Leslie J. Hoppe
Before Beginning …
The book of Judges is the second book in the collection the early rabbis called the “Former Prophets” and modern interpreters the “Deuteronomistic History of Israel.” It is a collection of stories about several Israelite heroes set in the time between the settlement in Canaan under Joshua and the establishment of the Israelite monarchy. The title of the book comes from the designation of its principal characters. The “judges” were charismatic leaders of the Israelite community, especially in times of fierce competition over the land of Canaan. Their authority came from the Lord, and their duty was to enable Israel to live in faithful obedience. The judges had to deal with two problems: the failure of Israel to serve the Lord alone, and the competition for control of the land from other peoples. The book presents these two problems as interrelated. When Israel failed to maintain its commitment to serve the Lord exclusively, then God allowed Israel's neighbors to make its life very difficult.
The competition for control over the land of Canaan in the thirteenth century BC was very high. In the course of that competition, individuals emerged who proved very capable of managing that competition to the benefit of the Israelite tribes. Stories about these individuals and their feats circulated among the Israelites and eventually found their way into the collection we know as the book of Judges. This collection, however, served a purpose beyond simply preserving the memory of ancient heroes. Its purpose was to illustrate the consequences of Israel's failure to live in faithful obedience to the Lord. It deals with a practical and theological problem: the absence of the kind of leadership provided by Moses and Joshua. How should Israel be governed? Who would insure that Israel will live according to the Torah in the land it had received from the Lord?
The book of Judges has three parts. The first ( 1, 1–3, 6 ) provides readers with a framework for understanding the significance of the stories about these ancient heroes. The second part ( 3, 7–15, 20 ) rehearses the exploits of the judges. The book concludes with a few supplementary stories ( 16, 1–21, 25 ) that show how the Israelite tribes were on a path of self‐destruction. Originally the stories about the individual judges served to excite a certain measure of pride in the achievements of the tribes in maintaining control over the land of Canaan. But once these stories were put into their present context in the book of Judges, the effect was to show that there was something terribly wrong about the way the Israelite tribes were living their lives in the land that God had given them. Readers are led to conclude that matters could not go on like this—something had to be done, for the life of the Israelite tribes was degenerating into anarchy.