Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in Judges

Chronological notices

Judges contains a number of chronological notices. When the years judged (256) are added to the years of enemy oppression (144), they total 400 years from the settlement of the land to Samson’s death. Some have argued that this figure is reasonably close to the 480 years between the exodus and the construction of the temple (1 Kings 6:1), indicating an early date for the exodus (1446 B.C.E.). Those favoring a late date for the exodus point out that the archaeological evidence suggests the reign of Rameses II in the thirteenth century B.C.E. Unfortunately, since the tribes act independently in Judges, we do not know if some of the judges were contemporaries, thus shortening the final total. The exact figure of 400 years arouses suspicion, as does the frequent occurrence of 20, 40, and 80 years (that is, one-half a generation, one, and two generations).

Deuteronomistic History (Dtr)

In 1943, Old Testament scholar Martin Noth argued that the books from Joshua through Kings (excluding Ruth, which is part of the Writings in the Hebrew Bible) formed a single literary and theological work presenting the history of Israel from the exodus from Egypt to the Babylonian exile, based upon the theological perspectives of the book of Deuteronomy. While subsequent debate regarding the date and editing of this extensive work continues, many scholars think there were at least two separate editions: one in the seventh century B.C.E., during the reign of Josiah, that emphasized the unconditional nature of the promise and a positive view of kingship; and one in the sixth century B.C.E., during the exile, when the conditional nature of the covenant and a negative view of the monarchy due to the failure of Israel’s kings had become painfully evident. The history was written to explain why Israel had experienced exile by tracing the downfall of Israel and Judah to the people’s apostasy and failure to obey the covenantal stipulations as presented in Deuteronomy and God’s consequent handing them over into the hands of the Assyrians and the Babylonians.


Both the noun and the verb have broader meanings in Hebrew than in English. The Hebrew shophet means something like “one who brings vindication, who sets things right” and can be applied to military deliverers as well as magistrates. Only Deborah is portrayed as administering justice. In Judges, military and political leadership are far more important. Surprisingly, none of the twelve leaders of Israel whose stories fill these pages are actually called “judge” after the introduction (2:16-19), though nine are said to have “judged” Israel, and the Lord is called “judge” in 11:27. Within the category of “judge” it is common to distinguish between “major” and “minor” judges. The five minor judges (Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon) appear as leaders in lists (10:1-5; 12:8-15) that contain information about their birth and burial, families, and tenure, but little else. The seven major judges (Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson) are military leaders related to particular tribes who seek to resolve situations of conflict. Shamgar is often considered a minor judge, thereby balancing the categories at six apiece.

Lists of tribes

There are more than twenty lists of the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament. Among the many differences, the most significant are variations in the number of the individual tribes:

  • Judges 5, among the oldest material in the Old Testament, arising in the twelfth century B.C.E., omits Judah and Simeon (Levi is frequently omitted in the lists as the priestly tribe with no territory) and thus has only ten tribes.
  • Deuteronomy 33 omits Simeon but arrives at twelve tribes by counting the tribe of Joseph as two, Ephraim and Manasseh (see Genesis 48:8-20).
  • Genesis 49 lists all twelve tribes and does not separate Joseph into Ephraim and Manasseh. This is the standard listing (see Genesis 35:22-26; Deuteronomy 27:12-13; 1 Chronicles 2:1-2; Ezekiel 48:1-7).

Not Deuteronomistic History (Dtr)? 

Deuteronomic theology is only partly evident in Judges. Most would agree that Deuteronomist theology is somewhat critical of the monarchy (Deuteronomy 17:14-20), envisions prophecy as superior (18:15-19), and requires a centralized sanctuary (12:2-7; 1 Kings 8:16-21) that houses only the name of the deity (Deuteronomy 12:5; 1 Kings 8:27-29). Judges has little to say about these, and the typical phraseology of Deuteronomy seems to be confined to 2:6–3:6, the second introduction. Judah, the major southern tribe, is the only tribe described as succeeding completely in driving out the Canaanites and remaining faithful (1:1-20), whereas the northern tribes are regularly disparaged; odd, considering the northern provenance of Deuteronomy. Perhaps the final redaction has allowed these materials to stand, using them to depict the situation that called forth the monarchy, centralized worship, and other tenets dear to the Deuteronomists.

Relationship between Judges 4 and 5

Readers often wonder why the story of Deborah and Barak is preserved in both prose (Judges 4) and poetry (Judges 5). While both share a common sequence, they emphasize different aspects of the story. The praise of participating tribes and critique of those who refused (5:13-18), the Kishon River that swept Sisera’s forces away (5:21), and the poignant scene of the family of Sisera mourning his death (5:28-30) are absent in the prose account that lifts up Deborah’s prophetic role. No mention of Jabin (4:23-24), Deborah’s summoning of Barak (4:6-9), or Barak’s military pursuit (4:16, 22) appears in the poetic account that gives thanks to the Lord for the victory.

Social structures in Israel

The social structure of Israel is somewhat obscure. A very general picture, helpful for reading the book of Judges, would include the following elements:

  • “people” (am)
  • “nation” (goy): a nation is a “people” with land. Thus, God promises to make Abram into a “great nation” (goy) in the divine promise of land (Genesis 12:1-2). Later, goy would come to mean Gentile in the sense of nations other than Israel.
  • “tribe” (shebetmatteh): the primary social unit that made up the nation
  • “clan” (mishpachah): a family or group of families–that is, those of common ancestry–that made up the tribe
  • “ancestral house” (bet ab): individual households, though a household might contain several families

Tribal league

Until quite recently Judges was thought to depict a social structure in Israel known as the tribal league, or amphictyony. These social structures consisted of a group of six or twelve tribes organized around a central shrine. The tribes would pledge allegiance to each other, come to each other’s aid if attacked, and share in the maintenance of the shrine. Central questions in the history of Israel were thought to be answered by this structure–most notably, that some of the minor officials or “judges” developed into the Old Testament prophets, and those judges charged with military deliverance ultimately developed into the monarchy. Subsequent comparisons with first millennium B.C.E. amphictyonies in Greece and Italy have shown little correspondence beyond the numbering of twelve tribes; and one of the primary themes of Judges is the lack of central authority that led to the anarchy Israel experienced in this period (Judges 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25).

Two introductions

Judges seems to have two introductions. The first (1:1-36) forges a link with the book of Joshua. But the linkage is one of contrast. Whereas Joshua had provided strong, effective leadership resulting in military success, unity, and prosperity, Israel’s failure to produce a leader of Joshua’s stature results in apostasy, military defeat, and the loss of unity. The second introduction (2:6–3:6) provides a cycle of apostasy, oppression, prayers for God’s help, answers to prayer in the rise of a judge who delivers Israel from oppression, and a period of rest before the cycle repeats.