The period of Judges is the time between the death of Joshua, their military and spiritual leader, and the rule of the Israelite king. What is meant by the word “judges” is not the first picture that might come to your mind. It is not one of those government officials with gowns and gavels. The Hebrew word that is translated as “judge” is more like “agents of justice” or “savior”.
“So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of theLord was against them for harm, as the Lord had warned, and as the Lord had sworn to them. And they were in terrible distress. Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them.” Judges 2:14-16 ESV
As you can see here, “judges” were military leaders, deliverers of the people of Israel from foreign oppressors. Although some of them were also rulers and judges in the judicial sense. In disobedience to God, Israel had failed to wipe out all of the inhabitants of the land but instead made covenants with them as we see in Judges 1:27-36. Instead of correcting their mistake, God leaves these idolatrous people there as “thorns” (Judges 2:1-5). And then Israel backslides even further by having later generations intermarrying with these Gentiles and serving their gods (Judges 3:5-6).
So this is the setting of Judges:
- Joshua is dead.
- They failed to clear out the entirety of the land so there are still “pockets” of Canaanites remaining.
- They intermingle with the people they were told to wipe out and begin worshiping false gods.
What follows is around 300 years of the same pattern of Sin (sinning against God), Slavery (God giving them over to their oppressors), Surrender (Israel repenting of their disobedience), and Salvation (God sending a judge to deliver them). Only the shape of this pattern is not a circle on one plane. It is a downward spiral of sin as things get worse and worse. By the end of the book, the Israelites are much worse off than when they started. The judges get worse and worse as we start off with Othniel in Judges 3:7-12. He was what many would call the model judge. Later we get to Gideon. Gideon is characterized as unsure and defiant. He constantly requests signs. And although he is victorious in battle, we see that at the end of the story Gideon ends up setting up idols in the form of the golden ephod. And then finally we have Samson. Samson constantly breaking his covenant, vengeful, and a womanizer. In fact the only redeeming factor about him is when he committed suicide bringing about a partial deliverance to the people.
Here’s a breakdown of the book:
– In 1:1 to 3:6 we see the setting; this is the condition of Israel under the judges.
– In 3:7 to 16:31 we see all of the judges
- Othniel (Judges 3:7-11)
- Ehud (Judges 3:12-30)
- Shamgar (Judges 3:31)
- Deborah and Barak (Judges 4-5)
- Gideon (Judges 6-10)
- Tolah (Judges 10:1-2)
- Jair (Judges 10:3-5)
- Jephthah (Judges 10:6-12:7)
- Ibzan (Judges 12:11-12)
- Elon (Judges 12:11-12)
- Abdon (Judges 12:13-15)
- Samson (Judges 13-16)
– In chapters 17-21 we get to two things: Dan’s rejection of their inheritance and the Levitical priesthood in Judges 17-18 and Benjamin’s civil war against the other tribes in Judges 19-21.
Ultimately it is in Judges that we see the flaws of human judges and we see Israel’s need for a Messiah, a godly king. Judges 21: 25 tells us that because there is no king in Israel, everyone does what is right in their own eyes. When paired with the book of Ruth, the next book, we see how bad things were in Israel before God gives them a human king.