What are the major themes at play in the book of Judges? How do different judges address and engage these themes in ways that overlap and differ? What does how these judges approach these major themed suggest about the contested identity of Judah and Israel in its pre-monarchic stages?
Respond to each question with one to two full paragraphs in which you critically evaluate the reading material from this week, consider its relevance to the learning objectives, and produce competent, informed reflections on its implication for biblical studies, theology, or Christian ministry, as applicable.
1. What are the major themes at play in the book of Judges? How do different judges address and engage these themes in ways that overlap and differ? What does how these judges approach these major themed suggest about the contested identity of Judah and Israel in its pre-monarchic stages?
Question 2. How do the authors of A History of Ancient Israel and Judah define early Israel? How does this definition correspond to the picture of early Israel as presented in the Judges text? How does it differ? Why might these differences exist, and do they matter?
Question 3. How does the Judges narrative present a more diverse picture of early Israelite religion than is often assumed about the communities that comprised it?
Read: Judges 1:1–21:25.
PART 2 (200 words minimum)
Based on the learning resources, how does the book of Judges function to cast the narrative cycle of disloyalty, oppression, outcry, and deliverance that is present elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible? Which Judges narrative do you think is most emblematic of the state of things in Israel/Judah during that period?
Theological Themes in Judges
Of the fifty-nine occurrences of “the angel [messenger] of the Lord” in the Old Testament, eighteen appear in Judges, or nearly one-third. Only Numbers 22, with ten references, comes close to this concentration. These appearances cluster around four episodes: Judges 2:1, 4; 5:23; 6:11, 12, 21 (twice), 22 (twice); and 13:3, 13, 15, 16 (twice), 18, 20, 21 (twice). This being seems to be a liaison from God’s heavenly council (6:11; 13:3) whose primary purpose is to prepare for God’s immediate appearance. In the story of Gideon this being is referred to as both “the angel of the LORD” and “the LORD” (6:12-16).
Recently, the primary theme of Judges has been described as the Canaanization of Israelite society during the period of the settlement. This suggestive phrase assumes the occupation of Israel to be one of settlement rather than conquest and presses the idea that Israel “conquered” the land by joining with the Canaanite inhabitants, intermarrying with them, and worshiping their gods (Judges 2:1-3; 3:5-6). As portrayed in the rest of the narrative, the people are seen participating in idolatry (for example, 6:25-32; 8:33–9:6), violence (for example, 8:13-17), and even murder (9:4-5). Especially telling in this regard is the description of Shiloh as still “in the land of Canaan” (21:12). There is much to commend this reading, though it probably depicts one theme in Judges rather than the theme.
God’s graceGrace is the unmerited gift of God’s love and acceptance. In Martin Luther’s favorite expression from the Apostle Paul, we are saved by grace through faith, which means that God showers grace upon us even though we do not deserve it. More
The sordid description of Israel in the book of Judges tends to overshadow the theme of God’s provision for these obstinate people. Time after time, God raises up deliverers who rescue Israel from oppression because of God’s compassion and pity. Several times this is prompted by Israel’s cries for help, confession, or repentance (for example, 3:9; 4:3; 6:6; 10:10), but not always. Even when Israel fell back into idolatry, God’s angry response (though God’s “anger” is only mentioned in the overview and the account of the first judge, Othniel) was to turn them over to the various peoples of the land of Canaan, but always as a time of testing, never as abandonment (2:22–3:4). This theme of God’s grace in response to human failure will carry into SamuelThe judge who anointed the first two kings of Israel More, continue throughout the Deuteronomistic HistoryDeuteronomistic history refers to the narrative contained in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. This narrative, probably written in the age of Israel’s exile (mid-6th century B.C.E.), recounts Israel’s history prior to the exile. More and, indeed, into the New Testament and our own experience as well.
All the segments of the Deuteronomistic History struggle with the question of God’s relationship with Israel. Both unconditional promises of commitment and demands of obedience play prominent roles. Judges, perhaps more than any other segment, refuses to relax the tension between these seemingly paradoxical positions. Time and again, we see God sending deliverers to free Israel from oppressors. Yet the oppressors were sent by God in response to Israel’s failure to obey.
The tribes that appear in the book of Judges were not known by the name “Israel” at this time. That was a later designation that arose in the time of the united monarchy. Nevertheless, the name “Israel” appears anachronistically throughout the book of Judges and will be used here as well.
The book of JoshuaThe successor of Moses, Joshua led the Israelites into Canaan More presents the settlement of the land of Canaan as the fulfillment of God’s promises to AbrahamGod promised that Abraham would become the father of a great nation, receive a land, and bring blessing to all nations. More. Judges is more concerned with the problem of Israel’s failure to completely occupy the land God had promised to Abraham. The answer is clear: since Israel turned to the Canaanite gods and disobeyed by committing apostasy, God will not drive the Canaanites out of the land (2:1-3, 20-22).
Three models for the settlement of Canaan have been proposed.
There is probably some truth in all these views, as the different presentations in Joshua and Judges and the confusing archaeological evidence indicate.
Four of the judges experience the spirit of the Lord: Othniel (Judges 3:10); Gideon (6:34); Jephthah (11:29); and, most often, Samson (13:25; 14:6, 19; 15:14). Different verbs are employed (“come upon,” “take possession of,” “rush upon,” “stir”), but all imply that the spirit has somehow empowered the judge for leadership. With regard to the first three, this leadership involves military confrontation. Samson’s case is somewhat different, though the coming of the spirit upon him always results in confrontations with the Philistines. Whereas we might expect the coming of the spirit to result in a transformed life, quite the opposite appears in Judges. Gideon’s less-than-exemplary behavior begins after the coming of the spirit in Judges 6:34, and Jephthah’s tragic vow is made immediately after the arrival of the spirit (11:29-30). Again, the realistic view of Judges refuses to leave us in our preconceived notions of what God’s spirit “does.” In Othniel’s case, a good man is empowered to do good (3:7-11). In the case of the other three, the coming of the spirit has brought out that which was in their hearts.
Very few would offer the catchphrase, “What Would the Judges Do?” (WWJD). GideonJudge whose small force won a victory using jars, torches, and trumpets More and SamsonA judge noted for great physical strength More, probably the best known of the judges, were hardly models to be emulated.
The judges were not models to be emulated; rather, they were human beings raised up by God to deal with the oppression of the surrounding peoples. At times, they did display faithful obedience to God (Gideon, for example, in 6:23-28), and this probably accounts for the positive view of Gideon, Barak, Samson, and JephthahJudge who sacrificed his daughter to keep a vow More found in Hebrews 11:32. But the general portrait of the judges lifts up their sinful character as illustrative of this period in Israel’s history.
Judges is surprisingly rich in women. At least twenty-two women (or groups of women) appear in these pages–far more than in an average Old Testament book:
Achsah (1:12-15); Deborah (chapters 4-5); Jael (4:17-22; 5:6, 24-27); Sisera’s mother (5:28-30); Sisera’s mother’s “wisest ladies” (5:29-30); Gideon’s concubine (8:31); the “certain woman” who murders Abimelech (9:53); Jephthah’s mother (11:1); Gilead’s wife (11:2); Jephthah’s daughter (11:34-40); her “companions” in mourning (11:37-38); the “daughters of Israel” (11:40); Samson’s mother (13:2-24); Samson’s wife (14:1–15:8); Samson’s Gaza prostitute (16:1-3); Delilah (16:4-22); the Philistine women (16:27); Micah’s mother (17:1-6); the Levite’s concubine (19:1-30); the “virgin daughter” of the Levite’s host (19:24); the “four hundred young virgins” of Jabesh-gilead (21:12); and the “young women of Shiloh” (21:21). The majority of these women participate fully in their passages, either through action or dialogue. The fact that many of their actions consist of treachery, deceit, and even murder, simply reflects the pessimistic message of Judges as a whole.