Bible Book Number 7—Judges
Place Written: Israel
Writing Completed: c. 1100 B.C.E.
Time Covered: c. 1450–c. 1120 B.C.E.
1. In what ways was the period of the judges noteworthy?
HERE is a page of Israel’s history that is packed full of action, alternating between disastrous entanglements with demon religion and Jehovah’s merciful deliverances of his repentant people by divinely appointed judges. Faith-inspiring are the mighty deeds of Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, and the other judges who followed. As the writer of Hebrews said: “The time will fail me if I go on to relate about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, . . . who through faith defeated kingdoms in conflict, effected righteousness, . . . from a weak state were made powerful, became valiant in war, routed the armies of foreigners.” (Heb. 11:32-34) To round out the number of 12 faithful judges of this period, there are also Tola, Jair, Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon. (Samuel is not usually counted among the judges.) Jehovah fought the judges’ battles for them, and spirit enveloped them as they performed their deeds of prowess. They gave all the credit and glory to their God.
2. In what way is the Hebrew name of the book of Judges appropriate?
2 In the Septuagint the book is called Kri·taiʹ, and in the Hebrew Bible, it is Sho·phetimʹ, which is translated “Judges.” Sho·phetimʹ is derived from the verb sha·phatʹ, meaning to “judge, vindicate, punish, govern,” which well expresses the office of these theocratic appointees of “God the Judge of all.” (Heb. 12:23) They were men raised up by Jehovah on specific occasions to deliver his people from foreign bondage.
3. When was Judges written?
3 When was Judges written? Two expressions in the book help us to find the answer. The first is this: “But the Jebusites keep on dwelling . . . in Jerusalem down to this day.” (Judg. 1:21) Since King David captured “the stronghold of Zion” from the Jebusites in the eighth year of his reign, or in 1070 B.C.E., Judges must have been written before that date. (2 Sam. 5:4-7) The second expression occurs four times: “In those days there was no king in Israel.” (Judg. 17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) Hence, the record was written down at a time when there was a “king in Israel,” that is, after Saul became the first king in 1117 B.C.E. It must therefore be dated between 1117 and 1070 B.C.E.
4. Who was the writer of Judges?
4 Who was the writer? Unquestionably, he was a devoted servant of Jehovah. It is Samuel who stands out alone as the principal advocate of Jehovah’s worship at this time of transition from the judges to the kings, and he is also the first of the line of faithful prophets. As such, Samuel would be the logical one to record the history of the judges.
5. How may the time period of Judges be calculated?
5 How long a period does Judges cover? This can be calculated from 1 Kings 6:1, which shows that Solomon began to build the house of Jehovah in the fourth year of his reign, which was also “the four hundred and eightieth year after the sons of Israel came out from the land of Egypt.” (“Four hundred and eightieth” being an ordinal number, it represents 479 full years.) The known time periods included in the 479 years are 40 years under Moses in the wilderness (Deut. 8:2), 40 years of Saul’s reign (Acts 13:21), 40 years of David’s reign (2 Sam. 5:4, 5), and the first 3 full years of Solomon’s reign. Subtracting this total of 123 years from the 479 years of 1 Kings 6:1, there remain 356 years for the period between the entry of Israel into Canaan and the start of Saul’s reign.* The events recorded in the book of Judges, extending largely from the death of Joshua down to the time of Samuel, cover about 330 years of this 356-year period.
6. What proves the authenticity of Judges?
6 The authenticity of Judges is beyond doubt. The Jews have always recognized it as part of the Bible canon. Writers of both the Hebrew and the Christian Greek Scriptures have drawn on its record, as at Psalm 83:9-18; Isaiah 9:4; 10:26; and Hebrews 11:32-34. In candor, it hides nothing of Israel’s shortcomings and backsliding, while at the same time it exalts the infinite loving-kindness of Jehovah. It is Jehovah, and no mere human judge, who receives the glory as Deliverer in Israel.
7. (a) How does archaeology support the record in Judges? (b) Why did Jehovah rightly decree extermination for Baal worshipers?
7 Further, archaeological finds support the genuineness of Judges. Most striking are those on the nature of the Baal religion of the Canaanites. Apart from the Bible references, little was known of Baalism until the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit (the modern Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast opposite the northeast tip of the island of Cyprus) was excavated, beginning in 1929. Here, Baal religion was revealed as featuring materialism, extreme nationalism, and sex worship. Each Canaanite city evidently had its Baal sanctuary as well as shrines known as high places. Inside the shrines, there may have been images of Baal, and near the altars outside were to be found stone pillars—perhaps phallic symbols of Baal. Detestable human sacrifices bloodied these shrines. When the Israelites became contaminated by Baalism, they likewise offered up their sons and daughters. (Jer. 32:35) There was a sacred pole representing Baal’s mother, Asherah. The fertility goddess, Ashtoreth, Baal’s wife, was worshiped by lewd sex rites, both men and women being kept as “consecrated” temple prostitutes. It is no wonder that Jehovah had commanded extermination for Baalism and its bestial adherents. “Your eye must not feel sorry for them; and you must not serve their gods.”—Deut. 7:16.*
CONTENTS OF JUDGES
8. Into what sections does Judges logically divide?
8 The book divides logically into three sections. The first two chapters describe the conditions in Israel at the time. Chapters 3 through 16 describe the deliverances of the 12 judges. Chapters 17 through 21 then describe some events involving internal strife in Israel.
9. What background is provided by the two opening chapters of Judges?
9 Conditions in Israel at the time of the judges (1:1–2:23). The tribes of Israel are described as they spread out to settle in their assigned territories. However, instead of completely driving out the Canaanites, they put many of them to forced labor, permitting them to dwell among the Israelites. Therefore Jehovah’s angel declares, “They must become snares to you, and their gods will serve as a lure to you.” (2:3) Thus, when a new generation arises that does not know Jehovah or his works, the people soon abandon him to serve the Baals and other gods. Because Jehovah’s hand is against them for calamity, they get “in very sore straits.” Because of their stubbornness and refusal to listen even to the judges, Jehovah does not drive out a single one of the nations he has left to test Israel. This background is an aid in understanding subsequent events.—2:15.
10. By what power does Othniel judge, and with what result?
10 Judge Othniel (3:1-11). In distress because of their captivity to the Canaanites, the sons of Israel begin to call on Jehovah for aid. He first raises up Othniel as judge. Does Othniel judge by human power and wisdom? No, for we read: “The spirit of Jehovah now came upon him” to subdue Israel’s enemies. “After that the land had no disturbance for forty years.”—3:10, 11.
11. How does Jehovah use Ehud in bringing deliverance to Israel?
11 Judge Ehud (3:12-30). When the sons of Israel have been subject to Moab’s king Eglon for 18 years, Jehovah again hears their calls for aid, and he raises up Judge Ehud. Gaining secret audience with the king, left-handed Ehud snatches his homemade sword from beneath his cloak and kills Eglon by plunging the sword deep into fat Eglon’s belly. Israel rallies quickly to Ehud’s side in the fight against Moab, and the land again enjoys God-given rest, for 80 years.
12. What shows that Shamgar’s victory is by God’s power?
12 Judge Shamgar (3:31). Shamgar saves Israel by striking down 600 Philistines. That the victory is by Jehovah’s power is indicated by the weapon he uses—a mere cattle goad.
13. What dramatic events are climaxed by the victory song of Barak and Deborah?
13 Judge Barak (4:1–5:31). Israel next becomes subject to the Canaanite king Jabin and his army chief, Sisera, who boasts of having 900 chariots with iron scythes. As Israel again begins to cry out to Jehovah, He raises up Judge Barak, ably supported by the prophetess Deborah. So that Barak and his army may have no cause to boast, Deborah makes known that the battle will be by Jehovah’s direction, and she prophesies: “It will be into the hand of a woman that Jehovah will sell Sisera.” (4:9) Barak calls together men of Naphtali and Zebulun to Mount Tabor. His army of 10,000 then descends to do battle. Strong faith wins the day. ‘Jehovah begins to throw Sisera and all his war chariots and all the camp into confusion,’ overwhelming them by a flash flood in the valley of Kishon. “Not as much as one remained.” (4:15, 16) Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, to whose tent Sisera flees, climaxes the slaughter by nailing Sisera’s head to the ground with a tent pin. “Thus God subdued Jabin.” (4:23) Deborah and Barak exult in song, extolling the invincible might of Jehovah, who caused even the stars to fight from their orbits against Sisera. Truly, it is a time to “bless Jehovah”! (5:2) Forty years of peace follow.
14, 15. What sign of Jehovah’s backing does Gideon receive, and how is this backing further emphasized in the final defeat of the Midianites?
14 Judge Gideon (6:1–9:57). The sons of Israel again do what is bad, and the land is devastated by the raiding Midianites. Jehovah, through his angel, commissions Gideon as judge, and Jehovah himself adds assurance with the words, “I shall prove to be with you.” (6:16) Gideon’s first courageous act is to break down Baal’s altar in his home city. The combined armies of the enemy now cross over into Jezreel, and ‘Jehovah’s spirit envelops Gideon’ as he summons Israel to battle. (6:34) By the test of exposing a fleece to the dew on the threshing floor, Gideon receives a twofold sign that God is with him.
15 Jehovah tells Gideon that his army of 32,000 is too large and that the size may give cause for human bragging about victory. The fearful are first sent home, leaving but 10,000. (Judg. 7:3; Deut. 20:8) Then, by the water-drinking test, all but an alert and watchful 300 are eliminated. Gideon spies out the Midianite camp at night and is reassured when he hears a man interpret a dream to mean that “this is nothing else but the sword of Gideon . . . The true God has given Midian and all the camp into his hand.” (Judg. 7:14) Gideon worships God and then sets his men in three bands around the Midianite camp. The calm of night is suddenly shattered by the trumpeting of horns, by the dashing to pieces of large water jars, by the flashing of torches, and by Gideon’s 300 shouting, “Jehovah’s sword and Gideon’s!” (7:20) The enemy camp breaks into pandemonium. The men fight one against another and take to flight. Israel gives chase, slaughtering them and killing their princes. The people of Israel now ask Gideon to rule over them, but he refuses, saying, “Jehovah is the one who will rule over you.” (8:23) However, he makes an ephod out of the war booty, which later comes to be overly venerated and hence becomes a snare to Gideon and his household. The land has rest for 40 years during Gideon’s judgeship.
16. What doom befalls the usurper Abimelech?
16 Abimelech, one of Gideon’s sons by a concubine, usurps power after Gideon’s death, and he murders his 70 half brothers. Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, is the only one to escape, and he proclaims Abimelech’s doom from atop Mount Gerizim. In this parable about the trees, he likens Abimelech’s “kingship” to that of a lowly bramble. Abimelech soon gets caught up in internal strife in Shechem and is humiliated in death, being killed by a woman when she makes a direct hit with a millstone thrown from the tower of Thebez, smashing his skull.—Judg. 9:53; 2 Sam. 11:21.
17. What does the record tell of Judges Tola and Jair?
17 Judges Tola and Jair (10:1-5). These are next to effect deliverances in Jehovah’s power, judging for 23 and 22 years respectively.
18. (a) What deliverance does Jephthah bring? (b) What vow to Jehovah does Jephthah faithfully perform? How?
18 Judge Jephthah (10:6–12:7). As Israel persists in turning to idolatry, Jehovah’s anger again blazes against the nation. The people now suffer oppression by the Ammonites and the Philistines. Jephthah is recalled from exile to lead Israel in the fight. But who is the real judge in this controversy? Jephthah’s own words supply the answer: “Let Jehovah the Judge judge today between the sons of Israel and the sons of Ammon.” (11:27) As Jehovah’s spirit now comes upon him, he vows that on returning from Ammon in peace, he will devote to Jehovah the one who shall first come out of his house to meet him. Jephthah subdues Ammon with a great slaughter. As he returns to his home in Mizpah, it is his own daughter who first comes running to meet him with joy at Jehovah’s victory. Jephthah fulfills his vow—no, not by pagan human sacrifice according to Baal rites, but by devoting this only daughter to exclusive service in Jehovah’s house to His praise.
19. What events lead to the “Shibboleth” test?
19 The men of Ephraim now protest that they were not called on to fight against Ammon, and they threaten Jephthah, who is compelled to drive them back. In all, 42,000 Ephraimites are slaughtered, many of them at the fords of the Jordan, where they are identified by their failure to pronounce the password “Shibboleth” correctly. Jephthah continues to judge Israel for six years.—12:6.
20. Which three judges next receive mention?
20 Judges Ibzan, Elon, and Abdon (12:8-15). Though little is mentioned concerning these, the periods of their judging are stated as seven, ten, and eight years respectively.
21, 22. (a) What mighty acts does Samson perform, and by what power? (b) How is Samson overcome by the Philistines? (c) What events culminate in Samson’s greatest feat, and who remembers him in this hour?
21 Judge Samson (13:1–16:31). Once again Israel falls captive to the Philistines. This time it is Samson whom Jehovah raises up as judge. His parents devote him as a Nazirite from birth, and this requires that no razor shall ever come upon his hair. As he grows up, Jehovah blesses him, and ‘in time Jehovah’s spirit starts to impel him.’ (13:25) The secret of his strength lies, not in human muscle, but in power supplied by Jehovah. It is when ‘Jehovah’s spirit becomes operative upon him’ that he is empowered to slay a lion with his bare hands and later to repay Philistine treachery by striking down 30 of their number. (14:6, 19) As the Philistines continue to act treacherously in connection with Samson’s betrothal to a Philistine girl, Samson takes 300 foxes and, turning them tail to tail, puts torches between their tails and sends them out to burn the grainfields, vineyards, and olive groves of the Philistines. Then he accomplishes a great slaughter of the Philistines, “piling legs upon thighs.” (15:8) The Philistines persuade his fellow Israelites, men of Judah, to bind Samson and deliver him to them, but again ‘Jehovah’s spirit becomes operative upon him,’ and his fetters melt, as it were, from off his hands. Samson strikes down a thousand Philistines—“one heap, two heaps!” (15:14-16) His weapon of destruction? The moist jawbone of an ass. Jehovah refreshes his exhausted servant by causing a miraculous spring of water to break forth at the scene of battle.
22 Samson next lodges a night at a prostitute’s house in Gaza, where the Philistines quietly surround him. However, Jehovah’s spirit again proves to be with him as he arises at midnight, pulls out the doors of the city gate and the side posts, and carries them clear to the top of a mountain facing Hebron. After this he falls in love with the treacherous Delilah. A willing tool of the Philistines, she nags him until he discloses that his Nazirite devotion to Jehovah, as symbolized in his long hair, is the real source of his great strength. While he sleeps, she has his hair snipped off. This time it is in vain that he awakes to do battle, for “it was Jehovah that had departed from him.” (16:20) The Philistines grab him, bore out his eyes, and set him to grinding as a slave in their prison house. As it comes time for a great festival in honor of their god Dagon, the Philistines bring Samson out to provide amusement for them. Failing to attach value to the fact that his hair is again growing luxuriantly, they allow him to be stationed between the two mighty pillars of the house used for the worship of Dagon. Samson calls on Jehovah: “Lord Jehovah, remember me, please, and strengthen me, please, just this once.” Jehovah does remember him. Samson grasps the pillars and ‘bends himself with power’—Jehovah’s power—‘and the house goes falling, so that the dead that he puts to death in his own death come to be more than those he put to death during his lifetime.’—16:28-30.
23. What events are recounted in chapters 17 through 21, and when did they take place?
23 We now come to chapters 17 through 21, which describe some of the internal strife that unhappily plagues Israel during this time. These events take place quite early in the period of the judges, as is indicated by mention of Jonathan and Phinehas, grandsons of Moses and Aaron, as being still alive.
24. How do some Danites set up an independent religion?
24 Micah and the Danites (17:1–18:31). Micah, a man of Ephraim, sets up his own independent religious establishment, an idolatrous “house of gods,” complete with a carved image and a Levite priest. (17:5) Tribesmen of Dan come by on their way to seek an inheritance in the north. They plunder Micah of his religious paraphernalia and priest, and they march far north to destroy the unsuspecting city of Laish. In its place they build their own city of Dan and set up Micah’s carved image. Thus, they follow the religion of their own independent choice all the days that Jehovah’s house of true worship continues in Shiloh.
25. How is internal strife in Israel climaxed at Gibeah?
25 Benjamin’s sin at Gibeah (19:1–21:25). The next recorded event gives rise to Hosea’s later words: “From the days of Gibeah you have sinned, O Israel.” (Hos. 10:9) Returning home with his concubine, a Levite from Ephraim lodges overnight with an old man in Gibeah of Benjamin. Good-for-nothing men of the city surround the house, demanding to have intercourse with the Levite. However, they accept his concubine instead and abuse her all night. She is found dead on the threshold in the morning. The Levite takes her body home, carves it into 12 pieces, and sends these into all Israel. The 12 tribes are thus put to the test. Will they punish Gibeah and so remove the immoral condition from Israel? Benjamin condones this vile crime. The other tribes congregate to Jehovah at Mizpah, where they resolve to go up by lot against Benjamin at Gibeah. After two sanguinary setbacks, the other tribes succeed by an ambush and practically annihilate the tribe of Benjamin, only 600 men escaping to the crag of Rimmon. Later, Israel regrets that one tribe has been chopped off. Occasion is found to provide wives for the surviving Benjamites from among the daughters of Jabesh-gilead and of Shiloh. This closes out a record of strife and intrigue in Israel. As the concluding words of Judges repeat, “In those days there was no king in Israel. What was right in his own eyes was what each one was accustomed to do.”—Judg. 21:25.
26. What powerful warnings in Judges apply also in this day?
26 Far from being merely a record of strife and bloodshed, the book of Judges exalts Jehovah as the great Deliverer of his people. It shows how his incomparable mercy and long-suffering are expressed toward his name people when they come to him with repentant hearts. Judges is most beneficial in its forthright advocacy of Jehovah’s worship and its powerful warnings concerning the folly of demon religion, interfaith, and immoral associations. Jehovah’s severe condemnation of Baal worship should impel us to stand clear of the modern-day equivalents of materialism, nationalism, and sexual immorality.—2:11-18.
27. How may we today profit by the good example of the judges?
27 An examination of the fearless and courageous faith of the judges should stir in our hearts a like faith. No wonder they are mentioned with such glowing approval at Hebrews 11:32-34! They were fighters in sanctification of Jehovah’s name, but not in their own strength. They knew the source of their power, Jehovah’s spirit, and they humbly acknowledged it. Likewise, we today can take up “the sword of the spirit,” God’s Word, confident that God will empower us as he did Barak, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and the others. Yes, in overcoming mighty obstacles, with the help of Jehovah’s spirit, we can be as strong spiritually as Samson was physically if we but pray to Jehovah and lean upon him.—Eph. 6:17, 18; Judg. 16:28.
28. How does the book of Judges point forward to the sanctification of Jehovah’s name through the Kingdom Seed?
28 The prophet Isaiah refers to Judges in two places to show how Jehovah will, without fail, shatter the yoke that His enemies place upon his people, just as he did in the days of Midian. (Isa. 9:4; 10:26) This reminds us also of the song of Deborah and Barak, which concludes with the fervent prayer: “Thus let all your enemies perish, O Jehovah, and let your lovers be as when the sun goes forth in its mightiness.” (Judg. 5:31) And who are these lovers? Showing them to be the Kingdom heirs, Jesus Christ himself used a similar expression at Matthew 13:43: “At that time the righteous ones will shine as brightly as the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Thus, the book of Judges points forward to the time when the righteous Judge and Kingdom Seed, Jesus, will exercise power. By means of him, Jehovah will bring glory and sanctification to His name, in harmony with the psalmist’s prayer concerning the enemies of God: “Do to them as to Midian, as to Sisera, as to Jabin at the torrent valley of Kishon . . . that people may know that you, whose name is Jehovah, you alone are the Most High over all the earth.”—Ps. 83:9, 18; Judg. 5:20, 21.
Most modern translations testify that the “about four hundred and fifty years” of Acts 13:20 do not correspond to the period of the judges but precede it; they would seem to cover the period from Isaac’s birth in 1918 B.C.E. to the division of the Land of Promise in 1467 B.C.E. (Insight on the Scriptures, Vol. 1, page 462) The order in which the judges are mentioned in Hebrews 11:32 is different from that in the book of Judges, but this fact does not necessarily indicate that the events in Judges do not follow in chronological sequence, for certainly Samuel did not follow David.