Joshua is dead.
Israel has no leader for the first time since Moses walked the Israelites out of Egypt two generations earlier.
Joshua did, however, leave them with a mission:
- “Tribes still need to conquer all the territory” (Joshua 23:4).
- “Follow all the laws Moses wrote about in the Book of Teaching” (Joshua 23:6).
Israel does neither.
First, they learn to live with Canaanite locals. Some scholars say they were getting assimilated into the Philistine nation that dominated them until Samson came along and made love to their women. That started a chain of events ending with Samson killing their soldiers, burning their fields, and driving a wedge of animosity between Israel and the Philistines.
Second, the Israelites bail on God.
They stop worshiping God and start worshiping local gods. Maybe they do this because the local Canaanites are better farmers, and Israelites figure it’s because local gods are better than their God when it comes to farming. Maybe some do it because the sex rituals are fun (Numbers 25:1-8).
After the first story, all the others feel like reruns. Every story follows a similar pattern:
- Israelites sin, usually by turning their back on God.
- God punishes them, usually by sending raiders or neighboring oppressors who heavily tax them and treat them like lowlifes.
- Israel’s people ask God to forgive them and to rescue them.
- God sends a leader who usually rallies Israel to fight their way to freedom. Samson, an exception, fights them alone.
- The leader dies and the cycle starts over. Sin. Punishment. Regret. Rescue.
Stories end with a civil war. Reading about it feels like watching a movie full of nothing but bad characters doing stupid stuff. All the tribes gang up on the tribe of Benjamin, killing everyone but 600 of their men who escape.
In the end, there’s no leader. There’s anarchy.
The reason for the anarchy and all the bad choices the people made?
“Israel didn’t have a king at the time. So, everyone did whatever they wanted” (Judges 21:25).
Anonymous. One of the most popular theories today say an Israelite historian from Judah’s tribe wrote it, since Judah gets promoted to lead the tribes (1:2).
The writer may have compiled the stories sometime after King Saul died (about 1004 BC) but before David became king of all the tribes (about 1010 BC). That timing might fit since writer says Benjamin’s tribe hadn’t been able to get rid of the Jebusite people in Jerusalem. “Jebusites still live there today” (Judges 1:21).
David eventually conquered the Jebusites, declared Jerusalem his capital city, and humbly renamed it “City of David” (2 Samuel 5:6).
Many scholars in past centuries said they thought the prophet Samuel was the most likely writer. That theory isn’t as popular today.
Uncertain. These stories may have taken place over a stretch of about 300 years, from the death of Joshua—perhaps in about 1375 BC—to just before Saul became Israel’s first king in about 1050 BC. But some scholars say Joshua arrived in Canaan closer to 1200 BC.
To get the total years spanning Judges, we can’t simply add up the reported years for each of the dozen leaders. Some leaders seem to have led just part of Israel’s territory. So, two or more leaders may have had overlapping periods of influence.
Also, “40 years” was a common ballpark way of referring to a generation or a few decades, or “a long time.” That’s why the number shows up 40 times in the Old Testament. Actually, 52 times. But that’s how “40” worked, as a nice round number.
|+ Years of oppression||111|
|TOTAL YEARS||410||Judges 3:14; 4:3; 6:1; 10:8; 13:1|
These stories take place in what is now Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territory, and parts of Jordan and Syria—both sides of the Jordan River. Most of the land west of the Jordan River was known as Canaan.
Judges isn’t subtle. It’s hard to miss the main points.
God gets involved in human history. He punishes people when they sin, forgives them when they ask, and treats them kindly when they honor their agreement to follow the laws he gave them.
Israel needed a good king. The leaders in Judges—some good and some not-so-good—illustrate what kind of king the people needed. The king should obey God, protect the people from invaders, and guide Israel away from the kind of anarchy described at the end of the book: “Israel didn’t have a king at the time. So, everyone did whatever they wanted” (Judges 21:25).
Saul was a bad king. This lesson is less obvious but implied by the long story that ends the book. In the three closing chapters, all the Israelite tribes unite to attack Benjamin’s tribe. They’re retaliating because Benjamin refused to let them punish a gang of men who raped to death the wife of a worship leader from Levi’s tribe. Only 600 men of Benjamin survived that punishing war. Saul came from that tribe. His dad or grandad may have been one of those 600 men who protected the rapists.
David’s tribe is best. When Israelites asked God who should lead them now that Joshua was gone, the LORD said, “The tribe of Judah. I’m giving them the job of leading the fight for the land” (Judges 1:2). King David came from Judah’s tribe. And many scholars say the writer probably did, too.