most of the individual judge tales use it to give shape and meaning to the story. If not all the major judges, then at least read the stories of Deborah (4–5) and Samson (13–16).


The book of Judges is built around the adventures of the judges. The first three chapters establish a narrative context for their stories. The judges were needed because the Israelites had lost their spiritual direction. The problem revealed itself with the Israelites abandoning Yhwh for Baal and Canaanite religious practices. This theological explanation of historical experience is classic Deuteronomistic thinking. Faithfulness and loyalty to Yhwh are rewarded with success, forgetfulness with failure. The moral lesson conveyed by this outlook is rather obvious. But before this theological framework is examined in more detail, we need to clarify why the main characters of the book are called judges.

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Judges Timeline

FIGURE 7.1 Time Line: Book of Judges

2.1 What Is a Judge?

The traditional name of the book is a bit misleading. The title “Judges” was taken from references to the main figures about whom tales are told. None of the figures is actually called a judge. The name was applied because the text says so-and-so “judged” Israel a certain number of years.

There are twelve judges in the book, but they were not magistrates or jurists such as the justices of a governmental judiciary who might sit in a courtroom behind massive mahogany desks. Although some of these ancient figures might have occasionally arbitrated disputes (Deborah, in particular), they possessed a certain knack for confounding Israel’s enemies, for which they were called judges. The exact reason why judges applies remains somewhat unclear, yet they may have gotten the title because they applied God’s judgment to Israel’s foes. As in other passages of the Hebrew Bible, judging means standing up for the oppressed and delivering the afflicted rather than judicially applying a notion of equity (for example, see Deuteronomy 10:18 and 27:19). The judges could be called superheroes, or better saviors or defenders, in keeping with their deliverance function.

If the traditional date of the Exodus is accepted (early to mid-1200s BCE), the tales of the judges would be situated somewhere in the 1200–1000 BCE range, which is termed the Iron Age I period (see Figure 7.1). From the evidence that we have at our disposal, this was, to say the least, an unsettled time in Canaan. The period began with the great international powers in stalemate and then in decline. Both the Egyptians and the Hittites wished to control Canaan because of the importance of its trade routes but were unable to do so. Canaan was not dominated by either of these powers at this time, and this created a virtual free-for-all among the various tribes that lived in and around that region.

The most significant challenge to Israel came from a group called the Sea Peoples (see Figure 7.2). They had moved into the coastal plain of Canaan as part of a larger migration of people fleeing the Aegean. One of the subgroups of the Sea Peoples is called the Philistines in the Hebrew Bible.

The Philistines sought to dominate lands eastward from the Mediterranean coast toward the Jordan River. The Israelites, according to the incursion model of conquest as told in the book of Joshua (see RTOT Chapter 6), arrived from the east and pushed west. Meanwhile, the indigenous Canaanite population was not willing to stand for a wholesale takeover of its territory and found it had to defend itself.

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Sea Peoples

FIGURE 7.2 Sea Peoples’ Invasion

The book of Judges reflects the instability in the land at this time and paints a picture of various groups vying for supremacy.

2.2 Deuteronomic Theme

Joshua’s death was told in the book carrying his name. The first chapter of Judges is noteworthy for the tone that it sets. Although it tells of some continued successes of the Israelites after the death of Joshua, it also mentions certain failures of the Israelite conquest initiative. It seems that not all the territory of Canaan was taken or

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controlled by Joshua and his followers. Many Canaanites remained in the land. The narrator, as we will see, attributes this shortcoming to a lack of faith on the part of the generation that followed Joshua.

The following passage recounts the death of Joshua as the occasion to remark on his faithfulness and that of the people and the elders. As with the wilderness era, here too the past faithful generation is contrasted with the present unfaithful one.

Joshua sent the people away. Each one of the Israelites went to their inheritance to take possession of the land. The people served Yhwh all the days of Joshua’s life, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, those who had seen every great work which Yhwh had done for Israel. Joshua, son of Nun, the Servant of Yhwh, died one hundred and ten years old. They buried him within the borders of his inheritance, in Timnath-heres in the hill country of Ephraim north of Mount Gaash. That entire generation was gathered to their fathers. A new generation came after them who did not know Yhwh or the work he had done for Israel. (2:6–10)

This is the third time the Bible mentions Joshua’s death. The book of Joshua ended with it (see Joshua 24:29–30, which has virtually the identical wording as Judges 2:8–9) and the book of Judges began with it (see 1:1). It must have been viewed as a significant transition point for Israel. And his faithfulness sets in relief the next generation’s lack of it. The attention given to Joshua’s faith can in part be explained because of his tribal affiliation. Joshua’s burial place in Timnath indicates that he was from the tribe of Ephraim, which would become the heart of the northern kingdom. Thus, he comes from the home territory of the Deuteronomistic circle of thinkers who were responsible for writing down this history.

The mention in the text of “the new generation who did not know Yhwh” did not of course bode well and suggests that something had gone awry. “Did not know” means more than lack of knowledge. “To know” is typical covenant terminology, indicating that the parties in the covenant relationship acknowledge their obligation. This is what the Israelites had given up. In their unfaithfulness they were like that first generation out of Egypt, except that the first-exodus generation had the advantage of knowing the work of Yhwh firsthand.

The Israelites acted wickedly in the eyes of Yhwh. They served the Baals. They abandoned Yhwh, the Elohim of their Fathers, the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other Elohim, including the Elohim of the people living around them. They worshiped them and made Yhwh angry. They abandoned Yhwh and served the Baal and the Ashtarot. The anger of Yhwh erupted against Israel and he handed them over to marauders who plundered them, and he sold them to the enemies in their vicinity. They were not able to stand up against their enemies. No matter what they tried to do, the power of Yhwh was against them resulting in misfortune—just as Yhwh had sworn to them—and they were in dire straits. (2:11–15)

Note how the text identifies Yhwh as the “God of the Fathers” and the one who delivered them from Egypt. Both descriptions recall the early divine promises and fulfillments in history.

Baal and Ashtoret (otherwise pronounced Astarte; Ashtarot is the plural) are, respectively, a male and a female Canaanite god; Ashtoret is the consort of Baal. These

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FIGURE 7.3 Asherah

Female fertility figurines such as this one have been found at many sites in Palestine dating to the Iron Age (twelfth to sixth centuries BCE). Archaeologists identify them with the goddess Asherah and suggest that the pillar base may be a stylized representation of the pole or pillar that represented the goddess at cult sites. Asherah was the companion of Baal in Canaanite religion.

Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra based on BAS Biblical Archaeology Slide Set No. 94.

figures are known especially from texts discovered at ancient Ugarit where Ashtoret was worshiped as Asherah. These gods were worshiped because it was thought they were responsible for agricultural productivity (see Figure 7.3).

Texts from Ugarit, an ancient city discovered in 1929, contain tales of Baal and other Canaanite gods and goddesses. Although dated to the Late Bronze Age (1550–1200 BCE), hence before the Hebrew Bible was written or Israel even existed, they contain important stories of gods and heroes who appear in various guises in the Hebrew Bible. The following selection from the Baal cycle provides the flavor of the texts. In this selection, a divine supporter of Baal encourages him to be courageous against his enemy Yamm, the god of the sea:


Let me tell you, Prince Baal,
let me repeat, Rider on the Clouds:
behold, your enemy, Baal,
behold, you will kill your enemy,
behold, you will annihilate your foes.
You will take your eternal kingship,
your dominion forever and ever.

M. D. Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (1978: 88)


The Israelites were drawn to the gods of the indigenous Canaanites. The essential theological problem with worshipping Canaanite gods was the implied abandonment

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of Yhwh. The covenant that bound Yhwh and Israel together demanded absolute and unwavering loyalty between these two parties. Worshipping another god was nothing less than a breach of covenant.

For punishment, Yhwh withdrew his leadership as the divine warrior who fought for Israel. As warrior, Yhwh had conquered Egypt and Jericho: “Yhwh is a man of war, Yhwh is his name; Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:3–4a). This resulted in Israel’s total inability to gain the advantage over the other groups in Canaan.

Yhwh raised up judges. They saved them from the power of the marauders. Yet they did not even listen to their judges, but they whored after other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the path on which their ancestors walked—heeding the commandments of Yhwh. That is just what they did not do! When Yhwh raised up judges for them, Yhwh was with the judge his whole life, so that he could deliver them from the power of their enemies. Yhwh was moved to pity when they groaned on account of their persecutors and oppressors. When the judge died, they reverted and turned out worse than their ancestors by following other gods, serving, and worshiping them. They did not abandon any of their practices or their ingrained ways. So, the anger of Yhwh erupted against Israel, and he thought, “Because this nation has broken the covenant to which I obligated their ancestors, and they have not obeyed my voice, I will not continue to dispossess any of the nations Joshua left when he died.” In order to test Israel to see whether or not they would guard the path their ancestors guarded, Yhwh allowed to remain those nations he did not dispossess quickly, those over whom he had not given Joshua power. (2:16–23)

These verses provide the Deuteronomic thematic outline that virtually every judge story follows (see Figure 7.4). When the Israelites were in trouble, God empowered a judge to rescue them. After the judge died, the Israelites reverted to the worship of non-Yhwh gods. Yhwh again allowed a foreign group to dominate the Israelites as punishment. This cyclical pattern repeats itself each generation throughout the book of Judges: (1) Israel turns from Yhwh; (2) an enemy oppresses Israel; (3) Israel cries for help; (4) Yhwh sends a judge to deliver Israel. As you read, note how the pattern articulated in this general introduction is expressed in the tales of individual judges.

Deuteronomic Cycle

FIGURE 7.4 The Deuteronomic Cycle

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In the following paragraph from the book of Judges, the unfaithfulness of the people is also used by the Deuteronomistic historian to explain why these foreign groups were still around when they should have been completely wiped out. They were kept around to be used as Yhwh’s instrument to test the people.

These are the nations Yhwh allowed to remain to test Israel (all those who did not know the wars of Canaan—it was only to teach the Israelite generations about war, only for those who had not experienced the wars): the five Philistine lords, all the Canaanites, the Sidonians, the Hivites who live on Mount Lebanon (from Mount Baal-hermon to Mount Lebo-hamath). They were for the testing of Israel, to find out whether they would heed the commandments of Yhwh which he commanded their ancestors through Moses. (3:1– 4)

This note about teaching the Israelites how to fight was probably added by the exilic editor of the Deuteronomistic History. One of his themes was the teaching of divine discipline through the rigors of warfare, a theme also expressed in Judges 20.


The bulk of the book of Judges is the collection of stories, as expected, about the judges themselves. Although there are twelve judges, they do not get equal treatment. Most are mentioned in only a few verses. Only a few get major treatment. Following biblical precedent, we will take an extended look at Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson.

3.1 Ehud (3:12–30)

The tale of Othniel follows immediately upon the theological narrative introduction. Othniel’s saga (3:7–11) is very sketchy. It seems to serve as the “typical” tale, really only stating the cyclical pattern of apostasy and deliverance. It is followed by the story of Ehud, a left-handed judge from the tribe of Benjamin. Left-handedness was considered an aberration in the ancient world and had evil or unclean connotations (compare Latin, where sinister means “left”). The name Benjamin is literally “son of the right hand.” Perhaps this description of Ehud is the writer’s way of characterizing the tribe. Note that Judges 19–21 which also deals with the tribe of Benjamin, forms a literary inclusion around the book and paints a particularly nasty picture of this tribe.

Ehud devised a plan to dispose of Eglon, whose name means “fatted calf.” This king of Moab dominated Israel and demanded tribute.

And Ehud made a two-edged sword for himself a cubit long. He strapped it on his right thigh under his clothes. Then he presented the tribute to Eglon king of Moab, a very fat man. When Ehud had finished presenting the tribute, he sent away the people that had carried the tribute. But he himself turned around at the quarry near Gilgal. He said, “I have a secret message for you, O king.” And he commanded, “Silence.” All his attendants left him. Ehud came to him as he was sitting alone in his cool roof chamber. Ehud said, “I have a message from Elohim for you.” Eglon rose from his seat. Ehud reached with his left hand, took the sword from his right thigh, and thrust it into his belly. The hilt also went in after the blade, and fat closed over the blade. He did not pull the sword out of his belly, but excrement came out. (3:16–22)

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Megiddo Ivory

FIGURE 7.5 Megiddo Ivory

This ivory plaque was found at Megiddo and dates to the time of the judges. The drawing depicts a Canaanite king seated on a throne in the shape of a winged sphinx. He is receiving an entourage returning from war that includes two bound captives. Jabin, a northern Canaanite king, oppressed the Israelites, perhaps in like manner.

Source: Graphic by Barry Bandstra based on G. Loud, “The Megiddo Ivories,” Oriental Institute Publications 52 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1939), 13, plate 4. Also see Treasures of the Holy Land: Ancient Art from the Israel Museum (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1986) 148–149, no. 69. Israel Museum, IDAM 38.780.

Thus, Ehud’s assassination of the Moabite King Eglon is described in gory detail. He was so fat that when the dagger pierced his belly it disappeared and Ehud could not retrieve it. Ehud was able to escape, and the Israelites regained their freedom.

3.2 Deborah (4–5)

The story of Deborah and Barak begins with a description of the dire straits in which the Israelites found themselves again.

Again the Israelites acted wickedly in Yhwh’s eyes. Ehud was dead. Yhwh gave them over to the control of Jabin, the Canaanite king who ruled from Hazor, and Sisera his army general (he lived in Haroshethagoyim). The Israelites cried out to Yhwh, because Jabin had nine hundred iron chariots. He severely oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. (4:1–3)

The hard times were prompted, as always in this book, by Israel’s disposition. The particular offense is not specified, but based on the narrative introduction of the book, we can assume it was some sort of disloyalty to Yhwh.

The oppressor was Jabin from Hazor (see Figure 7.5), though a problem arises with the mention of Jabin and Hazor. He was explicitly said to have been destroyed by Joshua (see Joshua 11 and RTOT Chapter 6). How might this be explained? Because the reference to Jabin is found only in the introduction and conclusion to the Deborah–Barak tale (verses 1–3 and 23–24) and in the mention of a treaty (verse 17), it has been suggested that Jabin was not originally attached to this story and was for some reason inserted later. The actual fighting described in the story is against Sisera and his forces, not Jabin. The mention of Hazor places the conflict in northern Canaan, just to the west of the Sea of Galilee.

After the stage-setting words, Deborah is introduced as a prophet who judged Israel in Ephraim. She was obviously a respected leader. In the mode of a prophet, she delivered an oracle (a message from God) to Barak commanding him to organize troops from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun to fight Sisera on Mount Tabor. Barak requested that Deborah accompany him. She agreed but only after telling

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him that the coming victory would be credited to a woman. The story highlights the insecurity of Barak and the courage of Deborah.

She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Qedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “Has Yhwh, the Elohim of Israel, not commanded you?—‘Go, march to Mount Tabor, and take ten thousand men from Naphtali and Zebulun with you. I will march Sisera, Jabin’s army commander, to you at the Kishon River, along with his chariots and his troops. I will hand them over to you.’” Barak said to her, “Only if you go with me will I go. If you do not go with me, I will not go.” She said, “I will go with you. But you will get no glory this way. Yhwh will sell out Sisera by the hand of a woman.” Deborah got up and went with Barak to Qedesh. (4:6–9)

After the battle was joined, the Canaanite army was soon outmaneuvered, and Sisera fled the battle scene on foot. He found refuge in the tent of Jael, a one-time friend. Jael greeted him warmly, gave him drink and let him rest. But after Sisera fell asleep, she sneaked back into the tent and pounded a tent stake through his temple and on into the ground. The victory was celebrated in song. The text of the victory hymn, sometimes called the Song of Deborah, is found in Judges 5. Judging by the style of its language, Hebrew linguists tell us it is one of the oldest compositions in the Old Testament and may have been written close to the event itself (see Cross, 1973).

The tale of Deborah and Barak reveals many things about the period of the judges. It illustrates how at various times, out of military necessity, individual tribes would join forces to combat a formidable enemy. But, as the Song of Deborah also indicates, not all the tribes always answered the call for help; some were known to refuse. Israel as a confederacy was still dominated by regional interests. There was no national cohesiveness or unity of commitment at this time.

The story also profiles the prophetic and military roles that female Israelites at times played in Israel. The courage of Deborah and Jael, and the credit for victory they received, sets in relief the deplorable lack of male initiative and leadership in Israel at the time of the judges. Perhaps the story implies that if the defense of the nation were up to women, the future does not look promising. Yet were it not for women, the cause would have been lost.

3.3 Gideon (6–9)

The land rested for forty years after the victory over Sisera. Then the Israelites turned away from Yhwh. Again, the judge tale is framed with the editor’s pattern of faith statements:

The Israelites acted wickedly in Yhwh’s eyes. Yhwh gave them over to the control of Midian for seven years. (6:1)

The first stage of the pattern is thus stated. The Midianites were marauders who would descend on the more settled Israelites, foraging grain and stealing livestock:

Israel became very poor on account of Midian, and the Israelites cried out to Yhwh. (6:6)

The Israelites realized that they did in fact need Yhwh. He responded by sending an angel to commission Gideon, who was from the tribe of Manasseh. The setting of this encounter is very revealing of the conditions in Israel generally and of the

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quality of Israel’s leadership specifically. The angel confronted Gideon as Gideon was threshing wheat in a winepress. A winepress is a depression carved out of rock. Normally, threshing is done on a hard surface near the top of a hill, to catch the breeze. Gideon was obviously carrying on in fear of the Midianites, lest they find him and steal his harvest. The angel’s words of address can only be heard as ironic in this context when he says, “Yhwh is with you, you mighty warrior!

Gideon’s first act in Yhwh’s cause was to vandalize the local shrine of Baal. During the night, he and a few of his servants sneaked up to the high place and pulled down the altar and its associated Asherah symbol. Again, the insecurity of Gideon comes to our attention. He did it at night because he was afraid someone might recognize and blame him. Only after the townspeople confronted him did he own up to his act and stand up publicly against Baal.

The spirit of Yhwh empowered Gideon, and he mustered troops from the northern tribes to fight against the Midianites. But in another act of insecurity he asked Yhwh for a signal of whether or not he would find victory. He himself proposed the test of the wet sheepskin. He laid out a fleece overnight. If it became wet while the surrounding ground remained dry, then this would be a sign of victory. It was so, but Gideon still was not convinced. He asked for just the opposite, and when it happened the next night Gideon had no choice but to acknowledge that Yhwh was signaling success; he would have to get on with the campaign.

Go to the companion website and see the table “Spirit of Yhwh.”

Gideon assembled a fighting force. But like Gideon, they were reluctant warriors. When the soldiers were given the opportunity to return home rather than fight, 22,000 out of 32,000 decided to leave. God told Gideon that this was still too many—he wanted to make clear that the victory would come from him. So the army experienced further attrition after Gideon observed them drinking water from a spring. Only those who brought water hand to mouth, rather than by directly lapping the water from the pool, were enlisted for the battle. The story seems to dwell on the timidity and even incompetence of these early “warriors,” on the way to making the point that Israel’s fighting men were less than valiant defenders of the Israelite federation.

Left with only 300 men, Gideon devised a plan of attack that involved surprise and clever deception. He and his men surrounded the Midianite camp in the middle of the night. Armed with ram’s horn trumpets, jars, and torches, on Gideon’s signal they shocked the enemy out of sleep by smashing the jars, blowing the trumpets, and holding high the flames. Disoriented, confused, and seemingly outnumbered, the Midianites tried to flee. Gideon’s 300 gave chase and killed many of them. The chase became the occasion for the writer to illustrate the lack of cooperation and even distrust among the various tribes. The Ephraimites felt slighted because they had not been invited to the originating attack and only got to be a part of the mopping up. Then the Israelites in Transjordan at Succoth and Penuel refused to help Gideon.

What happens next relates to the ideology of covenant and kingship, a major concern of the Deuteronomistic historian. After he had killed the last kings of the Midianites, the Israelites begged Gideon to be their ruler. Although he took tribute from them—a share of the booty taken from the defeated Midianites—he refused to be king, saying, “Yhwh will rule over you” (8:23). At least one leader, then, refused kingship and upheld theocracy.

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In the following story of Gideon’s son Abimelech (whose name means “my father is king”), we have the record of an individual’s aborted attempt to establish a royal dynasty. Abimelech came to kingship by killing the other seventy sons of Gideon, though overlooking the youngest, Jotham. Abimelech assumed control of Shechem and by various campaigns sought to control other villages. He died ingloriously after a defender dropped a millstone on his head. Perhaps written by an author critical of monarchy, the tale illustrates the violence-prone and typically self-important character of kings. And this story has similarities to Jehu, another usurper in Israel, who executed the seventy sons of Ahab in order to secure his rule of Samaria (see 2 Kings 10).

3.4 Jephthah (10:6–12:7)

Jephthah delivered the Israelites of Gilead in Transjordan from the oppression of the Ammonites. He is most notable for the disastrous vow he made to Yhwh:

If you will give me power over the Ammonites, then whatever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me when I return victorious from the Ammonites will belong to Yhwh, and I will sacrifice it up as a burnt offering. (11:30b–31)

Jephthah was successful in battle, but when he returned home the first to greet him was his daughter. With grace she accepted her fate and had only one request, that she be allowed to roam the hills and weep with her friends, for she was a virgin.

After the victory of the Jephthah-led Gileadites, the Israelites of Ephraim attacked the Israelites of Gilead because they felt slighted, having been left out of the Ammonite conflict. The Gileadites took control of the ford between Gilead and Ephraim and killed any man that could not pronounce the password, shibboleth, as they did. Ephraimites were immediately identified because they said sibboleth, a dialectal variation. The incident indicates that the tribes of Israel were diverse and even spoke different dialects, supporting the contention that Israel had a diverse ethnicity. The term has entered the English language and means “test word.”

Shibboleth: A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation. A peculiarity of pronunciation or accent indicative of a person’s origin. A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded. (Oxford English Dictionary)

3.5 Samson (13–16)

Samson is one of the most colorful personalities in the Bible. He is a profoundly conflicted. Brash, bold, and impressively powerful, he is at the same time naive and vulnerable. He is physically massive, yet spiritually infantile. The story of Samson is the climactic last story about an individual judge. As such, we might surmise that the editor is encapsulating the message of the book with this account. Samson epitomizes the age. And in Samson, we have a portrait of Israel in miniature.

The Deuteronomistic editor introduces the story with an abbreviated version of his theological framework. There is no mention of the Israelites crying out for help or repenting:

The Israelites again did what was bad in Yhwh’s sight, and Yhwh gave them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years. (13:1)

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Philistine Pottery

FIGURE 7.6 Philistine Pottery

Philistine pottery is typically well made and delightfully decorated. Overall the Philistines had a more refined material culture than the Israelites. The definition of a Philistine as one “deficient in liberal culture; uncultured, commonplace, prosaic” (Oxford English Dictionary) does not fit the archaeological picture.

Source: Drawing by Daniel Hornschemeier Bandstra of pottery from twelfth century BCE Ashdod, based on BAS Biblical Archaeology Slide Set No. 128.

Samson was born to a woman previously unable to have children. An angel of Yhwh delivered the announcement of conception and directed her to raise Samson in a special way. Both she, during pregnancy, and he throughout his life, were to refrain from alcoholic beverages and not eat anything unclean. This implies that from the moment of conception Samson was to be devoted exclusively to Yhwh, a state or condition called the Nazirite vow.

By his lifestyle, Samson inadvertently demonstrated that neither the Nazirite vow nor his Israelite identity meant anything to him. Against his parents’ wishes, he chose to marry a Philistine woman. One day while on the way to see her, a lion attacked him. The spirit of Yhwh came upon him, and he killed the animal with his bare hands. When later he was traveling the same road to his wedding, he stopped to view the carcass of the lion. A swarm of bees had made a hive there, and he scraped some honey out and ate it. By Hebrew law, such honey would have been considered unclean, having been in direct contact with dead remains.

The Samson story is one long record of the love–hate relationship between Samson and the Philistines. He is drawn to them, especially to their beautiful women, perhaps as the Israelites were drawn to Philistine culture (see Figure 7.6). Yet every meeting becomes an occasion for him to kill more Philistines. For example, at his wedding, he makes a wager using a riddle about the lion and the honey and loses. Payment of the bet was thirty sets of clothing. Samson handily killed thirty Philistines and stripped them of their garments to pay his debt.

Samson’s nemesis was Delilah. Only one of many women with whom he consorted, she was ultimately his undoing. After three unsuccessful attempts, she finally convinced him to reveal the secret of his strength. Although Samson had enough clues to figure out that she would betray him, he unwittingly told her that if his hair was cut off, he would be vulnerable. While he was asleep, she did just that. He woke up helpless and was easily captured by his foes. The Philistines blinded him and put him to work at hard labor. Then in prison his hair began to grow back.

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During a festival, he was brought to the temple of Dagon, the high god of the Philistines, for a command performance. While waiting in the wings he found two central supporting pillars. He prayed to Yhwh for a return of his powers—then toppled those pillars and brought down the house. Yhwh had not abandoned him, even though he had abandoned Yhwh. In dying, he killed more Philistines than ever before.

This is the stuff of legends—a great story, full of love and lust, violence and manly challenge. Yet surely the writer is doing more than just telling a good story. He was mirroring Israel in the figure of Samson. Like Samson, Israel was powerful, even invincible when filled with the spirit of Yhwh. But Samson, like Israel, was indifferent to his special pedigree—conceived through the special intervention of Yhwh and dedicated to serve the divine at birth. He lusted after more enticing companions. The women in Samson’s life are surely symbols of the foreign gods who continually seduced the Israelites. They were blind after having betrayed the secret of their strength, but Yhwh never totally abandoned them. The time of the judges was a time of political and religious insecurity. But the God of Israel would not abandon them.

The book of Judges ends with stories describing the state of tension that existed among the tribes. The tribe of Dan migrated from the coastal plain to the far north of Israel. And some tribes tried to wipe out Benjamin. In addition to the tribes’ lack of cooperation and the people’s lack of focus on Yhwh, the problem was lack of effective and sustained leadership. The moral condition of the nation had deteriorated massively after the death of Joshua. The writer characterized the problem using the statement, “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes” (17:6; 21:25). This chaotic situation would soon change. Order and stability would come but at a considerable price. The books of Samuel detail the rise of kingship in Israel, both for good and ill.


The core of the book of Judges is a collection of stories told about Israel’s legendary tribal leaders. The independent stories probably existed orally for a long time, transmitted from generation to generation in the vicinity where the particular judge at one time lived. Many of the stories have a setting in the north and were incorporated into the all-Israel story after the destruction of the northern kingdom. The map of the Judges locates them in the areas of their activity (see Figure 7.7). Notice that no judge covered all Israel, yet when all are accounted for, they cover the entire spectrum of territories.

The chronology of the book suggests that the Deuteronomistic historian artificially chained the judge stories together to create the feeling of a continuous history such that each generation after the next fell away from Yhwh. If all the time indications are added together, the book spans exactly 400 years. This is too exact to be an accident and much too long to fit the archaeological and historical record. A reasonable estimate for the time span of the period of the judges is more like 150 years. Evidently, many of the judges actually lived and ruled contemporaneously. Further suggesting a certain artificiality, many of the judges judged for 20, 40, or 80 years—or in biblical parlance, one-half, one, or two generations, respectively. Table 7.1 provides a synopsis of the Judges that draws together the geographical and chronological data on the individual judges for easy reference.

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Judges Map

FIGURE 7.7 The Judges

The individual judges were local, but cumulatively they are spread over the whole range of Israelite territory.

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TABLE 7.1 Synopsis of the Judges

Tribal Home
Years Oppressed
Years Judged
Othniel 3:7–11 Judah?
Cushan-rishathaim, king of Aram 8 40
Ehud 3:12–30 Benjamin Hill country of Ephraim and Moab Eglon, king of Moab; Ammonites; Amalekites 18 80
Shamgar 3:31
Philistia Philistines

Deborah 4:1–5:31 Ephraim Mount Tabor, Naphtali, Zebulun Sisera; Jabin, king of Hazor; Canaanites 20 40
Gideon 6:1–9:57 Manasseh Manasseh Midianites, Amalekites, Kedemites 40
Tola 10:1–2 Issachar Ephraim

Jair 10:3–5 Gilead

Jephthah 10:6–12:7 Gilead
Ammonites 18 6
Ibzam 12:8–10 Bethlehem

Elon 12:11–12 Zebulun

Abdon 12:13–15 Ephraim

Samson 13:1–16:31 Dan Philistia Philistines 40 20


The Deuteronomistic historian took up the judges’ stories, gave them a theological introduction, and packaged them to fit the Deuteronomic cycle of disobedience outlined in that introduction. They were combined in such a way that the Israelites are pictured as continually forgetting Yhwh and falling into trouble in a downward spiral. Thus, originally local stories were “universalized” into all-Israel tales and combined in linear fashion in order to say something in general about the entire nation and its faith tendencies.

Thus exposing the nation’s corporate lack of faithfulness, the Deuteronomistic historian justified the need for a faithful king who would lead the people back to their God. The book of Samuel picks up the story at this point, recounting the rise of kingship. Note that the book of Ruth follows the book of Judges in many English versions, but you will not find a discussion of Ruth in the next chapter of our book. The book of Ruth is not counted among the Former Prophets in the Hebrew Bible. Rather, it is one of the Five Scrolls (see RTOT Chapter 15).



1. Deuteronomic theme. What is the theological framework of the book of Judges, and how did it shape the tales of individual judges?

2. Judges. What foes did Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, and Samson each face, and in what way did each judge achieve victory?

3. Deuteronomistic History. In what ways is the book of Judges transitional between the era of Joshua and the rise of kingship?

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1. Judges’ flaws. Consider the character of the major judges. What disability did each of them have? What do their flaws say about Israel at this time in its history? Do you think that the judges are heroes or antiheroes?

2. Women warriors. Reflect on the writer’s perspective on women in these narratives, especially in relation to the Deborah story. Did the writer have a positive or a negative estimation of women in Israel?

3. Judges as history. The book of Judges presents clear evidence of the role of the editor in shaping the final work. What is the relationship between history telling and history? Was the Deuteronomistic historian true or untrue to history in the way that he shaped the book? What does it mean to write history? Does the Deuteronomistic History qualify as history in the sense that we use that term today?


The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading, by Barry G. Webb (1987), is a literary analysis of the book of Judges. The book of Judges is notable for the many powerful women that make their appearance. Warrior, Dancer, Seductress, Queen: Women in Judges and biblical Israel, by Susan Ackerman (1998), examines the stories of Deborah, Jael, Sisera’s mother, Samson’s mother, Delilah, and others as biblical type-roles in Israel. The reconstruction of the origin, nature, and identity of the early Israelites is a hot topic, with many implications for historiography and Bible composition, and is comprehensively covered in Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? by William G. Dever (2003).