Lesson 5 of 5
In Progress

Theological Themes in Judges

Angel of the Lord

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).

Canaanization of Israel

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 grace

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 Samuel, continue throughout the Deuteronomistic History and, indeed, into the New Testament and our own experience as well.

God’s relationship with Israel

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.

“Israel” as anachronism

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 Joshua presents the settlement of the land of Canaan as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. 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).

Settlement of Canaan

Three models for the settlement of Canaan have been proposed.

  • The conquest model, most closely aligned with the book of Joshua, defends the traditional view that the land of Canaan was settled through military force, by a united “Israel,” under the leadership of Joshua. From his headquarters in Gilgal, Joshua waged three successive campaigns, seizing first the central highlands (Joshua 6-9), then the south (Joshua 10), and finally the north (Joshua 11). Joshua 11:23 provides a succinct summary: “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments.” Archaeological discoveries at some sites have proven problematic for this view, as scholars are unable to correlate their findings with widespread destruction and cultural innovation.
  • The immigration model, most closely aligned with Judges, proposes a long and somewhat peaceful infiltration of the unoccupied areas of Canaan by a variety of seminomadic groups who eventually intermarry with the indigenous population, instead of the invasion of a united Israelite army under the leadership of Joshua. Only much later, in the time of the Judges, did fighting break out; even then the fighting was sporadic and not the unified invasion envisioned in Joshua.
  • The revolt model rejects both the military-conquest and the peaceful-immigration models as inadequate. Rather, the small group of slaves who escaped from Egypt with Moses was soon joined by indigenous Canaanites who were attracted by their message of covenantal religion and social justice as an alternative to the oppressive rule of their kings.

There is probably some truth in all these views, as the different presentations in Joshua and Judges and the confusing archaeological evidence indicate.

The spirit of the Lord

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.

What would the judges do? 

Very few would offer the catchphrase, “What Would the Judges Do?” (WWJD). Gideon and Samson, probably the best known of the judges, were hardly models to be emulated.

  • Gideon’s promising start quickly devolved into ambivalence as seen in his repeated requests for a sign (6:36-40) and apostasy as seen in the making of an ephod that may have cloaked an idol (compare 17:4-5) and that eventually resulted in apostasy for him, his family, and all Israel (8:24-27).
  • Samson, in having contact with corpses (14:8-9), feasting (including drinking wine) at his wedding (14:10), and being shorn of his hair (16:17-19), broke all of the Nazirite vows (13:7; compare Numbers 6).

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 Jephthah 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.